So you’ve pitched or queried successfully — now what? Part X: oh, my itchy fingers!

I had intended to devote Labor Day weekend entirely to posts on craft, campers, on the theory that since simply scads of you will be spending the next few days sending out flotillas of fresh queries and/or submissions, you might enjoy a creativity break. I find, however, that I have a few more things to say about submission that you might want to know before Tuesday rolls around.

How did I know you were gearing up to hit the SEND key? Well, the New York-based publishing world’s annual holiday has traditionally run from the end of the second week of August through, you guessed it, Labor Day. The presses no longer halt with quite the completeness with which they did in days of yore, but still, it’s a hard time to pull together an editorial committee.

Why should that affect the mailing and e-mailing habits of writers trying to break into the biz? Simple: when the editors are not in town, agents have an awfully hard time selling books to them, so agency denizens tend to take those same weeks off.

Again, that’s less true than it used to be, but if the Submission Fairy had whacked you with her magic red pencil last week, teleporting you into the average agency, you would have been chased out of the building by a smaller mob than would have caught up pitchforks and torches in, say, October.

In case I hadn’t mentioned it lately: don’t show up at an agency unless invited to do so, aspiring writers. And hold off on the calls until one of the member agents offers to represent you, please.

Admittedly, even in the bad old days, agencies were often not universally deserted in late August: the luckless soul left to guard the fort often got quite a lot of reading done. Still, it wasn’t then and isn’t now not the worst idea for a writer eager to hear back on a query or submission to hold off until after everyone returned to work with a suntan.

Thou shalt not query or submit between July and Labor Day has featured prominently in the annals of credible advice to writers for decades, and rightly so. Which may render what I am about to say next something of a surprise: if you are planning to query or submit to a US-based agency via e-mail, I would implore you to hold off until at least the middle of next week.

And the masses collapse onto the nearest chaises longues, overcome by astonishment. “But Anne,” they shout, and who could blame them? “I’ve been holding off! For the latter half of the summer, I have been twiddling my thumbs, biting my nails, and playing endless games of cat’s cradle, all to keep my itchy keying finger from hitting the SEND key while the agent of my dreams was likely to be vacating. Since I have every reason to expect that the AOMD will be flinging herself into her desk chair bright and early Tuesday morning, clutching that latté her eager assistant Millicent got her and scowling at the stacks of manuscripts awaiting her august attention — or, rather, her post-August attention — why shouldn’t I hammer on that SEND key like Hephaestus forging armor for the Olympian gods? I have a three-day weekend in which to ignore my kith and kin while I pursue my dream!”

You just answered your own question, itchy-fingered many: because any established agent — and thus any Millicent employed in an established agency — will be greeted upon her return to the office by the small mountain of submissions send over the last month. Her inbox overfloweth. And since millions of aspiring writers will also have been actively avoiding the warm embrace of kith and kin in order to crank out e-mailed queries and submissions this weekend, a hefty percentage of that overflow will be from writers just like you.

Why might that be a problem, if she and Millicent down those lattés, roll up their sleeves, and work through those queries and submissions in the order received? Well, let me ask you: if you had 1,572 messages from total strangers gracing your inbox Tuesday morning, how would you feel about it? Delighted to see that literature was alive and well in North America — or just a trifle grumpy at the prospect of working through them all?

Still not seeing the wisdom of not adding your query or submission to that queue? Okay, think of it this way: would you rather that Millicent first cast eyes upon your query as #1376 of Tuesday, or as #12 of Friday? Would you rather that she read your submission with fresh eyes — or with eyes bleary from the imperative of reading her way down to the point where her desk is visible from above?

Just something to think about. Naturally, a querier or submitter exercises very little control over the conditions under which Millicent reads his work, but if a savvy writer can minimize the chances that she will be assessing it at a point when she will predictably be swamped, why not rein in those itchy fingers for another few days?

Speaking of the trouble into which over-eager fingers can land their owners, as well as our ongoing focus on some of the unanticipated side effects of successful querying and submission, I’d like to devote today’s post to a couple of excellent questions from long-time members of the Author! Author! community. First, let’s learn of the travails faced by witty gun-jumper Robert:

I must have smoked something funny during Querypalooza, because I prematurely sent an agent my query. Only fifty pages in, with no end in sight, I was asked for my completed MS! How would one tiptoe out of this situation, keeping the agency interested?

