John, have you seen Jon, James, and/or Jeremy lately? What about Jessica, Jacqueline, Jessamyn, or Jasmine?

cardinal richelieu tripych

Three guesses: which particular species of word repetition am I going to tackle today?

Actually, that was a trick question — I’m going to be talking about two of the most common, gratuitous character name repetition and character naming that inadvertently gives the impression of same. Why talk about them together, you ask? Because in manuscript submissions, faux pas of a feather tend to flock together.

Why, yes, that was a mixed metaphor, now that you mention it. Would that the following not-all-that-uncommon type of fiction opening suffered from only metaphor-blending.

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Mona, I’ve had enough,” Morris said. “It’s me or Maurice!”

Mona moaned. “Darling Morris,” Mona mentioned, “whatever do you mean? Marius means nothing to me, and Mencius hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Merton, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” Morris gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard, Mona!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years, Morris,” Mona murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Marius, Mona — I am accusing you of being in love with Maurice!” Morris muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that, Mona?”

Mona looked blank. “Maurice who?”

Maddening to read, is it not? If you really want to drive yourself mad, try reading it out loud. Or simply step into Millicent the agency screener’s shoes and read a good third of the fiction openings on any given day.

Why are these phenomena so pervasive in submissions? Believe it or not (but I hope you select the former), as evident as the too-similar names would be to virtually any reader, most aspiring writers — nay, most writers, period — seem to have a hard time noticing how their name choices can distract the reader. Or so I surmise from how defensive writers often get when editors like me suggest, however gently, that perhaps their manuscripts might benefit from some name fine-tuning.

In fact, I would bet a wooden nickel of the variety that folks are always urging one not to take that a fairly hefty proportion of the otherwise excellently-humored writers reading this have already taken a bit of umbrage from the nation’s seemingly inexhaustible supply. “But character names are a creative choice!” writers everywhere protest, indignant. “And if I like a character’s name, why shouldn’t I use it a lot? It’s necessary for clarity, you know!”

Is it now? More to the point, is it always? I ask because usually, what indignant name-dropping writers have in mind as the only feasible alternative is something like this:

He strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “I’ve had enough,” he said. “It’s me or him!”

She moaned. “Darling, whatever do you mean? He means nothing to me, and that other guy hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now a third fellow, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” he gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years,” she murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit — I am accusing you of being in love with You Know Who!” He muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that?”

She looked blank. “Who?”

Yes, this pronoun-fest would be a bit difficult for your garden-variety reader to follow. As justifying examples go, however, you must admit that this one’s a bit of a straw man. I’m not saying that you should never mention your characters by name at all. No one — no one sensible, anyway — would seriously suggest that, because you’re right: naming characters can be awfully handy for identification purposes.

Nor is anyone here arguing that character names don’t fall firmly within the province of authorial discretion (but don’t be surprised if your future agent/editor/some random guy from your publisher’s marketing department harbors few thoughts on the subject). No, what we sensible editorial types have in mind was a revision more along these lines:

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Elaine, I’ve had enough,” he said. “It’s me or Armand!”

She sat bold upright on a chaise clearly designed for supporting an inclination to recline. “You mean Armand Jean, the Duc du Plessis, otherwise known as Cardinal Richelieu? Why, he’s been dead for either decades or centuries, depending upon when this scene is set!”

Morris sank to the floor, clutching his head in his hands. “Oh, God, have I been time-traveling again?”

Just kidding — that was the edit the guy from marketing wanted. (Oh, come on — you wouldn’t keep reading?) Simply making the names less similar would produce a run of text a little more like this:

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Elaine, I’ve had enough,” Morris said. “It’s me or Arnold!”

Elaine moaned. “Darling Morris,” Elaine mentioned, “whatever do you mean? Stefan means nothing to me, and Ned hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Edmund, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” Morris gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard, Elaine!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years, Morris,” Elaine murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Stefan, Elaine — I am accusing you of being in love with Arnold!” Morris muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that, Elaine?”

Elaine looked blank. “Arnold who?”

Come on, admit it — that’s easier to follow, isn’t it? As little as writers might want to hear it, anyone who has ever screened manuscripts or judged contest submissions could tell you (quite possibly whilst clutching his aching head and/or bathing his weary eyes) that the best or only test of the strength of a character’s name is not whether the writer happens to like it.

Yes, yes, I see your hackles rising, defenders of authorial rights: the writer of this turgid little exchange may well have been deeply enamored of every name in the original draft. I can guarantee, though, that the reader will find this set of monikers considerably more individually memorable — and thus more conducive to matching with each character’s personality.

While you’re retracting those hackles, however, let me ask you: this time through, did you notice how often Morris and Elaine’s names appeared for no good reason?

If you’re like most writers, the answer is no. Seriously, folks, you’d be astonished at just how often a given character’s name will pop up within a single page of text in the average manuscript submission — and even more astonished at how difficult it is for chronic name-repeaters to spot the problem in their own writing. Like the bugbear of our last few posts, the ubiquitous and, major characters’ names seem to become practically invisible to self-editing writers.

But you know better, right? In a two-person scene, is it remotely necessary to keep reminding the reader who those two people are? Yes, it’s helpful to identify speakers the first time around, but couldn’t any reader familiar with the principle of alternating dialogue be relied upon to keep track of which is speaking when thereafter?

And while we’re at it, isn’t audibly a trifle redundant here? What else are the quotation marks for, if not to alert the reader to words having been uttered aloud? Could not the writer assume sufficient intelligence in the reader to render this rendition a viable option?

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “I’ve had enough. It’s me or Arnold!”

Elaine moaned. “Darling, whatever do you mean? Stefan means nothing to me, and Ned hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Edmund, on the other hand…”

“Aha! Hoist with your own petard!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years,” she murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Stefan — I am accusing you of being in love with Arnold!” He muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that?”

She looked blank. “Arnold who?”

Oh, there go those writerly hackles again — it takes so little to raise them. Clarity and flow not enough for you?

“I guess that’s fine,” hackle-raisers mutter, kicking the nearest piece of heavy furniture, “but really didn’t see a problem with the earlier version. I miss the fun names.”

Of course you do — as a writer. As a reader, you almost certainly wouldn’t; let’s face it, the similarity of the names of Mona’s presumptive lovers could only be amusing for so long. It’s also a type of joke that our Millicent sees often enough in submissions that even if it did tickle her funny bone at first, it could hardly strike her as original. On the whole, she’s more likely to be pleased to see some naming restraint. She spends so much time trying to remember which character is which, you see.

Oh, you think that’s not difficult? Okay, try a little experiment: hie yourself to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and pull twenty books off the shelves. Stack them neatly before you and read the first page of each. Wait five minutes, then jot down as many of the main characters’ names as you can.

It’s not so easy. Especially if you happened to select books in which the characters boast similar names. Which prompts me to ask: everyone did catch the plethora of Js in today’s title, right?

I sincerely hope so: names beginning with J have for years been by far the most common in submission, especially in YA. Isn’t that right, Jeremy, Josh, and Jesse? And don’t even get me started on the many, many years during which John, Jon, Jonathan, Jack, and Johnny traipsed merrily through the pages of virtually any novel one might happen to pick up in an airport.

Just between us, Justin, a screener or contest judge doesn’t have to be on the job for very long to start longing for the odd Anthony, a wayward Terence, a charming Gregory, merely for the sake of variety. “Would it kill the average submitter,” Millicent moans into her third latté of the morning (hey, something’s got to keep her awake), “to give a passing thought to naming his protagonist Keith?”

Oh, Millie, I feel your pain — but at the risk of repeating myself (oh, John, must we go over this again?), it’s my considered opinion that on the manuscript page, writers just don’t spot the problem. Partially, that’s attributable to an unfortunate fact of submission: a good 90% of writers currently sending off manuscript pages to agencies, small publishers, and writing contests have never actually clapped eyes upon another writer’s manuscript.

So is it really any wonder that any given submitter should be unaware that by the time Millicent meets his protagonist, Joshua Jefferson, in the course of her screening day, she will have already had the pleasure of making the literary acquaintance of 13 other Joshes, Jeffs, and possibly their sons? As far as they know, her Josh is the only one in town.

Then, too, all of us are just used to knowing quite a few people with the same first name. So is Millicent. In her case, though, all the sympathy this experience sparks is to wonder why so few writers seem to have noticed that in the real world, it’s often kind of inconvenient when several people moving within the same circles share the same name.

Says the former coed who could walk into her collegiate dining hall, shout “David!” and see a third of her male classmates turn around. Someone in the admissions office — and in the nation’s maternity wards a couple of decades earlier — sure must have been awfully fond of it.

Before any of you slice-of-life aficionados leap to your feet to argue the virtues of having a manuscript’s naming strategy hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, let me hasten to add that it’s really, really common for readers to confuse characters whose names begin with the same capital letter, let alone the same first syllable. It may be fun to plan a story about adventurous twins Ken and Kendra, but on the page, it’s likely to confuse a skimmer. So are those intrepid best friends, Dustin and Justine.

Oh, you don’t believe me, friends of Morris, Maurice, and Marius? Okay, let’s take a peek at some of these naming faux pas in their native environment, the manuscript page. If you’re having trouble reading such small type so fast, I recommend holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

For those of you who would like to replicate Millicent’s experience within the comfort of home, I invite you to try to read your way all the way down the page in less than 30 seconds. On your marks, get set — squint!

Name rep example

How did you do? Award yourself a gold star if you spotted all 9 iterations of John in the body of the text — and another if you caught the author’s name in the header. (No, that wouldn’t count as repetition in the text, now that you mention it, but to a repetition-weary Millicent at the end of a long day, it might contribute subconsciously to her sense of being bombarded by Johns. She’s only human, you know.)

So far, so good. But let me ask you: did the 6 Paulines bug you at all? Or did they simply fade into the woodwork, because your brain automatically accepted them as necessary to the text?

Again, for most writers, the answer would be no — as long as this page had fluttered gracefully out of their own manuscripts. Admittedly, though, not all of them would have instantly leapt to their feet, crying, “My heavens, Mr. or Ms. Johns, have you never met a pronoun you’ve liked?”

That’s quite a bit more charitable than what a nit-picky reader would have shouted — and since that demographic includes practically everyone who has ever read for a living, including agents, editors, and contest judges, you might want to worry about that. Millicent, I assure you, would have found the level of name-repetition here eye-distracting.

How eye-distracting, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, let me put it kindly: how distracted from your fine writing would you find it acceptable for her to be? Wouldn’t you rather she focused upon the many excellencies of your style than all of those Js and Ps?

News flash: proper nouns are as susceptible to over-use in writing as any other kind of words. Although aspiring writers’ eyes often glide over character and place names during revision, thinking of them as special cases, to professional eyes, there is no such thing as a word exempt from being counted as repetitive if it pops up too often on the page.

In fact, proper noun repetition is actually more likely to annoy your friendly neighborhood Millicent than repetition of other nouns. (Did you catch how frequently fog appeared in that last example, by the way?) Too-frequent repetition of the character and place names makes the average editor rend her garments and the garden-variety agent moan.

If it’s any consolation, they’ve been rending and moaning for years; proper nouns have been asserting and re-asserting themselves on the manuscript page for a couple of decades now. Pros used to attribute this problem to itsy-bitsy computer screens.

Oh, did that reference perplex you, children? Ask your parents about the early Macs’ postcard-sized screens. They weren’t even tall enough to give a life-sized reflection of an adult face. If the user made the text large enough to read, the screen would only hold a dozen or so lines.

But as technology has progressed, the screens on even inexpensive computers have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Even on a tablet, you can usually view of half a page, at least. My extra-spiffy editor’s monitor can display two full-sized manuscript pages side by side. I could serve a Thanksgiving dinner for eight upon it, if I so chose.

I never have so chosen, in case you were curious. But it’s nice to have the option.

Given how much easier it is to see words on a screen now than in days of yore, Millicent is left at a loss to explain why writers so seldom have a clear idea of how distracting name repetition can be on a page. Could it possibly be as simple as writers tending to christen their major characters with their favorite names (I’m looking at you, John), ones they like so much that they simply cannot see the darn things crop up often enough?

Good guess, Millie, but I don’t think that’s all that’s going on. I suspect it has to do with how differently the eye reads text on a backlit screen: it definitely encourages skimming, if not great big leaps down the page. But for the most part, I believe it has to do with how infrequently writers read their own work in hard copy.

Hear that Gregorian-like chanting floating through the ether? That’s every writer for whom I’ve ever edited so much as a paragraph automatically murmuring, “Before submission, I must read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.” I repeat this advice so often that writers who read this blog religiously have been heard to mutter this inspiring little axiom unconsciously their sleep, under their breath during important meetings, on their deathbeds…

So my prescription for learning to head this Millicent-irritant off at the pass will not, I suspect, come as a complete surprise: the best way to catch any visual pattern on the printed page is, you guessed it, to print out the page in question and read it. As I think you will soon discover, proper nouns are unusually gifted at flagging down a reader’s attention.

Since I don’t see too many of you stampeding in the direction of your manuscripts to verify this in your own writing, here’s another example. Again, you’ll get the most out of this exercise if you read it at top speed.

name rep 3

Did you notice how your eye longed to leap from one T to the next, even if it meant skipping some text? That’s only natural. Come a little closer, and I let you in on a closely-held professional readers’ secret: the skimming eye is automatically attracted to capital letters.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, not-especially-literate people tend to Capitalize Words for Emphasis. When they’re not placing words that no one has ever said aloud inside quotation marks, that is — another widespread professional readers’ pet peeve. It’s virtually always grammatically incorrect to Use Punctuation to Attract Unwarranted Eyeballing, just as it’s seldom literarily acceptable to “surround” words like “this,” presumably to demonstrate to the “reader” that were these words being “spoken aloud,” someone might emphasize them, but that doesn’t seem to stop devotees of either practice.

To be fair, using punctuation as a substitute for writing that calls attention to itself does indeed work. Just be aware that among print-oriented people, that attention will probably not be positive.

Proper nouns, on the other hand, claim capitalization as a natural right. Completely legitimately, they jump off the page at the reader — which can be a good thing, if a manuscript is crammed to the gills with action, unnamed characters, and other literary titivations that do not involve the named characters. That way, reader’s eye will be drawn to the major players when they show up. Problem solved, right?

In most manuscripts, no. It’s pretty common for narratives to remind readers unnecessarily often of even the protagonist’s name. And since most novels and pretty much all memoirs deal with their respective protagonists on virtually every page, that can result in a whole lot of capital letters competing for Millicent’s attention.

Are you satisfied with that outcome, John? John? If you don’t start paying attention, I’ll have to page Pauline.

