Please raise a glass (or three) to my 1600th post!

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A few weeks ago, while I was deep in the throes of contemplating what subject I should tackle for this, my 1600th post at Author! Author!, a non-writer — or so I surmise, from the bent of her discourse — abruptly flung a rather profound question in my direction. It was, happily for today’s post, one of those questions that would never, ever occur to anyone who had devoted serious time to courting a Muse.

“You’ve been blogging for 7 1/2 years on the same subject?” she gasped, practically indignant with incredulity. “You’ve posted hundreds of times, haven’t you? It’s only writing — what could you possibly still have to say?”

I know, I know: I was sorely tempted to laugh, too. From a writer’s or editor’s perspective, the notion that everything an aspiring writer could possibly need or want to know about the ins and outs of writing and revising a manuscript, let alone how to land an agent, work with a publishing house, promote a book, and/or launch into one’s next writing project, could be covered adequately in a mere 1599 blog posts borders on the absurd. Writing a compelling book constitutes one of the most challenging endeavors life offers to a creative persons mind, heart, and soul; it’s not as though there’s a simple, one-size-fits-all formula for literary success.

At the same time, I could hear in her question an echo of a quite ubiquitous compound misconception about writing. It runs a little something like this: if people are born with certain talents, then good writers are born, not made; if true writers tumble onto this terrestrial sphere already knowing deep down how to write, then all a gifted person needs to do is put pen to paper and let the Muse speak in order to produce a solid piece of writing; since all solid pieces of writing inevitably find a home — an old-fashioned publishing euphemism for being offered a contract by an agent or publishing house — if a writer has been experiencing any difficulty whatsoever getting her book published, she must not be talented. Q.E.D.

With a slight caveat: all of those presumptions are false. Demonstrably so — egregiously so, even. Just ask virtually any author of an overnight bestseller: good books are typically years, or even decades, in the making.

What could I possibly still want to say to writers to help them improve their manuscripts’ chances of success? How long have you got?

We’ve come a long way together, campers: when Author! Author! first took its baby steps back in August, 2005, in its original incarnation as the Resident Writer spot on the nation’s largest writers’ association’s website, little did I — or, I imagine, my earliest readers, some of whom are still loyal commenters, bless ‘em — imagine that I will still be dreaming up post for you all so many years into the future.

Heck, at the outset, I had only envisioned a matter of months. The Organization that Shall Remain Nameless had projected even less: when it first recruited me to churn out advice for aspiring writers everywhere, my brief was to do it a couple of times per week for a month, to see how it went. They didn’t want me to blog, per se — in order to comment, intrepid souls had to e-mail the organization, which then forwarded questions it deemed appropriate to me.

As your contributions flew in and my posts flew up, I have to confess, the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless seemed rather taken aback. Who knew, its president asked, and frequently, that there were so many writers out there longing for some straightforward, practical-minded advice on how to navigate a Byzantine and apparently sometimes arbitrary system? What publishing professional could have sensed the confusion so many first-time writers felt when faced with the welter of advice barked at them online? What do you mean, the guidelines found on the web often directly contradict one another?

And what on earth was the insidious source of this bizarre preference for the advice-giver’s being nice to writers while explaining things to them? It wasn’t as though much of the online advisors actually in the know — as opposed to the vast majority of writing advice that stems from opinion, rumor, and something that somebody may have heard an agent say at a conference somewhere once — were ever huffy, standoffish, or dismissive when they explained what a query letter was, right?

That rolling thunderclap you just heard bouncing off the edges of the universe was, of course, the roars of laughter from every writer who tried to find credible guidance for their writing careers online around about 2006.

Yet the officers of the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless were not the only ones mystified that there was any audience at all for, say, my posts on how to format a manuscript professionally. Or how to give a pitch. Or how to spot editor-irritating red flags in your own writing. They actually tried to talk me out of blogging about some of these things — because every writer serious about getting published already knows all of that, right?

So why precisely did I think it would be valuable for my readers to be able to see one another’s questions and comments? If I was so interested in building writing community, they suggested, why didn’t I join them in transforming what had arguably been the writers’ association best at helping its members get published into a force to help those already in print find a wider audience? Wouldn’t that be, you know, more upbeat and, well, inspirational than giving all of that pesky and potentially depressing practical advice?

Almost a year and many brisk arguments about respect for writers later, I decided to start my own website. That enabled me to turn Author! Author! into a true blog, a space that welcomed writers struggling and established to share their thoughts, questions, concerns, and, sometimes, their often quite justified irritation at the apparently increasing number of hoops through which good writing — and, consequently, good writers — were being expected to jump prior to publication.

Oh, those of you new to searching for an agent have no idea how tough things were back then. A few of the larger agencies had just started not responding to queries if the answer was no — can you believe it? Some agencies, although far from all, agents had begun accepting e-mailed queries, but naturally, your chances were generally better if your approached them by letter. And I don’t want to shock you, but occasionally, an agent would request a full manuscript, but send a form-letter rejection.

Picture the horror: a book turned down, and the writer had no idea why!

Ah, those days seem so innocent now, do they not? How time flies when you don’t know whether your manuscript is moldering third from the top in a backlogged submission pile, has been rejected without comment, or simply got lost in the mail. Sometimes, it feels as though those much-vaunted hoops have not only gotten smaller, but have been set on fire.

Let’s face it: the always long and generally bumpy road to publication has gotten longer and bumpier in recent years. Not that it was ever true that all that was necessary in order to see your work in print was to write a good book, of course; that’s a pretty myth that has been making folks in publishing circles roll their eyes since approximately fifteen minutes after Gutenberg came rushing out of his workshop, waving a mechanically-printed piece of paper. Timing, what’s currently selling well, what is expected to sell well a couple of years hence, when a book acquired now by a traditional publisher would actual come out, the agent of your dreams’ experience with trying to sell a book similar to yours — all of this, and even just plain, dumb luck, have pretty much always affected what readers found beckoning them from the shelves.

But you’d never know that from most of what people say about how books get published, would you? To hear folks talk, you’d think that the only factor involved was writing talent. Or that agencies and publishing houses were charitable organizations, selflessly devoted to the noble task of bringing the best books written every year to an admiring public.

Because, of course, there is universal agreement about what constitutes good writing, right? And good writing in one genre is identical to good writing for every type of book, isn’t it?

None of that is true, of course — and honestly, no one who works with manuscripts for a living could survive long believing it. The daily heartbreak would be too painful to bear.

But I don’t need to explain that to those of you who have been at this writing gig for a while, do I? I’m sure you recall vividly how you felt the day when you realized that not every good, or even great, manuscript written got published, my friends. Or has that terrible sense of betrayal long since receded into the dim realm of memory? Or, as we discussed over the holidays, does it spring to gory life afresh each time some well-meaning soul who has never put pen to paper asks, “What, you still haven’t published your book? But you’ve been at it for years!”

Now, you could answer those questions literally, I suppose, grimly listing every obstacle even the best manuscript faces on its way to traditional publication. You could, too, explain at length why you have chosen to pursue traditional publishing, if you have, or why you have decided to self-publish, if that’s your route.

I could also have given that flabbergasted lady who asked me why I thought there was anything left to say about writing a stirring speech about the vital importance of craft to fine literature. Or regaled her with horror stories about good memoirs suddenly slapped with gratuitous lawsuits. I could even, I suppose, have launched into a two-hour lecture on common misuses of the semicolon without running out of examples, but honestly, what would have been the point? If wonderful writing conveys the impression of having been the first set of words to travel from a talented author’s fingertips to a keyboard, why dispel that illusion?

Instead of quibbling over whether it’s ever likely — or possible — for a first draft to take the literary world by storm, may I suggest that those of us who write could use our time together more productively? For today, at least, let’s tune out all of the insistent voices telling us that if only we were really talented, our work would already be gracing the shelves of the nearest public library, and settle down into a nice, serious discussion of craft.

Humor me: I’ve been at this more than 7 1/2 years. In the blogging realm, that makes me a great-grandmother.

At the risk of sounding as though I’m 105 — the number of candles on my own great-grandmother’s last cake, incidentally; the women in my family are cookies of great toughness — I’d like to turn our collective attention to a craft problem that seldom gets discussed in these decadent days: how movies and television have caused many manuscripts, fiction and nonfiction both, to introduce their characters in a specific manner.

Do I hear peals of laughter bouncing off the corners of the cosmos again? “Oh, come on, Anne,” readers not old enough to have followed Walter Winchell snicker, “isn’t it a trifle late in the day to be focusing on such a problem? At this juncture, I feel it safe to say that TV and movies are here to stay.”

Ah, but that’s just my point: they are here to stay, and the fact that those forms of storytelling are limited to exploiting only two of the audience’s senses — vision and hearing — for creating their effects has, as we have discussed many times before, prompted generation after generation of novelists and memoirists to create narratives that call upon no other sense. If, at the end of a hard day of reading submissions, an alien from the planet Targ were to appear to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener and ask her how many senses the average Earthling possesses, a good 95% of the pages she had seen recently would prompt her to answer, “Two.”

A swift glance at the human head, however, would prove her wrong. Why, I’ve seen people sporting noses and tongues, in addition to eyes and ears, and I’m not ashamed to say it. If you’re willing to cast those overworked peepers down our subject’s body, you might even catch the hands, skin, muscles, and so forth responding to external stimuli.

So would it really be so outrageous to incorporate some sensations your characters acquire through other sensible organs, as Jane Austen liked to call them? Millicent would be so pleased.

If you’d really like to make her happy — and it would behoove you to consider her felicity: her perception of your writing, after all, is what stands between your manuscript and a reading by the agent or editor of your dreams — how about bucking another trend ushered in by the advent of movies and television? What about introducing a new character’s physical characteristics slowly, over the course of a scene or even several, rather than describing the fresh arrival top to toe the instant he enters the book?

Sacre bleu!” I hear the overwhelming majority of hopeful novelists and memoirists shouting. “Are you mad? The other characters in the scene — including, if I’m writing in either the first or the tight third person, my protagonist — will first experience that new person visually! Naturally, I must stop the ongoing action dead in its tracks in order to show the reader what s/he looks like. If I didn’t, the reader might — gasp! — form a mental image that’s different from what I’m seeing in my head!”

Why, yes, that’s possible. Indeed, it’s probable. But I ask you: is that necessarily a problem? No narrative describes a character down to the last mitochondrion in his last cell, after all; something is always left to the reader’s imagination.

