Bringing those unbelievable stories to life on the page, or, well-mannered camel seeks wiser man

It’s Christmas Day, campers, but my tree has gone dark: the electricity has been out for the last two hours. The local authorities claim that gigantic boom we all heard around noon resulted from a frantic windstorm’s having taken out a transformer. A less literary-minded analyst might take this story at face value. You can’t fool me, though. This is obviously Phase I of the Grinch’s most recent plan to steal Christmas.

Either that, or the Great Celestial Plotmaster(s) have been reading a lot of classic mystery lately. The day has all the hallmarks of the genre: while stoplight at the top of the hill’s being on the blink (or, rather, uncharacteristically not being on the blink) is admittedly the kind of thoughtfully-selected, pragmatic detail that makes a fictional world spring to life on the page, my brunch guests’ finding themselves plunged into darkness — or as close to darkness as a deep gray Seattle afternoon will permit — must hardly have come as a surprise to those familiar with the genre. I’ll bet you saw it coming the proverbial mile away. What’s next, a cat leaping out of nowhere to startle us at a suspenseful moment?

I mean, really: all of the characters are gathered in one place, and the lights go out? Even the Agatha Christie-impaired around the table immediately began making nervous jokes about which one of us was about to meet a grisly fate.

That’s why, in case any of you have been wondering since last spring’s foray into editorial pet peeves and how to avoid them, I tend to urge savvy revisers not only to scan their manuscripts for places where summary statements (such as All the lights went out could be productively replaced with character- or situation-revealing details (In the middle of the soup course, the chandelier suddenly gave up on emitting light. Even the stoplight at the corner had ceased blinking annoyingly in Montel’s peripheral vision. The butler fumbled in the sideboard for matches.), but for opportunities to surprise and delight the reader with unexpected specifics (In the middle of the soup course — a clear, sherry-laced leek broth with a jaunty dollop of crème fraîche floating gaily on top — the dusty chandelier suddenly gave up on its losing battle to shed light on the table. Even the stoplight at the corner had ceased blinking annoyingly in Montel’s peripheral vision. Startled, he knocked his shrimp fork onto a passing cat.).

My, but that was a long sentence. Somewhere in the literary stratosphere, the late Henry James must be chortling over his holiday goose, muttering to Edith Wharton, “They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

“Too few semicolons for my taste,” Edith replies. “And watch your elbow: if you knock the figgy pudding over, you are sure to set the tablecloth on fire.”

My point, should any of you by some remote chance have lost sight of it in the midst of all that frenetic activity, is that while every type of book — and certainly every genre of fiction — has its own conventions, tropes, and characterization expectations, word for word, a writer is going to get substantially more expressive mileage out of a creative telling deal than one that any inveterate reader of that book category could guess. Or even, if it’s a common enough element, add subconsciously to the scene if it does not appear on the page.

Oh, when you read that second description of the lights going out, you didn’t murmur, “I bet the butler did it,” before your eyes passed the parenthesis at the end of the example?

Yes, Millicent the agency screener is encouraged — indeed, is often explicitly trained — to be on the look-out for manuscripts that read like, well, books in their chosen categories, and yes, each book category, particularly each genre fiction category, has its own recognized and recognizable plot twists, plot lines, stock characters, and, yes, types of details. Because agents specialize in particular types of book, as well as certain types of voices — a fact well worth bearing in mind when selecting which agents to query — it does tend to be to a writer’s advantage at submission time if the manuscript fulfills category-specific expectations. (That’s as true in a query’s descriptive paragraph as in a submission’s first few pages, by the way: if the text doesn’t sound as though it would fit comfortably within the manuscript’s chosen book category, it will usually be rejected.)

Let’s face it, though, the line between making your text read like it belongs shelved with others like it and like a cliché fest can sometimes be pretty thin. Many an aspiring writer believes, mistakenly, that producing a pale replica of a famous author’s writing is a better way to win friends and influence people at an agency than to come up with something more original. Or, even more mistakenly, does not become familiar enough with what’s currently being published in that book category to be aware what conventions would now strike someone who deals with those manuscripts for a living as passé.

To put it another way: when was the last time you read a mystery in which the butler actually did it?

The result, unfortunately, is that our poor Millicent tends to see the same types of specific — as well as the same plot twists, character types, and even phrasing — over and over and over again. When you consider the sheer volume of stories within the same category any agent successful in selling such books receives in any given year, that’s hardly astonishing.

The trouble is, most submitters remain woefully in the dark (and not because the lights went out) about how such elements are likely to be received at an agency. Good writing in a particular book category is good writing, right?

Sheer repetition has made Millicent believe otherwise, alas — but honestly, it’s hard to blame her for feeling that way. What might strike Writer A as requisite for that genre is frequently precisely what Writer B considers an homage to a classic and what Writer C will decide to drop in as a humorous riff on a cliché. And that’s not even counting what Writers D-F will honestly believe is original, but is actually a subconscious lifting of material or phrasing from an admired book.

“Oh, come on,” Millicent mutters, scalding her lip on that too-hot latte she forgot in her annoyance she had set aside to cool. “Does this writer honestly think that someone who reads as much as I do can possibly read an opening line like Yesterday, I fantasized that I returned to Ottawa without Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA springing to mind? Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again is arguably the most famous first line in the genre!”

Wondering why I am bringing all of this up in the midst of a series on querying? Well, several reasons. First, I wasn’t going to post today at all, but as my guests went home when the soup got cold, I had a bit of extra time on my hands. I also had a charged-up laptop, as it happens, so clearly, this is kismet.

Especially as I had a holiday-themed anecdote I had been itching to recycle, anyway. I could have worked it into a series of queries, but hey, it’s a holiday — I thought everyone might enjoy a little break from our two solid months of query consideration. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that those of you devoted enough to your writing to be checking in at Author! Author! today might be more seriously interested in a discussion of craft than your garden-variety casual Internet browser.

Either that, or you might be trying to avoid your nearest and dearest. I’m happy to help you do that, too.

So gather close to the Yule log, campers, and let me spin my tale. As you read, try to think like Millicent: does the narrative contain enough specifics to provide all of the characterization needed? Does it occasionally stumble into the realm of cliché? While you’re at it, why not embrace the chance to embrace the Author! Author! tradition of trying to figure out what editorial tweaks could improve the story?

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer have been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — plasters the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

They also, somewhat less emphatically, erect a sign informing dog-owners that crèche livestock are not, to put it mildly, best friends with man’s best friend. Since dogs cannot, unfortunately, read and many leash-tugging owners apparently do not, poor Curly frequently thrusts himself between some yapping visitor and his hoofed friends. Nearby, nursery personnel visibly restrain themselves from shouting, “Hey, can’t you read?”

On the whole, though, human behavior seemed to leave the trio unfazed. Scores of children flung hay at them, bellowing, “Hey, Reindeer!” — or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before or were confused by the ambient barking. The trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

One small pink-clad screamer simply would not leave the animals alone, however. She kicked at the metal fencing, screaming words I was a surprised a kindergartener would be able to use correctly in a sentence, or, indeed, incorporate into her everyday vocabulary without getting expelled. When she picked up a rock, I wandered over to the fence to distract her with a hastily-constructed fairy tale about our barnyard friends. And camels.

Almost immediately, a bulbous man in shorts and a t-shirt materialized by my side. Despite ambient cold that left our breath visible, his exposed arms and legs were not even goose-bumped. “Come over here,” he barked at the little girl, dragging her along the fence until they were directly in front of Curly.

Was he going to make her apologize to the camel? Curly did not seem to be expecting it, but perhaps his furry friends would appreciate the gesture.

Releasing the quivering child, the man — whose clothing, I noticed, was emblazoned with advertisements for a local band and Nike, respectively, not the nursery — reached up and over the chain-link fence, snapping his fingers. Placidly, Curly dipped his head, extending his hyper-mobile lips toward the hand.

Curious to hear what happened next, aren’t you? That’s a good indicator that a scene is paced well. See how selecting those details carefully, as well as not over-burdening the text with explanations, can increase suspense while simultaneously moving the plot along?

So why, I ask you, would our old pal Millicent, have stopped reading part-way through paragraph #3? Because, I assure you, most would have: one of her most notorious pet peeves has reared its ugly head here.

If you pointed out that the narration switched tenses between the second and third paragraphs, congratulations! Paragraphs Nos. 1 and 2 are in the present tense; paragraph #3 is in the past.

Submissions and contest entries do that all the time; so do, believe it or not, descriptive paragraphs in query letters. Sometimes, they even switch back to the original tense later in the text, or vacillate from sentence to sentence.

Already, I can spot some raised hands out there. “But Anne,” adherents of variable tenses point out, and with some reason, “Paragraphs #1 and #2 describe ongoing conditions, while paragraph #3 on focuses upon one-time events. Doesn’t that mean that the tense choices here are appropriate, or at least defensible?”

Good question, lovers of the present tense. Professional readers — agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, etc. — are trained to spot redundancies in a manuscript. They’re also taught to leap upon inconsistencies.

In other words, Millicent is likely to assume that the change of tense is not the result of well thought-out authorial choice, but simply a mistake that did not get caught in the proofreading process — or, if this were a descriptive paragraph in a query, the after-effects of an incomplete merger of two different versions, one in the present tense and one in the past.

Why might that make her stop reading altogether? Like other commonly-made errors, the tense inconsistency may well jar her out of the flow of the story. Next!

You habitual tense-switchers are not particularly happy with that answer, are you? “Okay, so she’s detail-oriented, but this isn’t a writing mistake; this is a stylistic choice. So why would Millicent be annoyed by it?”

On its face, your logic is pretty sound, tense-switchers: it would indeed be possible, within the context of a civil conversation between author and reader, to justify the tense choices in the example above. A writer might ostensibly win an argument with, say, a writing teacher, critique group, or even an editor about keeping the switch in the text. But that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to submit pages with tense inconsistencies to Millicent — or to her aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter.

Why, you ask? Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: because the writer is seldom present when an agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge encounters his manuscript for the first time. Successful manuscripts, queries, synopses, and contest entries are thus those that do not require additional verbal explanation.

So even if the writer is technically correct, if a tense switch seems unjustified to Millicent — if it appears to be, say, an incomplete revision between a manuscript originally in the present tense and a subsequent draft in the past, or vice-versa — that’s usually the ball game. So why risk it? Especially when, as in this case, making the tense consistent does not detract at all from either the meaning or the voice of the section. Lookee:

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer had been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — plastered the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

They also, somewhat less emphatically, erected a sign informing dog-owners that crèche livestock are not, to put it mildly, best friends with man’s best friend. Since dogs cannot, unfortunately, read and many leash-tugging owners apparently would not, poor Curly frequently thrust himself between some yapping visitor and his hoofed friends. Nearby, nursery personnel visibly restrained themselves from shouting, “Hey, can’t you read?”

On the whole, though, human behavior seemed to leave the trio unfazed. Scores of children flung hay at them, bellowing, “Hey, Reindeer!” — or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before or were confused by the ambient barking. The trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

That’s as painless a revision as you’re ever likely to encounter, folks, by see how big a difference it makes to the text? All it requires is a good proofreading eye and a willingness to view the story from Millicent’s perspective, not the writer’s. (The latter, after all, is already familiar with the storyline.) And need I even add that this variety of inconsistency is easiest to catch if one reads one’s submission or contest entry IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD?

I thought not. Let’s move on with the story, to see if we can catch any other Millicent-displeasers.

Delicately, politely, as if he were extracting an egg from beneath a mother hen, Curly took the man’s fingers into his gargantuan mouth. The hand did not budge. The camel paused meditatively for a few seconds, tasting, then sucked the hand into his mouth up to the elbow, dragging the man up to his tiptoes.

Instinctively, I took a step toward the child. If the object lesson about the dangers of violating animals’ personal space was about to go horribly awry, the least I could do was shield her from seeing the bloody denouement.

The man waved me back with his free hand. “See, Tanya?” he told the saucer-eyed girl. “They like people. If you treat them nicely, they’ll treat you nicely.”

“That’s right, sweetie,” a stringy-haired woman called from the nearby wreath display. “Be nice to the animals, and they’ll never hurt you.”

“You just have to learn what they like.” A helpful bystander kicked a tall crate toward the man’s feet, so he could follow his arm skyward. “Camels love sucking on things.”

Mentally, I began taking notes, in preparation for my inevitable testimony in a court of law. “I think she’s got the point. Maybe it’s time to back off now?”

Okay, what’s the problem this time? Hint: it’s even harder to catch than the last.

No? What about all of that redundancy in the dialogue?

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” several exclaim, “that’s how people talk in real life! You’re not gearing up to tell us that Millicent finds realistic dialogue annoying, are you?”

Um, sort of. At least the parts of real-life speech that are redundant. Or not germane to what’s going on. Or just plain boring.

Which is to say, as any close listener to everyday speech would happily tell you, most of it.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send my entire readers on free writing retreats.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “isn’t that pretty self-evident? Just as absolutely faithful recreations of real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing an additional nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers are also apt to forget that real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as we sometimes expect. Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge.

Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it. To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Sarah.” Pausing in mid-gossip, Theresa picked up the overturned plastic cup before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the dining hall checker’s desk.

Dina the checker glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Theresa stammered awkwardly.

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Dina grew large in her seat, like a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missy.”

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

“I’ll save you a seat,” Sarah offered, embarrassed.

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Theresa obediently gave up her place in the block-long lunch line in order to take the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the dining hall. How quickly a good mood could evaporate!

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character, if not from Christmas Past, at least ripped from the writer’s actual experience? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina never showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she never appeared again?

Actually, that was a set of trick questions. The answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response. Fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary.

That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question — something that Millicent, by definition, would not walk into the scene possessing. Nor would any other reader who was neither there when the incident occurred nor had heard the author complain vociferously about it.

In other words, what we have here is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon. Because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well. But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion.

Or any other, for that matter. It’s just an anecdote. Yet most self-editing writers, especially those who happen to be writing memoir, wouldn’t notice this narrative lack. Any guesses why?

If you immediately shouted that it was due to the fact that his memory of Dina the real person is so strong, help yourself to four peppermint cookies from the holiday table. In the writer’s mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange is that Theresa is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. If I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, however, it’s incumbent upon me to do quite a bit more character development. Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read.

Of course, we want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf tells us, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too — and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in on the page.

This is especially true when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar, theatre-goers:

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

B: (nursing the thumb the elephant trod upon in the last scene) “Yeah.”

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

A good third of the dialogue Millicent sees runs approximately like this, I tremble to report. Understand now why she might become just a tad touchy at the sight of dialogue that provides neither character development nor moves the plot along?

As a general rule of thumb — sore or otherwise — I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, or, often, um. Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are pretty reliable flares, indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays ON point.

My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known author of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words.

“Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Hard to argue with that, eh? Yet, like most writers receiving critical feedback, I fought it at first. Since the dialogue in my advisor’s published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to write as I do? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it. If it isn’t either inherently interesting, plot-advancing, or character-revealing, does it really need to be there?

One more insight, then I’ll let you get back to your relatives: you’ve been having just a little trouble paying attention to my arguments, haven’t you? I’m betting that some substantial part of your mind has been distracted, wondering what happened to the arm in the camel’s mouth.

That, my friends, is how Millicent — and most other readers, professional and non-pro alike — feels when an interesting one- or two-paragraph teaser, the kind that aspiring writers so love placing within italics at the beginning of their manuscripts, gives way to an apparently or only tangentially unrelated second scene. Yes, we see it in published books all the time, but in a submission, it’s a risky strategy.

“Hey!” Millicent cries, spitting out her mouthful of scalding latte, “what happened to that darn interesting plot I’d gotten absorbed in? What’s this writer trying to do, hook me with something exciting, then drop me into a comparatively mundane storyline?”

Let’s be honest, folks: that’s precisely what most writers who use this trick are trying to do. Professional readers are wise to it by now.

Remember, part of being a good storyteller involves knowing when to relieve the suspense — and frankly, in the case of my camel story, Alfred Hitchcock himself would have chosen to do so by now. Ahem:

“Give me a boost,” the man asked calmly, but his eyes were beaming panic over his daughter’s head. Curly’s lips were exploring the first few inches of his t-shirt sleeve.

Since his arm appeared to be on the verge of being ripped off at the shoulder, the crate-kicker and I hastily complied. With his uneaten hand, he began tickling the camel’s lips, rubbing the gums as if he were a mammalian dentist. Curly face elongated, as though he were going to sneeze. A loud pop, a slurp, and the man’s arm returned to the land of the living.

He strutted his way down from the crate. “See?” he told the girl. “If you know what you’re doing, they won’t hurt you.”

“Yes, Daddy,” she whispered, staring aghast at his friction-reddened arm, manifestly resolving never to have anything whatsoever to do with an animal larger than herself again.

The moral, if I may venture one: just because something seems like a good idea at first blush doesn’t mean that it’s worth stubbornly adhering to it. One of the keys to successful self-editing is flexibility.