Millicent’s constantly confronted by scenes constructed by authors evidently terrified that some reader will forget who is speaking. Or so she must conclude by the frequency with which characters address one another by name — much more often than would be bearable in real life. And it’s not just the characters that seem to fall prey to this fear: narratives often compulsively name and rename everyone in sight. Heck, while we’re at it, why not remind the reader of how those characters are interrelated?

“But that’s not fair, Mom!” Cecile wailed.

Her mother stroked her bent head. “Now, Cece, you knew running for Congress was going to be hard.”

The daughter batted the maternal hand away. “It’s no use, Mom. I simply cannot kill another baby. My pucker is broken.”

Call me zany, but I cling to the hope that when one character refers to another as Mom, a conscientious reader will be able to figure out that the latter is the former’s mother. Similarly, once that reader has been made aware that the latter gave birth to the former, I’m pretty confident that the conclusion that Cecile is the daughter will not be an especially surprising revelation.

Besides, we’re not dealing with legions of characters here. Unless the one of the characters happens to have multiple personalities, most readers will leap to the radical conclusion that the names of the conversants will not alter substantially within the course of a few pages of dialogue. So why keep labeling the participants in a scene where there’s little probability of confusing the reader?

A fine question — and the reason professional editors so frequently cut tag lines (he said, she said), rather than having the narrative identify every speaker every time s/he opens his or her pretty mouth. Once the narrative has established the speakers in two-person dialogue (far and away the most common variety, by the way), a reasonably intelligent reader is more than capable of remembering what both of those people are called by their kith and kin.

So if your text seems to have broken out in capital letters, look first at the dialogue, both inside the quotation marks and without. In dialogue where the use of tag lines has not been minimized, proper names can pop up so frequently that it’s like a drumbeat in the reader’s ear.

And it’s my job to get you to hear it as you read. I can keep producing these examples all day, people.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why not?” April asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, April. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” April said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, April. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we tarred and feathered our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

April sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Yes, speakers in the real world do call one another by name this much sometimes, but like so much of real-life dialogue, that level of repetition would be snore-inducing, if not downright hypnotic, on the page. Especially when name-bearing tag lines are featured in the text, even dialogue between just a couple of characters can convey the sense of a very crowded room.

Does that combination of frantic jumping and wild arm-waving mean that some of you would like to add something here? “But Anne,” some perennial reader-distrusters point out, “wasn’t that last example rather unwise? I mean, if you took your vicious red pen to that exchange, slashing all of the proper nouns but the first set required to set up the alternating dialogue rhythm, you’d end up in precisely the dilemma we saw at the top of this post, the one you dismissed as a straw man: a scene in which the characters share a pronoun. Get out of that one, smarty-pants!”

In the first place, I seldom edit with red pens: due to early school training, virtually any adult will perceive red-inked marginalia as more critical than commentary scrawled in another color. (And you might be shocked at how excited some adult writers become when they learn that if a paragraph is especially good, I have been known to slap a gold star next to it. Book-length revisions have been fueled by the hope of gold stars.) And in the second place, with a little finesse, depicting an exchange between pronoun-sharers need not be at all confusing.

We’re writers, after all: why should the only possible word choice to replace a proper noun be a pronoun? Use your creativity, as well as your scissors. And don’t be afraid to rearrange a little text.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why not?”

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it is. How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one. It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we tarred and feathered our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

She edged out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

We weren’t exactly flung headlong into a morass of confusion there, were we?

“But Anne,” pronoun-eschewers protest, and who could blame them? “You keep giving us dialogue examples. I find myself going out of my way to eschew pronouns in narrative paragraphs as well. Is there then no hope of quelling my deep and abiding fear of being misunderstood when I’m describing a couple of similarly-gendered characters?”

Never fear — we already have a very capable quelling device in our tool kit. And look, here’s a dandy excerpt to which we can apply it, fresh from the pen of someone terrified that two shes in a scene is one lady too many.

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Tanya did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Tanya. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen.

Silently, Tanya retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. Tanya inclined her head toward the wall clock: ten minutes past closing time.

Eve looked up at Tanya with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. Haughtily, Eve tapped her fountain pen on each of the seven empty Perrier bottles before her. How dare Tanya treat her like a drunk?

At this juncture, dare I hope that you found this at least a bit annoying to read? Come on, admit it — if I had opened the post with this example, it would have struck you as better prose, right? Which is why, I can reveal at long last, I’ve been positively burying you in examples today: until you’ve had to read page after page of name-heavy prose, it can seems a trifle counter-intuitive that reusing a single word — any single word — within two consecutive lines might be irritating to a reader.

Yes, even if the word in question is not a proper noun. The capitalization of a name merely makes it stand out more, bellowing at Millicent, “Look at me! Repetition here! Wouldn’t want to miss it, would you?”

So what, the fearful ask, are we to do about it? Clearly, we can’t just replace all of the proper nouns with she; the narrative might conceivably become confusing. (If you retain any linger doubts about how confusing a narrative can be when no proper names are used at all, get a 4-year-old to tell you the plot of a movie he’s just seen.) And clearly, going after tag lines and characters naming one another wouldn’t be helpful in a scene containing neither.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t perform a little judicious proper noun removal surgery. We’ll just have to exercise a little more creativity. Here’s the same scene again, streamlined to minimize the perceived necessity of naming the players.

She slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when no one came running, she filched a straw from the table next to her — the guy tapping away on his computer never even noticed — and made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of life. For good measure, she upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen.

Silently, Tanya snatched the glass in mid-flight. She inclined her head toward the wall clock: ten minutes past closing time.

Eve looked up at her with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses. God, she hated being treated like a drunk. Haughtily, she tapped her fountain pen on each of the seven empty Perrier bottles before her

Anybody especially confused? I thought not.

Before any of you proper noun-huggers out there start grumbling about the care required to tell when a pronoun is appropriate and when a proper noun, let me hasten to point out that this was not a very time-consuming revision. All it required to alert the reader to which she was which was a clear narrative line, a well-presented situation — and a willingness to name names when necessary.

That, and an awareness that repeating names even as far apart as three or four lines just doesn’t look good on a printed page; it can draw the eye away from an orderly, line-by-line reading, and therefore detrimental to the reading experience. A proper noun repeated more than once per sentence, or within a single line of text, almost always seems just a trifle odd to a reader — and more than a little annoying to Millicent.

Feel as though you will be excising proper nouns in your sleep? Excellent; my work here is done. Night-night, John-John, and keep up the good work!

Me and you and a boy? girl? dog? named Snafu

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Sorry about my recent slow rate of posting, campers; as the sharper-eyed among you may have noticed, we here at Author! Author! have been experiencing what the old television shows used to call euphemistically technical difficulties. Quite a bit of progress can be seen behind the scenes, I assure you, but it will be a little while before the full benefits will be visible from your side of the page. Mea culpa, and thanks for hanging in there.

I’ve been hesitant to keep pressing forward with our series-in-progress on manuscript formatting while the visual examples are still acting a bit squirrelly. Writers’ conference season is almost upon us, however, and proper formatting can make the difference between an enthusiastically-read post-pitch submission and one that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, picks up with trepidation, so I’d like to smuggle the standard format basics into everyone’s writing tool kit sooner rather than later. Let us press on unabashed, therefore.

When last we broached the subject, I showed how the first page of text does not, from a professional perspective, make an adequate substitute for a title page in a book manuscript — a demonstration that, if past is any prologue, may well have left some of you scraping your jaws off the floor. Don’t be too hard on yourself, if so: most first-time submitters simply assume that if a manuscript does include a title page — and a hefty majority of submissions arrive without one — it should be a replica of a hoped-for book cover. That’s what they’ve seen in bookstores (ask your grandparents, children), so that must be what looks professional to the professionals, right?

As I hope those of you who have been following his series have already shouted: heavens, no. Standard format for manuscripts does not resemble what’s on the printed page of a published book in many respects.

You’d be surprised at how many aspiring writers are not aware of that, judging by how many single-spaced, non-indented, photo-heavy submissions turn up at agencies. Even the more industry-savvy rookies — the ones who have taken the time to learn that book manuscripts must be double spaced, contain indented paragraphs, be printed on one side of the page, etc. — are frequently unaware that that in traditional publishing circles, the author typically has very little say over what does and does not grace the cover.

Millicent is quite cognizant of that fact, however; experience watching books travel the often bumpy road from initial concept to publication have shown her that cover art is almost invariably the publishing house’s choice. So is pretty much everything on the dust jacket, including the back jacket copy, the book’s typeface, and every other cosmetic consideration. So when she opens requested materials to find something like this:

she sees not a manuscript perfectly ready for publication — that’s what some of you, thought, right? — but evidence that the sender does not understand the difference between a published book and a manuscript. At minimum, this admittedly rather pretty top page demonstrates that the writer does not understand that throughout the publication process, the title page of a manuscript is not just its top cover.

Nor is it merely the shouted-out declaration of the book’s title and who wrote it, another popular choice in submissions. What possible practical purpose could a title page like this serve at the submission stage?

Not much doubt about what it’s called or who wrote it, true, and the typeface certainly blares those two facts with gratifying gusto, but how precisely does this (unusually small, for some reason best known to the writer) sheet of paper fulfill any of the functions the agent or small publisher to whom it was submitted might need it to serve? How, in fact, is it a better title page than the most common of all, the following?

No, your eyes are not deceiving you: the single most popular title page option in manuscript submissions is none. It’s an especially common omission in e-mailed submissions. Half the time, e-mail submitters don’t even include a cover letter; they just attach the requested number of pages. “I’ve been asked to send this,” title page-eschewers murmur, doubtless to convince themselves, “so the agency has to know who I am. Besides, my name and the title are in the slug line — that’s the writer’s name and title in the upper right margin of the page, should anyone have been wondering. Surely, that’s enough to identify the manuscript.”

Well, it might be, if Millicent were fond of guessing games, but hands up, anyone who seriously believes that agents ask to see so few manuscripts in any given year based upon the tens of thousands of queries they receive that any requested materials must be instantly recognizable not only to their weary peepers, but to the entire staffs of their agencies. Keep those hands up if you also cling to the writer-flattering notion that agents and editors hearing pitches at conference find so few of them convincing that they could easily identify both book and writer by the storyline alone.

Found better uses for your hands, did you? Glad to hear it. But if presenting a fantasy book cover isn’t the point of including a title page, and if its main goal is not to shout that you — yes, YOU — managed to pull off the quite impressive achievement of writing an entire book or book proposal, what meaning is this poor, misunderstood page supposed to convey to Millicent?

Its mission is not particularly romantic, I’m afraid: a properly-formatted title page is simply a quiet, practical piece of paper, containing a specific set of marketing information any agent or editor would need in order to bring your book to publication. If Millicent doesn’t spot that information as soon as she claps eyes on the pages her boss, the agent of your dreams, asked you to send, her first impression of your submission will be that you’ve made her life a little harder.

Call me zany, but I doubt that was Ann Gardiner’s goal when she put all of that effort into designing that pretty faux book cover and popped it into the envelope with her first 50 pages. I would be surprised if Ama Narcissist actively desired to make it difficult for an agent who fell in love with her writing to contact her. And I would be downright flabbergasted if the e-mailing submitter that just didn’t think to include a title page with his Word document hadn’t just assumed that Millicent keeps every single one of the thousands of e-mails her agency receives in any given week in a special file, all ready to be leafed through so if her boss wants to see more of the manuscript, she can waste 17 hours trying to track down the sender’s original e-mailed query. Because all that’s required to respond to an e-mailed submission is to hit REPLY, right?

Again: heavens, no. Any reasonably established agency may be relied upon to be juggling far, far too many submissions at any given time.

Do those inarticulate gasps of frustration mean that some of you have under-labeled manuscripts in circulation at this very moment, or merely that you have questions? “But Anne,” hyperventilating writers the English-speaking world over gasp, “I’m an inveterate reader of agency and small publishing houses’ submission guidelines, and they rarely state a preference for including a title page. What gives?”

What gives, my air-deprived friends, is that it’s actually pretty uncommon for submission guidelines to get down to the nitty-gritty of page formatting. As much as the strictures of standard format may seem new and strange to an aspiring writer confronting them for the first time, it’s just how the publishing industry expects professional book writing to be presented. A title page is so presumed to be part of a properly-formatted manuscript that many submission guidelines might not bother to mention it at all.

Which may be why, in practice, submitting without a title page is far more common than including one, especially for electronic submissions. This presentation choice is particularly common for contest entries, perhaps because contest rules seldom come right out and say, “Hey, buddy, include a title page, why doncha?” — and they virtually never say, “Hey, buddy, don’t bother with a title page, because we don’t need it.” Instead, they usually just ask entrants to include certain information with their entries: the category the writer is entering, perhaps, with contact information on a separate sheet of paper.

Which has, you may be interested to hear, a name amongst those who handle manuscripts for a living. It’s called, if memory serves, a title page.

Ah, a forest of hands has sprouted in the air. “But Anne,” murmur those of you who currently have submissions floating around out there without your contact information attached, “I’d like to go back to that part about the expectation that a manuscript should include a title page being so widespread that a pro putting together submission guidelines might not even think to bring it up. Assuming that pretty much everyone else whose submission will land on Millicent’s desk on the same day as mine was in the dark about this as I was until I read your recent fine-yet-sleep-disturbing post, should I even worry about not having included a title page? I mean, if Millie were going to reject manuscripts on this basis alone, she’d be a non-stop rejection machine.”

Of course, she isn’t a non-stop rejection machine. She’s a virtually non-stop rejection machine. She genuinely gets excited about quite a few submissions.

But that wasn’t really the crux of your question, was it, worried submitters? You’re quite right that this omission is too common to be an instant-rejection offense at most agencies, despite the fact that including it renders it far, far easier for the agent of your dreams to contact you after he has fallen in love with your writing. However, any deviation from standard format on page 1 — or, in the case of the title page, before page 1 — will make a manuscript look less professional to someone who reads submissions day in, day out. It lowers expectations about what is to follow.

To gain a better a sense of why, let’s revisit a couple of our examples from earlier in this series. Welcome back, R.Q. Snafu and Faux Pas. See if you can spot where they went astray.

While opening pages like these do indeed include the requisite information Millicent or her boss would need to contact the author (although Faux Pas’ pulls it off it better, by including more means of contact), cramming all of it onto the first page of text doesn’t really achieve anything but saving a piece of paper, does it? What precisely would be the point of that? This tactic wouldn’t even shorten the manuscript or contest entry, technically speaking: the title page is never included in a page count. That’s why pagination begins on the first page of text.

