The ever-knotty question of what constitutes good writing

An old friend presented me with a stumper yesterday, campers: although neither a teacher nor a writer himself, Nate had just been asked to teach a writing class at work. Specifically, he had been allotted six hours in which to transform the prose stylings of the fine folks in another department from argumentatively sound but hard to follow into…well, the company’s owner had not been all that clear about what better writing would mean in that context, but he certainly was adamant that he wanted it.

Oh, and would the day after tomorrow be too soon to offer the class? Under the circumstances, I would have called me in a panic, too.

Already, I see the logical conclusion-huggers out there scratching their heads. “But Anne,” the rational point out, as they are wont to do, “if this storyline popped up in a novel, readers would find it implausible. In the first place, if the owner doesn’t know what good writing is, how can he set writing standards for the department? If he does not know how his staff is falling short of those standards, how is the class — which, if my calculations are correct, should convene sometime tomorrow morning — to address the problems? And if the boss is so darned worried about his employees’ writing, wouldn’t it make more sense to bring in someone with experience diagnosing writing problems and helping writers iron them out?”

There you go, expecting the real world to be as plausible as fiction. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: reality is a lousy writer.

Case in point: Nate’s predicament is exceptional not in that he’s fallen victim to the astonishingly pervasive notion that anyone who can express himself well on paper must perforce be capable of teaching others how to do it — which, as anyone who has attended an authors’ panel on craft issues at a writers’ conference could tell you, does not always bear out in practice — but insofar as he happened to have gone to elementary school with an editor willing to help him come up with a last-minute lesson plan. Makeshift workplace writing seminars seem to have been on the rise in recent years; I hear constantly from aspiring writers who insist that their queries must be in business format (left-justified, non-indented paragraphs, a skipped line between paragraphs) because, they claim, “the guy who taught my writing class at work said standards have changed.”

Upon further inquiry, that guy virtually never turns out to have received the Nobel Prize in literature, if you catch my drift.

To be fair, though, Since my primary experience of Nate’s forays into the realm of the Muse has been a paragraph or two in his annual Christmas card, I’m not really in a position to assess his writing — and since neither of us work in the department he’s assigned to teach, I had to ask to peruse his potential students’ writing specimens before I could even begin to give him advice. Every profession has its own internal standards for communicative excellence, after all; for all I know, Nate might be the Edith Wharton of interoffice memoranda.

As a writing teacher, however, I did know that his terrified, broad-based question, “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” was not one easily answered under any circumstances. Those of us who edit for a living hear this one fairly often, doubtless due to the widespread and erroneous belief in one-size-fits-all writing solutions — and universally-applicable writing advice, for that matter.

Which is why, one presumes, that the standard editorial answer is, “It depends. What kind of writing are you talking about?”

Did that resounding thunk of chins collectively hitting floors indicate that at least a few of you were unaware that what constitutes good writing varies not only by style and voice, but by context and intended audience as well? To those of us that read for a living, there’s no such thing as generic good writing, especially when one is discussing books. While clarity and voice consistency are desirable in any genre, specific standards vary by book category: what would be laudable in YA, after all, might bore a literary fiction readership to death, and vice versa. The conventions by which paranormals operate quite happily would seem absurd in a Western. And call me zany, but when I pick up a cookbook, I don’t expect it to read like a Sherman Alexie short story. (His new short story collection is terrific, by the way, even though it contains some old stories.)

So while a layperson might have responded to “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” with a handful of soothing platitudes about the importance of showing vs. telling or some light wrist-slapping on the subject of run-on sentences, Nate could hardly have asked a pro like me more challenging question, or one more likely to produce a three-hour answer. Since neither he nor his prospective students seemed to be looking to break into the literary market, however, I spared him the nuanced lecture on the many gradations of stylistic merit, contenting myself instead with asking what kind of writing these fine folks habitually did and what about their efforts had disturbed his employer enough to be willing to stop the enterprise dead in its tracks for a day in order to improve it.

The questions seemed to surprise him, or so I surmise from a pause long enough for me to have set down the phone, have my hair permed, and returned without missing his response. “Well,” he said eventually, “they’re expected to describe real-world situations.”

Was it callous of me to laugh? “That, I’m afraid, is the challenge faced by every memoirist and other nonfiction writer who has ever trod the earth’s crust — and a hefty percentage of the novelists as well.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but my folks are not very good at it.”

As I love you people, I shall not reproduce the eighteen minutes of cross-examination required to elicit what might charitably be regarded as a reasonable description of what kind of writing these excellent people were not doing well, for whose eyes it was intended, and how their literary efforts were not pleasing that target audience. To my ear, the problem seemed not to be entirely writing-related: the budding Hemingways in question were routinely expected to walk into conflict-ridden situations, rapidly assess the various potential and/or current combatants’ needs, desires, and aggressive capabilities, and produce a terse summary in the few minutes they had at their disposal before diving into the next fracas.

I’m inclined to believe that even the actual Hemingway would have found that a writing challenge, especially on a short deadline. And the more Nate talked, the more the tight deadlines seemed to be exacerbating the writing problems. In a move that might not astonish anyone familiar with either rushed writing or professional jargon — but evidently did come as something of a surprise to Nate’s employer — those harried scribblers had fallen into the habit of using stock phrases to save time. If not actually using the copy and paste functions to recycle entire sentences.

Obviously, that practice would over time try the patience of anyone tasked with reading many of these reports back-to-back, but not only for reasons of style. Specific descriptions would not be particularly conducive to reuse, right? In order to be easily portable, the less descriptive those statements could be, the better.

Better for the rushed copy-and-paster, that is, not for descriptive clarity — or, importantly for the credibility of the reports Nate’s students are expected to write, the reader’s ability to picture what’s going on. Even if one of these writers is a terrific observer and an obsessively honest reporter of fact, repetitive wordsmithing will convey a less-then-meticulous impression.

Let’s examine why. If Report #1 reads like this:

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

And Report #2 reads like this:

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

It’s pretty hard for the reader to tell these two battling groups apart, apart, isn’t it? That’s the nature of generic description: even if the writer’s has something specific in mind, stock phrasing represents generalities — and that’s what the reader is going to take away.

Lest those of you who write fiction be congratulating yourselves, thinking that this is one writing problem, thank goodness, that does not apply to your work, let me hasten to add that the same principle applies to any description. No matter how detailed the writer’s mental image of a person, place, thing, or situation might be, if the narrative uses generalizations to depict it, or holds back salient details, the reader’s going to end up with only a vague impression of the writer’s artistic vision.

Take, for example, the photograph at the top of this post. It would be factually accurate, as well as quite speedy, to describe it as a picture of a piece of wood. A writer in less of a hurry could tell a reader that the wood is dry, has a knot in it, and that a small portion of it had apparently been slightly burned at some point in the dim past.

All of that would be true; you can see that for yourself. But if you had never seen the photograph in question, would reading either of those descriptions enable you to picture it? Couldn’t those descriptions apply to a practically infinite variety of photos of pieces of wood?

If we cranked our observational skills up to high, however, and set our literary skills on stun, we could easily describe that image so thoroughly that the reader would not only be able to envision it, but would know precisely how that particular hunk of wood differed from every other piece of wood on the planet. If the reader ever encountered it in real life, she would recognize it. (“That’s it, officer — that’s the lumber I read about!“)

If the description on the page does not show the relevant specifics, though, how is the reader supposed to learn about them? Guesswork? Telepathy? Showing up on the author’s doorstep and demanding a fuller description?

Obviously, at least from a professional reader’s perspective, it’s not the reader’s job to do any of these things; it’s the writer’s job to provide those specifics. How a savvy writer would chose to go about that, though, might well depend upon the type of narrative that would contain the description, as well as the writer’s individual stylistic preferences and the needs of the scene. In a thriller, for instance, a just-the-facts description might be appropriate:

The glass in the window rattled in the wind. Not too surprising, really, considering the state of the wood holding it together: dry, cracked, and full of knots. Even its garish yellow paint job seemed to have given up on holding itself together.

In an emotional YA scene, however, this treatment might make more sense:

I ran my fingertips along the warped wood of the window frame, wondering if I could pry it open. Old yellow paint flaked onto my sleeve as I worked a pencil into the largest crack in the wood. The last inmate must have been too depressed to try to escape — all she seemed to have done was crush out a cigarette on the yielding wood.

For literary or mainstream fiction, though, it could read like this:

No wonder the window leaked heat like a warped sieve — the very wood holding it together had dried out to the point of shattering. An ancient knot spun near the confluence of sill and frame, sending angry concentric circles of resistance shivering toward the glass. Deep, murky cracks wrinkled decades-old yellow paint.

Quite a difference from the window frame was made of wood and painted yellow, eh? While all of these descriptions are factually true, the reader would take away radically varying mental images.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take another gander at our two original examples. Now that we know that the reader’s sense of what’s going on could be substantially improved by including more specifics, what other style changes would be helpful here?

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

Did the word and phrase repetition catch your eye this time around? It would have maddened Millicent the agency screener, and for good reason. Even taking Report #1 and Report #2 individually, their repetitive phrasing is, let’s face it, not very interesting to read — and thus inherently less memorable, from the reader’s point of view, than more varied word choice.

Did that last contention make you do a double-take? Okay, here’s a test of whether it’s true: quick, without scrolling back up, explain the differences between what the writer observed in Situation #1 and Situation #2.

