Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXVIII and Structural Repetition, part V: wait — there’s a forest out there? How can I possibly be expected to see it through all of these trees?

The other day, an author who had established her literary credentials some decades ago — let’s call her Martha, because it’s nothing like her name — came over to my house for tea and a vigorous discussion of the ever-changing literary market. I love chatting with well-read, highly opinionated people on this particular subject, and Martha did not disappoint. She is, to put it mildly, no fan of what she calls “the recent vampire/werewolf/zombie craze,” nor does she entirely improve of this golden age of YA.

“I keep meeting wonderful writers,” she says, “who have just given up on writing for adults. Or about anyone with a pulse.”

I do, too, but actually, I find this view a trifle outdated: when I walk into, say, a Barnes & Noble today, what strikes me is not the size of the YA section (I think the expansion of this particular book category has yielded some great things) or how few novel protagonists boast pulses (for me, a little contact with the undead goes a long way), but what a high percentage of the books currently available for sale were written by those who no longer have pulses at all. I’m as fond of Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as the next person, but do they really need to take up half the summer reading table AND an entire shelf of the sale books? Might an enterprising publisher not shell out for some display space for a few more living authors?

And while we’re at it, is there a particular reason that so many bookstores stock only FRANKENSTEIN, but not any of Shelley’s other novels? Again, I’m as fond of, etc., etc., but the lady was prolific. For my money, VALPURGA, her fictional account of the Inquisition, dances circles around FRANKENSTEIN. But perhaps that’s merely another manifestation of my preference for living protagonists, rather than revivified ones.

As so often happens, I ended up defending publishing trends I do not necessarily applaud, simply because Martha seemed so very determined to ring the death knell for the industry — because, she said, “All publishers think about now is cash.”

That’s a very popular complaint amongst those who landed their agents back when it was considered a trifle gauche for writers to admit that they wanted to make a living at it. My kith and kin has been involved in producing books since the 1920s, and I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of a time when publishing was purely a charitable enterprise. It is true, however, that both agents and publishers routinely used to nurse promising authors through half a dozen books, despite anemic sales, in the hope that someday, he (and it was almost always he) would gain a larger audience. Now, if a new author’s book does not sell well, she (and it often is she these days) and her agent may well have trouble convincing even an editor absolutely besotted with her prose stylings to take a chance with her next.

Hey, the bookstore needs that shelf space for its fifth copy of FRANKENSTEIN.

To be fair, though, readers also have quite different expectations than they did when Shelley’s debut novel hit the shelves — or, for that matter, when Martha’s did. Pacing is considerably faster these days; the passive voice so popular prior to World War II is considered stylistically rather weak, and in deference to that type of browser who habitually grabs books off the shelves and reads page 1 before purchasing, action tends to appear much earlier in plots than in years past.

Yes, even in literary fiction — do some comparative reading. Martha didn’t want to believe it, either.

Because I am, as you may have noticed, a big fan of concrete examples, I reached over to my fiction bookshelves for an example of good, solid literary writing that might have trouble getting published, or even landing an agent, today. I didn’t have to run my fingertips past more than half a dozen spines before I found a great page 1: William Styron’s breakthrough 1951 novel, LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS.

I would urge all of you to read this lyrical, moving book in its entirety (after you polish off VALPURGA, perhaps). For our purposes, though, I’m going to show you only what I read to Martha. Try to absorb it on two levels: for the quality of the writing, and as our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, might respond to it if it landed on her desk as a submission from an unknown writer today. To aid in that imaginative feat, I’ll even show it to you as she would see it.

“Wow, he was a wonderful writer,” Martha said. “Why did you stop there?”

“Because,” I said, bracing myself for the inevitable outcry of the literary-minded, “an agency screener wouldn’t have read any farther.”

Any guesses why? How about that paragraph-long, 118-word opening sentence? Or the two subordinate clauses beginning with which and the one with where? Or the piling-up of prepositions? Or the abrupt shift from the third person to the second on line 6?

None of this, of course, mars the inherent loveliness of the writing; hearing it read out loud, Martha was quite right to be impressed. As seen on the submission page, though, how likely to you think Millicent is to exclaim, as my guest did, “Wow, this is a wonderful writer,” rather than “Wow, that’s quite a run-on sentence?” And having emitted the second, how likely is she not to follow it with, “Next!”

Darned right, that would be a pity; this is a beautifully-written, incisive novel. But Millicent is in fact justified in believing that a browser picking up this page 1 is likely to set the book back on the shelf again halfway through that gargantuan opening sentence.

What would make her so sure of that? Because the difference between the literary market of 1951 and the literary market of 2011 lies not merely in how quickly professional readers make up their minds about submissions, but also in non-professional readers’ expectations for what constitutes good writing.

I know, I know. After I made that argument to Martha, she kept feeling my head to see if I had developed a fever.

Why might a browser not be able to see past the length of that opening sentence? Memory, partially: the browser’s high school English teacher would have marked her down for producing a run-on of this magnitude. Besides, subordinate clauses are simply not as highly regarded as they used to be. Back in the day, literature was rife with these; now, most Millicents are trained to consider them, well, a bit awkward. In fact, chances are very good that she was specifically trained to zero in on relative pronouns like which and subordinate conjunctions like where with the intent of ferreting out run-ons.

That, I suspect, is going to come as surprise to those of you who love 19th-century novels. We could quibble for hours about whether literary tastes have changed for better or worse. Since they have undoubtedly changed, though, it’s vital for aspiring writers who prefer more old-fashioned structures to realize that what was hailed by critics in 1951 might well give Millicent pause on page 1 today.

Or even give her an excuse to stop reading. But that does not necessarily mean that if the late lamented Mssr. Styron were trying to break into the literary fiction market today, I would advise him to lose all of the subordinate clauses.

Oh, I would certainly recommend some tinkering; that semicolon, for instance, could be replaced by a period at no great loss to the passage. Because the writing is so pretty here, however, I’m reluctant to impose the necessary cuts and changes on this passage, even for the purposes of an instructive example. As an editor, all I can justifiably do is point out the problems; it’s the writer’s job to rewrite.

That, too, often comes as a surprise to those harboring old-fashioned views of publishing. I meet aspiring writers all the time who greet any and all revision suggestions with an airy and dismissive, “Oh, I’m sure the acquiring editor/the agent of my dreams/some luckless proofreader will take care of that. All that matters at the submission stage is the quality of the writing.”

To a professional reader, sentence-level difficulties are not external to the writing; they’re integral parts of it. How a writer revises — or doesn’t — is as important to the ultimate quality of the book as the initial composition. Contrary to popular belief, though, there is no such thing as a single best way to revise a narrative, any more than there is a single best way to tell a story.

That being the case, how could an editor justifiably perform all necessary revisions to a manuscript? Or an agent, for that matter? And why wouldn’t a savvy writer prefer to make those changes herself, so she can control the voice?

Part of the charm of individual authorial voice is that it is, in fact, individual — but you’d never glean that from how writers (and writing teachers) tend to talk about revision. All too often, we speak amongst ourselves as though the revision process involved no more than either (a) identifying and removing all of the objectively-observable mistakes in a manuscript, or (b) changing our minds about some specific plot point or matter of characterization, then implementing it throughout the manuscript.

These are two perfectly reasonable self-editing goals, of course, but they are not the only conceivable ones. When dealing with what I call, with apologies to Madame Shelley, a Frankenstein manuscript — a text that, while perhaps prettily written, has not yet been revised to the level of professional polish — a conscientious self-editor might well perform a read-through for voice consistency, another for grammatical problems, a third for logic leaps, a fourth because the protagonist’s husband is no longer a plumber but the member of Congress representing Washington’s 7th District…

And so forth. Revision can come in many, many flavors, variable by specificity, level of focus, the type of feedback to which the writer is responding, and even the point in publication history at which the manuscript is being revised.

Does that all sound dandy in theory, but perplexing in practice? Don’t worry; I am queen of the concrete example, remember?

To help you gain a solid sense of how diverse different of levels of revision can be, I’m going to treat you to a page from one of my favorite fluffy novels of yore, Noël Coward’s POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE, a lighthearted romp set in a tropical British colony on the eve of a royal visit.

I chose this piece not merely because it retains a surprisingly high level of Frankenstein manuscript characteristics for a work by a well-established writer (possibly because it was Coward’s only published novel), or even because it deserves another generation of readers. (As it does; his comic timing is unparalleled.) I think it’s an interesting study in how literary conventions change: even at the time of its release in 1960, some critics considered it a bit outdated. Coward’s heyday had been several decades before, they argued, so the type of sex comedy that used to shock in the 1920s was a bit passé, and wasn’t it a bit late in the literary day to steer so firmly away from sociopolitical commentary?

Now, sociopolitical commentary has largely fallen out of style, at least in first novels, and sex, as Coward himself was fond of observing, seems to be here to stay. Here is a page from the end of the book, where our narrator, a harried British matron living on a South Sea island, finds herself entertaining Droopy, the husband of her best friend Bunny’s would-be mistress.

P&C sample

Amusing, certainly, but a bit Frankensteinish on the page is it not? At first glance, how would you suggest Noël revise it? Would your revision goals be different if this were page 5, rather than page 272?

Before you give your final answers, here’s that page again, after it has been subjected to just the kind of repetition-spotting mark-up I’ve been asking you to perform of late. (Sorry about the dark image; I honestly didn’t take the photograph in a particularly gloomy room. If you’re having trouble reading the specifics, try pressing command +.)

P&C edit 1

Replete with structural redundancy, is it not? By today’s book publication standards, as Millicent would no doubt be overjoyed to tell you, it would deserve instant rejection on that basis alone.

But would you agree? Or is the very repetition an inherent part of this comic voice?

Arguments could be made in both directions, you know. After all, this narrative voice is not all too far from the kind of writing we all see every day online, or even in the chattier varieties of journalism. We can all see why some writers would favor this kind of voice, right? Read out loud, this kind of first-person narration can sound very natural, akin to actual speech.

That’s not to say, though, that Millicent would not cringe at the very sight of it in a novel submission. And why? Feel free to chant it with me: the level of repetition that works in everyday speech is often hard to take on the printed page.

As you can see for yourself in the example above, I suspect. Now that you see all of those ands and other word repetition marked on the page, you must admit that they are mighty distracting to the eye. By repeating the same sentence structures over and over, our buddy Noël is practically begging Millicent to skip lines while skimming.

Nor is all of the redundancy here literal; there’s a certain amount of conceptual repetition as well. Take note of all of those visually-based verbs: not only do people look a great deal, but our heroine envisages AND tries to imagine how she might appear in his eyes.

And did you catch the over-use of subordinate clauses, all of those whiches in yellow? While a tolerant Millie might be inclined to glide past one every ten or fifteen pages, even a screener noted for her restraint would begin to get restless with a quarter as many as appear on that single page above.

That almost certainly would not have been a major objection raised by Millicent’s forebears in 1960, though, right? The literary gatekeepers would have concentrated on quite different parts of this page — the grammatically-necessary missing commas, for instance, and the back-to-back prepositions.

Longing to see how Millicent’s grandmother would have commented on this page? Well, you’re in luck; I just happen to have her feedback handy.

P&Eedit2

Let’s linger a moment in order to consider Grandma M’s primary quibbles. First, as she points out so politely in red at the top of the page, it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph. In dialogue, a single-line paragraph is acceptable, but in standard narrative prose, it is technically incorrect.

Was that gigantic clunk I just heard the sound of jaws belonging to anyone who has picked up a newspaper or magazine within the last decade hitting the floor?

In theory, Grandma M is quite right on this point — and more of her present-day descendants would side with her than you might suppose. Millie’s grandmother did not bring her up to regard setting grammar at naught lightly, after all. But does that necessarily mean it would be a good idea for you to sit down today and excise every single-sentence narrative paragraph in your manuscript?

Perhaps not: the convention of occasionally inserting a single-line paragraph for emphasis has become quite accepted in nonfiction. The practice has crept deeply enough into most stripes of genre fiction that it probably would not raise Millicent’s eyebrows much.

How can you tell if the convention is safe to use in your submission? As always, the best way of assessing the acceptability of a non-standard sentence structure in a particular book category is to become conversant with what’s been published in that category within the last few years. Not just what the leading lights of the field have been writing lately, mind you; what an established author can get away with doing to a sentence is not always acceptable in a submission by someone trying to break into the field.

Pay attention to what kinds of sentences first-time authors of your kind of book are writing these days, and you needn’t fear going too far afield. As a general rule of thumb, even first-time novelists can usually get the occasional use of the single-sentence paragraph device past Millicent — provided that the content of the sentence in question is sufficiently startling to justify standing alone. As in:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

That is, until I tripped over the werewolf lying prone across my doorstep.

Didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? The paragraph break emphasizes the jaggedness of the narrative leap — and, perhaps equally important from a submission perspective, renders the plot twist easier for a skimming eye to catch.

Grandma M would growl at this construction (“My, Granny, what big teeth you have!”), and rightly so. Why? Well, it violates the two-sentences-or-more rule, for starters. In the second place, this problem could have been avoided entirely by eschewing the RETURN key. In a slower world, one where readers lived sufficiently leisurely lives that they might be safely relied upon to glance at every sentence on a page, all of this information could have fit perfectly happily into a single paragraph. Like so:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind. That is, until I tripped over the werewolf lying prone across my doorstep.

I bring this up not only to appease Grandma M’s restless spirit, currently haunting an agency or publishing house somewhere in Manhattan, but so that those of you addicted to single-line paragraphs will know what to do with hanging sentences: tuck ‘em back into the paragraph from whence they came. Ruthlessly.

At least a few of them. Please?

Really, it’s in your submission’s best interest to use the single-line paragraph trick infrequently, reserving it for those times when it will have the most effect. That will at least give your narrative the advantage of novelty.

How so? Well, amongst aspiring writers who favor this structure, moderation is practically unheard-of. Many, if not most, novelists and memoirists who favor this device do not use the convention sparingly, nor do they reserve its use for divulging information that might legitimately come as a surprise to a reasonably intelligent reader.

As a result, Millie tends to tense up a bit at the very sight of a single-sentence paragraph — yes, even ones that are dramatically justifiable. Hard to blame her, really, considering how mundane some of the revelations she sees in submissions turn out to be. A fairly typical example:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

Beside the sidewalk, a daffodil bloomed.

Not exactly a stop-the-presses moment, is it?

Often, too, aspiring writers will use a single-line paragraph to highlight a punch line. This can work rather well, if it doesn’t occur very often in the text — any literary trick will lose its efficacy if it’s over-used — AND if the joke is genuinely funny. Much of the time in manuscripts, alas, it isn’t.

At least not hilarious enough to risk enraging Grandma M’s spirit by stopping the narrative short to highlight the quip. See for yourself:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

My Algebra II teacher would have fallen over dead with astonishment.

Gentle irony does not often a guffaw make, after all. And think about it: if the reader must be notified by a grammatically-questionable paragraph break that a particular line is meant to be funny, doesn’t that very choice indicate a certain authorial doubt that the reader will catch the joke? Or that it’s funny in the first place?

Grandma M’s other big objection to Noël’s page 272 — and this pet peeve, too, she is likely to have passed down the generations — would be to, you guessed it, the many, many run-on sentences. The run-ons here, however, are not the result of the driving rhythmic pattern or descriptive complexity that made ol’ William go overboard on his opening; clearly, Noël was just trying to sound chatty.

That should sound familiar by this point in the series, right? Like so many aspiring novelists, our Noël favors an anecdotal-style narrative voice, one that echoes the consecutiveness of everyday speech. That can work beautifully in dialogue, where part of the point is for the words captured within the quotation marks to sound like something an actual human being might really say, but in narration, this type of sentence structure gets old fast.

Why might that be, dear readers? Sing along with me now: structural repetition reads as redundant. Varying the narrative’s sentence structure will render it easier, not to mention more pleasant, to read.

Are some of you former jaw-droppers waving your arms frantically, trying to get my attention? “Okay, Anne,” these sore-jawed folk point out, “I get it: Millicents have disliked textual repetition for decades now. No need to exhume Grandma M’s grandmother to hammer home that point. But I’d had the distinct impression that Millie is a greater stickler for bigger-picture problems than her forebears. Don’t I have more important things to worry about than grammatical perfection when I’m getting ready to slide my manuscript under her nose?”

Well, grammatical perfection is always an asset in a manuscript, ex-jaw-droppers, so a completely clean manuscript is not at all an unreasonable goal for your pre-submission text scan. You are right, however, that present-day Millicents do tend to be weighing a great many more factors than their grandmothers did when deciding whether the manuscript in front of them has publication potential. But not all of those factors involve large-scale questions of marketability and audience-appropriateness; Millicent is also charged with going over the writing with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. Using, of course, today’s standards as a guide.

What kinds of manuscript problems might catch on her comb that Grandma M’s would have missed, you ask with fear and trembling? See for yourself — here’s Millie’s response on the page we’ve been examining:

P&E edit 3

I sincerely hope that your first thought upon seeing her much, much higher expectations was not to wish that you’d had the foresight to try to land an agent back in 1960, rather than now. (Although I would not blame you at all if you kicked yourself for not launching your work back in the 1980s, when the home computer was available but not yet ubiquitous, astronomically increasing the number of both queries and submissions Millicent would see in a given week.) True, the competition to land an agent is substantially fiercer now, but it’s also true that a much, much broader range of voices are getting published than in Grandma M’s time.

Back then, if you weren’t a straight, white man from a solid upper-middle class home, Granny expected you at least to have the courtesy to write like one. (Styron’s father worked in a shipyard, so he had to fudge it a little; so did his contemporary Gore Vidal, for other reasons.) If you did happen to be a SWMFaSUMCH, you were, of course, perfectly welcome to try to imagine what it was like not to be one, although on the whole, your work would probably be more happily received if you stuck to writing what you knew. And if there was a typo in your manuscript, well, next time, don’t have your wife type it for you.

You think I’m making that up, don’t you? That’s a quote, something an agent told a rather well-known writer of my acquaintance in the mid-1960s. The latter kept quiet about the fact that he was unmarried at the time and composed his books on a typewriter.

Let’s return from that rather interesting flashback, though, and concentrate upon the now. It’s not enough to recognize that literary standards — and thus professional expectations for self-editing — have changed radically over time. It’s not even sufficient to accept, although I hope it’s occurred to you, that what constituted good writing in your favorite book from 1937 — or 1951, or 1960 — might not be able to make it past Millicent today. If you’re going to use authors from the past as your role models — a practice both Grandma M and I would encourage — you owe it to your career as a writer also to familiarize yourself with the current writing in your book category.

Just for today, what I would like you to take away from these examples is that each of the editorial viewpoints would prompt quite different revisions — and in some instances, mutually contradictory ones. This is one reason the pros tend not to consider the revision process definitively ended until a book is published and sitting on a shelf: since reading can take place on many levels, so can revision.

Don’t believe me? Okay, clap on your reading glasses and peruse the three widely disparate results conscientious reviser Noël might have produced in response to each of the marked-up pages above. For the first, the one that merely noted the structural, word, and concept repetition, the changes might be as simple as this:

P&C basic edit

“Hey, Anne!” the sharper-eyed among you burble excitedly. “Despite the fact that Noël has added a couple of paragraph breaks, presumably to make it easier for the reader to differentiate between speech and thought, the text ends up being shorter. He snuck another line of text at the bottom of the page!”