So what should a proper title page for a book manuscript or proposal look like? Glad you asked:

Got all three of those last three images indelibly burned into your cranium? Excellent. Now weigh the probability that someone who reads as many manuscripts per day as Millicent — or her boss, or the editor to whom her boss likes to sell books — would not notice a fairly substantial difference in the presentation.

Exactly. Now assess the likelihood of that perception’s coloring any subsequent reading of the manuscript in question.

The answers are kind of obvious once you’ve seen the difference, are they not? Trust me, Millicent will have seen the difference thousands of times.

Again, I see many raised hands out there in the ether. “But Anne,” upright individuals the globe over protest, “I get that including all of the information in that last example would render it simpler for a Millicent who fell in love with the first three chapters of MADAME BOVARY to contact Mssr. Flaubert to ask for the rest of the manuscript. I’m not averse to making that part of her job as easy as humanly possible. However, I don’t quite understand why my presentation of that array of facts need be quite so visually boring. Wouldn’t my manuscript be more memorable — and thus enjoy a competitive advantage — if the title page were unique?”

At the risk of damaging your tender eardrums, HEAVENS, no! To folks who handle book manuscripts for a living, a title page is most emphatically not the proper place for individual artistic expression; it’s the place to — stop me if you’ve heard this before — provide them with specific information necessary for dealing with a submission.

Anything else is, in a word, distracting. To gain a sense of why, let’s take a gander at another type of title page Millicent sees with great frequency — one that contains all of the right information, but is so unprofessionally formatted that the care with which the writer followed the content rules gets entirely subsumed in the visuals.

title picture

Where should I even begin with this one? It’s pretty, undoubtedly, but would anyone care to start listing any of the five things wrong with it?

If you immediately zeroed in on the picture, give yourself a gold star for the day. Since there is literally no chance that any image a writer chooses to place on a manuscript or proposal’s title page will end up on the published book’s cover, what’s the point of placing it here? Decorating your submission’s title page with photos or drawings will just seem bizarre to Millicent. (And that goes double for Mehitabel, the veteran literary contest judge. She is likely to emit a well-bred little scream when she opens the entry envelope.)

Award yourself two gold stars if you said Ms. White should nix the red lettering — or any lettering that isn’t black, for that matter. Like every other page in the manuscript, the title page should be printed in black ink on white paper. No exceptions.

Help yourself to a third gold star out of petty cash if you also caught that her contact information should not have been centered. Pin a great big blue ribbon on yourself, too, if you pointed out that Ms. White used two different typefaces here, a classic standard format no-no. Not to mention the fact — although I do seem to be mentioning it, don’t I? — that the type size varies.

Feel free to chant it with me, axiom-lovers: like everything else in the manuscript, the title page should be entirely in 12-point type. It should also be in the same font as the rest of the manuscript.

With the usual caveat: unless an agent specifically requests otherwise, of course. Or contest’s rules; double-check for title page restrictions. (Why? Well, since the title page is generally the first part of an entry Mehitabel sees, not adhering to the rules there can knock an otherwise promising submission out of finalist consideration before she has a chance to read the first line of text. Contest rules exist for a reason, you know.)

You may place the title — and only the title — in boldface if you like, but that’s about as far as it’s safe to venture on the funkiness scale. Do not, I beg you, give in to the temptation of playing with the typeface. No matter how cool your title page looks with 24-point type, resist the urge, because Millicent will be able to tell from across the room if you didn’t.

Don’t believe that size matters? See for yourself:

Quite a difference, isn’t it? Apart from Mssr. Smith’s tragic font choice and his not having countermanded Word’s annoying propensity to reproduce e-mail addresses in blue ink, did you notice any potentially-distracting problems with this title page?

If you said that the last example included both a slug line and a page number in the bottom right corner, snag yourself yet another gold star. Add whipped cream and walnut clusters if you mentally added the reason that those additions are incorrect: because the title page is not the first page of text, and should not be formatted as if it were.

While I’m on a boldface kick, title pages should not be numbered. This means, incidentally, that the title page should not be counted as one of the 50 pages in those 50 pages the agent of your dreams asked you to submit. Nor would it count toward the total number of pages for a contest entry.

That loud whoop you just heard was contest-entering writers everywhere realizing that they could squeeze another page of text into their entries. Who knew so many of them could tap-dance?

While you’ve got those title pages firmly imprinted upon your brainpan, let me briefly address a question from incisive reader Lucy, one of many aspiring writers enamored of the clean, classic look of initials on a book cover. As you may have noticed, our pall Snafu shares the same preference. Lucy wondered if other naming choices might raise other distracting thoughts.

What if you have a weird name which is gender confusing? Say a boy named Sue? Should he put Mr. Sue Unfortunate on his title page? Or just Sue Unfortunate?

Lucy’s responding, of course, to the fine print on R.Q.’s first page. Here it is again, to save you some scrolling:

I was having a little fun in that last paragraph with the still surprisingly common writerly belief that the agents and editors will automatically take a submission by a woman more seriously if the author submits it under her initials, rather than under her given first name. J.K. Rowling aside, this just isn’t true, at least in fiction circles.

In fact, in North America, women buy the overwhelming majority of novels — and not just women’s fiction, either. A good 90% of literary fiction readers (and agents, and editors) have two X chromosomes — and some of them have been known to prefer reading books by Susans rather than Roberts.

So unless you have always hated your parents for christening you Susan, you won’t really gain anything professionally by using initials in your nom de plume instead. Go ahead and state your name boldly, Sue.

unfortunate2

Even better, why not publish under a name you actually like instead? That’ll show your Susan-loving parents, Norm.

I just ruffled a few feathers out there, didn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear many an initialed purist exclaim, “I don’t want to be judged as a female writer; I want to be judged as a writer. What’s wrong with removing gender markers altogether from my title page — or my query letter, for that matter?”

Well, there’s nothing wrong with it per se, Susan, except that people are probably going to leap to a conclusion about your sex regardless, at least if you happen to be writing in a book category that tends to be marketed more to one sex than another. In most fiction and pretty much all nonfiction categories, Millicent’s first response upon seeing initials on a title page, especially if neither the By part and the contact information contain a first name, will often be, “Oh, this is a female writer who doesn’t want to be identified as one,” rather than “Gee, I wonder who this intriguing person without a first name is. I’m just going to leap right into this manuscript with no gender-based expectations at all.”

Why might young Millie have this reaction — and her older boss be even more likely to respond this way? Because female writers (and with a few notable exceptions, almost exclusively female writers) have been submitting this way for a couple of hundred years now. It’s not all that hard a code to crack.

Historically, the hide-my-sex-for-success strategy has been used far, far less by male authors — except, of course, that hugely prolific and apparently immortal author, Anonymous, and the reputedly male writers of such ostensibly female-penned first-person classics of estrogen-fueled wantonness (avert your eyes, children) as THE HAPPY HOOKER, COFFEE, TEA, OR ME? and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. Even during periods when some of the most popular and respected novelists have been women (and there have been quite a few such periods in the history of English and American prose, contrary to what your high school English textbook probably implied), when someone named Stanley Smith wrote a novel, the title page has generally said so.

Because, you see, even back in the 19th century, many readers would have just assumed S. Smith the novelist was a nice lady named Susan. (It’s probably where your parents got the idea to christen you that, Norman.) Or those readers would have assumed that you were an Oxford don writing scurrilous fiction that might have shocked your colleagues on the side. That avocation has historically resulted in fewer book readers naming their children Susan, though.

That being said, an author’s pen name is ultimately up to the author. The choice to identify yourself with initials or not is entirely up to you — or, more accurately, to you and your agent, you and your editor, and you and your future publisher’s marketing department. Some sets of initials look cooler than others in print, just as some names look better than others on book jackets.

Or so claimed my father, the intrepid fellow who demanded that the maternity ward nurse convey him to a typewriter to see how my name looked in print before committing to filling out my birth certificate. The better to check if it would look good on a book jacket, my dear. So for those of you who have wondered: however improbable it sounds, Anne Mini is in fact my given name; it just happens to look great in print, thanks to a little paternal forethought.

If I had preferred to publish under A. Mini, though, I doubt anyone but my father would have strenuously objected. Certainly not at the submission stage — when, for some reason that mystifies Millicents, many aspiring writers seem to believe that the question of pen name must be settled for good. It doesn’t. Should you already be absolutely certain that you would prefer to go by your initials, rather than your given name, feel free to identify yourself that way on your title page.

For convenience’s sake, however, it’s customary for the contact information to list the name one prefers an agent to ask to speak to on the telephone.

Which brings us back to Lucy’s trenchant question: how on earth does a writer with a gender-ambiguous name delicately convey whether s/he would prefer to be addressed as Ms. or Mr.? S/he doesn’t, at least on the title page, or indeed in the query letter: that’s a matter for subsequent conversation with one’s agent. These days, though, it’s unlikely that the agent who has just fallen in love with the writer of our last example would address a potential client so formally: the e-mail or phone call offering representation would probably begin Dear Norman.

At worst, an agent reading in a hurry might call and ask for Ms. Unfortunate. But you can live with that, can’t you, Susan?

Besides, unless a writer’s gender (or sex, for that matter) is crucial to the story being told, why should it come up before then?

See earlier commentary about being judged by one’s writing, not one’s sex. If a writer is genuinely worried about it, s/he could always embrace Norman’s strategy above, and use a more gender-definite middle name in the contact information.

Keep your chins up, Susans everywhere — you may have little control over what literary critics will say about your work, but you do have control over what name they call will you while they’re doing it. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

More concrete examples of properly and improperly formatted manuscripts follow next time. Keep those questions coming, and as always, keep up the good work!

“Thanks for the cookies Millicent,” “What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” and other easily-averted holiday faux pas

This time of year, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver sees it all the time: a reason to move otherwise good girls and boys from the Nice to the Naughty list. Yet often, as both he and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, know only too well, the difference between a properly-punctuated sentence and one that is, well, not, lies in a simple slip of the writer’s finger — or lack of one. Take a gander at the type of hastily-scrawled note that often greets our St. Nick.

Hello Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy. Wow do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

No wonder the otherwise jolly elf weeps at the sight: clearly, the Punctuation Vacuum has beaten him to this household. Either that, or Janie has really, really lazy fingers. The note he had expected to see nestled next to a plate of cookies would have read like this:

Hello, Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy. Wow, do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

Let me guess: to many, if not most of you, these two notes are essentially identical: the words are the same, right, so the meaning must be? That’s an understandable interpretation, given how often we all now see direct address and exclamation commas omitted all the time. Indeed, some modes of electronic expression, such as news program bottom-of-the-screen crawls and Twitter, seem actively to discourage proper punctuation.

But that doesn’t make it right. Santa’s a stickler for rules.

As it happens, so are Millicent and those of us who edit for a living. Punctuation matters to us — and, frankly, folks in publishing tend to laugh when aspiring writers express the astonishingly pervasive opinion that it doesn’t.

Why the ho, ho, ho? Well, leaving aside the perfectly reasonable proposition that one of the basic requirements of a professional writer is the consistent production of clearly expressed, grammatically correct prose, in some cases, improper punctuation can alter a sentence’s meaning.

And that, boys and girls, can only harm self-expression. Take, for instance, the two faux pas in the title of this post.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Most readers would assume, as those of you who didn’t notice that commas had been purloined from Janie’s original note probably did, that what she actually meant to say was this:

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof? Reindeer?

That’s not what the first versions actually said, though, was it? Basically, Janie operated on a presumption evidently shared by an amazingly high percentage of queriers, literary contest entrants, and manuscript submitters: that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the author probably meant, not the writer’s job to express it so clearly that there would be no question.

In practice, most of us are perfectly willing to translate casual communications into more comprehensible prose, at least mentally. People often tap out or scrawl notes in a hurry, or, since the advent of mobile electronic devices, under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s relatively safe, then, to presume that your third-best friend will understand if that text message you sent while hanging upside down from the monkey bars omitted a comma or two.

Writing intended for publication is expected to adhere to a higher standard, however: even an editor wowed by the sentiments expressed in that last set of examples would not seriously consider publishing them without revision. Although the rise of on-screen editing has increased the number of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors that slip through editorial fingers and onto the printed page — nit-picks are significantly harder to catch on a backlit screen than in hard copy — no one who reads for a living would believe for a second that clarity and proper punctuation don’t matter. A manuscript that seems to imply that the writer believes they are unimportant not only is unlikely to impress a pro — to an experienced agent or editor, it simply screams that this is a writer who will require extra time, effort, and, yes, proofreading.

Why might that harm your submission’s chances? Think about it: if the agent of your dreams already has 127 clients, who is his Millicent more likely to regard as a viable candidate for #128, the writer who expects her to guess whether What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer? means what it literally says, or the writer whose prose is so clear that she’s not left in any doubt?

Remember, too, that your garden-variety agency screener or contest judge has very little of a writer’s prose upon which to judge talent and facility with language. How on earth could Millicent possibly know for certain whether the speaker of that first sentence was simply sliding back up the chimney while he was writing, and thus was too busy to devote the necessary thought to the beauty and rigors of proper punctuation, or simply was not aware of the relevant rules? She’s not allowed to base her reading upon what she guesses a writer meant, after all; she can only evaluate what’s actually on the page.

All of which is a nice way of saying: don’t expect her to cut you any slack. A writer familiar with the rules of punctuation and conscientious about applying them is simply less time-consuming for an agent to represent than one who believes that the fine points of how a sentence looks on the page doesn’t really matter. Someone at the manuscript’s future publishing house will take care of the copyediting, right?

Well, no. Not if Millicent or her boss, the agent of your dreams, stops reading after the second missing direct address comma on page 1.

Yes, really. Since this particular rule is pretty straightforward, it’s fairly common for screeners and contest judges to regard non-adherence — or, equally pervasive in submissions, uneven adherence — as an indicator of, if not necessarily poor grammar in the manuscript as a whole, then at least an authorial lack of attention to detail. Any guesses as to why detail-orientation would be a desirable trait in an agency’s client?

Slap a great, big gold star on your tree if you leapt to your feet, shouting, “By gum, a detail-oriented writer could be trusted to produce clean manuscripts!” You’re quite right, shouters: since few agencies employ in-house editors (although some agents do like to edit their clients’ pages), signing a writer who had already demonstrated that he regards the world as his proofreader would inevitably be a more time-consuming choice than snapping up one that could be relied upon to spell- and grammar-check his own manuscripts. On a revise-and-resubmit deadline too short for anyone at the agency to proof pages, that could be the difference between selling a book to a publisher and rejection.

Comma placement is starting to seem a trifle more relevant to your life, isn’t it? Fortunately, the rules governing direct address and exclamations are quite easy.

Hey, wake up. Were you aware that you were snoring, Janie?