Did you come up with anything but a floor level, and perhaps a couple of the participants’ names? Neither would a reader. That’s a writing problem as much as a matter of content choice.

How so? Well, by definition, repeated phrases do not add new information to a description in the way that fresh wording can. Yet many writers deliberately repeat words and phrases, apparently in the mistaken belief that the reader will magically derive a more complex meaning from seeing the same writing a second, third, or fourth time than s/he did the first time around. Take a gander:

The sight made Zenobia sad, sad in a way that no sight had made her feel before. And that realization made her sad, too, because she realized that unless she could manage to change the course of history, she might well be the last human ever to see the sight at all.

Okay, okay, I get it: the lady’s sad, and she’s seeing something. But no matter how many times the narrative tells me Zenobia’s sad, I’m not going to understand her sadness better than I did the first time it used the word. And surely it’s not unreasonable for me as a reader to wonder what the heck she’s seeing — or to resent that the narrative keeps referring to a sight that it’s not showing me.

Seem like an extreme example? Perhaps this frequency of word repetition is on the high end, but you’d be amazed at how often manuscript submissions simply adapt few chosen words and phrases to many descriptive purposes. Verbs are particularly prone to this treatment.

The door was locked. That was unexpected, like the frustration downtown had been. He tried to break it down, but the door was too strong for him. Frustration made him grind his teeth.

He was down to his last idea. If he couldn’t get inside, or at least prove that he had tried, all of his plans would be down the drain. He would be broke. It was just like that time in Phoenix, when Ariadne had treated him like a dog.

If you don’t mind my asking, what does was convey to the reader the fourth time it appears that it didn’t in the first three iterations? Or, to stand the question on its head — a lot more interesting than any of the activity indicated by the verb choices here, I must say — what does this passage gain in either stylistic or in storytelling terms by recycling these words and phrases?

Come up with anything? I didn’t, either. But you’re starting to feel more sympathy for the conflict-describers’ supervisors, are you not, if not for Millicent, for having to read this kind of prose all the time?

I sense some furtive shifting in chairs out there. “But Anne,” those of you fond of word repetition protest, and well you should, “isn’t word choice a matter of style? Maybe the writer here reused things deliberately. The phrasing above might not be your cup of tea, or Millicent’s, but it is stylistically distinct. In fact, read out loud, it might even sound pretty cool.”

That, as you say, is a matter of opinion, but even if Millicent or I did think it sounded cool (and I don’t), the limited vocabulary and repetitive phrasing here carry distinct clarity costs. What, may I ask, happened downtown? Why was it frustrating, and what about it produced the same type of frustration as the current situation? For that matter, how is this situation like what occurred in Phoenix? While we’re asking, who is this trollop Ariadne, and in what way did her interactions with our hero resemble the manner in which she might hobnob with man’s best friend?

See the problem? Even if the manuscript prior to this point had simply throbbed with detail about that donnybrook downtown, conveyed a sterling sense of our hero’s door-battering capabilities, and devoted 70 pages to Ariadne’s emotionally questionable proclivities, the word choices here deprive the reader of a clear sense of what’s going on in this particular moment. Not all feelings of frustration are identical, so why present them as though they were? How does our hero attempt to breach the door, and how precisely did it resist him?

And don’t even get me started on how the inclusion of hackneyed phrases — down the drain, treated him like a dog — further obfuscate meaning. Yes, most of us will understand in general what these stock phrases mean, but it honestly isn’t the reader’s job to guess how these clich?d descriptions apply to this particular situation, is it?

Hadn’t thought of those phrases that way, had you? Most writers new to the game wouldn’t: if a phrase is in common use, they reason, it just sounds right. How else would someone put it?

That’s a dangerous question to tempt Millicent to consider, I’m afraid. “Well,” she is likely to snap, “a writer might want to phrase it in a more original fashion, just for the sake of style. While this one is at it, s/he might consider applying some thought to coming up with less expected ways to convey break it down and grind his teeth, too.”

You have a point there, Millie, and one that applies equally well to the workplace writing of our first examples and manuscripts intended for submission to agents and editors. Naturally, it’s important that writing sounds good to the writer, but that is not the only measure of whether a passage is well-written. It needs to sound good to the reader — and not just any reader, either. It must sound good to the reader in the writer’s chosen audience, the kind of reader who already reads books like the one the writer has produced.

Why? Because that’s the reader who will ultimately buy that writer’s work when it appears in print.

Millicent wants to help good writers reach that reader. So does her boss, the agent of your dreams, and the editor to whom he pitches manuscripts. Since agencies and publishing houses specialize in marketing to particular types of readers — thus book categories, right? — it’s a safe bet that all of these professional readers will be familiar with the kind of prose that’s currently selling well to your target audience.

That means, in practice, that they’re not just looking for generic good writing. They’re looking for what that audience will consider good writing.

Which, of course, will vary by book category. And if that doesn’t make you want to stop scrolling through this post, snatch up your hat, and race to the nearest well-stocked bookstore to check what kind of prose readers of books like yours are buying these days, well, you might want to reexamine your priorities.

I sense some purists gearing up to be huffy, do I not? “I’m appalled, Anne,” those who pride themselves on eschewing mere mercenary motives scold. “I thought we were talking about good writing here, not altering our artistic vision to conform to whatever bestseller happens to be dominating the literary market at the moment. I don’t want to sound identical the authors whose work happens to be selling well in my book category; my work is original.”

I applaud that — and it’s precisely my point. By definition, stock phrases, clich?s, and expected phrasing do not read on the page as the original phrasing of an exciting new voice; they’re generic. At submission time, that means that using them can never help a writer impress Millicent stylistically.

They’re a waste of page space, frankly. As your friend in the biz and sincere well-wisher, I would rather see you devote that space to what’s best about your writing: your individual vision, expressed as only you can describe it on the page, in a manner likely to appeal to your target readership.

No amount of one-size-fits-all writing advice is going to be able to tell you how to do that — and, frankly, that’s probably good news if you’re trying to develop your individual authorial voice. Generic style precepts that purport to be universally applicable presuppose a single notion of good writing. But you have too much respect for your intended reader than to buy into that oversimplified notion, don’t you?

Don’t squander your unique artistic vision by expressing it in vague terms or overused phrases. Trust me, your reader will want to gain a clearer sense of what you have in mind. Keep up the good work!

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

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

Ready, set — speculate!

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

Or, as I put it last time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Came To Write A Trilogy Without Even Trying, by Michael Stutz

Hello again, campers —

Welcome back to our ongoing Series Series! No, that’s not a typo, as those of you joining us late just thought very loudly indeed: all last weekend, through this week, and into next weekend, I have been, am, and shall continue to invite some of the hardest-working, most creatively-interesting authors I know to talk about the ins and outs of writing a series.

Today’s guest post is very dear to my community-minded heart: it comes to us from a longtime member of the Author! Author! community, the incisive and lyrical literary novelist, Michael Stutz, author of a beautifully-crafted 2011 debut Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume I. In one of those delightful twists of publishing fate that has only become possible due to the explosion of the Internet and the concomitant diversification of publishing, he’s also recently become the proud author of his second literary novel, Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume II. And I have it on pretty good authority that this third book, entitled — wait for it — Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume III will be coming out this summer.

That’s right, those of you who just turned a bright, minty green with envy: it’s literary fiction; it’s a trilogy; all three parts are coming out essentially at once. You literary fiction aficionados are going to want to hear what he has to say, and pronto.

Especially if you happen to be one of the many, many literary novelists chafing against length restrictions. But perhaps I have already said too much.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to set up proper suspense. What Michael has to say on the subject is so delightful — and, I suspect will be so helpfully inspiring (and possibly even inspiringly helpful) to those of you agonizing on how to meet the prevailing expectations for first novel length that I would not dream of spoiling the surprise.

Before I back swiftly off the stage and allow Michael to step to the podium, though, I’d like to introduce him via any writer’s best calling card, his writing. Here’s the publisher’s blurb for his first novel, available, appropriately enough for a story of the ‘Net era, not only in trade paper and as a Kindle download, but also in preview form.

VOLUME ONE of the CIRCUITS OF THE WIND trilogy follows a young Raymond from his ’70s childhood — and first gropings with the telephone — to the home computers and bulletin boards of the ’80s, where he leads a double life as a wanderer of the wires. But when even his virtual best friend unplugs, Raymond might have to leave it, too — because isn’t real life supposed to be offline?

Not your garden-variety literary fiction subject matter, is it? Possibly because Michael honed his craft across a variety of writing categories: starting out as a journalist, he’s also published steampunk short stories, memoir, and short-shorts. (Yes, yes, I know: all of you literary fiction writers are clamoring for insights into carrying a literary voice across venues. Levi Asher recently did such a nice interview on the subject with Michael on Literary Kicks, however, that I’m reluctant to tread the same ground here.)

I find the result a pretty potent blend — but again, as literary fiction is the book category for which it is most true that any sane person should let the writing speak for itself, I’m all for letting Michael get on with doing so toute suite. I’m not averse, however, to letting a few reviewers speak for him:

“A link to the entire world may blind you to the world. Circuits of the Wind is the story of Ray Valentine, who became hooked to the Internet in its infancy, and found his adulthood there. A coming of age tale of the early internet and the impact on an unsuspecting world, Circuits of the Wind provides a very human story set on a backdrop of technology few truly understand, very much recommended.”