Well-caught, eagle-eyed burblers. A thoughtfully-executed revision to minimize structural redundancy can often both clarify meaning and lop off extraneous text.

I hope you also noticed that while that very specifically-focused revision was quite helpful to the manuscript, it didn’t take care of some of the grammatical gaffes — or, indeed, most of the other problems that would have troubled Grandma M. Let’s take a peek at what our Noël might have done to page 272 after that august lady had applied her red pen to it. (Hint: you might want to take a magnifying glass to the punctuation.)

P&C revision 2

Quite different from the first revision, is it not? This time around, the punctuation’s impeccable, but the narration retains some of the redundancy that a modern-day Millicent might deplore.

Millie might also roll her eyes at her grandmother’s winking at instances of the passive voice and the retention of unnecessary tag lines. Indeed, for Noël to revise this page to her specifications, he’s going to have to invest quite a bit more time. Shall we see how he fared?

P&C final edit

Remember, not every close-up examination of a single tree will result in a pruning plan that will yield the same forest. A savvy self-editor will bear that in mind, rather than expecting that any single pass at revision, however sensible, will result in a manuscript that will please every reader.

By apprising yourself of the current norms in your chosen book category, you can maximize the probability that your self-editing eye will coincide with Millicent’s expectations. Keep up the good work!

Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXVII: plausibility, realism, and the wildly variable potentials of plot

I return to you an injured warrior, campers: for the past few days, my keyboard has lain idle while I have been recovering from a viciously broken fingernail. I’ve been lolling around with my left hand elevated, muttering ruefully.

Were those giant guffaws I just heard rolling about the ether an indication that some of you would not consider this a debilitating injury? I defy anyone to type successfully while a significant part of the nail bed on the pointer finger so dear to those who use the hunt-and-peck method is protected from the elements by nothing but the largest Band-Aid currently available to the medical community. Or to touch-type with any accuracy whilst said Band-Aid extends that finger to clownish lengths. Should any writer out there not care if his intended Fs are 5s and his Ps plus signs, I have yet to meet him.

In the course of all of that enforced lolling, however, I had leisure to contemplate once again the burning issue of plausibility on the page. Now that I’m back, I’m going to fling it into your consciousness, too: honestly, if you encountered the story above on page 57 of a novel, would it seem remotely realistic to you?

To a reader either unfamiliar with the torrid history of my long, accident-prone nails or happily inexperienced in having their own nails violently bent back, I’m guessing it would not. I’m also guessing that would come as a surprise to some of you, because as anyone who reads manuscripts for a living can tell you, the single most common response to an editorial, “Wow, that doesn’t seem particularly plausible,” is an anguished writer’s cry of, “But it really happened!”

I can tell you now that to a pro like Millicent the agency screener, this argument will be completely unconvincing — and not merely because she has, if she’s been at it a while, heard it applied to scenes ranging from cleverly survived grizzly bear maulings to life-threatening hangnail removals to couples who actually split the domestic chores fifty-fifty, rather than just claiming that they do. (Oh, like I was going to do laundry with a bent-back fingernail.) Any guesses why that cri de coeur about the inherently not-very-believable nature of reality will leave her cold?

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just because something has occurred in real life does not necessarily mean it will be plausible written as fiction. Nor does the fact that a human being might actually have uttered a particular phrase render it automatically effective dialogue. For that reason, it’s the writer’s responsibility not simply to provide snapshots and transcripts of real life on the page, but to write about it in such a way to make it seem plausible to the reader.

Let’s face it, plenty of real-life shenanigans are completely absurd; plenty of what tumbles out of people’s mouths is at least equally so. The world as we know it does not labor under the novelist’s imperative to render actions dramatically satisfying, or even interesting. None of us is empowered to walk up to someone who does something astonishing and say, “Hey, that’s completely out of character for you. Editing! Cut what this man just did.” (Although, admittedly, it would be an interesting approach to winning friends and influencing people.) And don’t even get me started about how a good editor could improve the dialogue all of us overhear in the movie ticket line, at the grocery store, or at your garden-variety garden party.

Besides, as a novelist, isn’t your job to improve upon reality? Isn’t it, in fact, your art and your pleasure to take the real and dress it up in pretty language, garnishing it with trenchant insights?

So you can’t really blame Millicent and her cronies for preferring fiction writing to have more to recommend it than its resemblance to something that might have happened on this terrestrial sphere. I suspect all of us who love good writing harbor a similar preference.

But I ask you as a reader: would you have felt differently if the tale at the opening of this post had turned up on page 143 of a memoir?

Most readers would; based on a true story is not ubiquitous in book and movie marketing simply because folks in those industries happen to like the sound of the phrase, after all. It’s human nature to like to be in the know.

That does not mean, however, that any truthful memoir — which, as the series of scandals that have rocked the publishing world in recent years have made all of us aware, are not necessarily synonymous terms — is automatically and inherently plausible. Yes, the reader picks up a memoir with the expectation that it will provide a fact-based portrayal of reality, but once again, it’s not just the accuracy of the facts that makes them seem true-to-life on the page.

What might the decisive factor be, campers? Could it be how the writer conveys those facts on the page?

As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing. Just as many a ho-hum real-life event has been punched up by a gifted prose stylist into an unforgettable scene on the page, many an inherently fascinating occurrence has been rendered downright turgid by a dull telling.

Don’t believe me? Okay, try this little experiment: the next time you find yourself at a gathering that contains both interesting and uninteresting people, pick a few of each at random. Ask these people to describe their first really vivid memories — or, if you have ears of iron, their first memories of how their parents responded to a major public event like men walking on the moon, the shooting of President Reagan and James Brady, or a celebrity couple’s breaking up. (Hey, one person’s intriguing public event is another person’s snoozefest.) Listen attentively to each account without interrupting.

Then ask yourself afterward: “Did all of those stories seem equally true?”

If it’s not apparent to you a few sentences into the first poorly-told account why the storyteller’s skill makes all the difference to the audience’s perception of the story, well, I shall be very surprised. What might be less apparent — and thus require more careful listening to detect — is that you’re probably going to care less whether what the speaker is saying is true if she happens to tell the tale well.

And that, my friends, sums up the private reactions of many, many denizens of the publishing world in the wake of the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal. For months afterward, while people in the outside world were asking, “But is this accurate?”, folks who dealt with books for a living — and, I suspect, most habitual readers of memoir — kept saying, “But was it well-written?”

Frankly, for a memoir to work, it needs to be both. Unless the memoirist in question is already a celebrity — in which case he’s probably not going to be the sole writer, anyway — a simple recital of the facts, however titillating they may be in and of themselves, will not necessarily grab Millicent. Nor will a beautifully-told collection of purely imaginary events fly in the memoir market.

You know where gorgeous writing that doesn’t confine itself rigidly to what actually happens in the real world works really well, though? In a novel. Provided, of course, that the writer presents those fictional — or fictionalized — events in such a manner that they are both a pleasure to read and seem plausible within the context of the world of the book.

Do I spot some timidly-raised hands out there? “But Anne,” those of you who specifically do not write about the real point out shyly, “I don’t think this applies to my work. I create storylines out of whole cloth, creating plots where vampires roam freely, werewolves earn master’s degrees, and denizens of other planets lecture in political science departments. Of course, my stories aren’t plausible; that’s part of their point.”

Actually, to work on the page, any storyline needs to be plausible. That is, the narrative must be sufficiently self-conscious about its own premise that any reader who has accepted its underlying logic that everything in the story could have happened that way.

You would be amazed at how often paranormal, science fiction, and fantasy manuscripts do not adhere to this basic precept of storytelling. Implausible fantasies are perennially among Millicent’s pet peeves.

That got a few goats, did it not? “What part of fantasy don’t you understand, Millie?” I hear some of you mutter under your respective breaths. “It’s not intended to be realistic.”

No, but it does need to be plausible — which is not necessarily synonymous with realism. In fact, in a completely fantastic story, remaining plausible might actually require being anti-realistic.

How so? Well, for the reader to be carried along with a story, its internal logic must make sense, right? A narrative that deliberately eschews the laws of physics of our world can’t just ignore physical properties and motion altogether; the writer must come up with a new set of rules governing the world of the story. The less like the real world that fantasy world is, the more vital to the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief maintaining the reader’s sense of plausibility is.

That means, in effect, that while a fantastic plot allows the writer to play with reality, in order to be plausible, the narrative must be respectful of the fictional reality. So when, say, the three-toed sloth protagonist first sets a digit upon the Planet Targ, a place the reader was informed 138 pages ago was exempt from both gravity and dirt, and ol’ Three-Toe leaves a footprint, that’s going to jar a reader who has been paying attention. And the negative effects of even minor inconsistencies can pile up awfully fast: when T-T appears with his designer jeans covered in mud thirty pages after the footprint faux pas, the reader is obviously going to be less accepting than the first time the writer broke the rules.

What is the cumulative effect likely to be? For a lay reader, being knocked out of the story altogether. To a professional reader, however, the results are usually more dire — and are likely to be triggered by the first plausibility lapse, not the third or fourth.

“Oh, no,” Millicent sighs over The Saga of the Sloth. “This writer has set up a really interesting set of rules for this world, and now she’s violated one of them. That’s too bad; I was buying the premise here, and now I have to question it. Next!”

From Millicent’s perspective, the inconsistent detail about the footprint, while not necessarily a rejection-worthy problem in itself, represented a symptom of a plot-level plausibility issue, one that she does not necessarily feel compelled to read on to see confirmed thirty pages later in the muddy jeans. It was the writer’s job to make Three-Toe’s trip to Targ believable within the context of the book’s logic, after all. Since the narrative has already demonstrated a lax approach toward internal plausibility, an experienced Millie would expect to see more lapses later on in the manuscript.

And most of the time, she would be quite right about that. If you really want to set your fantastic world apart from 99% of the others she sees, make its attributes perfectly consistent.

That should be a piece of cake, right?

I’m kidding, of course; editing one’s own work for consistency is one of the most difficult self-editing tasks there is. That’s true, incidentally, no matter where your story might fall on the fantastic-realistic scale. In fact, proofing a hyper-realistic text can be even more challenging than a completely fictional one: even if it’s vitally important to the story that the broom is always kept behind the china cabinet, not the ottoman, the very mundanity of the detail may render it harder to keep in mind.

But you don’t want your heroine to expend her last gasp of breath futilely flailing behind the wrong piece of furniture, would you?

Naturally, from the reader’s perspective, the less predictable a detail is, the more memorable it is likely to be. Case in point: what kind of animal is visiting the Planet Targ? Would you have been able to answer so quickly if the story had just been about some guy named Bart?

Does that gasp of frustration mean that those of you who write reality-based fiction and memoir are already familiar with the problem of how to make the real memorable while still maintaining a sense of realism? Let’s face it: most of real-life details are likely to be on the unmemorable side. While a fantasy writer has the option — nay, the responsibility — to transform that perfectly ordinary mailbox on the corner into a flying monkey that happens to deliver mail for a living, a writer painting a picture against a backdrop of this world can’t.

(At least not until I have finished organizing my secret Chimps-on-Wings postal service. Mum’s the word until I put the finishing touches on that promising enterprise.)

But details need not strain the credulity in order to capture the reader’s imagination. Allow me to tell you a little story to illustrate — or, rather a series of little stories. But first, let me prime the creative pump by showing you a couple of literal illustrations.

fortune side onefortune side two

These are the two sides of the single fortune I found tucked into an end-of-the-meal cookie last year, right around census time: a tactfully-phrased prediction of my future happiness — by mail, no less! — accompanied by a terse statement about my general standing in the world. Now, had I been a less secure person, I might have taken umbrage at my dessert’s presuming to judge whether I counted or not, but since I had already sent back my census form, I found the symmetry very pleasing: clearly, Somebody Up There (or at any rate, Somebody Working in a Cookie Factory) was planning to reward the civic virtue of my outgoing mail with something fabulous in my incoming mail.

Imagine how dismayed I would have been, though, had I not yet popped my census form into the mail — or, even worse, if I had not yet received my census form. As I rearranged vegetables and yogurt containers in preparation for fitting my leftover asparagus in black bean sauce and Hunan pork into my overstuffed refrigerator, I would have kept wondering: is the census form the mail I’m supposed to find so darned pleasant? I mean, I understand the Constitutional obligation to be counted every ten years, but who is this fortune cookie to order me to enjoy filling it out?”

Admittedly, in a real-life fortune cookie-consumption situation, this might have been a bit of an overreaction. (Although what’s next, I wonder? Miranda warnings printed on Mars bars, for easy distribution at crime scenes? The First Amendment immortalized in marzipan, lest bakery patrons temporarily forget about their right to freedom of assembly whilst purchasing fresh macaroons?) Had the protagonist in a novel or memoir stumbled upon this chatty piece of paper, however — and less probable things turn up on the manuscript page all the time — it would have seemed pretty significant, wouldn’t it?

Any thoughts on why that might be the case? Could it be that this bizarre means of communication is one of those vivid details I keep urging all of you to work into the opening pages of your manuscripts, as well as the descriptive paragraph in your queries, synopses, verbal pitches, and contest entries? Could the paragraphs above be crammed with the kind of fresh, unexpected little tidbits intended to make Millicent suddenly sit bolt upright, exclaiming, “My word — I’ve never seen anything like that before,” at the top of her lungs?

Or, to put it in terms the whole English class can understand, in choosing to incorporate that wacky fortune cookie into the narrative, am I showing, rather than telling, something about the situation and character?

How can a savvy self-editing writer tell whether a detail is vivid or unusual enough to be memorable? Here’s a pretty reliable test: if the same anecdote were told without that particular detail, or with it described in (ugh) general terms, would the story would be inherently less interesting?

Don’t believe that so simple a change could have such a dramatic subjective effect? Okay, let me tell that story again with the telling details minimized. To make it a fair test, I’m going to keep the subject matter of the fortunes the same. Because I always like to show you examples of correctly-formatted manuscript pages, however, this time, I’m going to present it to you as a screening Millicent might see it. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the individual words, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing +.

It’s not as funny, is it, or as interesting? I haven’t made very deep cuts here — mostly, I’ve trimmed the adjectives — and the voice is still essentially the same. But I ask you: is the story as memorable without those telling details? I think not.

Some of you are still not convinced, I can tell. Okay, let’s take a more radical approach to cutting text, something more like what most aspiring writers do to the descriptive paragraphs in their query letters, the story overviews in their verbal pitches, and/or the entirety of their synopses, to make them fit within the required quite short parameters. Take a peek at the same tale, told in the generic terms that writers adopt in the interests of brevity:

Not nearly as much of a grabber as the original version, is it? Or the second, for that matter. No one could dispute that it’s a shorter version of the same story, but notice how in this rendition, the narrator seems to assume that the reader will spontaneously picture the incident so clearly that no details are necessary. Apparently, it’s the reader’s job to fill in the details, not the writer’s.

Except it isn’t. As far as Millicent is concerned, it’s the writer’s responsibility to tell the story in a way that provokes the intended reaction in the reader, not the reader’s to guess what the writer meant. Or to figure out what details might fit plausibly into the scene.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but professional reading is seldom anywhere near as charitable as the average submitter or contest entrant hopes it will be. Blame it on the intensity of competition created by literally millions of aspiring writers seeking to get published: Millicent knows that if the well-written submission in front of her does not provide her with the reading experience her boss the agent believes will sell right now, chances are good that one of the next thousand submissions will.

According to her, then, it’s your job to draw her into your story so completely that she forgets about all of that. It’s your job to wow her with your storytelling — and without relying upon her sense that you might be writing about something that really happened to supply the plausibility strong, tangible details would provide.

So it honestly is in your best interest to assume that the reader is only going to picture the details you actually provide on the page. Since you cannot be sure that every reader will fill in the specifics you want, make darned sure that what you want the reader to take from the scene is not left to his imagination. If the detail is important, take the page space to include it.

This is particularly good advice if you happen either to be writing memoir or a novel with scenes based upon your personal experience. All too often, reality-based narrators rely upon the fact that something really happened to render it interesting to a reader, regardless of how skillfully that story may be told. All that’s really necessary is a clear telling, right? Or that the kind of terse narrative that works so well in a verbal anecdote will inspire the same reaction if reproduced verbatim on the page?

How well does either of these extremely common theories work out in practice? Well, let me ask you: did you prefer the first version of the fortune cookie story, the second, or the third? More importantly for submission purposes, which do you think would grab Millicent the most as the opening of a manuscript?

Uh-huh. The difference between those three renditions was not the voice (although a case could be made that part of the voice of the first was created through the selection of the details) or even the writing quality (although the last version did get a mite word-repetitive), but the narrative’s willingness to include telling details — and unusual ones at that.

What if the entertainment differential between the three lay not in an authorial failure of imagination in composing the last version, but in a failure to recognize that the point of including this anecdote is presumably to entertain and inform the reader? In telling the story as quickly as possible, can a writer sometimes defeat the purpose of including it at all?

“But Anne!” memoirists and reality-based novelists protest nervously. “When I’m writing about the real, I can’t just make up pithy little details to enliven the narrative, can I? I have to stick to what happened!”

True enough, anxious truth-tellers: if you are writing the real, you cannot control the facts. What you can control, however, and what any writer must control, is how you present them to the reader.

No matter what you write, the success of your narrative is going to depend largely upon your storytelling skills — they’re what separates your account of a particular incident from anybody else’s, right? Frankly, this isn’t an easy task, even if dear self doesn’t happen to be the protagonist; it’s genuinely hard to represent the real world well on the page. Let’s face it, reality is sometimes a lousy storyteller.

Oh, your life has never been trite or obvious or just plain perplexing, even for a minute? Okay, all of you English and Literature majors, tell me, please, how the following 100% true anecdote rates on the symbolism front.

A couple of years ago, I was scheduled to give a eulogy for a dead friend of mine — a writer of great promise, as the pros used to say — at our college reunion. Because several of my classmates had, unfortunately, passed away since our last get-together, eight of us were to give our eulogies at the same event. Because I am, for better of worse, known to my long-time acquaintances as a teller of jokes, I was under substantial pressure to…how shall I put this?…clean up the narrative of my late friend’s life a little. Or at least tell a version that might not offend the folks who didn’t happen to know him.

No, that’s not the symbolic part; that’s all backstory. Here’s the symbolism: my throat was annoyingly, scratchily sore for the entire week that I was editing the eulogy.

Now, if I saw a parallel that obvious in a novel I was editing, I would probably advise cutting it. “No need to hit the reader over the head with it,” I’d scrawl in the margins. “Yes, it’s showing, not telling, but please. Couldn’t you come up with something a bit more original?”

(And yes, now that you mention it, I am known for the length of my marginalia. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but explanation is often the soul of clarity.)

Now, if my life were a short story written for an English class, the voice loss in that anecdote might pass for legitimate symbolism — or even irony, in a pinch. A bit heavy-handed, true, but certainly situationally appropriate: outsiders move to silence protagonist’s voice through censorship = protagonist’s sore throat. Both New Age the-body-is-telling-you-something types and postmodern the-body-is-a-text theorists would undoubtedly be pleased.