Which is, if we’re being truthful about it, a reflection of real life, is it not? Rarely, for instance, would an initial glance reveal everything about a character’s looks. Clothes hide a lot, if they’re doing their job, and distance can be quite a concealer. And really, do you count every freckle on the face of each person passing you on the street?

You might be surprised by how many narratives do, especially in the opening pages of a book. Take a gander at how Millicent all too often makes a protagonist’s acquaintance.

A lean man loped into the distance, shading the horizon with his length even from eighty yards away. Tall as his hero, Abe Lincoln, Jake’s narrow face was hidden by a full beard as red as the hair he had cut himself without a mirror. Calluses deformed his hands, speaking eloquently of years spent yanking on ropes as touch as he was. That those ropes had harnessed the wind for merchant ships was apparent from his bow-legged gait. Pointy of elbow and knee, his body seemed to be moving more slowly than the rest of him as he strode toward the Arbogasts’ encampment.

Henriette eyed him as he approached. His eyes were blue, as washed-out as the baked sky above. Bushy eyebrows punctuated his thoughts. Clearly, those thoughts were deep; how else could she have spotted his anger at twenty paces?

His long nose stretched as he spoke. “Good day, madam,” he said, his dry lips cracking under the strain of speech, “but could I interest you in some life insurance?”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this description, as descriptions go. Millicent might legitimately wonder if Henriette is secretly Superman, given how sharp her vision seems to be at such great distances (has anybody ever seen Henriette and Superman together?), and it goes on for quite some time, but she might well forgive that: the scene does call for Henriette to watch Jake walking toward her. Millie be less likely to overlook the five uses of as in the first paragraph, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed them? Any professional reader undoubtedly would, and for good reason: as is as common in the average submission as…well, anything you’d care to name is anywhere it’s common.

That means — and it’s a perpetual astonishment to those of us who read for a living how seldom aspiring writers seem to think of this — that by definition, over-reliance on as cannot be a matter of individual authorial voice. Voice consists of how an author’s narratives differ from how other writers’ work reads on the page, not in how it’s similar. Nor can it sound just like ordinary people talk, another extremely popular narrative choice. For a new voice to strike Millicent and her boss as original, it must be unique to the author.

The same holds true, by the way, for the ultra-common narrative practice of blurting out everything there is to know about a character visually at his initial appearance: it’s not an original or creative means of slipping the guy into the story. It can’t possibly be, since that tactic has over the past half-century struck a hefty proportion of the writing population as the right or even the only way to bring a new character into a story.

Don’t believe that someone who reads manuscripts all day, every day would quickly tire of how fond writers are of this method. Okay, let’s take a peek at the next few paragraphs of Henriette’s saga.

She backed away, her brown suede skirt catching on the nearby sagebrush. She tossed her long, blonde hair out of her face. Her hazel eyes, just the color of the trim on her prim, gray high-necked blouse, so appropriate for the schoolmarm/demolitions expert that she was, snapped as strongly as her voice. A pleasing contralto, when she was not furious, but Jake might never get a chance to hear her sing.

“On your way, mister,” she hissed, adjusting her two-inch leather belt with the fetching iron clasp. Marvin had forged that clasp for her, just before he was carried off by a pack of angry rattlesnakes. She could still envision his tuxedo-clad body rolling above its stripy captors, his black patent leather shoes shining in the harsh midday sun. “We don’t cotton to your kind here.”

An unspecified sound of vague origin came from behind her. She whirled around, scuffing her stylish mid-calf boots. She almost broke one of her lengthy, scarlet-polished fingernails while drawing her gun.

Morris grinned back at her, his tanned, rugged face scrunching into a sea of sun-bleached stubble. His pine-green eyes blinked at the reflection from the full-length mirror Jake had whipped out from under his tattered corduroy coat. It showed her trim backside admirably, or at least as much as was visible under her violet bustle. Her hair — which could be described no other way than as long and blonde — tumbled down her back, confined only by her late mother’s cherished magenta hair ribbon.

Morris caught sight of himself in the mirror. My, he was looking the worse for wear. He wore an open-collared poet’s shirt as red as the previous day’s sunset over a well-cut pant of vermillion velvet. Dust obscured the paisley pattern at the cuff and neck, embroidered by his half-sister, Marguerite, who could be spotted across the street at a second-floor window, playing the cello. Her ebony locks trailed over her bare shoulder as her loosely-cut orange tea gown slipped from its accustomed place.

Had enough yet? Millicent would — and we’re still on page 1. So could you really blame her if she cried over this manuscript, “For heaven’s sake, stop showing me what these people look like and have them do something!”

To which I would like to add my own editorial cri de coeur: would somebody please tell this writer that while clothes may make the man in some real-world contexts, it’s really not all that character-revealing to describe a person’s outfit on the page? Come on, admit it: after a while, Henriette’s story started to read like a clothing catalogue. But since it’s a novel set in 1872, long before any of the characters could reasonably have been expected to watch Project Runway marathons, could we possibly spring for another consonant and let the man wear what most people call them, pants, instead of a pant?

Does that slumped posture and defeated moaning mean that some of you manuscript-revisers are finding seeing these storytelling habits from Millicent’s perspective convincing? “Okay, Anne,” you sigh, “you got me. Swayed by the cultural dominance of visual storytelling, I’ve grown accustomed to describing a face, a body, a hank of hair, etc., as soon as I reveal a character’s existence to the refer. But honestly, I’m not sure how to structure these descriptions differently. Unless you’re suggesting that Henriette should have smelled or tasted each new arrival?”

Well, that would be an interesting approach. It would also, I suspect, be a quite different book, one not aimed at the middle grade reader, if you catch my drift.

Your options are legion, you will be happy to hear: once a writer breaks free of the perceived necessity to run a narrative camera, so to speak, over each character as she traipses onto the page, how to reveal what appearance-related detail becomes a matter of style. And that, my friends, should be as original as your voice.

If my goal in blogging were merely to be inspirational, as Author! Author!’s original hosts had hoped, that would have been a dandy place to end the post, wouldn’t it? That last paragraph, while undoubtedly possessed of some sterling writing truths, did not cough up much actual guidance. And you fine people, I know from long experience, come to this site for practical advice, illustrated by examples.

For insight into how breaking up a physical description for a new character can knock the style ball out of the proverbial park, I can do no better than to direct your attention to that much-copied miracle of authorial originality, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. To render this example even more frantically literary, I have transcribed these excerpts from the 1908 F.F. Collier and Son edition (W. Blaydes, translator) Philip K. Dick gave me for my eleventh birthday.

Why that particular edition, for a reader so young? Because the Colliers had the foresight to corral another novelist in whose work Philip had been trying to interest me, into writing the introduction. Henry James was considered a real up-and-comer at the turn of the twentieth century.

Feeling sufficiently highbrow? Excellent. Here’s the reader’s first glimpse of the immortal Emma Bovary:

A young woman, clad in a dress of blue merino trimmed with three flounces, came to the threshold of the house to receive M. Bovary, whom she introduced into the kitchen where there blazed a big fire. The breakfast of the household was ready prepared and boiling hot, in little pots of unequal size, distributed about. Damp clothes were drying within the chimney-place…

That’s it. Rather sparse as physical descriptions go, isn’t it, considering that this novel’s account of this woman’s passions is arguably one of the most acclaimed in Western literature? Yet at this moment, set amongst the various objects and activities in M. Roulaut’s household, she almost seems to get lost among the furniture.

Ah, but just look at the next time she appears. Charles, the hero of the book so far, now begins to notice her, but not entirely positively.

To provide splints, someone went to fetch a bundle of laths from under the carts. Charles selected one of them, cut it in pieces and polished it with a splinter of glass, while the servant tore up sheets to make bandages and Mlle. Emma tried to sew the necessary bolsters. As she was a long time finding her needle-case, her father grew impatient; she made no reply to him, but, as she sewed, she pricked her fingers, which she then raised to her mouth and sucked.

That’s a nice hunk of character development, isn’t it? Very space-efficient, too: in those few lines, we learn her first name, that she’s not very good at sewing, and that she’s not especially well-organized, as well as quite a lot about her relationship with her father. Could a minute description of her face, figure, and petticoat have accomplished as much so quickly?

But wait: there’s more. Watch how the extreme specificity of Flaubert’s choice of an ostensibly practically-employed body part draws Charles’ sudden observation. At this point in the novel, he and Emma have known each other for two pages.

Charles was surprised by the whiteness of her nails. They were bright, fine at the tips, ore polished than the ivories of Dieppe, and cut almond-shape. Her hand, however, was not beautiful: hardly, perhaps, pale enough, and rather lean about the finger joints; it was too long, also, and without soft inflections of line in the contours.

His being so critical of her caught you off guard, did it not? The paragraph continues:

A feature really beautiful in her was her eyes; although they were brown, they seemed black by reason of their lashes, and her glance came to you frankly with a candid assurance.

This passage reveals as much about Charles as about Emma, I think: how brilliant to show the reader only what happens to catch this rather limited man’s notice. Because his observation has so far been almost entirely limited to the physical, it isn’t until half a page later that the reader gains any sense that he’s ever heard her speak. Even then, the reader only gets to hear Charles’ vague summaries of what she says, rather than seeing her choice of words.

The conversation at first turned on the sick man, then on the weather, the extreme cold, the wolves that scoured the fields at night. Mlle. Rouault did not find a country life very amusing, now especially that the care of the farm devolved almost entirely on herself alone. As the room was chilly, she shivered as she ate, and the shivering caused her full lips, which in her moments of silence she had a habit of biting, to part slightly.

Didn’t take Charles — or the narrative — long to slip back to the external, did it? Now, and only now, is the reader allowed the kind of unfettered, close-up look at her that Millicent so often finds beginning in the first sentence in the book that mentions the character.

Her neck issued from a white turned-down collar. Her hair, so smooth and glossy that each of the two black fillets in which it was arranged seemed a single solid mass, was divided by a fine parting in the middle, which rose or sank slightly as it followed the curve of her skull; and, covering all but the lobe of the ears, it was gathered behind into a large chignon, with a waved spring towards the temples, which the country doctor now observed for the first time in his life. Her cheeks were pink over the bones. She carried, passed in masculine style between two buttons of her bodice, eye-glasses of tortoise-shell.

Quite a sensuous means of tipping the reader off that she’s a fellow reader, isn’t it? Two paragraphs later, we hear her speak for the first time:

“Are you looking for something?” she asked.