I love the blog and appreciate every moment you put into it. There is nothing out there that comes close in style, entertainment, or value. Thanks for the tools to push my writing career forward.

Why, thank you, Robert; how kind of you to say so. Also: what on earth were you thinking?

Ah, how loyal you all are; I can feel half of you rushing to Robert’s defense. Lower those pitchforks a trifle, please, so I may hear you better. “Whoa there, lady — what’s with the indignant italics? It can take months to hear back from an agent these days; why couldn’t he have sent out that query the nanosecond he whipped it into shape?”

Well, obviously, he could, because he did, but I get what you’re saying: querying turn-around times can indeed be quite lengthy. One can also, as I know some of you can attest, hear back within an hour of hitting SEND, if someone at the agency of your dreams happens to be sitting in front of a computer at the time.

To quote the late, great Fats Waller, one never knows, does one?

What one does know — and what I suspect has sent our Robert into a belated fit of qualm — is that for fiction, agents expect that any manuscript a writer queries or pitches to them will be at the completed draft stage. Oh, they’re aware that occasionally, an overeager writer will begin setting up prospects a little early, but Robert is quite right to assume that if he ‘fessed up, the agent of his dreams would not be amused.

So how would a savvy writer, in Robert’s words, tiptoe out of this situation, keeping the agency interested? Simple: he wouldn’t.

Was that behemoth thunk a sign that half of you just introduced your lower jaws to the floor? I’m not entirely surprised: as we have been discussing throughout this series, the apparently immortal myth that an agent requesting pages will only accept them if the writer breaks all extant land speed records in getting the manuscript under her peepers has encouraged a whole lot of successful queriers and pitchers to do a whole lot of silly things. Or if not silly, than at least unstrategic — not bothering to spell- or grammar-check before hitting SEND, for instance. Neglecting to proofread, to make sure that the coworker called Monica in Chapter 1 is not Monique in Chapter 5. Fudging the typeface or the margins, so that a particularly strong scene or line will fall within the requested 50 pages, not thereafter. Sending 52 pages, when the agent asked for 50, for the sake of the aforementioned bit. Or simply printing the darned thing out the instant the request for materials arrives and dashing to the post office, only to realize halfway home that the packet did not include a SASE.

Oh, you may laugh, but I know good writers — gifted ones, intelligent ones, ones whose prose a literature lover could have sung out loud — that have made each and every one of these mistakes. Sometimes more than one at a time.

They, like Robert, have jumped the gun, and it did not pay off for them. It seldom does, because — feel free to chant it with me, those of you who have been following this series — since a submitter gets only one chance to place a particular manuscript under a particular agent’s eyes, it simply does not make sense to hit SEND until that manuscript is polished enough to represent her best work.

If you don’t mind my pointing it out, Robert, that level of polish is rarely a characteristic of a first draft. Even if you had hit SEND when you were only a chapter away from finishing the novel, you might have been better off taking the time to read and possibly revise it before querying. But in thinking otherwise, you certainly were not alone: the overwhelming majority of first novels are queried, pitched, and submitted while still in the first-draft stage.

“Okay, I get it,” jaw-rubbers everywhere say sullenly. “My pages should fairly shine before they wing their way to Millicent. But what is my buddy Robert to do? He meant no harm; he had merely assumed that the most he would be asked to send was 50 pages, tops. I hate to see him punished for that piece of misapprehension.”

And he needn’t be, if only he bears in mind the principle that his gun-jumping pretty clearly shows he did not embrace in the first place: when an agent requests a full or partial manuscript, she is not expecting to receive it right away.

So if Robert could conceivably complete that manuscript within the next year to year and a half, he may eschew tiptoeing altogether: he could simply apply his nose diligently to the proverbial grindstone until he finished — and spell-checked, resolved the burning Monica/Monique debate, etc. — and then send it off as requested. No need to apologize in his cover letter, either: since he had no reason to believe that the AOHD had cleared her schedule in anticipation of its arrival, he should simply thank her for asking to see it.

