Pet peeves on parade, part XXII: a stay of execution for some of those oft-doomed darlings, or, how can I tell which of this array of beauties to keep?

Because we have been concentrating quite heavily on craft issues of late — and very satisfying it has been, too — I had planned to devote Memorial Day weekend entirely to book promotion skills: author interviews, book trailers, guest blogs, and similar increasingly essential but seldom discussed wrenches for the first-time author’s toolkit. I do plan on getting to that material tomorrow. I realized this morning, however, that due to a heavily-booked last couple of days, I had left those of you in the throes of revision without a meaty homework assignment for the long weekend.

That will never do, will it? You might have to resort to sending out a few more queries, writing fresh pages, spending time with your kith and/or kin, or some other non-revision-related activity.

Practice is essential for building up the revision portion of that toolkit — and not just experience correcting one’s own manuscript on a sentence level. Being able to produce and polish a lovely sentence is, after all, the best-known part of an author’s job description. It often comes as a surprise to first-time novelists and memoirists, though, that most of the feedback agents, contest judges, and yes, even many editors give is not line-specific, but general requests to change precisely the type of patterns we’ve been discussing throughout this series: ramping up the showing, rather than the telling; tinkering with the pacing to keep the reader turning pages; revealing more character complexity in the dialogue, and so forth.

You didn’t think I’d been going on and on about these matters just to get your work past Millicent the agency screener, did you? Once you’ve landed the agent of your dreams, you will need to be able to translate sometimes rather vague revision requests (which can run the full gamut from cut out all of the semicolons to more should happen in the first 50 pages to does your protagonist’s brother absolutely have to be gay?) into concrete changes on the manuscript page. Sometimes very quickly.

How quickly, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, let me put it this way: my agent once called me on Thanksgiving to ask if I could rewrite the last third of a novel to an editor’s specifications before Christmas. I had it on her desk in three weeks.

Well may you react with horror — but if you’re not afraid of having your hair turn white on the spot, think about how much more difficult that would have been to pull off if I hadn’t already amassed a pretty hefty array of tools already honed in my writer’s toolkit.

That hellscape you just envisioned is a fairly standard experience for first-time novelists and memoirists, by the way. See why I am constantly badgering you to improve your revision skills, even if you happen to have a brilliant manuscript already in hand? You never know when you’re going to need ‘em.

Want to know what the most challenging part of revising on a deadline? Maintaining consistency of voice. It’s terribly easy to become so fixated on details — or on a certain part of the text — that one ends up with the requested changes, true, but also with a Frankenstein manuscript.

For those of you new to Author! Author!, a Frankenstein manuscript meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style; like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, the text 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 consistent authorial voice. Often, FM tendencies are the result of multiple or partial revision; even more often, they spring from a writer’s learning the tricks of the trade while writing a book.

How do I know? You’d be surprised how frequently the voice is quite different at the end of the manuscript than at the beginning. Or polished in parts, but rough in others.

Part of the point of this series has been to help you identify these FM tendencies in your own work. To that end, we’ve been talking a great deal about what to take out of a manuscript. Today, I would like to discuss what to leave in, or even what you might want to add.

And the masses rejoice! “Oh, that’s such a relief, Anne,” burnt-out revisers shout from every corner of the globe. “I’ve been working my fingers to the elbow, excising redundant text, spicing up my dialogue, and, of course, getting rid of all of those ands, all the while steeling myself for the inevitable moment when you would talk me into axing my favorite sentences and phrases. Because, after all, we’ve all been told time and time again to kill your darlings. But may I, kind lady, dare hope that you’re going to tell me to keep a couple of my favorites?”

Oh, you poor dears — no wonder you’ve been quivering in your boots. How could you not be, when writing teachers all over North America have been shouting at their students to axe their favorite bits of prose since practically the moment the classic piece of advice fell out of Dorothy Parker’s well-rouged lips sometime during Prohibition?

Well, I’m not going to do it. While a willingness to consider cutting even one’s pet bits is indeed useful, in my experience, most talented writers — published and as-yet-to-be-published alike — actually have a pretty good sense of the little things that shine in their manuscripts. They may not be right that all of the pretty bits are indispensable to the story they are telling, but they usually know which sentences sing and which merely croak.

Especially if the writer in question has been honing her craft, her pet parts of the text are likely to be telling little details, original, fresh, surprising specifics that bring joy to the eyes of agents, editors, and contest judges when they appear nestled in a manuscript — particularly on the first page of the text, where they act like miniature neon signs reading, “Hello? This one can WRITE!” causing Millicent to sit up straight for perhaps the first time that screening day and cry, “By gum, maybe I should not toss this one into the rejection pile.”

As lovely as eliciting this reaction is, there is more to catching a professional reader’s attention than a charming and detailed first page, I’m afraid. Of course, it’s a necessary first step to that reader’s moving on eagerly to the second, and the third, and so forth. Yet an initial good impression is not enough, however much writing teachers emphasize the importance of including an opening hook: as I believe I may have mentioned before in this series, in order to wow an agent into asking to see the entire manuscript, or into reading the entirety of the one you’ve already sent, the impressive writing needs to continue consistently throughout.

Ah, some of you formerly joyous revisers have wilted a bit, haven’t you, under the realization that keeping your favorite writing may require more work than cutting it wholesale? “But Anne,” you whimper, “how can a revising writer tell if the proportion of telling little details falls off throughout a manuscript enough to harm the narrative? More importantly for submission purposes, what density of telling details is enough to continue pleasing a professional reader’s eye?”

Excellent questions both, revisers: we’re all aware that the answer to the first is not necessarily the answer to the second, right? The first is largely a matter of personal style, after all, as well as the narrative expectations of a particular book category. Some writers wrangle generalizations better than others, after all. Generally speaking, though, the higher the proportion of exquisite detail to generalization, the more literary the writing; the more summary statements predominate, the lower the expected reading level of the audience.

And if the three repetitions of general in those last two paragraphs drove you crazy, I’m proud of you. You’ve been doing your editing homework.

In answer to the indignant collective gasp I hear echoing about the cosmos, literary is not simply a synonym for high-quality when we’re talking about writing. Let’s face it, there is plenty of good fiction writing that isn’t literary fiction — and plenty of excellent writing that isn’t literary. Just as the various striations of YA presume specific reading levels, literary fiction assumes a college-educated audience, or at any rate readers with a college-level vocabulary.

Thus, literary fiction is a book category, not a value judgment. It is quite possible, however, to bring a literary voice to other book categories — one sees literary-voiced memoir (like, for instance, Barbara Robinette Moss’ extraordinary CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER from time to time, and many breakout novels are literary-voiced genre works.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a highly literary voice would be appropriate to every book category — or indeed, to every story. Only you, as author, can decide the best voice for your story, but in order to figure out the detail/generalization level appropriate to your book category, you can pick up some external clues.

How? By keeping up with the market in your chosen field, of course. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: unless you are willing to read recent releases in your chosen book category — as opposed to what was coming out 5, 10, or 50 years ago — you’re going to have a much harder time querying, submitting, and yes, revising your own work.

Why? Because you won’t know what the current expectations and conventions are. Case in point: detail vs. summary statements.

Think about it: could you really get away with a summary sentence like, “She had legs that stretched all the way from here to Kalamazoo,” in a genre other than hardboiled mystery, bless its abstraction-loving fan base? (All right, I’ll admit it: one of the all-time best compliments I have ever received came from a writer of hardboiled; he commented on a dress I was wearing by telling me, “You look like trouble in a B movie.” I shall continue to cherish that to my grave.)

That’s one of the many, many reasons agents and editors tend to expect aspiring and published writers alike to read a whole lot of recently-published books within the category they write, in case any of you conference-goers out there had been wondering: to gain a working sense of the abstract/concrete statement ratio habitual readers of that type of book will expect to see. Some other reasons for keeping up with the latest releases: learning what that particular readership likes, figuring out what is and isn’t appropriate vocabulary for that specific readership, gaining currency with what’s being published right now, rather than in, say, 1858, and other practical benefits.

Some of you are sniffing disdainfully, aren’t you? “But Anne, none of this can possibly apply to me or my manuscript. My book is ART, you see: it is totally original. It cannot be forced into an artificial category.”

I can understand why you might feel that way, oh sniffers, but I have a news flash for you: there’s no such thing as a published book that doesn’t fall into a particular book category, no matter how genre-busting it may be. It’s simply how agents, publishers, and booksellers think of books. (If that is indeed news to you, and for some tips on figuring out which conceptual container might best house your manuscript for marketing purposes, please see the HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY posts on the archive list at right.)

Because that’s the case, the pros’ eyes tend to glaze over whenever an aspiring writer refuses — or even hesitates — to say to which category his manuscript belongs. To them, that just sounds like, you guessed it, a lack of familiarity with the current book market.

It’s not enough, though, to have a general (there’s that word again!) sense of what kind of writing is currently highly regarded in your chosen category. You also need to get a feel for your own personal style. Before you can decide where you want to pitch your manuscript on the detail scale, you need to figure out where the telling details already tend congregate in your work — and where they do not, so you may work toward overall voice consistency.

Which brings us right back to close textual analysis, doesn’t it? Funny how that worked out. Whip out your trusty marking pens, campers, and try this experiment:

1. Print out three chapters of your manuscript: the first, one from the middle, and one toward the end of the book.

Don’t use the final chapter; most writers polish that one automatically, doubtless the effect of our high school English teachers making us read the final pages of THE GREAT GATSBY so often. Second or third from the end will give you a better idea of your voice when you’re trying to wind things up.

Do print out Chapter 1, though, because if Millicent reads any of them at all, she will start there.

2. Make yourself comfy someplace where you will not be disturbed for a few hours, and start reading.

Easier said than done, of course, especially for those of you with young children gladdening your daily lives, but this isn’t relaxation: this is work. So don’t you dare feel guilty about taking the time to pore over your prose.

Yes, I know: your three-year-old will not be all that impressed that I said so. But you owe it to your writing to get to know your own voice.

3. While you are reading, highlight in nice, bright yellow every time the narrative gives information about a character in summary form.

Yes, this will be a phenomenal amount of work, but trust me: it will be worth it. Mark everything from Angelique felt envious to Maxine was a shop welder of immense proportions to Zeb was a compassionate soul, drawn to injured children, limping dogs, and soup kitchens.

4. Now use a different color of pen — red is nice — to underline any character-revealing information that the narrative conveys indirectly, through specific detail or speeches that demonstrate a characteristic or an environment that is reflective of a character’s internal mood.

Remember, you are not judging the quality of the sentences here — you are looking for passages that encourage the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about what the character is like, rather than simply stating it as a fact. To revisit the trio from above, red-marked sentences might include:

Unable to contain herself, Angelique surreptitiously poked her rival with a pin, or

Maxine’s broad shoulders barely fit through the doors to her metal shop, or even

Zeb was late for work again, having been sidetracked by a child’s scraped knee, a search for the same little girl’s lost cocker spaniel, and the absolute necessity to track down and fund the homeless person he had been forced to overlook yesterday because he’d already given away the last dollar in his pocket.