The initial words a major character speaks in a story, I’ve found, are often key to developing character on the page. Choose them carefully: in a third-person narrative, it’s the first time that this person can speak for herself. Make them count.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not urging any of you to copy Flaubert. His narrative voice would be pretty hard to sell in the current literary market, for one thing — did you catch all of those which clauses that would have been edited out today? — and, frankly, his work has been so well-loved for so long that a novel that aped his word use would instantly strike most Millicents as derivative. As some wise person once said, a strong authorial voice is unique.

Oh, wait, that was me, and it was just a few minutes ago. How time flies when we’re talking craft.

I hear those gusty sighs out there, and you’re quite right: developing an individual voice and polishing your style can be time-consuming. It took Flaubert five years to write Madame Bovary.

Take that, naysayers who cling to the notion that the only true measure of talent is whether a first draft is publishable. The Muses love the writer willing to roll up her sleeves, take a long, hard look at her own work, and invest some serious effort in making sure that all of that glorious inspiration shows up on the page.

So what, in the end, did I say to the lady who exclaimed over the notion that I could possibly have spent more than seven years writing about writing? Oh, I treated to her the usual explanation of how tastes change, trends waver, and the demands of professional writing differ from year to year, if not day to day. If the expression in her stark blue eyes was any indication, she lost interest midway through my third sentence.

The true answer, however, came to me later: in all of these years, and in 1599 posts, I had never shared my favorite depiction of falling in love with you charming people. A shallow love, to be sure, but a memorable description. And for the prompt to whip out this volume, I owe that lady some thanks.

Do I have more to say about writing? Just try to stop me. Keep up the good work!

Do you mind if we talk about something else? Like, say, the times that try editors’ souls?

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Or, to put it in more practical terms, if I promise to show you more properly-formatted pages while I’m at it, will you forgive my devoting tonight’s post to a foray into a notorious editorial pet peeve? What about if I talk about several?

It’s not as though there aren’t dozens from which to choose: as I may have horrified you with depressed you into a stupor by bringing up mentioned in passing last time, those of us fortunate enough to read for a living are expected — and often rigorously trained — to notice patterns in writing. How often a manuscript uses the word blanched, for instance, or describes anything as being mauve.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with either word choice, mind you, when used sparingly. Surely I will astonish no one, however, if I suggest that your garden-variety reader might prefer not to see characters blanching at the sight of mauve objects on every other page. Adult readers, if you must know, tend to become bored by word and phrase repetition every bit as quickly as they lose interest in a slow-moving plot, dull explanation, or unsympathetic protagonist’s plight. In order to spare the reading public that pain, editors strive to catch not only larger narrative issues, but also redundancies, whether they be of concept, image, or phrase.

And, bless our hearts, we are seldom shy about pointing them out, sometimes as early as the second or third time an author uses a pet word or action. “For heaven’s sake, Mavis,” we have been known to scrawl in manuscript margins, “Jeremy has blanched, went pale, and felt the blood drain from his face already in a 4-page scene — need he also waste the reader’s time noticing his ashen face in the nearest mirror? What’s a mirror doing in the middle of a forest, anyway? And while we’re talking plausibility,” Mavis would be expected to turn the page over here, to read the editorial scribblings on the back of the page, “are you planning at some point to provide the reader with some explanation for all of the mauve leaves on the purple trees? Is the water supply in this forest somehow tainted? Are the trees subject to some sort of lavender mite infestation? Or have you perhaps forgotten that the trees on the other side of the world you’re describing were also on the mauve side?”

Given so much provocation on the page, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that one of the great long-term liabilities of reading for a living — or one of the great advantages, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — is that over time, the dedicated pro becomes decreasingly able to read anything without scrawling corrections in the margins. I’m not merely talking about manuscripts, synopses, and queries here, mind you, but all typed words on a page. The New York Times, for instance, once the standard of American prose, now seldom passes under my long-lashed eyes without picking up some entirely justified marginalia. Nor do magazines go unscathed: I’m looking at you, Radcliffe Quarterly.

Heck, I routinely take a corrective pen to menus, fliers, and wedding programs. One recent November, I had to be restrained bodily from correcting a grievous misprint on my ballot for a county election; the proper spelling would have confused the counting machine, I’m told.

But would that not have been preferable to asking the citizenry to select a superior court joge? Possibly to serve in mauve robes?

While in some walks of life, this level of habitual scrutiny might prove somewhat problematic, for professional readers like agents, editors, and contest judges (or, in this county, joges), it’s a positive boon. So what if in some benighted professions, it is neither expected nor considered particularly sane to look one’s coworker in the eye and say, “I like the content of you’re saying, Ziggy, but the fact that you uttered the word exciting fourteen times over the course of a six-minute speech, insisted upon using impact as a verb, and failed to define a good third of your basic terms detracted from your presentation’s effectiveness,” without finding oneself cordially disinvited from all future meetings? Someone has to defend the language. And by gum, if that means rending our garments and wailing to the heavens, “You’ve used this metaphor twice in 137 pages! And phrased it almost identically each time, you…you?torturer,” well, we’re up to the task.

I see some of you blanching, doubtless at the thought of that manuscript you recently sent out to the agent of your dreams. Well might you turn pale, ashen-faced ones. If the same metaphor graced page 1 and page 241, a good editor would catch it. So is it really so much of a surprise that an even ordinarily conscientious agent — or, for that matter, Millicent, the agency screener — felt all of the blood draining from her face when that metaphor cropped up on pp. 1 and 5? Or — sacre bleu! — twice on page 1?

Half the good professional readers I know would not only have become impatient at any of these levels of metaphor repetition — they would have leapt to the conclusion that the writer was repeating himself so much on purpose. Clearly, this is an authorial plot to get away with lazy writing. As opposed to, say, an authorial failure to recognize that his pet phrase of today was also the pet phrase of three months, eight days, and sixteen hours ago.

How could you? You know how much such things upset Millicent.

Actually, you probably didn’t, at least when you first began to write. Until a writer has enjoyed the incomparable pleasure of having her work dissected disemboweled subjected to professional critique, she tends not to have any idea of how closely an agent or editor is likely to read, much less a Millicent. As we discussed yesterday, the overwhelming majority of first-time queriers and submitters fully expect their pages to be read with, if not a completely charitable eye, than at least a willingness to look past little things like conceptual redundancy and an over-reliance upon a select group of particularly nice words. It’s the overall writing that counts, right?

Can you hear Millicent giggling? From a professional reader’s perspective, the very notion that repetitious word choice, recycled notions, or even frequent typos would not be considered part of the authorial voice being offered in a submission is pretty funny. A screener can judge writing only by what’s on the manuscript page, after all. And is Millicent really so wrong to believe that a manuscript in which every inanimate object is apparently mauve-tinted might be indicative of a slight compositional problem?

Then, too, most writers radically underestimate how good a well-trained professional reader’s memory for text will be. Remember, Millicent is usually in training to become either an agent, who would be expected to read a client’s fourth revision and be able to tell how it had changed from the three previous drafts, or an editor, who might conceivably find himself telling a bestselling author, “By jingo, Maurice, I’m not going to let you do it! You used precisely that simile in Book I of this five-part series; you can’t reuse it in Book V!”

Oh, you think I’m exaggerating, do you? Earlier today, I found my text-addled mind drifting back to a novel-cum-memoir I had read, I kid you not, in junior high school. And not merely because Memorial Day is a natural time to consider the noble calling of memoir-writing. A pivotal scene in that book, I felt, would provide such a glorious illustration of a common narrative mistake — both in manuscripts and in queries, as it happens — that I just had to drop our series-in-progress and track down the book.

Yes, yes, I know: sometimes, even other editors are surprised at how well I remember text. A few years ago, when my own memoir was lumbering its way through the publication process, my acquiring editor scrawled in my margins, “Oh, yeah, right — you remember a biography of the Wright Brothers that you read in the third grade? Prove it!” I was able not only to give him a chapter breakdown of the book, but tell him the publisher and correctly identify the typeface.

That’s how little girls with braids grow up to be editors, in case you had been wondering. If anyone wants to talk about the estimable Katharine Wright Haskell, apparently the only member of the Wright family bright enough to realize that heaving the first airplane off the ground might be of more significance if somebody bothered to alert the media, I’m still prepared and raring to go.

So I had good reason to believe that my recollection of a fictionalized memoir ostensibly written by a childhood friend of Joan of Arc was reasonably accurate. A lighthearted burrow through the roughly two thousand volumes I carted up from California after my mother moved from my childhood home, so she would have to tote only the remaining eight thousand with her (long story), and voil?! The very pages I had in mind.

Care to guess whether I’d remembered the font correctly?

I’m delighted that I did, as this excerpt provides excellent examples of the kind of narrative missteps that Millicent thinks so many of you do on purpose, just to annoy her. For starters, it exhibits the all-too-common narrative trick of echoing the verbal habit of using and as a substitute for a period in first-person narration, in a misguided attempt to make the narrative voice sound more like everyday speech. It can work, but let’s face it, quite a bit of everyday speech is so repetitious that it would be stultifying if transcribed directly to the printed page.

It also, you will be pleased to hear, beautifully demonstrates another classic memoir bugbear: telling an anecdote on the page as one might do out loud at a cocktail party, with practically every sentence a summary statement. (Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is such a pervasive piece of editorial feedback.) And, most common of all in both memoir and fictional first-person narratives, the pages in question much character development for anyone but the protagonist.

All sounds pretty terrible, doesn’t it? Actually, the scene isn’t badly written; the aforementioned garden-variety reader might not even have noticed some of these problems. Nor, unfortunately, would most aspiring writers prior to submission, for the exceedingly simple reason that far too few of them ever actually sit down and read their work beginning to end, as any other reader would. The writer already knows what’s on the page, right?

Or does he? My guess is that in this instance, the writer had very little idea that what he was slapping on the page was even vaguely problematic.

But you shall judge for yourself. To render the parallels to what Millicent sees on a daily basis more obvious, as well as to continue our exercises in learning to know properly-formatted manuscript pages when we see ‘em, I’m presenting that memorable scene here in standard format. As always, my blogging program is for some reasons best known to itself a trifle hostile to page shots, so if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.

Twain page 1

Twain page 2

Twain page 3

Come on, admit it — while you might have excused all of those ands if you had heard this tale told out loud, they’re a trifle eye-distracting on the page, are they not? Ditto with the word repetition — could this author possibly have crammed any more uses of to be, to get, or to see into these three pages? And don’t even get me started on concept repetition.