But the fact is, in a novel or memoir, this cause-and-effect dynamic would seem forced, or even trite. Certainly, it’s unlikely to make Millicent drop her latte and exclaim, “Wow, I never saw that coming!”

As I believe I may have already mentioned, just because something happens in real life doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make convincing fiction. My sore throat is precisely the type of symbolism that comes across as ham-handed in a novel. It’s too immediate, for one thing, too quid pro quo. Dramatically, the situation should have taken time to build — over the years since my friend’s death, perhaps — so the reader could have felt clever for figuring out why the throat problem happened. Maybe even anticipated it.

How much better would it have been, in storytelling terms, if our protagonist had dealt with all the different input with aplomb, not coming down with strep throat until scant minutes before she was to speak? That way, in fine melodramatic style, she would have to croak her way through her speech, while her doctor stood by anxiously with antibiotics.

The possibilities make the writerly heart swoon, do they not?

Just think how long it would extend a funeral scene if a eulogizer were unable to speak more than a few emotion-charged words before her voice disappeared with a mouse-like squeak. Imagine the deceased’s secret admirer creeping closer and closer, to catch the muttered words.

Heck, just think of the dramatic impact of any high-stakes interpersonal battle where one of the arguers cannot speak above a whisper. Or the comic value of the persecuted protagonist’s being able to infect her tormenters with strep, so they, too, are speechless by the end of the story.

Great stuff, eh? Much, much better than protagonist feels silenced, protagonist IS silenced. That’s just so…literal.

Besides, readers like to see a complex array of factors as causes for an event, and an equally complex array of effects. Perhaps if our protagonist had been not spoken about her friend since he passed away (which, in a sense, is quite true: I was unable to make it across the country for his memorial service; that could be transformed into an interesting flashback), then she would be fictionally justified in developing speech-inhibiting throat problems now. Or if he and she had shared deep, dark secrets she had sworn never to reveal (no comment), how telling a slight sore throat might be on the eve of spilling the proverbial beans, eh?

But a single event’s sparking a severe head cold? Dramatically unsatisfying. Not to mention implausible.

Taken too far, it might even make the protagonist seem like a wimp. Readers, like moviegoers, like to see protagonists take a few hits and bounce up again. Even better is when the protagonist is beaten to a bloody pulp, but comes back to win anyway.

One of the great truisms of the American novel is don’t let your protagonist feel sorry for himself for too long — at least, not if his problems rise to the level of requiring action to fix. Simply put, most readers would rather see a protagonist at least make an attempt to solve his problems than spend 50 pages resenting them.

I can feel authors of novels and memoirs where characters sit around and think about their troubles for chapters on end blanching. Frankly, you should, at least if you intend to write for the U.S. market. Domestic agents and editors expect first-time authors’ plots to move along at a pretty good clip — and few characteristics slow a plot down like a protagonist’s tendency to mull. Especially in a first-person narrative, where by definition, the reader must stay within the worldview of the narrator.

Some of you blanching souls have your hands raised, I see. “But Anne,” these pale folks exclaim, “I’ve always heard that the real key to keeping a reader’s interest is to introduce conflict on every page. Well, most of my protagonist’s conflict is internal — she can’t make up her mind where to turn. Surely,” the pallor deepens, “a professional reader like Millicent wouldn’t dismiss this kind of thinking as whining, right?”

That’s a good question, blanchers, and one that fully deserves an answer. The short one is that it all depends on how long the equivocation goes on, how plausible the conflict is, and how repetitive the mulling ends up being. That, and whether the protagonist (or the plot, for that matter) is doing anything else whilst the wheels in her brain churn.

The long answer, of course, is that in order to formulate a really good answer to that particular question, you would need to go out and read a hefty proportion of the tomes released in your book category within the last couple of years. Not EVERY book, mind you: those by first-time authors, because the already-established have to impress fewer people to get a new book into print.

In recent years, most fiction categories have moved pretty firmly toward the action end of the continuum. As opposed to, say, virtually any novel written in English prior to 1900, most of which hugged the other, pages-of-mulling end of the continuum.

This preference isn’t limited to the literary realm, either — we often see this philosophy in movies, too. Don’t believe me? Okay, think about any domestic film with where an accident confines the protagonist to a wheelchair.

No examples springing to mind? Okay, how about if the protagonist is the victim of gratuitous discrimination, or even just simple bad luck? I’m talking about serious drawbacks here, not just everyday annoyances, of course. ( For some reason, whining about trivial problems — “But I don’t have the right shoes to wear with a mauve bridesmaid’s dress!” — seems to be tolerated better by most readers and audience members, provided that the whine-producer doesn’t bring the plot to a screeching halt until she finds those shoes.)

Got a film firmly in mind? Now tell me: doesn’t the film include one or more of the following scenes:

(a) some hale and hearty soul urging the mangled/unemployed/otherwise unhappy protagonist to stop feeling sorry for himself,

(b) a vibrantly healthy physical therapist (job counselor/spouse/friend) telling the protagonist that the REAL reason he can’t move as well as he once did is not the casts on his legs/total paralysis/missing chunks of torso/total lack of resources/loss of the love of his life, but his lousy ATTITUDE, and/or

(c) the protagonist’s lecturing someone else on his/her need to stop feeling sorry for himself and move on with his/her life?

In fact, don’t filmmakers — yes, and writers of books, too — routinely expect their characters to become better, stronger people as the result of undergoing life-shattering trauma?

Now, we all know that this is seldom true in real life, right? As someone who has spent quite a bit of time in physical therapy clinics over the last year, I’m here to tell you that pain does not automatically make people better human beings; it makes them small and scared and peevish. That sudden, crisis-evoked burst of adrenaline that enables 110-pound mothers to move Volkswagens off their trapped toddlers aside, few of us are valiantly heroic in the face of more than a minute or two of living with a heart attack or third-degree burns.

Or ten months of physical therapy. And had I mentioned that my nail had a boo-boo?

Heck, even the average head cold — with or without a concomitant voice loss — tends to make most of us pretty cranky. Yet dramatically, we as readers accept that the little irritations of life might seem like a big deal at the time, even in fiction, because these seemingly trivial incidents may be Fraught with Significance.

Which often yields the odd result, in books and movies, of protagonists who bear the loss of a limb, spouse, or job with admirable stoicism, but fly into uncontrollable spasms of self-pity at the first missed bus connection or hot dog that comes without onions WHEN I ORDERED ONIONS.

Why oh why does God let things like this happen to good people?

One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon comes in that silly American remake of the charming Japanese film, SHALL WE DANCE? After someone spills a sauce-laden foodstuff on the Jennifer Lopez character’s suede jacket, she not only sulks for two full scenes about it, but is later seen to be crying so hard over the stain that the protagonist feels constrained to offer her his handkerchief.

Meanwhile, the death of her dancing career, the loss of her life partner, and a depression so debilitating that she barely lifts her head for the first half of the movie receive only a few seconds’ worth of exposition. Why? Because dwelling on the ruin of her dreams would be wallowing; dwelling on minor annoyances is Symbolic of Deeper Feelings.

So where does that leave us on the vivid detail front — or the plausibility front, for that matter? Should we all shy away from giving our protagonists big problems, in favor of more easily-presented small ones?

Well, I’m not going to lie to you: there are plenty of writing gurus out there who would advise you to do precisely that. Edith Wharton remarked in her excellent autobiography (which details, among other things, how terribly embarrassed everybody her social circle was when she and Theodore Roosevelt achieved national recognition for their achievements, rather than for their respective standings in the NYC social register; how trying.) that the American public wants tragedies with happy endings. It still seems to be true.

So why, you may be wondering, am I about to advise you not only to depict your protagonists (fictional and real both) with many and varied problems, as well as significant, realistic barriers to achieving their goals? Have I merely gone detail-mad?

Not by a long shot. I have heard many, many agents and editors complain in recent years about too-simple protagonists with too-easily-resolved problems. In conference presentation after conference presentation, they’ve been advising that writers should give their protagonists more quirks.

It’s an excellent way to make your characters memorable, after all — and it enables the inclusion of lots and lots of luscious telling details. Give ‘em backstory. If you want to make them sympathetic, a hard childhood, dead parent, or unsympathetic boss is a great tool for encouraging empathy.

Not to mention being plausibly survivable traumas. Do you have any idea how many Americans have experienced one of those things? Or all three?

Feel free to heap your protagonist (and love interest, and villain) with knotty, real-life problems — provided, of course, that none of these hardships actually prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her ultimate goal. Interesting delay creates dramatic conflict; resignation in the face of an insuperable barrier, however, is hard to make entertaining for very long. Make sure that the protagonist fights the good fight with as much vim and resources as someone who did not have those problems — or show her coming up with clever ways to make those liabilities work for her.

Again, this is not the way we typically notice people with severe problems acting in real life, but we’re talking writing that people read for pleasure here. We’re talking drama.

We’re talking, to put it bluntly, about moving a protagonist through a story in a compelling way, and as such, as readers and viewers, we have been trained to regard the well-meaning soul who criticizes the recently-bereaved protagonist by saying, “Gee, Monique, I don’t think you’ve gotten over your mother’s death yet,” as a caring, loving friend, rather than as a callous monster incapable of reading a calendar with sufficient accuracy to note that Monique buried her beloved mother only a couple of weeks before.

While a sympathetic soul might reasonably ask, “Um, why should she have gotten over it already, if she’s not completely heartless?”, strategically, even the deepest mourning should not cause the plot to stop moving altogether.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that professional readers who resent characters who linger in their grief are inherently unsympathetic human beings. They just see far, far too much wallowing on the page.

While that’s undoubtedly realistic, it doesn’t really work in a manuscript. Fictional characters who feel sorry for themselves (or who even possess the rational skills to think at length over the practical ramifications of obstacles in their paths) tend to be passive, from the reader’s point of view. They don’t do much, and while they’re not doing much, the plot grinds to a screaming halt. Yawn.

Or to express it in Millicent’s parlance: next!

Yes, people do this in real life. All the time. But I’m relatively positive that someone told you very, very recently, just because something really happened doesn’t mean it will work on the page.

My, we’ve covered a lot of ground today. I’m going to leave all of this to germinate in your fertile minds for the nonce, campers, while I turn our attention back to nit-picky issues for the next few posts. (Oh, you thought I hadn’t noticed that I’d digressed from structural repetition?) Trust me, you’ll want to have your eye well accustomed to focusing on sentence-level details before we leap back up to plot-level planning.

A good self-editor has to be able to bear all levels of the narrative in mind simultaneously, after all. This is complicated stuff, but then, so is reality, right? Keep up the good work!

Part XXVI of Pet Peeves on Parade, and part IV of Structural Repetition, and other excuses stockpile a whole lot of ands. Because you wouldn’t want to run out or anything.

Are your fingers stained with highlighter ink, campers? I hope they are: last time, I urged you to scan your submission pages — in particular, the first five, the opening chapter, or all of a contest entry — for over-use of the words and, but, and then; the average manuscript submission is positively peppered with ‘em. Since our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees these words so very often, I suggested that you print out these pages and highlight these words throughout, so that you might get a sense of just how often you tend to utilize them.

As I hope you have seen for yourselves, once you started marking, it was pretty darned astonishing just how often those conjunctions leapt off the page, wasn’t it? Or they would have, had you flung yourself into this nit-picky task wholeheartedly — as opposed to, say, devoting yourselves the activities of normal people.

The typical writerly reaction, though, is somewhere in between: glancing over those pages with an initially willing mind, but throwing up one’s hands in despair three buts in. “What was Anne thinking,” I sensed some of you muttering yesterday, “to advise such a time-consuming (and potentially ink-consuming) exercise? Doesn’t she realize that most of us have to fight in order to carve out time to write — and even if I happened to be one of the happy few who don’t, sunny days relatively rare in the Pacific Northwest?”

Well, in the first place, summer in Seattle is frequently beautiful; the popular belief that it rains here non-stop is a myth. In the second place, I do realize just how important your time is to you — which is precisely why I’m advising you to invest a little time now in exchange for not having scads of your time wasted later in the submission process.

Think of it this way: as those of you who have submitted to an agency or entered a contest lately are already well aware, preparing your pages and sending them off is quite time-consuming, and, if you’re like most aspiring writers, even more energy-consuming. We also all know, I hope, that the cleaner your manuscript — that’s industry-speak for pages free of basic spelling, grammar, formatting, and logic problems, in case anyone was wondering — the less likely it is to push Millicent’s rejection buttons. The same holds true for her pet peeves: the better revision job you do, the less likely your pages are to come winging back in your SASE, accompanied by a form-letter rejection. Or, as is increasingly common, for them not to come back at all.

Sense where I’m heading with this? Getting caught in a submission-rejection cycle generally ends up eating far, far more of a writer’s valuable time than an intensive revision aimed at weeding out rejection triggers would take.

Or, to put it more bluntly, aspiring writers who routinely send out first drafts, especially — sacre bleu! — ones that have neither been proofread or spell- and grammar-checked — because they are impatient to get their books published generally have a harder time landing an agent, winning a contest, and/or pleasing an editor than writers patient enough to polish their work prior to submitting it.

Given such a noble goal, concentrating upon something as basic as whether your narrative relies too heavily upon and, but, and then may not seem as if it would make a big difference, but actually, out of all the potential problems a self-editor might discover in a Frankenstein manuscript, overused conjunctions are some of the easiest to catch and fix. And the pay-off can be tremendous: quick-reading agency screeners, editorial assistants (who screen submissions for editors) and contest judges are routinely ordered to subtract points (Brownie in the case of the former two, literal in the case of the contest submission) for grammatical errors — and word repetition is always high on their penalty list.

As is that habitual roommate of conjunctions, the run-on sentence. Not sure what one looks like? Here’s a lulu, presented for your reading pleasure in its natural habitat, the manuscript page.

Laugh if you like, but would it astonish you to learn that this is shorter than some of the sentences my aged eyes have beheld in manuscripts and contest entries? I’ve seen sentences that have dragged on for more than a page; I once spotted one that expected the reader to follow its twists and turns for almost three.

Although I have apparently lived to tell about it, there can be no legitimate justification for dragging the reader through such an epic. The best possible outcome — which the author does not deserve — is that perhaps no one will notice that there was only a single period in those 21 lines of text, but that’s not what’s likely to happen at submission time. Since text like this simply shouts at Millicent, “Hey, this writer didn’t bother to reread this paragraph in hard copy after writing or revising it; clearly, these pages are not ready for professional perusal,” including such a lengthy run-on produces prose that is in effect self-rejecting.

I sense that those of you fond of the occasional multiply compound sentence longing to equivocate. “But Anne,” run-on huggers point out, “couldn’t embracing this sort of conversational-style sentence be a daring authorial choice? Could it not, in fact, be a characteristic of a distinctive voice?”

Well, it could, if it were handled skillfully — but in 99.99% of cases, extended run-ons are not interesting enough to be honored with the name of style. Run-on sentences, much like the repetition of a favorite word or phrase, virtually never strike Millicent as the result of well-thought-out and purposeful writerly strategy. Or, if a pro does think it is purposeful it’s poor strategy: “I know! I’ll bore my reader and annoy Millicent by making her read the sentence twice in order to understand it!”

Seem like a harsh assessment? It isn’t, particularly, if you consider that from an agent or editor’s perspective, it’s the writer’s job to write not only clearly, but beautifully, adhering to the basic rules of grammar. Expressing a sentiment well and without gaffes is, after all, the minimum requirement for professional writing, not an optional extra.

To Millicent, then, a run-on sentence tends to look like an instance of the writer’s just being in too much of a hurry to write well — and in practice, she’s frequently right about that. It’s not at all uncommon for an aspiring writer to whip out a scene or paragraph in a rush, fully intending to come back and flesh out those not-especially-stirring sentences when he has more time. Astonishingly often, though, that mythical day with 27 hours — 24 for normal life, plus an extra 3 for revision — never manages to roll around. The writer forgets all about those original noble intentions and moves on.

Multiply that by a few hundred times, and you’ll end up with the type of submission that makes Millicent shake her head over a good premise gone awry: a typo-filled, run-on laden series of scenes dimly indicating what an intriguing story this might be four or five drafts down the line. A half-century ago, an agent or editor might have taken on a project like this, seeing that with proper professional guidance, the writer might polish it up into something genuinely fine. Today, however, our Millie sees just too many technically perfect submissions to worry much about rejecting those that still need work.

You’d be surprised, I suspect, at just how clearly a page featuring a couple of run-ons telegraphs to the pros that this manuscript could use more revision. Run-ons are usually hodgepodges of several distinct sentences’ worth of material, rubber-cemented together with our old pals and, but, and then. Look how obvious it is that the writer was in a rush:

Eighteen thousand citizens rushed as one to the city’s walls and stared over the side, but they could not possibly have anticipated what they would find there and gasped accordingly, then began to shout.

Essentially, this is a summary, not a description. We can see where and how this hefty hunk of prose could be chopped up into interesting, specific detail-filled individual sentences, but for reasons best known to herself, the writer has elected not to do so.

Once a reader has developed the editorial eye to see what could have been, other types of compound sentence also seem ripe for closer scrutiny. Take, for instance, the 19th century prose practice of stringing clause after clause together with whiches and whos and wheres:

Petunia, who was desperate, ran along the docks where Ambrose had vanished. She turned right every time she came to a curve, which was easier than making a new decision each time, but which left her wondering after about fifteen minutes if the awnings she was passing were the same ones she had passed earlier.

Modern style cries out for fewer of those clunky asides. And don’t even get Millicent started on the species of run-on that’s simply the result of a writer’s apparently being unsure whether it’s okay to replace a period with a comma in order to speed up the reader’s sense of what’s going on.

Sebastian hesitated before marching through the doorway, the scent of gunpowder coming through it was so strong.

The answer, Millie would like me to tell you, is no: it’s never correct to slap two complete sentences together with a comma. That last example should have been cut in half with a period:

Sebastian hesitated before marching through the doorway. The scent of gunpowder coming through it was so strong.

Or a semicolon:

Sebastian hesitated before marching through the doorway; the scent of gunpowder coming through it was so strong.

Even with the punctuation corrected, these sentences still might raise Millicent’s ire. Any guesses why?

Give yourself a gold star with almond clusters if you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “So is comparative! It must take a modifier!” A so statement logically requires a that follow-up. Voilà:

Sebastian hesitated before marching through the doorway. The scent of gunpowder coming through it was so strong that it made him gag.

Why, yes, I did add some extra information to this sentence that might not have been part of the author’s original intention; editors are notorious for doing that, in the interests of rendering the prose clearer. I could also have revised these sentences without changing the meaning. What the author probably meant (“And should have taken the time to say,” sniffs Millie) was this:

The scent of gunpowder wafting through the doorway was so strong that Sebastian hesitated before marching through it.

This version also, I am glad to report, neatly side-steps the other professional readers’ pet peeve in the original, presenting cause and effect out of chronological order. Think about it: how likely is it that Sebastian would have hesitated before he smelled the gunpowder? Isn’t it far more plausible that he paused because it wafted toward him and he drew a conclusion from it about what probably lay beyond that doorway?

I hate to be the one to break the sad news, but the writer of the first version probably thought she had said precisely that. She was just in too much of a hurry to go back and make sure a reader would take that meaning from it.