That, and keeping any parts of your body involved in typing out of animals’ mouths. Happy holidays, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Premises, premises

I honestly hadn’t intended to take the last few days off from blogging, but I assure you, I have a dandy excuse. To give you a hint, I invite you to contemplate the riddle of the Sphinx: what animal walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three at night?

On to the day’s business — or rather, the business of last week. Scouring my to-blog-about list for amusing and thought-provoking topics to while away the time before the advent of Queryfest, my annual foray into all things query-related, I came across a terrific question from reader Kelly:

I have a question about plot clichés, if you have the chance to address it. Obviously, the ‘it was all a dream’ won’t fly. What other common plot twists do those of you who see so many manuscripts just groan about? Thanks and feel better soon.

That bit at the end will tell you just how long even very good questions sometimes linger in my hey, that would make a great post pile: kind Kelly was wafting me positive energies immediately after my car crash last year. There’s been some recent progress in that area, by the way: after 14 months, I’m finally walking without a cane.

Can tap-dancing be far behind?

So if I’m honest about it, responding to Kelly’s question is really the business of last year. That seems oddly appropriate, given one of the publishing world’s most common complaints about writers: a fondness for procrastination.

Oh, don’t grimace; everyone procrastinates a little. It’s healthy not to be too rigid. Besides, one of the most important lessons any writer of book-length work has to learn is that a full-length manuscript is not the kind of thing that even the most gifted crafter of prose can polish off in a day, a week, or a month.

Oh, some writers (including yours truly) can indeed draft new text very quickly, but that’s not the issue. Writing a book requires consistent, patient application, not merely short, intense bursts of endeavor. So does revising a manuscript. Yet since most of us do our best work if we can devote some unbroken time to it, it can be very tempting to put off diving in — or diving back in — until we can devote a whole day, week, or month to it, isn’t it?

And that temptation, boys and girls, is why most serious writers have woken up on at least one fine spring morning, sat bolt upright in bed, and shouted, “Wait — how much time has passed since I swore that I was going to finish that revision? Or start it?”

Or exclaimed, “Hey, wasn’t my New Year’s resolution to send out ten queries per week? Have I sent out even one this month?”

Or moaned, “Oh, my God — the agent of my dreams requested pages six months ago, and I’m still revising. Should I take another run at Chapter 152, or should I pop the whole shebang in the mail as is? What if she doesn’t want it anymore?”

I’m not bringing this up to depress all of you who swore that Labor Day (or the Fourth of July, or Valentine’s day, or St. Swithin’s day) was going to be the moment you sprung into action, honest. Nor am I passing judgment on the many, many aspiring writers whose lives swamped their good intentions. I’m not even changing the subject so that I may put off answering Kelly’s excellent question for a few more minutes.

I’m bringing it up, if you must know, because writers who procrastinate so often create characters that procrastinate. Seriously, it’s one of Millicent the agency screener’s most frequent complaints about how novelists and memoirists plot books: characters irk her by sitting around and thinking too much.

Or, to mix things up a little, by sitting around and talking through the problems with their best friends, coworkers, mothers, fathers, or, depending upon book category, the people they are about to try to murder. Especially, as is often the case in novel submissions, when these little chats over coffee, in bars, over lunch, over a telephone, or in hastily-improvised torture chambers consist largely of the protagonist recapping conflict that reader has already seen.

How, from an editorial standpoint, could that not seem redundant? “Criminy, move on,” Millicent scolds the text in front of her. “The point of novel narration is not to convey every single thing that happened in the book’s world, but to tell a story in a lively and entertaining manner!”

Because I love you people, I shall spare you what she hisses at memoir submissions in which the narrator agonizes for fifty or sixty pages on end about whether to confront someone who clearly needs some confrontation — only to decide not to do it after all. In fiction and nonfiction alike, her preference nearly always leans toward the active protagonist given to making things happen, rather than a passive one to whom things happen.

Half of you clutched your chests at some point over the last four paragraphs, didn’t you? Relax; I’m not about to suggest the all-too-often-heard advice on this point: telling writers never to show their protagonists thinking is akin to asserting that no character, however devoted to the color pink, may ever be depicted wearing it. Intelligent characters frequently think, and one-size-fits-all writing rules are almost invariably wrong a great deal of the time.

What I am suggesting, heart-clutchers, is merely that Millicent, like most professional readers, has from long experience developed a finely-tuned sense of how much rumination is too much, as well as when it starts to feel repetitious. To eyes trained to spot textual and conceptual redundancy, even a single repeated thought pattern can jump off the page. Small wonder, then, that showing the complexity of a problem by depicting the protagonist revisiting the same set of doubts over and over again is a notorious professional readers’ pet peeve.

Frequently, their impatience is justified: while deeply-felt internal conflict can be quite interesting on the page, most protagonists in first-person and tight third-person narratives don’t think about problems differently each time. Instead, the writer seeks to have the page mirror the way people mull over problems in real life: with redundant logic, facing the same fears and rehashing the same options on Monday as on Friday.

Or the following Friday. Or two years from Friday.

“God, I wish that this writer had never seen a production of Hamlet,” Millicent has been known to murmur over the fourth slow-moving protagonist of the day. “Would it be too much to ask the narrative to get out of this character’s head long enough for her to do something? It wouldn’t even have to advance the plot — I’d settle for her taking up lion-taming or developing a sudden passion for spelunking. Anything, so she gets out of her chair and moves around the world!”

“But Anne!” I hear some of you chest-clutchers point out, and with good reason, “people honestly do fall into thought loops when they’re worried about something, especially if they lean toward the compulsive in general. I’m sorry if it bores Millicent, but I’m trying to represent reality here: the human psyche is not always bent upon producing entertainingly diverse thought patterns.”

Perhaps it isn’t, but you should be. It’s a writer’s job not just to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, but to create a result that will be a pleasure to read. Redundant thoughts, like redundant action, have a nasty habit of discouraging readers from continuing to turn pages. Obsessive characters can be very interesting, but as the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing: it’s very, very easy for realistic depictions of recurrent thought or even feeling to become positively soporific on the printed page.

Not as easily spotted a cliché as it was a dark and stormy night or you may be wondering why I called you all here, admittedly, but the rumination-obsessed protagonist is actually more common in submissions these days than either of these well-worn tropes. None of these are as ubiquitous as teenagers who roll their eyes, of course, or people under 50 who say whatever and like, but all are equal-opportunity Millicent-annoyers.

Now the rest of you are clutching your chests, but at this late date, most adult readers, even non-professional ones, have seen enough compulsive thought patterns on the page to recognize it within a line or two. At most, it will take them a couple of paragraphs to catch on. How, then, is the writer to maintain interest and tension throughout pages and pages of it?

Honestly, a little obsessive-compulsion goes a long way on the page. Millicent’s seeing less of it these days than when the TV show MONK rendered OCD such a popular character quirk; if a hit TV show or movie contains a noteworthy character trait or plot twist, it’s a safe bet that agencies will be receiving hundreds of iterations of it over the next 2-5 years. The Millies of the early 1980s could have wallpapered both North and South Korea entirely in manuscripts that resembled M*A*S*H, for instance; for the last decade, it’s been rare that a police procedural submission does not include a scene reminiscent of LAW AND ORDER or CSI. And frankly, our time on earth is too precious to waste time toting up how many SF and fantasy submissions fairly reeked of the influence of STAR WARS and STAR TREK.

It’s not that some of the borrowed characters and quirks are not inherently entertaining; in a good writer’s hands, they certainly can be. There’s also something to be said for adhering to the conventions of one’s chosen book category: in a Western, readers expect a confrontation between the fellows in the white hats and the black, just as readers of women’s fiction expect their protagonists to grow and change over the course of the story.

By definition, though, what none of these elements can ever be is fresh.

Which goes right to the heart of Kelly’s question, does it not? While the list of premises, plot twists, and character traits that might set Millicent’s teeth on edge changes perpetually — what might have riled her Aunt Mehitabel when she was just starting out as a reader in the mid-1970s is substantially different from what might occur often enough to get on Millie’s nerves today, or her younger sister Margie five years from now — the basic principle remains the same: even if the writing is good, if she’s seen it before, it’s not going to seem fresh or surprising on the page.

Remember, Millicent is not only charged with the task of sifting through submissions to find great writing and original voices; she’s also looking for unique takes on reality and plots that she hasn’t seen before. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), at submission time, not seeming like a rehash of the most recent bestseller or blockbuster film is a significant asset.

I know, I know: it’s not all that uncommon for agency submission guidelines to sound as though their Millicents are eagerly awaiting a carbon-copy of whatever is hitting the top of the bestseller lists today. Indeed, sometimes they are looking for copycats. Even with monumental bestsellers like the TWILIGHT series or BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, though, it usually doesn’t take too long before Millie and her boss are saying, “Oh, no, another knock-off? I want the next great bestseller, not what was hot two years ago.”

Don’t believe me? How hard do you think it would be to sell BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY as a fresh manuscript today? It would simply seem derivative.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, those oft-repeated experiments in which some bright soul submits the first 50 pages of some classic like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813) to an array of present-day agents and/or publishing houses, in an attempt to test whether their Millicents would know great literature if it fell in their laps, invariably fall flat. Of course, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE would get rejected today; as a new manuscript, it would seem completely lifted from Jane Austen. To a reader familiar with English novels of the period, even the title would seem unoriginal: the phrase PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (in all caps, no less) is repeated no fewer than three times in Fanny Burney’s novel of a generation before, CECELIA, OR, MEMOIRS OF AN HEIRESS (1782).

Besides, have you seen how much time Austen’s protagonists spend thinking?

I know that this might come as a shock to the many, many writers raised on 19th-century literature, but what seemed fresh on the page in 1813 is unlikely to strike Millicent as original or even market-appropriate today. Ditto for 1913, 1943, 1983, or 2003. In fact, what would have wowed ‘em at the agency in any of those years is likely to seem positively dated now, even if the cultural references did not.

Remember, too, that Millie lives in the same media-heavy culture you do: while she might not watch enough T.V. to know what a Snooki is, to catch an Arrested Development reference, or to be able to pick any of the current crop of presidential contenders out of a police line-up, it’s unlikely that she would be lucky enough to have missed any public discussion of these phenomena. If you loved the Saw movies enough to borrow some elements of them for your horror manuscript, chances are that a Millicent working in a horror-representing agency will be harboring some affection for those movies, too.

Which is not to say that a plot similar to the Saw movies might not have done very well, had it hit Millicent’s desk right after the first film in the series came out. Many a writer who has been toiling away quietly for years on a manuscript has suddenly seen it become sought-after as soon as a similar book, movie, or TV show hits the big time. Agents and editors do often clamor for something similar to what’s hot at the moment. Since it takes so long to write a book, however, it’s generally the writers that were already working on a book, not because it was cool, but because they liked the subject matter, who are in the best position to take advantage of such a trend. Or writers who can produce a manuscript with similar appeal within a year or two. After that, imitation is likely to make the book seem dated.

Not sure what a dated manuscript is, or why it might be hard to sell? Okay, let me ask you: if you picked up a book stuffed to the gills with references to Ross Perot, would you (a) embrace it as a book about contemporary politics, (b) assume that it had been published sometime in the mid-1990s, and turn to another book for insights on the current political scene or (c) wonder who in the heck Ross Perot was?

If you said (b), you’re beginning to think like Millicent: the 1992 election was a long time ago. If you said (a), I’m guessing you do not follow politics very closely. And if you said (c), well, ask your parents, but don’t be surprised if they remember his ears more than his politics.

Even if a manuscript avoids the specific pop references that tend to age so poorly on the page — nothing seems more tired than yesterday’s catchphrases, right? — borrowing the plot twists and premises of yesteryear can make a book seem dated. One of the surprisingly immortal premises: neighborhoods where none of the mothers work outside the home, or even consider it. While it’s not beyond belief that such communities still exist, it’s far enough from the mainstream American experience these days that it would require fairly extensive textual explanation.

Embracing writing fads of years past also tends to make a manuscript seem dated. When STAR WARS embraced the Jungian heroic journey structure, it generated a lot of buzz — and for the next two decades, the viewing public was inundated with movies with that same structure. Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, advocating that structure for novels became extremely popular, resulting in manuscript after manuscript with essentially the same story arc falling on Millicent’s desk with clockwork regularity. Because Millicent’s boss was screening manuscripts back then, Millie’s been trained to regard that structure as old-fashioned.

Not to mention predictable. And speaking of repetitive premises, does it bother anyone but me that the mortality rate for mothers in the STAR WARS movies is close to 100%?

Seriously, it doesn’t pay to underestimate just how predictable adhering to a well-worn plot device can render a manuscript, especially to someone who reads as much as Millicent. People drawn to work in publishing tend to be both plot-retentive and detail-oriented: I was surely not the only future editor who walked out of the original STAR WARS saying to her big brother, “You know what would make more sense than that ending? If Leah was Luke’s sister? I mean, honestly — why begin their names with the same first letter, something screenwriters usually take wincing pains to avoid, unless we’re supposed to guess that there’s a familial relationship?”

Okay, so this was probably not how most elementary schoolers reacted to the film, but I read a great deal. Not only science fiction, but fables — and the heroic journey story arc was supposed to surprise me? Nice try, Mr. Lucas.

An original plot twist or premise should surprise the reader — and that’s legitimately hard to do. It’s also often difficult for an isolated writer to spot just how much his plot, premise, or characters might resemble what Millicent is receiving from other writers. Even if the writer can successfully weed out conceptions of dramatic fitness culled from stories floating around the zeitgeist — from movies, television, books, even major news stories — that might be turning up in other submissions, rooting out or even noticing stereotypes (what? The guy with tape on his glasses is a computer expert? Who saw that coming?), stock plot twists (the murderer isn’t the first person the police arrest? Alert the media!), overused premises (the police partners who made the arrest are experiencing some romantic tension? The school bully targeting the gay teen is himself fighting urges in that direction? The guy bent on revenge is actuated by the trauma of having seen his wife and small child murdered out of the reader’s sight and before the story began?) and hackneyed phrasing (“I’m sorry for your loss,” anyone?) can often require an outside eye.

Why? Often, such well-worn story elements are so familiar to the writer, as well as to her nearest and dearest, that they don’t seem like clichés. They just seem like the constituent parts of a story. Therein lies the essential paradox of trafficking in the already-done: that plot twist that feels dramatically right may well come across that way because you’ve seen it before.

And so has Millicent. Remember, clichés don’t irritate agents, editors, and contest judges the first time these fine folks spot them on the manuscript page, typically, or even because the pesky things are repeated over the course of a particular submission or contest entry. What chafes their sensibilities is seeing the same phrases, characters, plot twists, and even premises over and over across hundreds of manuscripts.

Hey, if you’ve seen one completely selfless mother, a lady completely devoid of any personal preferences unrelated to her children, you might not actually have seen ‘em all. After screening the forty-seventh synopsis featuring a selfless mother within a week, however, it might well start to feel that way.

That’s a pretty good test of whether a manuscript might have strayed into over-nibbled pastures, by the way: if the synopsis — or, sacre bleu, the descriptive paragraph in the query letter — makes reference to a well-established stereotype, it’s well worth looking into how to make the characters less, well, predictable.

And now two-thirds of you chest-clutchers are mopping your weary brows. Honestly, this is beginning to read like a word problem on the math section of the S.A.T.

By definition, stereotypes and clichés are predictable: they are the shorthand a culture uses for archetypes. The mean tenth-grade girl, for instance, or the dumb jock. The absent-minded professor who can’t find the glasses perched on top of his head. The sociopathic lawyer who cares only about winning cases, not justice. The tough drill sergeant/teacher/physical therapist who seems like a bully at first, but turns out to be concealing a heart of gold.

Hey, what happened to all the floozies harboring hearts of gold? When did they fall out of the collective mind? Sometime during the Reagan administration? Or was it a decade earlier, when librarians and schoolteachers lost the right to yank the pencils from their collective hair, remove the eyeglasses that they apparently don’t require in order to see, and have the nearest male exclaim, “Why, Miss Jones — you’re beautiful!”

Now, poor Miss Jones would to be an expert in particle physics, save the world in the third act of the story, and look as though she had never eaten a cookie in order to engender that reaction. It’s enough to make an educated woman bob her hair.

Naturally, what constitutes a cliché evolves over time, just as what seems dated in a plot does, but as far as characterization goes, one factor remains the same: a stereotype telegraphs to the reader what kind of behavior, motivations, and actions to expect from a character. A pop quiz for long-time readers of this blog: why might that present a problem in a manuscript submission?

For precisely the same reason that a savvy submitter should avoid every other form of predictability, especially in the opening pages of a manuscript or contest entry:: because being able to see what’s going to happen in advance tends to bore Millicent. If a professional reader can tell instantly from a story’s first description of a character precisely how he is going to act and how he is likely to speak, where’s the suspense?

The same holds true for too-common premises, by the way. Those two coworkers of opposite sexes squabbling? They’ll be in love within fifty pages. That child the woman who swore she never wanted children inadvertently acquires, by accident, theft, or some inconsiderate relative’s leaving him on her doorstep. It will completely transform her life. The completely irresponsible man who discovers he’s had an unknown child for decades? He’s going to be integral to that kid’s life, and vice versa. That wish the protagonist makes on page 2, even though the text explicitly tells us that she never wishes on passing stars? It’s going to come true.