I sense those of you committed to the noble path of writing memoir — or writing reality-based fiction — shifting uncomfortably in your chairs. “But Anne,” you protest, averting your eyes, “this isn’t the powerful negative example you led us to expect. I get what you mean about the sheer volume of ands, but other than that, there’s nothing wrong with the narrative voice here, given that this is a memoir. Isn’t part of the point of any memoir that the voice does sound like someone might speak? Is that not, in fact, one of the charms of first-person narration in general?”

Well, yes, but just as an event’s having actually occurred in real life (and it’s true, too!) does not necessarily mean that it will inevitably strike the reader as plausible on the page, first-person narration’s reading like everyday speech does not guarantee readability. In print, narrative chattiness may work against the reader’s enjoyment, because chatty people, like the rest of us, reuse words and phrases so darned much. Even talented verbal anecdotalists seldom embellish their tales with the level of detail that the most threadbare of written accounts would require. And funny out loud, let’s face it, does not always equal funny on the page.

Which is to say: as delightful as our example above might have been tumbling out of the mouth of a gifted storyteller, as a story on a page, it’s lacking quite a few elements. A sense of place, for one — is there a reason, the reader must wonder, not to give us some sense of what either the woods or the village were like? If both are left so completely to the reader’s imagination, is there not some danger that a Millicent fresh from polishing off the manuscript before this one might automatically assume that those trees were mauve, and those villages occupied by the wan?

Oh, you thought I’d dropped that running joke? In a blog, I can get away with going back to that same well this often. How many times, though, do you think I could revisit the joke in a book before the reader got bored? Or Millicent became irritated?

While you’re pondering those troubling questions, let’s return to our example. How else does it fall short?

Well, as so often happens in memoir, we’re just told that the action is happening here or there, rather than shown what those places were like. And lest anyone be tempted to shout out that old writing truism, “But it’s stylish to leave something to the reader’s imagination!, let me ask you: based upon the pages above, could you tell me where these people are with enough specificity that a reader would be able to feel like she’s there?

“But that’s not fair!” I would not blame you for shouting indignantly. “It’s the writer’s job to establish a sense of place, not the reader’s job to guess.”

Precisely what Millicent would say. She would object, and rightly, to this scene’s providing her with too little description to enable her to picture Joan and her young friends operating within an environment. Nor are those friends fleshed out much, either in character or physical trait.

Heck, poor Millie doesn’t even get to see the frightening Benoist: instead, the memoirist merely asserts repeatedly that he and Joan were getting closer, without showing us what that have looked like to a bystander. Like, say, the narrator of the scene.

Speaking of the narrator, were you able to glean much of a sense of who he is as a person? How about what his relationship is to Joan? Are you even sure of their respective ages? Any idea what year it is? Heck, if you did not already know that the girl would grow up to be the patron saint of France — actually, one of four, but Joan of Arc is certainly the best known in this country — would anything but the children’s names tip you off about what part of the world these characters inhabit?

While I’m asking so many rhetorical questions in a row — another occupational hazard, I’m afraid; margins absorb them like a sponge does water — let me ask a more fundamental one: did you notice that although this excerpt is apparently about how the village’s children reacted to Joan, there’s practically no character development for her at all?

That’s at least marginally problematic, in a book entitled — wait for it — PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC. What, we are left to wonder, does she look like? Why doesn’t she stand up to her playmates (beyond, of course, the justification of being “so girlish and shrinking in all ways”) or, failing that, why doesn’t she simply walk away from the nasty little beasts?

And don’t stand there telling me that the narrator had no choice in the matter, because that’s how it really happened. Yes, a memoir or fact-based fictional story should be true, but it also has to be both interesting in the page and plausible. Reality, unfortunately, is not always plausible; it’s the writer’s job to make it so on the page.

Which begs another editorial question: why can’t a kid brave enough to face down the village madman’s axe (or ax, depending upon where it falls in this passage; the error is in the book in front of me), a rather interesting thing for a person to do, come up with more revealing answers to questions than a simple yes? This is another notorious editorial pet peeve: almost without exception, the least character-revealing way for anyone to answer a yes-or-no question is with — again, wait for it — a simple yes or no.

Are some of you writers of the real blanching now? “But Anne,” you gasp, clutching your ashen cheeks so heavily drained of blood, “people actually do answer questions that way! And isn’t the point of written dialogue to reproduce the feel of actual speech?”

Well, that’s one of the points of dialogue. Another is not to bore the reader to death, isn’t it? And, if at all possible, it should be entertaining.

Just holding a tape recorder up to nature tends not to be the surest means of hitting any of those excellent goals. Why? Chant it with me now: most everyday speech is repetitious.

I can stand here and keep saying that as long as necessary, people. Again and again and again.

As we may see in the scene above, a character that keeps saying nothing but “Yes” isn’t exactly thrilling the reader with deep insight into her thought processes. Or even into the scene itself: little Joan is not, after all, a hostile witness in a murder trial, but a child talking with her playmates. Wouldn’t it ultimately be more realistic, then, if she sounded like the latter?

Speaking of realism, would it be too much to ask the narrator to explain why the villagers left an axe lying anywhere near the madman’s cage in the first place? Might not the locals’ efforts have been more productively expended making sure he can’t get out than chopping off his fingers?

And yes, in response to what half of you just thought: this is precisely the kind of thing an editor would have gripped her pen angrily and inked into the margins of a manuscript. Not because she’s mean, but because she’s trying to help the writer give the reader a more enjoyable reader experience.

That’s a noble calling, too, you know. But in the unlikely event that some writer out there might care less about the moral beauty of Millicent and her ilk’s devotion to textual excellence than how to worm his way past it in order improve his submission’s chances of getting picked up by an agency, let me hasten to add that the sooner a writer learns to read his own manuscript the way a professional reader would, the easier he will find self-editing. Not to mention being able to catch the Millicent-irritants that can prompt a screener or contest judge to stop reading.

In the interest of helping you fine people develop that ability, let me ask you another question about today’s example: if you had previously known absolutely nothing about what the what the real-life Jeanne d’Arc achieved, wouldn’t you find it at least a trifle too pat that her playmates choose to picture her doing more or less what she grew up to do — and to laugh at her about it? If the girl had suggested this role herself, it might merely have been not-particularly-subtle foreshadowing, but honestly, can you think of any reason to include this at all except to make the reader feel cleverer than St. Joan’s playmates?

Millicent wouldn’t be able to think of one. Neither would most professional readers; it’s our job to deplore this sort of narrative ham-handedness.

“Just how ill-informed would a reader have to be not to find that first bit clumsy?” we mutter into our much-beloved coffee mugs. “Isn’t it safe to assume that anyone who would pick up a book about Joan of Arc would know that she lead an army and was burned at the stake, even if that reader knew nothing else about her? And if your garden-variety reader knows that much, isn’t it an insult to his intelligence to drop a giant sign reading Hey, dummy, this is foreshadowing?”

Was that mighty gust of wind that just whipped the cosmos the sound of half of the memoirists out there huffing with annoyance, or was it merely the first-person novelists sighing gustily? “But Anne,” both groups think loudly in unison, rather like the remarkably collective-minded children in the anecdote above, “this is how I was taught to write first-person narration. It’s supposed to sound exactly like a real person’s speech. So why shouldn’t St. Joan’s unnamed childhood buddy sound like anybody else telling anecdotes out loud?”

A couple of reasons, actually. Yes, good first-person narration takes into account the narrator’s individual speech patterns; no dialogue should sound like just anybody. Which is precisely the problem with all of those yeses, right? All by themselves, yes and no are generally presumed to mean the same thing, regardless of who is saying them. So, like polite spoken clich?s of the “Excuse me” and “I’m so sorry for your loss” ilk, they are too generic to convey personalized content.

Strong dialogue also typically reflects the narrator’s social status and education, personal prejudices, and what s/he could conceivably know in the situation at hand. And then there are those pesky individual quirks and, yes, the century in which s/he lived.

So I ask you, first-person writers: just how does the narrative voice in this passage indicate that this particular anecdote took place not too long after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415? As opposed to, say, the 1890s, when this account was first published?

And if you were tempted even for a nanosecond to mutter in response, “Well, if the 1980s is when readers would have been seeing this dialogue, sounding like that just would have seemed normal,” let me ask a follow-up question: if this scene were narrated in the voice of a pre-teen texting this to a friend today, would that make this scene ring truer to today’s readers? Or would it merely read as though the writer either hadn’t thought much about how Joan and her friends might have communicated with one another — or was presuming that today’s readers were not capable of following any type of dialogue than their own?

Those of us who read for a living have a term for that kind of assumption: insulting the reader’s intelligence. We often find ourselves scrawling it in margins.

How often, you ask, your faces a mask of pallid horror? Well, operating on the assumption that internal monologues have both always sounded pretty much like modern speech and don’t vary much from individual to individual is as common a mistake in first-person narratives as having all teenage characters sigh and roll their eyes is in YA submissions. Yes, some people do think and talk that way, but must everybody? Should Helen of Troy formulate her innermost thoughts in the same way as, say, Eleanor Roosevelt, Louisa May Alcott, or Confucius?

There’s a dinner party, eh? I’ll bring the stuffed grape leaves.

Doesn’t it make for more interesting narration if your narrator’s speech bears at least some marks of time? And if she has some individual quirks of thought and expression?

Besides, if we are going to be true to the rules of first-person narration, shouldn’t we be objecting to how often our narrator here professes to read the other children’s minds — although, notably, not Joan’s? I don’t know about you, but I find that most of the time, my thoughts are located in my own head, not floating somewhere in the middle of a group of bystanders. Millicent, too, tends to regard her own thoughts as separate from other people’s. The inevitable consequence: characters who think together tend to annoy her, unless their shared brains crop up within science fiction or fantasy context, where they can be plausible.

That cast a different light upon the narrative choice here, doesn’t it? As an editor might well scrawl in the margin, are we supposed to believe that our narrator in this instance is a mind-reader, or that the local children were too simple-minded to be able to form individual opinions about what is going on in front of them? Is the narrator just not familiar enough with the individual characters to be able to guess how their thoughts might have differed, or, (turn page over here) since he’s of a different social class than they are — not abundantly apparent in this scene, is it? — does his reporting that they all thought the same way a function of his views of their training in rational thinking? Or does it indicate the opposite, that he feels so close to them that he presumes that his beloved friends and he could only have thought and felt identically?