Some of you jaw-rubbers are eying me dubiously. “But Anne, isn’t that a trifle rude? I mean, doesn’t he owe it to the agent of his dreams — that’s what that acronym means, right? — to e-mail her right off the bat to tell her that as much as he would love to comply with her request for pages right away, he won’t be able to do it for months?”

The short answer to that is no. The long answer is NOOOOOOOOOOO.

Seriously, why would he have an obligation to send her an update? It’s not as though Robert’s was the only query her office received, or the only one to which the AOHD said yes. And while most successful queriers and pitchers do crank their submissions out the door rather quickly, there’s always a sizable contingent that never elects to send the requested pages at all. Perhaps because, like Robert, they queried in haste and repented at leisure.

The AOHD is unlikely, in short, to be sitting around four months hence, filing her nails over a desk completely devoid of manuscripts, idly wondering why that nice Robert never sent her that nifty book. But he doesn’t write…he doesn’t call…

Trust me, she has better things to do. Like reading through the pile of manuscripts that did make it to her desk.

Does that giant, gusty collective sigh that just blew my cat sideways indicate that more than a few of you wish you were aware of that before you hit the SEND key on at least one occasion. Again, I’m not surprised, but trust me, Roberts of the literary world, no one will even blink if you don’t get requested materials to them within six or even nine months, much less change their minds about wanting to see it. Plenty of writers, and good ones, take that long to revise existing manuscripts.)

Should Robert’s itchy fingers prove incapable of not tapping out an e-mail, however, he could legitimately drop the AOHD a note in five or six months, thanking her for her continued interest and saying that the manuscript will be on its way soon. Which may well be true: in current agency reading terms, another three months would be soon. I wouldn’t advise hitting SEND sooner, though, because there’s always a danger that the agency’s needs will have changed in the meantime — you definitely don’t want your polite update to be construed as a request for a second permission to send it, lest they say no, right, Robert?

No need to rap our Robert on the knuckles for his infraction, then, you’ll be glad to hear. I wouldn’t want to affect his ability to type the rest of his manuscript quickly.

I’m always astonished, though, at how often good, well-meaning writers rap themselves on the knuckles when they realize that like practically every first-time successful querier or pitcher, they have sent out their manuscripts before their precious pages were truly ready. Take, for instance, intrepid reader Anni:

I have a question that has nothing to do with this topic (sorry) but I just couldn’t keep worrying about it in silence any longer.

A couple months ago, I made it as far as sending out 5 queries with samples as requested for my manuscript and received 4 form rejections and 1 non-reply. I took this as a sign that something was amiss, and discussed it with my feedback readers. The conclusion: the first third of the manuscript wasn’t on par with the rest. It needed to be rewritten into something more fast-paced and exciting.

To pull me through the tedious rewriting, I compiled a list of agents for when the manuscript is once again ready, and I realized something: There aren’t that many agencies for that want YA fantasy novels.

As I understand it, agents do NOT like re-submissions, even if I’ve rewritten half the manuscript from scratch. I’ve already lost 5 agents from my potential agencies list! What happens if I run out of agents to query without signing with one of them? Is there an acceptable period of time after which I can query a second time?

I may be jumping the gun with these worries, but I’m afraid to send out my next batch of queries and possibly waste another 5 agents because the query/manuscript isn’t absolutely perfect. On the other hand, I don’t want to spend the next year striving for that impossible perfection. Instead of facing just the potential for rejection, I get to watch my list of potential agents dwindle to an eventual zero.

I don’t know what I should do! Do you have any suggestions for me? Thanks very much.

Nor should you have suffered in silence for even an instant, Anni — this is far too common a problem. As I like to remind my readers early and often, if you’ve been wondering about something, chances are that another 3,274 regular Author! Author! readers have as well. So for both your own sake and theirs: please ask.

I’m especially glad that Anni spoke up on this issue, as this is a problem under which masses of good writers suffer in silence, assuming (often wrongly) that if they talk about it, they will be labeling their work as unmarketable. Then, as she did, they wake up one morning and realize that they’ve exhausted their entire agent list.

And all too often, like Anni, they leap to the conclusion that if they’ve been rejected, it has been because of the scant few pages some agencies allow queriers to include in their query packets. Yet of a Millicent is turned off by a query, she’s unlikely to bother to read the samples.