In spades. It’s written on the sand.

Oh, you thought that Millie wouldn’t catch on that teenage Billy was going to wreck his new motorcycle by the second time his parents are shown to be worried about it? I hate to burst anyone’s plotting bubble, but at this juncture in literary history, most professional readers would have said, “Oh, he’s doing to crash it,” halfway through the scene where he bought the bike.

She’s also going to foresee that the character a bystander identifies as having had a hard childhood is going to be the mysterious murderer decimating the summer camp/isolated hotel/submarine’s crew, the grandmother/grandfather/elderly neighbor giving the youthful protagonist with nowhere else to turn sterling (if predictable) advice is going to have some sort of a health scare by three-quarters of the way through the book, and that the otherwise clear-thinking lady who wisely retreated to someplace her violent ex-husband/evil boss/corrupt Congressman isn’t will be startled when he shows up.

Quite possibly standing behind her while she is gazing soulfully into a mirror. A cat will have startled her first, however. That fellow also not going to be dead the first time she, her knight in shining armor, or the few remaining members of that light-hearted weekend canoeing party think they have dispatched him.

Hey, the monster always returns is a cliché for a reason.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but reading manuscripts for a living often results in a serious decrease in the ability to be astonished by plot twist at all. Avert your eyes if you have never seen The Sixth Sense, but I had twice suggested to my date that the psychologist was a ghost before the end of the first therapy scene. I kept asking, “But if he’s alive, why isn’t he talking to the kid’s mother? And why doesn’t she have any interests or concerns unrelated to her child?”

To anyone who has been reading manuscripts for a living for more than a week or two, there’s another problem with stock characters. Millicent tends to associate them with rather lazy writing — and certainly with lax research. I’m not just talking about the astonishingly common phenomenon of novels saddling their protagonists with professions with which their writers are clearly unfamiliar (if I had a nickel for every tax specialist character who takes an annual month-long holiday on April 16th because the writer who created her isn’t aware of how many people file their taxes late, I would be able to afford a month-long holiday right now) or the equally common fish-out-of-water stories in which the writer seems as out of his depth in the new environment as his protagonist (my personal pet peeve: protagonists who inherit wineries, then proceed to run them with a whole lot of heart — and learning valuable life lessons — while clearly learning virtually nothing about the actual practicalities of making wine).

I’m talking about characters, usually secondary ones, that are different in some fundamental way from the protagonist. You wouldn’t believe how often subtly-drawn primary characters share page space with downright cartoonish villains or minor characters.

When writers just guess at the probable life details and reactions of characters unlike themselves, they tend to end up writing in generalities, not plausible, reality-based specifics. A common result: characters whose beauty and brains are inversely proportional, whose behavior and/or speech can be predicted as soon as the narrative drops a hint about their race/gender/sexual orientation/national origin/job/whatever, and/or who act exactly as though some great celestial casting director called up the nearest muse and said, “Hello, Euterpe? Got anything in a bimbo cheerleader? Great — send me twelve.”

Seen once on the page, one-note characters are kind of annoying. When those cheerleaders come cartwheeling across a good 40% of YA set in high schools, even a hint of waved pom-pom can get downright annoying.

Even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions. What tends to get caught by the broom of a sweeping generalization is not Millicent’s imagination, but the submission. If it seems too stereotypical, it’s often swept all the way into the rejection pile.

Why, you ask? Because by definition, a characterization that we’ve all seen a hundred times before, if not a thousand, is not fresh. Nor do stereotypes tend to be all that subtle. And that’s a problem in Millicent’s eyes, because in a new writer, what she’s looking to see — feel free to chant it with me now — originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent.

When a writer speaks in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where her authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive — or, frankly, all that memorable.

“But Anne,” writers of reality-based fiction and nonfiction alike protest, “sometimes, stereotypes have a kernel of truth to them, just as clichéd truisms are frequently, well, true. Isn’t it possible that Millicent sees certain character types over and over again because they pop up in real life so often, and writers are simply reflecting that? Should she not, in short, get over it?”

Ah, editors hear that one all the time from those writing the real, either in memoir form or in the ever-popular reality-thinly-disguised-as-fiction manuscript. In fact, it’s an argument heard in general conversation with some fair frequency: many, many people, including writers, genuinely believe various stereotypes to be true; therein lies the power of a cliché. The very pervasiveness of certain hackneyed icons in the cultural lexicon — the policeman enraged at the system, the intellectually brilliant woman with no social skills, the father-to-be who faints in the delivery room, that same father helpless if he is left alone with the child in question, to name but four — render them very tempting to incorporate in a manuscript as shortcuts, especially when trying to tell a story in an expeditious manner.

Oh, you don’t regard stereotypes as shortcuts? Okay, which would require more narrative description and character development, the high school cheerleader without a brain in her head, or the one who burns to become a nuclear physicist? At this point in dramatic history, all a pressed-for-time writer really has to do is use the word cheerleader to evoke the former for a reader, right?

Unless, of course, a submission that uses this shortcut happens to fall upon the desk of a Millicent who not only was a high school cheerleader, but also was the captain of the chess team. At Dartmouth. To her, a manuscript that relies upon the usual stereotype isn’t going to look as though it’s appealing to universal understandings of human interaction; it’s going to come across as a sweeping generalization.

Can you really blame her fingers for itching to reach for the broom?

“But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “Isn’t this all going a little far afield from Kelly’s original question? Wasn’t she really asking for a list of overused plot twists and premises a savvy aspiring writer should avoid?”

Possibly, but that’s precisely the conundrum of freshness. What would have struck Millicent as fresh a year ago, when Kelly first brought this up, is not what would seem so to her now. Freshness is an ever-moving target, difficult for an aspiring writer — who, after all, usually takes at least a year or two to fashion a premise into a full manuscript — to hit predictably. Since nobody can legitimately claim to know what will be selling well a couple of years from now, committing to a premise is always going to be something of a risky proposition.

All a writer can do is strive to make her plot and characterization as original as her voice — and, ideally, as surprising. The best means of figuring out what will come as a pleasant surprise to her is to read widely in your chosen book category. What kinds of plot twists are used, and which overused? What’s been done to death, and what’s new and exciting? What’s considered characteristic and expected in your type of book these days, and what’s considered out of bounds?

Once you have come up with provisional answers to those questions, ask yourself another: how can I make my book’s premise, characterization, and plot even better than what’s already on the literary market?

Speaking of conundrums, have you solved the riddle of the Sphinx yet? It’s the humble human being: as babies, we crawl; in our prime, we walk on two legs; in old age, we use canes.

Actually, people tend to use walkers now, but who are we to question the wisdom of the Sphinx? All I know — and this is so far from a standard premise that I can’t recall a bestselling novel of the last twenty years that has dealt with this subject in any significant depth — is that after one has been hobbling around on three legs, it’s astonishingly tiring to wander around on just two. And that, my friends, is the explanation for my recent blogging silence: I’ve been taking a long change-of-season nap.

All the better to launch into Queryfest next time, my dears. Keep up the good work!

As individual as a snowflake — but my, don’t those snowflakes start to look alike when they start to pile up (or, as we like to call this post around here, Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXI, and Structural Repetition, part VIII)

My, that’s a mighty cool image for a midsummer day, is it not? After catching the tail end of a national weather report, I thought some of you fine people could use some visual air conditioning.

And what a refreshing breeze was caused by all of those hands suddenly shooting into the air. “But Anne,” those of you who have been following this series on self-editing and rigorously applying its principles, “air conditioning is felt viscerally, and visual images are seen by the eyes! Is this not, therefore, a mixed metaphor — and aren’t mixed metaphors one of the many, many things that get our old pal Millicent the agency screener’s goat?”

Quite right, sharp-eyed revisers, and well caught. Our Millie has indeed been known to gnash her teeth over analogies that are not quite analogous, as well as sensual organs that pick up sensations beyond their traditional ken. Hearts that skip a pulse, rather than a beat, eyes that observe inflections in tone, facial expressions that convey emotions of such complexity that Marcel Proust would consider their fullness over-examined on the page — all have done their part over the years in depleting Millicent’s goat herd.

She doesn’t have awfully many goats left, people. Choose your words with care.

In an effort to help her conserve a few cloven-footed beasts, I went on at some length last time about the yawn-inducing effect of mentioning characters’ names too often within a short stretch of text. As I tried to show in what was probably an excess of examples, the repetitive force of all those capital letters can be somewhat hypnotic. More seriously, they can be distracting from the story the book is telling.

And that, my friends, is bad news for any submission. It’s worth a novelist’s while, then, to massage the text a little to try to reduce the frequency of those monikers. It’s also worth the memoirist’s while, and the creative nonfictionist’s. Heck, if we going to be honest about it, it would behoove pretty much any writer who presents characters in a format other than a list.

Especially someone who has already performed one (three, five, a hundred and seventeen) revisions on a manuscript. Why? Well, think about it: the more worked-over a manuscript is, the more likely names are to have changed over the course of the revision process, right?

Oh, you thought Millicent wouldn’t notice if your protagonist’s sister was Emily for the first third of the book and Evie thereafter? I can hear her pet goats saying, “Meh!” at the very notion.

Even if this is your first attempt at editing your manuscript, it’s in your best interest to keep an eye on the percussive repetition of those proper nouns, particularly if the names in question begin with the same first letters or sound similar. As we saw last time, repeated first letters in different names can cause the reading eye to leap to unwarranted assumptions, or even — brace yourself, similar name-lovers — cause the reader to mix up the relevant characters.

While you’re already well-braced, I might as well continue with the bad news: character blurring is particularly likely to occur in the opening pages of a manuscript, where many characters are often introduced quite close together.

Resist the temptation, please, to blame the skimming eye, rather than authorial choices, for this species of confusion. It’s hard to blame Millicent for getting confused when eight characters are tossed at her within half a page — especially when that half a page happens to be on page 1, when she cannot reasonably be expected to know which of this cast of thousands is the protagonist.

Oh, you think it’s easy to keep track? Okay, skim over the following sterling piece of literature as rapidly as you can. As always, if you’re having a bit of trouble making out the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

similar name page 1

Be honest, now: right now, based on that rapid reading alone — no fair referring back to the page — could you draw Cheryl’s family tree? Not as easy for a skimmer to keep track of everyone as one might have at first supposed, is it?

The good news (yes, there is some) is that this problem is at least partially avoidable with a little advance planning on the writer’s part. Since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Beryl, Bunnie, and Benny. Adopting the old screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter will help alleviate reader confusion.

Repetitive capital letters are not the only avoidable bugbears in naming, however. Swift readers will also frequently mix up names with similar sequences of letters, such as Cheryl, Meryl, and Beryl. Or Jenny and Benny. Or even Bunnie and Billie.

Starting to get the picture, or rather the pattern? Millicent is. And her goat is getting antsy.

Believe it or not, even names that merely sound similar can be hard to tell apart on the page. Why? Well, many readers (not usually the speediest text-absorbers, admittedly, but still, potential enjoyers of your prose) will pronounce names in their minds, at least the first time those monikers appear on the page. So while it may seem unnecessary to worry about anyone’s confusing Cheryl and Sherrill in the same manner that they might mix up Cheryl and Meryl, or Meryl and Beryl, it’s actually not beyond belief.

Try saying that last sentence out loud three times fast, and you’ll see why.

Again, advance planning (or most writers’ preferred method, after-the-fact tedious alteration) is your friend here: name your people so they don’t sound so much alike. Millicent will thank you — and, speaking as someone who survived editing a manuscript whose characters were Maureen, Marlene, Doreen, Arleen, and Darlene, I will thank you, too.

There’s another species of naming conducive to character-blurring, one that seldom involves any capital letters at all: avoiding proper nouns altogether. Such narratives have a nickname amongst editors: he said/she said texts.

Or, as I like to call them, he said/he said/he said.

Don’t laugh: name-eschewing is a more common practice than you might think, and not only in mid-book chapters, where the relevant characters are already established. In fact, leaving identification entirely to pronouns is a fairly popular type of book opening, intended (one assumes) to hook the reader by making him guess who the mysterious he (or, more often, she) of the opening paragraphs could possibly be.

Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, given its ubiquity, this type of opening turns up on practically every Millicent’s pet peeve list. Judge for yourself why it might be a goat-getter:

pronoun-only text

Well, are you hooked? Or, to put it in the terms that a professional reader would, are you eager to turn to page 2? If so, how much of the appeal lay in the inherent excitement of the situation and how it was presented — and how much in the fact that the narrative didn’t bother to tell you who any of these people were or much of anything about them?

“Meh,” says the goat. “I could take this story or leave it, at this point.”

I’m with you, Flossie. For the false suspense device to work, the reader has to find being kept in the dark titillating — and overwhelmingly, Millicents do not. When presented with an opening like this, they are all too prone to start asking practical questions along the lines of Who is this broad?, What on earth is going on here?, and Why is this writer withholding relevant information from me? Is this lady’s name a state secret?

Trust me on this one: in a submission (or contest entry, for that matter), it’s the writer’s job to show what’s going on, not the reader’s job to guess. Letting the reader know who is who is more than good Millicent-pleasing; it’s generally considered better writing than false suspense.

Or any other tactic that’s like to result in reader confusion, really. Millicent’s usual response to being confused by what’s in front of her on the page is generally quite dramatic: a cry of “Next!”

Oh, those hands are in the air again. Yes? “Um, Anne?” those of you joining us mid-series inquire meekly. “I have to admit, I rather like this kind of opening. I can see that it’s suspenseful, but what’s false about it? I’ve seen it in plenty of published books. And if there’s only one character in a scene — or only one whose name the protagonist knows, as in that last example — what’s so confusing about not telling the reader who she is?”

Valid questions all, meek inquirers. Yes, this opening is exciting, and yes, there was a time when this strategy was considered pretty nifty, particularly in fantasy circles. But really, hasn’t it been done to death by now?

The rather hackneyed nature of the tactic is not its primary drawback, however: the problem is that the suspense arises not solely from the considerable inherent stress of the situation upon the protagonist, but from the fact that the reader knows neither who she is nor why she is being pursued. (And why is she wearing a party dress in the woods?) Obviously, though, the narrator, the woman, and the author do know the answers to these questions — so the only possible reason not to share this information with the reader is to prompt the reader to be curious about it.

Hey, you — put Millicent’s goat right back where you found it. It’s not her fault (or the goat’s, for that matter) that the author didn’t have enough faith in the action of his opening scene to let it speak for itself. No, he thought had to introduce a narrative device (and a rather tired one at that) in order to interest the reader in his heroine’s plight.

Frankly, this opening doesn’t need it. Take a gander at the same page 1 with the withheld evidence added in:

“Come on, admit it,” the goat says. “It’s every bit as suspenseful, isn’t it?”

Good point, surprisingly articulate barnyard animal. For many readers, it may even be more suspenseful — having a bit of background to this chase enables us to empathize with Alice’s plight more fully.

Let’s go ahead and establish an axiom: unless there is a very, very good reason for denying the reader information as basic as a character’s name — particularly if, as in that last example, it’s the protagonist in a tight third-person narrative where the narrative voice evidently knows everything there is to know about that character — go ahead and call your characters by name the first time they appear in a scene (or the book), rather than referring to them constantly by only a generic he or she.

Believe me, Millicent doesn’t like to guess — and she has a point in this instance. Too little name-calling can be as harmful to the reader’s experience as too much. Even if the reader should in theory already know who is who, even a relatively mild policy of principled name avoidance can often lead to confusion, especially in action scenes.

Take, for example, the following little number — and to make it a fair test, I shall valiantly resist the temptation to give all of the combatants similar names.

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, he pushed back, sending him tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” he cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Now, I’m guessing that most of you were able to follow what was happening, even without drawing a diagram of the domino effect. (Although that would have been fun to see, wouldn’t it?) All a reader would really have to do is read slowly and carefully, perhaps going back and re-reading as necessary to answer any lingering questions.

It is indeed possible, then, for the reader to emerge at the end of this passage unconfused. But is it a good idea for a writer to expect the reader to put in the work?

I can answer that one for you: not if that reader is Millicent — or, indeed, any professional reader. Because clarity is, after all, the absolute minimum requirement of publishable writing, the pros typically regard an unclear passage as a poorly-written one, period. Or if not precisely poorly-written, then at least lazily revised.

At best, it’s an abdication of authorial responsibility: the gap between what the writer meant the reader to take away from the text and what’s actually on the page needs to be bridged by someone. The writer who submits the text at this stage is tacitly conveying the belief that it’s the reader’s job to fill in the necessary details; Millicent, by contrast, will be quite sure that it’s the writer’s job — and that the writer called in sick that day.

Here, Flossie. Where has she gone?

Millicent is also quite sure — and this comes as a nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters — that it’s not her job to go back and re-read a sentence because she found it confusing the first time around. So positive is she on this point that if such a sentence (or paragraph, or page) appears on page 1 of a submission, as we saw in the example above, she will often simply stop reading altogether.