“Or, Mark,” the editor might conclude, “did you originally write this scene in the third person, with an omniscient narrator that could plausibly read everyone’s thoughts? If so, you can’t legitimately endow your first-person narrator with that ability. Pick a narrative perspective and stick to it!”

In fairness to Mark, as well as all of the blanching first-person narrative writers out there, plenty of writers actually were taught to write first-person narration this way — in short stories in their high school English classes. And with good faith, too: in short bursts, run-on sentences do indeed come across as ordinary speech-like. In the published examples of this type of narration that tend to turn up in class, it’s not all that unusual for the author’s voice and the first-person narrator’s voice to merge into colloquial harmony.

Or, to put it another way, Mark Twain tends to sound like Mark Twain, for instance, no matter whose perspective is dominating a particular story. That’s part of his branding as an author, right, his distinctive narrative voice and humorous worldview?

Admittedly, adopting a chatty voice makes quite a bit of sense for narrative voice in memoir. The reader is going to have to like how the narrator/protagonist talks about her life well enough to want to follow the story for a few hundred pages, after all; we might as well get friendly. Yet in practice, the primary danger of relying on the repetitive phrasing, clich?s, and percussive and use to achieve realistic-sounding narrative cadence is precisely that it will put off the reader because as the pages pass, it can become, at the risk of repeating myself, rather boring.

Think about it: even if a memoir were being told as a collection of verbal anecdotes, wouldn’t you rather listen to a storyteller with some individual flair for phrasing, instead of someone who just sounded like everyone else? No matter how inherently exciting a personal story is, a great telling can make it better reading. So can a narrative voice reflective of the time, place, and society in which that tale takes place.

But just try telling that to Mark Twain — who, as the sharper-eyed among you may already have noticed, wrote the scene above, in what he considered his best book. Although that retrospective assessment is a trifle hard to take seriously, in light of the fact that he published the book both under a pen name and in serial form. Actually, he took it to even one more remove: he wrote a preface under a nom de plume, presenting himself as the translator of a memoir written by one of young Joan’s contemporaries.

Why go to all that trouble? Because by all accounts, he felt that the poor sales of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER were largely attributable to his established audience’s expecting anything published under the name of Mark Twain to be a comedy. Good branding has its drawbacks for a creative artist.

Take that, purists who would like to believe that writing with an eye toward market concerns is a product of an increasingly cynical publishing industry over the last twenty or thirty years. Twain and his publisher worked out that tactic in the 1890s.

But I digress. As a reader, how well do you think his narrative choices worked here, either as fiction narration or as the memoir narration it originally professed to be? In your opinion as a writer, how do you feel about those slips into the first person plural — is the reader carried along with the we perspective as a narrative choice, as we were in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, or does it read like a perspective slip?

In today’s example, do you feel that the mostly distinctly modern narrative voice, coupled with the almost entirely uncritical view of Joan, was the best way to tell this tale? Reviewers in Twain’s time did not think so — they believed (and I must say I agreed with them back in junior high school) that a protagonist who never does anything wrong is a trifle on the dull side, as far as the reader is concerned. Twain’s Joan never sets a wee foot wrong; even in her earliest youth, he tells us, she raised her voice in anger only once, and even then it was to voice a patriotic thought.

A taciturnity unusual in a rabble-rouser, you must admit. Also an unusual characteristic for someone who challenged social norms enough for anyone to want to burn her at the stake: Twain’s narrator presents her as a quiet, universally beloved little girl. Butter, as folks used to say, would not melt in her mouth.

But is that how little girls with braids grow up to lead armies?

Twain evidently thought so. No matter how outside-the-box her observations or actions are shown to be (or, as we saw above, summarized to be), in this narrative, nothing she did or said from birth to the age of fourteen so much as ruffled the composure of the inhabitants of a querulous small village in wartime. Surprising, to say the least, in a young lady who by her own account had been engaging in frequent heart-to-heart chats with a couple of your more illustrious virgin martyrs since the age of twelve.

Perhaps the querulous small village where I spent my formative years was atypical, but I’m inclined to think that had I gone around snatching murder weapons from the clutches of local lunatics or holding confabs with deceased ancient Roman maidens, the locals might have had a thing or two to say about it. I’m also inclined to think that their observations would not have been entirely favorable, regardless of how winsome and girlish I might have been while disarming the maniac in question. It doesn’t strike me as the type of endeavor best undertaken in a party dress.

I’m not saying that Twain is necessarily factually incorrect about any of this; naturally, his best guess is as good as ours on a lot of these points. The little lady lived rather a long time ago, so the issue here is less historical accuracy than dramatic plausibility. Still, just because something really happened does not mean it will necessarily come across as plausible on the page; as agents like to say, it all depends on the writing.

As an editor, though, I think it was Uncle Mark’s job as a writer’s to make me believe his take on this. Presuming you agree with me — speak now or forever hold your peace — I ask you: was this narrative choice the best fit for the story he wanted to tell? And if not, should Millicent accept this manuscript?

Does the fact that a good third of you just began hyperventilating mean that it had not occurred to you that whether a story is not only well-written, but attacked from an appropriate narrative angle is a potential rejection trigger? It is, inevitably. Wouldn’t it have been nice if your last rejection letter had told you that, if Millicent or her boss thought that your first-person story would have worked better as a third-person narrative, or vice-versa?

Literary taste is, of course, to a very great extent individual, so only you can answer my question about Uncle Mark’s narrative choices to your own satisfaction. Am I correct in presuming, though, that you are at least a tiny bit curious about how an editor currently holding down the literary fort in the U.S. publishing world might respond to the choices he did make? Glad you asked. Let the scrawling begin!

What am I hoping you will take from this, you ask, eyes wide with horror and previously rosy cheeks drained of blood? Not merely that being a brilliant writer does not necessarily preclude turning out a clunker of a first draft from time to time — although that’s not a bad thing for aspiring writers to bear in mind. The popular conception of true literary talent’s consisting of letter-perfect creative phrasing dripping from one’s fingertips directly onto the page, with no further polishing necessary, each and every time, does not match up particularly well with reality. As any experienced editor could tell you, most of the books people regard as semi-miraculous productions of pure inspiration have actually been worked, reworked, and run past half a dozen critical readers.

And I mean critical readers. The kind who will remember what the author did in the same scene in each previous draft.

Remember that, please, the next time you’re struggling with a scene that just doesn’t seem to want to hit the page gracefully — or with much specificity. In moments like that, it can be very tempting to embrace the tack Twain did above, writing up the scene in summary form, with few vivid details, just to get the darned thing committed to paper as rapidly as humanly possible.

What makes me think that this was written quickly? Editorial instinct, mostly: I find it hard to believe that a humorist as gifted at reading out loud as I know Twain to have been would have killed the comedy — or bored the reader — with this much word repetition unless he was writing on a pretty tight deadline. Serialization tended to be submitted that way back then, you know, as Dickens would have been only too glad to tell you. Had Uncle Mark taken the time to revisit this scene and iron out its wrinkles, I don’t think there would have been quite so many references to eyes — and, frankly, I don’t think that he would have had his narrator faint at the climax of the scene. He was too good a storyteller.

But that choice certainly saved the author the trouble of having to figure out how the girl convinced the wild man to give up the axe, though, didn’t it? Trust me on this one: experienced editors — and Millicents — see this type of narrative shortcut often enough to recognize it for what it is.

So what should a savvy writer do when faced with this sort of first-draft dilemma? Go ahead, give in to temptation; there is value in getting a full scene on paper. Just make sure to set aside time later in the writing process to return to that scene and flesh it out.

Unless you would prefer to have your future editor bark at you, “This is lazy writing, Ambrose. Didn’t anybody ever tell you to show, don’t tell?”

Just in case nobody has yet snarled that in the general direction of your manuscript: show, don’t tell. Immerse your reader in sufficient details for her to be able to feel as though she is part of the scene, rather than leaving her to fill in the specifics for herself.

Oh, you don’t think that’s what Twain is doing here? Okay, rise from your chair, grab the nearest willing partner, and try to act out this interaction between young Joan and Benoist, based solely upon the choreography the narrator above chose to provide us:

She stood up and faced the man, and remained so. As we reached the wood that borders the grassy clearing and jumped into its shelter, two or three of us glanced back to see if Benoist was gaining on us, and this is what we saw — Joan standing, and the maniac gliding stealthily toward her with his axe lifted. The sight was sickening. We stood where we were, trembling and not able to move. I did not want to see murder done, and yet I could not take my eyes away. Now I saw Joan step forward to meet the man, though I believed my eyes must be deceiving me. Then I saw him stop. He threatened her with his ax, as if to warn her not to come further, but went steadily on, until she was right in front of him — right under his axe. Then she stopped, and seemed to begin to talk with him. It made me sick, yes, giddy, and everything swam around me, and I could not see anything for a time — whether long or brief I do not know. When this passed and I looked again, Joan was walking by the man’s side toward the village, holding him by his hand. The axe was in her other hand.

Not much practical guidance for the actors there, eh? Other than all of that seeing (a word most writers tend to overuse in early drafts, incidentally), the actual movements mentioned here are pretty routine: one party standing still, the other moving toward her. The mover threatens, but we are not told how. Admittedly, a lifted axe doesn’t have to move much to seem threatening, but did you notice how pretty much all of the sense of danger is conveyed via the narrator’s dread, rather than through showing the reader vivid, terrifying specifics? And how virtually all of that dread is summarized, rather than shown in any detail?

From an editorial perspective, that lack of specificity distances the reader from what should have been a thrilling scene: by leaving us to fill in the details, the narrator abdicates his proper role here. It’s his job to make us feel that we were there, or at least to show us the scene engagingly enough that we have that illusion.

Yes, he grounds us in his experience by telling us repeatedly that he is seeing this or that, and that these sights made him feel sick (and ultimately pass out). But great heavens, man, if you’re going to narrate a story like this, isn’t it your job to at least ask a bystander what happened, so you could share that information with the reader?

Don’t tell me that once you’ve seen one axe-wielding madman, you’ve seen ‘em all. As both a reader and an editor, I want to know what this particular madman looked, sounded, moved, smelled, and felt like. I want to know precisely what our heroine did that gave Benoist pause; I want to be shown how he crept up on her stealthily while apparently walking straight into her line of vision. And gosh darn it, I want to know how an axe of 1415 differed from one I might buy at the corner hardware store today.