Yes, even if her agency specifically requests them — and especially if the query was online. Online submissions typically get a bit less scrutiny than e-mailed queries, which in turn usually receive less of Millicent’s time than paper letters. (There’s not much a querier can do about that if the agency vastly prefers online submissions, of course, but the trend is worth knowing.) Since she’s scanning literally hundreds of the things per week — and thousands, if it’s immediately after Labor Day — it generally doesn’t take much to generate a knee-jerk negative reaction. The sad fact is that just as the vast majority of submissions get rejected on page 1, most queries are rejected within the first paragraph.

So while I must applaud Anni on being brave and savvy enough to check with her first readers to figure out what was going wrong at the submission stage — very few writers would have had that pragmatic a response — I think she is jumping the gun. If she hasn’t run her query letter under objective eyes, she might want to do that before she sends it out again. (And if she hadn’t already run through the HOW NOT TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER and HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE categories on the list at right, she and those like her might want to invest some time in it, just in case they’ve inadvertently run afoul of a common agents’ pet peeve. You wouldn’t believe how often queries get rejected simply because the writer inadvertently omitted a word, or misspelled something, and just didn’t notice.)

Truth compels me to say that I also think she’s jumping the gun in the fear department. In the first place, the TWILIGHT and HUNGER GAMES revolutions have assured that there are plenty of agents willing — nay, eager — to find the next great YA fantasy talent. With a sample as small as five queries (yes, yes, I know: it doesn’t feel small, but it’s not at all unusual these days for talented writers to send out a couple of hundred before landing an agent, alas), Anni might also want to consider the possibility that her specific subsection of her chosen book category isn’t selling particularly well right now — or that the agencies in question already have a number of similar books in circulation.

Neither of those things would be a reflection upon the quality of Anni’s writing, but either could easily result in rejection. And, let’s face it, in a book category as trendy as YA fantasy and in a literary market whose trends change with the rapidity that would make your garden-variety fruit fly say, “Really?” both are fairly probable.

That does not mean, however, that any Millicent that screened one of Anni’s five packets would have mentioned either reason in the rejection. Form-letter rejections leave no way for the writer to learn from the experience.

Anni is quite right, though, that agents dislike re-submissions — unless, of course, re-submitting was their idea. In fact, industry etiquette dictates that unless an agent specifically asks a submitter to revise and re-submit a particular manuscript, the writer must take the book and go someplace else.

What she probably has in mind here, though, is not re-submission, but re-querying. As I understand Anni’s story, she never submitted anything per se: she was querying agencies that asked to see the first few pages. Technically, that’s not submission; it’s querying with extras.

But again, Anni is correct in the larger sense: the norm is to query any given agency — not only any given agent — only once with any given book project. Almost any agency will balk at a writer who keeps querying over and over again with the same project, especially if those queries arrive very close together and nothing about the project seems to have changed. While Millicent tenure is often short, Anni could not legitimately assume that the same screener would not open her next query and huff, “Wait — I’ve seen this before, haven’t I? Next!”

That outcome is especially likely if the repeat querier, as some charmingly straightforward but misguided aspiring writers do, guilelessly tells Millicent in the query that she’s querying for a second time. Those attached sample pages are much better now, honest!

This delightful level of honestly is, alas, the equivalent of stamping the query with YOU’VE ALREADY REJECTED THIS. “Next!”

All that being said, if Anni simply punched up her query, ran through the rest of her querying list, and tried the first five a year or two later, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would take umbrage. At that juncture, in order for re-querying to generate hostility, someone at the agency would (a) have to recognize the query as a repeat, which would require both (b) the same Millicent having seen both versions (unlikely, given screener turnover) and (c) remembering a query which she’d spent a couple of minutes pondering a year before.

It’s just not all that likely, in short. Especially if Anni were strategic enough to re-query at a time of year at which millions of itchy fingers would predictably be simultaneously reaching for the SEND key, if you catch my drift.