Midwest Book Review’s Small Press Bookwatch

“Lyrical and moving, Circuits of the Wind ranges from the nightmarishly detached to the passionately connected. Stutz understands that no matter how many hours we spend alone before our computer screens, we’re still what we’ve always been: desperate human beings longing for acclaim, achievement, friendship, and ultimately,

Tony D’Souza, author of Whiteman,
The Konkans, and Mule

“As is with the breed of fine American writers, the capacity to dream and hope is as much apart of the writer’s genetic makeup as it is of the literary tradition itself. The desire to reach the unfathomable has always been at the epicentre of the American dream, firmly passing away with the emergence of Modernism.

Michael Stutz introduces us to the Virtual American Dream, a world that exists solely through currents, circuits and waves, but is more alive and teeming with activity than you can ever imagine…Stutz writes with a grandness that exceeds the deadpan expectations that are associated with his generation of writers…The current his boat is against is now the electrical pulse that continues to evolve beyond our human control, showing how we are forever ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past.’”

Kilimanjaro magazine

That Fitzgerald reference is not entirely coincidental: Michael’s narrative rhythm, a strong heartbeat pulsing through the novel, actually is, in the overworked critical phrase, rather reminiscent of THE GREAT GATSBY. See if you can hear the music in the book’s opening lines:

To know the legend of a world that has been lost, first you must go back. To even catch a meagre glimpse at any cost, first you must go back. You have to take the bow of history, pull it back, project yourself onto an orbic stage with phantom cast; then you will be back.

Not hearing it yet? Okay, here’s the opening to the next chapter:

He knew the telephone early. Where there had once been indifference, when first he’d only noted just an olive-colored blemish on the wall, soon came recognition and finally even curiosity. In time the thing took on great significance.

Pretty distinctive, is it not? And that’s speaking as a jaded professional reader. (Which enables me to point out something that those of us that read for a living have often remarked about first novels: did you notice how many times the term first appeared in those two excerpts? That’s one of the charming, unconscious ways that new writers tend to announce without meaning to that they are approaching the literary world with fresh eyes.)

That driving rhythm and sophisticated narrative touch carry over into Volume II — as you may see for yourself in this preview, or, for those of you better able to commit, in trade paper or as a Kindle download. Or, if you’re in a hurry, you could just read the publisher’s blurb:

In VOLUME TWO of the CIRCUITS OF THE WIND trilogy, the net arrives all glimmering when Ray is starting college: it’s brighter, quicker, better than he ever knew. It’s the early 1990s — a time of golden youth and of joyriding on the growing Internet, where he rises as a leader of the global generation, the ones who saw it as the gilded portal to a fabulous new age everyone was about to enter. But he’s coasting aimlessly — and when his college friends move on and fashions change he sees how real life actually might not be working out.

With no further ado, then, please join me in welcoming one of our own made very good indeed. Take it away, Michael!

Conceiving, writing, refining, and seeing a book — or a series of them — through to publication is laborious and discouraging and hard. What I’ve learned is that if a part of that process isn’t working, you can’t let yourself lock up. What you can’t lose is time. You have to keep moving, try something different, and not be afraid to experiment. Experiments always yield results. They may not be the expected ones, they may be mystifying, or may even appear stupidly obvious, but there will be some kind of outcome — and they have a way of helping you find your way out when you are stuck.

It happened to me when Circuits of the Wind became a trilogy, because it was not originally planned to be one. Technically, it’s still a unified and single work. But as an undivided novel, yes, by current standards, it’s a bit long — I think it’s about 20,000 words longer than The Corrections. The length had been an issue, even as I knew that some books are double that size, or bigger, yet it seemed to be the way I do things; immediately before this I’d written a book five times as long.

Fortunately, there was a way out of this — it turned out to be a matter of possibility. Circuits of the Wind is being published serially in three volumes: Volume 1 came out late last year, Volume 2 has just been published now, and Volume 3 should arrive some time this summer.

Dividing the novel into multiple books for serial publication is not how I’d initially planned it. I hadn’t considered it even when I was urged to try it. I’d never thought of myself as a series author or an author of “trilogies” — and yet, thinking of it now, in some way the germ of it was always there: I’ve always felt that my work fits tightly together as a single legend, the books all interconnected. I like the idea of weaving all the characters and episodes and scenes together through my books, and I see all of my eventual stories as part of an interconnected world.

But the story of how Circuits of the Wind became a trilogy really begins late in the game, when I had already finished it and was trying to sell it.

I was living in a little bungalow at the time, tucked away in an obscure corner of the nation, far from most everything that was going on — this was the house I’d found myself in not long after escaping college, and despite the love that visitors would give it, telling me constantly how they thought it was so comforting and quaint, and with such a warm inviting rustic air, I didn’t like it at all. In fact I deplored it — the neutralizing 90s “updates” of the previous owner, the backwater location far away from the pulse of the world, the weird layout all constantly got to me.

(My feelings on this have since mellowed: that little town now feels inviting and homey when I’m passing through it, and the townies I knew from back in the day all have kids now but are still happily leading their wooded-lot lives with nights under the fluorescent yellows of the roadside bar, and I see that from the road that house does hold a kind of warmth and agrestic quaintness.)

But even back then I’d admit to anyone that the place had a few great benefits — the first being proximity to airport and highway.

What it also gave, and which was best of all, was a quiet place in which to work. The house was built at the edge of an enchanted wood, where the stone wall of an ancient footbridge lay sunken, broke-backed, into the ditch, and through the daylight hours there would be the varied song and call of many birds.

I had a workroom in the back corner of the house, tiny as a cell, with the same bare, pearl-white walls as the rest of the place. A window overlooked the woods. It had new carpet. This was the perfect place for me to spend my days in work.

The other propitious asset of the place was the neighbor, a bookish retired woman who spent her days reading, talking on the phone and gardening — but mostly reading. She was aware of my work and struggles.

When I’d begun sending out the completed manuscript, I told her about my new dilemma: according to all the rules, first novels “had to be” between about 80,000 and 120,000 words. Anything more was seriously pushing it even for an established novelist, and something nearly three times that length was not so much pushing it anymore as it was thrusting it off in jet-fueled insanity.

She spoke before I was finished with my breath: “Can’t you cut it up into a trilogy? Can’t you make a series out of it?”

I laughed, agreed that at least then I’d have three normal-sized books, but I admit that I didn’t consider it in the least. Trilogies? Series books? That’s genre fiction: bodice-rippers, medieval fantasies, dystopian sci-fi epics, vampire sagas, grisly detective thrillers. They all had their successful trilogies and series books, but my book didn’t fit in with any of those genres or worlds. I was writing something else, what I thought of as mainstream literary fiction — reality fiction — so I shut the door on the idea and didn’t allow myself to even consider it.

It seemed plain that I was right — the world of contemporary literary fiction, at least, didn’t have a place for plot-centered trilogies or series books. And at the time I was latching onto the “literary fiction” tag pretty hard, not out of any special community or bond but because I was attempting to create something outside of those other genres, something that wasn’t in vogue at all. I couldn’t point to another current book as a good concrete example of what I was trying to do; I just knew that it was exactly the kind of book that I desperately wanted to read.

I kept the faith with it, but it eventually turned out that my former neighbor was much more right than I had thought, and it took the help of another friend to see that and to make me realize what I had been doing wrong.

He’s an interesting character, an American slacker archetype: in his twenties he’d lived in New York and LA, dated the daughter of a famous Beat figure, hung out with punk bands and cult filmmakers, seemed to have connections to everyone, he always knew about everything. And then what he chose to do when settling down into his thirties was incredible: he moved to a groggy coastal resort town — one of those places with a picturesque little harbor, a walkable Main Street of tiny boutiques, miles of cottages surrounding it, and brochures on the interstate to let you know which exit to take so that you don’t miss it. He went out there and took a job as the night clerk at the tiny Dari Mart at the far edge of town.

He spends his time on the net, still learning about everything, posting on forums, and he’s always reading a book. Every time I find myself out there, I’ll step into the Dari Mart to pick something up and it ends up being four hours before I walk back out the door. I imagine how the store security cameras record us having these big literary conversations all night, trading references and links across the counter while meanwhile the cottagers are streaming in and out for their smokes and six packs.

One night over a year ago I was telling him about my then-current struggle with the book — how the length had been constantly a dealbreaker, and yet how on the other hand it was structured so symphonically that the entire movement of the book fit into a tight, planned scheme from the first word to the last.

He didn’t even blink. “It’s a trilogy.”


“A trilogy. You’ve got a trilogy. You’ve got to cut it up into three separate books. It’s all there.”

As soon as he said that, I thought back to where I used to live, and remembered the advice of my former neighbor who had then just passed away, and I realized how completely dense I’d been: I’d been so adamant to say that no, of course this wasn’t genre work, it had to come out as one big fat literary doorstopper (with deckled edge and dust jacket, naturally, and no trade paperback at all), that I failed to see exactly where I could go, or what I was doing wrong.

The dust jacket and the deckled edge were not important — getting the story out and in front of appreciative readers was the important thing, and I’d lost sight of that. Once I had that realization, everything went easy. Or no — it was still hard, and the road was still long and lonesome, but I was finally moving forward once again.

After I became willing to cut the book into volumes, I’d also realized that many works of literature had been published like that, works that had even influenced me and were in the same vein I’d been writing in, and in fact were even — d’oh! — by some of my favorite authors!