Beginning to spot some patterns? Good. Now that your manuscript is color-coded to tell you at a glance what your summary statement/telling detail ratio is, how consistent is your narrative being about preserving those proportions?

That’s a big concept to get your mind around, I know. While you’re pondering, let’s get back to that colorful text.

5. Now that you’ve identified these different species of sentences, double-check immediately before and after the indirect indicators in red for summary statements telling the reader precisely how these dandy little details should be interpreted. Circle bottom-lining conclusion statements in a third color — let’s say green, and complete the Rastafarian triumvirate.

Such summaries tend to lurk in the environs of telling details — usually unnecessarily, as vivid details by definition speak for themselves. You may find them elsewhere, naturally, but these will be the easiest to spot.

6. For each green-marked sentence, ask yourself, “Self, is this summary absolutely necessary here, or does the indirect statement cover what I wanted to say? Could it in fact be cut, and would the manuscript be both shorter and better for it?”

Applied consistently, this question can strip a lot of unnecessary verbiage from a manuscript relatively painlessly. It’s a good strategy to know, because it’s often difficult for a writer to notice redundancy on a page he has written himself — from a writerly perspective, saying something in two different ways often just looks like creative emphasis.

Or — and this is more common — the writer may not trust the reader to draw the correct conclusion from the more delicate indirect clues, and so rush to provide the logical extrapolation. But readers are pretty smart, especially those lovers of good writing (in every sense) who dote on marvelously revealing details.

Again, that’s not to say that specifics should trump generalities every time. Abstract statements that bottom-line a character’s ever-changing array of feelings, thoughts, and actions (Eileen was morose, Teddy was sexy, Elvira was a tall, cool hunk of woman, etc.) can save a lot of time in a narrative, quickly providing the reader a sense of what’s going on and who is doing it.

Sometimes, that can come in very handy. In a scene where the action is pretty mundane, a swift summary statement like Bernadette spent the next fifteen hours yawning her way through book shelving can act like a fast-forward button for the narration.

The effect can be even greater when there is a lot going on. When an action scene suddenly requires fifteen thugs to jump Our Hero, describing each one individually and in a nuanced manner would slow the scene down to a crawl — which, inevitably, would convey the impression that O.H. is being beaten up in slow motion.

Fast-paced action deserves fast-paced narration, short, tense sentences that get the blood pumping. Short, to-the-point summary statements like Edmund ducked sideways. The anvil thudded into the wall behind him. may well serve the scene better than long, lyrical, detail-rich ones that go on for line after line.

Oh, you wanted a second example? Okay: As Edmund veered sideways, the rush of air by his ear, percussive and harsh, reminded him of that long-ago summer of fireflies and BB guns, unwashed berry juice climbing up to his elbows after braving the bees for an afternoon’s blackberrying. Funny, how something as dangerous as an anvil flung at his head could awaken such long-dormant memories.

Yes, the second set was prettier — but which would work best for this SPECIFIC action scene in this SPECIFIC story, told in this SPECIFIC voice?

By contrast, concrete characterization statements depict what a character is saying, doing, feeling, and so forth in a particular moment. In a story told primarily through concrete statements — and again, writing with a high concrete/abstract ratio is considered more stylistically sophisticated — the narrative expects the reader to draw conclusions about what characters are like based upon an array of specific actions, feelings, words, and so forth, rather than simply providing a summary statement.

Does that distinction sound at all familiar? It should: this is yet another manifestation of everyone’s favorite writing bugbear, the difference between showing and telling.

Yet constructing an effective narrative is not as simple as eschewing the latter and embracing the former. Obviously, every manuscript ever produced needs both abstract and concrete statements. Because, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a chapter, paragraph, or even sentence that’s appropriate for every book in which the creative mind might choose to have it appear.

Context matters — and so does book category.

Avoiding summary statements wherever possible may serve a high-end women’s fiction writer very well, for example, but actually harm certain types of genre novel. The rash of semicolons that might make an academic book look learned is unlikely to fly in a Western — but you’d be surprised how much more acceptable it would be in a science fiction novel. And while those of us devoted to literary fiction do occasionally marvel at a story intended exclusively for a college-educated readership written in very simple language, the vocabulary range of most literary fiction is quite different from that of well-written YA.

But you knew that already, right?

And don’t even get me started on how much more acceptable rampant summary statements are in most types of nonfiction than in fiction. Memoirs in particular tend to rely upon them pretty heavily.

Why? Well, as a reader, how eager are you to hear every detail of what happened to even a very interesting real-life narrator over a two-year period? If a memoirist steers too clear of abstract statements like Auntie Mame’s famous My puberty was bleak, she’s going to end up expending quite a bit of precious page space on illustrating just how bleak it was, right?

So much for my carefully non-judgmental speech on the subject of abstract vs. concrete statements. It is worth noting, though, that on any given day of manuscript-screening, your garden-variety Millicent sees a whole lot more summary sentences than concrete ones.

Which, obviously, can render a genuinely original detail quite a refreshment for weary professional eyes. So, generally speaking (ooh, there’s that pesky word again), if you can increase the frequency with which such concrete details appear, you’ll be better off.

Ready to take gander at the ratio in the manuscript you’ve been submitting — or are planning to submit to professional scrutiny anytime soon? Fantastic. Let’s revisit those yellow, red, and green pages from above. But this time, grab a fourth color of pen –- how would you feel about embracing something in the purple family?

7. Mark all the sentences where your protagonist (or any other character whose thoughts are audible to the reader) thinks a response to something that has just happened, instead of saying it aloud or the narrative’s demonstrating the reaction indirectly.

Remember, you’re not judging the quality of writing by determining what to highlight, or sentencing any given observation to the chopping block by marking it. You are simply making patterns in the text more visible.

These kinds of sentences are hard to show out of context, so let me mark up a bit of text for you. The sentences destined for purple overcoats are in caps:


WHY WASN’T HE ANSWERING? “What’s wrong?” Nanette asked, rubbing her tennis-sore ankles. “Are you feeling sick to your stomach again?”


Everyone clear on the distinction I’m making here? Excellent. Now humor me a little and dig up a fifth color of pen — blue, anyone?

8. Mark any sentence where your protagonist’s reactions are conveyed through bodily sensation of some sort. Or depicted by the world surrounding him, or through some other concrete detail.

You’re probably going to find yourself re-marking some of the red sentences from #4, but plow ahead nevertheless, please. Starting to notice some narrative patterns? Expressing character reaction via physicality or projection is a great way to raise the telling little detail quota in your manuscripts.

Does this advice seem familiar? It should, for those of you who regularly attend writing workshops or have worked with an editor. It is generally expressed by the terse marginal admonition, “Get out of your character’s head!”

I wish feedback-givers would explain this advice more often; too many writers read it as an order to prevent their characters from thinking at all, ever. But that’s not what get out of your character’s head! means, at least not most of the time. Generally (ooh!), it’s an editor’s way of TELLING the writer to stop telling the reader about the character’s emotional responses through dialogue-like thought. Instead, (these feedback-givers suggest) SHOW the emotion through details like bodily sensation, noticing a significant detail in the environment that highlights the mood, or…

Well, you get the picture. It’s yet another way that editors bark at writers, “Hey, you — show, don’t tell!”

What will happen to your manuscript if you take this advice to heart? Well, among other things, it will probably be more appealing to Millicent — because, believe me, protagonists who think rather than feel the vast majority of the time disproportionately people the novels submitted to agencies and publishing houses.

And when I say vast majority of the time, I mean in practically every submission they receive. To put it bluntly, a novel or memoir that conveys protagonist response in ways other than thought a significant proportion of the time will at very least enjoy the advantage of surprise.

Why are characters who think their responses — essentially summarizing what they might have said or done in response instead of saying or doing it — so very common, especially in memoir? One theory is that we writers are so often rather quiet people, more given to thinking great comebacks than saying them out loud.

A girl’s best friend is her murmur, as Dorothy Parker used to say.

Or maybe we just think our protagonists will be more likable if they think nasty things about their fellow characters, rather than saying them out loud. That, or there are a whole lot of writers out there whose English teachers made them read HAMLET one too many times, causing them to contract Chronic Soliloquization Disorder.

Whichever it is, Millicent would be happier about most submissions in practically every book category if they exhibited this type of writing less. Done with care, avoiding long swathes of thought need not stifle creative expression.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s revisit our little scene of domestic tranquility from above, this time grounding the characters’ reactions in the flesh and the room:

By the time Nanette was midway through her enthusiastic account of the office party, Zachary’s stomach had tied itself into the Gordian knot. The collected swords of every samurai in the history of Japan would have been helpless against it.

“Zach!” Nanette’s back snapped into even greater perpendicularity to her hard chair. “You’re not listening. Upset tummy again?”

He could barely hear her over the ringing of his ears. He could swear he heard their well-manicured lawn creeping up the doorstep to smother them in seductive normalcy. The very wallpaper seemed to be gasping in horror at the prospect of having to live here a second longer. “I just had a long day at work.”

See the difference? The essentials are still here, just expressed in a less obviously thought-based manner. The narrative’s gotten out of the characters’ heads — and stepped right into their bodies.

Go back and take another look at your marked-up manuscript. How blue is it? How heavily purple is that prose? (Sorry; I couldn’t resist setting you up for that one.)

No, but seriously, it’s a good question: all of the types of sentence you just identified are in fact necessary to a successful narrative, so ideally, you have ended up with a very colorful sheaf of paper. Using too many of one type or another, believe it or not, can be boring for the reader, just as using the same sentence structure over and over lulls the eye into skimming.

If you doubt this, try reading a government report sometime. One declarative sentence after another can be stultifying for the reader.

The telling details of your manuscript will be nestled in those red- and blue-marked sentences, Note how frequently they appear in your chapters. If you find more than half a page of yellow and/or purple between patches of darker colors, you might want to go back and mix up your abstract/concrete ratio more.

If you find any pages that are entirely yellow and/or purple, I would suggest running, not walking, to the nearest used bookstore, buying three or four battered paperback editions of books that sell well in your chosen genre, and carting them home to perform the five-marker experiment on them. Could you revise your manuscript so that the color ratio in it replicates that in those books?

Yes, this is a time-consuming exercise, now that you mention it. A test like this is rather nerve-wracking to apply to your own work, but it’s a great way to start getting in the habit of being able to see your pages as someone who does not know you might. (If you want to get a REALLY clear sense of it, trade chapters with a writer you trust, and apply the same experiment.)

At the end of it all, however, you will have a much, much clearer idea of what your narrative voice sounds like — not only at its best and worst, but when it is just trying to do its job. You’ll gain a sense of what it sounds like when you’re tired or excited, trying desperately to get a thought down before it vanishes or having the time to allow your words to revel in their own beauty.