Starting to get the hang of reading a run-on for clarity and grammar? Good. Now — and only now — are we ready to talk about style.

Let’s face it, none of these are particularly pretty sentences. The word choice is not especially interesting; they reveal little about the physical environment, Sebastian’s character, or even the danger into which he is almost certainly walking. As such, the phrasing takes a potentially suspenseful moment and squashes the reader’s sense of anticipation.

So I ask you: as a writer, how likely would you be to do any of those things on purpose, in the name of delightful literature or compelling storytelling?

Millicent doesn’t think it’s likely, either. No professional reader would mistake any of these examples for a daring stylistic experiment; they are not polished or interesting enough to prompt the reader to try to figure out if the writer had some clever reason for presenting these facts in this manner.

Nor — dare I say it? — are these sentences original enough to set off the High Literary Stylings siren in Millicent’s brainpan. That may well come as something of a surprise to creators of the variety of first-person narration whose primary stylistic recommendation is that it reads like everyday speech. The most popular means of pulling that off, as we have discussed earlier in the Pet Peeves on Parade series, is to replace grammatically-necessary periods with the ands, buts, and thens that grant a false consecutiveness to verbal storytelling.

My name is Louisa, and I am seven years old — and already, I see your eyes glazing over, dismissing anything I might have to say as the mere ramblings of a child. But I was there when the schoolhouse caught fire, there when the mayor decamped with the last dime of the town’s funds, there when the crocodiles began to squirm up from the riverbed to dine on the dear departed that no one was around anymore to bury. Then the vultures came, and still, I was there.

It’s not an uncompelling voice — although of the scores of professional readers’ pet peeves, few will cause the average Millicent to mutter, “Next!” faster than the grade-school storytelling expedient of having the narrator say right off the bat My name is X and I am # years old — but honestly, any originality the reader might spot in it comes from the details, not the echo of run-on filled normal speech. (“And even if it did,” Millicent adds, “this is a far cry from a seven-year-old’s voice.”)

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is the same passage, stripped of run-ons and reworked to minimize conjunctions.

My name is Louisa. I am seven years old. Already, I see your eyes glazing over, dismissing anything I might have to say as the mere ramblings of a child, but I was there when the schoolhouse caught fire. I was there when the mayor decamped with the last dime of the town’s funds. I was there when the crocodiles began to squirm up from the riverbed to dine on the dear departed that no one was around anymore to bury. When the vultures came, I was still there.

A forest of hands sprouted throughout the course of that last paragraph; I couldn’t be more delighted. “But Anne,” shout those of you who have been paying attention in recent weeks, “isn’t this opening a prime example of the oh-so-common invocatory rhythm achieved through word and phrase repetition that we have already identified as one of Millie’s pet peeves? I can’t believe that you edited the original without addressing that problem.”

Hey, it’s not the editor’s job to rewrite the author’s voice choices; all we do is flag what’s not working and suggest how to kick-start that story’s engine. It’s the writer’s job to decide how the words should appear on the page, right?

Admit it: you’re happy that’s the case. You wouldn’t really like somebody else to set your literary voice for you, would you?

So I leave to you the meaty creative challenge of making your prose sound like you at your best. For the moment, my goal is far less lofty: I want to help you be able to spot a run-on when you encounter it in the wild.

Here’s a good preliminary rule of thumb: if you can’t say any given sentence within a single breath, it might be a run-on. (Yet another great reason to read your manuscript OUT LOUD, IN HARD COPY, and IN THEIR ENTIRETY before you submit, eh?) Another classic tip-off: where run-ons gather, there will be ands aplenty also, typically.

So whip out your marked pages from last time, please, and let’s observe the reproduction habits of and. If you’re like most writers, your marking project probably revealed four major patterns of andusage:

(1) In lists.

Remember, not all lists take the form of Kamala had three novels, two memoirs, and a dictionary in her backpack. Keep an eye out for lists consisting of named emotions, which often appear in groups (Kamala felt angry, betrayed, and hurt), too-hurried accounts of activity (Kamala went to the store, searched fruitlessly for spumoni ice cream, ran down the block to her favorite trattoria, and begged them to sell her a couple of scoops on the sly.), as well as lists inadvertently formed by the use of and for emphasis (Kamala felt angry and betrayed and hurt and, consequently, ravenous for spumoni ice cream.).

Don’t think of all of those types of sentence as lists? Millicent does, believe me — and are lists really the most interesting way to present your protagonist’s activities? Ever?

(2) In the immensely popular X happened and (then) Y happened sentence structure.

We’re all familiar with this one, right? Edward ate his pizza and drank his Coke. The sky turned brown, and all of the birds stopped singing. I could go on like this all night, and if my guests were not flipping impatiently through magazines, I would.

There’s nothing wrong with this structure per se — but used too often, or too close together, all of those ands can start to feel quite repetitious quite fast. As can…

(3) In the almost-as-popular trilogy structure: Someone did X, Y, and Z. Alternatively, it may appear as Someone did X and Y, then Z.

Yes, either of these structures could be considered a list (as in, Christos cried, rolled over, and bawled some more.), but since most aspiring writers simply like the three-beat rhythm, I prefer to talk about it as a separate sentence type. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this structure if used sparingly, but all too often, the three-beat descriptive sentence becomes the default in the manuscript.

The resulting repetition can feel quite percussive to a reader, even if the actual sentence structure varies:

Christos felt betrayed, confused, and, oddly enough, desperate for some spumoni ice cream. Puzzled, he wandered into his kitchen, yanked open the freezer door, and pondered his ice cream supply. Wait — what had happened to his long-hoarded supply? Suddenly, it came to him: he’d heard Kamala rooting about in here in the wee hours, rattling bowls and clattering spoons. He felt angry and betrayed and hurt.

See how predictable those threesomes became, even in the space of one short paragraph? Imagine how Millicent feels when confronted with pages upon pages of them — which happens more than any of us would like to think.

(4) In complex descriptions.

Descriptions with multiple elements almost always contain at least one and, particularly if the sentence is passive: Germaine was tall and lanky. Again, this is technically a list (albeit a short one), but few writers would think of it as one.

Pay close attention to descriptive passages for another common and bugbear: sentences containing more than one of them. A multiple-and sentence is to most professional readers what a red flag is to a bull, and yet they are so easy to produce almost inadvertently if a writer is trying to cram too much description into a single sentence. As in:

Germaine was tall and lanky, with long, straight hair that came down to her lean and boyish hips. She liked to dress in black-and-white dresses, the kind that confused the eye if she walked past a strobe light, and skin-tight leather boots. She also favored tight jeans and tank tops, except of course for days she knew she would be running into Kamala and joining her on a spumoni ice cream run.

Quite a lot of ands, isn’t it? As strange as it may seem, most writers have an infinitely easier time spotting this kind of repetition in other people’s work; in their own, they tend to concentrate on the description, not the repetitive structure.

Complicating matters is the fact that often, two or more of these four types of and usage will appear within a single paragraph — or even a single sentence. Not sure what that might look like in practice? Okay, see if you can ferret out instances of all four kinds in this sterling piece of prose:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He yanked his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow, folded it twice, and stuffed it back into his coat. A motley assortment of trash caused his hand to recoil: cast-off candy bar wrappers, half-sucked lollipops hastily stuck back into their wrappers, waiting for later, and both red and black licorice whips. Sure, he was a sane and sober adult now. Outwardly composed, he twisted his face into a smile, swallowed a groan, and extended his hand to Emile.

How did you do? Admittedly, we’re looking for something a bit subtle here. Although the types of repetition used in this example may sound merely chatty when read out loud, they would come across as structurally redundant on the page. Even minor word repetition can set editorial teeth on edge, because editors — like other professional readers — are trained to zero in on redundancy.

To see how this orientation might affect how one reads, let’s look at this same paragraph with a screener’s heightened antennae:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He yanked his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow, folded it twice, and stuffed it back into his coat. A motley assortment of trash caused his hand to recoil: cast-off candy bar wrappers, half-sucked lollipops hastily stuck back into their wrappers, waiting for later, and both red and black licorice whips. Sure, he was a sane and sober adult now. Outwardly composed, he twisted his face into a smile, swallowed a groan, and extended his hand to Emile.

See? The repetition of all those ands can be downright hypnotic — the percussive repetition lulls the reader, even if the action being described on either end of the and is very exciting indeed.

There’s a reason for that, you know, and if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series, it has probably already occurred to you. The swiftly-scanning eye’s automatic tendency is to jump between repeated words on a page, in very much the manner that a CLUE player might move his piece from the study to the kitchen via the secret passage about which everyone in the game is evidently quite well-informed. (Hey, it’s an editor’s job to demand precise word usage.)

The result: Miss Scarlet did it in the kitchen with the revolver.

Oops, wrong chain of events: the result relevant for our purposes is a submission page read far, far more quickly than the average submitter might wish. Not only by Millicent and her ilk, but by the average reader as well.

The best way to avoid triggering this skimming reaction is to vary your sentence structure. A great place to start: scanning your manuscript for any sentence in which the word and appears more than once. Take a gander:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons. And he dusted himself out before heading toward the big top, clown shoes a-flopping.

Did your eye catch the subtle problem here? No? Let’s take a second look, this time as Millicent would see it:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons. And he dusted himself out before heading toward the big top, clown shoes a-flopping.

All of the ands are serving slightly different functions here, two of which would be perfectly valid if they stood alone: the first is connecting the second and third items in a list; the second is connecting two characteristics in a shorter list. And the third — as in this sentence — is the kind of usage we discussed last time, where a conjunction gives a false sense of chatty consecutiveness between the first sentence and the second.

When I first began writing that last paragraph, I didn’t intend it to be an illustration of just how visually confusing word repetition may be on the page — but as I seemed to be succeeding brilliantly at doing just that, I figured I’d just run with it.

You’re welcome. Let’s highlight the repetition here, to determine precisely why a skimming reader might find it confusing:

All of the ands are serving slightly different functions here, two of which would be perfectly legitimate if they stood alone: the first is connecting the second and third items in a list; the second is connecting two characteristics in a shorter list. And the third — as in this sentence — is the kind of usage we discussed yesterday, where a conjunction gives a false sense of chatty consecutiveness between the first sentence and the second.

Is your brain in a twist after all of that percussive redundancy? Never fear — the twin revising morals are actually quite simple to remember:

(1) Every writer, no matter how experienced, will occasionally write a poorly-constructed sentence or paragraph, so there will never be a point where any of us can legitimately assume that our first drafts require no revision whatsoever, and

(2) Just because a given word may carry more than one meaning — or, as here, refer to distinct categories of things — that fact doesn’t nullify the effects of repetition upon the reader.

Because we writers tend to think of words according to their respective functions within any given sentence, rather than as images on a page, these kinds of repetition often flies under our self-editing radars. Unless one is looking for it specifically, it’s easy to, well, overlook. Thus my urging you to whip out the highlighting pens, in case you were wondering. I’m just trying to make repetition jump out at you as garishly as it does to those of us who read for a living.

Incidentally, words that sound alike but are spelled differently — there, they’re, and their, for instance — often strike readers as repetitious if they are used in too close proximity to one another. For example:

“They’re going to look for their zithers in there,” Thierry pointed out.

Why might this sentence give a reader pause? Because many pronounce words silently in their heads while they scan. Yet another great incentive to read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, eh? It’s the best way to replicate the silent reader’s mental experience.

Next time, I shall delve into some other problems that commonly arise from an over-reliance upon ands. In the meantime, in between time, try to minimize word and sentence structure repetition, and keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXV, structural repetition, part III, and the role of pretzels in a well-rounded breakfast

This morning, I was puzzled into wakefulness by my fiancé’s waving a soy latte and a freshly-baked pretzel under my nose. A new German bakery has opened in our neighborhood, and he’s terrified that it will go out of business without our daily support. A reliable source for Black Forest cake is not to be taken for granted, after all.

Now, I’m as fond of a good pretzel as the next person, but at 8 a.m., I must confess, mustard-laden food options are generally not the first to pop to mind. Nor is rock salt my favorite pillow covering, given my druthers.

Rick, however, subscribes to the surprisingly pervasive school of thought that holds what a person has said she liked once, ever, will come as a pleasant surprise to receive at any randomly-selected moment for the rest of her life. Or so I surmise from the fact that he could not resist pointing out that I had apparently enjoyed a remarkably similar pretzel only two afternoons before.

Which, of course, would render it even less likely that I would want another one now. The pretzel was turning out to be pretty tasty, though, so rather than take the time to explain at length that piling on more of a good thing does not necessarily improve, well, anything, I decided it would be the better part of valor to thank him graciously and bear my usual breakfast into a more appropriate environment for consuming something warm and squishy. As I fled, I marveled at how, once again, the muses had tumbled all over themselves to provide me with a delightfully apt metaphor for a craft issue you and I were already discussing.

Oh, hadn’t the pretzel-paragraph construction parallel hit you instantly? Allow me to recast it as a self-editing aphorism for the ages, then: what might read beautifully as a stand-alone sentence may not work as well within the context of a page of text. Varying word choice and sentence structure will usually provide the reader with a more pleasurable reading experience than a narrative’s insisting that if something looked good on the page once, it will necessarily look great if it’s repeated.

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about how professional readers tend to respond to repetition in submissions. (To summarize their reaction for those of you joining us mid-series: not at all well.) I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts, though, without discussing those ever-popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

Positive legions of hands shoot into the air. Yes, grammar mavens? “But Anne,” you point out, and rightly so, “then isn’t a conjunction! Why, then, would you include it in your discussion of conjunctions, when there are so many legitimate conjunctions — yet, for instance — deserving of your august scrutiny?”

Quite right, hand-wavers: when used properly, then isn’t strictly speaking a conjunction. However, enough writers are using it these days as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in The Little Red Hen kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — treat it as such for the purposes of our ongoing discussion of repetitive sentence structures and their predictably negative effect on Millicent the agency screener’s weary peepers.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth Roosevelts were presidents Dorothy Parker was still speaking to Ernest Hemingway editors like Maxwell Perkins called the shots in the publishing world, it was considered hugely improper to begin any sentence with and, but, or then; amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a fairly well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a stickler for grammar for his entire life) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I had written when he returned them to me, a conjunction, by definition, connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “a conjunction may not begin a sentence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. Toward the end of his long, colorful, and occasionally scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions. And really, who could blame him?

(I couldn’t resist. Hey, a pretzel is not exactly the breakfast of champions.)

Time and the language have been marching merrily onward, however, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers, journalists, and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

That mournful crashing sound you just heard was Uncle Alex stomping his feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get all of us to cut it out, already, but there can be perfectly legitimate stylistic reasons to open a sentence with a conjunction. They can, for instance, be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph. Like so:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station. But would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be. And if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Arbogast stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

As Uncle Alex would undoubtedly have been the first (and last, and middle) to tell you, classic English grammar has an elegant means of preventing those conjunctions from hanging out at the beginnings of those sentences: by eliminating the periods and replacing them with commas. The result would look a little something like this:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why — or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

To old-fashioned eyes, this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner grammatically. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a substantial difference in the rhythm. A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Ghislaine’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could be regarded as subtle narrative indicators of protagonist stress. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are. Like, say, most of us who read manuscripts for a living.

Before we leave that last set of examples, did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first? No? Okay, let me whip out my editorial machete pen and remove a couple of Millicent’s pet peeves. Rather than merely noticing that this third version reads better, why not challenge your revision skills by trying to figure out why?

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Right now, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

How did you do? Take a nice, shiny gold star from petty cash if you immediately cried, “Why, word repetition is word repetition, Anne — which is why you removed the second Jason in the paragraph.” Stack another star on top of the first if you added, “Anyway is often how speakers inform hearers that they’ve digressed from their point. Is there a reason the narrative should go out of its way to inform readers that it has digressed?” And give yourself three more stars if you have gotten in touch with your inner Millicent sufficiently to have mused, “You know, to find out why — or not is conceptually unnecessary. And would the paragraph lose any actual meaning if I cut or not?”

I hear those of you who did not shout any of those three observations muttering under your collective breath, and you’re quite right: this is nit-picky stuff. Both good writing and professional presentation are made up of lots and lots of nit-picky stuff. Your point?

While you’re trying to come up with a sufficiently scathing comeback for that one, let’s tie the anyway revelation (i.e., that what’s considered acceptable in everyday speech may not work so well in a narrative voice on paper, even if it happens to be in the first person), back to our ongoing discussion of and and but. Since conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, the former can be a positive boon to dialogue.

Seem paradoxical? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

“And I tell you, Spencer, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. And that’s final.”

“But Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger. Yet you are astonishingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingénue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. And, naturally, you are entirely unarmed. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Or what? Or you’re going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“Or else, that’s all.”

“Fine. Then give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist. But don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

with the same dialogue after the conjunctions have been tucked into the middle of the sentences:

“I tell you, Spencer, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. That’s final.”

“Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger, yet surprisingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingénue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. Naturally, you are entirely unarmed. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Is there some penalty attached to my refusal? Are you going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“You must, that’s all.”

“Fine. Give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist, but don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

The difference is subtle, but to a professional reader, it would be quite evident: the second version sounds more formal. Partially, this is a function of the verbal gymnastics required to avoid the colloquial Or what? Or else.

But these are not the only ways aspiring writers utilize sentence-beginning conjunctions in narrative prose, are they? As anyone who has ever been trapped in a conversation with a non-stop talker can tell you, beginning sentences with conjunctions gives an impression of consecutiveness of logic or storyline. (As was the case with the first sentence of this paragraph, as it happens.) Even when no such link actually exists, the conjunctions give the hearer the impression that there is no polite place to interrupt, to turn the soliloquy-in-progress into a dialogue.

We all encounter this phenomenon so often in everyday life that giving a concrete example seems a tad, well, repetitive. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, though, try this experiment the next time you’re at a boring cocktail party. (They’re coming back, I hear.)

(1) Walk up to another guest, preferably a stranger or someone you do not like very much. (It will soon become apparent why that last trait is desirable.)

(2) Tell a lengthy anecdote, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout your speech.

(3) Time how long it takes a reasonably courteous person to get a word in edgewise.

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes at a stretch. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me.

Which is, in case you happen to be writing a book about such things, why panhandlers and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence: run-on sentences discourage interruption. Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then.

Perhaps for this reason, aspiring writers just love to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: it can create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative. Or, even more often, to establish that chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice I mentioned above. Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top.

Also, had I mentioned that aspiring writers just love to overload their manuscripts with conjunctions? And that they use the device a lot? Or that by the time Millicent picks up your submission, she’s probably already read hundreds of conjunctions that day?

In case I’m being too subtle here: since false consecutiveness is a narrative that professional readers see so very much, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency. Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being a bit pushy and marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially the opening? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the style throughout the entire manuscript. That presumption enables them to stop reading as soon as they decide that the writing is weak.

Or, to cast it in terms of our running analogy: Millicent didn’t like the second pretzel of the day, she takes it as given that she’s not going to like the 145th. She does not feel the need to gobble up pretzels 3-144 to confirm that.