Without those details, and phrased in fairly ordinary terms, this excerpt is indeed like everyday speech, in the negative sense, despite the inherently exciting subject matter. Substitute a memo-wielding boss for the axe-bearing madman, and this could have been an anecdote overheard in a coffee house after work, couldn’t it?

Please don’t limit your answer to a simple yes or no. I was hoping to learn something about you.

Distancing the reader from the action in this manner is an unfortunately common tactic in memoirs and first-person fictional narratives alike. Instead of showing the reader what happened through a fully realized scene, the narrator simply summarizes; rather than demonstrating relationship dynamics through dialogue or action, the narrator just sums up what was said. And by describing subsequent actions in the same words or in hackneyed terms (I believed my eyes must be deceiving me? Really, Mark?), the action may move forward, but the reader’s understanding of what’s going on does not.

Joan stood; Benoist glided. Then Joan stood while Benoist glided. Then she stopped — odd as the narrative had not shown her going forward. Then the narrator conveniently blacks out so we cannot see what is going on. Then the problem is solved. The end.

A bit mauve, isn’t it? Well might you turn pale.

Seldom is this the most interesting way to convey a story, in my experience. Like having characters answer yes-or-no questions with yes or no, as opposed to more detailed (and thus more character-revealing) responses, the summary route closes off story possibilities. And by definition, repeated phrasing adds nothing new to the scene.

Neither, incidentally, do all of those thens: logically, they are unnecessary. Why? Well, in a story in which events are being presented in chronological order, the occurrences in Sentence 1 are presumed to have happened before those in Sentence 2, which in turn came before what’s described in Sentence 3.

Thens, then, as we have seen them used in that last example, are logically redundant; most editors would advise you to reserve them for moments when what happens next is genuinely unexpected. Take a gander:

Joan stood; Benoist glided toward her with an axe. Then the Wright Brothers and their sister, Katherine, swooped through an opening in the forest canopy in a motorized glider to snatch the weapon away.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last twist coming, did you? As a reader, didn’t you get a kick out of that?

Remember, there’s more to telling a story than simply listing its events in the order they occurred. Racing from its beginning to its end may not be the best way to engage the reader. You want the journey to be both memorable and enjoyable, right? And if the narrative can manage either to surprise the reader with an unanticipated turn of events, delight her with astonishing imagery, or intrigue her with beautiful phrasing — ideally, all three — all the better.

Before I release you to ponder the challenges of expanding a first-person narrative from the anecdotal level into a completely inhabited scene, I want to talk about another common faux pas: the further distancing effect of the narrative’s reminding us repeatedly that the narrator is seeing, hearing, or observing this or that. Obviously — at least from a professional reader’s perspective — if an action or object is depicted in a first-person narrative, the narrator perceived it; otherwise, she could not legitimately bring it up, right?

So when Twain’s narrator tells us repeatedly that he saw Joan do this or Benoist do that, it’s logically redundant. Of course, he saw it: he was standing right there. Why bother to remind the reader of that self-evident fact? Or, to put it as a garment-rending professional reader might, does the author think the reader is too brain-dead to remember who the narrator is and that he is present?

Oh, you don’t want the pros to take every word you commit to the page that seriously? But it’s how they show their respect for your eventual readers!

And for your literary gifts. Again: if it’s on the page and the writer appears to possess even the slightest vestige of talent, Millicent is going to assume that you put it there on purpose. She’s also going to believe, with good reason, that if a writer has set up rules for how the story is to be told — in this case, from the point of view of a childhood friend of Joan’s, and only from his perspective — the narrative will follow those rules consistently.

This, too, trips up quite a lot of memoirists and other first-person narrator-wranglers. Once a narrative is committed to a single perspective, it cannot report anything outside of it without shattering the illusion of a limited point of view. Thus, when the narrator slips into the first person plural, informing us that we saw this or thought that, it’s jarring to the reader’s sensibilities.

And when, like Twain’s narrator, he professes to know what we all are thinking…well, let’s just say that maybe Joan isn’t the only one who needs to be worrying about going on trial for dabbling in the supernatural. Unless the narrative establishes some means by which a first-person narrator could possibly have reliable insight into other characters’ thoughts and feelings, he should really stick to his own.

If his thoughts and feelings are somehow different from every Tom, Dick, and Benoist who might be hanging around in the same place at the same time, great. If he can manage to express them in language evocative, memorable, and tailored to his individual worldview, though, even better. And if he can work in a little character development, perhaps through revealing dialogue, terrific.

Which is not a bad definition of memoir voice, if you think about it: a narrator with a strong personality and specific worldview recounting situations of significance to an overall dramatic story arc in language and from a perspective unique to the teller. If every sentence of your memoir — and, to bring this back to our series-in-progress, every sentence of your query’s book description — does not rise to that level, you might want to think about revising it.

Millicent will thank you. So will your readers.

So Mark, darling, as much as I admire your writing in general and short stories in particular, if I were your editor — oh, you thought that editors don’t live in the hope that this type of activity would be the first, best use of a time machine? — I would insist that you sat down and revised these three pages. Actually, I would do it because I admire your writing: your narrative voice, even in this rather serious book, is better than what we’re seeing here.

And that axe you keep telling us you’re seeing, narrator? Try to think of it as your editor, chopping away all of that phrasing and conceptual redundancy. Trust your reader’s intelligence a bit more, please.

Do bear in mind, too, that while reality itself can be convoluted and devoid of point, readers have a right to expect a book based upon real events to be a good story possessed of an identifiable story arc. It should be dramatically satisfying. And if the real-life version is not, believe me, Millicent isn’t going to be inclined to take that as an excuse.

No need to go pale about this. You can do it. But in order to pull it off successfully, you’re going to have to be able to read your work not only like a writer, but also like a reader.

Oh, it feels good to be delving back into craft. Would anyone mind if I continued to keep standard format illustration on the back burner for a bit and made narrative voice my topic of the week?

Actually, that’s a rhetorical question, come to think of it. Keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: what’s that you say, Lassie? An international terrorist ring has infiltrated the school band’s bake sale and is holding the woodwind section hostage?

I had promised you fine people a weekend of posts on craft, but once I consulted that subsection of my always-burgeoning to-blog-about-when-I-can-find-the-time list, I realized that I could conceivably treat you to a full season of it. Ever since, I’ve been paralyzed by indecision about where in the morass to start.

Why is the list so long, you ask? It’s a predictable side effect of living on an editor’s desk, I’m afraid: I hate to break it to those of you new to the biz, but to read manuscripts for a living is to develop an ever-burgeoning array of literary pet peeves, and violent ones at that.

I’m not merely talking about coming to feel a well-justified horror of typos, finding that one’s eye twitches at the sight of the fourth sentence in the passive voice within a single paragraph, or startling one’s neighbors by hoarse, strangled cries of “Why do you hate the English language?” at manuscripts displaying a blithe disregard of subject-object agreement, either. Most classically-trained professional readers enter the game with such attitudes and behaviors.

Those of us who have been at it for a while pick up much more sophisticated irritation-triggers, born of seeing the same types of plot device over and over again. A deep sense of futility at a story that opens with an unnamed woman, possibly clutching baby, fleeing equally unidentified pursuers at night through some sort of uninhabited landscape — forest, blasted heath, alligator-infested swamp, etc. — in a state of inarticulate terror. Sheer repetition may cause editorial malaise may escalate to free-floating anxiety if the lady in question happens to be sporting tattered garments, be toting some priceless yet surprisingly portable family heirloom, or possess (shudder) long, flowing hair that catches on the brambles/heather/passing reptiles as she runs breathlessly toward the uncertain future. If that hair happens to be — can I bring myself to type it? — the color of sunset or sunlight, all the pro can do is long for Death’s sweet embrace or the ability to shout “Next!”, whichever is more convenient.

Not all well-worn openings induce such extreme reactions, of course. An experienced agency screener might only sigh gustily over the eighteenth submission of the week in which the protagonist wakes up with no idea of where s/he is. Eyes might be rolled if that hapless soul is similarly in the dark over who s/he is. Those eyes will not begin searching the room for some handy stabbing implement unless that protagonist happens to glance into a nearby reflective surface — mirror, limpid pool, an unusually shiny gum wrapper — and note, possibly wonderingly, that s/he has blue eyes, long blonde or red hair, and pleasing facial features. (Why does no one ugly ever wake up an amnesiac?) If that self-assessment includes the sight of a leg, and that leg happens to be shapely, the implement may be used on ourselves.

And as fond as those of us pursue the life literary tend to be of caffeinated beverages, particularly of the warm variety (I’m looking at you, Millicent), we have been known to set them aside with unnecessary vim, resulting in splashing, when a narrative stops dead in its tracks in order to depict the protagonist (possibly one with long red, blonde, or raven tresses) having a heart-to-heart with a quite a bit less physically attractive best friend/confidante coworker/improbably non-judgmental parent about the ongoing conflict, to try to figure out what the heck s/he is going to do about it. We’ll take a God-give-me-strength-or-at-least-stamina sip if the protagonist and (usually her) friend conduct this plot-freezing confab whilst actually consuming coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or a cocktail that will no longer be trendy by the time the book comes out. Admittedly, we might choke on that judicious sip if the friend does not contribute more to the conversation than a series of semi-supportive wows and uh-huhs, but you’ll be delighted to hear that the spit-take doesn’t actually occur unless that conversation recaps, blow by predictable blow, the scene that fell immediately before the cozy chat.

By contrast, our blood pressure will rise only slightly if our hero/ine appears on the scene just in time to observe over a freshly-deceased body, “He’s dead.” Our molars will grind only a trifle if her/his superior subsequently orders her/him to — wait for it — find the killer, pronto, because that, obviously, would not have occurred to him/her. Tooth enamel may become damaged, however, if that superior is experiencing pressure for results from above/the mayor/the governor/the president, based upon a timeline so short that only a five-year-old with an unusually short attention span, a mosquito trying to live out the last few moments of its lifespan with gusto, or someone completely unfamiliar with the concept of an investigation would consider reasonable.

Should the deceased that s/he so helpfully declared defunct also in this moment be revealed to be a close personal friend never mentioned before in the story, relative (sisters seem to be particularly expendable, a trend troubling to those of us boasting a couple of X chromosomes and a full family tree), or that troubled kid who decided in the last scene to clean up his/her act/addict twelve hours off “the stuff”/terrified witness this close to agreeing to testify in that big trial about which the Aboveniks have been pressuring everyone in sight, apparently based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of how the criminal justice system works, we might end up clutching our right arms and visiting the emergency room. But you shouldn’t worry your pretty little head about it.