Once you gain that working sense of your own voice, editing your own work will become easier, I promise. You’ll be able to spot the telltale signs that the narrative has slipped away from it; you may even come to feel the drift before the words hit the page.

It sounds like magic, but it isn’t: it’s narrative consistency.

What does all of this have to do with saving your darlings? Plenty. How wonderful would it be if your best writing did not jump out at the reader because the entire manuscript was that good?

A lovely thought, isn’t it? Your darlings will be comfortably housed in a strong, sure narrative; they may — and this happens more than one might think — be your pets because they are already written in your personal narrative voice.

But you won’t know that for sure until you know your voice inside out, will you? Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part V, in which we have apparently all died and gone to Concrete Example Heaven

On and off for the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about that graveyard of literary tension and promoter of telling rather than showing, the Short Road Home. The SRH haunts novel and memoir submissions in a variety of disguises. Oh, it’s a versatile narrative trick, easily applied to a broad range of manuscript environments; it is as proficient at strangling burgeoning character development as it is at draining the tension out of a scene.

Most often, of course, it manifests as a scene or plot that resolves conflict practically the nanosecond it appears — astonishingly often without any effort whatsoever on the part of the protagonist. Indeed, conflict-avoidance is so popular amongst fictional characters that protagonists tend to favor resisting the status quo even in their minds.

Oh, you may laugh, but you’d be surprised how often those of us who read for a living will watch, stunned, as a protagonist briefly considers perhaps maybe eventually doing or saying something — only to be interrupted by another character rushing in to prevent even the thought of discord from developing into something that might be interesting for the reader to watch. The swiftness with which these tension-averse white knights dispatch nascent conflict is sometimes downright eerie, begging the question: is this character a participant in this story, or is he reading it?

You’d like a concrete example, wouldn’t you? We aim to please.

If only I had the courage to speak up, Tyrone thought, seething. I’ve put up with my repressive boss’ arbitrary pronouncements for years. Maybe today is the day I should stop being a doormat. Maybe today is the day I shall start speaking up for myself. Maybe today is…

“Oh, and before we end the meeting,” Artie said, smoothing his notes, “I’ve been sensing some disgruntlement in the face of our recent reorganization. Perhaps I’ve been a trifle, well, if not insensitive, then at least myopic. I’d like to hear your concerns, though.” He turned to Tyrone. “I’ve always valued your opinion, Ty. How do you think we could improve our beloved department?”

Beaming, Tyrone wrestled a binder stuffed with suggestions from his backpack. “I thought you’d never ask!”

Ah, but the reader wishes you hadn’t asked, Artie. Characters who read one another’s minds are notorious tension-deflaters.

They are also prone to cutting off plot possibilities before they have a chance to do more than poke their wary heads above ground. Had Artie not magically deduced his employees’ irritation from some clue that the narrative has not elected to share with the reader — if, in other words, the conflict were shown by any means other than Tyrone’s thoughts telling us about them — maybe then Tyrone would have had to take the longer, more arduous road of addressing the problem by — wait for it — addressing the problem. As in out loud, in a manner that might have provoked an interesting, true-to-life scene.

We met another favorite guise of the Short Road Homes in my last post: telling a story out of chronological order, drowning any possible suspense about the outcome of a conflict by revealing it at the beginning of the scene, rather than the end. Even if foreshadowing is vague, it can sap the reader’s impetus to wonder what is going to happen next — a pity, really, as its purpose is ostensibly to raise suspense.

All too soon, our happy mood vanished, ruining the rest of the day. If I’d known what was going to happen next, I would have grabbed the oars and rowed like mad for the shore.

“Where’s the sun gone?” Barbara asked suddenly.

Meg’s hat blew off before she could reply. “The sky looks mighty ominous. I’d always thought that the clouds spelled DOOM was just an expression.”

I pointed a shaking finger over the side. “Are those sharks?”

Even minor chronology-surfing can lead to confusion. Since — chant it with me now, long-term readers — unless the narrative specifically states otherwise, events are presumed to occur in the order they appear on the page, what may appear to the writer as just a little creative sentence restructuring may genuinely muddy the reader’s conception what’s going on.

How? By inverting cause and effect temporally. Compare, for instance, this inadvertently time-traveling piece of prose:

Horrified, James jumped backward as Fred took a swing at him. He narrowly avoided being grabbed by George’s flailing hands. Wincing at the pain, he managed to spot and catch Bob’s crowbar before it connected with the side of his head.

With this more straightforward narration, in which cause precedes effect and our hero does not react before he perceives a threat:

Abruptly, Fred took a swing at him. Horrified, James jumped backward, practically into George’s flailing hands. As he veered under the large man’s arm, he spotted Bob wielding a crowbar. He managed to catch it just before it connected with the side of his head. His palm exploded with pain.

Much clearer, is it not? It’s also less of a Short Road Home: the reader is not told up front that something that has not yet occurred on the page will cause our hero to wince with pain.

Sometimes, though, a writer’s effort to make a series of actions clear can also send the narrative sliding down the Short Road Home. The pros like to call this over-explaining, for reasons I hope the next example will render obvious.

Darlene took a deep breath, so she could speak at length. This was taking a surprising amount of explanation. “It’s over, honey.”

Morgan’s eyes filled with tears. Confusion suffused his soul as he struggled to plumb her meaning. “But I don’t understand!”

He honestly didn’t. His perplexity continued even after Darlene’s quiet, “How is that possible, after the last hour and a half of conversation?” He just couldn’t wrap his mind around what she was trying to say. Was there a subtext here? Was it a subtle joke? Why was she telling him this now? Had there been a series of clues he had not caught, and if so, would she merely get angrier if he asked her for an itemized list?

He reached for his notebook, so he could consult his notes from the previous hour. “You’ll have to explain this to me again. What is it you’re trying to say?”

A tad redundant, is it not? Again, over-explanation is typically a show, don’t tell problem: by swamping the character-revealing and plot-resolving action with a welter of extraneous explanation, not only is the pacing slowed, but the central point of the scene (in this case, Morgan’s refusal to accept a painful rejection) gets a bit lost. So while all of that repetitive bottom-lining of his emotional state may have seemed to the author like necessary clarification, naming those emotions rather than showing them renders the scene less effective.

Too-heavy explanations are also, as we discussed in this series, rather insulting to Millicent’s intelligence. I’ve wrested a bit of comedy from Morgan’s cluelessness in order to make this scene more fun to read, so the distrust of the reader’s ability to draw quite obvious conclusions about a fairly straightforward situation may not have leapt out at you. It’s not as though this scene deals with unfamiliar concepts, however; for most readers, confusion — and, by extension, denial — don’t really require much introduction.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here’s that same scene again, allowing the characters’ actions and feelings to speak for themselves.

Darlene took a deep breath. “It’s over, honey.”

Morgan’s eyes filled with tears. “But I don’t understand!”

Her grip tightened on the back of the chair so much that her knuckles grew white, but she held her voice quiet. “How is that possible, after the last hour and a half of conversation?”

Every inch of his intestines quivering, we reached for his notebook, so he could consult his notes from the previous hour. There had to be a way to talk her out of this, but how?

“I just want to make sure I get your reasoning.” He measured the time between his words with care: long enough to buy him some time, not long enough to make her want to leap into his mouth with pliers to drag the reluctant syllables out. “You know, so I can explain your departure to our friends.”

Axing all of that extraneous explanation certainly bought some room for character development, didn’t it? That would come as a surprise to most Short Road Home-wielders, I suspect: the urge to summarize tends to be a side effect of the impulse to speed things up. Or, as is often the case in these decadent days of relatively low word counts — can you imagine, say, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, if it had to be cut down to under 100,000 words before it could be marketed? — of a clawing, terrified need to slash fifty pages from an over-long manuscript.

Besides, as we have just seen, summarizing emotional turmoil, that oh-so-common manifestation of the Short Road Home, just isn’t as effective on the page as demonstrating it through specific feelings, actions, and thoughts. Not merely labeling the emotion in question. mind you — Jack was sad is not, after all, a particularly evocative description — but by showing it in detail and trusting the reader to draw the correct conclusion about Jack’s emotional state.

He roved listlessly around the living room, straightening a grinning china dwarf here, making sure a magazine’s edge was exactly parallel to the edge of a table there. Calla might not be alive to notice anymore, but that was no reason to relax her standards. Someday, a guest might stop by, as they did in the old days.

You wouldn’t want to convey the impression that Millicent is intellectually incapable of extrapolating as self-evident a conclusion as Jack was sad from that little gem, would you?

The SRH’s almost magical ability to minimize the emotional impact of a moment is not limited to tragedy, either; as we saw in the Pet Peeves on Parade series, over-explanation’s ability to declare a joke dead on arrival is legendary. Less discussed amongst writers but equally pernicious, skating too quickly past the comic constituent parts of a potentially funny scene can also be fatal to humor.

Just as suspense is more effective if the reader has time to absorb the ambient threat and imagine a negative outcome before something bad happens — Alfred Hitchcock was apparently fond of saying that the best way to render a scene that will end with an explosion was not to show the participants running around in terror of the imminent bang, but to let the audience a bomb was concealed under a table, then let them squirm while a couple of characters who have no idea they’re dining atop a bomb chat about something else entirely — a funny build-up tends to have more impact if the reader has a chance to appreciate a series of amusing details.

Premises in particular are susceptible to death by Short Road Home. Take a gander:

Surely, nobody would care if she took just one apricot from that beautiful pile. Gerri reached out, grabbed a small one near the bottom — and then the entire pyramid disintegrated, sending fruit flying everywhere.

Now, this might have been funny, had it been fleshed out a bit more. Indeed, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult for a comedy-minded reader to picture what probably happened here in hilarious detail, based upon this scant description. But it’s not the reader’s job to contribute material to a book’s humorous scenes; it’s the writer’s job to write them so that they are funny.

Surprisingly often, simply drawing out the suspense will make a SRH scene funnier. Let’s apply the Hitchcock principle to poor Gerri’s plight.

The largest pile of fruit she had ever seen loomed before her, five feet high if it was an inch and nearly as broad at the base. Each perfectly ripe apricot selflessly offered a flawless furry cheek to the public, an arc of delicious roundness identical to its neighbor. She leaned forward to examine it more closely, convinced that the fruit must be fake.

A slap of immistakable sweetness assured her nose that her brain was dead wrong. She had to force herself not to plunge her face into the wall of fruit.

She circled the display, running her fingers as close to the base as she dared. The Great Pyramid of Giza could hardly have been arranged with greater care, but Gerri felt this was an even greater human achievement: presumably, the ancient wonder had taken years; judging by the heady aroma, this must have been the work of a single breathless hour. She could not even begin to imagine the bravery it must have taken to place that last crowning apricot, the cherry on the top of the world’s most precariously-constructed sundae.