Was that sudden blinding flash an indication that light bulbs just went off over some of your heads? That’s right: this often-unwarranted assumption, renders rejection on page 1 not only logically possible, but reasonable. It certainly underlies the average Millicent’s practice of not reading past any problems that might turn up on page 1 of a submission: once you’ve seen a modicum of this author’s writing, she reasons, you’ve seen enough.

Feel free to pause here to punch the nearest pillow, sofa cushion, or other relatively soft object seventeen or eighteen times. I’ll wait.

Got all of that frustration out of your system? Excellent. Let’s shift our energies to what a writer can control in this situation. Narrative structure and voice are not merely matters of style; to a market-savvy writer, they are also matters of strategy.

And, frankly, the oh-so-common practice of conjunction overuse is not particularly good strategy. If you over-use any single narrative tool in your writer’s kit in those early pages, Millicent and her ilk are not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways by page 25, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

Do I hear some moaning out there that’s not attributable to any of my late relatives? “But Anne,” these disembodied voices moan, bravely beginning their protest with a conjunction, thereby risking a thunderbolt flung by Uncle Alex and whatever minor deities he may have managed to befriend in his time in the choir eternal; he always did throw great parties, “not every book’s best writing falls on its first page, or even within its first chapter. Many, many writers take a chapter or two to warm up to their topics. So doesn’t this practice give an unfair advantage to those writers who do front-load their work?”

In a word, yes. Next question? In fact, I would highly recommend front-loading your submission or contest entry with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed.

Again, we could waste a lot of energy complaining about the necessity for this (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), but I would rather we concentrate instead upon heading the problem off at the proverbial pass. Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

(1) Print out at least the first 5 pages of your submission. If you want to be very thorough, print the entire first chapter, as well a random page from each subsequent chapter.

And before anybody asks: no, reading through those pages on your computer’s screen is not an adequate substitute here. Nor is simply doing a Word search for those particular words. The goal here is not to come up with a simple accounting of how often you are using these words, but to spot patterns in how and where you are habitually including them.

(2) Pick a color for and, another for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets, too), and a third for then.

Why these words and no others? Well, these particular ones tend to get a real workout in the average manuscript: when writers are trying to cover material rapidly, for instance, and, but, and then often appear many times per page. Or per paragraph.

Or even per sentence. Yes, really.

(3) Mark every single time each of those words appears on your pages.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but every instance.

(4) After you have finished inking, go back and re-examine every use of then, asking yourself: could I revise that sentence to cut the word entirely? If it begins a sentence, is that the most effective opening?

(5) If you were even tempted to skip Step 4, does then appear more than once within those first 5 pages? More than once on page 1?

At the risk of seeming draconian, you should seriously consider excising every single use of then in those opening pages — and at least toy with getting rid of most thereafter. Sound drastic? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: some professional readers’ visceral negative reaction to repetitive use of then borders on the physically painful.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text — and with good reason. In written English, pretty much any event that is described after any other event is assumed to have happened later than the first described, unless the text specifies otherwise. For instance:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, then served them.

Ostensibly, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence, right? Perhaps not, but given the average reader’s belief that time is linear, it is logically identical to:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

Technically, then is unnecessary here. In fact, then is almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

“Pardon my asking,” Millicent says, wondering why I have a latte at my elbow and she doesn’t, “but why is do submissions so often include it repeatedly, as if it were stylish? Or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice? It’s seldom necessary, and it’s hardly original.”

That would be hard for anyone who has read more than a handful of manuscripts or contest entries to dispute. To professional eyes, this percussive use of then is logically redundant, at best. At worst, it’s a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events and so crammed them all into a list.

Is this really the reaction you want to elicit to your narrative voice within the first few pages of your book?

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to omit temporal thens altogether in your writing unless the event described after them is a genuine surprise or occurred so abruptly that it would have been so to onlookers. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate — then flung their steaming runniness into Anselmo’s astonished face.

Now that’s a then that signals a change in sentence direction, isn’t it? Reserving the device for this use will render your thens substantially more powerful.

(6) Turn now to the buts, howevers, and yets on your marked-up pages. Each time they appear, ask yourself: is the clause that immediately follows the word ACTUALLY a shift in meaning from what has come immediately before it? If not, consider excising the words altogether.

I hear more squawking from the non-celestial peanut gallery. “But Anne,” they cry, bravely persisting in their long-term habit of opening every protest hurled my way with a conjunction, “you can’t seriously mean that! Don’t you mean that I should carefully rewrite the sentence, substituting another word that means precisely the same as but, however, or yet? The whole point of my introducing however and yet was to give my but a periodic rest, after all.”

Good question, but-resters, but I did mean what I said. But, however, and yet logically imply contradiction to what has already been stated. Many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions, a way to make the sentence before seem to flow naturally — that is, in a way that sounds like conversation — into the next.

What I’m suggesting here is not that you remove every legitimate negation, but rather that you should remove the negative conjunctions that are misused. Let’s take a gander at what a savvy reviser might spare.

Bartholomew wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Josette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, his epi pen was in the pocket of his fetching dressing gown, so he need not panic. Yet now that he began to search for it, his personal first-aid kit seemed to have vanished from its usual resting-place.

“Cat got your tongue?” Josette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

I would vote for keeping all of buts, howevers, and yets in this passage. Each is serving its proper function: they are introducing new facts that are genuinely opposed to those that came just before the conjunction.

That is not always the case, alas. Take a look at a version of the same scene where none of these words is ushering in a twist related to the last information before it:

Bartholomew settled his fetching dressing gown around him irritably, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Josette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, he could not breathe. Yet his asthma seemed to be kicking in full force.

“Cat got your tongue?” Josette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

See the difference? By including conjunctions that imply an opposition is to follow, but not delivering upon it, the transitional buts, howevers, and yets ring false.

Yes, this level of textual analysis IS a heck of a lot of work, now that you mention it. Strategically, it’s worth it, for this device is so popular amongst aspiring writers that the transitional but has become, you guessed it, a common screeners’ pet peeve.

Harrumphs all round from my questioners, earth-bound and otherwise. “No big surprise there,” they huff. “To hear you tell it, it doesn’t take much for a writerly preference to graduate to industry pet peeve.”

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover that out of any 100 submissions, a good 92 will all share this narrative device.

And yes, Virginia, the transitional but IS that common. As is the unnecessary then. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked words.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

“So why on earth,” Millicent wonders, rejoining us after a coffee run, “do these submissions keep leaning so heavily on to be, to have, to think, to walk, to see, to say, and to take? If it happened in, say, one submission out of fifty, I could cope with it, but every other one?”

Good question, Millie. Varying word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics.

Yes, I brought this up a few days ago, but it’s a fact that I wish more first-time submitters knew, but usually, US writers have been taught just the opposite: all throughout their school years, teachers kept quoting either Mark Twain or Somerset Maugham’s (depending upon how old the teachers were, and what examples their teachers had used) overworked axioms about never using a complex word when a simple word would do.

The reason that your teachers told you this is not that simple, straightforward words are inherently better than polysyllabic ones, but because they were trying to prevent you from making the opposite mistake: a narrative that sounds as if it has swallowed a thesaurus whole, dragging in pretentious or obsolete words inappropriate to the book category or target market. For most manuscripts, this is still pretty good advice.

Now, however, it’s considered less a matter of style than of marketing. Remember, the standard vocabulary expectation for adult fiction is a 10th-grade reading level; in many genres, it’s even lower. Doing a bit of reading in your chosen category can help you figure out where to pitch your word choices — and how broad a vocabulary Millicent is likely to expect in your manuscript.

Why is this a good idea? Not only is the gratuitous induction of polysyllabic terminology into a tome formulated for a less erudite audience not liable to galvanize a professional reader into spontaneous cries of “Huzzah!” (see how silly it looks on the page?) — it can also stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, knocking the reader out of the story.

The much-hyped 2007 movie JUNO contained such an excellent example of this that you might want to consider renting it just to see this phenomenon in action. After spending fully two-thirds of the film establishing the protagonist’s father as a Working Man with a Heart of Gold, living in a house that apparently contains no books, repeatedly telling better-heeled folk that he’s just a plain man, and who never once mentions to his pregnant 16-year-old daughter that her condition might conceivably (so to speak) affect any future college plans she might have, he says to his daughter, “You look morose.”

At which, naturally, half of my fellow theatergoers laughed, believing this line to be a joke. Morose didn’t seem to be a word that this character would ever use. Yet from context, it wasn’t intended humorously: evidently, the screenwriter simply liked the word.

Nothing wrong with that, of course — but authorial affection is not always sufficient justification to include a pet word or phrase. If a word is not book-category appropriate, think seriously about finding a substitute. That’s not compromising your artistic vision; that’s gearing your voice to your audience.

It’s also a necessary step towards individualizing your authorial voice. Just as a matter of practicality, if Millicent has already seen several conjunction-heavy narratives within the last hour, it’s going to be significantly more difficult to impress her with the originality of a manuscript that’s embraced a similar narrative strategy.

Speaking of developing a sensitivity to repetition across manuscripts, as well as within them, did anyone happen to catch the too-close similarity of Yvette and Josette in the two of today’s examples? “What’s going on?” Millicent shouts immediately after burning her lip on her too-hot latte. “A plague of -ettes? Did a bestseller from a year ago feature a heroine with an -ette name, and are the writers of these two passages copying that?”

Well caught, Millicent: I didn’t catch that one myself until about ten minutes after I wrote the second example. Clearly, I should have had a more balanced breakfast.

Don’t toss out those marked-up pages, please: we shall be talking more about overused conjunctions in the days to come. Next time, it’s on to the ands. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXIV, structural repetition, part II, or, are these concurrent series starting to get out of hand?

No, that image isn’t doctored — that’s a quick snapshot I took today of my garden’s first summer poppy. Eat your heart out, Georgia O’Keeffe.

I wasn’t playing hooky in the garden, honest; I was prowling my flowerbeds for bright, arresting color to illustrate our topic du jour. What, after all, would remind a self-editing writer more of structural repetition — the phenomenon of a writer’s falling in love with a certain kind of sentence and consequently over-using it throughout a manuscript — than a flower that might attract a passing motorist’s attention from half a block away?

“But Anne,” metaphor enthusiasts throughout the writing world protest, “I don’t get it. How are these two apparently unrelated things akin?”

That’s a perfectly legitimate question from a writerly point of view, metaphor-huggers, but from an editorial perspective, the connection is self-evident: both seem to leap out at the observer. To most of us who read manuscripts for a living, a manuscript that keeps recycling sentence structures, pet phrases, or even individual words might as well be covered with flashing neon signs.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is a page stuffed to the gills with one of the more common types of repetition, the over-use of proper nouns in general and character names in particular. I’ve made the image a trifle larger than usual, to render the pattern easier to spot.

In fact, you don’t even have to read the text to notice it: stand up, back away from your computer until you can’t make out individual words, then walk slowly toward the screen. Ready, set — observe!

All of those Js and Ps were the first thing you saw on your return trip, were they not? A sharp-eyed pro like Millicent the agency screener would have that reaction scanning the page at a normal reading distance.

Now let’s take a gander at how the visual problem is exacerbated if the sentence structure is also repetitious. To render this tortured page even more likely to annoy our Millie, I’ve selected a common construction in the passive voice.

Quite a bit less amusing to read, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be at all astonished if you were tempted not to read it all the way to the end — although the page was not in fact made up entirely of it was X and it was as though sentences, it certainly began to feel like it by halfway down the page, didn’t it?

A trained eye would be drawn immediately toward those repeated patterns — and thus away from other aspects of the text a savvy writer might want a professional reader like our old pal Millicent to notice instead, such as the compelling storyline, the interesting characters, and/or the overall beauty of the writing. Because repetition in general and structural repetition in particular are so very common in submissions, Millicent and her ilk not only find it distracting; they tend to regard it a symptom of both a small authorial vocabulary and — you’re sitting down, I hope? — weak writing.

On the off chance that I’m being too subtle here: you might want to think twice about incorporating much repetition into your preferred authorial voice. Especially in your opening pages — which, lest we forget, folks who screen manuscripts for a living are prone to regard, rightly or not, as representative of the writing in the rest of the manuscript.

To put it rather less gently: if the sentence structure and vocabulary on page 1 don’t show much variation, Millicent’s unlikely to keep reading until page 50 to find out whether these traits are consistent features of the author’s chosen voice. Heck, she probably won’t turn to page 2 to confirm that suspicion.

It’s hard to blame her, given the provocation. As we saw in the second example, even when the word choices vary enough to keep things moderately interesting, it’s simply more tiring to read the same kind of sentence over and over than to read text where the form varies more.

That’s true, incidentally, regardless of the subject matter: even an inherently fascinating topic can quickly be rendered stultifying by the simple expedient of writing about it in structurally similar sentences. Repetitive phraseology can render even the most exciting, conflict-ridden scene quite a bit less nail-biting than its activity level should dictate. That’s true, surprisingly, even if the chosen structure is quite complex.

Did my reuse of the that’s true + adverb structure bug you more in that last paragraph, or the recycling of even? By this point, I would hope that neither escaped your attention.

Back to the principle at hand: let’s observe the soporific effect of a more complicated repeated structure in action. So I don’t plunge all of you into a deep, refreshing slumber, I shan’t subject you to an entire page of it.

Obviously, no one plans to crash a motorcycle into the side of a cross-town bus, but that is precisely what Barnaby did. Fortunately, he was wearing his inflatable jumpsuit, saving him from significant injury, but clearly, his morning was not going to be a smooth one. Resignedly, he collected his scattered belongings, including the small thermonuclear device he later planned to smuggle into the state dinner, but he could not resist cursing under his breath.

Something tells me that a scene with stakes this high could have been written about in a slightly more compelling manner. There’s more to good storytelling, after all, than just getting all of the facts down on the page. To see why this is true, we need look no farther than the early reader books of our youth.

You know the type, right? See Spot run. See Spot bite Dick. See Dick shiv Jane. Stab, Dick, stab.

Dull, from an adult perspective, weren’t they? But dull with a purpose: part of their point was to encourage new readers to recognize letter patterns as particular words. Varying the sentence structure enough to render the insipid story interesting to more advanced readers would merely have distracted from the task at hand.

So we were treated to the same sentence structure for what seemed like the entire book. I have a distinct memory of taking my kindergarten copy of FROG FUN home from school (Hop, frog, hop. Hop, hop, hop: hardly Thackeray), reading a two pages of it to my father, and both of us deciding simultaneously that no self-respecting human being would keep slogging through that much narrative repetition. He wrote a very amusing little note to my teacher about it.

Suffice it to say that my teacher quickly learned to send me to the library for alternate reading material. And stopped teaching kindergarten shortly thereafter. I’m told that she still winces whenever she sees a frog.

It’s even easier to make Millicent wince — at any given moment, her to-read pile overfloweth with submissions that, if not as word-repetitious as FROG FUN, have fairly obviously not been carefully revised with an eye to sentence variation. That’s a pity, because when a professional reader sees a manuscript that uses the same sentence structure or the same few verbs use over and over, the specters of Dick, Jane, and Spot seem to rise from the page, moaning, “This is not very sophisticated writing!”

Why? Well, when one’s eye is trained to note detail, it’s doesn’t take much redundancy to trigger a negative reaction.

In fact, a good professional reader will often catch a repetition the first time it recurs — as in the second time something is mentioned in the text. It’s not unheard-of for an editorial memo to contain an angry paragraph about the vital necessity to curb “your inordinate fondness for” phrase X when phrase X shows up only three or four times in the entire manuscript.

As in over the course of 382 pages. Had I mentioned that we pros are trained to be extremely sensitive to redundancy?

Imagine, then, how much more annoying they find it when every third sentence begins with a structure like, Blinking, Sheila backed away or George was…” or the ever-popular, As she was doing X, Y happened.

That last one caught you a bit off guard, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised: if an alien from the planet Targ were to base its understanding of human life solely upon the frequency with which protagonists in first novels do something while something else occurs, it would be forced to conclude that humanity is doomed to perpetual multitasking. Either that, or it would surmise that the space-time continuum is somehow compressed by the mere fact of someone’s writing about it.

Oh, you laugh, but how else could the poor visitor to our solar system possibly interpret a passage like this?

As Monique turned the corner, she spotted Clarence. He dodged as she came up to him. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Aiming, she cleared her throat. “The jig’s up, Clarence.”

That’s quite a bit of activity happening simultaneously — and quite a few logically similar sentence structures shouldering one another for prominence. But contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact that two things occurred at the same time is not particularly interesting to most readers. Unless the simultaneity of the motions in question is crucial to the reader’s understanding what’s going on, as and while can be awfully easy to overuse.

How so? Well, let me put it this way: if our imaginative little run-in with the Targian had not tipped you off in advance, would you have noticed that there were two things going on contemporaneously in every sentence in that last example?

If so, you’re certainly not alone: most aspiring writers — i.e., the folks who have not yet had the professional opportunity to hear an editor go on a tirade about it — would not see a problem with that excerpt. Millicent, however, would, and that’s likely to spark some rather unpleasant consequences at submission time.

So how might a savvy reviser rearrange that passage so as to leave her eyebrows mercifully unraised? Vary the sentence structure — and cut out any extraneous activity. While you’re at it, reserve as for those relatively rare occasions when it’s imperative that the reader be made aware that things happened at the same time. The result might look a little bit like this:

Monique strode around the corner, surprising Clarence so much that he dropped his bullwhip. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Carefully, she took aim at his Adam’s apple. “The jig’s up, my friend.”

The contrast between this version and the previous one is pretty stark, is it not? To repetition-sensitive eyes, a page filled with structural and word repetition is like badly-done CGI in movies, where battle scenes between thousands of characters are created by filming 50 extras flailing at one another, copying that image, and plastering it seventeen times across the scene, perhaps alternated with two or three other images of the same actors in different positions. Honestly, to those of us who count patterns for a living, that level of repetition can be downright migraine-inducing.

“Wait just a nit-picking minute, Anne!” I hear some conscientious revisers exclaiming. “English grammar only permits so many ways of arranging sentences properly. Isn’t any manuscript going to exhibit a certain amount of pattern repetition, necessarily?”

Yes, of course — but that does not give writers carte blanche to use the same structures back-to-back, or to utilize a favorite complex sentence form twice per page. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s not as though your garden-variety writer is repeating herself on purpose: in the vast majority of instances, the writer simply likes a kind of sentence or a particular verb enough to use it often.

You lucky souls, however, are going to be one up on that kind of writer come revision time, because we’re about to take a run at spotting the phenomenon in its natural habitat. Since last post’s foray into A TALE OF TWO CITIES was so obvious, let’s try a comparatively subtle one on for size.

Rubbing his sides for warmth, Stephen glanced unhappily at his fellow cheerleaders. Waving his pom-poms in a wan impression of good sportsmanship, he reminded himself never to be stupid enough to accept one of his sister’s bets again. Pulling up his flesh-colored tights –- oh, why hadn’t he listened to Brian, who had told him to wear nylons under them on this near-freezing night? – he wondered if Tammy would be vicious enough to demand the performance of the promised splits before the game ended. Sighing, he figured she would.

How did you do? Individually, there is nothing wrong with any given sentence in this paragraph, right? Yet taken communally — as sentences in submissions invariably are — the repetition of the same kind of opening each time starts to ring like a drumbeat in Millicent’s head, distracting her from the actual subject matter, the quality of the writing — and, alas, even the blistering pace you worked so hard to achieve on the page.