Chant it with me now, campers: “Next!”

Does that low, despairing moan mean that some of you remain confused about when to name and when not to name? “But Anne, aren’t you presenting us with a Catch-22? I’m afraid that once I start adding all of the proper nouns necessary for clarity to my manuscript, I shall almost instantly run afoul of our bugbear from last time, too-frequent name repetition. Help! And why is this goat following me?”

Fear not, low moaners: you are not alone. Fortunately for all, the last time I brought this up, perplexed reader Elizabeth was brave enough to speak up:

Reading about repetition in manuscripts has me quaking in my boots. I understand that poor Millicent doesn’t want to read the same 15 words strung in a different order for 300 pages, but I was also under the impression that it was better to use a character’s name over a pronoun nine times out of ten, for clarity.

Obviously, it depends on how many times I replace the pronoun with the character name, as well as if Jason is the only “he” in the room, then there is less of a chance for confusion (unless there is also a transsexual in the room as well). One shouldn’t change every “he” to “Jason” just to be clear, or vice versa.

Now that I fully recognize the evils of repetition, I want to do my part and squelch it in my manuscript. I am just in agony over what to do about character names versus pronouns now that you mention that repeating the character’s name over and over is tiresome.

Elizabeth speaks for many here: I frequently meet aspiring writers who tell me that their early writing teachers insisted (wrongly, as it happens) that the only conceivable way to avoid confusing a reader by in a scene with more than one he or she is to avoid using pronouns altogether. The result, as she points out, can be name repetition of the most annoying variety.

Let’s see why. To revisit our earlier pronoun-problem example:

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, Herman pushed Paul back, sending Paul tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” Ed cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Oh, dear: that won’t do at all, will it? Unless a writer wants to stock up on Goat Chow, this seems like a strategic mistake.

It does serve, however, to illustrate an important reason to approach writing advice with caution: all too often, writing guidelines that aren’t applicable to every situation are presented as inviolable rules. Certainly, many, many aspiring writers are prone to take them as such. Matters of style are, unfortunately, often discussed as if they were matters of fact. As a result, accepting sweeping generalizations like the one Elizabeth cites above may actually be harmful to your writing.

Yes, you read that correctly. So here is my advice: never — and I do mean NEVER — accept a writing rule as universal unless you are absolutely satisfied that it will work in every single applicable instance. If you are not positive that you understand why a writing axiom or piece of feedback will improve your manuscript, do not apply it to your pages.

What should you do instead? Ask questions, plenty of them, and don’t accept, “Well, everybody knows it should be this way,” as an answer. Plenty of stylistic preferences have been foisted upon fledgling writers over the years as laws inviolable, and it actually not all that uncommon for writing teachers not to make — how shall I put this? — as strong a distinction between what is indispensably necessary for good writing and what is simply one possible fix for a common problem.

Take the 9/10th truism Elizabeth mentioned, for instance: it’s not uncommon generic writing advice, but it’s not particularly helpful, is it? I suspect that the real intention behind it is for multiplayer scenes — and, as is true of many pieces of specific writing advice that get passed on as if they were hard-and-fast rules, probably was first scrawled in the margins of a scene with a large cast, most of whom were merely described as he or she. Somehow, through the dim mists of time, what may well have started out as a relatively minor revision suggestion (you might want to think about giving that lady in the forest a name, Gerald), transmogrified into an imperative (thou shalt not use pronouns!).

But that imperative does not exist: there’s plenty of good writing that uses pronouns in abundance. Great writing, even, as even the most cursory flip through the volumes at any well-stocked bookstore or library will rapidly demonstrate. I’ve seen it, and I’m sure you have, too.

Heck, even the goat’s seen it.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering for the past ten paragraphs, I specified that I often hear the proper-name-at-all-costs rule from aspiring writers; professional writers know better. They know that there are many, many means of achieving clarity in writing about people without treating pronouns as if they were infected with some dreadful communicable disease.

Seriously, professional readers see practically pronoun-free first pages more than you might think — although nowhere near as often as the type of proper name-withholding opening we saw above. The trick, as is so often the case for good revision, is to approach each potential name vs. pronoun conundrum on an individual basis, rather than seeking to force every imaginable use of either into a one-size-fits-all rule.

Don’t be afraid to apply your common sense. As Aristotle liked to point out, moderation is the key.

Okay, so he was talking about something else, but obviously, where there are several characters of the same gender, referring to each by name, at least occasionally, could reduce confusion quite a bit. (And before anybody asks, the rule of thumb for transgendered characters is pretty straightforward in American literature, though: use the pronoun the character would use to refer to him- or herself at the time, regardless of the stage of physical transition. While Marci is introducing herself as Marci, rather than Marc, use she; when he would introduce himself as Marc, use he. It’s only polite to call people what they wish to be called, after all, and it will save the narrative from having to indulge in pointlessly confusing back-and-forth shifts.)

Once the reader knows who the players in a scene are, a clever writer can easily structure the narrative so pronoun use isn’t confusing at all. Remember, moderation is your friend, and clarity is your goal.

Let me guess: you want to see those principles in action, don’t you? Okay, let’s revisit a proper name-heavy example from last time, one that might easily have been composed by a writer who believed pronouns were to be eschewed because they have cooties. Behold the predictable result.

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

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

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

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

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, Susan. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

Susan 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.”

“Meh,” the goat observes, shaking its horned head, “that’s quite a lot of proper names for such a short scene, isn’t it?”

Far more than Millicent would deem necessary, certainly — which is to say, far, far more than are necessary for clarity, yet more than enough to feel repetitious on the page. Yet simply replacing all of the names with she (or, in John’s case, he) would leave the reader wondering what was going on. Lookee:

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

“Why ever not?” she asked.

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

She 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 him?”

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

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

Her eyes stung for a moment. She always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

She sighed. “Those were the days, eh?”

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

Fortunately, those two options aren’t the only tools we have up our writerly sleeves, are they? Let’s try a combination of minimizing the proper nouns by incorporating a little light pronoun use and reworking the dialogue a little:

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

“Why ever not?”

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

Susan 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’s about him. How many husbands do you think I have?”

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

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh?”

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

Experience even momentary confusion about who was who, or who was saying what when? The goat and I think not. All it took was a touch of creativity, a spot of flexibility, and a willingness to read the scene from the reader’s perspective, rather than the writer’s.

After all, clarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As the writer, it’s your job to keep that pupil happy by making your narrative a pleasure to read.

Oh, come back, Flossie — Millicent doesn’t like bad puns, either. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or a semicolon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) In lists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(4) In complex descriptions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My inheritance!” Marvin screamed, horrified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A detour from the pet peeve parade: the short road home

Throughout our rather sprawling Pet Peeves on Parade series, I have been chattering blithely about narrative conflict and tension, as though every aspiring writer out there were already hard at work, trying to ratchet up the quotas of both in their manuscripts. As, indeed, those of us who read for a living so frequently advise: make sure there is conflict on every single page is, after all, one of the most commonly-given pieces of how-to-please-the-agent-of-your-dreams revision advice.

But if you’ll pardon my asking, what does it mean?

Seriously, how would a conscientious self-editor apply this advice to the manuscript page? Insert a sword fight every eight paragraphs or so? Have the nearest gas station should spring a leak just because the protagonist happens to be strolling by? Force the lovers in your romance cease stop billing and cooing in favor of snarling at one another?

Of course not — but you would be surprised how often aspiring writers stumble into the harsh daylight at the end of a writers’ conference muttering to themselves, “Must ramp up conflict. Tension on every page!” without being certain what that means on a practical level. There’s a pretty good reason for that: colloquially, conflict and tension are often used interchangeably, but amongst professional writers and those who edit them, they mean two different but interrelated things.

So let’s take a moment to define our literary terms, shall we?

Narrative conflict is when a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) is prevented from meeting his or her goal (either a momentary one or the ultimate conclusion of the plot) by some antagonistic force. The thwarting influence may be external to the character experiencing it (as when the villain punches our hero in the nose for asking too many pesky questions), emerge from within her psyche (as when our heroine wants to jump onto the stage at the county fair and declare that the goat-judging was rigged, but can’t overcome that fear of public speaking that she has had since that first traumatic operatic recital at the age of 10), or even be subconscious (as when our hero and heroine meet each other quite accidentally during the liquor store hold-up, feeling mysteriously drawn to each other but not yet realizing that they were twins separated at birth).

Narrative tension, on the other hand, is when the pacing, plot, and characterization at any given point of the book are tight enough that the reader remains engaged in what is going on — and wondering what is going to happen next — rather than, say, idly wondering whether it is time to check in again with a 24-hour news network. A scene or page may be interesting without maintaining tension, and a predictable storyline may never create any tension at all.

Or, to put it so simply that a sophisticated reader would howl in protest, conflict is character-based, whereas tension typically relates to plot.

Because conflict and tension are related, a manuscript that suffers from a lack of one often suffers from a paucity of the other as well. First-time novelists and memoirists are particularly prone to falling prey to both, enough so that the professional readers’ stereotype of a first submission is — are you sitting down? — a story that meanders episodically from event to unrelated event, just like real life.

“And just like real life,” our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, has been known to murmur over manuscripts, “any randomly-chosen scene will not appear to a bystander to be going anywhere in particular. Is there a point to all of this slice-of-life activity?”

Why might first books be more likely to fall prey to this pervasive problem than others? Keeping both conflict and tension high for an entire manuscript is darned difficult; it’s a learned skill, and many quite talented writers have been known to write a practice book or two before they learn it.

Oh, should I have checked again that you were sitting down before I broached that one?

The other major reason first books tend to drag is that writers new to the biz are far less likely to sit down and read their manuscripts front to back before submitting them than those who’ve been hanging around the industry longer. Long enough, say, to have heard the old saw about a novel or memoir’s needing to have conflict on every page, or the one about the desirability of keeping the tension consistently high in the first fifty pages, to keep Millicent turning those submission pages.

Yet another reason that I keep yammering at all of you to — sing along with me now, long-time readers — read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting it. Lack of conflict and tension become far, far more apparent when a manuscript is read this way.

Actually, pretty much every manuscript mega-problem is more likely to leap off the page at the reviser reading this way, rather then the more common piecemeal scene-by-scene or on-the-screen approaches. This is particularly true when a writer is revising on a deadline — or has just received a request for pages from a real, live agent.

Which is, of course, precisely when it’s most tempting not to give your work a thorough read-through. Especially in the second case: if you’re like the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers, you’ll be so excited by a positive response to your query that you’ll want to pop those pages in the mail or hit the SEND button within 24 hours or so. You know, before that nice agent changes his mind.

If you read that last paragraph and cried, “By gum, that’s me!” relax. Requests for pages don’t expire for a year or so, typically. Even if the request came as the result of a successful pitch — and if so, kudos on your bravery — an aspiring writer does not, contrary to popular panicked opinion, need to get the requested materials onto the agent’s desk before s/he forgets the pitch. If one pitched at a reasonably busy conference, it’s safe to assume that s/he will forget your pitch — but that s/he will have taken good notes.

Translation: you have time to proofread before sending all or part of your manuscript. In fact, it’s only professional to take the time to do so.

Unfortunately, those whose writing would most benefit from a good, hard, critical reading tend to be those less likely to perform it. While many aspiring writers develop strong enough self-editing skills to rid their entries of micro-problems — grammatical errors, clarity snafus, and other gaffes on the sentence and paragraph level — when they’re skidding toward a deadline, they often do not make time to catch the mega-problems.

So let’s all chant the mantra together again for good measure: before you submit so much as a paragraph of your writing to a professional reader, it would behoove you to read it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I know, I know: it has too many syllables to be a proper mantra. Chant it anyway, so it doesn’t slip your mind the night before that contest deadline.

Many a hand has been in the air for many a paragraph now, hasn’t it? “But Anne,” anguished middle-of-the-night manuscript contemplators everywhere wail, “how can I tell if my manuscript does indeed lack conflict and/or tension? I’ve read some of the individual passages so often now that they seem set in stone to me.”

Excellent question, anguished self-editors. While there are as many individual causes of sagging tension and conflict minimization as there are plotlines, certain types of narrative choices are more conducive to producing them. In the interest of keeping all of you revisers’ spirits up as you approach the often-daunting task of revision, I’m going to begin with the easiest to spot — and one of the simpler to fix.

I like to call this extremely common manuscript phenomenon the Short Road Home, and it comes in two flavors, full-bodied and subtle. Today, I shall focus on the full-bodied version.

The Short Road Home crops up when a problem in a plot is solved too easily for either its continuance or its resolution to provide significant dramatic tension to the story — or to reveal heretofore unrevealed character nuances. Most often, this takes the form of a conflict resolved before the reader has had time to perceive it as difficult to solve — or understand what the stakes are.

What might the SRH look like on the page? Well, in its full-bodied form, characters may worry about a problem for a hundred pages –- and then resolve it in three.

We’ve all seen this in action, right? A character’s internal conflict is depicted as insurmountable — and then it turns out that all he needed to do all along was admit that he was wrong, and everything is fine. The first outsider who walks into town and asks a few pointed questions solves a decade-old mystery. The protagonist has traveled halfway around the world in order to confront the father who deserted him years before — and apparently, every road in Madagascar leads directly to him.

Ta da! Crisis resolved. No roadblocks here.

The thing is, though, blocked roads tend to be quite a bit more interesting to read about than unblocked ones. So you can hardly blame Millicent for becoming impatient when pages at a time pass without conflict — and then, when the long-anticipated conflict does arise, the narrative swiftly reaches out and squashes it like a troublesome bug.

Wham! Splat! All gone, never to be heard from again. Perhaps like so:

Percy rumpled his hair for what must have been the fifteenth time that day. How on earth was he going to find his long-lost relative in a city of half a million people, armed with only a ten-year-old photograph and a dim memory that Uncle Gerard adored hazelnut gelato?

Perhaps that was the best place to start; he nipped around the corner to Gelato Galleria. After all, sensory memories were always the strongest.

“Hazelnut?” The man behind the counter seemed thunderstruck. “Only one customer has ever ordered hazelnut here. Mr. Gerard’s my best customer.”

Percy reached across the counter to grasp him by his striped lapels. “When was he last in? Be quick, man — it may be a matter of life and death.”

“Th-this morning. He ordered seven pints for a party this evening. I’m supposed to deliver it.”

“Allow me.” Percy’s tone dispensed with the possibility of further discussion. “I would be delighted to deliver it for you.”

Or maybe like this:

Irene mopped her sopping brow, staring after the departing train. Her last chance for redemption chugged away from her. If only she hadn’t been so stubborn! Or so true: Mother had been wrong to extract that promise on her deathbed, the one about never revealing her true identity. Now, the only sister she would ever have was gone from her life forever.

She was wiping her eyes furtively when someone tapped her on the shoulder. Really, strangers were so pushy these days. She wheeled around.

“I missed my train,” Eileen said sheepishly. “Would you mind putting me up for another night?”

“Another night?” Irene threw her arms around her sibling. “You can stay with me forever. You are my identical twin!”

“Well,” Eileen murmured into her sister’s curls, “that would explain why meeting you three hundred pages ago was so like gazing into a mirror. How strange that nobody else noticed the resemblance, eh?”

Or, even more common, the too-quickly-resolved conflict on the scene level:

“I had that paper a minute ago,” Archibald said, beginning to contemplate perhaps thinking about maybe starting to contemplate looking for it. “Where can it be? Without it, I cannot walk into that meeting.”

“Is this it?” Grace held up the wastepaper basket, angled so he could see within its shallow depths.

Relieved, he fished it out. “Thanks, I would have been lost without it.”

It drives Millicent nuts. “If a conflict so unimportant to the plot and/or character development that it can be disposed of this quickly,” she murmurs, “why include it in the manuscript at all?”

Good question, Millie — often, a problem’s being too easy to solve is an indicator that it could be cut with no cost to the story. Or that the problem was not set up in sufficient detail in the first place. Slice-of-life scenes are, alas, particularly susceptible to too-quick resolution, as are scenes where, heaven help us, everyone is polite.

Yes, you read that correctly. Few traits kill conflict on a page as effectively as a protagonist who is unfailingly polite. Contrary to popular belief amongst writers, a monotonously courteous protagonist is almost never more likeable than one who isn’t — and even everyday polite statements tend to make professional readers start glancing at their watches.

Why? Well, as delightful as courtesy is in real life, polite dialogue is by its very definition generic; it reveals nothing about the speaker except a propensity toward good manners.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an exchange that crops up in a good 90% of submitted manuscripts.

“Why, hello, Betty,” Marjorie said.

“Hello, Margie. How are you today?”

“Fine, thanks. And you?”

“Fine. How are the kids?”

“Fine. How is your mother doing?”

“Fine. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes. It seems to be spring at last.”

“Yes. Yes, it does.”

Put down that revolver, Millicent. I assure you, life is still worth living.

But you see the problem, right? On the page, good manners are predictable — and thus inherently tension-reducing.

Or, to put it as Millicent would, “Next!”