There — that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Hey is an exclamation, so it is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. And because that second sentence was directly addressed to Janie, a comma appears between the rest of the sentence and her name.

Armed with those valuable precepts, let’s revisit the punctuation choices that made the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver choke on his milk and cookies — or cognac and truffles, as he always insisted on being left for him in the Mini household throughout my childhood. (My parents said that he deserved the upgrade for shinnying down our unusually small flue.) How do they look to you now?

Hello Santa.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy.

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Now that you’re looking for those commas, the paucity of them — and, I hope, the extra one in that last sentence — is distracting, is it not? Let’s talk about why. Sentences 1 and 4 are aimed at Santa and Millicent, respectively, right? The names are a tip-off that each requires a direct address comma.

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

Sentence #2 is a bit trickier, since what Janie is calling the reader (old boy) is not a proper noun. If we don’t apply the direct address rule here, though, the most logical interpretation is actually this:

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave for the old boy.

Yet Janie’s household does not contain any old boy, or indeed any boys at all — and if Santa knows when they are sleeping and knows when they are awake, he must logically be aware of where said boys are sleeping, must he not? He might be forgiven, then, for finding this sentence perplexing. Fortunately, all it would take is a single stroke of the pen to render Janie’s intended meaning crystal clear.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy.

No question that the reader — Santa, presumably, if Janie’s been a good girl this year — is the old boy being addressed, right? Now that we’ve cleared up that cosmic mystery, what should we note-proofers do with this?

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Wow is an exclamation — and we have a rule for that, do we not? Let’s try applying it. While we’re at it, why not allow Janie’s punctuation to reflect the intensity of her gratitude?

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

If you’re ever in doubt about whether an expression is sufficiently exclamatory to require separation from the rest of the sentence, here’s a nifty test: vehement exclamations can stand alone. As in:

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

Heavens! What an enormous cake! You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge!

What a difference a punctuation choice can make to a sentence’s meaning, eh? (See what I just did there? Eh is an exclamation, albeit not a particularly intense one.) A detail-oriented punctuator could become even more creative, depending upon context. Let’s have some fun.

Wow — do I ever appreciate it? I would have thought my reaction to your having given me a rabid wolverine last Christmas and the Christmas before would have told you that.

Oh, my, what a beautifully-wrapped present…if you happen to believe that bacon is an appropriate wrapping medium for a desk lamp.

Heavens, what an enormous cake. You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge: as much as we all enjoyed seeing your immediate family leap out of that enormous pie at Thanksgiving, that’s really the kind of surprise entrance that works only once, don’t you think?

Speaking of how punctuation can alter meaning, our remaining example presents some difficulties, doesn’t it? Let’s take another peek at it.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

At first glance, this may appear to be a proper use of direct address: the narrator was simply speaking to a reindeer that happened to be lingering nearby. In today’s incredibly rich fantasy novel market, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a context in which that comma use would make sense.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie shouted. “Your ears are better than mine.”

Blitzen shook his antlers in annoyance. “Ceilings are opaque, you know. I can only fly; I don’t have X-ray vision.”

However, being an intimate friend of the writer’s — we could hardly be closer — I know that the original sentence was tucked within a thriller. I ask you: does a direct address interpretation make sense here?

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie whispered.

The Easter Bunny did not bother to stop stuffing presents into his basket. “Oh, stop jumping at every sound. Santa’s not due for an hour.”

“I still say that we should have hidden in a closet,” the Tooth Fairy hissed, “and waited until after ol’ Kris dropped off the swag.”

“And let Fat Boy snag all the cookies?” The rabbit snapped off a small branch from the tree to use as a toothpick. “I’m in it for the sugar, baby.”

“Then we should have gone to the Minis,” the fairy grumbled. “They have truffles.”

Blitzen’s hoof poked into the small of Janie’s back. “Move, sister, and you’ll find yourself with a face full of tinsel.”

Since the reindeer doesn’t enter the scene until five paragraphs after Janie’s speech, it seems unlikely that she’s addressing him. What the writer intended to convey by that comma was not direct address, but something closer to my original suggestion:

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Reindeer?”

In fairness, though, you can see why even a meticulous self-proofreader might not have caught this one. If Janie had speculated that the sounds were caused by an inanimate object, that comma might have passed muster.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Unless this is a book about a madwoman or a psychic whose ability to cajole roofing substances into telling her Santa’s whereabouts, direct address doesn’t make sense here, does it? Even a skimmer is unlikely to fall into that interpretive trap. Several alternate constructions would obviate the possibility entirely, though. The first option should look slightly familiar.

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Falling shingles?”

“What’s that I hear on the roof — falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Am I sensing some growing excitement about the possibilities? “Hey, Anne,” some of you exclaim, beautifully demonstrating your grasp of how a comma should offset an exclamation, “something has just occurred to me, you sneaky person.” (Direct address!) “Since the natural habitat of both direct address and exclamations is conversation, wouldn’t it make sense to zero in on dialogue while proofreading for these particular faux pas? If I were in a hurry, I mean, and didn’t have time to read my submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Not a bad timesaving strategy, exclaimers — they do tend to congregate in text written in the second person. (Hey, I’m talking to you, buddy!) You might be surprised, though, at how often direct address and exclamations show up in first-person narratives, or even chattier-voiced third-person narratives. For instance:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly, searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove, I was in a pickle.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, may I hastily add that the rookie strategy of attempting to make first-person narration sound more like common speech (as opposed to what it’s intended to represent, thought) by eliminating necessary punctuation and grammar has become awfully hard to pull off in a submission, at least for adult fiction or memoir. You wouldn’t believe how often Millicent sees text like our last example submitted like this:

Oh God I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Yes, yes, we all understand that both versions could arguably be regarded as conveying breathlessness. So could this:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. I felt every last oxygen molecule being sucked out of my lungs.

While style choices vary, naturally, from book category to book category — there honestly is no adequate substitute for reading recent releases of books similar to yours, particularly those written by first-time authors, to gain a sense of what is considered stylish these days — generally speaking, relating what’s going on via actual words tends to be considered better writing than offbeat presentation choices. All the more so if those words show what’s going on, as we saw in that last version, instead of telling it — or requiring Millicent to perform a dramatic reading of the text in order to grasp the fully intended meaning.

Oh, you thought that OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat didn’t convey an expectation that the reader would try saying it out loud? Isn’t the sound of this sentence spoken as a single word the point here?

Style is not the only reason that you might want to give careful thought to whether non-standard presentation choices would be more effective than other means of narration, however. While they may seem like a shortcut, they can actually mean more work for you. Not only must any such punctuation and grammar voice choices be implemented with absolute consistency throughout an entire first-person narrative– quite a bit harder than it sounds, if one happens to know the rules or wants to be able to use Word’s grammar-checking function — but honestly, it’s really only clever the first few times a reader sees it done.

Trust me, any experienced Millicent or contest judge will have seen this tactic crop up too often to find it original at this late date in literary history. And how could either of them tell on page 1 whether the omissions were the result of a manuscript-wide authorial choice or the writer’s not being conversant with proper comma use? Heck, are they even sure that the writer of that last version even knows where the comma key is located?

Judgmental? You bet. If Millicent, a literary contest judge, and Santa’s job descriptions have anything in common, it’s that they are tasked with separating those who make an effort to follow their respective spheres’ recognized standards of niceness from those who do not. Rejection is the literary world’s lump of coal, available year-round.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike so much of the manuscript submission process, proper comma use lies entirely within the writer’s control. Personally, I find that rather empowering — unlike style judgment calls, which must necessarily rely in part upon Millicent’s personal reading tastes, punctuation is governed by rules. And rules can be learned.

Does that huge thunk of jaws hitting the floor reverberating throughout the ether indicate that some of you had been thinking about acceptance vs. rejection purely in terms of writing style? If so, you’re hardly alone: why do you think so many submissions and even queries turn up on Millicent’s desk apparently unproofread? Or spell-checked? Obviously, there are a heck of a lot of aspiring writers out there who think punctuation, spelling, and grammar just don’t matter — or that it’s an agent’s job to see past rule violations to story and talent.

Had I mentioned that to the pros, these things matter very much? Or that in publishing circles, providing error-free manuscript pages containing only sentences whose meanings are clear on a first reading is considered the minimum requirement of professional writing, not an optional extra?

Frankly, every writer who has taken the time to learn her craft should be rejoicing at this. Imagine how hard would it be to get on Santa’s Nice list if you had no idea what he considered nice.

While I’ve got you pondering the hard questions, here’s another: is resting your book’s future on a manuscript draft that does not consistently apply the rules you already know people in publishing expect to see respected really any less of a stab in the dark? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term strategy, as well as a better use of your scant writing time, to invest in making sure that the factors you can control are tweaked in a manner more likely to land you on Millicent’s Nice Job list?

Ah, that suggestion got under some skins, didn’t it? “But Anne!” bellow those who find thinking about rules a barrier to the creative process — and you are legion. “I understand that it’s the writer’s job to make a story come to life on the page, not the reader’s job to decipher convoluted text, but to be absolutely truthful, I don’t feel completely comfortable wielding all of the various rules of grammar and punctuation. I had kinda hoped that once I landed an agent and sold a book, the kind folks who handle books for a living would walk me through all of that.”

I’m glad you brought this up, wobbly rule-appliers — this is one of the greatest divides between how the publishing world thinks of what constitutes a well-written manuscript and how most aspiring writers tend to envision it. To a pro, the technical side of writing is not separable from the overall writing quality; to a new writer, though, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even clarity are primarily sentence-level issues, easily fixed down the line.

No wonder, then, that it comes as such a shock to most first-time queriers and submitters to learn that the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected on page 1. While the pros see a book’s opening as a representative writing sample, writers regard it as a minuscule fraction of a larger work, each page of which is entitled to its own assessment.

“What do you mean, a couple of punctuation, spelling, or clarity problems on page 1 could have triggered rejection?” they wail, and who could blame them? “Shouldn’t a book be judged by — wait for it — the writing in the whole thing?”

Perhaps, in principle, but very, very few readers wait until the end to come to conclusions about a book, even outside the publishing industry. A Millicent at a well-established agency will read literally thousands of submissions every year. If she read each in its entirety, she would have time to make it through only hundreds.

Believe it or not, this way actually provides a writer with a fresh idea and original voice with a better shot of impressing her. It means fewer book concepts are weeded out at the querying stage than would be necessary if agencies routinely assigned Millicents to read every single syllable of every single submission.

And, lest we forget, to a professional reader, a hallmark of a fabulous new literary voice is its consistency. The Great American Novel should read as lyrically on page 1 as on page 147, right? And shouldn’t it all sound like the same author’s voice?

See why I always encourage writers to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting them? All too often, aspiring writers new to the game will start sending out their work practically the moment after they type THE END on a first draft, without double-checking that the voice, style, and — as an editor, I must ethically add this — story are 100% consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s completely normal, however, for a first-time novelist’s voice and sense of the story to develop throughout the writing process; going through, figuring out what you like best about your own writing, and revising the whole so it sounds like that (to use the technical term) before you submit can increase your story’s chance of winning friends at an agency by leaps and bounds.

Or, to put it another way, are you the same writer you were the first day you sat down to work on your book? Aren’t you better at conveying your intended meaning now? And, if you take a long, hard look at your objection to Millie’s rejecting manuscripts on page 1, isn’t part of your chagrin that she might not read long enough to get to your best writing?

Heavy thoughts for a holiday, perhaps, but the Literature Fairy’s annual gift to those of us who work with writers is an awareness of just how many of you lovely people spend the last few weeks of December kicking yourselves for not having landed an agent or gotten published in the previous year. If the past is prologue, a phenomenally high percentage of you will translate those feelings into a New Year’s resolution to be a more active aspiring writer next year — to send out a barrage of queries, for instance, or to come up with a really solid list of agents to query. Perhaps you’re going to finish that manuscript, or get the one an agent requested eight months ago out the door. Or maybe, finally, you are going to rearrange your schedule so you can write a specified number of hours per week, rather than the more popular method of trying to squeeze it in whenever you can find the time.

All of these are laudable goals — don’t get me wrong. I would like to suggest, though, that while you are shuffling through the resolution possibilities, you consider adding one more: promising yourself that this will be the year that you spend January sitting down and reading your manuscript from beginning to end, in hard copy, as a reader would, to gain a sense of what is best about your own writing.

Because, really, wouldn’t you have an easier time presenting your work professionally if you didn’t just know that it’s good, but also why? And wouldn’t you be happier if Millicent judged your page 1 if it actually did represent a consistent voice and style throughout the book?

Just a thought. While you’re reading, of course, you could always humor me by keeping an eye out for omitted commas.

Hey, nobody ever said that making it onto Millicent’s Nice Job list was going to be easy. Who did you think she was, Santa?

Enjoy the holiday, everybody; try not to run afoul of any reindeer. I hear that you wouldn’t want to run into Blitzen in a dark alley. Keep up the good work!

These are the times that try editors’ souls

No time for a lengthy missive today, I’m afraid, but I could not resist sharing a bit of tangible evidence in support of a theory long lurking in the minds of editors across the English-writing world: in recent years, many people’s eye-brain connections seem to have ceased working reliably. At least insofar as signage is concerned, citizens of this great land have evidently decided that if a piece of prose sounds vaguely like what its writer had in mind, well, that’s close enough to print.

To an editor, that logic represents the first step down the slippery slope that leads to, well, a heck of a lot of work. If nailing down a precise meaning in writing has ceased to have social value, what’s next? Widespread confusion of colons with semicolons? Ravening packs of the untutored roaming the streets, doubling or even tripling prepositions? Or even — avert your eyes, children — eschewing proofreading altogether?

Whom the gods would destroy, Euripides informed us, they first drive mad. Clearly, this was the kind of thing he had in mind.

I’m not merely talking about grocery store signage that adds an extraneous -e to potato or tomato, the misguided belief that pointless abbreviations such as tonite, thru, and alright have ever actually saved anybody any time, or even the bizarre gender blindness that struck otherwise perfectly reasonable people in the media to toss subject-object agreement to the winds in the mid-1980s, causing everyone and their monkey to crowd everyone and her monkey practically out of the language as she is spoke — although, naturally, the literate find such slips inexplicable. Many of my fellow editors insist that we should expect no better from people incapable of understanding why a female member of Congress might conceivably be known on paper as a Congresswoman, rather than a Congressman. Once it became necessary to begin explaining to even fairly well-educated people why paragraphs should be indented, handlers of manuscripts everywhere began hearing the resounding thumps of barbarian weaponry upon the gates of civilization.