You were expecting me to rap some knuckles here, weren’t you? I might have seven or eight years ago, but the well-known truism about agents disliking resubmissions is actually a rather old complaint, dating back to the days before e-mailed submissions were considered acceptable or online submissions even possible. Way back when agents started making this complaint at writers’ conferences and in interviews (which is how it became so pervasive on the writers’ rumor circuit, in case you had been wondering, Anni), many of them used to open each and every query themselves.

Now, due to the overwhelming volume of queries, an agent just wouldn’t have time to sell her current clients’ books if she opened all of the mail herself. (And that’s not even taking into account how radically the anthrax scare affected how mail was handled at agencies and publishing houses.) Even at relatively small agencies, that job is generally assigned to a Millicent or two.

Nowadays, an agent who complains about repetitive querying is usually talking about folks so persistent that they’ve become legendary at the agency, not your garden-variety aspiring writer who hits the SEND key twice within a year and a half. At my agency, everyone has stories about the writer who has not only queried every agent there individually five times, but recently launched into another round under a different name (but the same title).

Yet as so often happens when agents make conference complaints about specific instances, most of the aspiring writers who hear the story automatically assume that the agency obsessively maintains some kind of master list of every query it has ever received, so it may automatically reject any repeaters on sight. But practically, that would be prohibitively time-consuming: it would quadruple the amount of time its Millicents would have to spend on any individual query.

You were aware that the average query receives less than 30 seconds of agency attention, right?

That’s not a lot of time to have memorized Anni’s no doubt delightful premise, at least not well enough to recall it two years later based on the query’s descriptive paragraph alone. On the off chance that Anni might have been clever enough to change the title of the book the second time she queried that agency, the chances are even lower.

My, that jaw is coming in for quite a floor-battering this evening, isn’t it? I hate to break it to you, but only aspiring writers think of titles as set in stone. In practice, however, there’s no earthly reason that a manuscript has to be queried or submitted under the same title every time. Few first-time authors get to keep their original titles all the way to publication, anyway.

I guess I should stop before the bruise on anyone’s chin grows any bigger. For the nonce, suffice it to say that once again, we see an instance where a finger itching for contact with the SEND key has turned out not to be a reliable guide to its owner’s self-interest. In Anni’s case, I would far prefer to see that digit engaged in some serious online research in how many agents actually do regularly represent and sell YA fantasy.

And remember, folks, just because one has an itch doesn’t mean one has to scratch it. At least not immediately. Yes, the rise of e-querying and e-submission has increased the probability of swift turn-arounds — and the concomitant expectation of rapid acceptance — but it has also increased the volume of queries most agencies with websites receive exponentially.

Care to guess how many of those queriers also have itchy fingers? Or a three day weekend beginning tomorrow?

Not entirely coincidentally, tomorrow, we turn our attention to craft. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XIII: who is this watery woman, and what is she doing to that fish?


Before I launch into a rather necessary explanation of the rather odd picture above, allow me to send out a quick word of advice to any of you out there who might happen to be planning to spend this coming weekend at a literary conference in my general geographical area: no matter what every fiber of your being may feel in the moments just after a successful pitch, you do not need to send requested pages to agents and editors right away. In fact, acting on that impulse is generally a really bad idea — especially if you, like so many well-intentioned aspiring writers before you, are in such a rush that you spring for overnight postage.

Yes, you read that correctly. Unless an agent asks you point-blank to overnight something, just don’t do it; it won’t speed up the reading process. So why shell out the quite substantial extra dosh?

Yet saving money, while in itself nice for a writer, is not the only reason that obeying that first hyper-excited impulse is not a good idea. Any guesses why?

That’s right, campers: almost without exception, aspiring writers who pop requested materials into the mail or e-mail them right after the request don’t have time to read their submissions IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and ideally, OUT LOUD.

And why might that be a very, very costly choice? Because this is the single best way to weed out any gaffes that might get the submission shifted into the reject pile.

Some of you conference-goers are huffing at the very idea of delay, aren’t you? “But Anne,” those who are just itching to get that manuscript out the door protest, “I whipped my submission into apple-pie order before the conference, and I’m terrified that the requesting agent will forget who I am if I wait. All I have to do now is stuff it in an envelope or hit the SEND key, and I’m on my way to fame and fortune!”