We’ll be fine. Tell my cop brother/D.A. sister/hard-boiled detective ex-husband that my last wish was that s/he would catch that killer/corrupt official/ill-mannered vampire. S/he knows I have always loved…gasp…whimper.

To be fair, all of us see these tropes on television and in movies all the time: to the many, many, many writers whose sense of drama was derived from flickering images, these plot devices often seem perfectly reasonable, if not downright mandatory. And in genre fiction, it often does make sense to honor book category conventions; a vampire’s gotta bite and a test pilot’s gotta fly, after all.

So what if Millicent the agency screener knows as soon as she realizes that the manuscript was written within the last ten years by an American that any vampire the reader is supposed to like will be — you’ll never see this coming — conflicted about killing any mammal larger than a stoat? Want me to tell you about the conflict s/he is going to have with a vampire with less rigid ethical boundaries?

It’s less reasonable, however, to expect any reader, much less one that does it for a living, to be surprised when the P.I.’s partner gets killed before we’ve really gotten to know him. Or when the grizzled (fill in job description here) two weeks from retirement either takes two in the chest or is assigned to train a rookie. (Is there any governmental institution in the world that embraces this as a standard practice?) Or if the only person in the book about whom another character says, “Oh, s/he had a tough childhood,” turns out to be the serial killer/arsonist/mysterious perpetrator of late-night office vandalism.

Just once, I’d like to see the axe murder turn out to have experienced an upbringing so normal that Sigmund Freud would have shouted, “You’re kidding — no one’s childhood is that perfect.” Good parents inadvertently produce sociopaths, too, do they not?

Oh, it hadn’t occurred to you that professional readers might enjoy being surprised every now and again? Believe me, one doesn’t have to cast one’s eyes over more than a thousand or two stories in which the (almost invariably male) protagonist’s wife/girlfriend and possibly small child is slaughtered within the first scene in order to provide him with motivation to perform the dangerous task that someone must manifestly do immediately before one begins being actively on the look-out for plots with a little more twist to them. By the same token, if one sees the same premises, plot twists, and even lines of dialogue in manuscript after manuscript, it does become a trifle difficult not to anticipate them.

“Oh, look,” Millicent mutters, unthinkingly taking a sip of her latté before it has had time to cool, “the only two vaguely attractive people in the book have just fallen in love. What’s next, a tale in which the Lady of Dubious Virtue turns out to have a heart of gold?”

Seriously, professional readers’ enjoyment can be quite impeded by this sense of déjà vu. No matter how many times one tells oneself, “Look, Mavis, I realize that cultural storytelling norms are pervasive, and that the mortality rate for mothers in the Star Wars series was virtually 100%, but you have no right to imagine that dear old white-headed lady on page 2 breathing her last on page 10. You’re just going to need to read the intervenes pages and see what happens,” it’s impossible not to feel a bit vindicated when the protagonist’s dear old white-headed mother does in fact breathe her last on the bottom of page 9.

But will Mavis find it entertaining? Well, it all depends on the writing, as agents and editors like to say. (Hey, every society has its tropes.) Even in a brilliantly lyrical manuscript, though, it’s substantially easier to entertain a reader who has not known since page 1 what was going to happen on page 158.

Just the nature of our old pal, the story arc, and of storytelling as an art form, I’m afraid. And, frankly, of an agent or editor’s job: reading thousands of manuscripts in the hope of finding the one that’s as pure gold as the ticker beating within the aforementioned Lady of Dubious Virtue.

That’s not the only source of pet peeves, of course; professional readers see the same movies and television shows as everyone else. We’re not immune to the influence of pop culture, however much some high literary types might imply otherwise. Your humble correspondent’s personal least-favorite — the narrative shortcut I like to call the it’s gotta be… phenomenon — crops up constantly, not only in manuscript submissions, but throughout the cultural firmament.

How much do I dislike seeing it on the page? Well, you know how much I enjoy defining things? This time, in order to expose you to it as a brand-new Millicent might experience the phenomenon, I’m going to bypass definition entirely, opting instead to show you a few examples. Try to spot it in the wild.

Tyrone brought his beloved motorcycle to a screeching halt beside the bevy of onlookers. He could tell before he fought his way to the front of the crowd that Sheila was dead. Living people can’t fold themselves in to rectangles that small, much less spread their arms the length of a city block and their long raven hair across the awnings of three separate businesses. That requires assistance from a psycho with a chopping implement, possibly one from a less-than-happy home.

And he knew just the psycho to do it. Gunning his motor, he raced off into the night in pursuit of Garland Hecht.

Did you notice it? Admittedly, it’s subtle here — and in our next example.

“You’re not going to send me away again,” Arlene shouted. “My daughter’s been missing for three days, and all you’ve done is tell me to be patient!”

The principal’s patience seemed to be waning. “I understand that this is stressful for you, Mrs. Belcher, but the marching band’s not back from its maneuvers yet. For all we know, she simply missed the bus.”

The phone rang. Arlene leapt to answer it. “Lana?”

A pause. “Mom?”

Sensing a pattern here? No? Let’s try again.

I couldn’t believe my ears. “A break-in? At ten o’clock on a Monday morning?”

Bob pointed to a couple of indistinct footprints. “Well, someone’s been here.”

The officer cleared his throat. How long had he been out of the academy, forty-five minutes? “Um, ma’am, could you tell us if there’s anything missing?”

I already knew that there wouldn’t be. It wasn’t Warren’s style. “Not that I can see. But this isn’t a thief.”

“Wait,” the officer said. “You know who did this?”

“Yes. My ex-business partner.”

“Yeah, right.” Bob guffawed. “He’s not only dead; he’s buried halfway across the country.”

Dear, naïve boy: was he unfamiliar with the ease with which a wax figure could be introduced into a coffin at a closed-casket funeral? I gave up on explaining and turned to the officer. “I appreciate your concern, but there’s really nothing for you to do here. I’ll handle this myself.”

Predictably, Bob exploded. “But Claudine, that’s crazy! Ghosts don’t shatter living room windows. For all you know, whoever broke it is coming back!”

Oh, I was sure of that. In fact, I was counting on it. Only this time, I’d be prepared.

If it didn’t strike you that time — and it might not; this one’s ubiquitous — I shall have to fling all subtlety to the winds. I present you now a blatant version. Hint: this is also the device’s most common form.

The chief dispensed with the civilities. “About time you got here, detectives. A fifth burglary, and downtown’s breathing down my neck to get results.”

Bonnie and Mac glanced at each other, then at the crime scene. It looked nothing like the other four, except for what was not there: a Persian carpet showed dents where the grand piano once stood. A single candle burned on the mantelpiece. The family photos on either side had not been disturbed.

She leaned toward her partner. “It’s got to be our guy.”

“His rage is clearly escalating,” Mac whispered.

She held her finger to her lips. “Chief,” she called across the room, “we’ve got to go track down a lead.”

It leapt off the screen at you that time, I hope. If not, let me ask you what I would scrawl in the margin of this manuscript: how did Bonnie and Mac know that even though the crime scene was different, the same perpetrator had stolen this piano as the previous ones? Is not the only common element here the theft of a piano, and is it not conceivable that more than one piano thief is currently occupying the planet?

While we’re at it, what makes Claudine so sure that Warren was the only conceivable window-smasher? Does he hold a national monopoly on the practice? Does she have any other reason to believe him to be above ground?

And how did Arlene Belcher know that her daughter was the caller? It wasn’t her phone, after all; plenty of people telephone high school principals. Was it just a lucky guess? If so, why didn’t the narrative present it that way — or at least show the principal acting surprised at her answering his phone?

Finally, is there any basis for Tyrone’s certitude that his favorite psychopath hacked up Sheila? Or does he simply know no other psychopaths?

The answers to all of these questions, I regret to say, ultimately boil down to the same thing in each case: the characters leapt to these conclusions because the plot required it. Not because it would be impossible for the writer to move these various stories forward unless a major character stated categorically that this, and only this, was the only plausible perpetrator, but because the narrative is using this device to avoid having to deal with any other logical possibilities.

Or even, in several of these cases, to describe what makes the concluder so darned sure. Yet in each instance, the reader is told point-blank that X must be true — and, since the narrative does not question that bottom-lining statement, the reader is left to assume that it must, indeed, be accurate.

Pardon my asking, but why must it be true? As these passages were written, none of the characters making these assertions seemed to have much logical basis for leaping to these conclusions. Admittedly, we’re also not shown any reason to doubt these sweeping assertions, but that’s not the same thing as showing enough on the page that we can draw these conclusions along with the character, is it?

To a professional reader’s eye, the it’s gotta be… phenomenon is primarily a narrative shortcut. It saves the narrative the trouble of presenting either plausible inductive or deductive reasoning by simply stating what the writer wants the reader to believe.

And that, my friends, is a show, don’t tell problem.

Oh, you didn’t see that coming? Millicent would have; so would most professional readers. Simply asserting that X is the case, Y is this kind of person, Z is feeling Q is classic telling, not showing. Instead of providing the reader with a dozen pieces of evidence that would lead the reader to realize that they all point to X, or demonstrating the kind of person Y is through action and dialogue, or illustrating Z’s Q feelings through same, the text just assumes that the reader needs to be told all of these things point-blank.

From an editorial perspective, this is not merely less effective storytelling — it implies that the writer does not trust the reader’s intelligence enough to draw the correct conclusions. But most fiction readers don’t require spoon-feeding; they tend to find it a bit obvious.

And if they find it obvious, how do you think a seasoned Millicent will feel about it? Plots low on complications tend to minimize conflict; a straight line from mystery to revelation is seldom the most interesting way to get there. So if the manuscript in question is well written, she might well feel disappointed at seeing potentially interesting — and perhaps less predictable — possibilities cut off by it’s gotta be….

“No,” she will long to lecture the manuscript, “it doesn’t have to be, as this is currently written. Please, either show me in detail why the path you’re choosing here is the logical one, or present me with enough plausible alternative explanations that I may have the pleasure of trying to solve a complex puzzle for myself.”

That raised some hackles out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” writers fond of quick-deciding characters protest, “I read Tyrone, Arlene, Claudine, Bonnie, and/or Mac’s reactions in a completely different way — and, appropriately for this fine nation’s current trends in filmic storytelling, in the manner that I suspect screenwriters and directors intend me to interpret them. Where you and Millicent see narrative convenience, I see smart characters doing what smart people do all the time in real life: draw impressive conclusions from scant evidence.”