I do not take such a dismal view of the matter, but I must confess, bungled logic in print drives me precisely as nuts as our pal Euripides predicted. Take, for instance, the undoubtedly generous offer that appeared in a local paper recently:

Did that second paragraph make you beard the heavens with your bootless cries? Or, like vast majority of the comparatively carefree denizens of the greater Seattle metropolitan area, did your eye simply gloss over it?

Unfortunately for editorial sanity, but fortunately for literature, those of us that read for a living do not enjoy the luxury of believing that close enough is fine for print. English is a language that permits, nay, positively encourages precision: just look at the stunning array of adjectives you have at your disposal. The benighted composer of the free pizza offer above had every bit as many tools at his disposal (nice subject-object agreement, eh?) as the next fella, yet fell down on the descriptive job.

To his credit, he does appear to have realized that his prose might be just a tad confusing to those who believe that words carry specific meanings. To an editorial eye, a phrase like to be clear can indicate only one of two authorial fears: either the writing immediately before it lacks communicative oomph, or the writer isn’t too sure of the comprehension capacities of the reader.

In this case, both terrors probably governed word choice. Let’s take a closer look. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the — sacre bleu! — all-caps presentation of the original.

After the costume parade, head up to Pagliacci for a free slice for your little monster! And to be clear, only kids in costume accompanied by a parent will be served.

Did you catch it, now that the eye-distracting formatting is gone? No? Would it help to know that what the writer almost certainly meant was this?

After the community-sponsored costume parade has run its course, we at this fine pizza emporium would be pleased to serve a free slice to any child in costume who shows up clutching the hand of either a biological or adoptive parent.

But that’s not what the original actually said, was it? Read literally, these were the preconditions for scarfing down some pie gratis:

(1) The potential scarfer must be a minor.

(2) The potential scarfer cannot show up before the parade has ended.

(3) The potential scarfer must be in costume.

(4) The potential scarfer’s costume must also be occupied by a parent — and, the use of the plural kids implies, possibly one or more other children.

Now, I can certainly picture a few charming two-wearer costumes — if the child in question were open to being strapped to a guardian’s chest at a 45-degree angle, the pair could form a wonderful spider. However, long practical experience with both advertising and careless writing leads me to conclude that the pizza-hawkers almost certainly did not intend to limit their offer to only literal readers with creative multi-party costumes on hand.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me. It’s my job to nit-pick. “But Anne,” eye-rollers everywhere protest, “I was not confused at all by the original version. It was clear enough what the pizza-mongers meant. I can see why prose imprecision might be unacceptable in a high literary manuscript, but why get so exorcised about a small slip?”

However did you manage to slip through that gate, barbarian? We in the editorial keep already have boiling pitch prepared to fling onto the noggins of all comers.

Seriously, those of us that read for a living are perpetually flabbergasted by how many writers seem to cling to a close-enough-is-good-enough philosophy. Clarity constitutes the minimum requirement for professional writing, not an optional extra. As a reader, I’m sure you would agree: on the printed page, you don’t believe it’s your responsibility to guess what the author probably meant, do you? It’s the author’s job to convey precisely what she had in mind.

Contrary to astonishingly pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, it’s not an agent, editor, or contest judge’s job to speculate, either. No matter how often any of us are treated to the sight of unclear, poorly written, or logically convoluted prose, the trick to catching a sharp editorial eye in a positive way lies in choosing your words with care.

Oh, and not stubbornly retaining topical jokes after their expiration date just because you happen to like them. ( I had intended to use that last paragraph a couple of weeks ago, you see.)

Yet another reason to read your submissions and contest entries IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course. Since the human eye, editorial or otherwise, tends to read about 70% faster on a backlit screen, even the most dedicated self-editor will be substantially more likely to catch subtle gaffes on a printed page. You wouldn’t want to leave Millicent the agency screener wondering just how many family members your text wanted her to envision stuffed into a single costume, would you?

Actually, the barbarians currently howling at the gate might actually prove helpful in this endeavor. Bless their unrepentant hearts, their lack of precision in wielding the language provides would-be self-editors with abundant opportunities to sharpen their editorial eyes. The photo at the top of this post, for instance: scroll up and give it your best nit-pick.

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “By Jove, that restaurant appears to be ordering lunch customers to bring their own egg roll and rice!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Come w(ith) egg roll in any other context would in fact mean that the speaker would expect the hearer either to show up with an egg roll — not the kind of thing most of us tote around habitually — or to accompany an egg roll on some unspecified journey. Neither, you must admit, seems like a particularly inviting prospect for restaurant patronage.

Snag a second gold star from petty cash if you also bellowed, “Nor is that the only labor the poor potential customer is evidently expected to perform. Why should the diner steam her own rice?” As steam is a verb, it must logically be a command to the reader; steamed, on the other hand, is an adjective that might conceivably be applied to rice.

Whom the gods would not see published, first they burden with an inability to spot the differences between parts of speech. While I’d like to think that they have also provided a special spot in Hades for sign-printers too callous to point out such problems, perhaps we should all be grateful for the proofreading practice advertising provides us all on a daily basis.

Excuse me — some charming visitors bearing pitchforks and torches appear to be banging on the gate, just in time for lunch. Perhaps they were courteous enough to bring their own egg rolls. Keep up the good work!

Getting possessive

The Author! Author! community is seldom far from my thoughts, but at moments when I pass a sign like this, I must confess, I find it difficult to think of anyone else. Especially of those of you brave souls that regularly put yourselves — and your manuscripts — through the literary contest-entry wringer.

Why contest entrants in particular? Because in recent years, contest judges have found themselves doing double-takes at the type of punctuation currently blaring at you from that otherwise rather straightforward piece of advertising above in ever-increasing numbers. So, too, has the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, found herself shaking her head over manuscript submissions, murmuring, “I wonder if this is what the writer here actually meant, or if this is yet another instance of the sad decline in punctuation plaguing our society in these decadent days.”

Millie’s mutter was a mighty big hint, by the way, to those of you who did not erupt in merriment the instant you first clapped eye on today’s guest image. See it now?

Chances are, if you were a contest entrant frantic to get your entry postmarked by a deadline, you would not see it; it’s the type of typo that writers in a rush often overlook. And that’s a real shame, if the entry’s well written: I’ve never encountered a writing contest that allowed its judges to assess an entry by what its writer probably wanted to say, rather than what’s actually on the page.

Nor does your garden-variety agency typically permit its screeners to correct punctuation, even mentally, while reading submissions. That, too, is a shame, for many a successful querier or pitcher aglow with the first burst of adrenaline that comes with hearing that a real, live agent or editor wants to see MY WORK has simply glossed over this kind of punctuation as well. Strategically, that’s a mistake: even if it ever were desirable to leave Millie guessing at your intended meaning — and it isn’t, ever — it’s fairly standard for screeners to be told to stop reading at the second or third typo.

And what’s the best preventative medicine for skirting that dreadful fate, campers? That’s right: taking the time to read every syllable of your contest entry, requested pages, and/or book proposal IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Does that chorus of groans mean I’ve poked some of you in a sore spot? Or merely that you wish the Submission Fairy would wave her magic wand and grant six extra hours to writers on deadlines, purely for proofreading purposes? “But Anne,” the time-strapped moan, “I see typos in published books all the time! Surely, that must mean that little punctuation gaffes, misspellings, misplaced quotation marks and the like are no longer taken as seriously as in days of yore, when mistake-free writing was considered the mark of the literate person?”

In some contexts, you’re quite right about this, proofreading-avoiders: thanks in part to a decline in hard-copy proofreading (it’s much, much harder to catch small gaffes on a backlit screen than on a printed page), we do all see more faux pas in print than even ten years ago. Spelling- and grammar-checkers have caused a general decline in proofreading, and not only amongst published writers. E-mails are notoriously typo-prone, as are texts, and Twitter practically demands leaving out otherwise essential words, letters, and punctuation. Given the choice between speed and graceful presentation, most opt for the former.

Then, too, most of us also scan a heck of a lot more unedited writing than would have been imaginable to those whose primary reading experience was before the rise of the Internet. And don’t even get a professional reader started on how much more frequently advertising copy — like, for instance, the sign depicted above — contains typos.

All of which means, in practice, that pretty much all of us have gotten almost as accustomed to seeing writing presented badly as we have to seeing it done well. So often do signs shout things like BOBS’ LIQUORS at us (spot it yet?) that even the most grammar-savvy writer might be forgiven for occasionally placing an apostrophe in the wrong place when she’s in a hurry.

Driving past ads like this all day, it might not even look problematic at first glance. So why, as our short-on-time discussants above asked, should a deadline-facing contest entrant or excited submitter lose any sleep over a questionable apostrophe or two? Won’t it be some copyeditor’s job to catch such problems before the book is published, anyway?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that a typo like this won’t jump off your pages at Millicent, if she’s been properly trained — and if she works at an agency you would want to represent you, she has. It would also look odd to Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. And, frankly, it would drive me nuts to spot on the page.

Or, as in this case, the sign. To any of us, and almost certainly to the agent of your dreams, the very sight of BOBS’ LIQUORS immediately begs the question: just how many Bobs are there in that liquid-filled emporium?

Shall I take the resounding splat of eyebrows against hairlines as an indicator that this particular question has not been dogging some or all of you since this post began? I’m not entirely astonished: although it would make Millicent, Mehitabel, and their confreres choke to hear it, a stunningly high proportion of talented aspiring writers seem never to have learned the rules about creating possessives — or plurals, for that matter. Or at least to have been schooled in them so long ago that misuse of one or the other no longer causes their eyebrows to twitch at all.

So let’s embark on a quick refresher course, not only to revivify those complacent eyebrows, but so you have some guidelines on hand during any future moments of doubt. And if that means alerting everyone within the range of my keyboard to the genuinely puzzling nature of that provocative sign, well, so be it.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do not end in -s or -z — which is to say: most nouns — just add ‘s. If Ambrose happened to own a leopard, then, Millicent would expect the text to refer to Ambrose’s leopard; by the same token, the spots decorating Ambrose’s pet would be the leopard’s spots.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do end in -s or -z — Gladys, a spaz, a passing ibis — the apostrophe goes after the s or z. So if Gladys’ pet ibis happened to become friends with Gladys’ brother Glenn, whose business partner happens to be a spaz, the ibis’ buddy’s business’ interests might be endangered by the spaz’ annoying ways.

I was expecting a certain amount of resistance to that one — and already, a forest of hands have sprouted out there in the ether. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of you hand-wavers are fond of the ways of journalism. Yes, newspaper-huggers? “I can go along with Rule #1, Anne, and I remember when Rule #2 used to be common, but I see #1 applied all the time to nouns ending in -s and -z. Doesn’t that mean that Rule #2 is obsolete, and I may simply form possessives by adding ‘s to any old singular noun?”

I take your point, journalism-lovers: rarely do I pick up a magazine these days without having some well-meaning reporter inform me that the ibis’s buddy’s business’s interests might be endangered by the spaz’s annoying ways, and quite firmly, too. There’s a reason for that: in recent years, A.P. style, the style favored by newspapers and magazines, has indeed reverted entirely to Rule #1 for singular possessives. So you may expect those sources, along with online media, to slap ‘s indiscriminately on any noun. It has also become quite common for publishers of books by journalists to throw literary tradition to the winds in this respect.

And, to be fair, Millicent probably would not stop reading if you did the same: she, like the rest of us, has seen the ibis’s and similarly ungraceful possessives running amok across newspaper pages for years now. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the language in its most polished form — American English as it might appear in literary fiction, for instance — must drop one of the nicest punctuation rules we have.

To quote your mother: if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you? And if half the people you knew evidently thought — at least strongly enough to put the theory into practice — that it was correct to form a plural in English by adding ‘s, instead of just an s, would you throw the rules that say otherwise off the aforementioned bridge, simply because you’d seen plurals formed incorrectly so often?

Many, many aspiring writers would, as Mehitabel and Millicent could tell you to their sorrow; judging by what’s submitted, they either do not know the rules well enough to apply them consistently or have been rendered unsure enough by the sight of rule variation that they don’t notice when their texts lapse. Even if a contest entrant or submitter is made of stronger stuff and is familiar with the rules for constructing plurals and possessives, if she does not proofread closely, she might as well be unsure of the rules.

Why? Think about it: an agency screener or contest judge can only assess a writer’s talent and skill based upon what’s on the page, right? If none of the possessive usages on page 1 are correct, obviously, Millicent is likely to conclude that the writer needs a crash course in punctuation, which is not any agency’s job to provide its clients. Fair enough. That being the case, though, if two of the six possessive uses on page 1 are incorrect, in addition to the plural of fence being printed as fence’s instead of fences, could you really blame her for drawing the same conclusion?

While you’re still shuddering over the implications of that one, let me add hastily that the logic also tends to hold true in reverse. If your punctuation and grammar are impeccable, not only will the effort win your manuscript or entry Brownie points — always good in a competitive situation — but your pages will also enjoy the not inconsiderable advantage of novelty. To be blunt about it, so many contest entries and submissions contain incorrect possessives and plurals that those that don’t shine by comparison.

If, in addition to the virtues of solid grammar, the pages also manage to apply the elegant, old-fashioned rule of possessive formation in nouns ending in -s or -z, professional readers will usually like the writing even better. Seriously, literate old-schoolers just love seeing this old-fashioned punctuation used correctly. Indeed, amongst ourselves, we tend to complain that the only benefit of adding the extra s to words that do not logically require it is that those who have difficulty with complexity need memorize only one rule.

Hey, I didn’t say we were funny; I said we were literate. But seriously, folks, does it come as a great surprise that contest judges, especially in the early rounds, tend to be culled from the ranks of the conspicuously literate?

So your rhinoceros favors a particular pond, you might want to consider making Mehitabel happy by referring to the rhinoceros’ watering hole. (If there was more than one rhino, it would be the rhinoceri’s watering hole, but that’s a horn of a different color.) If Chaz were the rhinos’ keeper, they would be Chaz’ rhinos.
If you preferred A.P. style, however, you could also render it as Chaz’s rhinos. They would sound the same spoken out loud.

Getting the picture? This one is legitimately up to you, as long as you don’t mind causing Mehitabel to sigh nostalgically. Just make sure that the text is 100% consistent about whether a -z noun takes an apostrophe in the possessive or not.

Even if you decide to get modern on the -z question, I would urge clinging to tradition on the -s front. If the creatures that frequented that pond were flamingos, you would say that it was the flamingos’ favorite place to drink. I feel a rule coming on:

To form a possessive for a plural noun, the apostrophe goes after the s. Thus, the spots belonging to more than one leopard would be the leopards’ spots. Contrary to popular belief, the Thus, if the entire Anderson family owned a leopard ranch, it would be the Andersons’ leopard ranch.