Legitimate concerns all, but listen: if you pitched at a large conference, chances are that the agent or editor is not going to remember the details of your pitch, anyway; that’s why they take notes, so they know why submissions are landing on their desks two months from now. Requests for materials take months and months to expire.

So since you have time, why not make sure your submission is buffed to a high gloss? You get only one chance to impress that agent, you know.

Reading every syllable of it out loud is far and away the best means of catching the little problems that might dull the shine, such as typos, logic problems, and missing words. Not to mention that pet peeve that the requesting agent specifically mentioned at the conference as an automatic rejection offense. Proofing your work on a computer screen is not an adequate substitute, as all the typos that keep cropping up in newspapers and magazines attest: since most people read a backlit screen about 70% faster than words on a printed page, it’s just too easy for the eye to glide right past a fixable problem.

When you’re excited and in a hurry, of course, that’s even more likely to happen. And lest any of you doubt that, here’s a discussion amongst some very savvy writers about the manuscript-killers they’ve let slip by in their rush to get requested materials to agents.

Whether you heed this advice — and I know from experience that a hefty proportion of you won’t — make sure to follow this part: send precisely what the agent or editor asked to see — no more, no less. I don’t care if the cliffhanger of the century falls two lines into page 51; if the requester asked to see the first 50 pages, that’s all you get to send. Agents are wise to the ways of manuscripts, after all: they won’t be shocked to see that page 50 isn’t the end of a chapter. Heck, stopping there may well cut off the tale in mid-sentence.

Oh, and don’t forget to write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of the submission packet or in the subject line of the submission e-mail. That will help prevent your pages from ending up in the wrong stack. For a few more salient tips on how to polish and package your work, please see the aptly-named HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the archive list at right. For those of you stymied by logistics, the posts in the MAILING REQUESTED MATERIALS category might prove enlightening.

But enough of this frivolity. On to the marble lady and companions.

While flipping through my photos from my writing retreat in southwestern France — yes, I shall be continuing to rub that one in for the foreseeable future; thanks for asking — I stumbled across this photo of a genuinely strange fountain in Carcassonne. Leaving aside for the moment the question of why that astoundingly well-fed pigeon is attacking the mermaid, I ask you: when’s the last time you saw a mermaid who didn’t have to ride sidesaddle?

Seriously, wouldn’t you have thought that was logistically impossible? What does she have, a bifurcated tail like the mysteriously frond-like stems on the siren in the old Starbucks logo?


Contrary to what some of you may be thinking, I’m not merely alerting you to the tail enigma out of the fevered musings of a sleep-deprived mind. No, the watery trollops above are illustrating a point crucial to our ongoing series: the ordinary presented with a twist is inherently more memorable than the ordinary.

Bear that little nugget in mind as we continue to make our way through the mysteries of pitching. It will serve you well, I assure you. In the meantime, I promised you examples of good elevator speeches, and examples you shall have.

Frankly, I wish those conference brochures that advise writers not to dream of speaking more than three consecutive sentences about their manuscripts would deign to include a few concrete examples. Just as it’s more difficult to write a winning query letter if you’ve never seen a well-crafted one before than if you have, it’s pretty hard to construct a pitch in a vacuum. Since good elevator speeches vary as much as good books do, it’s a trifle hard to show what makes one work without showing a few of ‘em in action.

To get the ball rolling, here is an elevator speech for a book you may already know:

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

Okay, okay, I know that was far, far longer than three beats, and you would probably be gasping like a goldfish that tumbled out of its bowl if you attempted to speak it out loud in only three breaths. It IS three sentences, though, by jingo, albeit lengthy ones.

Which, by the way, makes it precisely the kind of pitch that those tutored by conference brochures tend to give. 90% of three-line pitch constructors seem to operate under the assumption that the hearer will be counting the number of periods in the pitch, not the amount of time it takes to say. I’ve seen pitches with seven semicolons and two colons per sentence blithely presented as adhering to the length restriction.

Pull out your hymnals, everyone, and sing along: for a book pitch, the three-sentence guideline is intended to limit the amount of time it will take for the reader to say it, not to demonstrate how much minutiae she can cram into three innocent sentences. If you can say your elevator speech in under 20 seconds and it’s memorable, call it good.