I’m talking about Honoré de Balzac, certainly, and Marcel Proust, and Henry Fielding, and Compton Mackenzie, and even (in some paperback editions) the best of Thomas Wolfe.

The chapters of Circuits of the Wind had been arranged into titled sections called “books,” six total plus an epilogue, and I’d kept looking at them and not seeing the greater structure. I’d wondered with some dismay at first whether I’d have to remove these “books” and find some other points to divide it.

It actually turned out to be much simpler than that. In the process of “serializing” it, no changes were made to the manuscript at all — it was simply cut into three neat sections, but kept exactly as it had been written.

I saw that those “books” clustered into three main movements of the story — each even has its own voice and inflection, its own time granularity and theme. You have the first hunk, which is the hero’s childhood through to the end of high school, and then comes the quick chaotic rush of his college years, and finally it ends with the first several years in the work world; all of these periods in the hero’s life also coincide perfectly with major periods in the life of the net: the ancient days of home computers, the fever of the early UNIX-based net, and then the huge dialup dot-com explosion of the Web. The volumes reflect and complement each other perfectly, and if you omit the final epilogue they might even function as standalone works.

When I saw that, and realized what I had, the manuscript broke into three piles almost with the sudden force and guidance of an outside power: it was like the parting of the Red Sea. And then getting through it was a cakewalk.

MICHAEL STUTZ coined the phrase “net generation” while working as a reporter for Wired News — and in the early 1990s kicked off the Wikipedia era by being the first to take “open source” beyond software. He lives in Space Age Central, the former home of the NASA rocket scientist who planned the Apollo Project.

At the risk of repeating myself, part V: I’ve got three favorite cars that get most of my job done — no, wait, make that four

Sorry about the slower-than-expected follow-up post, campers: I honestly did intend to devote this week to structural repetition — because, as we all know, there’s nothing like a sexy topic for drawing in the readers. Our cat began acting strangely, however, so I have been spending an extraordinary amount of time at the vet’s office. Fortunately, I had a good book on me, my buddy Nicole Galland’s new release, I, IAGO, and lordy, is it a great read. I’m seriously tempted to leave my copy in the vet’s waiting room after I’ve finished, to provide a lush mental escape for the worried.

Seriously, how often has a book made you laugh out loud while waiting for blood test results? From the publisher’s blurb:

From earliest childhood, the precocious boy called Iago had inconvenient tendencies toward honesty — a “failing” that made him an embarrassment to his family and an outcast in the corrupted culture of glittering, Renaissance Venice. Embracing military life as an antidote to the frippery of Venetian society, he won the glowing love of the beautiful Emilia, and the regard of Venice’s revered General Othello. After years of abuse and rejection, Iago was poised to win everything he ever fought for — until a cascade of unexpected betrayals propel him on a catastrophic quest for righteous vengeance, contorting his moral compass until he has betrayed his closest friends and family and sealed his own fate as one of the most notorious villains of all time.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for any blurb containing the word frippery. One of my failings as a human being, I suppose.

One of my other failings as a human being, but a positive boon for my life as an editor, is a reading eye that leaps instantly to the anomaly on the page. Perhaps that’s not altogether surprising, as a have a doctorate in pattern recognition, but honestly, it does render casual reading a bit of a challenge. A slug line in the wrong place, for instance, will drive me mad, regardless of the quality of the writing lurking beneath it. So will adverbs beginning three out of five sentences in a paragraph: Clearly, there was something wrong here. Obviously, though, your garden-variety reader would not catch it. Bizarrely, any professional reader would.

Fortunately (God, there’s a fourth one!), however, in the publishing world, this sort of eye is not only an advantage — it’s pretty much a requirement for a good editor. Apart from accountancy and computer programming, you’d be hard-pressed to find a job better suited to the obsessive-compulsive. Thus, it follows as night the day, spring winter, and baby ducks their mother that those who cater to the tastes of editors would develop a similar seventh sense for patterns on a page.

Oh, you thought this wasn’t going to lead back to you and your manuscript? You and your manuscript keep me up nights. I worry so that your good writing might not get the fair reading it deserves at the hands of Millicent, the agency screener, if it exhibits too much word, phrase, and/or structural repetition.

Speaking of hands, a third of my audience’s just shot skyward. “Um, Anne?” the more eagle-eyed among you quaver. “I hate to pick nits here, but how precisely do Millicent’s hands read anything? Wouldn’t it be her eyes?”

That question brings a tear to my weary eye, campers. If you caught that logical gaffe, you’re starting to read like a professional. And if you also noticed that in the video above, we never actually get to see our hero’s eyeballs — a trifle disturbing, I think, in a cartoon devoted to developing reading and writing skills — you may be on your way to becoming a Millicent.

Although, admittedly some of us are born that way. I distinctly recall that the first time Conjunction Junction popped onto our small black-and-white TV screen, I tossed my wee braids and shouted, “Mother! How can he read with no eyes?” Fortunately, my mother had been editing for years, so she had been taken aback, too.

In case I’m being too subtle here: those of us that read for a living notice everything in a submission or contest entry. It’s our job, and if nature was kind enough to outfit us with specialized eyes and brains in order to be good at it, well, that has some ramifications for writers.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts without discussing those most perennially popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

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

Quite right, hand-raisers: when used properly, then isn’t a conjunction, strictly speaking. We live, however, in a world overrun by scofflaws. Metaphors are mixed; semicolons are routinely misused. Jaywalkers abound — unwisely, given how many drivers do not come to a full stop at stop signs. Owners of outdoor-ranging cats discover that their pets have discarded their collars, complete with city-issued license, and do not replace the tags immediately, while owners of dogs occasionally take them off-leash even outside the parks designated for such activity.

We may deplore all of this, but we ignore it at our peril. At least, that hefty majority of aspiring writers whose submissions and literary contest entries positively scream, “The leash laws do not apply to my dog!” do so at their own risks — but does that mean that your Auntie Anne, friend of the struggling scribbler, should refuse on general principle to talk about those mutts?

No, I haven’t the heart. Call me a softie, but enough writers are using it these days as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in The Little Red Hen kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — treat it as such for the purposes of our ongoing discussion of repetitive sentence structures and their predictably negative effect on Millicent’s bloodshot peepers.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth Roosevelts were presidents Dorothy Parker was still speaking to Ernest Hemingway editors like Maxwell Perkins called the shots in the publishing world, it was considered hugely improper to begin any sentence with and, but, or then. Amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a folklorist of great repute) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I wrote him in elementary school, a conjunction, by definition, connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “a conjunction may not begin a sentence, and a crayon is not an appropriate writing implement for correspondence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. I thought until I hit puberty that writing in the first person was a narrative cop-out, embraced by only those authors who could not handle suspense in any other way. (A fairly common editorial opinion well into the early 1980s, incidentally.) Toward the end of his long, colorful, and occasionally scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions.

And really, who could blame him?

Hey, I couldn’t resist. But why shouldn’t we slavishly adhere to his precepts? Well, time and the language have been marching merrily onward, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers, journalists, and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

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

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

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

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

To old-fashioned eyes, this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner, grammatically and visually. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a substantial difference in the rhythm.

Why? A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Ghislaine’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could legitimately be regarded as subtle narrative indicators of protagonist stress — a bit of authorial frippery, rather than a mistake. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are.

Like, say, most of us who read manuscripts for a living. We diagram sentences in our sleep.

Before we leave that last set of examples, did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first? No? Okay, let me whip out my machete pen and remove a couple of classic Millicent-irritants. Rather than merely noticing that this third version reads better, I shall challenge your revision skills by asking you to try to figure out why it reads better.

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

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

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

While you’re trying to come up with a sufficiently scathing comeback for that one, let’s tie the anyway revelation — perhaps best summed up as that what’s considered acceptable in everyday speech may not work so well in a narrative voice on paper, even if it happens to be in the first person — back to our ongoing discussion of and and but. Since conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, the former can be a boon to dialogue. Or to first-person narration, as it creates the illusion of echoing actual speech. That does not mean, however, that peppering third-person narrative prose with it will necessarily produce a flowing effect. Generally speaking, this structure works best in dialogue.

Not sure why? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

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

“But Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger. And particularly when running (generally while identified only as she through wooded glens at the openings of novels. Yet you are astonishingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingenue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. And, naturally, you are entirely unarmed at all times. Lest some particularly timid reader find you even remotely threatening for even an instant. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

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

“Or else, that’s all.”

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

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

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

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

“Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger, particularly when running (generally while identified only as she through wooded glens at the openings of novels, yet surprisingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingenue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. Naturally, you are entirely unarmed, lest some particularly timid reader find you even remotely threatening for even an instant. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

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

“You must, that’s all.”

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

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

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

And, let’s face it, Spencer’s lengthy speech as presented in the second version would be darned hard to say within the space of one breath. Go ahead and try it; I’ll wait.

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

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

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

(2) Launch into a lengthy anecdote, preferably one devoid of point, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout your speech.

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

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes at a stretch. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me. But then, I’m a professional; you might not want to attempt that high dive your first time out.

The difficulty inherent to interrupting a non-stop speaker, in case you happen to be writing a book about such things, why university professors, panhandlers, and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence. Run-on sentences discourage reply.

Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then. Perhaps for this reason, aspiring writers just love to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: it can create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative.

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent!”

Those buts don’t leave much doubt about the source of the disagreement, do they? Those capital Bs are like a beacon to Millicent’ eye. While that can work just fine in dialogue, it’s visually distracting in narration.