That’s not just a voice problem — it’s a marketing problem.

Why? Well, think about it: very, very few agents and editors can afford to work with specialists in a single type of sentence. And don’t start waving random pages ripped from Ernest Hemingway’s oeuvre at me, either: present-day readers expect a narrative with a broad array of sentence structures.

The sad thing is, most of the time, writers don’t even realize that they’re repeating patterns, because unless the repetition bug has really bitten them, the redundancy isn’t in every sentence. Or if it is, the repetition often lies in words or phrases that are similar, but not identical, so the writer does not think of them as the same word. Consider:

Arnold began sweating, sweating as though his sweat glands were going on strike tomorrow. Should he go to the window and throw it open, beginning the cooling-down process? Or should he go downstairs, into the basement, to the cool of the pickle cellar? Or should he wait for the seller on the cooler porch?

Subtle, isn’t it? Sometimes, the structures a writer favors may be common enough in themselves that she would need to read her pages IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch the problem. As in:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted, “because I had no reason.”

“But you did take it,” Edmund shot back, “because you needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Claire’s eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, since you don’t know her.”

These three lines of dialogue feature different words, of course, but they sport identical structures. This may not seem like a serious problem on any given page, but once a professional reader notices a manuscript exhibiting this kind of repetition a couple of times, she will simply assume — feel free to sing along; you should know the words by now — that the pattern will recur throughout the manuscript.

How does s/he know, you ask? Experience, my dears, experience. How many horror films did you have to see before you realized that the monster/killer/Creature from the Black Lagoon wasn’t really dead the first time it appeared to be?

Go back and re-read that last example out loud: did you notice how similar those three paragraphs sound in the mouth — almost as though they were not the words of two different speakers? The repetitive structure here makes Claire and Edmund speak in essentially the same rhythm, as though they were echoes of the same voice. (Which, from an authorial point of view, they are.)

When two characters speak in the same rhythm, it mutes the conflict between them a little — not to mention making it harder for the reader to follow the dialogue. Check out how varying the sentence structure ramps up the tension between them, even in an excerpt this short:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted. “I had no conceivable reason.”

“You lie,” Edmond shot back. “You needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, me bucko, since you don’t know her.”

“Aha! I knew you were concealing a pirate past!”

“I ought to keel-haul you.” Sullenly, she removed her eye patch. “What gave me away, the parrot?”

Nifty, eh? That, in case you were wondering, is the kind of character development benefit a writer is likely to derive from reading her work OUT LOUD. I just mention.

But a writer need not only pay attention to how many times he’s using the same words or similar sentence structures in back-to-back sentences, but also on any given page, or even over the course of a scene. Let’s take a look at how non-consecutive repetition might play out in practice.

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Harold’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Harold, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

My, but our examples are violent today. To most self-editors, this paragraph would not seem especially problematic. However, to a professional reader, it contains two of the most commonly-repeated structures, our old friends, the While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was Z…. Standing alone as individual sentences, either form is perfectly valid; the problem arises when either appears too frequently on the page. To a professional reader, this is how the paragraph above would scan:

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Harold’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Harold, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

See how even spread-out repetition jumps off the page, once you’re sensitized to it? Millicent (and her boss, and the editors at the publishing house across the street, and even the average contest judge after reading the first handful of entries) is so attuned to it that she might not even have made it as far as the end of the paragraph.

To use the most overworked word in her vocabulary: “Next!”

Of course, you may strike lucky: your submission may be read by a screener who hasn’t been at it very long, a contest judge brand-new to the game, or an agent whose tolerance for pattern repetition is unusually high. Heck, your work may even land on the desk of that rara avis, the saint who is willing to overlook some minor problems in a manuscript if the writer seems to have promising flair. In any of these cases, you may be able to put off winnowing out pattern repetition until after the book is sold to an editor — who is most unlikely to be so forgiving.

Do you honestly want to gamble on Millicent’s possible saintliness at the submission stage?

Because editorial response to this kind of repetition tends to be so strong — I wasn’t kidding about those migraines — you would be well advised to check your first chapter, especially your opening page, for inadvertent pattern repetitions. (Actually, since quick-skimming pros tend to concentrate upon the openings of sentences, you can get away with just checking the first few words after every period, in a pinch. But you didn’t hear that from me.)

The most straightforward way to do this is to sit down with five or ten pages of your manuscript and a number of different colored pens. Highlighters are dandy for this purpose. Mark each kind of sentence in its own color; reserve a special color for nouns and verbs that turn up more than once per page. You probably already know what your favorite kinds of sentence are, but it would be an excellent idea to pre-designate colors for not only the ever-popular While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was… sentences, but also for the X happened and then Y happened and Gerund Adverb Comma (as in Sitting silently, Hortense felt like a spy.) forms as well.

After you have finished coloring your pages, arrange all of the marked-up pages along some bare and visually uncomplicated surface — against the back of a couch, along a kitchen counter, diagonally across your bed — and take three steps backward. (Sorry, kitty; didn’t mean to step on your tail.)

Does one color predominate? If you notice one color turning up many times per page — or two or three times per paragraph – you might want to think about reworking your structures a little.

If this all seems terribly nit-picky to you, well, it is. But the more you can vary the structure and rhythm of your writing, the more interesting it will be for the reader – and, from a professional perspective, the more it will appeal to educated readers.

Think about it: good literary fiction very seldom relies heavily upon a single sentence structure throughout an entire text, does it?

You know what kinds of books use the same types of sentences over and over? The ones marketed to consumers with less-developed reading skills. If that is your target readership, great — run with the repetitive structure. (Run, Jane, run! Don’t let Dick stab, stab, stab.) But for most adult markets, the industry assumes at least a 10th-grade reading level.

In my high school, Ernest Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA was assigned in the 9th grade. If you catch my drift.

Then, too, agency screeners and editorial assistants typically hold liberal arts degrees from pretty good colleges. That’s a long, long way from the reading level that was contented to watch Dick and Jane running all over the place with Spot and frogs having fun hop, hop, hopping.

Let your structural choices be as exciting as the writing contained within them — and let your voice emerge as more than a repetitive collection of your favorite words and sentences. Incorporate your pet structures and phrases, by all means, but have them appear rarely enough that they will seem like revelations, not just narrative-as-usual.

Above all, keep mixing up those sentence structures. You may be pleasantly surprised at how much interest merely preventing a sentence from reading like the one before it can produce. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXIII: the monster always returns…returns…returns…

I’m having a good day, campers: today, I got to delve back into an editing project I’d had to put aside for a while. It’s something that requires my full energy; digging one’s arms up to the elbow in a complex manuscript takes more out of a conscientious editor than writers tend to believe.

You’d be surprised at how deeply those of us who read for a living can bond with the manuscripts we handle. It’s not as though an editor (or an agent, or an agency screener) can plop himself down and read a book like any other reader; it’s our job to be alive to every detail. I like to think of myself as the book’s advocate, trying to figure out all of the little ways to make it as beautiful and marketable as humanly possible.

And no, in response to what a good third of you just thought very loudly, beautiful writing is not always marketable, any more than marketable writing is always beautiful. Ideally, a manuscript should be both. It should also, if I can possibly manage to nudge it in this direction, be written in a voice and vocabulary appropriately challenging for its target readership.

Bringing out any of these laudable traits is not only a matter of critiquing what could be improved; quite a lot of what I do involves helping the author see what is already good and could be made better. Part of being a thoughtful freelance editor — as opposed to a careful copyeditor, the nit-picky soul who concentrates on making sure that the manuscript is clear and the sentences grammatically correct, the minimum standard for professional writing — involves not only checking for possible red lights that might lead to rejection, but also figuring out what a manuscript’s strengths are, as well as why it will appeal to its target audience.

Again, those are not necessarily the same thing, right?

Most aspiring writers do need to be reminded, I’ve noticed, what is good about their work. Or even told what the selling points for their books are.

There’s a pretty good reason for this, actually. Throughout the writing process, it’s awfully easy to start to think of the effort you’ve put into a book as its most important characteristic. But realistically, publishing houses do not acquire books simply because someone went to the trouble to write them. Nor, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, will readers — ones who do not already know the author personally, at any rate — pick up a book simply because somebody happened to write it.

Why does prompt publishers to acquire manuscripts and readers to buy books, you ask? Would I sound like a broken record if I suggested that both sell because of their strengths?

In fact, the length of time it took to write a book is precisely the wrong thing to mention in a query letter or pitch; it’s widely considered unprofessional. Millicent the agency screener is apt to regard queries that include statements like I have spent seven years writing NOVEL, GREAT AMERICAN as not only a waste of page space, but as a studied appeal for her sympathy.

“Why on earth would I care how long this manuscript took to write?” Millicent murmurs into her omnipresent latte. “And why would I be more favorably impressed by a seven-year effort than one that took only six? What matters is on the page, not what Herculean efforts it took to get there.”

Let me repeat that, as it’s awfully important: at the submission stage, manuscripts are evaluated based upon what actually appears on their pages, not the writer’s intentions, effort, or even what the book might look like after a conscientious editor’s had a few rounds with it. Many, many aspiring writers seem to have a hard time accepting this, judging by how often justifications and explanations seem to find their way into queries and pitches. From a professional point of view, this information just isn’t relevant.

But that’s not the only reason that including it could hurt you. Because it’s quite standard for both agents and editors to request revisions after taking on a book project — see my earlier observation about how involved professional readers can get with manuscripts they like — it’s prudent to assume that the pros in your future will expect you to be able to incorporate feedback in a timely and reasonable manner. So if the agent of your dreams’ reaction to a detailed account of the five years you invested in producing the manuscript is less likely to be, “Gee, this book must be worthwhile,” but “Heavens — if a single draft took five years, how long will any revisions I want take?” is it truly in your interests to mention it?

Save the probably quite interesting story of how you churned out that 400-page novel in the scant ten-minute increments you managed to snatch between your day job and your night job for future interviews. Trust me, your reading public will eat it up.

In your queries and pitches, stick to the information that Millicent actually needs in order to decide whether to request pages. As submitting writers are all too prone to forget, publishing is a business, not an art form — agents and editors acquire books they believe are marketable, not just ones they believe are well-written. And, as I believe I have mentioned several hundred times before, they do not — contrary to the hope of most submitting writers — read the entire submission before making up their minds on either point.

Anyone care to tell the class at what point in the average submission Millicent stops reading? Think on it, and I shall give you the answer at the end of this post.

Hint: it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of pages her agent boss asked you to send. Not at all.

How does this relate to the revision process, you ask? Well, swift judgments mean that if you have limited revision time at your disposal, it’s smart strategy to concentrate on the first 50 pages of your manuscript — the usual first request from an agent — or, in a pinch, the first 5. (If you are planning to head to a writers’ conference anytime soon, burnishing the first 5 until they shine is imperative: the first five pages of the manuscript are the standard writing sample, the most anyone is at all likely to ask to see within the context of a pitch meeting. But I digress.)

Do I sense an undercurrent of amusement out there? “Are you seriously taking the time to justify doing any revision at all, Anne?” those of you who have followed the Pet Peeves on Parade series closely ask, chuckling. “Isn’t it a bit late in the series for that? We all know what a stickler Millicent can — and indeed, should — be. Or are you once again leading us down the primrose path to some well-concealed eventual point?”

Well, the importance of revision bears repeating, chucklers, but you’re right: my little peroration was warming you up for a pet peeve that I suspect not all of you will agree is problematic on the page. Or so professional readers like yours truly surmise from how pervasive the problem I’m about to mention is in submissions — particularly in openings.

I’m speaking, of course, to invocatory rhythms that don’t quite work. And you thought this post wasn’t going to be a continuation of our discussion on voice!

Invocatory rhythms are one of the most popular tools aspiring writers use to beautify their narratives, a kind of sing-song rhythm that alerts the reader that Something Literary is Going on Here. One of the easiest ways to add this music to a text is through word and phrase repetition. Take a gander at a fairly representative sample:

Musette ran through the corridor, ran like the wind, ran as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her freedom, after all this time? Didn’t she deserve a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

See the problem? No? Okay, let’s take a peek at it through Millicent’s experience-sharpened peepers.

Musette ran through the corridor, ran like the wind, ran as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her freedom, after all this time? Didn’t she deserve a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

The problem is clearer now, right? Not only does this innocent-looking paragraph harbor a heck of a lot of word and phrase repetition — enough that our Millie may murmur under her breath, “Wow — doesn’t this writer know any other words?” — but that eye-confusing reiteration is encased in identical sentence structures. The result is a little something we professional readers like to call structural repetition: a percussive repetition of similarly-structured sentences (or sentence fragments) intended to make a rhythmic point.

Why bring this up as a voice and revision problem, in addition to a notorious Millicents’ pet peeve? Because part of the issue here is editorial: merely broadening the vocabulary, the usual fix for word repetition, would not solve this problem. Lookee:

Musette ran through the corridor, sped like the wind, fled as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? Didn’t she merit a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, have an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

Better already, is it not? To a professional reader, though, this passage would still read as structurally repetitious, despite the wording being more varied (and thus more interesting) this time around. And that reaction is apt to confuse self-editors, who would tend to see the nice, pulsing rhythm pushing the paragraph forward, rather than the probability that the too-similar sentence structures will cause the reader to zone out a bit as the paragraph goes on.

Not to mention the virtual certainty that Millicent will murmur, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with this narrative trick, but why must this writer foist it on us twice in a single paragraph?”

You’ve got an excellent point there, Millie. Like every other narrative device, structural repetition works best when it is used sparingly.

How sparingly, you ask with fear and trepidation? Two or three times, say, in the course of a manuscript, to draw the reader’s attention to particularly important passages. Even within the context of this short excerpt, see how much more effective the first use of structural repetition is if we remove the second.

Musette ran through the corridor, sped like the wind, fled as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? She longed with the urgency of a sneeze for a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat. Clearly, she had an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever.

Didn’t like it that way? Okay, let’s switch where the structural repetition falls — and while we’re at it, take out the cliché about the wind.

Musette sped through the corridor as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? Didn’t she merit a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, have an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

Was that a sudden gust of non-clichéd wind that just made my cat topple over, or did a significant minority of you just sigh gustily?
“I see that there are repeated words in the original version, Anne,” some of you point out, “but frankly, I liked it best. Surely the choice to incorporate structural repetition is a stylistic choice, rather than a matter best left up to an editor. Unless you have just inadvertently proven your point about not every reader’s liking every well-written narrative voice, and you are demonstrating yourself to be the kind of knuckle-dragging troglodyte who eschews the joys of literary fiction in favor of novels that — ugh — feature a plot?”

Actually, I’ve been known to read and enjoy both, oh ye quick to judge. What’s more, I’ve read plenty of literary fiction with strong plots and genre fiction that features beautiful language. So there.

But you are obliquely correct, oh sighers, that the original version above was more likely to have dropped from the fingertips of a writer with specifically literary aspirations than one who was aiming for a more mainstream readership. Since invocatory rhythms are quite common in poetry, this style turns up very frequently in novel and memoir submissions, particularly in those that are either literary fiction or are other types of manuscript written with a literary tone. It just sounds pretty, right?

“If the writing’s pretty on an individual sentence level,” sighers everywhere argue, “how could that be problematic in a submission?”

In several ways, actually. Rather than telling you why, let’s look at the single most famous example of invocatory prose in English literature, the opening to Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Yes, I use this particular example fairly frequently, but humor me here: Dickens, bless his now-still heart, has provided us with a lulu of an example of why structural repetition is problematic in print.

Just for kicks, pretend that you have never seen it before, and try to read like an agency screener. To facilitate that laudable endeavor — and to give you the opportunity to judge for yourself whether all of this textual repetition provides a compelling entrée into the story that follows, here is not just the well-known opening, but the next page as well. As always, if you find you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.

Now, this voice is certainly distinctive, isn’t it? Hard to conceive of a more memorable opening, rhythmically speaking. But it’s also true that if these were the first two pages of a submission, virtually any modern-day Millicent would have rejected it by line three. Any guesses why?

If your hand instantly shot into the air, alerting me to your trenchant observation that it was because the first paragraph is one interminable run-on sentence — 119 words, connected incorrectly by commas, rather than semicolons, sacre bleu! — give yourself a gold star for the day.

Ditto if you zeroed in upon the apparently random capitalization of nouns, the criminal punctuation choices, the ubiquitous logical contradictions (yes, I know it’s meant to be ironic; think like a screener here and look for reasons to shout, “Next!”), the second paragraph written entirely in the passive voice, and the fact that two paragraphs into the piece, the reader still has absolutely no idea who the protagonist is or what’s going on.

And can’t you just picture an editor furiously scribbling in the margins: “Which was it — the best of times or the worst of times? It could hardly have been both. Commit to one or the other!”

Although any one of those perfectly valid objections might have prompted that cry of “Next!”, the structural repetition is what most pros would have noticed first. To see why, you stand up right now and take two steps backward from your computer monitor.

Notice the visual pattern? Millicent would have spotted it as soon as she pulled the first page of ol’ Charles’ manuscript out of the envelope.

Actually, if you’ve been revising for a while, you might have caught that the structural repetition problem without backing off. A solid tip-off: the verb to be appears 14 times within the first sentence.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Yes, this is a level of verb variation that would make Millicent long for the comparatively challenging vocabulary choices of See Dick run, Jane. Run, Jane, run. Remember, though, it’s not just the repeated words and phrases that would raise professional readers’ weary eyebrows here: it’s the phenomenon of consecutive sentences being set up in the same way. No matter how great your high school English teacher told you this particular opening was, it’s dull for the reader to read the same It was X, it was Y sentence structure over and over again.

Or, indeed, any given sentence structure, if it is repeated often enough within too few lines of text.

Unfortunately, a lot of writers just adore structural repetition: it reads a bit like a prayer. It can provide a driving, almost galloping rhythm to a page. Many aspiring writers see that rhythm in the work of authors they admire and say, “By gum, I’m going to make my paragraphs read like that!”

And they do. Sometimes, they make their paragraphs read like that several times per page.

Don’t mind that loud rapping. It’s merely Millicent pounding her head against a wall, moaning, “Make it stop! Make it stop!”

That’s what happens when perfectly legitimate voice choices run amok. Like any magic trick,, repetitive structure loses its ability to charm when the reader sees it too often. After a surprisingly short while, it can start to come across less as an interesting stylistic choice than as a sort of narrative tic.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let me ask you: how many iterations of It was… did Dickens put you through before you first thought Oh, come on, Chuck; get on with it?

“But Anne,” lovers of percussive repetition beg piteously, “I just love my structurally repetitious opening page/paragraph/chapter. If I’m careful not to use this trick again anywhere in the manuscript, I can keep it, can’t I?”

I have a news flash from Millicentville: she sees a LOT of structurally repetitious openings; as with anything else she sees a dozen times a week, it’s probably going to be more difficult to impress her by this method. She’s also not particularly likely to believe that an opening redolent with repetition is a one-time narrative choice.

More often than not, when a manuscript opens with repetitive structure, it will continue with repetitive structure. That, alas, renders structural repetition dangerous to use in the first pages of a submission. Or book proposal. Agents and editors are just so used to this tendency that they’re all too likely — fairly or not — to conclude that to read on would be to be treated to the same type of sentence over and over, ad infinitum.