By that measure, the pitch above is perfectly acceptable — that 18 seconds of murmuring you just heard was me double-checking that it could be said quickly enough. But let’s move beyond the brevity that, unfortunately, is usually the only metric aspiring writers apply to a 3-sentence pitch and get down to what actually matters.

Tell me: is this example a successful elevator speech for this book?

If your first impulse was to reply, “Well, I don’t know — did the agent or editor hearing it ask to see pages?”, give yourself seven gold stars; you’ve been paying attention. Pitches do not sell books; writing does. Your goal is to get the hearer to want to READ your writing.

So do you think this is likely to work? To answer, don’t tell me whether you think this is a good elevator speech, or whether you believe it really could be said in three breaths.

Instead, tell me: based upon this pitch alone, would you read this book?

The fact that you probably already have — it’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and anyone who intends to write novels in English should read it to learn a thing or two about timing from its unparalleled mistress — is beside the point here. Even a story that we all know very well indeed can be presented as fresh by focusing on the details that make the story unique.

Would you read this book? is the question you should be asking when you practice your elevator speech upon your kith, kin, and the guy sitting next to you on the subway in the time between now and when you are planning to attend a conference. Why is it so important? Because if the elevator speech doesn’t make the book sound compelling enough to sit down with the first 50 pages or so, it needs work.

Let’s take that elevator speech apart, and see why it grabs the attention. First, it’s clear about both who the protagonist is and what she wants. It establishes the context within which she operates.

“Oh, come on, Anne,” some of you snort, “give us some credit. About whom would the elevator speech be OTHER than the protagonist?”

Laugh if you like, but as a long-time pitching teacher, I can tell you from experience that elevator speeches for novels and memoirs alike frequently focus on what’s going on around the protagonist, rather than what the poor thing is doing. In fact, you’d be surprised (at least I hope you would) at how often elevator speeches focus on everyone BUT the protagonist — it’s far from uncommon for the hearer to be astonished to learn, upon further inquiry, that the daughter mentioned in passing at the end of the second sentence of a paragraph about a troubled father is actually the book’s lead.

“Wait just an agent-tempting minute, Anne,” some of you protest, “the elevator speech you gave for PRIDE & PREJUDICE is mostly about people other than Elizabeth, isn’t it? If the goal here is to present the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation, shouldn’t you have talked only about her?

Actually, the speech above is about her, even though it mentions other people. It depicts her as the central actor in a complicated situation that other quirky characters also inhabit.

How so? Take another gander at the elevator speech, and notice that establishes right away a few important things about our Elizabeth: she is facing internal conflicts (should she embrace her family’s prejudices, or reject them?); she is pursuing a definite goal (making a good marriage without latching herself for life to the first man who finds her attractive), and she faces an array of substantial barriers to achieving that goal (her family members and their many foibles). And it does so with specifics that are delightfully memorable. (No credit to me for that; the specifics are all Aunt Jane’s.)

Still more importantly for introducing Elizabeth as the protagonist, this description also hints that instead of riding the billows of the plot, letting things happen to her, our girl is actively struggling to determine her own destiny. To North American readers, this is going to make her a more attractive protagonist than, say, her sister Jane, whose virtues lie primarily in being nice to everybody and thinking good thoughts while waiting for the man she loves to come to his not very complicated senses.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: while polite cheeriness is delightful in person, it’s often deadly dull on the page. Give me an active protagonist to a well-mannered bore any day.

The other reason that this is a good elevator speech is that it alerts the reader to the fact that, despite some pretty serious subject matter, this is a book with strong comic elements — and it does so by SHOWING, not TELLING, that it’s funny. The big give-aways: the absurdity of Mr. Collins’ proposing after only a week, her family members’ odd predilections.

“Okay, okay,” you sigh, “I can see where Aunt Jane might be able to give that pitch successfully. But PRIDE & PREJUDICE is a masterpiece, and I’m just trying to find an agent for an ordinary book, albeit one that I think is well-written. Any tips on how those of us who don’t happen to be comic geniuses might want to go about it?”