But I couldn’t pay the rent, not today, not tomorrow, not even next week. But I must pay the rent! I knew that, both ethically and practically. But that did not mean I had the means to do it. I mean, where was I going to get the rent? I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that a handsome stranger would appear on my dastardly landlord’s doorstep and announce, “I’ll pay the rent.” But that seemed more likely than my coming up with the dosh myself.

Pop quiz: did the word repetition bug you as much as all of those capital Bs? I should hope so, by this late point in the series.

I know, I know: the writer may well have repeated those words deliberately, to make a point. (Indeed, I have it on fairly good authority that the writer in this instance believed it would have some comic value.) Do be aware, though, that this is a strategy is not a particularly unusual one. Virtually any Millicent will see it in at least one submission per day.

Why? Well, as we have discussed, many aspiring writers just like that repetitive rhythm — but it’s also one of the most popular means of establishing that chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice I mentioned above. Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. A fairly common way to open a manuscript:

And I thought it could never happen to me. I had always thought it was just a cartoon cliché. But here it was, happening: me pinned to the ground, struggling. While a mustache-twirling villain tied me to the railroad tracks. The railroad tracks, no less, as if anyone took trains anymore. And with my luck, I’d end up lying here for days before a locomotive happened by.

“That will teach you,” my captor gloated, “not to pay the rent.”

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

Since false consecutiveness is stylistically ubiquitous, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency. Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a word, yes. Next question?

In fact, I would highly recommend front-loading your submission or contest entry with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed. Again, we could waste a lot of energy complaining about the necessity for this (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), but I would rather we concentrate instead upon heading the problem off at the proverbial pass.

Ready to exercise some authorial autonomy? Excellent. Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

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

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

(2) Pick a pen color for and, another for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets as well), and a third for then. If you are prone to equivocation, you might want to designate a fourth for or.

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

Or even per sentence. Yes, really.

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

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but every instance. Don’t fudge — the experiment will not be nearly so useful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technically, then is entirely unnecessary here. In not entirely unrelated news, then is almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover that out of any 100 submissions, a good 92 will all share this narrative device. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked conjunctions.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. Honestly, those of us that write for the American market have no excuse. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

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

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

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

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

For most manuscripts, this is still pretty good advice. To see why, we have only to glance at a genre- and character-inappropriate vocabulary shoved into the mouth of a protagonist — particularly common in memoir and autobiographical fiction, incidentally, in which the writer wishes to indicate, however subtly, that Our Hero is much, much smarter than everybody else in the story. To pile the pet peeves even higher, let’s make it a child that talks like an adult.

“Hey,” Mom shouted. “Did someone take the pie?”

“In the entirety of my five and a half years’ subsistence, situated upon this terrestrial sphere,” Babette murmured, “I have seldom been so incensed. Nay, apoplectic. That you, Mater, would indict me of having pilfered, purloined, and/or absconded with your irreplaceable peach pie, in lieu of interrogating my shifty-eyed sibling, flabbergasts me. I mandate an instantaneous act of contrition.”

“Yeah, you and what army?” Benjy sneered, kicking his high chair.

“Now, now,” Mom said. “Stop squabbling, children.”

Even if young Babette’s speaking like an 18th-century clergyman were somehow in character, it’s distracting that the text suddenly breaks out in SAT words. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for Millie, but there are few book categories in which the vocabulary level displayed above would be audience-appropriate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well caught, Millicent: writers often harbor affection for similar names. But just as a skimming reader is likely to mix up those whose names begin with the same first letter — a real pity, as Joan, Jane, Joanne have virtually nothing in common otherwise — names with similar characteristics, or even ones that sound similar, may cause unnecessary confusion. Or don’t you believe that, Jon, Von, Van, and Alan?

Wow, we’ve covered a lot of ground today, have we not? But don’t toss out those marked-up pages, please: we shall be talking more about overused conjunctions in the days to come. Next time, it’s on to the ands.

Keep up the good work!

The threshold of difficult: a tale of three memoirists, or, can’t we all get along?

I’m getting back to you a few days later than I intended in posting, campers, but not for any of the usual reasons. Not that the usual reasons wouldn’t have been more than enough: this last week has been a festival of juggling my editing clients’ deadlines, adapting book promotion advice to the needs of individual books and the ever-changing tastes of the literary market, and dealing with the second week of that allergic reaction I mentioned a couple of posts back, the one that initially made me look like the unholy love child of Boris Karloff from his Bride of Frankenstein period and James Spader, shortly after that unfortunate offspring had been burned at the stake by villagers of the pitchfork-and-torch variety. By this last Monday, the histamine had faded, naturally: for the next four days or so, I merely resembled Cro-Magnon man as it might have been played by Lon Chaney, Sr., of Phantom of the Opera fame.

And some people say there’s no such thing as progress.

No, my excuse for sidling away from the blog this week was far more profound: for the first time in the six-and-a-half-year Author! Author! hegemony, I found myself wondering whether I should blog about a power dynamic relatively common in agent-writer and editor-author relationships. Not because its existence is any secret — as any faithful attendee of literary conferences knows, plenty of the pros are not shy about sharing stories of difficult clients — but because I hesitated to add more complaints to the already-burgeoning array of horror stories floating around the Internet. As long-term Author! Author! readers know, I’m very aware of how easily professional advice to writers can get twisted in the retelling: what might begin as a single weary, battle-scarred agent blurting out a pet peeve or expressing a personal preference on a conference dais can all too often end up being presented online as a universally-applicable rule of submission, querying, or even writing style three months later.

“But Anne!” those of you fond of trawling the web to form composite impressions of wildly contradictory advice protest, and who could blame you? “What’s wrong with that? Obviously, someone in the conference audience heard what the weary agent said and wanted to warn other writers away from running afoul of that agent’s pet peeve — or any agent’s pet peeve, for that matter. Speaking of horror stories, we’ve all heard our share about how easy it is for a well-meaning-but-industry-ignorant writer to blunder into being labeled (shudder) difficult. I, for one, am grateful for that plethora of warnings.”

I’m not faulting the motives of those who choose to pass such admonitions along — the first time. That is indeed often a generous move. The problem arises when that initial warning gets passed along again (and again, and again), often with tweaks, embellishments, and, let’s face it, incorrect interpretations. As should not come as much of a surprise to anyone who has ever played the magic game of Telephone, by the tenth, fifteenth, or fiftieth retelling, the pro who first uttered the advice would not recognize it. Frequently, it’s not just the content that changes; you’d be amazed how often a single observation about a unique situation gets transmogrified into a barked order about what must be done in every instance.

Oh, you thought that a sweeping axiom like the surprisingly ubiquitous agents hate it when writers use adverbs started life that way? Hardly likely. From a professional point of view, it’s an absurd assertion: sometimes adverbs make sense to use, sometimes they don’t.

It’s not at all difficult to picture, though, some poor agent sighing over an opening page in which every other sentence is decorated with an -ly — or that same agent talking about it on a conference panel a week later. With half the aspiring writers in the audience frantically scribbling notes, it’s only reasonable to expect Agent X hates adverbs to turn up online fairly shortly thereafter, right? Or for the next person to pass the news along to report it as agents hate adverbs? And, down the line, for someone who misunderstood the point of an English class exercise aimed at improving characterization in dialogue to conflate instead of Herbert said angrily, why not try showing his anger in his speech? with the shocking news about agents breaking out in hives the instant they clap eyes on an adverb in a submission, creating a universal axiom that no good writer uses adverbs, ever.

Which, I suspect, would come as something of a surprise to Agent X. As the most cursory glance through his clients’ published novels and memoirs would demonstrate, he’s a great fan of the skillfully-applied adverb.

At the risk of coining an axiom, both the source and the context are important to consider when weighing writing advice. And that goes double for anything you may hear about the kind of behavior that gets writers labeled difficult.

Oh, I’m not saying that you should not worry about the phenomenon: it definitely exists, and it is most assuredly true that writers unfamiliar with the rules of the game occasionally find themselves on the receiving end of the epithet without perceiving that an interaction has gone awry. I’m just saying that when you hear a blanket rule asserted, you might want to ask some follow-up questions about how the asserter knows it to be true. And when you stumble upon one of those third-hand this-is-how-a-writer-got-dropped horror stories, whether told from the agent’s, editor’s, or writer’s perspective, you might want to consider the possibility that the original teller’s intent is not being borne out in the version before you. Or — and this is true more often than any of us who give writers advice online might like to think — that a conclusion drawn from a single person’s reaction to a single instance might not in fact be reflective of an industry-wide feeling about a pervasive phenomenon.

I’m going to be talking about some of those pervasive phenomena a little bit later — hey, I wasn’t kidding about being hesitant to blog about some of this stuff — but first, let’s address that widespread writerly fear of running afoul of unspoken rules. As I said, it’s not entirely unjustified: what experience has made self-evidently rude to someone working in an agency might not strike someone new to the querying process as even vaguely impolite.

Take cold-calling an agent, for instance: if you’d like to see an entire panel of publishing professionals cringe in unison, by all means, raise your hand in an agents’ forum and ask if it’s okay to call an agent instead of querying in writing. Chances are, every agent on the dais will have a personal horror story about that pushy aspiring writer who thought, wrongly, that if a hard-sell technique works for used cars, why, only a spineless wimp would content himself with writing a query letter, sending it off, and waiting weeks or months for a reply. Why wait that long, when the agency that represented Tuesdays with Morrie has a listed telephone number?