And that, my friends, is not invocatory; it’s soporific. Next time, I shall talk about ways to tell which is which in your writing, to figure out when invocatory rhythms will help your work.

Remember, Millicent seldom makes it all the way to the bottom of page one. That’s not a whole lot of lines in which to establish the originality and power of your voice.

Too bad our pal Chuckles blew his chance by repeating himself so much, eh? Keep up the good work!

A trip to the Formatpalooza annex: the stylish section break — the inculcation of some good writing habits

“If only I hadn’t been so polite.” — S.T.C.

Long time no see, eh, campers? Honestly, I’m as surprised as you are: I keep arising each morning fully intending to post. The noon hour sees me already mentally composing practical examples. Hardly an afternoon goes by when I do not glance over at my computer nestled somewhere in the sub-basement of the muses’ palace of fine arts and think, “Okay, just a few minutiae to get through first, my pet, and we’ll be hard at work on that stirring entry on book promotion.” Or querying. Or Frankenstein manuscript-revising.

Then suddenly, it’s late evening, and the clever arguments and cunning demonstrations of applied craft I have been constructing in my head all day come tumbling to the ground. “Oh, that will take me hours to write up properly,” I murmur into my welcoming pillow. “Rather than write something hasty tonight, I’ll take it up tomorrow and zzzzzzz…”

At least, I think that’s what I’ve been murmuring. It’s kind of hard to remember the particulars in the morning.

“My God, Anne,” my learned mother says. “Who raised you? I certainly did not bring you up to go to sleep without jotting writing ideas on the notepad that’s never more than eight inches from your pillow.”

She has a point: she didn’t raise me to set at naught one of the cardinal rules of professional writing. One of the great tangible benefits of growing up in a family of writers and editors is knowing not to fall into the unfortunately common Oh, I’m sure I’ll remember the marvelous idea I have right now in the morning/when I get home/after I dash off this e-mail syndrome: I was trained from the cradle to have a writing implement and paper within tiny arms’ reach at all times, so I could jot down a few notes on that unforgettable idea just in case I forgot it.

Why sew extra pockets into a kid’s clothes for toting around wee notebooks and golf pencils? Because my hyper-literary parents wanted me to have a long and happy creative life, that’s why. As every professional writer in the world can attest to his or her sorrow, it’s never safe to assume that marvelous writing idea that the muses just dropped fully formed into your brainpan will not vanish into the ether within the next fifteen minutes.

Fortunately for the happiness of writers everywhere, few problems inherent to the life literary are as simple to solve as the lost great idea.

Step 1: write it down. Immediately.

Step 2: make sure you always have the means to carry out Step 1.

You needn’t buy a special notebook for the purpose — just get into the habit of carrying some paper and a writing implement in your pocket, purse, backpack, and/or pocket. Install same on your bedside table, in your car, in the pocket of that nasty uniform your inflexible and unimaginative boss makes you wear. (Honestly, does he think that patrons at his bar won’t at least suspect that the person mixing drinks is the bartender if she is not sporting a cheesy uniform?) From this moment forth, you should never be without it.

And I do mean never. If you are about to climb Mount Everest and do not have an extra few square inches for a pen, ask an experienced sherpa to help you repack. Clutch the lapels of the firefighter toting you off to safety until you are actually out of the building, but as soon as you are on non-smoking ground, grab the nearest envelope so you can scrawl a few notes on the back. Your deathbed should have pen and paper within easy reach.

And don’t tell me that you’ll get to it eventually — slip that notebook into your pocket now. Don’t make me bore you with that ghastly tale about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s being interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock” while he was frantically trying to write Kubla Khan. While Coleridge apparently dined out on the story of how that untimely visitor made him forget the rest of the poem he’d already written in his mind, in my family, there was only one verdict about whose fault the loss was.

“He never should have answered the door,” my father would say.

“Not before jotting down a few notes,” my mother would agree.

Small comfort to Coleridge and every other writer who seen a good idea vanish in the face of the demands of quotidian life, naturally, but you’d be surprised at how little sympathy the lost great idea garners among professionals. “Well, why didn’t you write it down?” they will ask the writer, apparently oblivious to the fact she is valiantly choking back tears. “Didn’t you ever hear the story about Coleridge and Kubla Khan?”

Even if you have to grab a passing waiter’s pen from his apron to scrawl a few pertinent words on your hand or shirtsleeve, it honestly is in your best interest — and your next book’s — to get into the salutary habit of writing every fresh idea down right away. Which leads me to the lesser-known third portion of the cardinal rule:

Step 3: accept that performing (1) as often as you should will occasionally bring unfortunate social consequences.

You didn’t think that write down good ideas the instant they occur to you applied only to moments when you happened to be alone, did you? One never knows where inspiration will strike: amazing book ideas have been known to manifest in locales as inconvenient for note-taking as the shower, in the basket of a hot air balloon, on a Tilt-a-Whirl, and at dinners at the White House.

The muses can be most demanding mistresses. Heck, the premise of my last novel came to me while I was floating in an open-air hot tub nestled into the side of a mountain in the Oregon Cascades. I had to hop barefoot past a patch of poison oak to get to my ever-present pen and paper, and you don’t see me complaining.

Actually, once a writer becomes accustomed to noting every good idea for future use, she’s less likely to complain about it than those with whom she elects to spend her time. To that end, you also might want to train your kith and kin to hold their thoughts (and tongues) if — make that when — a brilliant idea strikes you.

Oh, you want, “Just hold off on carving that Thanksgiving turkey for a moment, Uncle Walter, while I write myself some notes,” to be the first your loved ones hear of your new-found good habit? Do you have any idea how many references to Kubla Khan it’s going to take to render that little surprise socially acceptable?

I sense half of you cringing at the very idea of stopping a conversation, dinner, or other things I will leave to your imagination if you are over the age of consent (you’ll understand when you’re older, Timmy) with a blithe, “Oh, excuse me, but Anne Mini says that if I intend to write for a living, I need to get this idea down at least in note form right away. Please feel free to continue without me.” I can understand where it might seem a trifle rude to the uninitiated.

But that’s precisely the point: it comes across as far more impolite to someone who doesn’t already know that serious writers do this. Frequently. It’s how the creative brain works: bursts of inspiration are part of our standard equipment. And the more seriously you take those inspirations, the more active your idea-generator will become.

It’s far, far better if you explain this to your kith and kin before the muses bop you over the head in the middle of that Broadway musical your partner has been dying to see for six months. Trust me on this one; it may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually kinder that way. The sooner they get used to the idea that befriending a serious writer necessarily entails waiting in more or less supportive silence while you furiously scribble notes on the paper tablecloth in a crowded restaurant, the happier you — and they — will be once you are writing professionally.

Think of it as training for working with an agent or publishing house. Honestly — and I speak from experience here — “Hey, honey, the brand-new editor my publisher has just hired has asked me to come up with a new ending for my novel, pronto, so I’m not going to be able to pay the slightest attention for the next three weeks, okay?” will go over much better if Honey has already accustomed him- or herself to the reality that creativity is often rather inconsiderate about when it strikes.

So, as it happens, are deadlines. Just as there is no convenient time to sprain one’s ankle — again, I speak from experience — there is no really terrific time for a last-minute or rush revision request. Sorry about that.

I’m also sorry about this: no matter when it happens, it’s going to be hard on your loved ones, necessarily. But being the writer too nice to say to those loved ones now, “Look, I cherish our time together, but my writing is important enough that occasionally I will stop dead in the middle of an anecdote to make a note about a scene I want to write later,” is almost invariably equally reluctant to say in a nice, reasonable tone, “Remember how happy you were when I landed that agent? Well, this is the direct result: I need to spend this weekend making the revisions she’s requested,” or even, “Here, take twenty bucks from my rather paltry advance and go to a movie so I may honor the acquiring editor’s demand that I change my protagonist’s best friend’s name from Jolene to Joanne all 300 times it appears in my novel.”

Whenever you do it, it’s going to take some guts. I’m merely suggesting that if your kith and kin are already acclimated to your taking ten minutes out of lunch to scribble feverishly on the back of a menu, they’re less likely to find it unacceptable when you whip out a notebook in the third hour of Cousin Marvin’s testimonial dinner or in the course of the eighth inning of a particularly eventful baseball game. And at least they’ll have some inkling of why your work is important enough to you to cancel that long-planned trip to Disneyland because your editor abruptly got laid off and the new one just hates the chapter about the trip to Disneyland in your book.

Darn. It was going to be tax-deductible as a research expense, too.

Yes, yes, I know: writers tend to be conflict-avoiders. Try to think of getting them used to your ignoring them for two minutes in the middle of a movie as an inoculation — if they have already been exposed to the minor inconvenience, they won’t be made as sick at the onslaught of the major one. Don’t expect them to be thrilled about it, however; just expect them to cope. They’re never going to be thrilled if you spend most of your family reunion in the hotel room, fleshing out that fascinating conflict you’ve just dreamed up between your antagonist and the love interest’s second cousin, but at least it won’t seem out of character.

“Oh, that’s just Mavis,” your significant other/children/long-suffering parent will sigh. “We never know when the muses are going to kidnap her next.”

I would also recommend getting into the excellent habit of keeping a pad of paper by your computer while you are writing and revising, to jot down any inspirations that, while they might not be applicable to the page on your screen, might provide a piquant addition or necessary change to another part of the book. Taking the time to scrawl Did Arlo have a cocker spaniel prior to Chapter 4? on a scrap of paper now can save you the acute embarrassment of realizing that you’ve just sent the agent of your dreams a manuscript in which the dog’s breed is different in Chapters 2, 8, and 17 than it is in Chapter 1.

That’s particularly important if there happens to be more than one dog in the book, of course. “Wait,” Millicent the agency screener exclaims over page 47. “Is Marley the great Dane from page 2, or the Pekinese from Chapter 3? Or is it not a dog at all, but merely a reference to Ebenezer Scrooge’s late partner?”

Yes, readers who have been giggling for the past couple of paragraphs? “Oh, dear Anne,” the gigglers sigh. “You are such a Luddite. In the situation you just described, I would be working on my computer. Surely, that would obviate the need for rifling through the nearest wastepaper basket for a stray envelope. If I want to take notes, I’ll just open a new document and type them.”

I believe that you will, oh gigglers, but frankly, most writers caught up in the throes of one scene wouldn’t pause that long to type up an idea about another while it’s fresh in their minds. They would — sacre bleu! — just assume that they’d still remember that great notion by the time they had finished the current scene.

Think they will? Why take the chance? Jotting a quick note on a stray scrap of paper will take only a few seconds.

The other advantage of recording that idea on paper, rather than on one’s computer, Blackberry, or even in a recording device is that one can leave it sitting next to one’s computer, Blackberry, or recording device, all ready to remind one about that great notion. If you’re like me — and I suspect most writers are, at least in this respect — the very laws of inertia dictate that note written today will still be lying there a month hence, when you have time to get back to the scene you intended to write.

Oh, you tidy up your writing space every day? My good pile is almost as tall as the container holding the pens I used to write them.

If that same idea is memorialized electronically, by contrast, you have to remember to reopen that file or listen to that recording. Unless you are in the habit of regularly reviewing your computer files, that may not happen before you finish your current draft. You might not even stumble across it again — avert your eyes, children; this is going to be ugly — before you pop the completed draft in the mail to the agent of your dreams.

Isn’t taking a minute to write a note now preferable to bearding the heavens with your bootless cries of, “But I meant to go back and change the dog’s name from Marley to Charley prior to page 150!” later on?

The same principle applies, as I hope all of my regular readers are aware, to remembering technical questions that might arise during the writing or revision processes. Although a few intrepid souls might instantly close their Word programs and fly to this site (or a similar one, or ask a trusted writer friend) within a few seconds after running into an intractable problem, my impression is that most don’t.

And finally, I have managed to build a segue to the topic I had planned to discuss today! I wasn’t kidding about how easy it is to get sidetracked.

One of the many stacks currently threatening to topple over onto my mousing hand holds my To Blog Upon list. While the inspirations there range from the hyper-serious (one note reads blog about the desirability of an unpublished writer’s designating a literary executor in her will) to the practical (how long has it been since I discussed juggling offers from multiple agents?) to the completely frivolous (been overusing dog examples lately — switch to wombats?), many of the most intriguing ideas in this stack are print-outs (on the back sides of already-revised early drafts of my work, of course; reusing is as valuable as recycling) of questions readers have the comments.

(Note to self: all of those parentheses and italics are eye-distracting on the screen. Also, isn’t 93 words too long for a single sentence?)

I reserve a special stack — yes, my desk is precisely as cluttered as you are picturing it to be — for questions that are perfectly logical as follow-ups to formatting or craft issues, but wouldn’t necessarily occur to a professional reader as something that might be puzzling to those who have never seen a professional manuscript in person. When one stares at those pages for a living, one develops an almost visceral sense of what does and does not belong on the page. But how is someone new to the game to develop that sense?

Incisive and thoughtful reader Karin, for instance, raised a marvelous issue that I had overlooked in my Formatpalooza posts on section breaks. (Which were three: a post on the rules governing them, a post containing visual examples, and a post showing section breaks in a book proposal.) Even better, she was polite and charming as she brought it up.

I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time now and find your advice very clear and extremely thorough; thank you for the hours of work you put in trying to help us blind writers see the light of proper formatting and querying.

I have to admit, combing through pages of formatting advice, I may have missed the answer to my question, which, while small, addresses a concern I have on the fifth page of my manuscript, having to do with section breaks. Having turned off widow/orphan control and inserted a space between sections, I find that one section ends on the bottom of a page, which means the beginning of the next section starts after a blank line on the next page. Will professional eyes notice the blank line as a section break, or will it appear sloppy?

As you know, we all get very insecure wondering if these things spell doom for our publishing chances. If you have time, could you please put my fears to rest? Thank you very much!

As my To Blog Upon stack can attest, I get a lot of questions about section breaks. Partially, that seems to be due to the surprisingly pervasive practice among self-styled experts not to differentiate between what is proper to indicate a section break in a book manuscript or proposal (a skipped double-spaced line) and what is appropriate for a short story or article (#).

So before I address Karin’s specific concern, let’s see a properly-formatted section break in action in mid-page. A transition between two scenes in one of H.G. Wells’ social novels will do the trick nicely:

The image came out a trifle on the blurry side — my apologies about that — but the section break is quite clear, is it not? No bells, no whistles: just a skipped line between scenes.

While you have that fuzzy image firmly in mind, let’s take a gander at another rule of standard format that often puzzles those new to the game. Had ol’ H.G. (or whoever is doing his word processing these days) not followed Karin’s example and turned off the widow/orphan control in Word, this page would have had a too-large bottom margin. Like so:

See the problem? This page has fewer lines on it than the previous example, because Word did not want to leave the first line of the final paragraph behind on page 158 when the rest of the paragraph was on page 159.

Millicent, however, like the rest of us who read manuscripts for a living, prefers each page to feature the same number of lines of text. Otherwise, it would be impossible to estimate word count, right?

Including a section break does not run afoul of that preference: in theory, there are the same number of lines per page; the empty space is holding the place of a line of text. Because our Millie knows that a skipped line of text means a section break, she understands that.

But what if the last line of a scene ended on the next-to-last line of the page? The result would be the same number of lines on page 158 as if the widow/orphan control had axed the last line. The next section would begin on the first line of page 159.

Clear enough what’s going on, is it not? Since the subsequent scene would follow on the top line of the next page, Millicent would know that what she has just seen is not a formatting gaffe, but a transition between two separate sections of text.

But what if, as Karin feared, the first scene had ended on the last line of page 158? Should we take her suggestion of pushing the section-differentiating skipped line to the top of page 159? Let’s see what that would look like in practice, shall we?

Looks a trifle silly, doesn’t it? To Millicent’s eyes, it would look like something else: a manuscript that the writer had not bothered to check in hard copy to see how it would print out. “And if the writer didn’t read his work in hard copy before sending it to my boss,” she reasons, “he probably didn’t bother to proofread it, either.”

Not an instant-rejection offense, certainly, but not the impression of how serious you are about your writing that you would prefer she harbor, is it? H.G. has two options here: tinker with the first scene so that it does not end on the last line of the page — or take the chance that Millie will understand that when the first line on the top of page 159 is about a different time, place, and person than the last line on page 158, she might be dealing with a change of scene.

I would opt for trusting her: she’s smart. And honestly, on the page, the situation isn’t all that confusing. Take a gander:

Sometimes, a writer just has to have faith in his readers’ intelligence. Millicents read a heck of a lot of manuscripts, after all: they understand the limitations of standard format.

And if they don’t, they can always write themselves a note as a reminder to find out. Keep up the good work!

Finding your voice, part III, or, this is no time to make a carbon copy

For the last couple of posts, we’ve been obsessing on the subject of narrative voice. Yesterday, I advanced a modest proposal: it was more to your advantage as an aspiring writer to revise your manuscript with an eye to making it sound like your writing, rather than like a pale (or even very good) replica of an author whom you happen to admire.

And jaws dropped to the floor all over North America. Apparently, this approach to literary success was something of a novelty to a lot of you.

Or perhaps you were merely surprised that anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would want to talk about individual literary voice. In the maelstrom of advice aimed at writers trying to land an agent, the issue of voice often falls by the wayside, as if it were not important. Indeed, in many writers’ fora and at many conferences, the prevailing advice seems to veer away from it: although most of us who write cherish our original voices, pick any four writers’ conference attendees at random, and three of them will swear that they’ve just heard at least one agent or editor say point-blank that the surest path to literary success is not to wow the world with a fresh new voice or innovative story, but to produce a narrative close enough to a currently established author’s that it could easily be marketed to the same audience.

From the publishing world’s perspective, this is just common sense: figuring out who your target reader is, what s/he is reading right now, and what s/he likes best about it is not only a great way to come up with tweaks to render your work-in-progress more marketable, but also a fabulous means of coming up with a list of agents to query. Think about it: an agent has already established a solid track record of representing books in your chosen category that sales records prove appeal to your ideal readership is far, far more likely to be interested in your work than an agent who habitually represents, well, anything else.

But that’s not what 99% of aspiring writers hear in this advice, is it? Ask any one of those three out of four conference attendees: they have derived the impression that their manuscripts are supposed to sound as if they had been written by someone else.

To be precise, by an author on the current bestseller list. According to this theory, all any agent wants to see is a slightly modified retelling of what’s already available on the market. Or so we must surmise from the tens of thousands of YA queries and submissions in recent years for stories that sound suspiciously like something in the TWILIGHT series.

This erroneous belief does not merely affect what’s submitted to agencies; it can have serious repercussions at the revision stage. Rather than approaching their submissions with the intent of sharpening individual voice, many aspiring writers assume that their narratives should sound less like them. Revision, then, becomes a matter of looking at one’s pages, comparing them to a similar bestseller, and attempting to minimize the difference.

See the problem? These writers are setting their sights far too low. They’re also setting them far too late.

Listen: fads fade fast. (And Sally sells seashells by the seashore, if you’d like another tongue-twister.) In the long run, I believe that a writer will be better off developing her own voice than trying to ape current publishing fashions. Provided, of course, that the voice in question is a good fit for the project at hand.