Her mouth was watering; clearly, it had been a mistake to swoop in for a sniff. A reasonable adult would simply have accepted that the pyramid was what the sign next to it said it was — the Arabella County 4-H Club’s summer project, an attempt to beat a three-decade-old youth timed fruit-piling record — and moved on. A reasonable adult, however, would not have been forcibly deprived of stone fruit for the last two years by a husband who wouldn’t have known a vegetable had it leapt into his mouth of its own accord, screaming, “Eat me, Harold!”

She slipped around back, where theft would be least likely to be noticed and selected her prey. A smallish one, with a dent in it so minuscule that Sherlock Holmes might have missed it. Millimeter by millimeter, she edged it out of its space in the middle of the tenth row.

She slipped it into her pocket, cool and damp, just before a fresh group of State Fair-goers stampeded into the room. “Isn’t it magnificent, Ma?” a little girl with pigtails gushed.

Palpitating but proud, Gerri wove her way through the crowd. “Oh, excuse me,” she told a gawker. “I didn’t mean to step on your shoe.”

He waved away her concern a little too hard; Gerri had to duck to avoid his elbow. Her elbow knocked into something soft and prickly.

The Zucchini Through the Ages display went crashing to the ground, its hand-lettered signage squashing thirty squash into pulp in an instant. Small zucchini rolled under bystanders’ feet, sending strangers careening into one another. The first-place entry, a monster of eighteen pounds, flew straight into the stomach of a passing Girl Scout, forcing a stream of fairground goodies out of her astonished mouth. In the ensuing stampede, every single entry in the legume category was trampled beyond recognition.

Only the apricot mountain was spared. “I knew they must have glued it together,” Gerri muttered, slipping form the tent.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that comedy also benefits from a healthy dose of surprise?

No, but seriously, folks, after a lifetime of reading and a couple of decades of reading professionally, it’s my considered opinion that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers don’t have a clear idea just how much the average reader enjoys savoring conflict — or how much more trivial an easily-solved problem appears on the page than one with which the protagonist must struggle for pages or chapters on end. Just as an Idiot Plot that is resolved the instant someone thinks to ask Aunt Joyce her ring size is less than dramatically satisfying, a plot resolved by a Short Road Home tends to leave readers feeling a trifle underfed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When hard-working Tom Carver opened his front door, arriving home late from work at the stuffed animal plant yet again, his daughter, Malia, was once again refusing to speak to him. Glaring at him silently with all of the dastardly sneer her fifteen-year-old face could muster, she played with her spiky, three-toned hair until the third time he had considerately asked her how her school’s field trip to the State Fair had gone.

“Like you care!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes dramatically. She rushed from the room. Small chunks of what appeared to be zucchini flew from her hair onto the beautifully-swept floor.

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

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

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

Well, I’m glad that’s settled. No need to read the rest of the novel, is there?

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

But when instant therapy sends us veering down the Short Road Home, all of that juicy conflict just becomes another case study, rather than gas to fuel the rest of the book. The result: what might have been an interesting scene that either showed the conflict (instead of telling the reader about it), provided interesting character development, or moved the plot along.

In other words, it becomes a scene that the writer should consider cutting.

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

Again, that’s a pity. If only Tom had said, “You know, instead of avoiding conflict, I’m going to maximize it, to make things more interesting for the reader,” and gone to knock on Malia’s door instead of strolling into the kitchen for coffee and soporific analysis, we might have had all the narrative tension we could eat.

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

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

Especially if it’s the therapist. Millicent sees a lot of those.

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

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

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

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

Which, at the risk of wearing out some pretty time-honored writing advice, you should strive to do as often as possible — at least in your first book, where you really need to wow the pros. After you make it big, I give you permission to construct a plot entirely about a couple of characters sitting around talking, motionless.

But for heaven’s sake, leave that pyramid of apricots alone; it’s not as solid as it appears to be. Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part IV: Tommy! Watch out for that bear lurking at the end of this post! Tommy!

I can’t quite decide whether I am profoundly sorry or oddly pleased that I’ve been digressing from our series-within-a-series on the Short Road Home, my pet name for a storyline that introduces a conflict only to resolve it immediately, sometimes before the reader has a chance to register that the problem raised is at all serious. Yes, too-swift fixes make it harder for the reader to root for the protagonist — or, when faced with a truly galloping case of SRH, to perceive any build-up of narrative tension at all — but since authorial distrust in readers’ attention spans often underlie these apparently self-solving problems, perhaps jumping around between topics has been appropriate.

Those of us who read for a living, however, may be trusted to have attention spans longer than a third grader hopped up on a quart of cola and half a dozen brownies. Oh, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, may be conditioned to reject most manuscript submissions on page 1, but once she gets into a story, she, like any other reader, wants to see it played out in a satisfying manner.

That seems to be news to an awful lot of submitters, however. You’d be amazed at how often not small, potentially character-revealing conflicts are resolved practically as soon as they appear on the page, but major ones. In book openings, it’s not even all that uncommon to use one of these near-momentary crises as a clumsy means of introducing necessary backstory, as the following sterling piece of dialogue illustrates.

“It’s gone!” Marvin scrabbled around frantically in the dry grass next to his sleeping back, careless of the rattlesnake producing marimba rhythms on its tail a scant yard away. “My beloved late great-great-grandfather’s pocket watch!”

Antoinette gasped. “Not the one traditionally passed from dying father to eldest son for a century and a half, and entrusted to you by your father on his deathbed not four weeks ago?”

“The same.” A silver disk flew through the air at his head, glinting in the firelight. “Why, here it is! Where did it come from?”

The sleeping bag on the far side of the fire jackknifed. Jesse’s red face peered out of the opening. “You dropped it three hours ago. I was waiting for you to notice.”

Marvin flung his arms around Antoinette. “My legacy is safe!”

“What kind of idiot brings an heirloom mountain climbing?” Jesse muttered, trying to regain a comfortable position.

Yes, this is Hollywood narration — all three characters are already aware of the significance of the watch, so the only conceivable motivation for Antoinette and Marvin to explain it to each other is so the reader can hear what they say, right? — but you must admit, it is a darned efficient means of shoehorning the watch’s importance to Marvin into the story. It might not even come across as heavy-handed, if the reader had time to absorb the loss, understand its significance through Marvin’s reaction, and gain a sense of what might happen if the watch were never found.

But here, the darned thing reappears practically the instant Antoinette finishes filling the reader in about it, killing any possible suspense before it’s had time to build. Does that strike you as a narrative strategy likely to entrance a professional reader? Or is it likely to seem like the Short Road Home to anyone with an attention span longer than a drunken gnat’s?

Leaving aside for the moment the burning question of whether a gnat could be trained to hold its liquor, let’s consider how much more annoying this narrative strategy would be if (a) it were used frequently throughout the story, (b) it were in fact the primary tactic for introducing conflict into the story, and/or (c) the conflict in question were one that had been hyped throughout the book as central to the protagonist’s personal journey.

Yes, you did read that last bit correctly, campers. You would be stunned at how frequently Millicent sees a manuscript’s central conflict diverted to the Short Road Home. Often in the last chapter — or on the next-to-last page.

“Oh, Marv,” Antoinette moaned, cradling his bloody head, “you are so close to learning the truth about your family. Before you die, let’s look at that watch one more time.”

With effort, he fished it out of his pocket. The last rays of the sun illuminated its broad face. “Wait — I’ve never noticed that notch before. Maybe it has a false back.”

After the third time he dropped the watch, she put her deft fingers to work for him. “Why, you’re right. There’s been a piece of paper hidden back here all the time.”

She spread the paper two inches from his eyes. With difficulty, he made out the words. “Dear descendent: you will have heard all your life about a family curse. There really isn’t one; I just made it up to scare off competition from my gold mine. Please find attached the true map to your inheritance. Love, Marvin Bellamy the First.”

Suddenly, Marvin felt life once again suffusing his limbs. “Why, that’s the answer I’ve been seeking since we began this long, strange trek!”

Antoinette struggled to contain her annoyance. “And to think, if you’d only given that watch more than a passing glance after your father gave it to you, we wouldn’t have had to spend fifteen months hiking these mountains barefoot.”

“Oh, stop your moaning.” He sprang to his feet. “Your shoes didn’t wear out until month three. Let’s go find the gold mine — it’s only a few hundred yards away.”

“Um, excuse me?” Millicent asks politely. “Is there a reason that I had to read the 312 pages prior to this one? The entire plot has just been sewn up in seven paragraphs.”

Ah, but you should be grateful, Millie: at least this protagonist had to do something in order to send us careening down the Short Road Home. Granted, it wasn’t much; he simply had to manhandle his main prop a little to find his long-sought truth. As you know from experience, many a passive protagonist simply has another character hand the key to the plot to him on a silver platter.

The shadowy figure was closer now, bending over him. If this was Death, he certainly wore nice cologne.

Wait — he knew that scent. Hurriedly, Marvin wiped the dust from his eyes, but he still didn’t believe what they told him. “Dad? I thought you were…”

“Dead?” Marvin the Fifth chuckled ruefully. “No, not quite, son. That was merely the necessary push to aim you toward your legacy. Still got that watch?”

Marvin dug it out of his pocket. Snatching it, the old man cracked it in half.

“My inheritance!” Marvin screamed, horrified.

“Oh, it’s just a cheap knock-off.” Dad poked around in the shards. “But it contained this key to a safe-deposit box located twenty-two feet from this very spot. Come on, kid, let’s go claim your real inheritance. On the way, I’ll tell you all about your great-great grandfather’s plan for making his descendents rich.”

“Do I have to walk?” Marvin whined. “I’m tired from all of that mountain-climbing.”

“Hello?” Antoinette shouted after the pair. “Remember me? The lady who has been carrying your backpack for the last 100 pages?”

Come on, admit it: Marvin, Jr. is not the only one who seems a trifle lazy here. This writer appears to have dropped a deus ex machina into this plot, having a new character waltz into the story at the last minute to explain away all of the remaining mystery, rather than engaging in the hard, meticulous work of setting up sufficient clues throughout the story for the protagonist to be able to solve it himself.

Like other forms of the Short Road Home, the external explainer is a tension-killer. It could have been worse, though: ol’ Dad could have popped up periodically throughout the story, making it clear to all and sundry that he could have filled Marvin in at any time, if so chose he. What a pity that Marvin was just too darned lazy — or dim-witted, or determined that this story would take 324 pages to tell — to ask the obvious question.

Oh, you laugh, but narrators effectively tease the reader in this manner all the time in both novel and memoir submissions, through the use of the historical future tense. The openings of chapters are particularly fertile ground for this sort of suspense-killing narration. Often mistaken for subtle foreshadowing, transitional statements like I was happy — but my illusions were about to be shattered forever. actually minimize the tension to come.