Oh, you may laugh (at least, I hope those of you who have queried or pitched before are), but agencies get approached like this all the time. As you may have heard, agents hate it.

Unfortunately, those who have heard that are not the only people who want to land agents. So why not just call, the writer who has not taken the time to learn how books actually get published reasons, perhaps pretending to be a personal friend of the agent’s to get past Millicent, and explain to the agent how he just has to drop everything to read his manuscript? While he’s at it, wouldn’t it strengthen the appeal to go on a tirade about how much he wants to get published — unlike, say, every other writer who contacts the agency?

Why? To anyone not new to the agency biz, the answer is simple: because agencies simply don’t work that way, and with good reason. Think about it: if an agent got a reputation for saying yes to this kind of approach, he would be inundated with calls from precisely the type of writer that most agencies do not want to represent, those who believe that being talented grants them the right to expect instantaneous, personal attention.

Which is, incidentally, usually the way difficult gets defined in a publishing context: a writer’s not following prevailing industry etiquette in a manner that requires someone within it to expend unanticipated time and energy in dealing with her.

That covers a lot of territory, obviously, but once a writer understands this underlying principle, not being difficult becomes, well, easier. Instead of trying to learn and abide by each rule of etiquette one at time, laboriously, as if they existed in a vacuum, a writer can simply look at what she is being asked to do, compare it to what she is planning to do, and ask, “Okay, will this make more work for the agent/editor/contest judge? And if so, is the benefit I hope to derive from it worth the risk of eating up more of that person’s time?”

Don’t you wish someone had told you about that test before the first time you queried or submitted to an agent? Unfortunately, this measure of behavior is so self-evidently applicable to those who would actually be inconvenienced by violated expectations that it’s rarely discussed in the company of writers, except as a complaint.

Except, perhaps, phrased as send what we tell you to send, not what you want us to see. And please believe us that we chose the query format for a reason.

By either of these standards, the clueless caller above is clearly difficult, but so is the submitter who, when asked to send the first ten pages of a manuscript, sends fifteen. In both cases, the agent (or, in the second instance, her Millicent) would have to spend valuable time handling a situation she had no way to see coming: chatting with a writer calling out of the blue, reading those extra pages. Since the writer in both cases is being difficult — and does it really matter from her point of view whether the behavior is the result of ignorance or inconsideration? — why should she bother to invest that time at all? Why not just reject the writer out of hand?

Was that thunderous clamor out there in the ether the sound of a good third of you leaping to your feet? Perhaps — and I’m only guessing here — the third of you who have in the past sent more pages than an agent requested? Or that a contest’s rules specified? “But Anne,” the over-sending many shout, “I didn’t mean to be difficult. Surely, no one serious about evaluating writing would want to base that assessment on two-thirds of a scene. Wasn’t I being nice to care about the agent’s reading experience? Or are you saying that I should have rewritten the scene so that it ended on page 10?”

Neither, as it happens: you should have sent the first ten pages. Period. Sending more is being difficult.

Your audible huffs of annoyance are understandable, over-senders, but here we have an instance where the perception of inconsideration differs wildly from the writer’s and agent’s perspectives. You assumed, and not unreasonably, that the request for a partial, contest’s length restriction, or permission to send a specified number of pages with your query was not only intended to provide the agent with an indication of your writing style, the professionalism of your presentation, the voice of the book in question, its appropriateness for your target audience, and how you handle narrative, but to demonstrate how you structure a full scene.

Oh, you didn’t think about it that much? You just thought it would make better reading if the writing sample didn’t get cut off in mid-paragraph?

I hate to break it to you, but either way, an over-sender deliberately disregards a request for a specific number of pages. That’s not only difficult, from the recipient’s perspective; that’s rude. Not only does including the extra pages imply an expectation that the agent, Millicent, or contest judge will make time to read them, but also — you might want to sit down for this one — a belief that the person requesting that number of pages just didn’t understand that not every manuscript will feature a section or chapter break at the bottom of page 10.

Or 15, or 50, or whatever length the requesting agent/contest rules/submission guidelines indicated. Which, from a professional reader’s perspective, is a pretty insulting assumption: honestly, someone who handles manuscripts for a living or has judged more than a single contest entry would have to be awfully unobservant to think that. No one who asks for 10 pages expects a ten-page scene; they want to see if you can write. If an agent or contest wants to read an entire chapter or manuscript, it will ask for it point-blank.

The over-sending writer doesn’t think of it in those terms, naturally; often, he’s just trying to present himself in the best light as a storyteller. In doing so, however, he also presumes, wrongly that the pro will bend the rules in just this one instance. What could another couple of pages matter, after all?

Plenty, to an agent, Millicent, or contest judge who reads tens of thousands of pages a year. Five extra pages on a ten-page writing sample means devoting one and a half times the reading minutes to this submission than one that followed the rules. Why make the exception, when we all know from experience that on the writing grapevine, an anecdote about a single writer-agent interaction can quickly mutate into an immutable rule of conduct?

More to the point, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that a writer who violated one rule or request, however well-meaningly, would do it again in future — and that the belief that the rules really don’t apply to him would be problematic down the line, as well as time-consuming for the agency? If a writer thinks it is acceptable to send 15 pages instead of 10, why wouldn’t he also presume that the agency and the industry are willing to let him fudge on the length of a synopsis? Or an author bio?

Still think it’s unfair to leap to the conclusion that such an aspiring writer would be a difficult client at the query packet stage? Okay, let’s consider how Millicent might make that assessment at the submission stage. Try this one on for size: what if a novelist presumes, not entirely unreasonably, that since publishing houses employ copyeditors, he doesn’t need to proofread or spell-check?

Millicent sees this all the time, of course; usually, she leaps to the conclusion that the writer just can’t spell and/or doesn’t know the rules of grammar. But let’s assume for the moment that an apparently random array of typos pepper an otherwise estimable manuscript. Is that enough evidence to decide that this writer is difficult?

No? Okay, what if a memoirist operates on the assumption that somebody else involved in the publishing process is going to fact-check the parts of the book that she did not experience first-hand, so it really doesn’t matter if her manuscript said the Cuban Revolution occurred in 1952?

Lest anyone be tempted to rip that last line out of context and promulgate it as fact around the Internet: it didn’t. Look it up.

But is this gaffe sufficient to label the writer too difficult to take on as a client? Most aspiring writers would say no; from their perspective, it’s just a minor typo. Would you feel different, though, if the mistake were consistent throughout the manuscript?

Still no? Okay, what if the protagonist’s family had emigrated from Cuba in 1950, and the narrative represented the move as their having fled the revolution? If you were Millicent, would the prospect of your boss’ having to convince the writer that she is wrong about her family’s motivations for coming to this country? Or accuse her of having misrepresented them in order to make a narrative point? And that regardless of why the historical accuracy is off, she is going to have to change either the date or the memoir’s story arc?

Still no takers? Okay, what if a nonfiction writer believes, with some justification, that since her future agent must by definition know much, much more about the current market for her type of book than she does, she’s just not going to bother to include a marketing section in her book proposal? Again, it happens all the time. So does restricting the Competitive Market Analysis to just a couple of books, or limiting the marketing plan to a breezy announcement that since bookstores sometimes allow book signings (a fact that’s sure to astonish anyone currently working in the publishing industry), the writer is willing to show up at any signings the publisher might take the time to set up.

Now Millicent has pretty good reason to believe that not only will this writer be both time-consuming and rather irritating, at least at first, for her agency to represent — do you want to be the one to tell her boss, the agent, that it is his job, not the writer’s, to write the book proposal in its entirety? — but that this writer is actively planning to be time-consuming for the publishing house that picks up her book as well. (These days, first-time authors usually set up their signings themselves.) So the agency will probably have to spend time mediating some disagreements down the line.

What do you think? Too difficult?

I’m sensing that for some of you, even this provocation seems insufficient. “But Anne, I always thought being difficult was a function of how someone works and plays with others, a pattern demonstrated over the course of many incidents over time. I understand that all of the attitudes you describe would result in more work for the agent, but surely each could be fairly easily resolved with just a short explanatory conversation. After all, the writer has every motivation to try to make this relationship work.”

Perhaps, but you would be surprised at how often writers don’t act that way, at least in their earliest interactions with the agents and editors of their dreams. That’s a real pity, because for better or worse, all an agent, her Millicent, and/or a contest judge can base her assessment of a writer upon is the evidence actually in front of her: the query or pitch, accompanying materials, contest entry, requested pages — and that writer’s behavior while providing them. Given that they are charged with the task of selecting a small handful of writers out of the thousands who approach them (or, in the judge’s case, winnowing hundreds of entries down to a list of finalists in the single digits), is it honestly astonishing that they would have developed a tendency to extrapolate ease of working with a writer based upon whether that writer adheres to industry manners and respects the pro’s time?

Believe it or not, writers often do send quite definite messages about their attitudes at the querying stage. Take, for instance, the querier who shrinks the query’s typeface in order to cram more information into a one-page letter. Or the submitter who sends requested pages in a mailing format requiring a signature on the receiving end. Or, sacre bleu, the rejected writer that sees fit to send an e-mail, demanding a complete explanation of a no.