Take care, however, not to pursue the opposite route from Short Road Home by creating false suspense; Millicent doesn’t like that much, either. False suspense is the common tension-increasing technique of withholding information from the protagonist that a fairly simple and logical action would have revealed earlier in the plot, or even in the scene — or by denying the reader information that the protagonist already knows.

Trust me: if the clue is in plain sight, most professional readers will resent it if the narrative doesn’t point it out the first time it appears; if the protagonist has traveled five hundred miles to ask his grandmother about her past, Millicent is going to get angry if he just sits there passively and waits for her to blurt out the long-hidden information, rather than asking her about it.

Ditto if the protagonist sees his late cousin’s face appear in a window, confronts some hideous monster in the closet, and/or recognizes that the French ambassador is actually his long-lost brother — but the reader is not filled in on what he knows, or even sees, for six more chapters. Amongst the pros, it’s considered a cheap form of tension-building.

Not sure why? Okay — my God, what’s that creeping up behind your desk chair? Oh, it’s…horrible. Too horrible to describe…

Not a very satisfying plot twist, is it? And it should look familiar from last time: it’s a variation on the she ran through the woods opening.

In its most extreme form, false suspense can become what the fine film critic Roger Ebert calls an Idiot Plot, one where the fundamental problem of a story could have been solved if just one character had asked just one obvious question early in the plot. (“Wait — how will our wandering unarmed into the murder’s lair lay a trap for him?”)

We’re all familiar with Idiot Plots, right? Sitcom episodes very, very frequently feature them, presumably so any given issue can be resolved within 22 minutes. A zany crew of misfits is hardly likely to solve the world hunger problem in that amount of time, after all. But a trumped-up conflict based upon Janie’s being afraid Fred will find out that she lied about something really, really unimportant? You can probably write the last scene right now, based upon that last sentence alone.

“Wait a gosh darned minute,” I can hear some of you say. “The very fact that Mssr. Ebert has a pet name for it reflects the fact that Idiot Plots are widely accepted in the entertainment industry. Since the reading public also watches television and movies, wouldn’t they just accept quick resolutions of conflict as the current storytelling norm? If the writing in the scene is good enough, can’t I get away with a few shortcuts?”

Well, it depends: does taking any one of those shortcuts reduce the tension? Would fleshing out a conflict increase it at a crucial point? Would, in short, the manuscript exhibit both conflict and tension on every page if you DIDN’T take those shortcuts?

Before you answer that, bear in mind that a story does not have to be inherently stupid or poorly written to feature an Idiot Plot — or a Short Road Home, for that matter. In the classic comic novel TOM JONES, the heroine, Sophia, spends half the book angry with Tom because she heard a single rumor that he had spoken of her freely in public — and so, although she has braved considerable dangers to follow him on his journey, she stomps off without bothering to ask him if the rumor were true.

And why does Sophia do this, you ask? I’d bet a nickel that Henry Fielding would have said, “Because the plot required it, silly. If she’d stuck around at the inn to ask him, the romantic conflict would have been resolved in thirty seconds flat!”

That may have been sufficient reason to satisfy an editor in the 18th century, but let me assure you that the folks working in agencies and publishing houses are made of sterner stuff these days. They’ve seen the same movies and sitcoms you have: they’re tired of Idiot Plots and Short Roads Home.

“Show me something fresh,” Millicent cries at the stacks and stacks of manuscripts on her desk, “something I haven’t seen before!”

So here’s a special message to those of you who have deliberately held your respective noses and produced Idiot Plots because you thought the market preferred them: don’t. Try adding legitimate conflict to every page instead and seeing what happens.

Well, that was easy. I guess my work here is done.

Or does a certain amount of disgruntlement linger in the air? “Well, you may not like it, Anne,” some of you mutter, “but I have seen the Short Road Home used countless times in books. How can a trait knock my manuscript out of consideration when so many prominent writers do it routinely? Clearly, someone is selling stories with these kinds of devices.”

I can easily believe that you’ve seen the Short Road Home a million times in published books, and a million and twelve times in movies — so often, in fact, that you may not have identified it as a storytelling problem per se. Allow me to suggest that the main producers of Short Roads Home, like Idiot Plots are not typically first-time screenwriters and novelists, though, but ones with already-established track records.

In other words, it would not necessarily behoove you to emulate their step-skipping ways. As a general rule, the longer ago the writer broke in and/or the more successful he has been, the greater latitude he enjoys. There’s even an industry truism about it: to break into the business, a first book has to be significantly better than what is already on the market.

To be blunt, as good is not necessarily good enough. Sorry to have to be the one to tell you that, but it’s just a fact of the literary market.

That inconvenient reality can create some tension (hooray for drama!) in a critique group made up of a mix of published and unpublished writers. Years ago, a genuinely fine writer of many published books brought my critique group a chapter in which her protagonist escaped from a choking situation by kneeing her attacker (who happened to be her boyfriend) in the groin. The attacker slunk off almost immediately, never to return; conflict resolved.

Naturally, three aspects of this scene immediately set off Short Road Home alarm bells for me. First, reflexes tend to kick in pretty darned quickly. My self-defense teacher taught me that a man will instinctively move to protect what she liked to call “his delicates,” so that area is not a good first-strike target when you were defending yourself. So why didn’t the bad guy automatically block the blow?

Second, the attacker was able to walk out of the room right away after being battered in the groin, with no recovery time. Simple playground observation tells us is seldom true in these instances.

Third — and what marked this exchange as a SRH rather than merely physically improbable — this scene ended a relationship that had been going on for two-thirds of the book. One swift jab, and both sides spontaneously agreed to call it a day.

Is it just me, or are most relationships, abusive or otherwise, just a touch harder to terminate permanently? I’ve had dentists’ offices try harder to keep in touch with me. By this story’s standards, everyone who works at my college alumni magazine is a dedicated stalker.

But because my colleague was an established author, she was able to get this SRH past her agent, although her editor did subsequently flag it. However, it’s the kind of logical problem reviewers do tend to catch, even in the work of well-known writers — and thus, it should be avoided.

But that’s not the only reason I brought up this example. I wanted you to have a vivid image in your mind the next time you are reading through your own manuscript or contest entry: if your villain doesn’t need recovery time after being kneed in the groin or the equivalent, perhaps you need to reexamine just how quickly you’re backing your protagonist out of the scene.

One true test of a SRH is if a reader is left wondering, “Gee, wouldn’t there have been consequences for what just happened? Wasn’t that resolved awfully easily?” If you are rushing your protagonist away from conflict — which, after all, is the stuff of dramatic writing — you might want to sit down and think about why.

Another good test: does the first effort the protagonist makes solve the problem? Not her first thought about it, mind you — the first time she takes an active step. If your heroine is seeking answers to a deep, dark secret buried in her past, does the very first person she asks in her hometown know the whole story — and tell her immediately? Or, still better, does a minor character volunteer his piece of her puzzle BEFORE she asks?

You think I’m kidding about that, don’t you? You don’t read many manuscripts, I take it. All too often, mystery-solving protagonists come across as pretty lousy detectives, because evidence has to fall right into their laps, clearly labeled, before they recognize it.

“Funny,” such a protagonist is prone to say, evidently looking around the house where he spent most of his formative years and raised his seventeen children for the very first time, “I never noticed that gigantic safe behind the portrait of Grandmamma before.”

Seriously, professional readers see this kind of premise all the time. An astoundingly high percentage of novels feature seekers who apparently give off some sort of pheromone that causes:

a) People who are hiding tremendous secrets to blurt them out spontaneously to someone they have never seen before;

b) Long-lost parents/siblings/children/lovers whose residence has remained a source of conjecture to even the most dedicated police detectives to turn up in an instantly-fathomable disguise toward the end of the book;

c) Flawlessly accurate local historians to appear as if by magic to fill the protagonist in on necessary backstory at precisely the point that the plot requires it;

d) Characters who have based their entire self-esteem upon suffering in silence for the past 27 years suddenly to feel the need to share their pain extremely articulately with total strangers;

e) Living or dead Native American, East Indian, and/or Asian wise persons to appear to share deep spiritual wisdom with the protagonist;

f) Diaries and photographs that have been scrupulously hidden for years, decades, or even centuries to leap out of their hiding places at exactly the right moment for the protagonist to find them, and/or

g) Birds/dogs/horses/clouds/small children/crones of various descriptions to begin to act in odd ways, nudging Our Hero/ine toward the necessary next puzzle piece as surely as if they had arranged themselves into a gigantic arrow.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for whether your story is taking the Short Road Home: at every revelation, ask yourself, “Why did that just happen?”

If your answer is, “So the story could move from Point A to Point B,” and you can’t give any solid character-driven reason beyond that, then chances are close to 100% that you have a SRH on your hands.

What should you do when you find one? Well, clear away the too-easy plot devices first, then try throwing a few metaphorical barrels in your protagonist’s path. Give him a couple of unrelated problems, for instance. Make the locals a shade more hostile, or a cohort a touch less competent. Add a subplot about a school board election. Have the old lady who has spent the last fifty years proudly clinging to letters from her long-lost love burn them ten minutes before she dies, instead of handing them over to the protagonist with an injunction to publish them with all possible speed.

Make your protagonist’s life more difficult any way you can, in short. Go ahead; s/he’ll forgive you.

On the plot level, having your protagonist track down a false lead or two is often a great place to start making his life a more interesting hell. Trial and error can be a fantastic plotting device, as well as giving you room for character development.

For some fabulous examples of this, take a gander at almost any film from the first decade of Jackie Chan’s career. In many of them, Our Hero is almost always beaten to a pulp by the villain early in the story — often more or less simultaneously with the murderer’s gloating over having killed the hero’s father/mother/teacher/best friend. (In Western action films, the same array of emotions tends to be evoked by killing the hero’s beautiful wife, who not infrequently is clutching their adorable toddler at the time.) Then we see him painfully acquiring the skills, allies, and/or resources he will need in order to defeat the villain at the end of the film.

Or check out the early HARRY POTTER books. When Harry and his friends encounter new threats, they don’t really have the life experience to differentiate between a teacher who dislikes them and someone who wants Britain to be overrun by soul-sucking wraiths. Yet miraculously, by responding to the smaller threats throughout the school year, Harry et alia learn precisely the skills they will need to battle the major threat at the end of the book.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that the plots of the first three books were essentially identical? Nice guy, that Voldemort, carefully calibrating his yearly threat to wizardkind so it tests Harry’s skills-at-that-age to the limit without ever exceeding them.

Now, strictly speaking, quite a bit of that pulp-beating and lesson-learning is extraneous to the primary conflict of the story’s ultimate goal of pitting Good Guy vs. Bad Guy. Jackie Chan and Harry could have simply marched out to meet the enemy in the first scene of the movie or book. We all know that he’s going to be taking that tromp eventually.

But half of the fun for the audience is watching the hero get to the point where he can take on the enemy successfully, isn’t it?

Remember, the goal of storytelling is not to get your protagonist from the beginning to the end of the plot as fast as possible, but to take your readers through an enjoyable, twisted journey en route. Short Roads Home are the superhighways of the literary world: a byway might not get you there as quickly, but I guarantee you, the scenery is going to be better.

Try taking your characters down the side roads every once in awhile; have ‘em learn some lessons along the way. Stretch wires along the path in front of them, so they may develop the skills not to trip. And let ‘em fail from time to time — or succeed occasionally, if your protagonist is disaster-prone. Varied outcomes are usually interesting for the reader than continual triumph or perpetual defeat.

Next time, I’m going to tackle a harder-to-spot version of the Short Road Home — because yes, Virginia, today’s was the easy one to fix. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIX: there was something about his eyes, something indescribable…



I could not allow another week to end, campers, without filling you in on yet another common professional readers’ pet peeve. Specifically, one that drives your humble servant up the wall, not only because it is ubiquitous in manuscript submissions, but because when it does appear, its context usually makes it pretty obvious that the writer who penned it considers it (a) original, (b) philosophical-sounding, or even profound, and (c) pretty darned good writing, rather than what it actually is: (a) a hackneyed phrase, (b) descriptively vague, and (c) see (a) and (b)

What is this pervasive descriptive shortcut, you cry, famous for causing gentle souls like me — and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — to rend our garments and wail when good writers foist it upon us? Let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat.

Here are five sterling examples of it, ripped from five different manuscripts. Let the garment-rending begin!

“If that’s really the way you feel, I have nothing more to say.”

Something in his eyes made Aileen pause, reconsider, turn back. “What is it you’re not saying, Jeremiah?”

He smiled, slowly, cruelly. “Ah, that would spoil the horrible surprise, wouldn’t it?”

Did anything in that exchange strike you as odd? If you are shaking your head at the computer screen, you’re not alone — most aspiring writers would see nothing wrong with it.

Millicent, to put it mildly, would. To gain a sense of why, let’s examine the phenomenon in another incarnation.

A feeling washed over Emily, strong and powerful. She couldn’t have put it into words, even to her closest friends, but it shook her to the core of her being.

“Yes!” she cried, startling everyone in the courtroom. “I shot the sheriff!” She turned to her incredulous husband. “But I swear to you, Archibald, I did not shoot the deputy.”

See any similarity between those last two examples? Millicent would. She’d also spot a definite familial resemblance between both of them and this:

Oliver walked her forward, keeping his hands over her eyes. Some ten feet of awkward stumbling later, he gently removed them. “Look.”

Perdita gasped. A vista of indescribable beauty spread out before her. “Oh, my! Why hadn’t I noticed this before?”

“Beats me.” Oliver returned to his game of solitaire. “I would have thought the Grand Canyon was kind of hard to miss.”

Starting to feel an inkling of Millicent’s well-justified irritation? One more time, maestro, please.

The audience swayed on its feet, blasted by the power of Mervin’s voice. It was not what he said, precisely, or even the words he chose to express it that moved them so strongly: it was an indefinable manner, a confidence that told them as surely as if he had shouted it that this man was telling the truth.

It’s begun to feel redundant, hasn’t it, even though I assured you at the outset that each of these examples came from a different source? Welcome to the world of the agency screener: if 35 out of the 127 first pages Millicent reads today contain the same descriptive shortcut — certainly within the bounds of possibility, with a trope this popular — Instance No. 34 is going to seem as repetitious as if it had appeared on the same page as Instances Nos. 28-33.

“Not this again!” she mutters, rending her aforementioned garments. “Show me something original, I beg you!”

We could feel smug, of course, that Millicent has just fallen into precisely the same phrasing trap to which she is objecting: the writer would be entirely justified in inquiring what precisely she had in mind. We could also point out that it isn’t particularly fair to the writer of Instance No. 30 that a professional reader might well have been more annoyed by the sight of this descriptive shortcut than she was by Instance No. 2. And who could fail to feel for the aspiring writer who decided that Instance No. 34 is just what his page 1 needed but did not call upon the descriptive device again for another 273 pages being treated as precisely as repetitious as the writer who elected to place Instances Nos. 5-9 all on the same page?

Oh, you don’t think that really happens? Au contraire, mes amis. I can beat that record in two sentences flat.

There it was again, that odd, vague sensation. It told Erminia without words that something, somewhere, somehow, was wrong.

What sensation?” Millicent demands, ripping her cuffs to shreds. “What is Erminia feeling, precisely? What does she think is wrong, and for what possible narrative reason has the writer chosen to hide the content of her fears from the reader?”

You must admit, these are perfectly reasonable questions. After all, it’s the writer’s job to describe what’s going on in sufficient detail for the reader to be able to picture it, not the reader’s job to fill in the details when the writer prefers to remain vague.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from a hefty minority of the submissions that cross Millicent’s desk on a daily basis. Apparently, there are a whole lot of aspiring writers who believe — wrongly, according to the overwhelming majority of professional readers — that leaving crucial sensations, thoughts, intuitions, and even physical descriptions to the reader’s imagination is not only permissible, but stylish. It’s hard to blame them, really: unless one happened to have had the privilege of reading many manuscripts or contest entries back to back, one wouldn’t have any idea just how common this descriptive shortcut is.

Trust me, it decorates many, many first pages. And contest entries. And dialogue. You’d be astonished at how many novels (and memoirs, actually) open with this well-worn trope — it’s an extremely popular (and thus Millicent-annoying) means of establishing suspense from line 1.

A noise came from behind her, causing Jemima to jump. Silly to be so nervous, when she had been through these woods more times than she could count. Admittedly, she had never been carrying quite this heavy a load of goodies for her grandmother, bread and sausage and pears and three whole roasted chickens.

There it was again. Something was following her; she was sure of it now.

Already, Millicent’s collar is in tatters. “What noise?” she wails, beginning on her right sleeve. “What did it sound like? What does she think is following her, and upon what auditory clues is she basing that conclusion. Also, what do three ands in a row add to this description that would not be adequately conveyed by the grammatically correct bread, sausage, pears, and three whole roasted chickens?”

Does the general pallor that just spread over half my readership’s faces indicate that some of you were under the impression that featuring this kind of and repetition within a single sentence was (a) stylish, (b) technically correct, (c) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once every 50 pages or so, (d) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than every 50 lines or so, (e) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once per paragraph, or (f) all of the above? I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, then.