How? Well, before the conflict even begins, the reader already knows the outcome: the narrator’s illusions will be shattered. She may not yet know the details, but you can hardly expect her to begin reading the next scene hoping for the best, can you?

Section-opening paragraphs that tell the reader how the scene how it’s going to end before the scene begins are alarmingly ubiquitous. Sometimes, such foreshadowing is subtle:

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my days of wine and roses were soon to come to an end — and in a way that I could never have anticipated in a thousand years of constant guessing. How was I to know that every child only has so many circuses in him before he snaps?

When my great-uncle Cornelius came down to breakfast waving the circus tickets that Saturday in May, I couldn’t have been happier…

Sometimes, though, foreshadowing is so detailed that it more or less operates as a synopsis of the scene to follow:

My hard-won sense of independence was not to last long, however. All too soon, the police would march back into my life again, using my innocuous string of 127 unpaid parking tickets (hey, everyone is forgetful from time to time, right?) as an excuse to grab me off the street, throw me in the back of a paddy wagon, and drag me off to three nights’ worth of trying to sleep in a cell so crowded that the Black Hole of Calcutta would have seemed positively roomy by contrast.

It all began as I was minding my own business, driving to work on an ordinary Tuesday…

In both cases, the narrative is telling, not showing — and, even more troubling to writing rule-mongers, telling the story out of chronological order. The latter is generally a risky choice, because, let’s face it, unless you’re writing a book that features time travel, most readers will expect events to unfold in chronological order — or if not, for flashbacks to be well-marked enough that the reader never needs to ask, “Wait, when is this happening?”

For the sake of clarity, beginning a scene at the beginning and proceeding to the end without extensive temporal detours is the established norm. That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, the frequent use of and then tends to annoy your garden-variety Millicent: unless a narrative specifically indicates otherwise, actions are assumed to have occurred in the order they appear on the page. I lost my footing and plunged into the water. And then the bear ate me, therefore, does not convey any more information to the reader than I lost my footing and plunged into the water. The bear ate me.

I hear some of you giggling. “Oh, come on, Anne,” lovers of conversational-style narration and/or run-on sentences protest. “I can see that and then might have been logically unnecessary here, but what’s the big deal about adding a couple of extra words?”

If they appear only once or twice in the course of a manuscript, they might not be a big deal. Given the extreme popularity of chatty-voiced narration, however, and the common conception that first-person narration peppered with conversational conjunctions is a valid reflection of everyday speech, Millicent sees an awful lot of and thens in a work day. Often, more than once on a single page. Or within a single paragraph.

You might want to give it a rest. I’m just saying.

Back to the benefits of telling a story in chronological order, rather than skipping around in time. Showing events in the order they occurred renders maintaining narrative tension easier, particularly in first-person narration: the reader may be safely left in the dark about surprising developments until they’re sprung upon the narrator, right?

Let’s face it, though, if the reader already knows what is going to happen before a scene begins, the temptation to skim or even skip the recap can be considerable. Particularly, say, if the reader in question happens to be a Millicent trying to get through a hundred submissions in an afternoon. Maybe she should run out and grab a latte to perk herself up a little…

All of which is to say: if you were looking for a good place to start trimming a manuscript, running a quick scan for the historical future tense might be a dandy place to start. Often, such opening paragraphs may be cut wholesale with little loss to the overall story. Ditto with premature analysis.

Oh, wait: I’m foreshadowing — and to render it even more confusing, I’m doing it by jumping backwards in time. The last time I addressed this topic, a reader wrote in to ask:

I’m assuming that it’s still okay to occasionally employ the historical future (foreshadowing) comments, as long as we don’t prematurely spill the beans…or choke on them…in our rush to analyze, yes?

That’s an interesting question. So much so that I strongly suspect that if this reader had asked it at a literary conference, agents and editors would glance at one another sheepishly, not wanting to generalize away the possibility that a writer in the audience could wow ‘em with foreshadowing, and then fall back on that time-worn industry truism, it all depends upon the writing.

Which would be precisely true, yet not really answer the question. But did you notice how gratuitous that and then was?

To address it head-on, let’s take another gander at our last two examples. In a novel or a memoir, a writer could probably get away with using the first, provided that the story that followed was presented in an entertaining and active manner.

Yes, Example #1 does provide analysis of action that has not yet happened, from the reader’s point of view — and doesn’t it make a difference to think of a foreshadowing paragraph that way, campers, instead of as a transition between one scene and other? — but it does not, as our questioner puts it, spill the beans. The reader knows that something traumatic is going to happen, and where, but not enough about either the event or the outcome to spoil the tension of the upcoming scene.

In Example #2, by contrast, not only does the narrative announce to the reader the specifics of what is about to occur — told, not shown, so the reader cannot readily picture the scene, so revisiting it seems dramatically necessary — but shoves the reader toward an interpretation of the events to come. After such a preamble, we expect to be outraged.

Which, too, is dangerous strategy in a submission: such an introduction raises the bar for the scene that follows pretty high, doesn’t it? If a text promises Millicent thrills and doesn’t deliver them, she’s not going to be happy. Or impressed. Frankly, though, if she’s already in a touchy mood — how many times must the woman burn her lip on a latte before she learns to let it cool before she takes a sip? — the mere sight of the historical future might set Millicent’s teeth on edge, causing her to read the scene that follows with a jaundiced eye.

Why, you ask? The insidious long-term result of repetition — because writers, unlike pretty much everybody else currently roaming the planet, just LOVE foreshadowing. The historical future makes most of us giggle like schoolgirls tickled by 5000 feathers.

As with any device that writers as a group overuse, it’s really, really easy to annoy Millicent with the historical future. Especially if she happens to work at an agency that handles a lot of memoir, where it’s unusual to see a submission that doesn’t use the device several times within the first 50 pages alone.

Heck, it’s not all that uncommon to see it used more than once within the first five. By the end of any given week of screening, poor Millie has seen enough variations on but little did I know that my entire world was about to crumble to generate some serious doubt in her mind about whether there’s something about writing memoir that causes an author to become unstuck in the space-time continuum on a habitual basis.

Which, in a way, we do. Since memoirs by definition are the story of one’s past, really getting into the writing process can often feel a bit like time-travel. After all, how else is a memoirist going to recall all of those wonderfully evocative telling details that enlivened the day a bear ate her brother?

Tell me honestly: as a reader, would you rather see that bear jump out of the underbrush and devour bratty little Tommy twice — once before the scene begins, and once at its culmination — or only once?

Or, to put it another way, would you prefer to know that Tommy is going to be a carnivore’s dinner, so you may brace yourself for it? Or would you like it better if the scene appeared to be entirely about the narrator and Tommy bickering until the moment when the bear appears — and then have it devour him?

If you’re like most readers — and virtually all professional ones — nine times out of ten, you would pick the latter. And for good reason: genuine suspense arises organically from conflict between the characters as the story chugs along. A surprise that you’ve known was coming for two pages is obviously going to startle you less than one that appears out of nowhere.

Foreshadowing is the opposite tactic: it tells the reader what to expect, dampening the surprise. It’s hard to do without spoiling future fun. All too often, what the writer considers a subtle hint informs the reader that a shock is to come in such explicit terms that when the shock actually occurs, the reader yawns and says, “So?”

That’s a pretty high price to pay for a transitional sentence or two that sounds cool, isn’t it?

Not all foreshadowing utilizes the historical future tense, of course, but it’s not a bad idea to get into the habit of revisiting any point in the manuscript where the story deviates from chronological order for so much as a sentence. Or even — and revising writers almost universally miss this when scanning their own works — for half a sentence.

Why? Well, from a reader’s perspective, even that brief a Short Road Home can substantially reduce a scene’s tension. Take, for example, this fairly common species of scene-introducing prose:

On the day my brother Jacques shocked us all by running away from home, I woke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow him on his uncertain road, leaving the rest of my body behind.

Assuming that the reader had gleaned no previous inkling that Jacques might be contemplating going AWOL, what does the narrative gain from opening with the scene’s big shocker? Yes, announcing it this way might well evoke a certain curiosity about why Frère Jacques departed, perhaps, but why not let the reader experience the surprise along with the family?

Taking the latter tack would not even necessarily entail losing the dramatic effect of foreshadowing. Take a look at the same scene opener without the spoiler at the beginning of the first sentence:

I awoke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow an uncertain road behind the Pied Piper, leaving the rest of my body behind. If this was what summer vacation felt like, give me six more weeks of school.

Mom burst into the room with such violence that I cringed instinctively, anticipating the obviously unhinged door’s flying across the room at me. “Have you seen Jacques? He’s not in his room.”

More dramatic, isn’t it? Starting off with a description of a normal day and letting the events unfold naturally is a more sophisticated form of foreshadowing than just blurting out the twist up front.

Not to mention closer to the way people tend to experience surprises in real life– as a manifestation of the unexpected.

That may seem self-evident, but as Millicent would have been the first to tell you had not I beaten her to the punch, few manuscript submissions contain twists that actually surprise professional readers. Partially, as we discussed earlier in this series, this is the fault of the pervasiveness of the Idiot Plot in TV and film, of course, but it also seems that many aspiring writers confuse an eventuality that would come out of the blue from the point of view of the character experiencing it with a twist that would stun a reader.

Again, it all depends upon the writing. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?) At the risk of espousing a radical new form of manuscript critique, I’m a big fan of allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions — and of trusting her to gasp when the story throws her an unanticipated curve ball. After all, it’s not as though she has the attention span of a gnat, drunken or otherwise.

Unfortunately, many aspiring writers apparently don’t trust the reader to catch subtle foreshadowing; they would rather hangs up a great big sign that says, HEY, YOU — GET READY TO BE ASTONISHED. That in and of itself renders whatever happens next less astonishing than if it came out of the proverbial clear blue sky.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” some of you inveterate foreshadowers call out, “what you say about real-life surprises isn’t always true. Plenty of people experience premonitions.”

That’s quite true, disgruntled mutterers: many folks do feel genuine advance foreboding from time to time. Others cultivate chronic worry, and still others apply their reasoning skills to the available data in order to come up with a prediction about what is likely to occur.

Do such people exist in real life? Absolutely. Should one or more of them be tromping around your manuscript, bellowing their premonitions at the tops of their gifted lungs? Perhaps occasionally, as necessary and appropriate, if — and only if — their presence doesn’t relieve the reader of the opportunity to speculate on her own.

In fact, a great way to increase plot tension in a story featuring a psychic character is to show him being wrong occasionally. Mixes things up a bit for the reader. But — correct me if I’m wrong — in real life, most of us don’t hear giant voices from the sky telling anyone who might happen to be following our personal story arcs what is going to happen to us twenty minutes hence.

To those of you who do habitually hear such a voice: you might want to consult a reputable psychiatrist, because the rest of us don’t lead externally-narrated lives. There’s an excellent chance that six-foot rabbit who has been giving you orders is lying to you, honey.