Is this difficult behavior? Well, apply our test: it’s all time-consuming — and frankly, kind of annoying — on the receiving end. How so? Well, he font-shrinker presumes that Millicent will both not notice the deviation from the norms of query presentation (but she will) and be willing to strain her eyes to read the extra parts (but she won’t). The confirmation signature-requirer may not think about the fact that his demand would compel someone at the agency to stop what she is doing in order to pay attention to an arriving package, but believe me, when you’re receiving fifty manuscripts a month, forty-nine of which did not require a work stoppage to accept, it’s noteworthy.

And do we even need to discuss the futility of having a heart-to-heart with an angry writer with whom one has already decided not to work? Or why such a conversation would have no chance whatsoever of changing the agent’s mind? Or, if gravity suddenly began making things fall up, babies abruptly began being born 42 years old, and agents started being open to this sort of follow-up conversation with queriers, the question the agent would have to weigh throughout that conversation would not be gee, did I make a mistake in rejecting this writer? but wow, if this writer is so touchy about a simple, polite no, how will he react when I or his future editor ask him to make changes in his manuscript?

That last one, of course, is the classic publishing pro’s complaint about difficult writers: indeed, the term is often used as a synonym for those so in love with their own words that they are not open to revision suggestions. Those of you who attend writers’ conferences have heard that one before, have you not? It’s right up there with writers are lazy and writers whine about deadlines in complaint popularity.

How popular, you ask? Well, if you walked into that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, sat at the next table over from the agents, and took a sip from your drink every time you overheard one of those three comments, you wouldn’t remember enough about the event the next day to render it a useful learning experience.

Suffice it to say, though, that if you did have a clear enough head to remember it, you would no longer wonder why agents and editors have been known to roll their eyes when writers start to talk about their creative freedom being hampered. Although many, many writers are pretty good about implementing editorial feedback (at least after an initial period of shock has passed), every pro who’s been at it for a while has a personal horror story about that one writer who stamped his feet, screamed, cried, and threatened to sue over a suggestion as practical and simple as “Would you mind changing your protagonist’s sister’s name, since Ellen looks so much in print like Eileen (the villain), Helen (the sidekick), Helene (the schoolyard friend in that flashback), and you’ve chosen for some reason best known to yourself to abbreviate all of those names in the dialogue to El, Eil, Hel, and Hel?”

Oh, you think I’m joking? I once edited a memoir in which the seven daughters of the family’s names all ended in –een — not because those were their names in real life, but because the author felt that this array of synonyms was an essential reflection of the family’s ethnicity. When I pointed out, nicely, that the visual similarity rendered the fifteen (oh, no, another –een!) scenes in which they appeared as a group slightly challenging for readers who had not seen fit to equip themselves with a program to follow, not to mention impossible for a skimmer, the author saw fit to…

Well, let’s just say the reaction wasn’t pretty. Unlike most editors and virtually all agents working with a first-time author, however, I was willing to keep making the case for changing the names not just once, but many times over the course of a few months. But then, unlike denizens of publishing houses and agencies, freelance editors charge by the hour.

That giant thud you just heard, in case you were curious, was the collective stomach of every agented writer reading this hitting the floor immediately after toting up what their last creative disagreement with their representatives would have cost.

I bring up the creative differences issue advisedly: when aspiring writers borrow trouble about the problems they might face in working with an agent or editor at a publishing house, it’s often the concern they express first. Certainly, those of us who answer writers’ questions hear it frequently. Usually, it runs something like this: “My vision of the book doesn’t fit neatly into the publishing industry’s notion of what books like this are like.” (Pause for the advice-giver to ask how, what makes the writer think so — and if he believes his book concept is a category-buster, is it possible he’s assigned it to the wrong book category?) “I know what I want to say, though, and I’m afraid that an agent will ask me to change it to make it easier to sell.”

Well, if the book honestly does contain elements that would render it less marketable, and those elements are not so critical to the story arc or NF argument that they did not trigger rejection all by themselves, this writer is probably right: it would be a good agent’s job to advise him how to maximize the book’s marketability. Writers do, after all, seek out agents because of the latter’s expertise in selling books to publishing houses, right?

Instead of desiring the judicious application of that expertise, however, the change-fearful writer would prefer an agent simply to take the manuscript as he has chosen to form it and walk it around to editors. Happily for the fearer, many good agents’ acceptance standards are so high that they do sometimes — not often — decide to send out a new client’s work without requesting changes. That most emphatically does not mean, though, that the fearful writer’s agent would be pleased if, after interesting an editor in acquiring the book, the writer flatly refused to accept revision requests from the publisher.

Which, in case anyone out there is harboring any illusions on the subject, is the norm for newly-acquired books in the current market, not the exception. It’s also fairly common now — brace yourself, should any of your illusions have survived that last sentence unscathed — for a book under contract to be passed from the control of the acquiring editor to another editor before the manuscript reaches the front of the print queue, due to layoffs, retirements, parental leaves, etc.

Still think Millicent should not be considering ease of working relationship at the querying phase?

Now that I’ve depressed you into a stupor, I’d like to share with you the situations I hemmed and hawed about talking about at all; let’s consider them in the light of the difficulty-assessment criteria we’ve gotten so good at applying. A couple of caveats before we launch, though: I am presenting these not to hold the (heavily fictionalized) persons and (factually accurate) attitudes involved up to ridicule or censure, but in the hope that we might discuss these interactions fruitfully, with an eye toward helping all of you avoid such contretemps in your writing careers.

I do think the matter is ripe for discussion. Although the web is stuffed to the gills with admonitions about what agents love and hate, as well as writers’ complaints, we actually don’t talk all that much — or all that productively — amongst ourselves about how to reconcile professional expectations about how a working writer should interact with the business side of the industry with how those of us on the creative side tend to think of our manuscripts. And that’s a shame, because all too often, when something goes wrong, the writer in the situation can mistakenly believe that she’s the only one to whom it has happened.

Fair warning: some of what is to follow may make some of you angry. Although I understand that it may be tempting to take a few pot shots at the messenger, I do wish you wouldn’t. I also hope that, even if some of this strikes you as unfair — and it probably will — we can concentrate upon how these situations could have been improved or avoided, rather than giving in to the temptation of luxuriating in lamentations.

As I said, there is already quite enough of that on the net, isn’t there?

To keep the conversation from getting too heated or personal feelings getting hurt, I would like to reiterate that the people here are all fictionalized, to protect the parties involved. Sexes have been changed; story details have been significantly altered; no publishing professional or house is identifiable. So if any of the resulting case studies happens to bear any resemblance to something that happened to you or someone you know, please take it as a testament to just how pervasive these phenomena are, rather than a provocation to clutch your heart, cry, “Mon dieu, that’s me/my critique partner, Sheila/my agent!” and tumble sideways in a heap.

So please help me welcome, with compassion and an open mind, three well-meaning memoirists, Huey, Dewey, and Louise. In order to help clarify the sometimes hard-to-discern missteps, miscommunications, and power dynamics, I’m going to tell each of their stories twice: once from the writer’s point of view, and once from the relevant publishing professional’s perspective. True to the rules of memoir (and first-person narrative in general), each will be exclusively from that perspective. Perhaps, after considering both sides, we can mediate between them.

Let’s begin with Huey’s saga. Take it away, Hugh!

I have to say, I was disappointed. I had been querying my memoir, the story of my wife’s battle with a life-threatening illness, for more than two years when Agent Montrose asked to see my proposal. The request caught me a bit off-guard, I’m afraid: I had a full manuscript, but had only been picking away at the proposal in fits and starts. Every time I sat down with it, I felt like I was being given a pop quiz on material we hadn’t covered in class. It just didn’t make sense that they would rather have me write about my book than read the book itself.

So when Montrose sent the request for the proposal, I e-mailed him back and said that it would be a few months. Wouldn’t he like to see the manuscript instead? He said no — a blow, of course, but he was nice about it. He said to send the proposal when it was done.

Well, I worked on it; really, I did. Every few weeks, I sent an e-mail to Montrose, to let him know how I was getting along. The first couple of times, he replied cheerily, telling me to take my time and to let him know if I had any questions. Then he just stopped replying. He didn’t even respond to my Christmas card.

So now I don’t know what to do. I think I could finish the proposal in another month or so — I have some vacation coming up — but if he’s lost interest, shouldn’t I be moving on?

Before we move on to Montrose’s version, what’s your initial impression? Was Huey being difficult, or has he just been having difficulties? Is his assessment of Montrose’s waning interest well-founded? And then there’s the most important question of all: should Huey finish the proposal? Or should he be looking — or have been looking — for an agent who would have said yes to reading the manuscript?

Got your answers to that dizzying array of rhetorical questions firmly in mind? Excellent. Let’s take a gander at what happened from Montrose’s perspective.

I have to say, I was disappointed; that book had some real potential. I know what you’re thinking — there are a million caretaker memoirs out there, so what’s different about this one? Well, the synopsis, for one thing: unlike a good 80% of the memoir synopses I see, this one had a beginning, middle, and an end; the two main characters grew and changed. I think that disease memoir readers would root for these people.

Millie, my assistant, kept burbling about how her aunt had gone through the same thing as his wife, and how much she was looking forward to a really good book about it. Publishers love people like Millie: whenever any of their acquaintance goes through something rough, their first instinct is to buy ‘em a book.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when it turned out Huey had not even begun a proposal. Heck, he didn’t even seem to realize that was how nonfiction books were sold; he kept suggesting that I should read the memoir instead — which was something like 150,000 words, for heaven’s sake. I liked what I had seen, though, and he genuinely seemed flummoxed, so I sent him the agency’s proposal guidelines and hoped for the best.