It’s even worse news if you happen to subscribe to the rather pervasive school of thought that holds that regardless of whether the point of view is in the first, second, or third person — heck, even if it is from the omniscient perspective of Somebody Up There who can pry into every character’s mind — it is always an effective writing technique to make the narrative voice sound like someone speaking out loud in casual conversation in the year in which the manuscript was written. While this can work beautifully for novels and memoirs set in the recent past and written in the first person, chatty contemporary spoken word styles will not fit comfortably with every storyline.

It’s especially jarring in stories set in eras of the past when people spoke more formally — which is to say pretty much anytime prior to the last decade. Every era has its own slang, of course, but there’s no denying that the vagueness of modern conversation would have puzzled Jane Austen exceedingly, either in dialogue or narration.

Everybody knows that a single man who happens to be rich must be looking to get married. Or something.

Whatever you do or don’t know about his feelings or beliefs, no sooner does he set foot in a neighborhood than everyone decides he belongs to one of their daughters. Whatever!

“May one inquire,” Miss Austen demands, ripping her delicate handkerchief in long, clean lines, “to what this author is referring? Why has he elected to dispense with subject-object agreement, that well-belovèd and inflexible rule denoting that the subject of a sentence — in this case, everyone — should agree in number with its object. I would lay it down as a general principle, then, that everyone and his daughter would always be preferred by right-thinking readers to everyone and their daughters. And what, if I may be so bold as to ask, is the significance of whatever in this context?”

Search me, Aunt Jane. Millicent and I have been wondering about that, too.

Another popular species of vagueness in openings — also frequently born, I suspect, out of a desire to create suspense by omission, rather than via a detailed depiction of an inherently tense situation — is a little something we pros like to call the unnamed protagonist cliché. Tellingly, it is also known by another moniker: she ran through the forest…

Oh, you may laugh, but you wouldn’t believe how many manuscripts begin rather like this:

She fled through the forest, her long, red hair whipping against the bundle she hid ineffectually under her cloak in an attempt to shield it from the driving sleet. All she knew was that something was pursuing her, something terrible, something violent. Something that had forced her to leave behind everything she had ever known. Something that had changed her life forever.

Suddenly, a noise came from behind her…

By this point in the afternoon’s reading, poor Millicent’s wardrobe is in tatters. “Who is this woman, and why should I care that her life has changed forever when the narrative hasn’t yet told me anything about her previous life? From what is she fleeing? Am I supposed to think that the bundle is a baby, or am I only thinking that because it was a baby in 15 out of the last 37 similar openings? And why oh why not just tell me what’s chasing her?”

Again, perfectly legitimate questions — but not, it’s probably safe to assume, reactions the author would prefer this opening to elicit from a screener. Or indeed, any reader. Presumably, the writer is hoping that lay reader would read the opening above and murmur, “Heavens, will she get away? What is pursing her? Is the baby alive?” — and be spurred by those questions to keep reading.

Millicent, however, is unlikely to scan even one more line; had I mentioned how frequently she is treated to this kind of false suspense? “Is there any particular reason that I’m being kept in the dark about this broad’s name?” she murmurs, the frayed edges of her garments wafting gently in the air conditioned breeze. “Is it a state secret? Is it really my job to read on until the narrative deigns to tell me something that basic? Or maybe this writer has seen too many movies; in a book written in the third person, you don’t need to wait until someone addresses the protagonist to find out her name.”

Trust me, you’re better off identifying your characters right away.

A few valiant specificity-haters have had their hands in the air for paragraphs on end. “But Anne,” they point out, “in that last example, the writer was obviously just trying to start the story with a bang. You must admit that there’s no shortage of action in that opening, nor is there any serious question about what the book is about: the story that follows is obviously going to concern this woman, her bundle, and all of that red hair in their collective attempt to reach safety from the unnamed threat. Millicent can’t deny that it is exciting!”

Actually, she could — you would be astonished how efficacious sheer repetition can be in sapping the thrill from an exciting-but-common opening scene. And let’s face it, the long, red hair cliché and the everything she had ever known exaggeration would not exactly stun Millicent with their originality, either. Fleeing maidens habitually forget to tie back their long red or blonde hair while they are leaving everything behind, burning their bridges and changing their lives forever, whilst fleeing unnamed pursuers.

Those of us born brunette and/or bob our hair should be deeply grateful, evidently. An alien from the Planet Targ dropped into Millicent’s desk chair to form opinions of life on earth from manuscript submissions would undoubtedly conclude that we dark-haired females alone remain safe at home, rather than being chased by noises offstage into some conveniently nearby woods.

One more omnipresent variety of rend-inducing narrative vagueness, then I shall sign off for an evening of peaceful brunette serenity. See if anything in the following little gem strikes you as a potential Millicent-irritant.

As smoke curled up Blair’s nostrils, the irreality of the situation smote his consciousness head-on. It was like a movie: he simply observed his nearest and dearest go up in flames. As much as he longed to change the channel, he couldn’t.

Actually, there were two classic pet peeves cunningly concealed in that compact paragraph; did you catch them? First, the it was just like a movie trope has been so widely used in submissions since the 1920s that even the most recently hired Millicent is likely to regard it as a cliché at this late date. A more experienced Millicent might also regard it as the narrative shorthand it is: rather than showing readers precisely how and why Blair experienced the situation as divorced from his real life, the narrative not only chooses to tell us in just a few words what it was like — the writer is presuming that every reader will know precisely what she means by it was like a movie.

In essence, then, the writer is expecting the reader to guess in what specific ways Blair’s experience was filmic. And we all know how Millicent feels about that species of narrative expectation, right?

“Is it my job to provide the necessary description?” she fumes, taking a stapler to her hitherto undamaged skirt. “Isn’t it the writer’s responsibility to, well, write?”

Come on, admit it: she has a point. She would also be well within her rights to call out the narrative for its other professional reader-piquer, the mixed metaphor.

Oh, you didn’t catch it? Although we are told that Blair’s current situation is like a movie, he longs to change the channel as if he were watching television.

Someone didn’t reread this submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, clearly.

What’s the cumulative moral here? Select your words with care — remember, all Millicent, or any reader, actually knows about the scene you are presenting is what you describe on the page. Yes, it’s undoubtedly quicker and more convenient to allow the reader to fill in the minutiae, but if you resort to vagueness or shorthand, how can you be sure that every reader will come up with the specifics you intend?

Or to put it another way: isn’t your creative vision worth conveying in detail?

And for heaven’s sake, tempestuous redheads and blondes-in-peril, grab a barrette or a baseball cap on your way out the door. Perhaps without all of that hair flying about in your eyes, you can finally get a good look at who or what is pursuing you.

Maybe then you could describe it to us. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XI: the many advantages of straying off the beaten path, or, did I drift off again?

I’m a bit drowsy today, campers; blame the lowering skies of a gray Seattle spring day. All I want to do is curl up with a cat or two and a new release by a promising first-time author. I would even feel virtuous doing that, because, let’s face it, if we all want to live in a world that’s open to giving a fresh voice a break, it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep buying debut novels.

Oh, you hadn’t thought about it in those terms? Trust me, agents and editors do. They have to: those books are their bread and butter. And if you hope someday for a book to be your bread and butter, getting into the habit of supporting first- and second-time authors in your chosen book category is the single best way to encourage the agent and editor of your dreams to keep an open mind toward books like yours.

That’s more than enough moral reasoning for a sleepy day, I think. Since I don’t have Millicent’s ever-present too-hot latte in my hand, I’m going to devote today’s post to the kinds of faux pas that tempt her to keep downing them: opening pages that lull her into a deep, refreshing slumber. Or at least a jaw-cracking yawn.

I know, I know –-this one couldn’t possibly apply to any of my readers, all of whom are as scintillating as scintillating can be, both on and off paper. Yet strange to report, agents, editors, and their respective screeners routinely report finding many submissions snore-inducing. In fact, slow openings are common enough in submissions that no discussion of notorious pet peeves would be complete without some serious discussion of them.

Thus Millicent’s oft-burnt tongue: she’s just trying to stay awake. Not only due to the dreaded-yet-ubiquitous slow opening — you’d be astonished at how many manuscripts don’t really get going for 4, 5, or 23 pages — but also because once one has been reading submissions or contest entries for a while, the sheer repetition of certain premises begins to…be…

Oh, I’m sorry: did I nod off for a moment?

Frankly, I do not think we writers talk enough amongst ourselves about either of these widespread narrative problems. There’s a awfully good reason for that: since writers commit to spend months or years with a story, we’re usually pretty taken with the story. And nothing renders a section of prose more interesting than agonizing over every word choice, sentence structure, and comma.

So who can blame us if we don’t really notice that nothing much happens on page 1? Or Chapter 1? Or — and this is even harder for a self-editor to catch — if our openings employ similar narrative tricks to hook the reader’s attention and/or stray into plot territory that Millicent has already seen claimed by a few dozen aspiring writers within the last week?

Given how frequently similar tactics and premises crop up in submissions — and how very frequently those of us who read for a living complain about it to one another in private — it’s astonishing how infrequently agents, editors, or even writing coaches bring these problems to aspiring writers’ attention. Perk up your ears the next time you’re at a writers’ conference: when the pros give advice about how to guide manuscripts through the submission process relatively unscathed, the rather sensible admonition don’t bore me is very seldom heard.

Perhaps we can chalk this up to a natural reluctance to admit in a room stocked to the brim with the authors of tomorrow just how little they read of most manuscripts before rejecting them: as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while already know, the average submission gets rejected on page 1; one doesn’t hear that mentioned much at conferences, either. And I can easily imagine how an agent might feel a tad sheepish about implying in front of a group of total strangers that he has an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners. Or that on certain mornings, the length of time it takes to bore a screener is substantially shorter than others, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control.

Hey, they don’t call it the city that never sleeps for nothing, you know. But heaven forfend that an agent should march into an agents’ forum the morning after a long night of the kind of conferring that often happens in the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America and say, “Look, I’m going to level with you. If I’m dragging into the office on three hours of sleep, your first page is going to have to be awfully darned exciting for me even to contemplate turning to the second. Do yourself a favor, and send me an eye-opening page 1, will ya? Now where is that conference volunteer with my COFFEE?”

On an entirely unrelated note, had I mentioned to those of you planning to give pitches at upcoming conferences that you might not want the first appointment of the day? Or one of the first several? (You didn’t hear it from me, but at the writers’ conference thrown annually in my neck of the woods, enough conferring goes on that on one memorable occasion, only two of the scheduled dozen or so pitch-hearers showed up for the scheduled morning pitch sessions. If we are to believe the agent who is still complaining about no one having told him that he could have slept in that day.)

Obviously, there’s nothing a writer can do about it if his page 1 — or morning pitch, for that matter — is being judged by someone in desperate need of a gallon of coffee and a B-12 shot, but one can maximize the probability of being the manuscript that makes Millicent’s eyes fly open. One of the best ways of doing this is to avoid having your page 1 read like 4 out of the 16 first pages she has already screened that morning. Or like a third of what she has read in the last week. Even an innocuous writing or formatting problem may begin to annoy a professional reader after she has seen it 700 times.

In response to what half of you just thought very loudly: no, someone who has not had the experience of reading that many first pages probably would not know what those often-repeated problems are. (Although keeping up with new releases in one’s chosen book category would be an excellent means of learning what is and isn’t considered an outdated type of opening.) But yes, the pros honestly do believe that a serious writer would have taken the time to learn her craft well enough to avoid falling into these traps.

Oh, you thought I had devoted so many weeks of posts to common page 1 pet peeves because I liked chatting about them? I’m just trying to give you a peep into what it’s like to hold Millicent’s job.

They also expect, and with greater justification, that a talented writer with a strong premise won’t bore them before the bottom of page 1 — which is not by any means as easy as it sounds. These people see a LOT of plots, after all; if a Millicent is experienced enough to be able to tell from the first reference to a character’s hard childhood that he’s going to turn out to be the perpetrator of those seemingly random murders of everyone who was mean to him as a kid, it’s going to be difficult to keep her interested in the mystery.

And if that reference crops up on page 1 — as happens astonishingly often with plot flares — can you really blame her for muttering, “Well, I’ve seen this before; I want to see something fresh. Next!”

Okay, so maybe you can blame her, if it happens to be your submission over which she is muttering like one of the witches in Macbeth. But you can see why the sight of a genuinely fresh take on a well-worn premise might fill her with gleeful hope, can’t you?

Nor is predictability the only reason she might have the opposite reaction. Over the years, agents and their screeners have been able to come up with many, many reasons that manuscripts bore them, and almost as many euphemisms. Trying to differentiate the various sub-species reminds me of that often-repeated truism about Arctic peoples having many words for different types of snow: to someone not accustomed to observing the variations during the length of a long, long winter, it all kind of looks white and slushy.

But that’s not going to stop me from trying, I notice. Here, for your anxious perusal, are the most common reasons professional reasons give for nodding off over a submission.

Not enough happens on page 1.

Where’s the conflict?

The story is not exciting enough to hold my interest.

The story appears to be boring.

There’s too much repetition on pg. 1 (!)

The narrative takes too many words to tell the reader what happened.

The writing is dull.

Now, to those of us not lucky enough to be reading a hundred submissions a week, that all sounds like snow, doesn’t it? Millicent, however, is in a line of work where she actually does have to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between not exciting and boring.

Which is to say: all seven of these actually do mean different things, so let me run through them in order, so you may see why each is specifically annoying, even if you weren’t out dancing until 4 a.m. All of them are subjective, of course, so their definitions will vary from reader to reader, but here goes.

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

That startled some of you out of your late-afternoon doze, didn’t it? “But Anne,” past recipients of open with conflict admonitions point out, rubbing your blurry eyes, “I’ve always heard that the point of a hook is to draw the reader into the story. I’ve literally never heard anyone say that it mattered whether the opening was integrally related to the central conflict of the book.”

Well, I’m saying it now, and for a very good strategic reason. Remember earlier in this series, when I urged you to sit in the chair of that burnt-tongued screener, racing through manuscripts, knowing that she will have to write a summary of any story she recommends?

Think about it for a moment: how affectionate is she likely to feel toward a story that doesn’t give her a solid sense of what the story is about on page 1? Or what kind of novel it is?

You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — by how many fiction submissions begin with frenetic action that has virtually nothing to do with the plot that follows, or that is wildly out of proportion with the action in the rest of the book. Because so many aspiring writers have heard that they should open their novels with conflict, Millicent’s very, very used to first pages that splatter the reader with blood or appall her with explicit violence. That alone won’t necessarily grab her.

Violence isn’t the only kind of conflict, after all. Nor is argument. Like so many other one-line pieces of writing advice, open with conflict is widely misinterpreted to mean a novel must open with a life-threatening (or life-ending) scene. While that may well work in a thriller, in most fiction book categories, it would be inappropriate.

So what kind of conflict do the pros have in mind when they spout this aphorism? Conflict between the protagonist and other characters, usually, or between the protagonist and a situation. A scene where the main characters disagree about how to solve the central problem of the plot. A disagreement between lovers. A winsome child abruptly noticing that her beloved cocker spaniel is missing.

Or, yes, a rural policeman stumbling upon some body parts, if that is genre-appropriate. Just make sure to pick a scene that is representative of both the story you’re telling and the prevailing tone of your book category.

If you aren’t sure about the latter, I have to ask: have you been reading enough recent releases of first- and second-time authors in your book category? (You didn’t think I’d tumbled off that high horse, did you?)

While you are conducting that little piece of self-examination, let’s move on to the next objection on our list, where’s the conflict? This cri de coeur gained considerable currency in the 1990s, when writing gurus began touting using the old screenwriter’s trick of utilizing a Jungian heroic journey to structure the story arc of a novel. Within that journey, the protagonist starts out in the real world, not to get a significant challenge until the end of Act I, many novels put the conflict on hold, so to speak, until the first call comes. (If you’re really interested in learning more about the hero’s journey structure, let me know, and I’ll do a post on it. But there are a LOT of writing advice books out there that will tell you this is the only way to structure a story. Basically, all you need to know for the sake of my argument here is that this ubiquitous advice has resulted in all of us seeing many, many movies where the character learns an important life lesson on page 72 of the script.)

While this can be an effective way to structure a book, there’s no denying that tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter. I find this phenomenon fascinating, because most people’s everyday lives are simply loaded of conflict.

Oh, you’ve never had a coworker who got on your nerves?

Even if you want to start out in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, make an effort to keep that hung-over screener awake: ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1. Even if that conflict needs to be purely internal: Arnold cringed at the sound of plastic slapping into metal. Would Bruce never learn to treat the coffeemaker with respect? is, after all, as fraught with tension as Arnold stirred his coffee absently, unaware that Bruce had snuck up behind him, a filter full of steaming used grounds in his hand. They’re merely introducing different kinds of narratives.