Let me state that another way, because Millicent and Mehitabel see family names and possessives mismatched all the time, for some reason. If the leopard in question belonged to just one person — let’s call him Ambrose Anderson — both Ambrose’s leopard and Anderson’s leopard would leave M & M’s eyebrows mercifully unraised. However, if the leopard were so lucky to belong to both Ambrose and Antoinette Anderson, it would be the Andersons’ leopard.

Is the BOBS’ LIQUORS conundrum starting to make more sense now? Let’s take a gander at why: if it belonged to just one guy named Bob, it should be BOB’S LIQUORS, right? While it would be gracious to give the sign-painter the benefit of the doubt, neither of the two remaining possibilities seems particularly likely. The place could belong to a person named not Bob, but Bobs, in which case BOBS’ LIQUORS would be perfectly correct. It’s also not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the store’s owners may well have intended the literal meaning here; we may well be looking at a two-Bob situation.

But if either of these turns out to be the case, I feel the inhabitants of Lake City are entitled to a full explanation, don’t you? The vast majority of passersby would read this sign as it was probably meant to read: as BOB’S LIQUORS.

Good old Bob may well be counting upon that; he may well believe, and with some reason, that it doesn’t really matter whether his potential customers walk in expecting one Bob or several. It’s not wise, though, for an aspiring writer to play similarly fast and loose with Millicent or Mehitabel’s sense of what’s going on.

Oh, you don’t think Mehitabel will dock your entry points if your punctuation choices imply that there are more Bobs running around your short story than there actually are? Or that Millicent might stop reading if the text seems to indicate a lack of familiarity with the rules governing apostrophes — if, say, a manuscript falls into the pervasive habit of forming plurals by adding ‘s, instead of just s?

To calm the nerves of those of you currently clutching your hearts and hyperventilating: possessive misuse all by itself is not necessarily an instant-rejection offense all by itself (although it can be, if Millicent is in a bad mood). It’s not uncommon, though, for it to combine with one or two other small gaffes to add up to rejection. Heck, I’ve known Millicents to reject a manuscript after the first malformed plural, if it fell within the opening page or two. Contest judges seldom have that luxury, thank goodness, but you’d be astonished at how often an otherwise well-written entry will knock itself out of serious finalist consideration by a typo or two on the first page. Or even — sacre bleu! — the first paragraph.

Why? Well, are you sitting down? I hope so: professional readers are paid to presume that everything on the manuscript page is there because the writer intended it to be. If the text consistently misapplies a rule, then, or simply does not apply it consistently, they tend to assume that the writer simply does not know the rule at all.

Well might you turn pale, time-strapped submitters and contest entrants. What might have started life as a typo actually can transmogrify at entry time into a reason to consider a submission less than literate — and to send the message to an agency that this talented writer would be more work to represent than someone whose work did not include such gaffes.

Why? Well, tease out the reasoning: either the writer is not aware of the rule (and thus the agency would have to invest time in teaching him something any professional writer would be expected to know), the writer is not sure enough of the rule to apply it consistently (so the agency would have to waste time proofreading his work before submitting it to publishers), or the writer knows the rule, but was simply too lazy (or, more likely, too rushed) to reread his own writing before submitting it. Whichever turns out to be the case, it means that it would be inadvisable to trust him to submit clean manuscripts, especially on a short deadline — and short deadlines crop up in the publishing world all the time. The agent of his dreams wants his work to sell, after all: it’s really in no one’s interest for her to submit his work to a publishing house if it’s peppered with typos.

She wouldn’t want to run the risk of the acquiring editor’s assuming he just didn’t know the rules. Or that he wasn’t serious enough about his own writing to proofread.

With those imperatives in mind, let’s try applying the theory to one of the great American apparent exceptions to the possessive formation rules: why is the Oakland A’s correctly punctuated?

If you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “Because that’s what the team calls itself — and proper names are spelled the way the people bearing them say they are,” give yourself partial credit. The team does in fact use the apostrophe in referring to itself. And grammar, I’m pleased to say, is on its side in that respect.

But not, I’m even more delighted to report, because the A is rendered plural by that ‘s. It couldn’t be, right? Adding an apostrophe is not how plurals are formed. That is, however, how contractions indicate that some letters are missing. In this instance, seven of ‘em: thletic. Thus, it’s perfectly acceptable to abbreviate the Oakland Athletics to the Oakland A’s.

Yet another cosmic mystery solved. Now if only we could crack the case of The Possibly Multiple Bobs. Keep up the good work!

The joys of originality in humor, or, why your contest entry should not resemble the love child of Jane Austen and Owen Wilson. Or Flip Wilson, for that matter.

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Yes, I’m posting late again — and yes, my tardiness is due in part to the delightful rigors of fine-tuning the rules for the latest installment of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, a writing contest I shall be announcing this coming weekend. Not to pat myself on the back, but I flatter myself that this year’s iteration will please a broader swathe of writers seeking Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy than ever before.

Hint: the judges are going to be rewarding showing, not telling. But perhaps I have already said too much.

Back to the topic at hand. The prim miss sporting the clavicle-concealing garment above is, of course, Jane Austen, and she has come to preside over today’s topic, how to write comedy that ages well.

What’s that you say, potential literary contest entrants? That since writing contests tend to be annual events, any humor contained in your entry would have to seem fresh for only a few months, at most?

I can see why you might think so, but actually, Mehitabel the contest judge is usually as wary of jokes topical enough to have a short shelf life as Millicent the agency screener could possibly be. Why? Well, literary contest organizers hope that the works they reward with prizes, finalist ribbons, and other ECQLC will ultimately go on to be published. In a contest that accepts book-length unpublished writing, all of the Mehitabels will be quite aware that this year’s winners would at best be hitting the shelves a couple of years hence.

So I ask you: how well do you remember the pop culture events of two years ago? I thought not. Neither will Mehitabel.

Some of you have gone quite pale. Were you not aware that it typically takes quite some time for even the best-conceived manuscript to move through the traditional publication process? Even if you signed a book contract tomorrow, you might well not hold the bound book in your hand for a year or two. Sometimes more. And that’s not counting the time your agent might spend shopping the manuscript around to editors — or the time you might invest in landing an agent.

So for any cultural reference gracing your book not to seem dated to the reader of the future, it’s going to need to have at least a five-year expiration date. And if that doesn’t strike you as a trifle intimidating, may I remind you that back in 2007, iPhones were a brand-new phenomenon?

Oh, you don’t remember where you were when the last HARRY POTTER book was released? That’s okay; neither do Mehitabel or Millicent. So why would you expect them to recall, say, who the Secretary General of the U.N. was on January 3 of that year?

Oh, you may laugh (or, if you don’t follow the news, you may be wondering who the Secretary General is now), but you would be amazed at how often Millicent and Mehitabel encounter topical humor in submissions and contest entries. Or how often it’s the topical humor of a couple of years ago.

Don’t believe me? I recently read a scene in which approximately 95% of the hilarity was dependent upon the reader’s being able to recall the individual steps of the Macarena.

Well might you avert your eyes. Or roll them, if you happen to be too young to remember (shudder) a major political party’s candidate doing the Macarena on television. (I’d link to the video, but apparently, it’s so embarrassing that it’s been removed from YouTube.)

“Okay, Anne,” you say, trying desperately to believe that because it was so popular at the time, you could not possibly have looked ridiculous doing the Macarena (but knowing in your heart that was not the case), “I take your point. Before I send off a contest entry or manuscript submission, I should cast my eye over it to check for outdated or soon-to-be-outdated cultural references. But now I’m deeply curious: what makes you think that waving an admittedly rather comely line drawing of a 200-year-old author under my nose will help me remember to do that?”

An excellent question, former Macarena-doers. If you are familiar with Jane Austen’s work only through film adaptations, you might not be in the habit of thinking of her as a comedy writer, but for my money, she’s one of the most talented who ever scrawled English prose on a page. Her timing is impeccable — and, remarkably, her humor has not become less amusing with the passage of time.

Her books remain, as the British used to say, as fresh as paint.

Which is interesting, because the first novel she sold, NORTHANGER ABBEY (published posthumously in 1818, even though Aunt Jane had signed a publication contract more than a decade earlier; yet another reason that she should be the patron saint of modern novelists), was in fact very topical in its day. Quite a lot of its humor relies upon the reader’s familiarity with the most popular novels of the day.

Quick: what were the blockbusters of 1803, when she sold the manuscript for ten pounds? Or of 1798, when she evidently began writing it?

Here’s a hint: in the text, she very self-consciously identifies herself in as the literary descendant of one of the great early comic novelists, Fanny Burney. In fact, the title of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813) is a direct homage to Burney, a massively popular author a generation older than Austen. PRIDE and PREJUDICE — in all caps, no less — is are identified in Burney’s CECILIA (1782) as the main villains of the plot:

The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr. Lyster, “has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. Your uncle, the Dean, began it, by his arbitrary will, as if an ordinance of his own could arrest the course of nature! And as if he had the power to keep alive, by the loan of a name, a family in the male branch already extinct. Your father, Mr. Mortimer, continued it with the same self-partiality, preferring the wretched gratification of tickling his ear with a favourite sound, to the solid happiness of his son with a rich and deserving wife. Yet this, however, remember: if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination: for all I could say to Mr. Delvile, either of reasoning or entreaty — and I said all I could suggest, and I suggested all a man need wish to hear — was totally thrown away, till I pointed out to him his own disgrace, in having a daughter-in-law immured in these mean lodgings!…Such, my good young friends, is the MORAL of your calamities.”

I like to bring this up, not only because Burney was a fine comic writer in her own right (EVELINA is, after some rather pompous opening platitudes, arguably the funniest epistolary novel ever written), but also because most of us grew up in English classes that presented female writers as aberrations in an otherwise male-dominated field — or even acted as though Austen were the first worth reading. As a matter of historical fact, there have been prominent female novelists practically since the novel was invented. In the 19th century, it was considered predominantly a women’s art form. Aunt Jane not only grew up reading other women’s writing, but she tells us point-blank that she learned some of her craft from the best.

Which I strongly suspect would come as a surprise to my ninth-grade English teacher, if not yours.

But then, my ninth-grade English teacher was so suggestible that she once caught a cold because she believed that I had placed a hex upon her. Yes, really: she was famous for misplacing her chalk — not infrequently by depositing it upon the shelf just below the blackboard designed for its reception — so her students were forced to endure many, many repetitions of — wait for it — “Who took my chalk?” There are only so many times a humor-minded person can hear a rhetorical question without providing an answer. As I recall, “I used it to stuff a voodoo doll,” was neither my first nor my best riposte, but it was the one that got me sent to the principal’s office.

His response was much funnier: “I know there’s no voodoo doll. Tell her you destroyed it, anyway. Otherwise, she’ll be sneezing for the rest of the year.”

See, that’s a joke that’s likely to age pretty well, at least for the next decade or so: although not all readers (or, brace yourself, all currently-employed Millicents) may remember chalkboards, the voodoo doll and the clueless teacher are likely to be around for a good, long while. If I’d mentioned that I was wearing an English Beat t-shirt at the time, the story would have seemed more dated, wouldn’t it?

While we’re engaging in multi-temporal analysis, why is Austen so much more popular today than Burney, other than those often-humorless film adaptations? Partially, of course, it’s due to the heavy-handed moralizing: hot in the late 1700s, but as dated as last year’s catchphrase today.

Don’t believe me? Do you really want me to force you to shout, “Hey, Macarena!”

Also, Burney’s social satire is very specifically aimed at social problems that no longer trouble English-speaking readers all that much: the trials of an 18th-century maiden raised in retirement, then forced into high society without being aware of its rules, for instance, or the trials of an orphaned heiress in a country where a young woman did not have legal control over her own property would have resonated far more with readers when her books were originally published than now.

Whereas pretty much everyone can identify with an Austen heroine who is in love with someone who doesn’t seem to love her, whilst simultaneously being pursued by someone she can’t stand. Heck, even my ninth-grade English teacher was able to identify with that.

If you want more current evidence of just how badly topical comedy tends to age, look no further than a sketch comedy show like Saturday Night Live or its many imitators. Its satires on current events are seldom amusing even a few months after the show originally airs.

Are you wondering why I am bringing this up within the context of a series on contest entries? For one very simple and seldom-mentioned reason: many contests’ rating forms specifically ask the judge to assess whether the entry is likely to seem dated quickly.

Actually, older agents and editors tend to worry about this, too, out of sheer experience: you don’t have to be in the biz for very long to see how frequently books that appeal to the hip trend of the moment have very short shelf lives. These books become stale all the faster from their perspective, since they know — as we all do now, right? — that a book often takes a year or two to sell to a publisher –and then it’s typically at least another year before that book is available to the public.

So it really isn’t all that unreasonable for a contest judge to want to give higher marks to a book that will still not have readers scratching their heads in a few years, is it? In fact, I think it’s worth stating as an aphorism that what is humor today probably will not be in a decade, and one generation’s humor will not be another’s.

Or, to put it another way: hands up, anyone that still owns a pet rock.

Here’s a radical piece of self-editing advice for would-be comic writers of both fiction and memoir: go through your manuscript and highlight any jokes that you have borrowed from TV, movies, radio shows, other books, or the zeitgeist. Keep a sharp eye out, too, for recycling comic premises from any of the above.

Then go back and examine each in turn: would a reader find it funny five years from now? Or have found it funny five years ago? If not, it probably does not belong in a submission — and it definitely does not belong in a contest entry.

This is especially true of catchphrases or references to characters from movies or sitcoms, which go stale with a rapidity that would make your average loaf of French bread turn pale with dread and contemplate its own mortality. Take a gander, for instance, at these zingers out of context:

From 1968: The devil made me do it!

From 1977: Excu-u-use me!

From 1985: You look mahvelous!

From 2000: I don’t know karate, but I do know cah-razy.

From 2004: Make it work.

Now, most media-following adults in the U.S. probably have some association with at least one of these, right? So much so that I would bet that if you close your eyes and conjure up vivid images of Flip Wilson, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Owen Wilson, and Tim Gunn respectively, saying these lines, these old chestnuts might still elicit the odd chuckle. (Or perhaps some puzzled consideration about why female comedians are so seldom associated with popular catchphrases.)

Go ahead and chuckle your head off, if you are given to atavistic clinging to the popular culture of your past, but please, I implore you, do not make the (unfortunately common) mistake of reusing these kinds of once-popular catchphrases in a contest entry. Leaving aside the ethical problem of these jokes having been written by someone other than you and the fact that such bits seldom funny out of context, including them will almost certainly date your book — and thus potentially cost your entry some serious points.