You have a point, speed lovers: intelligent people can often interpret subtle clues correctly and distill them into statements of fact. But if you’ll pardon my mentioning it, people of normal intelligence are also given to assessing situations and drawing conclusions therefrom. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that both in novels and in those TV shows and movies to which you allude, a fairly standard means of demonstrating a character’s lack of intelligence is to show him or her making untrue observations based on scant proof.

See the problem? By disregarding entire universes of alternate possibilities, Tyrone, Arlene, Claudine, Bonnie, and Mac could be exhibiting lightning-fast interpretive skills — or they could simply be too ill-informed or dim-witted to realize that there are other options.

I get what you mean, though, devotees of speed: television shows and movies have accustomed us all to equating intelligence with both the ability to blurt out relevant facts quickly and to make snap judgments about swiftly-changing situations, just as we’ve been trained to regard barking orders as indicative of authority, a belligerent insistence upon not accepting help as a token of toughness, and being able to assess a technically complex phenomenon at a glance as an infallible sign of expertise. I would just like to point out that it’s probably not entirely coincidental that all of these common traits also happen to be awfully convenient for someone trying to tell a story in a hurry.

Like, say, in an hour-long (minus commercials) cop show. Or in a 90-minute movie. A storytelling shortcut or two might be very helpful in wrapping things up quickly.

That doesn’t mean, though, that these common storytelling shortcuts constitute the only way to tell a story — or necessarily the best way for your story. And isn’t one of the reasons that you wanted to write in the first place to express your own sense of story and characterization? Wouldn’t you enjoy astonishing your reader with a plethora of possibilities — and having the satisfaction of seeing that reader become embroiled in trying to resolve the plot’s conflicts along with the protagonist?

Every writer must answer those questions for him or herself, of course. Only, please, when you’re tempted to cut to the chase, ask yourself: does it have to be this way? Or am I avoiding exploring interesting alternatives or complications in the interest of speed?

Give it some thought, please. And, at the risk of being predictable, let me encourage you to keep up the good work.

Reimagining a classic impeccably: a conversation with I, IAGO author Nicole Galland

Okay, okay, so I didn’t manage to get our planned whew-I-survived-PNWA treat up yesterday, as I had hoped, as a quick breather between talking about how to handle conference pitching with aplomb and today’s plunge into how to handle a request for manuscript pages — which will still be happening later today, you will be delighted to hear. I have an excellent excuse, however: the other day, a truck burst into flames outside the salon where I was having my hair cut.

The first those of us inside the salon heard of it was the giant pop when the windshield exploded. Not the best time to have one’s head in a sink, as it turns out. Both my stylist and I jumped so much that I have a gigantic bump on the back of my noggin. It’s rendered it just a trifle difficult to focus on a computer screen.

And that, in case any of you had been wondering, is why fiction has to be so much more plausible than nonfiction — and why simply slapping real-life events on the novel page so often doesn’t ring quite true. Quite a lot of what happens in this zany world of ours would seem completely absurd if it popped up in a novel.

Case in point: would you believe it if Our Heroine not only rushed to her blog the instant she could see straight after that out-of-nowhere explosion, but posted twice in one day? Surely, that pushes the bounds of credulity; the fact that it is actually going to happen would be irrelevant.

Is my vision still a bit blurry, or are some of you sighing and shifting impatiently in your chairs? “Yes, yes, Anne,” those of you eager to get requested materials out the door mutter, “I’m sorry for your whacked head, but we’ve been talking about practical matters for the last week. I’ve appreciated that, as I have a manuscript request burning a hole in my metaphorical pocket from my recent successful conference pitch and/or a query that hit the right note. I’m begrudgingly honoring your advice to read my submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and perhaps even OUT LOUD before I send it off to the agent of my dreams. But honestly, a cozy chat about plausibility in fiction? Or a discussion of craft with a respected historical fiction author, as the title of this post implies you’re about to have? How can I do that and remain monomaniacally focused upon popping my manuscript into the mail as soon as I have satisfied your insane demands?”

All part of my evil plan, impatient shifters (but please, don’t say popping to me right now; it makes my head throb). As it happens, evil plans, plausibility in fiction, craft, and the all-important issue of how to keep the faith throughout what can be a long, attenuated submission process — even if you hit SEND immediately after today’s late-night post on how to present your work professionally, it’s not at all uncommon for submitters not to hear back for months — are all part of this afternoon’s treat.

So is the question of how to render over-the-top realities plausible on the page. Or wasn’t plausibility something for which you had been scanning while you were re-reading the pages you intend to submit IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and, if you want to make me happy, OUT LOUD?

Okay, that’s why you might want to pay close attention to the content of this discussion, impatient shifters. Now, allow me to introduce my discussant, a highly-respected historical novelist deeply gifted at bringing even the most over-the-top events of years past into vivid, plangent, and utterly plausible life on the page: Nicole Galland.

Nicole Galland’s terrific new retelling of OTHELLO, I, Iago came out a few months back, and although you of all people know I am not prone to gushing, I think it’s one of the best historical novels of recent years. I also think it’s both a terrific read and a great example for those of you toiling away in the currently popular vineyard of reconceiving classic tales. From the publisher’s blurb:

From earliest childhood, the precocious boy called Iago had inconvenient tendencies toward honesty—a “failing” that made him an embarrassment to his family and an outcast in the corrupted culture of glittering, Renaissance Venice. Embracing military life as an antidote to the frippery of Venetian society, he won the glowing love of the beautiful Emilia, and the regard of Venice’s revered General Othello. After years of abuse and rejection, Iago was poised to win everything he ever fought for…

…until a cascade of unexpected betrayals propel him on a catastrophic quest for righteous vengeance, contorting his moral compass until he has betrayed his closest friends and family and sealed his own fate as one of the most notorious villains of all time.

Pretty exciting, eh? Actually, for once, a blurb has undersold the dramatic action — and the genuinely astonishing twists of the plot.

Yes, even if one happens to know Othello awfully darned well. I do, as it happens: I’ve acted in it. Heck, I’ve played more than one role in it. And more than one turn of events made me not only gasp out loud, but put that pen with which a prudent author interviewer always takes marginal notes right through the page.

Think about that. Usually, I don’t jump for anything less than a nearby explosion.

Seriously, one of the occupational hazards of being an editor is the deadening of one’s capacity for surprise. Editors are notorious for rolling their eyes over mild foreshadowing on page 14 and murmuring, “Oh, great, now I know how the book ends.” If you are the type of person that likes to receive a story arc in sequential chunks, I would strenuously advise against accompanying an editor to a movie.

That suggestion is brought to you, incidentally, by the unlucky soul that happened to be occupying the adjacent loge seat when I saw The Sixth Sense. The first time the mother appeared onscreen and did not ask how her child’s therapy session had gone, everyone within three rows heard my annoyed huff, if not my whispered, “Oh, so the mother can’t see the therapist; he must be a ghost. I’m bored now.”

As you might imagine for a reader with that kind of attitude problem, it’s rare that a plot catches me by surprise. So how is it possible that reading a story whose ending I know as well as Othello’s kept me up all night reading because I wanted to know how it was going to turn out?

Which is, of course, the central problem in retelling any well-known classic. It’s always a writing challenge to draw readers into a story, particularly one that takes place long ago, but it’s an especially high dive with Shakespeare — and not merely because of the intimidation value of tackling one of the theatrical world’s greatest tragedies. Even readers that routinely turn pale at the very thought of their high school English class’ discussion of Hamlet may reasonably be expected to be familiar with the outlines of the plot: General Othello and the lovely Desdemona are in love, Iago convinces Othello to become madly jealous, and the stage quickly becomes littered with corpses.

To make the dive even higher, the literary world has in recent years applauded — and even expected — new takes on culturally well-known tales not only to render them fresh and accessible for current readers, but to do so from the point of view of the villain. In reimagining Othello, that presents quite a difficulty: Iago does some pretty loathsome things to the people around him, rendering him hard to like — and, unusually for chatty Shakespeare, the play’s audience is actually not treated to much explanation of his motives.

How did Nicole conquer these twin challenge? By means of a writing choice that I think will delight and instruct those of us devoted to writing fiction: by delving so thoroughly into Iago’s past and personality development that as he takes each step toward infamy, the reader is cajoled into saying, “Oh, okay — I can go along with that.”

The result is hugely engaging. I, IAGO not only seduced me into liking the villain — something I would not have thought possible — but left me feeling by the tumultuous last quarter of the book that by having empathized with his increasingly warped sense of right and wrong, I had become enmeshed in his fate. Yet even though I could see it coming, even though I had picked up the book knowing that it had to come, the trip there kept catching me off guard, because I was experiencing it moment-to-moment with the protagonist-villain.

And that, my friends, is not something that happens all that often to those of us that murmur at the first mention of a character’s hard childhood, “Oh, so he’s the serial killer.”

An unexpected fringe benefit that friends of the Bard will love: this story is so steeped in the Shakespearean ethos that small hints of his other works seem to have been built into the very plaster of the ballrooms and steel of the swords. Here is an image plucked from a sonnet; there is descriptor reminiscent of Juliet. And could that possibly be a reference to Pericles, Prince of Tyre?

It is, in a word, fun — not word I generally associate with tragedy. If I have a critique (other than having lost sleep to this story), it’s that I would have liked to see both Desdemona’s very genuine wit and Othello’s descent into overwhelming paroxysms of jealousy in a bit more detail. Why was this great mind so easily overthrown?

But that’s a minor quibble. As an established fan of Nicole’s writing — and, in the interest of full disclosure, as someone who first met her during an audition for Measure for Measure at Harvard, back in the Reagan era — naturally, I expected to be charmed by the writing. I have to say, though, I think this is far and away her best book to date, and certainly one I have been frantically handing to every aspiring historical novelist I meet as a prime example of how it’s done.

So, equally naturally, when she made a flying visit to Seattle recently, I dragged her into my back yard, turned a camera on her, and implored her to share her writing secrets. Unfortunately, before we began, I took off the hat I had been wearing on that hat day first, so you’ll have to excuse my hair.

Seriously, its state requires excuse, so much so that had this not been such a meaty interview with such an old friend, I might have held off on posting it until I could find a gifted retoucher of videotape. But I promised you a treat, so I shall cast vanity to the winds.

How I suffer for your art, eh? Concentrate instead, please, on this year’s bumper crop of lilacs — and a great conversation about craft with one of the best. Enjoy!