Perhaps the best way to figure out how much and what kind of conflict is most appropriate to open your novel is to think about why writing teachers came up with the open with conflict aphorism in the first place: the many, many manuscripts that begin in a mundane present, introducing the protagonist and her environment before the central conflict of the book arrives to trouble her life. Millicent can’t even begin to count the number of page 1s she’s seen within the last month that began with something like this:

Arianna gazed out upon the blue-purple twilight, clutching her ever-present cup of tea. Peaceful tonight on Skullcracker Island, the perfect invitation to curl up by the fire with a good book. Spot rubbed purringly against her legs.

She bent to rub the furry orange head of her most recent shelter find. For a cat the vet had said was suffering heavily from post-traumatic stress disorder, the one-eared beast had certainly become affectionate quickly. “Don’t worry, Spot,” she crooned. “There will be a nice, warm lap for you soon.”

Zzzz…oh, did I miss something?

There’s nothing wrong with this as writing (although rubbed purringly might strike Millicent as rather purplish prose). In fact, it might work very well in the middle of the novel (if for some reason it were necessary to impress the reader with a great deal of information about that cat within a startlingly short stretch of text, and by telling, rather than showing).

But come on, admit it — even if the next line were

The axe severed her hand before the cat had finished rubbing against it.

you might have stopped reading before you got to it, mightn’t you? So would Millicent, in all probability. As a general rule of thumb (severed or not), if the first paragraph of a manuscript does not contain either conflict appropriate to the book’s category or a strong, nicely-described image, it may strike a professional reader as opening too slowly.

That got some goats out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” openers-with-conflict protest in injured tones, “I’ve always heard that I had to work conflict onto the first page, not into the first paragraph. Consequently, I’ve been making sure that my submissions feature a startling last line on the bottom of the first page, to tempt Millicent to turn to page 2. Are you telling me that she might not have been reading that far, since my first three paragraphs depict my protagonist chatting with her mother on the phone about nothing in particular?”

In a word, yes. And in several words: what on earth made you think that chatting about nothing in particular — your words, not mine — constituted opening with action?

Or, to answer your question on a more practical level: do you really want to make Millicent wait until the bottom of the page before depicting any relevant conflict? When she might not yet have had her morning latte? Or have slept more than a couple of hours last night?

The next two rejection reasons on our list — the story is not exciting enough to hold my interest and the story appears to be boring, respectively — are fairly self-explanatory on their faces, but usually refer to different types of text. A not exciting story is one where the characters are well-drawn and the situation is interesting, but either the stakes are not high enough for the characters or — wait for it — the pace moves too slowly.

On the bright side, having your story called not exciting by an agent is reason to be hopeful: if you tightened it up and made the characters care more about what was going on, it could be compelling reading. A boring story, on the other hand, is devoid of any elements that might hold a droopy screener’s interest for more than a paragraph or two.

Again, I doubt any of my readers produce boring stories, but it’s always worthwhile to run your submission under an impartial first reader’s eyes, just to make sure. The same diagnostic tool can work wonders for a not-exciting opening, too: there’s no better tonic for a low-energy opening than being run by a particularly snappish critique group.

Perhaps one that hasn’t had its morning latte yet, either. You might want to try scheduling your next meeting at 5 a.m.

The final three — too much repetition on pg. 1, taking too many words to tell the reader what happened, and the writing is dull — also respond well to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. As we have discussed earlier in this series, agents have good reason to avoid redundant manuscripts: editors are specifically trained to regard repetition as a species of minor plague, to be stamped out like vermin with all possible speed.

Ditto with excess verbiage and lackluster writing: publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them.

The best way to determine whether your submission has any of these problems is –- please chant it with me now — to read your opening page IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. If the page’s vocabulary isn’t broad enough, or if it contains sentences of Dickensian length, believe me, it will be far more evident out loud than on the printed page. Or on your computer screen.

I’m afraid that you’ll have to trust me on this one. I would give you some concrete examples, but I feel a well-deserved nap coming on. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part V: oh, look, Tweetie, a plot twist just fell into my mouth

bizarre crow

Had you noticed, campers, what a high percentage of the examples I’ve used throughout this series of prose that tends to irritate professional readers — such as agents, editors, contest judges, and our old nemesis, Millicent the agency screener — has consisted of dialogue? That’s not entirely coincidental: as we have seen in recent posts, an astoundingly high percentage of dialogue in submissions just seems to lie there on the page, not so much moving the plot along, intensifying the central conflict, or helping enrich the reader’s understanding of the characters as taking up space.

Why? Because in real life, most dialogue exists for its own sake — and many writers are enamored in, as ’twere, holding the mirror up to nature.

That doesn’t mean, though, that just transcribing what actual human beings might actually say if they were transported into a fictional situation would make good reading. Frankly, quite a bit of what happens in real life would not make good reading. Virginia Woolf may well have been right when she wrote, “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction,” but has anybody ever met a reader who longs for nothing more than a transcript of reality?

Let’s face it, reality is not a particularly good storyteller. It has neither taste, discretion, nor even a sense of the plausible.

Take, for instance, the photograph above. When I first spotted this wacky crow outside my studio window, I feared he had a broken neck. Ten minutes later, however, he startled me horribly by switching to this dignified pose:

bizarre crow 4

Followed closely by this equally majestic stance:

bizarre crow 2

He seemed to find this last position the most comfortable: he remained like that for the better part of an hour, squawking irritably at passing birds, presumably because they did not spontaneously drop food into his waiting gullet.

Now, nobody can tell me that this behavior would be plausible if it were presented as fiction, or even memoir. Oh, there’s no doubt that this series of events actually happened: I saw it with my own weary eyes (as, apparently, did my camera). Several readers wrote in the last time I ran these photos –hey, knowing a good metaphor when I see one is part of my job — to tell me that the gymnastics above are quite normal bird behavior; no birds were harmed in the production of these photographs.

But just because something happens in real life doesn’t mean it will come across as realistic on the page. Come on, admit it: no matter how well I told this story, you wouldn’t have believed the rubber-necking crow had I not produced photographic evidence. Nor would piling on specific details necessarily have helped the description: had Tweetie been a small bird, of a size and shape one might expect from a fledgling recently tumbled from a nearby nest, this behavior might have made more sense, but our hero was behemoth, a giant among crows.

Tweetie should, in short, have known better than to act in this extraordinary manner, if he wanted me to write about him plausibly. And so should protagonists who go around asking other characters questions.

I can already feel some of you smiling. Yes, long-time members of the Author! Author! community, I am about to take you on a wild ride through my least favorite type of dialogue and thus favorite kind of expendable text: the unconvincing interview scene.

Frankly, these drive me nuts — and I’m not the only professional reader who feels this way about them.

Don’t get me wrong — interview scenes in and of themselves are not inherently annoying. Fortunate, given that one character trying to elicit information from another is one of the most common type of dialogue scene. The problem arises when the protagonist is a really, really poor interviewer.

Oh, you may laugh, but you would be surprised at how often Millicent the agency screener grinds her teeth over this kind of dialogue. A protagonist who doesn’t ask good questions — or necessary follow-up questions — can slow a novel, memoir, or creative nonfiction book to a limping crawl.

Already, a forest of hands has shot up out there in the ether. “But Anne,” many a well-intentioned constructor of dialogue protests, and who can blame them? “Why does it matter how skilled a questioner the protagonist is, unless s/he is a journalist of some sort? My main character is Everyman/woman/bird: part of his/her/its complicated appeal is that he/she/it has no specialized knowledge or skills at all. That way, every reader can identify with George/Fiona/Tweetie.”

The short, snide answer to that, should you care to know it, is that most Everyman characters have a very specific point of view and skill set: their authors’. That means the knowledge base and skill set is not only culturally-specific, but rooted in the worldview of a particular social class, gender, and even region of the country. While there’s nothing wrong with that — specificity is almost always more interesting for the reader than generality — an astonishingly high percentage of these protagonists share an apparent reluctance to ask questions germane to the plots they inhabit. Or even ones that any reasonably intelligent person in that situation might think to ask.

No, they prefer to sit there, beaks ajar and aloft, waiting for the necessary tidbits to tumble into their gullets. While yours truly, Millicent, and other souls lucky enough to read manuscripts for a living drum our fingers, tap our feet, stare out the window, and indulge in other clichés geared toward indicating boredom.

Move on with it already, Tweetie. The twisted-neck thing was cute the first time it happened, but you can hardly expect it to entertain readers for an entire book.

Unfortunately for passive protagonists everywhere, interview scenes are indigenous to almost all fiction and quite a bit of memoir and creative nonfiction as well. Many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know — and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know. Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance. Why everyone in Anytown, USA avoids that creepy-looking house at the end of Terror Lane. Or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon.

Just trying to keep those bird-lovers interested.

I hear those of you who do not write mystery, horror, or suspense heaving a vast collective sigh of relief, but don’t get too complacent: anyone who writes dialogue is prone to running afoul (get it?) of this notorious professional readers’ pet peeve. How so? Well, think about it: most plots feature at least one interview scene, regardless of book category.

Few human beings currently inhabiting the earth’s crust are omniscient, after all; an extremely high percentage of plots involve the protagonist(s) trying to find something out. Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” aren’t just dialogue filler — typically, they call for character-developing and/or plot-satisfying responses. In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

The big questions can be unspoken, too, of course. Why does everyone in town refuse to talk about the day the old mill burned down? Why does Uncle Mortimer limp? Why is the boss suddenly acting so standoffish? What’s in that casserole, anyway? Why don’t you love me like you used to do, when my hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue?

In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters. And those other characters may not want to cough it up. Indeed, it’s not all that uncommon for a minor character’s entire reason for being revolves around not just blurting out That Big Secret the first time somebody asks.

Which renders it something of a surprise to Millicent and myself when such characters’ first reaction to a protagonist’s walking into that crowded bar/deserved archive/long-defunct mine is to start singing like a canary. Often before the protagonist has asked a single probing question. Villains are particularly prone to such bird songs: “Before I pull this switch and send 150,000 volts through you, Patsy, perhaps you would like to know my evil plan, presumably so you will have something to chat about when you are waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. It all began seventeen years ago, when my also-evil mother…”

We all know the song, right?

Yes, this phenomenon is partially a function of insufficient character development for antagonists — you wouldn’t believe how often the bad guy’s sole motivation is that he is (wait for it) bad — as well as a writerly tendency that we have already discussed in this series, the urge to fall into clichés. (Oh, you didn’t mentally add Mr. Bond to that last villainous speech?) On a narrative level, though, protagonists often have a nasty habit of slowing down the collective search for truth by neglecting to promising lines of questioning, failing to follow up on something just said, or just plain being too polite to ask the questions the reader is dying to ask herself, but can’t.

The result? Tweetie standing there with his beak open, waiting for some passerby to drop something yummy into it.

Nor is this tendency peculiar to fiction. Memoir protagonists often avoid asking even the most relevant and obvious questions for pages, nay, chapters on end.

Of course, this, too, might well be an instance of art whipping out that mirror to nature again; we writers are not known for being big confrontation-seekers, as a group. Real life does often afford the memoirist an opportunity to change the subject.

Why, the last time I wrote about this particular manuscript megaproblem, the Fates trundled up with a wheelbarrow and dumped an excellent example right at my feet, the kind of real-life incident that novelists and memoirists alike love to incorporate into their narratives. See if you can catch the interviewing problem.

Pansy story 1
Pansy story 2

Did you catch it? If you pointed out the extremely common narrative gaffe of an actual event’s being substantially funnier to live through than to read, give yourself a gold star for the day. If, on the other hand, it occurred to you that I told the story, as so many recorders of real life do, as if any reader’s reactions would have been identical to mine in the moment, award yourself another.

Memoirs and fictionalized reality frequently suffer from both of these defects; the sheer frequency with which they turn up in submissions virtually guarantees that they would have over time joined the ranks of Millicent’s pet peeves. And why? Haul out your hymnals and sing along with me, campers: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will be interesting, amusing, or even worth recording on the page.

But these were not the only weaknesses you spotted in this narrative, I’m guessing If you blurted out something about my having told what happened, instead of showing it — an interpretive dance could cover a lot of different types of action, right? — be mighty pleased with yourself. If you said that I was attributing thoughts to Pansy that the first-person narrator of this piece could not possibly have heard without being as clairaudient as Joan of Arc, pat yourself on the back yet again.

Good job. Now that we have diagnosed these problems, what would be the single easiest way to revise this scene to render it more engaging to the reader? That’s right: by making the narrator a better interviewer.

Had I asked more insightful questions of either myself (why did the song disturb me so much? Did it have something to do with the time I heard an entire van full of 11-year-olds sing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the top of their lungs on my first day as an after school program volunteer?) or of Pansy (did she realize that adults associate that particular kind of music with something she’s not supposed to know about for years to come, or had she simply heard in on a commercial? Was she trying to provoke a specific reaction in me, her uncle, the gerbil?), I could have rendered the situation more dramatic while simultaneously doing more character development. Had I written the dialogue with an eye to increasing conflict, I might even have avoided that hackneyed scene ender that we’ve all seen so often in TV shows and movies, the protagonist’s running out of the situation in order to avoid conflict that would have been interesting on the page.

Some of you are just dying to register an objection, aren’t you? “But wait — you were reproducing real-life dialogue,” all of you would-be objectors point out. “Wouldn’t the scene necessarily be less realistic if you changed it?”

In a word, no. In several words, not if I rewrite the scene well.

As I’ve observed many times before and shall no doubt again, just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will automatically read realistically on the page. It’s the writer’s job to craft dialogue — or any scene, for that matter — so it’s plausible, not the reader’s to make allowances because the writer observed someone saying or doing what ended up on the page. Besides, real-life dialogue is often dull.

That’s especially true in interview scenes, incidentally: few standard narrative devices tend to annoy a Millicent who has been at it for a while than a protagonist — or narrator — who is a lousy interviewer.

Why might that be the case, other than the fact that lousy interviewers are as common in submissions as crows on metropolitan power lines? (Birds of a feather actually do flock together, evidently.) Let’s take a gander at the poor interviewer in his natural habitat, shall we?

“I swear,” Tyrone claimed, one hand over his heart and the other hovering over the graying head of his sainted mother, “that’s all I know. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”

Antoinette drummed her long piano-player’s fingers on the rich mahogany tabletop. Her every instinct told her that he was not telling the truth — or at least not the whole truth. The very fate of Western civilization rested upon her solving this puzzle before midnight tomorrow, and this one well-protected, diamond-encrusted lady obviously held the key.

She stood and offered her hand to the old woman. “Charming to meet you, Mrs. Power. You must come to my house for brunch sometime. I hate to boast, but I make extraordinary deviled eggs.”

Tyrone detached their clasped hands so quickly that Antoinette’s hand burned. “Must you go so soon? Here’s your coat — I’ll walk you down to the cab stand on the corner before I release the vicious dogs that prowl our estate at night to discourage post-midnight visitors.”

Antoinette fumed, but what could she do? “Goodbye,” she called back from the hallway.

“Don’t forget to sprinkle your eggs with paprika,” Mrs. Power bellowed after her. “I love paprika.”

Why might an exchange like this prove a touch irritating to a professional reader? For the same reasons that my anecdote about Pansy might strike ‘em as underdeveloped: because a poor interview scene represents a lost opportunity for intriguing conflict — rich potential for drama presented, then abandoned by the narrative for no apparent reason.

Okay, so that’s not quite fair: writers often have what they consider pretty strong reasons for rushing their protagonists away from conflict. Trying to make them more likeable to the reader by demonstrating common courtesy, for instance, or forcing them to work harder to learn the Awful Truth. Or attempting to hide said Awful Truth from the reader until your amateur sleuth’s in Chapter 38, the one that begins, “Here’s what happened…”

Or wanting to stretch the novel from 127 pages to 253. Regardless of the motive, this practice tends to render those of us who read manuscripts for a living a tad impatient.

Why? Well, in a first-person or tight third-person narrative, the protagonist is the reader’s surrogate in ferreting out information; as a reader, it’s not as though I can jump into the storyline, grab a microphone and tape recorder, and start grilling the usual suspects. After a while, an inept interviewer can start to annoy the reader simply by being a poor tour guide to the plot.

I sense some uncomfortable squirming out there. “But Anne,” I hear some of you suspense-lovers cry, “a too-good interview could give the entire plot away! What about building tension?”

You have a point, suspense-mongers: revealing the truth in slow increments is indeed one way to create suspense. It’s such a fine point, in fact, that I’m going to spend most of the rest of the post talking about how to do just that.

Before I do, however, allow me to observe that making information unavailable through the simple expedient of not having the protagonist ask anyone about it for 200 pages tends to fall very, very flat with readers. And not only professional ones like Millicent, who tends to harbor a well-founded objection to narratives that toy with her too much. Especially if that plot twist is a fairly common one, like the guy who had the bad childhood’s turning out to be the serial killer. (Who saw that coming?) Or that the model for the portrait that someone keeps breaking into the county museum to snatch is now that grand old lady who controls city politics from behind the scenes. (Ditto.) Or that the murder victim whose body we didn’t see isn’t actually dead. (Zzzz…oh, did I miss my cue?)