Yes, even if your book’s target audience is of precisely the right age to harbor fond memories of when those catchphrases were popular. To be absolutely blunt, catchphrases from your heyday will necessarily carry a very different resonance for a judge 20 years older than you are. Or 20 years younger.

Remember, you cannot be sure that the Mehitabel to whom your entry will be assigned will be of the generation you have in mind. People tend to have very strong associations with particular periods in their lives, and for all you know, the reference you choose to use may be the very one most favored in 1978 by your dream agent’s hideously unkind ex, the one who lied in court during the divorce proceedings and hid assets so cleverly that their daughter’s college fund had to be used to pay those unexpected medical bills of Mother’s. Then the car broke down, and all of those checks bounced, and the orthodontist tried to repossess Angelica’s braces…

See what happened? One little pop culture reference, and POW! You’ve lost your judge’s attention entirely.

So even if you are using pop culture references to establish a particular period, do it with care. Be sparing. Even if your teenage son quoted SHANGHAI NOON endlessly for six solid months while the entire family cringed in a Y2K fallout shelter, do be aware that your reader might not have the associations you do with those jokes. There are a myriad of associational possibilities — and almost none of them will make your writing more memorable or seem fresher.

Originality tends to age better than borrowed amusement, anyway. But that’s a topic for tomorrow’s post.

For now, if you aspire to perfecting your comic voice, it might behoove you to take a good, hard look at the careers of Mssrs. Martin, Crystal, and Wilson, all of whom started out as comedy writers, writing material for themselves and others. All became progressively less funny (in my humble opinion, at least) as soon as they started performing comic material written by other people. Ditto for one of the great comedy writers of all time, Mae West; she first came to prominence as a playwright, not a sex symbol.

An accident? I think not. They became less funny because their individual comic voices had gotten lost, replaced by the catchphrases of the moment.

Oh, the people who were writing for them have tried to recapture their quite distinct original voices, but the copy is never as vivid as the original, is it? Why any of them stopped writing their own material is a mystery to me — particularly Mssr. Wilson, who is arguably one of the most talented comedy writers of his (which also happens to be my) generation.

If you doubt this, rent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, please. Not many writers could have pulled off a graphic suicide attempt scene (evidently written years before later events rendered it sadly ironic, I should add, and penned with a writing partner) in the middle of a genuinely funny comedy about misused potential. It’s brilliant, so much so that it’s kept me interested for years in his writing, wondering how he is going to surprise me next. I suspect that it will still seem pretty brilliant when everyone of my generation is old and gray and full of sleep.

Why? Because it isn’t like anything else. And because, like Aunt Jane’s socially frustrated heroines’ woes, it’s not a situation that’s going to be outdated in a decade. It’s a situation with which people are likely to be able to identify for some time to come.

One of the advantages to using humor in your submissions is to demonstrate the originality of your voice — not Jane Austen’s, not Owen Wilson’s, not Steve Martin’s, and certainly not that anonymous person who originated that joke your best friend from college just forwarded to you.

If your individual voice is not inherently humorous, whatever you do, don’t try to force it to be by importing humor from other sources. Lifting material from elsewhere, even if it is genuinely funny, is not the best means of establishing that YOU are funny — or that yours is a book well worth reading. Or, for our purposes today, deserving of a bright blue ribbon — today, tomorrow, and for the next three hundred years.

Make your Aunt Jane happy: be yourself. And if you want to make me happy — I ask so little — keep up the good work!

There’s more rattling around in wit’s soul than brevity

I have time for only a quick one today, I’m afraid, campers, but at least the reasons are entirely appropriate, symbolically speaking: I shan’t be talking too much about humor in contest entries today because — wait for it — I’m in the throes of solidifying the contest rules for this summer’s Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. I shall be unveiling the criteria this coming Friday, but here’s a hint: at least one of the categories will be integrally related to something we shall be discussing today.

Ready, set — speculate!

On to the day’s business. Last week, I tempted the contest gods by bringing up the seldom-discussed topic of humor in entries and submissions. Contrary to popular opinion, not everything — or, alas, everyone — that seems funny to the writer will necessarily strike a professional readers as equally so on the printed page.

Or, as I put it last time:

Jokes that need to be explained after the fact are seldom funny to the reader.

While amusing real-life incidents often translate well directly to the visually-oriented worlds of film and TV, they do not always work equally well on the pages of a book.

Verbal anecdotes generally feature too little detail or context to be funny when reproduced as is onto the printed page.

Stop glaring at me. It’s true: funny anecdotes do not always funny prose make. Nor do hilarious real-life incidents. Also, verbal anecdotes are seldom redolent with character development, if you catch my drift. Caricature works beautifully there, but on the page, motivation becomes far more important. Not to mention backdrop and context.

All of that goes double for what’s funny on Facebook, unfortunately: quite a lot of everyday humor is situational. Or dependent upon the audience’s already being familiar with the characters and/or premise. As is quite a lot of sitcom humor, actually, but in social contexts, one’s kith and kin tend to cut one slack. Consequently, the amusement bar tends to hover quite a bit lower than it does in situations — like, say, when you enter a writing contest or submit to an agency — in which the prevailing standard of whether a piece of writing is funny is based upon whether it impresses impartial readers who could not pick the author out of a police line-up.

Translation: “But it made my friend/significant other/bus driver laugh out loud!” is not a reliable indicator of whether Mehitabel the veteran contest judge or Millicent the agency screener will find something funny on the manuscript page.

And how to put this gently?…often seems to come as a great big surprise to writers new to the art of making readers laugh, particularly memoirists and novelists that borrow heavily from their quotidian lives. “If an anecdote is funny verbally,” they apparently reason, “it should be equally amusing if I just describe the situation exactly the same way in writing, right?”

Actually, no. Why doesn’t this tend to work? Well, tone, for one thing: a talented anecdotalist puts on a performance in order to give his tale poignancy and point.

Good comic authors are well aware of this — did you know that both Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, renowned in their day as hilarious public readers, routinely used to read crowds versions of their writing substantially different from what those same readers might buy in a bookstore, or even hear in a theatre?

This was exceedingly smart, in case you were wondering. Funny on a printed page and funny in from a podium can be quite different animals. Also, it was brilliant marketing: people who had heard them read could boast about how much more amusing these authors were in person. Great way to sell tickets to one’s next lecture tour.

On the page, though, none of those stage tricks work. Mehitabel and Millicent will not be able to imagine you saying the words in your manuscript out loud, after all. Nor can they possibly see what you are picturing. All they can judge your comic vision by is what is actually on the page.

But most aspiring writers and contest entrants don’t think of that, do they? Or so agents and editors surmise from the fact that surprisingly few humorous passages in submissions seem to reflect a serious attempt to convey a comic tone. Why bother? The situation is inherently funny, right?

Not necessarily. If the narrative does not adequately convey what was humorous in that real-life incident, it’s going to fall flat on the page.

“But why?” you gasp, poised to sacrifice a goat to Thalia.

Because all too often, the writer assumes fleshing out the funny is not necessary: in that verbal anecdote that’s been slaying ‘em for years, the hearers already knew enough about the teller (and, often, the situation) to be able to fill in any narrative gaps.

That’s an extremely dangerous assumption in a contest entry or submission. Let’s face it, neither Mehitabel nor Millicent is much given to filling in the humorous blanks to the hefty percentage of jokes whose appeal is best described by the common expression well, I guess you had to be there.

But the reader — both the one that needs to fall in love with your work before it can get published and the one that you hope will want to buy it after it’s published — wasn’t there, by definition. And even if s/he was, it’s not the reader’s job to try to figure out why humor on the page is funny; it’s the writer’s job to set up the amusing bits so well that the joke does not need to be explained.

It just makes the reader — any reader — smile. Yet another reason that it’s a great idea to seek out impartial feedback: the success of the line that made your mother choke with mirth and fall out of her chair may well depend upon the reader’s knowing about something that’s not currently showing up on the page.

You can’t know for certain if the only people you’ve been showing your writing share your life, after all. Since the point of publishing a book is, presumably, to reach people who did not, say, give birth to you, sit in the cubicle next to yours, or trundle down an aisle with you whilst one or both of you were wearing white, it honestly doesn’t make sense to think of your kith and kin as your target readers.

But that’s precisely who aspiring writers usually do envision as readers, isn’t it? Or so the pros surmise from the exceedingly high percentage of first-time memoirists and autobiographical novelists that murmur early and often, “But what will they think of me after I publish this?”

I can set your mind at rest on that, actually: if you’re writing about real events, at least a few of the people that were there will think your book’s depiction is wildly inaccurate. Heck, even some people who previously knew about those events only through your verbal anecdotes may regard your written version as coming from out of left field. That’s the nature of memory, as well as individuality; since everyone experiences events differently, everyone remembers them differently.

That’s why we say you had to be there, right?

Forgetting that the human experience is subjective, and thus requires fleshing out on the page, is frequently an issue when writing the real, but it seems to trip writers up especially often when they are trying to convey real-life humor. It’s just so easy to presume that the reader can picture every aspect of a remembered event; the writer does, right? That presumption is often the reason that the anecdote that’s been sending coworkers rolling in the proverbial aisles, causing tears of glee to burst from relatives’ eye sockets, and prompting best friends to say at parties, “Oh, Antoinetta, please tell that one about the parrot and the fisherman!” for years tends actually to be less likely to elicit a chuckle from someone that reads for a living than fresher material.

Why? Because in scenes written entirely from imagination, the writer knows for certain that he cannot rely upon the reader’s outside knowledge. The narrative is less inclined to rely upon elements that you had to be there to know.

Thalia is a demanding mistress, you see: she has a great affection for specifics. In ancient Greek, ?????? translates roughly as abundant festivity or blooming. So I like to think of comedy writing as being about expansion — of a funny premise, an amusing situation, or an oddball character.

Where I think most contest entries — and manuscripts — go wrong is in a tendency to contract a funny scenes, rather than expanding them. Due, perhaps, to that tired old truism about brevity’s being the soul of wit. Like all sweeping generalizations, this is not always true.

There’s plenty of hilarious lengthy humor out there, after all. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either a great lover of writing aphorisms, unfamiliar with the breadth of witty writing in the English language, or just plain too impatient to read anything longer than the back of a cereal box.

So there.

That being said, allow me to add hastily that when I suggest expanding funny scenes, I’m not talking about pacing — as anybody who has watched a TV comedy that doesn’t quite work can tell you, funny that drags can rapidly become tedious. But that shouldn’t mean rushing through the comic elements — or cutting away from a hilarious moment and back to stern narrative the nanosecond after a good quip.

You don’t want that funny line to look like a fluke to Mehitabel and Millicent, do you?

Physical comedy often gets rushed on the page, unfortunately, sometimes so much so that it’s hard for the reader to follow what’s going on. That’s particularly likely to happen in a narrative containing a lot of run-on sentences, I’ve noticed: I guess that writers fond of them just like flinging events onto the page as quickly as humanly possible.

But as Gandhi said, there’s more to life than increasing its speed. To which I would add: there’s more to writing comedy than a rapid telling.

I sense some aphorism-huggers shaking their heads. You want proof that a too-speedy telling can flatten the funny. Fair enough. Here’s a slapstick moment, conveyed with the breathless pacing and overstuffed sentences Mehitabel and Millicent see so much.

Harriet grabbed her usual wobbly table at the coffee house, shoving her laptop, backpack, an extra-grande (whatever that meant) mocha, a dog-eared novel, and her lunch onto the too-small surface because she was in too much of a rush to get online and answer the e-mail that Bertrand must have sent her by now. Of course, he hadn’t, but she quickly became engrossed in reading the fifteen other e-mails cluttering up her inbox because it was Monday, when everyone came dragging into the office, then remembered an hour later the million things that they hadn’t done last week and rushed to blame their procrastination on somebody else, which she hated. When a handsome stranger brushed by to claim his latte from the counter next to her, he knocked over her drink. She jumped up to try to yank her possessions out of the way, but she was too late, everything was soaked. She only managed to save her laptop, backing up so hard that she shoved her chair into the lady sitting behind her, causing a domino effect of café patrons slamming into each other. And now it was time to get back to work, and she hadn’t eaten even a bite of her lunch.

Awfully darned hasty, isn’t it? There are some funny elements here, but they get a bit lost in the welter of frenetic activity. And cramming all of it into a single paragraph doesn’t really do the scene any favors, either, does it?

So we can’t really blame Mehitabel for wanting to shout, “Whoa! Slow down and show us what’s happening!”

Glad to oblige. Here’s that scene again, shown at a more reasonable pace.

The lunchtime crowd of caffeine-seekers had, as usual, avoided the three-legged table. Harriet always brought her own shim to shove under the short leg. By the time she had coaxed the tabletop into something close to horizontality, Alex had shouted twice that her extra-grande (whatever that meant) mocha must be getting cold.

As usual, the cup seared her hand. She carried it with her fingertips until she could balance it atop the tenuous pyramid she had constructed: laptop atop a dog-eared paperback novel supported by her backpack, with her bagged lunch teetering on the last few inches of table. Food could wait until she powered up her computer and answered the e-mail that Bertrand must have sent her by now.

Of course, he hadn’t. What a jerk. Irritably, she gnawed on a mushy apple, scrolling through pointless e-mails from her coworkers. Typical Monday: everyone came dragging into the office, then remembered an hour later the million things that they hadn’t done last week and rushed to blame their procrastination on somebody else.

“George!” Alex screamed. “Do you want your latte or not?”

Suitably chastened, a handsome hipster lunged toward the counter. Sympathetic to his embarrassment, Harriet pretended to be engrossed in what was in fact the single most boring e-mail ever constructed by human hand. The hipster’s mailbag swung through her peripheral vision, and abruptly, she was covered with coffee.

Automatically, she yanked her computer away from the spreading lake soaking her possessions. Leaping to her feet, she sent her chair sliding backward into the cramped couple at the next table. They scrambled to save their drinks, but their sandwiches flew onto the floor. The woman reached to retrieve the plates, unfortunately at the same moment that a good Samaritan at a neighboring table dove for them as well. Their heads smacked together with a sickening thud.

“Oh, God,” the hipster said, battering Harriet with fistfuls of paper napkins. “I’m so sorry.”

She wished she had time to enjoy his mauling. She had to get back to work, and she hadn’t eaten even a bite of her lunch. Typical Monday.

Much clearer what actually happened now, isn’t it? Do I hear a cheer for showing, not telling?

I sense some disgruntlement in the peanut gallery. “But Anne,” brevity-lovers moan, “that’s a lot longer! The contest I’m entering has a short page limit — if I expand my scenes like this, I won’t be able to enter as much of my manuscript as I had planned! And what if Millicent’s boss asked me for the first 50 pages of my manuscript. I want to get as much of the story under her nose as possible!”