If we were all subject to omniscient third-person narration at the most startling moments of our lives, Tommy wouldn’t have let that bear get the drop on him, would he? Unfortunately for his future prospects, as handy as it would have been had a talking vulture been available to warn him about the nearby hungry beast, that doesn’t happen much in real life.

But that doesn’t mean that if you do find that your life starts being narrated on the spot by a talking vulture, you shouldn’t seek some professional help.

Speaking of professional help: from a professional reader’s point of view, heavy-handed foreshadowing on the page is rather like having a tone-deaf deity bellow driving instructions from a low-hanging cloud bank. Yes, that constant nagging might well cause Millicent to avoid driving into that rock five miles down the road — but, time-strapped as she is, I’m betting that the warning is more likely to convince her to stop driving on that road altogether, rather than hanging on for the now-predictable ride.

Okay, so that wasn’t one of my better metaphors; darn that pesky vulture for distracting me. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXII: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to Millicent.

Ooh, we have a burgeoning buffet of professional readers’ pet peeves on the Author! Author! sideboard today, campers. Let’s begin with a personal least-favorite of mine that I hope and pray will shortly be a least-favorite of yours.

In anticipation of that happy day, may I ask a favor of all of you involving the eradication of an unfortunately ubiquitous query letter pet peeve? Would those of you who have been sending out queries containing the phrase complete at X words kindly erase them?

Right now, if it’s not too much trouble. I’ve just seen my 500th query this year to include the phrase, and while I pride myself on being a tolerant, writer-friendly professional reader, I’m sick of it. It’s clumsily phrased, unoriginal, and it’s not as though it will do a query any good.

Yes, you read that correctly: this phrase can only harm a query packet’s chances of success. Stop it, please, before it kills again.

Is that giant collective gasp an indication that this phrase is lifted from some soi-disant foolproof online boilerplate? As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while are already aware of how I feel about those pernicious one-size-fits-all query patterns, I shan’t reflect yet again on their overall efficacy, but even amongst those who don’t moan, “Why do all of today’s queries read identically?” on a regular basis have been perplexed by this awkward phrase’s sudden rise in popularity. It popped into usage only fairly recently — one seldom saw it before ten years ago — but it is far too pervasive to have been passed along by word of mouth alone. Since it contains a piece of information anyone who has taken a conference course on query-writing should know does not need stating, this stock phrase is unlikely to have originated from the writers’ conference circuit.

So whence, the pros wonder, did it emerge? Some doors mankind is not meant to open, I guess.

More importantly for pet peeve-avoidance purposes, why might this innocent-seeming phrase set Millicent the agency screener’s teeth on edge? Simple: if the manuscript being queried is fiction, any agency employee would presume that what the writer is offering is a finished version of the book. First novels are sold on complete manuscripts, period; it would not make sense, therefore, to approach an agent with an incomplete draft. Using precious query letter page space to mention something so obvious, then, is a quite reliable sign of inexperience.

“Besides,” Millicent grumbles, “isn’t part of the point of the query to impress me with one’s writing skills? How on earth am I supposed to be impressed with a writer who stuffs her letter to the proverbial gills with uninspired stock phrases? Show me your phrasing, not some canned clause lifted from the same allegedly sure-fire template half of the queriers who will contact my boss this week will be using!”

Through the whish-whish-whish of frantic erasing on query letter drafts all over the globe, some faint cries of protest arise. “But Anne,” those of you who habitually tuck the phrase into your opening paragraphs argue, “I just thought that was the professional way of including the word count. I realize that Millicent wants to see some original writing, but honestly, isn’t this information to express as quickly as possible and move on?”

The short answer is this: why include it at all? (And the long answer is W-H-Y-I-N-C-L-U-D-E-I-T-A-T-A-L-L?)

No, but seriously, folks, word count is not a standard, necessary, indispensable part of a query. Yes, some agents do prefer to see it up front (and if they have expressed that preference in public, by all means, honor it), but as including it can only hurt a submission’s chances, I’m not a big fan of mentioning word count in a query letter at all. Don’t lie about it if an agency’s guidelines ask for this information, of course, but don’t volunteer it.

And don’t, whatever you do, assume that because some agency guidelines request word count that every agent will expect to see it. As those of you familiar with last autumn’s Querypalooza series may recall, it’s very, very common for an individual agent’s personal preference, once expressed in passing at a conference or in an interview, to be broadcast by well-meaning aspiring writers as the newly-revealed universal key for landing an agent.

But individual preferences are just that: individual. Pretending that every agent currently accepting clients in the United States wants to see word count in the first paragraph of the query letter (and, the accompanying logic usually goes, will automatically reject a query that does not announce this information within the first three lines), despite the fact that the majority of posted submission guidelines do not ask for it, makes about as much sense as including the first 5 pages of text in your query packet as a writing sample just because one of the fifteen agencies you decided to query last week called for you to include it. Out comes the broken record again:

When querying, as when responding to a request for materials, send precisely what that particular agent wants to see — no more, no less. Because part of what a querier is demonstrating in a query packet is the ability to follow directions — a perennially agent-pleasing trait — there is just no substitute for checking every individual agency’s submission guidelines every single time.

Or, to quote the late, great Fats Waller, find out what they like and how they like it — and let ‘em have it just that way.

It’s a matter of respect, really. Adhering to any given agent’s expressed querying preferences is a laudable means of demonstrating from the get-go that you are serious enough about your writing not to want just any agent to represent it — you want a specific agent whom you have determined, based on his past sales record, would be a good fit for your book.

According to this principle, an aspiring writer’s including word count is a courtesy to those who ask for it. Offering it unasked to those who do not is, while certainly not required, something that Millicent is likely to regard as a positive blessing — but that doesn’t mean it’s in your best interest to do it.

Why? Knowing from the get-go that a manuscript is too short or too long for its stated book category can save a query-screening Millicent masses of time. Shouting, “Next!” is, we all must recognize, quite a bit speedier than sending out a request for materials, waiting for them to arrive, then seeing first-hand that a manuscript falls outside the length norms.

Heck, if the querier followed the extremely common precept that complete at 127,403 words should appear in the letter’s opening paragraph, she might not even have to read a single additional sentence; if her agency happens to adhere to the belief that 100,000 words is the top cut-off for a first novel — as is the case in most fiction categories — she would have no reason to request the manuscript.

“How kind of this writer,” she murmurs, reaching for the never-far-off stack of form-letter rejections, “to have waved that red flag up front. This way, there’s no possibility of my falling in love with the text before realizing it’s too long, as I might easily have done had I requested pages.”

That one-size-fits-all boilerplate is no longer fitting so comfortably, is it? Typically, agencies that request word count up front like to see it for precisely the same reason a Millicent at a non-requesting agency would be so pleased it appeared: it enables them to reject too-long and too-short manuscripts at the query stage, rather than the submission stage. In essence, it’s asking the writer to provide them with a means of speeding up her own rejection.

But should you include it in a query, if the agency guidelines ask for it? Absolutely: it’s a matter of respect.

I hear you grumbling, campers, and who could blame you? But you might want to brace yourselves, complete at… users; you’re going to like what I’m about to say next even less: many queries rejected for on the basis of excessive word count are actually not too long for their chosen book categories. The listed word count merely makes them appear too long.

“How is that possible?” word count-listers everywhere howl, rending their garments. “I’ve been including what my Word program claims is the actual number of words in the document. By what stretch of the imagination could that number be misinterpreted?”

Quite easily, as it happens: that 100,000 word limit I mentioned above does not refer to actual word count; it is an expression of estimated word count. Although actual word count is appropriate to list for short stories and articles, it is not the norm for book manuscripts — but again, individual agents’ preferences do vary. Therein lies the miscommunication: the overwhelming majority of the considerate souls busily typing complete at… up use actual word count, not estimated, leading Millicent to conclude that a long manuscript contains quite a few more pages than it really does.

Why would she assume the word count is estimated? Respect for the traditions of her industry, mostly: before the rise of Word and its automatic word-count function, estimating was hours more efficient than laboriously counting each and every word. Just as magazines and newspapers used a standard number of words per line, the publishing industry came up with an average for the two most common typewriter key size’s words per page: 250/page for Elite, 200/page for Pica.

With the rise of the home computer, that expectation carried over to the most similar fonts: the standard estimation for a standard manuscript in Times New Roman is 250 words/page; for Courier, it’s 200 words/page. Since TNR is the industry standard, when Millicent sees 100,000 words, she automatically thinks 400 pages.

I see some of you shaking your heads and calling her a Luddite, but for the agency’s purposes, an estimate is more useful than a toting-up of every word. Think about it: since the number of words that appear on a page can vary wildly, actual word count does not tell an agent or editor how many pages to expect, does it? That’s legitimate information for Millicent to consider: the page count is part of the publication cost calculation generally included in the paperwork an editor has to fill out before taking an exciting new project before an editorial committee.

While there is not a one-to-one correlation between the number of pages in a manuscript and the number of pages in its published form — most submission manuscripts shrink by about two-thirds by the time they hit hard copy — page count is hugely important in figuring out how expensive it will be to publish a book. The more pages, the greater the amount of paper and ink required, obviously. Perhaps less obviously, longer books are substantially more expensive to produce than shorter ones: at about 500 pages (an estimated 120,000 words), the binding costs rise dramatically.

Starting to see why our Millie might reject a query that told her in line 3 that it was complete at 127,403 words?

Unfortunately, the majority of queriers who use actual word count, as would be appropriate for a short story or magazine article, are unaware of this publishing reality. Compounding the problem: almost invariably, this number is higher than the estimate would lead one to expect: it is well within the realm of possibility that 127,403-word manuscript would be closer to 400 pages than 500. (Which is why, in case those of you who already have agents had been wondering, agents representing long first novels generally leave the word count off the title page.)

The actual number of pages is irrelevant at rejection time, though, if querier and query-reader are operating on different sets of expectations. While the last digit in that actual count might tip off a professional reader that the writer is using actual count, not an estimate a Millicent in a hurry — and with good math skills — is prone to spot that number and mutter, “509 pages! That’s far too long for a first novel in this category! Next!”

It makes the muses sad enough if the title page prompts this reaction. Imagine, then, how bitterly the muses weep when a good novel gets rejected in this manner because the writer thought the first paragraph of her query needed to contain the words complete at…

Just take it out, willya? I’m tired of listening to the old girls bawl.

Speaking of notorious query-related pet peeves that often engender a cry of “Next!” — and speaking of ungraceful phrases; that segue was a lulu — it would be remiss of me not to mention two others. Since they are such perennial favorites, annoyances to Millicents dating back to at least the Eisenhower administration, let’s haul out the broken record player again, shall we? Nothing like a one of those old-fashioned phonographs when one wants to dance to the oldies-but-goodies.