Even if the plot twists in question are not ones that we have seen over and over again (the couple who keep bickering eventually falls in love? Alert the media!), Millicent tends to become impatient if an obvious question is not answered during those 200 pages. She and I even have a label for this particular pet peeve: false suspense.

“Okay,” plot twist-delayers the world over concede, “I can see where a professional reader might develop a distaste for being strung along. It’s Millicent’s job to whip through those submissions quickly, after all. But artistically, I still think it’s justified — wouldn’t most lay readers regard even a couple of hundred pages of being made to guess as legitimate suspense?

Well, readers do like to second-guess what’s going to happen next, But trust me, it’s going to make your protagonist substantially less likeable if the reader keeps mentally screaming, “Ask about the elephant in the room, you fool! It’s standing right there, munching on hay with a crow perched on it’s back. Wait — where are you going? Don’t just walk away from the elephant/crow cabal!”

A professional reader is likely to react with even less sympathy, because a disproportionate percentage of submitted manuscripts create suspense by deliberately withholding information from the reader. We’re especially likely to start grinding our molars together if that information happens to be something that the protagonist already knows.

The most famous example, of course, is the sleuth from whose perspective the reader has viewed the entire case suddenly stops communicating his thoughts on the page — then gathers all of the still-living characters in the nearest drawing room (there always seems to be one handy, doesn’t there?) and announces, “You may be wondering why I asked you all here…”

Darned right we’re wondering — the reader wants to know why you suddenly withdrew your confidence from him, Mssr. Poirot.

Such scenes often beg to be flagged for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well. That’s true, by the way, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not cross the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Evelyn!”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is — YOU, Father!”), or just plain necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, Hubert, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our sixty-two-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why might presenting any of these plot points present pacing problems? (Try saying that seven times fast!) When the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they run to the opposite end of the reticence spectrum and have characters (secondary ones, usually) blurt out the necessary information practically before the protagonist asks for it.

This, too, is an interviewing problem — and one of the greatest sappers of narrative tension the world has ever known.

Many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it not be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation from the reader’s point of view. Or Millicent’s.

To be blunt about it, too-easy detective work makes the mystery — any mystery — seem less important. It’s hard to care much about a secret if the narrative makes it evident that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: “Why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Sparky McArsonist why she kept the garage stuffed to the rafters with matches? How could we have missed so self-evident a clue?”

I can answer that, perplexed villagers: because the author didn’t want you to solve the mystery before her protagonist arrived on the scene, that’s why.

Astonishingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters. Often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden: “So, Mr. Bond, now that I have you tied to that chainsaw, it’s time for me to reveal my evil plan…”

Or as Tweetie might put it: where’s my breakfast?

In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy so long that Hamlet himself would start looking at his watch four paragraphs into it.

A novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers. Yet when was the last time you heard an advocate of realism on the page object to the formerly mild-mannered librarian suddenly bursting into florid epic storytelling mode the instant a protagonist asks for a particular book?

What makes secrets interesting, generally speaking, is the fact that not everyone knows them. Good mysteries are hard to solve; intriguing truths are hard to dig up. In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to reveal the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

How’s that for an intriguing narrative possibility? Interview scenes do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are. Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict?

Or heck, if you really want to get really adventurous, some character development?

How does one pull that off? Actually, there’s a pretty simple revision trick: try making the information-imparter more reluctant to cough up the goods. This both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult. Right away, this small switch will render the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information).

Yes, this will probably make the scene longer, but remember, the role of a hidden truth in any narrative is not to be solved as quickly as possibly, but as enjoyably for the reader as possible. Not to mention being less like the kind of clichéd interview scenes we’ve all so often seen in TV cop dramas, where the most common interview technique consists of:

(a) asking the suspected criminal/accomplice/victim-who-turns-out-to-be-in-on-it direct questions,

(b) instead of asking follow-up questions, threatening him/her/the accomplice if the interviewee doesn’t instantly blurt out what the interviewer wants to know (what used to be known in old pulp mysteries as “singing like a canary”),

(c) if no blurting occurs, the interviewer’s stomping off in a huff to pursue other clues, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

Yes, there are probably real-life police officers who interview this way, but I can’t believe that they’re very good at their jobs. And even if they are, would reproducing this kind of dialogue in every interview situation be compelling in a book? Probably not.

Again, perish the thought that this basic principle applies only to mysteries. Let’s take a look at the interviewing strategy my narrator took vis-à-vis young Pansy:

(a) Auntie asks Pansy where she learned that, um, charming little ditty.

(b) Upon not receiving an adequate explanation, Auntie does not ask follow-up questions, but instead

(c) scurries off, embarrassed, to score some cupcakes, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

In real life, of course, it’s not all that surprising that someone might side-step this particular conflict. I’m not, after all, one of the girl’s parents; I have no idea how they might or might not have explained the musical scoring choices of adult filmmakers to their offspring. As a protagonist in a novel or memoir, however, slinking away from conflict just because it might prove uncomfortable is about the most boring choice I could have made. And pulling away from the story rather than following it into some of the many, many horrifying possibilities (the child’s next bravura performance could take place in school, for instance. Or in church. Or immediately after singing the National Anthem before her Little League game.)

Even if I chose not to take the narrative down any of those roads, admit it: you would have liked that story to end with my telling you how and where Pansy learned the song, wouldn’t you? Or that you wouldn’t have liked me — in the story, at least — to have asked some follow-up questions? Or that as a reader, it doesn’t annoy you just a little bit to know that I did in fact learn the answer, but I’m just not telling you what it was?

Take a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up, and don’t have your protagonist walk away from potentially interesting interview subjects at the first sign of resistance. The more difficult it is for your protagonist to ferret out the truth, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

Or, to put it another way: go forage for yourself, Tweetie. And keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Divided States, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Jennifer Sinclair Johnson

Jsjohnsonphoto1

Yes, it’s been a lengthy process, campers, but today, at long last, I shall begin presenting you with the winning entries in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. For the rest of this week, I am delighted to be sharing with you the winning entries in Category II: Adult Fiction and Memoir.

And if you’re not careful, as the pundit Fat Albert used to say, you might learn something before it’s done.

Why start with Category II, you ask, instead of the more numerically logical Category I? Well, Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the HarperCollins’ new YA release, Whisper will be joining me after Labor Day to give feedback on the Category I: YA entries. We have some surprises in store that I hope will be worth another few days’ wait.

Let’s concentrate on the now, though, and Jennifer Sinclair Johnson’s winning first page, the opening to a manuscript she described for the judges thus:

What if Dorothy landed in Hollywood instead of Oz? DIVIDED STATES spins a new twist on Cozy Mysteries as a Midwestern insurance adjuster arrives, finding her coworker in earthquake rubble. Navigating natural disaster and local rules with more cracks than sun-baked Nebraska clay, she brings fresh perspective to light.

First off, kudos to Jennifer for winning not only the Grand Prize for Adult Fiction in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, but also this year’s Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence. For those of you who missed the initial contest announcement, I had decreed that the contest would have two levels: a straightforward competition for the most intriguing opening page for a manuscript, and an optional award level, if the judges felt that Grand Prize in the former was not sufficient to record their reactions to an entry.

I’m delighted to report that the judges required this extra outlet for their feelings not once, but four times in this contest. You shall see why in the days to come.

Jennifer’s was the Adult Fiction entry that elicited the more enthusiastic plaudits from the judges. Before I tell you why, let’s take a gander at what made them cheer until the rafters resounded. (If you are having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key while hitting +.)

Divided States page 1

The writing here is good, of course, crammed to the gills with telling details, but as we know from our summer of craft, there’s more to creating a great first page than collecting a series of strong, well-constructed sentences. In order to grab the reader — particularly a professional one like a contest judge or our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — a fiction first page needs to present the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation.

Check. What else renders this first page so compelling?

If that question leaves you a trifle stumped, you’re not alone. Most aspiring writers know what they like, but have only a vague notion of what makes a first page compelling, marketable, accessible, and/or grabbing. There’s an excellent reason for that, of course: unlike professional readers, who read thousands upon thousands of page 1s in any given year, the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers have never read any manuscript’s first page but their own.

Or, at best, a writer friend’s. It’s not likely, in short, to be an impartial reading. While active members in a regularly-meeting critique group gain more exposure to the possible range of openings, participation in such groups is rarer than one might think.

But how is the isolated aspiring writer to learn what works on page 1? Typically, the average writer’s conception of what a good opening is comes from precisely the same source as any other readers’: what he’s seen in published books. As we have discussed, though, what an established writer can get away with on page 1 and what someone trying to break into the biz could slip past Millicent are often quite different things. Ditto with what might have caught an agent’s eye 5 or 10 years ago vs. now.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, we have been spending so much time this summer concentrating on first page revision. I’ve been trying to move your conception of what makes a strong opening beyond a simple combination of what you like and what you have seen authors you respect do; all of these posts have been attempting to help you read more like a professional.

So let’s go ahead and turn to the pros for advice on how to assess today’s page 1. Specifically, let’s recall from last time the agent-generated list of qualities they like to see in a first page. How well do you think the example above meets these criteria?

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.
Oh, do you see many stories about insurance adjusters newly transplanted to earthquake zones? Admittedly, it is not immediately apparent here whether our narrator is a man or a woman, but there isn’t much doubt that s/he is interesting, is there?

As we have discussed, as well as slice-of-life writing can work in short stories, plays, and novellas, it’s difficult to grab a novel reader — particularly a professional one like Millicent — on page 1 with a protagonist who is aggressively ordinary. A savvy writer is usually better off emphasizing what is unusual about his characters in an opening scene.

2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.
This isn’t an action scene, so this one is not applicable. Remember, not all of these criteria will work for every opening.

3. The author made the point, then moved on.
In many first-person narratives, the self-analysis in page 1 would have extended for the rest of the page, if not beyond. Here, Jennifer has been quite restrained, moving the reader swiftly out of the protagonist’s head and into observation of the environment. That well-handled pacing will prevent Millicent from feeling that the story isn’t beginning fast enough.

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.
This lies largely in the eye of the beholder, of course. Perhaps a better way to approach this issue: based on this first page alone, do you want to read the rest of this book?

The judges did, unanimously. And if a quick scan of page 1 does not seem like an entirely fair basis for making a determination on an entire manuscript, bear in mind that Millicent often reads less than that before making up her mind.

5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.
Again, this is quite subjective, but the judges found this narrative voice quite likable. With a protagonist engaged in a work project on page 1, it would have been very easy to load the narrative voice down with industry-specific jargon. Jennifer has steered clear of that danger, offering us instead a narrator who seems swept up in the details of the beauty of her new environment.

The only sentence that gave any of the judges pause on a voice level was The earthquake that hit Hollywood with the bang of a summer blockbuster’s opening had cast me into new territory. Opinions were divided over whether using Hollywood and cast so close together was intended as a pun based on the double meaning of cast (to throw/to be given a part in a play or movie). Since the pun, if intentional, was not very funny, the judges expressed the hope that the word choice would be reexamined.

6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.
This is a subtle one. It’s clear that something is about to happen here, isn’t it? The reader isn’t sure what, but the suspense is palpable.

Again, some of the judges had a quibble with one of the sentences: After the way my new boss had sent me to the property before my flight finished taxiing along the tarmac, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find destruction akin to the aftermath of Armageddon. The ending image is strong, but the reader has to interpolate some action in order to make the first part make sense: since airline passengers are currently not allowed to use cell phones while the plane is in the air, and there’s no indication that the story is not taking place in the present, the narrator must have turned on her phone as soon as allowed, after the plane touched down.

So did her boss call her the second she powered up the phone? That would be the only way that the timing of his having issued the order could have conveyed urgency all by itself, but the narrative is in such a hurry (understandable, on a first page) that it leaves the reader to fill in the blanks.

Amid those blanks lies a logical question: how did he know that she had just turned it on? Is he psychic? Or — and this seems substantially more likely — had he been calling every five minutes since he thought her plane could possibly have landed? That in turn begs another question: did he call her, or did she turn on the phone, hear his 47 messages, and call him right away?

Yes, that is a whole lot of questions to have about a single event, now that you mention it. But that’s not an uncommon reaction to a page 1 where the narrative has left out logical steps in the interests of streamlining. Frankly, from a professional reader’s perspective, both that paragraph and that joke would have worked better if it hadn’t all been crammed into a single sentence.

That’s a small quibble, however, one likely too tiny to put off most Millicents. Even the judges who made it recognized that.

7. “Good opening line.”
Professional readers are notoriously fond of first sentences that contain some element of paradox. This opener does not disappoint.

8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”
Well? Did you think there was?

What is the benefit of presenting a layered reality over a completely straightforward one, when clarity is also so highly valuable on page 1? Simply put, a narrative that implies that there’s more going on that immediately meets the eye is a better reflector of reality. The protagonist appears to be inhabiting an actual world, rather than just a tale.

As fine as all of those criteria are for evaluating a first page, the judges in our contest were looking for a bit more. For instance, in a submission, as we have discussed, it’s vital to give some indication from the very top of page 1 what the book is about. Based on Jennifer’s opening, would you or would you not expect some intrigue to arise from the earthquake site her narrator’s boss is so eager to get her to see?

How did we judges know whether this was representative of the rest of the book? Advance thought, my dears: as some of you may perhaps recall, one of the contest requirements was a brief teaser, indicating the subject matter, book category, and what the manuscript to follow would add to the current offerings in that category. Here’s what Jennifer told us:

What if Dorothy landed in Hollywood instead of Oz? DIVIDED STATES spins a new twist on Cozy Mysteries as a Midwestern insurance adjuster arrives in Los Angeles to find her coworker lying unconscious in earthquake rubble. Navigating natural disaster and local rules with more cracks than sun-baked Nebraska clay, she brings fresh perspective to light.

Quite a close match with the opening, isn’t it? Millicent would appreciate that. So did the judges: all of them commented on how beautifully this page 1 fulfilled the promise Jennifer had made in the book’s description.

I can already sense literal-minded readers thinking about raising their hands. “But Anne,” these detail-oriented souls point out, “the protagonist doesn’t discover her coworker in the rubble on page 1, nor do we hear much about the differences between Nebraska and Los Angeles. So in what sense does her page 1 fulfill the promise of the description?”

Glad you asked, literal-minded ones; aspiring writers often confuse the imperative to let Millicent know right away what the book with an expectation that page 1 would be crammed with backstory. Usually, though, backstory-heavy openings are slow — your garden variety NYC-based Millie tends to prefer manuscripts that open with conflict (or at least the potential for it), with the backstory filled in later.

Jennifer’s page 1 contains several different species of conflict — we learn right away that her protagonist is a fish out of water, coming into an inherently dangerous situation with an already-tense boss breathing down her neck. Furthermore, it appears that the last person sent to do her job ran into some serious difficulties. That’s a pretty rich set of possibilities for a single page of text, no? But rather than stop the action short to explain what precisely happened to her predecessor that necessitated flying our heroine out from Nebraska, the reader gets to figure out the situation along with the narrator.

Thus, how this page fulfills the promise of the premise is not by resolving all of the questions it raises on page 1, but by (a) giving the protagonist hints about what the conflicts in store for her are and (b) doing so in a manner that allows the readers to speculate — yes, even by the bottom of page 1 — how she is going to be drawn into those conflicts-to-come.

Of course, as the organizer of this contest, I enjoy a considerable advantage in anticipating those conflicts. I had the power to ask for a longer description of the book:

Divided States description

The judges were also looking for page 1 to present a narrative voice appropriate to the intended target audience. Here, Jennifer is showing us a very literate, likable, thoughtful voice, appropriate for a high-end cozy mystery or women’s fiction.

Wisely, she has not designated this voice as literary fiction, as many aspiring writers would have done: it’s an excellent example of well-written genre fiction. Rather than trying to pitch the book on the writing alone, though, she has made the market-savvy choice of categorizing her manuscript by its subject matter.

The hyper-literal have raised their hands again, have they not? “But Anne, are you saying that the judges — or, even worse, Millicent — would have liked this page less had it been categorized as literary fiction? To my admittedly less experienced eye, the writing has literary sensibilities.”

In a word, yes. In several words, that’s to be expected, isn’t it?

Miscategorized submissions are, after all, among the easiest for Millicent to reject. As we have discussed many times before, no agent (or editor, or publishing house, or even most contests) handles every conceivable kind of writing. They specialize.

So when Millicent is confronted with even a very well-written submission that does not seem to fit comfortably into a book category that her boss represents, it just doesn’t make sense for her to keep reading once she’s determined it’s not something her agency is going to pick up. Even if she positively loves it, she is not in a position to help that book come to successful publication.

She has only one option, unfortunately: “Next!”

Starting to gain a better sense of what kind of first pages don’t provoke that response? If not, don’t despair — you’re going to get quite a bit of practice over the next week or two, as we continue to go over contest winner’s first pages. Except for the days during which we shall be taking a brief-but-content-heavy detour for Querypalooza, of course.

Lots of action in store at Author! Author! Tune in tomorrow for more first page high jinks.

Well done, Jennifer — and as always, everybody, keep up the good work!