Ah, these are both common concerns. Would it astonish you hear that they simply wouldn’t make any sense to Mehitabel or Millicent?

Why? Well, Millicent’s is perfectly aware that if submission request specifies a page limit, there’s going to be more manuscript beyond what the writer has sent. So will Mehitabel, if she’s judging a book category that calls for the opening pages and synopsis. That means, in practice, that a writer would be better off making those opening pages sing than trying to cram as much plot into them as possible.

If you’re genuinely concerned about length, there’s another option here, but I hesitate to suggest it: if the story overall is not humorous and it would take too much page space to render a comic bit unquestionably funny, consider taking it out altogether. Humor is a great way to establish your narrative voice as unique, but as I mentioned earlier in this series, it can be a risky contest entry strategy. Ditto with submissions. Funny that fails tends to be disproportionately punished.

Why, you ask? Comic elements in an otherwise serious manuscript can come across as, well, flukes. They don’t fit comfortably into the overall narrative; the individual laugh lines may be genuinely funny, but if there aren’t chuckle moments and fleeting smirk instants throughout as well, the funny bit can sometimes jar the reader out of the story.

I know: it’s kind of counter-intuitive. But true.

You might also consider cutting comic bits that you’re not positive will work on strangers. Unless you are lucky or brave enough to be a stand-up comic, a teacher, a prison guard, or have another job that allows you to test material on a live audience unlikely to run screaming from the room, you honestly cannot tell for sure if the bits that seemed hilarious to you in the privacy of your studio would be funny to anyone else.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s a bad idea for your first test of whether a joke or comic situation works to be submitting it to a contest, any more than it should be when you submit it to the agency of your dreams. The stakes are just too high, and it’s just too easy to imagine theoretical readers laughing at the funny parts.

Not that I’d know anything about that, writing a blog.

“But Anne,” some of you complain, and who could blame you? “I love my comic bits, but the contest deadline is imminent. I don’t have time to track down impartial first readers. Is there a faster method to test-drive my funny parts?”

Until you’re sure that your narrative voice is consistently diverting, it can be very helpful to read it out loud to somebody. See where the chuckles come, if ever. If an expected chuckle does not come, flag the passage and rework it, pronto. (I’ve been known to ask, when a line elicits only a fleeting smile, which of the following three possibilities is funniest.)

Reading out loud is also one of the few ways to weed out the phenomenon I mentioned last time, what movie people call bad laughs, the unintentional blunders that make readers guffaw AT a book, not with it.

Fair warning: any given listener will be able to respond spontaneously only once to a particular scene. So after you have reworked the problematic parts, you’re going to need to track down another victim listener.

Thalia is nudging me to point out that living with a comedy writer is no picnic. Yes, ma’am.

This strategy only works, of course, if you are philosophically open to the possibility that the sentence that you thought was the best one-liner penned in North America since Robert Benchley died is simply not funny, and thus should be cut. Admittedly, this kind of perspective is not always easy to maintain: it requires you to be humble. Your favorite line may very well go; it’s no accident that the oft-quoted editing advice, “Kill your darlings,” came from the great wit Dorothy Parker.

Yes, that’s right: she was talking about laugh lines. That’s not how your high school English teacher introduced you to the aphorism, was it? God, I hate sweeping generalizations about writing; they’re so often applied indiscriminately.

It is pretty good advice about comedy, though. Be ruthless: if it isn’t funny on paper, it should go — yes, no matter how much it makes you laugh. Or your best friend, or your spouse, or everyone around the water cooler at work. (Do offices even have water coolers anymore?)

As any good comedy writer can tell you, in the long run, actually doesn’t matter if the author laughs herself silly over any given joke: the reaction that matters is the audience’s. And no, the fact that your spouse/mother/best friend laughed heartily does not necessarily mean a line is genuinely funny. It may mean merely that these people love you and want you to be happy.

A little hard to resent that kind of devotion, isn’t it?

Lacking an audience, it is still possible to work your way into Thalia’s good graces by editing out the only marginally comical in your manuscript. As a contest judge and editor, I can tell you with certainty that aspiring comedians’ less successful efforts seem to rush to array themselves into easily-identifiable groups.

Next time, I’ll give you a guided tour of ‘em, so you may recognize them if — Thalia forefend! — they should rear their less-than-funny heads in your contest entries. In the meantime, polish up those laugh lines, burnish those chuckle-inducing moments, and keep up the good work!

Speaking of self-editing advice that applies equally well to literary contest entries and submissions to agencies: har de har har har?

Okay, I’ll admit it: the first part of that title is a tad cumbersome. I got tired of typing COUNTDOWN TO A CONTEST, PART {fill in Roman numeral here}. The contest deadline to which I was counting down has passed (how do people feel their entry process went, by the way?), and besides, much of what I’m discussing in this part of the series would apply — stop me if you have heard this before — equally well to refining contest entries and submissions to agencies.

I know, I know. Some day, I’m going to have to come up with more descriptive titles for my posts.

Let’s get back to courting the comic muse. Or, more accurately, to our discussion of how aspiring writers often think they are courting her, without actually winning her favor. Or so we must surmise, from the fact that such a high proportion of attempted humor leaves both Mehitabel, everybody’s favorite fictional veteran contest judge, and her niece Millicent, intrepid screener of manuscripts at a theoretical agency, with distinctly untickled funny bones. Further evidence might be gleaned from the startling frequency with which entries and submissions elicit spontaneous, uninhibited laughter with lines the writer did not think would pass anywhere near those aforementioned funny bones.

Ooh, nicely executed spit take, everybody. “Wha–?” would-be humorists across the English-speaking world cry, their eyes bugging out of their heads like cartoon characters (oh, you thought you were the first writer to use that simile?). “How can something intended to be unfunny provoke that response? I can understand a joke’s falling flat, but I hate the idea that Mehitabel and/or Millicent might be chuckling over my Great American Tragedy.”

Good question, eye-buggers. But didn’t the previous question answer it?

If the previous paragraph did not make you giggle, well, you are either delightfully innocent (and thus might want to avert your eyes from the next paragraph, in order to remain so), not a very detail-oriented reader (as Mehitabel and Millicent invariably are), or, perish the thought, the joke I just made was not very funny. Given the exceptionally high probability that all three are true, allow me to compound the mistake of having cracked not particularly wise by explaining why it should have been funny, as well as illustrative of my ongoing point. To render the narrative error even more representative of what M & M tend to see on the page, allow me to explain my failed joke as pedantically as possible.

You see, the would-be humorists asked how a piece of writing could provoke laughter if its author did think it was funny. I then said it was a good question — something I’m pointing out because I don’t have sufficient faith in the reader to believe s/he can remember what s/he has just read — but then turned that compliment on its head by addressing the imaginary questioners with a double entendre. That, for those of you new to the term, is when the comic value of a phrase arises from its meaning one thing literally, but also being subject to a sexualized interpretation. In this instance, eye-buggers could refer to those whose eyes protrude unusually far between their lashes, but it also — and herein lies the yuck factor — could imply that those same imaginary questioners are in the habit of performing a physically improbable sex act upon eyeballs in general. Get it? Get it? Compounding the humor: the sentence that followed raised the possibility that the phrasing in the previous sentence might have been unintentional — and thus likely to spark unintended laughter at the entry or submission stage. Har de har har har!

Hands up, those of you who thought my bad joke was funnier before I explained it. Keep those hands up if you found yourself wishing by a couple of lines into the subsequent explanation that I’d just accept that the joke hadn’t worked and move on.

Welcome to Mehitabel and Millicent’s world. They’re constantly treated to unfunny, marginally funny, and might-have-been-funny-after-a-couple-of-rewrites humor attempts. They are also, for their sins, frequently forced to read painful attempts to render an unamusing quip funny in retrospect. Over-explanation is one popular means — and, as we have just seen, it seldom works. Equally common:

Or having a character laugh in order to alert the reader that what’s just appeared on the page was intended to be humorous:

As the head bagger stomped away, Herman pictured a large brown bag descending upon him, scooping him up. Now trapped at the bottom, Ambrose would be helpless as a giant hand flung boxes of cereal and canned goods upon him, perhaps topped by a carton of eggs. He laughed at the mental image.

This, I am sorry to tell you, would cause Mehitabel to roll her bloodshot eyes. “Thanks prompting me to laugh,” she snorts, “because I couldn’t possibly have told that you meant this to be funny otherwise. I see you have also helpfully let me in on the secret that pictured referred to a mental image. Otherwise, I might have thought that the narrative had suddenly shifted from gritty slice-of-life fiction into magical realism.”

Let that be a lesson, would-be humorists: if a bit isn’t funny on the page, having a character find it amusing won’t make it more so. Also, as Mehitabel has just so kindly demonstrated for us, since readers cannot hear tone, sarcasm often does not come across well on the page. From which we may derive a subsidiary lesson: just because something generates a laugh when you say it out loud does not mean it will necessarily be similarly guffaw-inducing on the page.

Why did I put that in bold, you ask? Millicent and Mehitabel requested it; they’re tired of reading manuscripts out loud to try to figure out what on earth Herman thought was so darned funny.

Then, too, professional readers as a group tend not to like being told how to react to writing, period. Mehitabel has every right to feel irritated at being told that she should find what she has just read humorous. Self-review tends not to play well on the page, even if it is very subtle.

Oh, you don’t think what Herman’s creator did was self-review? M & M would regard it that way. They would also see the following fruitless authorial effort as reaction-solicitation. Any guesses why?

“The bookstore is closed for the night,” Gemma snapped, gesturing to the CLOSED sign on the door. “What are you two still doing here?”

“Oh, we’re just browsing,” Angelina said airily.

Bonnie laughed. “Yeah, we’re looking for a first edition of Martin Chuzzlewit.”

Gemma looked puzzled. “Why would you need to be wearing ski masks for that?”

If you leapt to your feet, crying, “Bonnie’s laughter is intended to order Mehitabel to laugh, too,” you deserve a gold start for the day. It doesn’t render Angelina’s joke any funnier, does it? Since M & M do not, as a rule, enjoy being told how to evaluate the writing in front of them, they would have been more likely to find the quip amusing if it had appeared like so. While we’re at it, let’s excise those other professional reader-irkers, concept redundancy and having a character vaguely point to something in order to let the reader know it’s there.

Gemma fixed the closer one with her flashlight. “The bookstore is closed for the night. What are you two still doing here?”

“Oh, we’re just browsing,” Angelina said airily, smiling through her ski mask.

Bonnie aimed her rifle just to the right of Gemma’s head. “Yeah, we’re looking for a first edition of Martin Chuzzlewit.”

“Oh, why didn’t you say so right away?” Gemma felt under the cash register for her favorite throwing knife. “We’re always happy to move some Dickens.”

Better, isn’t it? It’s funnier because the narrative trusts the reader’s intelligence more. As opposed to, say, the ubiquitous practice of just telling the reader point-blank that something is funny:

Barbara flung her banana peel on the ground. Her snarky coworker did not see it, trod upon it, and slipped. It was hilarious.

In case I’m being too subtle here: very, very few contest entries are genuinely funny. Oh, many of them try to be, and some attempts at amusing actually would be chuckle-worthy if spoken out loud, but humor is a capricious mistress. In order to work on the page, how a writer chooses to frame the funny is every bit as important as the joke itself.

Yes, really. You may have written the best one-liner since Richard Pryor accidentally set himself on fire, but if it’s not set up correctly, it’s going to fall flat. And that, my friends, is going to come as a huge disappointment to a humor-loving Mehitabel or Millicent.

Why, you ask? A funny entry, or even a funny joke in an otherwise serious entry, feels like a gift to your garden-variety professional reader. A deliberately-provoked laugh from a judge can result in the reward of many presentation points, and often additional points in the voice category as well.

Notice that I specified a deliberately-provoked laugh. An unintentional laugh, what moviemakers call a bad laugh because it springs forth from the audience when the filmmakers do not want it to occur, will cost a contest entry points. And it should: a bad laugh can knock the reader right out of the scene.

We’ve all burst into bad laughter at movies, right? My personal favorite cropped up in the most recent remake of LITTLE WOMEN. It’s quite a good trick, too: provoking a bad laugh in a scene that’s not only arguably one of the best-known in children’s literature, as well as one in which the filmmakers remained very faithful to the original text, can’t have been easy.

I’m about to show you the moment in question, but first, let’s take a gander at how Louisa May Alcott presented it to her readers. The March girls have just learned that their father, a chaplain in a Civil War regiment, is dangerously ill. Their mother, not unnaturally, wishes to travel across many states to nurse him back to health, but the trip will be very expensive. Everybody’s favorite little woman, Jo the tomboy, is frantic to help. After having disappeared for most of the day, she returns home with a wad of cash, and her family, equally unnaturally, wants to know whence it came.

…she came walking in with a very queer expression of countenance, for there was a mixture of fun and fear, satisfaction and regret, in it, which puzzled the family as much as did the roll of bills she laid before her mother, saying, with a choke in her voice, “That’s my contribution toward making father comfortable and bringing him home!”

“My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven’t done anything rash?”

“No, it’s mine honestly; I didn’t beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it, and I don’t think you’ll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.”

As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

“Your hair! Your beautiful hair!” “Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.” “My dear girl, there was no need of this.” “She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!”

As everyone exclaimed, and Beth hugged the cropped head tenderly, Jo assumed an indifferent air, which did not deceive anyone a particle, and said, rumpling up the brown bush, and trying to look as if she liked it, “It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth.”

Now, Mehitabel and Millicent might well quibble over whether expression of countenance is redundant (technically, it is) or the unidentified speakers, or the unfortunate choice to demonstrate simultaneous speech by tossing aside the one speaker per dialogue paragraph rule. I also cherish the hope that you are all shaking your heads over Aunt Louisa’s regrettable affection for run-on sentences.

But there’s nothing to provoke a bad laugh here, right? It’s a sweet, evocative YA moment: the teenage heroine can’t stand to feel helpless, so she chooses to make a personal sacrifice in order to help her family. That’s a good plot twist. And if Amy (we assume) telling her that she’s now ugly hurt her feelings — “Your one beauty!” is a remarkably nasty thing to say, but she has a point: Jo’s effectively rendered herself unmarriageable for the next year or two — that’s good relationship development. And if she cries about it later that night, that’s good character development.

Here’s that moment again, as it appeared in the film. Note how the focus of the scene has shifted, doubtless as a reflection of the fact that cutting one’s hair was not nearly as shocking to moviegoers in 1994 as it would have been to readers in 1868. My apologies about the commercial at the beginning; it was the only version I could find.