When approaching an agency with several agents who represent your type of book, it’s considered rude to query more than one of them simultaneously. Pick one — and only one — to approach in any given year.

In publishing, as in so many other areas of life, no means no. If an agent has rejected your query or submission, it’s considered rude to re-approach that agent with the same project again, ever. If the agent wants you to revise and submit that particular manuscript, he will tell you so point-blank; if he likes your voice, but does not think he can sell the manuscript in the current market, he may ask to see your next book.

The second is fairly well-known, but aspiring writers new to the game are constantly running afoul of the first. In a way, that’s completely understandable: if one doesn’t take the time to learn what each agent at a particular agency has represented lately — and few queriers do — it can be pretty difficult to tell which might be the best fit for one’s book.

“I know!” the aspiring writer says, feeling clever as it occurs to her. “I’ll just send it to both of ‘em. That way, I can’t possibly guess wrong which is the agent for me.”

And then both of those queries appear in the inbox belonging to those agents’ shared Millicent. What do you think will happen?

Hint: it has to do with respect. And if you were about to say, “Why, Millicent will weigh carefully which agent would be the most appropriate for my work and forward my query accordingly,” you might want to reconsider you answer.

I don’t care who hears me say it: this is a business where politeness counts. Sending queries to more than one agent at an agency or over and over again to the same agent is, quite apart from self-defeating behavior, an annoyance to those who have to deal with those queries and manuscripts. Need I say more?

Oh, I do? Okay, try this explanation on for size: no one, but no one, likes to be treated as a generic service-provider. Most agents pride themselves on their taste, their insight into current market conditions, and their client list. So when an aspiring writer targets agents with side-by-side offices, as though it were impossible to tell the two of them apart, it’s tantamount to saying, “Look, I don’t care which of you represents me; all agents look alike to me. So what does it matter that one of you already said no?” The same logic applies when a writer queries the same agent who has already rejected that book project: respect for an agent’s choices would dictate honoring that no the first time around.

Speaking of respect issues, let’s not forget the single most common screeners’ pet peeve of all: unprofessionally formatted manuscript submissions. While this is seldom an instant rejection trigger all by itself, not presenting one’s writing in the manner in which the pros expect to see it does mean, effectively, that one is walking into the submission process with one strike against the book.

See why that might prove problematic, in a situation where a manuscript seldom gets more than two strikes before being tossed out of the game?

While veteran members of the Author! Author! community sigh with recognition, those of you new to this blog look a trifle bewildered. “Whoa!” perplexed agent-seekers everywhere cry. “How is formatting a respect issue? Baseball metaphors aside, how on earth could how I choose to present my words on the manuscript page be construed as in any way indicative of my general attitude toward the agent to whom I am sending it? Or, indeed, toward the publishing industry?”

Fairly easily, from the other side of the submission envelope. As it may not be entirely astonishing to you by this point in the post, when Millicent spots an improperly-formatted manuscript, she sees not only a book that needs at least some cosmetic revision to bring up to professional standards, but a writer who does not have enough respect for the industry he aspires to join to learn about its expectations and norms.

“Oh, presentation doesn’t matter,” Millicent imagines the brash new writer saying as he doesn’t bother to spell-check. “That’s my future editor’s job to fix. All that matters is the writing, right?”

Actually, no. Any good agent receives far, far too many beautifully-written manuscripts from aspiring writers who have taken the time to present them properly to waste her time with those that do not. This is such a common rejection reason that there’s even a stock phrase for it.

“That writer is talented,” publishing types will say to one another, “but he hasn’t done his homework.”

Yes, this is often said of talented writers who have yet to develop technical skills, but as any Millicent could tell you, rejection reasons are like wolves: they tend to travel in packs. Improper formatting is merely the quickest indicator of a lack of professionalism to spot. Since all professional book manuscripts and book proposals in this country look alike, adhering to a standard format distinct from what is de rigueur for short stories, articles, academic writing, and even many contests, Millicent can often literally identify a submission from someone who hasn’t done her homework at five paces.

To a literature-lover who handles manuscripts for a living, that’s a genuinely astonishing authorial choice. Unhappily, not doing one’s homework is infinitely more popular than doing it — which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a great deal of sense as a long-term strategy for publishing success. Even the most naturally talented baseball player doesn’t expect to hit a home run the first time he steps up to the plate, after all; he knows that he must learn the rules and hone his skills before he has a chance at the big leagues.

Many, if not most, aspiring writers, by contrast, seem to believe that the New York Yankees are going to sign them the first time they pick up bats and don gloves. Can you really blame Millicent for feeling that’s just a trifle disrespectful to all of the great authors who have invested the time in learning to play the game?

“But Anne,” those of you new to querying and submission point out huffily, “why should it surprise anybody that a first-time novelist, memoirist, or book proposer should not already know every nuance of how the industry works? Why is being new a problem to a business ostensibly concerned with seeking out what is fresh and exciting?”

Good question, neophytes. To those used to dealing with professional manuscripts, everything that appears on the page is assumed to be there because the writer made an active choice to include it. By that logic, a typo is never just a typo: it’s either a deliberate misspelling for effect, a proofreading omission, or evidence that the writer just can’t spell. The same holds true for holes in a plot, voice inconsistencies — and yes, formatting.

As I may seven or eight hundred times recently, good agents are inundated with fresh, exciting manuscripts that do not have these problems; clearly, then, it is possible for a writer brand-new to the biz to learn how to avoid them. So when a promising writer has not taken the time to burnish her submission to a high polish, it’s likely to look an awful lot like an assumption that his future agent is going to do all the work of bringing that manuscript into line with professional standards for her.

In other words, not formatting a submission in the manner Millicent has been trained to expect will effectively mean that she will start reading it already assuming that it is not the final draft. How could a manuscript that does not adhere to professional presentation standards be considered a completely polished manuscript?

It’s not as though the agent of your dreams could submit it to an editor that way, after all. An agent who permitted her clients to deliver work in any of those formats would have to waste her own time changing the cosmetic elements so it would be possible to take it to a publishing house. For this reason, Millicent regards incorrectly-formatted work as indicative of a writer not particularly serious about his work .

Or, to put it a trifle more bluntly: she’s not judging it on the writing alone. Necessarily, she has to consider how much extra time her boss would have to invest in a writer who would have to be trained how to put together a manuscript.

I see those of you who worked your way through last autumn’s mind-achingly detailed Formatpalooza series rolling your eyes. “Yes, yes, we know, Anne,” veteran format-contemplators say wearily. “You walk us through standard format at least once a year, addressing at length the digressions from it in which aspiring writers all too frequently unwittingly indulge at great cost to their books’ submission chances. I now no longer add a row of asterisks to indicate a section break, allow Word to alter my doubled dashes with spaces on either end to emdashes bridging the space between the words before and after, nor embrace the AP style practice of capitalizing the first word after a colon, as if it were the beginning of a new sentence. Heck, I even know what a slug line is. I still secretly agonize in the dead of night because another website — one that does not draw a firm distinction between the correct format for a book manuscript and how a short story should be submitted to a magazine, perhaps — says I should place the chapter title on the line directly above the first line of text, as is proper for a short story, rather than on the first line of the page, as is appropriate for a book manuscript, but overall, I feel pretty good about how professional my submissions look. Why keep nagging me about it?”

Actually, my frequent reminders of the importance of adhering to standard format are not aimed at you, conscientious researchers, but toward those who have not yet learned to emulate your laudable example. Aspiring writers who have taken the time to learn the expectations of the industry into which they are trying to break are not, generally speaking, those whose submissions make Millicent grind her teeth down to nubs. If you’re already following the rules, chances are good that she is judging your manuscript on your writing.

Congratulations; that’s a relative rarity. Unfortunately for the overall happiness of aspiring writers everywhere, most submissions reflect an almost complete lack of awareness that standard format even exists. Oh, most are double-spaced and feature page numbers (although you would be astonished at how often the latter are omitted), but beyond the application of one or two isolated rules, it’s quite obvious that the writers who produced them think presentation doesn’t matter.

Surprised to hear that’s the norm? You’re in good company — Millicent is flabbergasted. Despite a wealth of formatting advice floating around the Internet — some of it accurate, some of it not — the average manuscript landing on her desk displays a blithe disregard of standard format. It’s almost as though it’s daring her to like the writing in spite of the careless presentation.

It is, in short, disrespectful. And we all know how Millicent, the industry’s gatekeeper and thus the person who sees far more promising writing gone wrong than anybody else, tends to respond to that: “Next!”

I’m bringing all of this up in the middle of our ongoing discussion of craft not to say that presentation is more important than the writing quality — no one who dealt with manuscripts for a living would argue that — but to remind everyone that to a professional reader, everything on that page matters.

There are no free passes for careless omissions; with any given agency, there are seldom even second chances after an insufficiently-polished first approach. Yet despite the vital importance of making a good first — and second, and third — impression, most good writers become so impatient to see their words in print that they start sending out queries and submissions half an hour after they type THE END.

Sometimes even before. Had I mentioned that it’s considered disrespectful to query a manuscript that is not yet completed? (It is, perversely, acceptable to give a verbal pitch at a conference under the same circumstances, however. Agents and editors who hear pitches know how stressful it is; most would agree that a practice run at it a year or two before one is doing it for real isn’t a bad idea.)

As exciting as the prospect of getting your baby published may be, sending it out before it’s ready to meet Millicent is not the best long-term strategy. At least not now, when personalized rejection letters have become exceedingly rare: while up to about a decade ago, an aspiring writer could hope to gain valuable and useful feedback from the submission process, now, the volume of queries and submissions is so high that the manuscript that prompted Millicent to mutter, “Oh, here’s another one who didn’t do his homework,” and the carefully-polished near-miss are likely to receive precisely the same form-letter rejection: I’m sorry, but I just don’t think I can place this book successfully in the current tight literary market.

The wording may vary slightly, but the sentiment is the same. Aspiring writers are not the only population fond of boilerplates, apparently.

Choose your words thoughtfully, take the time to learn the rules of submission, and treat your future agent — and his Millicents — with respect. Believe me, once you are working with them on an intensive basis, you’ll be glad you did.

Next time, we’ll wend our way merrily back to the Short Road Home. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXI: enough with the shoptalk, already — we have work to do here, people!

Yes, yes, I know: we had all been expecting that my next post would revert to our series-in-progress on the Short Road Home, too-quick resolution of potentially absorbing plot-moving, character-illuminating, and/or relationship-defining narrative conflict. However, a thoughtful reader posted such an interesting follow-up question to our last discussion that I couldn’t resist devoting a post to it. Quoth Nancy, in a slightly abbreviated form:

How do you handle dialogue in a scene…where the two speaking are both medical professionals? I have an emergency room scene in my novel and, after a considerable amount of research, I used one drug and three medical terms. I didn’t go overboard or anything, but do you think two doctors working on a patient in that setting using professional jargon is too much for the reader? The only people in the room participating are the medical personnel so it seemed appropriate to me.