Ooh, that’s a great question, but frankly, I’m hesitant to give a precise formula for deriving an elevator speech, lest agents and editors suddenly become inundated with tens of thousands of iterations of it. Like everything else, there are fashions in pitching and querying styles, and I’m not out to set a new one. (Although I have had agents say to me at conferences, “I met three of your pitching students today. They were the only ones who introduced themselves before telling me about their books.” For years, I seem to have been the only coach out there advising it.)

If you really find yourself stumped, however, there is a standard (if old-fashioned) three-step formula that tends to work well. Borrowing a trick from the Hollywood hook, you can compare your book to a VERY well-known book or movie, and build from there.

(1) Name the comparison, and say how your book is similar: “For readers who loved SCHINDLER’S LIST, here is a story about gutsy individuals triumphing against the Nazis.”

(2) Next, add a sentence about who the protagonist is, and what is oppressing her: “Concert pianist Claire’s promising career is cut short when armies invade her beloved Amsterdam, smashing the hall where she played.”

(3) Show the central challenge she faces in escaping that oppression: “But how can she pursue her passion to bring the joys of music to her sightless fiancé Roderick, when every aspect of the world she navigates for him is being swept away before her comparatively perfect eyes?”

This format works for an elevator speech (better than in a pitch proper, as we will see in a few days’ time), because citing another well-known story automatically conjures a backdrop for yours. Basically, you don’t need to fill in as many details.

I just sensed 5,000 hands shooting up in my virtual audience. “But Anne!” these bright souls cry, “didn’t you tell us in a recent post that comparing our books to bestsellers makes ours sound less original and, you know, FRESH?”

Well caught, sharp-witted 5,000: I did in fact say that, and I stand by it as pitch-construction advice. A writer usually is better off weaving her own tale, rather than relying upon the artistic output of others.

Note, however, that I suggested this method for would-be pitchers who are genuinely stuck — or those who are covering already well-worn literary territory. Sometimes, a great book does consist of a fresh twist on much-traveled material. As with a Hollywood hook, this formula enables a writer to capitalize on the very popularity of the subject matter by co-opting it as shorthand.

Or, to put it another way, if your novel is set in Oz, you could use your entire elevator speech explaining what that famous land is like — or you could simply say that it takes place in Oz and use the extra two sentences to show what’s new and fresh about your take on the legendary land.

It’s entirely up to you. But tick, tick. (Or Tick Tock, for those of you familiar with the later books in the Oz series.)

Do bear the freshness problem in mind, however. The real risk of this sort of elevator speech is that from the hearer’s point of view, it’s very easy for the protagonist to get lost in front of that very memorable backdrop. To prevent this horrible fate, you need to provide enough personal specifics to establish your protagonist firmly as — wait for it — an interesting person in an interesting situation.

To pull that off with aplomb, you will need to pepper the elevator speech with specific ways in which you protagonist is different from the one in the old warhorse. As in:

In the tradition of GONE WITH THE WIND, DEVOURED BY THE BREEZE is a stirring epic of one woman’s struggle to keep her family together in a time of war. Magenta O’Sullivan loves Ashby Filks, and he loves her, but when half of her family is killed in the battle of Nearby Field, and the other half falls down an inconveniently placed well, she can no longer be the air-headed girl he’s known since childhood. But will starting her own alpaca farming business to save her family home alienate the only man she has ever loved?

Getting the picture? In an elevator speech, a writer needs first and foremost not to count periods, but to present an interesting, fresh protagonist embroiled in a fascinating conflict — ideally, garnished with a twist that the hearer is not expecting.

Predictability is not pretty, my friends, no matter how you dress it up. At least not in a pitch — and especially not in an elevator speech, where you have so little time to create a good impression. As a result, you’re more likely to catch a pitch-fatigued agent’s attention with the story about the mermaid who can ride a fish than the tale of one who can only swim. (That darned tail!)

The first commandment of a successful elevator speech is, after all, THOU SHALL NOT BORE.

Don’t worry; we’ll be talking at some length about how to avoid that pitfall before I’m through with the elevator pitch. First, however, I shall delve next time into how to construct an elevator speech for a nonfiction book or memoir. Then we’ll be all set to run barefoot through the fields of originality, as well as how and when to give your elevator speech without mortally insulting anybody. Then it’s (gulp!) the pitch proper.

Don’t tense up — you can do this. 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!