And then there’s the logistical problem: it takes a while to write a novel; by the time a copycat manuscript is complete. Even after a writer signs with an agent, it takes time to market a manuscript to editors — and after the ink is dry on the publication contract, it’s usually at least a year before a book turns up on the shelves of your local bookstore. Often more like two.

Why is that problematic, in practical terms? Well, chances are, the market will have moved on by then. A bestseller’s being hot now doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the same kind of voice or story will be sought-after several years hence.

In fact, what was selling like the proverbial hotcakes a couple of years back often, if it landed on Millicent the agency screener’s desk today, just seem hackneyed, if not downright derivative. “That’s been done,” Millicent murmurs, moving on to the next submission. “What makes this writer think that there are still editors clamoring for the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, HARRY POTTER, or even THE DA VINCI CODE? Copycats of these bestsellers have inundated agencies for years now. What I’m looking for is a fresh take on a story I know my boss can sell, written in a voice that will appeal to the already-established readership in that book category.”

That’s not an unreasonable request, Millie — but imagine how difficult it would be for an aspiring writer to be simultaneously trying to write like a surprise bestseller’s author and to get a completed manuscript ready to market before that bestseller has ended its love affair with the reading public. Even if an offbeat hit has an unusually long run — vampire vs. werewolf romance, anyone? — unless an aspiring writer had already been working on a similar book project when the sleeper hits the New York Times bestseller lists, it’s likely that by the time the copycat manuscript is complete, Millicent will already have been exposed to hundreds of submissions with the same aim.

Oh, they might not all be obvious about it; many will be genuinely interesting twists on the established premise. But you’d be amazed at how many trend-following aspiring writers will be perfectly up front about their stories being derivative. Any agent who has ever represented a genre-busting hit has received hundreds of thousands of queries like this:

Dear X. Tremely Pickison:

I am looking for an agent for my novel, DUSK, a YA paranormal designed to appeal to the millions of readers of the bestselling TWILIGHT series. But while TWILIGHT’s heroine was torn between a vampire and a werewolf, DUSK’s teen protagonist must choose between a sexy merman and a handsome Frankenstein’s monster.

You won’t want to miss out on this next great bestseller! I don’t know that I’m supposed to include a SASE, so you’ll just have to guess how to get in touch with me if you are interested in my work.

Sincerely,

Starchaser McFameseeker

Okay, so the part about the SASE was a bit of an exaggeration — most queries like this don’t include one and don’t mention it. But the toss-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window subtlety of the sales approach and the carefully-drawn obvious parallel to the copied book is often this blatant.

Unfortunately for queriers who embrace this strategy, neither this kind of hard sell nor the carbon copy approach to breaking into publishing tend to do much for Millicent. Oh, a book featuring some of the same elements and written in a comparable voice might well strike her as marketable in the wake of a blockbuster — as anyone who visited a bookstore with a well-stocked YA section a couple of years after the surprise success of TWILIGHT can attest, many similar storylines did in fact see publication as publishers raced to replicate the book’s appeal. But the mere fact that thousands of aspiring writers will inevitably look at that blockbuster and say, “Oh, I can write something like that,” means, necessarily, that a writer who embraces the copycat route will be facing a great deal of competition.

Not to mention running the risk of boring Millicent. Believe me, when you’re seeing the same essential storyline or plot elements in every fifth or six query — not at all out of the realm of possibility, about a year after a major blockbuster’s release — you’re going to get tired of it fast.

The same holds true for voice — and for manuscripts that don’t really have a distinct, individual authorial voice. As I mentioned in passing yesterday, part of the reason that many aspiring writers become confused about voice is that not all published writing exhibits an original narrative voice.

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

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

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

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

In the vast majority of cases, though, a published book without a strong, distinctive narrative voice will at least be clearly written. Perhaps not stuffed to the gills with insights or phraseology that makes you squeal and run for your quote book, but at least unobtrusively straightforward, informative, and decently researched.

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

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

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

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

I’m guessing not.

One of the great fringe benefits of gaining a broad array of writing experience and building up a solid knowledge of craft is developing the ability to switch voices at will. You have to come to know your own writing pretty darned well for that. At the moment, I habitually write in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, the voice I have chosen for my novel-in-progress, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself not to make light of your personal tragedies, for there lies your subject matter.)

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

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

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please.

To be blunt about it, what will work for one kind of writing aimed at one kind of audience will not work for another. I speak from experience here: I’ve written back label copy for wine bottles (when I was underage, as it happens), as well as everything from political platforms to fashion articles. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these venues.

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

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

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

Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay a very young, very naïve Harvard student a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area, fact-checking the previous year’s edition and writing fresh copy.

Often, in my case, by firelight at a dubious campground: my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire. A trifle ironic, given that most of what I was writing was restaurant and motel reviews for places I could neither afford to eat nor stay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

”Improvise?” he suggested.

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

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

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

Pertinent questions for any projected revision, are they not? I asked them of myself: how would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back to the desirability of copying what you admire. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery — which I sincerely doubt — then the narrative choices of bestselling authors must spend a heck of a lot of time blushing. Or so I am forced to conclude by the many, many stories told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or the many, many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

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

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

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

Because then one reader, at least, will be satisfied: you. Give it some thought, please, and keep up the good work!

Finding your voice, part II, or, why am I introducing you to a small, annoying bug?

My apologies to those of you looking forward to Sunday’s promised foray into book promotion. I shan’t bore you with the details of why it didn’t happen; suffice it to say that I will be really, really grateful when the universe stops finding such amusement in causing the lady with the cane to tumble over sideways. I’m hoping to do a couple of posts on subject this coming weekend, lenient gravity permitting.

I’m walking upright again today — Darwin would be so pleased — but I must confess, I’m feeling a bit stuffy-headed. It’s all in a good cause, however: my backyard lilac tree has been waving bushels of lavender flowers in my general direction. Very beautiful, very pollen-laden.

It reminds me of the small town — a village, really, ensconced within an agricultural preserve — where I grew up, in the Napa Valley. (Note to those not from those parts: please, whatever you do, don’t refer to the entire area as Napa; it makes the locals apoplectic. Napa is a well-developed city on the south end of the quite rural Napa Valley. If you’re thinking of vineyards, you actually mean the latter, and if you’re thinking of a quaint little tourist trap, you’re probably thinking of my home town, 20 miles north of Napa. Believe me, when you’re living there, the difference between a city of 130,000 and a town of 5,000 could not be greater.)

Tourists overrun the Napa Valley in the autumn, when the grapevines sport leaves ranging from bright green to mellow gold to sunburned red, but my favorite time there has always been the early spring. The vines are dormant then, blasted-looking and leaf-free, but the vineyards are full of knee-high fluorescent yellow mustard flowers: acres and acres of neon brilliance.

The local truism runs that if you don’t suffer from pollen allergies during a Napa Valley spring, you never will. Because I am inherently contrary, I never suffered from pollen allergies while I was growing up. Then, years later, I moved to Seattle, where the pollen is evidently virulent in a completely different fashion.

Particularly, I notice, lilac pollen. A-choo.

I bring this up, not merely so you will excuse me if I pause occasionally for a ladylike wipe of the nose, but as an apt metaphor for today’s topic, a continuation of Sunday’s discussion of voice. Let’s cut right to the central issue, as expressed by intrepid and curious reader Gordon’s comment:

Anne — How do we tell if our voice is actually ‘our voice’? Is there an easy answer, or do we rely on our early reader to tell us? Or our editor?

Terrific question, Gordon, and one that is surprisingly rarely discussed at literary conferences or in writing classes. There’s a pretty good reason for this: while craft is general, voice is individual. While craft must be learned — and should be learned, as a means of clarifying and amplifying one’s voice — authorial voice is, like talent, inherent. And, like talent, individual voice is not always apparent in even a very gifted writer’s early efforts.

Which is, I must admit, why my first response to Gordon’s question was, “Please, don’t expect your future editor to define it for you — by definition, the best arbiter for a truly original voice is its author.” Authorial voice can’t really be taught (although there are some writing teachers who would disagree with me on that point). It arises organically, often after years of cultivation.

And I already hear some disgruntled muttering out there. “A very pretty notion, Anne,” these mutterers say, “but we’re looking for practicality here, not philosophy. What precisely is voice, and why should I worry about whether my work exhibits a unique one?”

For those of you who have heard the term bruited about in literary circles but were afraid to ask for a definition, voice is that combination of tone, worldview, vocabulary, rhythm, vocabulary, and style that makes one author’s work differ from another’s, even if they are telling the same story.

It is, to put it as simply as possible, what makes YOUR work sound like YOU, and not like someone else. In a book with a strong, well-developed voice, every paragraph — indeed, every sentence — will be in that voice, a phenomenon the pros call consistency.

And that’s darned hard for a writer to pull off, particularly (as is often the case for those new to the craft) if the writer in question isn’t quite sure what her voice is. “Is my voice how word patterns appear in my brain?” she might catch herself wondering. “Or on the page of a first draft? Or is my voice what ends up in a final revision? And how is what I like to read in other writers’ work different — and the same — as my personal voice?”

Yes, in response to what half of you just thought exceedingly loudly, those are some mighty weighty questions, ones that a thoughtful writer could spend a productive lifetime answering. But think about it on a practical level: as a reader, don’t you expect consistency of voice in a published book? Haven’t you ever read a book where the tone, vocabulary, and/or style abruptly altered so much that it jarred you out of the storyline?

Millicent the agency screener has, alas. So have her cousin Maury, the editorial assistant, and their aunt, Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. Lovers of literature that they are, it genuinely saddens them to see a voice that they have come to like and respect suddenly transmogrify into something else 150 pages into a manuscript. Or 50. Or 10.

And how do you think they are likely to react if the voice is uneven on page 1? Avert your eyes, children — it’s not a pretty image.

Nor are they alone in preferring consistency. Most readers dislike that feeling of being pulled out of the story, so pros tend to edit with an eye to removing it. The result: the authors we tend to love are those whose voices are so consistent that if we took a two-line excerpt from Chapter 2 and another from Chapter 8, we could tell that the same person wrote them.

“Golly,” say the scoffers we met above, “voice sounds awfully important. Why doesn’t every writers’ conference devote immense amounts of time to helping aspiring writers seek out and develop theirs?”

Beats me — unless it’s because by definition, teaching a group means catering to commonalities; to help a writer develop his voice, an instructor would have to read enough of his work to figure out what he does better than any other writer on the planet. That’s assuming, of course, that the instructor has the literary acumen to weed out those elements that are borrowed from other authors’ styles (more common than you might think), as well as the time to encourage the writer, draft after draft, to cater to his own strengths.

Kind of a tough brief for a one-time two-hour seminar with twenty students, no?

To be fair to conference organizers, most submissions do fall under the weight of formatting, grammar, and clarity problems long before your garden-variety Millicent would take issue with inconsistency of voice, so it does make some sense to offer instruction on those issues first. When a writer is still struggling to express herself clearly and in a way that will appeal to an established market, those are definitely the skills she should master up front. And it’s not all that uncommon for an aspiring writer only to begin addressing herself to acquiring craft skills until after she is relatively happy with the overall story she wants to tell.

Or, to put it another way, at the submission stage, if her manuscript is not in standard format, contains many grammatical errors, and is confusing to read, an agent or editor’s rending his garments and crying, “But the voice is not consistent!” is probably the least of her worries. Nor is it likely to be Millicent’s first concern if the story has been insufficiently thought-out.

But let’s assume that you’ve been working tirelessly on these foundational issues, and now are pondering Gordon’s question: how does a writer know when he’s found his voice?

Does his writing abruptly jell in a way it had not before — and, if so, will that appealing congealing be immediately apparent to him? Or will he stumble upon a passage when he is reading his completed manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, AND OUT LOUD (I couldn’t resist) before responding to a request for pages, causing him to cry out, “Wow, I would like my entire book to read like this! I shall instantly drop everything to go back through this entire manuscript, page by page, line by line, to apply this engaging voice consistently throughout the book!”

Um, no, on all three counts. Not usually. Especially that bit where the writer realizes that if his newfound voice is going to work qua voice, he’s going to have to use it consistently throughout the manuscript.

So how does a writer discover her own voice? Well, for starters, it’s extraordinarily rare that an author’s distinctive personal voice shows up in her first writing projects, except perhaps in flashes. Why? Well, as much as we might like to think of ourselves as expressing ourselves as no one else does, doing so in writing is a rather difficult skill to master. Even for those most beloved of the Muses, it takes time, and it takes practice.

It takes, in other words, more than just sitting down and writing a complete draft of a book. That’s the first step, typically, not the last: most writers will experiment with quite a few voices, vocabulary levels, approaches to scenes, etc. in drafting their first book or two. And that’s perfectly fine: after all, how are you going to know what you can and can’t pull off, or even what you like in your own writing, if you don’t try a variety of styles?

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering for the last few paragraphs, professional readers like Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to manuscripts featuring a smorgasbord of voice experiments. To them, inconsistency of voice is a sign that the writer in question has not yet decided what she wants the book to sound like overall. So why not throw that fish back into the sea, to wait for it to grow bigger, stronger, and more consistent?

Okay, so that analogy crumbled a bit at the end; try as I might, I can’t figure out what an inconsistent fish would act like. (Attempt to breathe air every second Thursday of the month, maybe?) But that’s precisely why I used it: see how jarring even a single consistent sentence can be to a narrative?

Besides, most writers begin by imitating the voices of authors they admire, so it’s not at all uncommon to see a manuscript scene that contains a patch that reads a bit of Annie Proulx, a terse dialogue reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, and a blistering line or two of Jay Mcinerney cynicism, all tied together by a few straightforward declarative sentences.

Tell me, out of all of those disparate elements, which part is the writer’s own voice? Is it really Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel’s job to guess?

Most of the time — and you might want to sit down for this one, campers; some of you may find what I have to say next rather discouraging — a writer comes to recognize her own voice because over time, it becomes the most natural for her to use. Its consistency sits up and announces itself to be how she should be writing all the time.

Which means, Gordon, that you may not yet know what your voice is, but you will probably recognize it when you see it.

I know, I know; that sounds very woo-woo, but I swear that it’s true. For most good writers, one day, after seemingly endless writing, a personal voice abruptly emerges and takes over the narration. Like all of those lilac and mustard flowers bursting into bloom on a rainy spring morning, its essence will waft over the page, marking it.

And the writer says, “Hey, I like that. I think I’m going to write like that all the time.”

To complicate matters, just as those early spring flowers make some people smile and others sneeze violently, a strong, original voice will not appeal to all readers. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, no not all published writing exhibits an distinct narrative voice. The more distinctive the voice, the greater the risk, in a way — it can irritate in a way that a merely clear, pleasant, generic voice may not.

Oh, you didn’t know that was one of the many reasons that journalists are trained to sound so much alike on the printed page? They are urged to keep their individual voices out of the story, so as not to distract the reader.

The ambient mutters have been steadily growing to a near-roar. “Okay, now I’m really confused. If I understand you correctly, it’s safer not to write in an individual voice — but if I want to be known for the beauty of my writing, I need not only to do just that, but to do it consistently throughout my manuscript.”

Nicely summarized, ghostly mutterers: it is a genuine paradox. It’s also a choice that every writer has to make for himself. Or herself, as the case may be. (I’ve alternated so often in this post that I’m not sure whose turn it is.)

Feet continue to shuffle out there, and hips to shift uncomfortably on computer chairs. “What I’m really asking, I guess,” my muttering friends continue, “is what separates a good voice from a bad voice. Or, to put it another way, how on earth can an agent, editor, or contest judge rate voice on anything but personal preference?”

Remember last autumn’s Querypalooza series, when I pointed out early and often that contrary to popular opinion amongst the aspiring, a savvy writer shouldn’t want to sign with just any agent — she should aspire to signing with one who truly loves her work? This is precisely why: response to voice is quite individual. No matter how beautifully-written a manuscript may be, it’s not going to be every agent’s proverbial cup of tea.

Is the common rejection line I just didn’t fall in love with it making a bit more sense now?

In order to represent you successfully, an agent needs not only to like your voice, but be able to identify what is individual about it lucidly enough to be able to go to an editor and say truthfully, “Look, based on the books you have been buying lately, I think you are going to like this manuscript, for these twelve reasons…”

Because a runny nose is apparently conducive to decoding cosmic mysteries, allow me to add: that’s why nonfiction is reputed to be easier to sell than fiction; fiction is inherently much more heavily reliant upon voice, right? Particularly literary fiction, where the freshness and strength of the voice is the book’s primary selling point.

And, let’s face it, no matter how strong a story is, few readers will finish a novel if they dislike the author’s voice. “I just couldn’t get into it,” they will say, setting it aside.

Nonfiction, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the interest of the subject matter, the slant of the approach, and — yes, I must say it — the credentials of the author. (Oh, stop your groaning — you didn’t honestly expect me to talk about selling NF without bringing up platform, did you?) Just think of the many, many nonfiction books sold each year by journalists: while a strong voice may be an additional selling point, clarity is generally the main desiratum.

Unless, of course, it’s a memoir, where voice is nearly as important as in a novel.

Is your head spinning from all this? Not to worry; tomorrow, I shall discuss voice choices in greater detail. (And I’m going to try like heck to do it on the literal morrow, not merely the next time the pratfall-happy medical gods happen to allow me enough energy to post.)

For today’s purposes, it’s less important that you come away from this with a clear idea of the strategic uses of voice than to realize that you may well have more than one voice lurking inside your creative mind at this very moment — and that before you can make it consistent throughout the narrative, you are going to have to (a) identify the contenders, (b) decide which one you want to dominate the narrative, and (c) set aside some serious revision time for implementing that decision. If, as sometimes amuses the Muses to facilitate, you happen to like more than one of your voice options, you might want to (d) give some thought to which would be most appropriate to the book project at hand (which would fit most comfortably into your chosen book category, which is most likely to appeal to your target readership, etc.), reserving other options for your second, third, or fourth book.

Hey, no one ever said that developing a unique voice was easy. Or uncomplicated.

“I’ve got just one more question,” the disgruntled mutterers who have been dogging me throughout this post are piping up to say. “Why did you decide to start talking about voice at the end of the Pet Peeves on Parade series? If my authorial voice is what is most distinctively me in my manuscript, shouldn’t we have been talking about it all along?”

Ah, but remember what I said above about the usually progression of the authorial learning curve: first comes story, then craft, with voice discovery generally lollygagging to a distant third-place finish. That’s necessary and appropriate — and, frankly, it’s a heck of a lot easier for a writer who has already invested energy in polishing up storytelling and craft issues to tinker with voice than one who has not.

There is more to revising a manuscript than deciding whether this sentence is necessary, that paragraph is clear, or a scene tells rather than shows. All of these are necessary, of course — but ideally, a revising writer should also be asking himself, “But does this part of the manuscript fit with the overall voice? Does it sound like ME?”

Just a small, noisy bug to stick in your ear while you’re reviewing your manuscript in the wake of the Pet Peeves on Parade series. Allow it to jump around freely until next time; perhaps it will awaken an exciting aspect of your voice that’s been napping, waiting until you were ready to hear it. Keep up the good work!