Now, there are a couple of ways to responding to a question like this. The first — and, I must confess, the one that appeared most reasonable to me in the state of end-of-a-day-stuffed-with-medical-appointments exhaustion in which I initially read it — would be to take the issue very literally. What would happen if we took that jargon-crammed example from last time…

“At first glance, I’d say that this is a moderate case of angulation of the patella.” Dr. Ferris poked around her kneecap, nodding whenever she vocalized a negative response. “You’re a little young for it to be chondromalacia. Does that hurt?”

“Tremendously,” she whimpered.

“Lateral sublexation.” That apparently deserved a note on the chart. “You see, Georgette, if the displacement were in the other direction, we might have to resort to surgery to restore a more desirable Q-angle. As it is, we can work on VMO strength, to reduce the probability of this happening again. In the short term, though, we’re going to need to rebalance the patella’s tracking and more evenly distribute forces.”

“What do you mean, rebalance…”

The wrench knocked her unconscious. When she awoke, her entire leg on fire, a piece of paper was resting on her stomach.

…and changed it from a doctor/patient interaction to a doctor/doctor conversation? It could, after all, be achieved as easily as simply having another doctor walk into the room for a consult.

“At first glance, I’d say that this is a moderate case of angulation of the patella.” Dr. Ferris poked around her kneecap, nodding whenever she vocalized a negative response. “But what do you think, Dr. Wheel?”

The specialist frowned, fishing around in the capacious pockets of his lab coat. “She’s a little young for it to be chondromalacia. Ah, there it is. Move your hand, Dr. Ferris.” He raised a small silver hammer far over his head, bringing it down viciously on the side of Georgette’s knee. “Does that hurt?”

“Tremendously,” she whimpered.

The two doctors exchanged significant glances. “Lateral sublexation?” Dr. Ferris suggested with a sign. “Darn, I was hoping to get in there surgically.”

“A pity, but it can’t be helped. If the displacement were in the other direction, we could have restored a more desirable Q-angle surgically.”

“What does that mean?” Georgette asked.

Ferris turned back to Wheel. “We can work on VMO strength, to reduce the probability of this happening again. In the short term, though, we’re going to need to rebalance the patella’s tracking and more evenly distribute forces.”

“Indubitably,” Dr. Wheel agreed.

“Hello?” Georgette shouted. “It’s my leg, remember? What precisely are you planning to do?”

The wrench knocked her unconscious. When she awoke, her entire leg on fire, a piece of paper was resting on her stomach, and the doctors were leaving the room.

“That’s a prescription for painkillers,” Dr. Ferris called back over her shoulder. “You can have it filled at any pharmacy.”

A voice wafted back from the hallway. “You might try some ice.”

What do you think? From a purely realistic perspective, we can see that Nancy’s justification for why those particular people might use those particular terms makes a lot of sense: doctors might well say these things to each other. But as a reader, how did you feel about having all of that medical jargon tossed at you?

Don’t be shy — there is no single right answer here, merely what works on the page. If you said, “Gee, Anne, I felt that this use of jargon added to the credibility of these characters. I might not have understood all of the undefined terms they were throwing around so vigorously, but I feel like that around real doctors. An A for realism!” then you are thinking like many aspiring writers. For many a creator of a character with advanced degrees or specialized technical knowledge, jargon makes the man.

If, on the other hand, you yawned and said, “I did what I always do when confronted with technical mumbo-jumbo — I just skipped it. Wake me when the scene shifts back to some action that might actually interest me, please,” then you are like the average reader conditioned by shows like House, M.D. to regard the cessation of normal speech and a sudden barrage of medical terms as normal behavior for doctors. Best to lay one’s head down, take a brief nap, and rejoin the story once the folks in scrubs have gotten it out of their systems.

And if you said, “Wow, I couldn’t get enough of that jargon! I would have been happier if the doctor characters hadn’t spoken any comprehensible non-medical English at all,” well, you’re probably not being very realistic about this manuscript’s target audience. Few stories with a doctor’s office scene have the luxury of being able to appeal only to those with medical degrees.

Approaching the question literally gave us an important insight, didn’t it? Let’s go ahead and phrase it as an aphorism: whether the level of jargon use in dialogue is appropriate or too heavy depends not exclusively upon who the characters speaking it are, but upon who the expected readers are.

Which brings me, not entirely coincidentally, to the second way to approach an issue like this: practically. If your target reader will have trouble following what’s going on in a jargon-stuffed scene — or, as we saw above, might be bored by it — it matters far less whether those people might speak that way. Dialogue’s first duty is to be comprehensible, its second to be entertaining. If realism in dialogue were the only or even the primary criterion for judging its aptness, why would an agent seeking to a medical drama to represent look to a writer who didn’t have a medical degree to write it?

Oh, you may laugh, but hands up, anybody who has ever heard an aspiring writer defend lackluster dialogue with, “But people really talk that way in real life!” They may well, but that doesn’t mean a reader will want to pay $27 to read a transcript of it in hardcover.

Not practical enough for you? Okay, consider this: even in the unlikely event that the scene above is an excerpt from the first fiction series ever aimed exclusively at knee surgeons with a little spare time on their hands for reading, at the submission stage, Millicent and the agent for whom she works are the book’s target audience. If either of them is either confused or bored by a character’s — or, in this case, two characters’ — professional chattering, it’s not going to help to produce a tape recording to prove that doctors might indeed have said these things in real life. If dialogue is unclear or dull, it’s not going to make it past Millicent.

That made some of you just a tad defensive, didn’t it? “But Anne,” jargon-huggers the world over shout in dismay, “that’s not how an ordinary reader would respond. I don’t think a doctor character’s making few references to specific prescription drugs or referring to a body part by its Latin name is going to dissuade most readers. I understood enough of that second scene to be able to deal with it; surely, most readers would be willing to put up with a few unfamiliar nouns in the name of verisimilitude.”

Good point, jargon-lovers — often, the average reader is surprisingly tolerant of jargon. And, like you, s/he will often simply assume that what appears on the page is legitimate jargon used correctly.

You’d be astonished at how often it isn’t: add terminology and stir is quite a common recipe for realism in dialogue. All too often, writers will conduct some minimal research, dig up a few key terms, and simply plop them into the middle of a scene. It drives readers actually conversant with the subject matter nuts.

As any maddened specialist reader or frustrated Millicent would happily tell you, an astoundingly high percentage of such borrowed terms tend to be nouns or adjective-and-noun combinations. So to aficionados of poorly-applied jargon, a strong contrast in the complexity of the subject and verb choices is a tip-off that the writer might not be as familiar with the character’s professional lingo as the narrative might pretend.

So is the appearance of an undefined term in the middle of an array of otherwise relatively simple sentences. Take, for instance, how a fictional exchange between American politics professors might appear in a manuscript.

“Mason is being cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. “He can’t afford to act on his political beliefs.”

Bella straightened her notes. “You just watch him. It is a multi-player Nash equilibrium. You just watch it play out.”

“I couldn’t disagree more, my dear, but time alone will tell.” Jack rose. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a class to teach.”

The undefined jargon just leaps off the page at you, doesn’t it? These two people don’t sound like experts; they sound like they are doing precisely what the writer is, throwing a limited technical vocabulary around.

But simply adding more jargon won’t make them seem more credible, even if it does make the characters sound more true-to-life. Let’s take a peek at the same scene as someone who has taught in a political science department might expect it to appear:

“Mason’s cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. “I can’t see his party jeopardizing a marginal district just to make a philosophical point. Ideology is an exogenous variable here.”

Bella wanted to throw the nearest book at him. “You’re conflating ideology with rational self-interest. It’s not a zero-sum game; Mason’s operating within a multi-player Nash equilibrium.”

“Oh, I see.” His tone was rich with sarcasm. “How silly of me not to reduce complex reality to an everyday collective action problem.”

She leapt to her feet. “And how ridiculous of me to expect someone who regards any two things that have ever happened simultaneously as inherently correlated! You’ve never met a dependent variable you didn’t like.”

“Look up parsimony in a dictionary,” he snarled. “It will change your life.”

Not much fun to read, is it? Yet as someone who has, for her sins, spent a heck of a lot of time in a political science department, the second version is a much better reflection of reality than the first.

But ‘fess up: even those of you who preferred the jargon-heavy doctor scene above were less tolerant of Professor Bella and Professor Jack’s speaking the lingua franca of their profession than you were of Dr. Ferris and Dr. Wheel’s technical talk, weren’t you?

If so, you’re in good company: the less familiar the field is to the reader, the more alien the jargon will seem. Thanks to Dr. House and his literary and filmic brethren and sistern, a lot of us built up quite a tolerance to barrages of medical terminology. But let the talk stray into a less-often-fictionalized field, and it’s cue the yawning.

So where does that leave Nancy’s revision difficulties? Clearly, the mere fact that two characters are purportedly experts in their fields is not sufficient justification for having them spout technical terms all over the place, yet scattering a select few phrases doesn’t ring true. The reader needs to know what they are talking about, of course. However, shoving definitions of relevant terms into the narrative portions of the scene can stop it dead in its tracks.

“Mason’s cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. Cross-pressuring is when one constituent group wants something diametrically opposed to what another constituent group is clamoring to see happen.

He had a point: if Mason voted for the bridge, commuters would love him, but the powerful boating lobby would hate his guts. “True,” Bella said, “but aren’t you conflating ideology with rational self-interest?”

Jack paused to consider that. Mason’s political principles, such as they were, had always been tempered by a healthy tendency to weigh what would be the best for himself in the long run. It would never do to conflate them, combining two distinct factors into a single explanation.

Enough, already: this is supposed to be a novel, not a lecture. And, as we saw yesterday, the result is not much better if one character’s role in the conversation is to lob softball questions at the other, so the reader can hear the answers.

“Mason’s cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. “I can’t see his party jeopardizing a marginal district just to make a philosophical point.”

“Cross-pressured?” Bella asked.

“Subject to conflicting demands from constituents. I tell you, ideology is an exogenous variable here.”

Exogenous who? “Meaning?”

“Meaning that what he believes is not going to affect the outcome.” He gathered his lecture notes together. “Honestly, Bella, where did you go to grad school?”

Where indeed? By turning Professor B into little more than a mouthpiece for the reader’s probable questions about Jack’s jargon, the narrative has instantly made her seem less professionally credible. Not to mention dropping her I.Q. by about fifty points.

So what’s a reviser to do? I would advise applying what I like to call the Scotty test for jargon density.

Yes, as in the original Star Trek: its various iterations have tended to do a spectacularly good job at depicting technical specialists discussing scientific matters without overloading the audience with jargon. Look how little technical-speak is in this scene all about technical problems — and keep your ears perked up, if not actually pointed, for a brilliantly simple-yet-unobtrusive line of explanation for viewer having trouble following what’s going on.