That was sometime in 2010, I think; I don’t really remember. He never sent the proposal, just a lot of excuses, as if I could simply change my mind about whether a proposal was necessary. Too bad — it could have been an interesting memoir.

Taken together, these two accounts form quite a sad little story, do they not? Huey was lucky enough to find an agent (and a Millicent) genuinely taken by his book concept — but he was not ready to take advantage of it. While Montrose’s conclusion that Huey just hadn’t done enough homework about how nonfiction is sold might not have been entirely correct, it’s hard to argue that the effect of the writer’s not having taken the necessary steps to learn how to write a book proposal amounted to the same thing, in practical terms. Yet Montrose did, by his lights, do all he could to help, and rather more than most would have done in this situation: being a good memoir agent, realized that proposal-writing is a professional skill, and thus not something even the most gifted memoirist is born knowing, so he provided his potential client with both encouragement and guidelines.

See how easily, though, a writer’s just not knowing the ropes can result in practical difficulties for the pro trying to help him? Huey felt, understandably, that since the proposal was a stand-in for the book, it didn’t make sense that Montrose couldn’t make up his mind about representation based upon the manuscript. But since Montrose knew that he could not approach the editors he already had in mind for this project without a proposal, what good would it have done to read the manuscript first? Especially when Huey had already told him that the draft was considerably longer than this type of memoir typically runs; with an Annotated Table of Contents in hand, they could talk down the line about cutting it down to a more reasonable length.

So should Huey give up on Montrose at this point and move on to querying other agents? I think that’s the answer he would like here; it would save him an awful lot of work, wouldn’t it? Frankly, I would rather see him invest that energy in a class on proposal-writing. Or reading a good book on the subject. Or hiring a developmental editor to assist him in writing it. Or, heck, he could take a peek at the step-by-step instructions on how to write a book proposal buried in this very site, cleverly concealed under the opaque heading HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL.

Then, when he has a professional proposal in hand, he will be ready to start querying again. As a courtesy, he might drop Montrose an e-mail first, to see if he’s still interested in reading it, but he shouldn’t be too disappointed if the answer is no: a lot has changed in the literary market since 2010. And Millie is in graduate school now; isn’t that terrific?

The issue of who is or is not being difficult isn’t so cut and dried at the submission stage as it was when querying, is it? There’s a reason for that: since the perception of whether someone is easy to work with is inextricably linked to how intensely one happens to be working with him, as well as to the expectations appropriate to that level of contact, the threshold of difficult is obviously different before and after an agent becomes interested in a writer’s work.

It’s also different once a writer and an agent have made a formal commitment to work together. Consider, if you will, memoirist Dewey’s dilemma.

God, what a nightmare that turned out to be. I slaved over that book proposal — read five books about how to do it, took an expensive weekend seminar, read everything there was about it online, the works. So when Agent Paulette said she loved it, it felt like I’d swum across the Atlantic and washed up on some beach in France. All I wanted was to catch up on my sleep.

So when I didn’t hear from Paulette for a while, it didn’t seem that weird. She said that she would want me to make a couple of tiny changes — no big deal, just tweaks to appeal a little better to the current market. But when I was still waiting a couple of months later, I felt I had to call and ask what was going on. She said she was sorry — she had been just swamped, and she would get to it soon.

Well, a week later, I still didn’t have the feedback. Yet another call. That produced results — and how! Didn’t she realize I had a full-time job? It took me three months to make those changes. Once again, I dumped the results into her capable hands and collapsed.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I didn’t hear from her right away — or ever, really, unless I contacted her first. She just kept saying it was a slow process, that editors took a while to read things these days, anything and everything to put me off. After six months, I began to wonder whether she was still sending it out at all. But just try talking to her about it; she’s so touchy.

Dewey would be happy to continue in this vein as long as you’re willing to listen; just ask the other members of his writing group. Because your time is valuable, however, I’ll skip ahead to the end of his story:

And now I’m feeling really trapped: since the book has been shopped around, I would have to write another, or at least another proposal, before I could query someone else. Guess I’m still in the middle of the Atlantic after all.

The lingering questions are pretty self-evident here, I think. In a situation where both partners are doing the job they agreed to do in pursuing a collective goal, it usually takes some time for each to adjust to the other’s work style. To assess how well Dewey’s and Paulette’s meshed, let’s take a peek at what she has to say on the matter.

God, what a nightmare that turned out to be. It started out so promising, too: Dewey’s book proposal was one of the best I’d seen in a long time. It needed a little work, of course — as most of them do — but I was confident that the results would be good.

A lot of brand-new clients are pretty jumpy, so when Dewey started e-mailing me every other day, to ask what he was supposed to change, it didn’t seem that weird. I was in the middle of a three-book deal for another client; he knew he would have to wait his turn. I wasn’t even all that worried when, after I sent him the revision memo, he initially reacted as though I’d asked him to recreate the works of Homer from memory. It was too much, he didn’t have the time, and so forth.

But he was serious about the book and cranked it out. Rather more quickly than the average client, actually; you wouldn’t believe how often I pass along feedback to a client, then hear nothing for a year or two.

Not our boy Dewey, though. Practically the instant he’d sent me the new version, he starts nagging me about when I’m going to submit it. I explained the process to him, naturally: it’s not as though I have much control over how fast other people read. That seemed to calm him down, but a few days later, he’d be calling or e-mailing again. Doesn’t he know I have other clients? And that it’s in his best interest to leave me alone long enough to sell his book?

Again, quite sad. Here are two perfectly nice, professionally-focused individuals, both eager to collaborate on selling a book proposal they both perceive to be excellent. So what happened?

Misaligned expectations, I’m afraid: Dewey just didn’t understand what his role in their relationship would be, other than writing. Because that was what he was prepared to do, he got antsy every time he didn’t have an assignment on his plate; he didn’t have a constructive outlet for all of that nervous energy. So he focused it on prodding Paulette into a job that she already knew perfectly well how to do — which, in turn, took up enough of her time and energy that she felt, not unreasonably, that his demands were making it harder for her to do that job.

An expectations draw, really — and a dynamic that could have been improved by these two fine people having an honest, straightforward conversation about what Paulette was actually doing to promote the book, as well as how he could spend his time and energy while she did it. I’m happy to report that they did have that conversation (perhaps at the suggestion of someone who knew and cared about them both), and they are getting along swimmingly. Paulette’s still knocking herself out, talking up his book — and his next. Dewey’s working on the proposal for that. In his spare time, he’s taking an online class on book promotion; he’s already started a blog, to establish a web presence for the happy day when he has a book out.

Not all such tug-of-wars end quite so harmoniously, however. Prepare yourself, please, to enter the world of Louise.

Oh, you wouldn’t believe what happened. I had my doubts about Evelyn from the get-go: no matter how much work I did or how well I did it — and I really ripped myself to shreds meeting her constant demands — she never seemed satisfied. “I’ll do my best,” was all she ever said, as though she had to compensate for something wrong with my book.

I remember my guts churning during our very first phone conversation: right away, she started criticizing my proposal. Before she’d even signed me! I bit the bullet, though, and knuckled under to her demands, even though they seemed really far afield from where I wanted to take my book. She told me it had to be that way in order to sell, so like a fool, I went along with it.

The book took FOREVER to sell, but I wasn’t supposed to ask questions about where it was or why it was taking so long. I was just supposed to wait by the phone, in case a call came — because then, Evelyn said, the acquiring editor would probably have a whole new set of suggestions for how to modify the book. I just kept praying that the editor that picked it up would get my artistic vision better.

But the instant we had signed the contract, the quibbling began. Was I really married to the chapter I liked best? Did I really have to spend thirty pages talking about my spiritual connection with marsupials? Was it really important to the story I was telling that I had been raised from ages 4 to 6 by bears?

That sort of thing. You’d think they had never met an interesting, multifaceted person before; all they wanted me to do was simplify my complex life. I don’t know how novelists feel about having their stories chopped to pieces, but for a memoirist, that story is a life. I couldn’t exactly change what I had done ten years before because some editor didn’t like it, right?

And don’t even get me started on the marketing trauma. They changed my title — then got mad at me for not liking the new one. They asked what I would like to see in a cover — then came up with something totally different. They asked me to list every town where I had friends — then expected me to construct my own book tour. Even though I showed up and did my best at every single podunk bookstore where they wanted me to do a reading — I even did a few libraries; way to cater to an audience that wants to buy books — they were never satisfied; they always seemed to want me to do more. And no matter how much promotion I did, the book never sold up to their completely preposterous expectations. Naturally, they thought that was my fault, too.

Of course, Evelyn took their side. She did on everything. And every time I tried to talk to her about it, she always changed the subject to my next book. At first, I thought she was kidding — when would I have possibly found time to write a new proposal? I was already working full-time, helping my sister through a truly horrific divorce, and promoting my book. When was it going to be time for somebody else to do some work?

After a few years of this, with no offer for the next book on the table, I just couldn’t take the constant conflict anymore. There’s no way I would work with any of these people again; it’s way too stressful. If and when I have the time and energy to write yet another book proposal, I’d rather start querying again from scratch than to entrust the fruit of my art to Evelyn.

Okay, so I took a few liberties in the bear department; this story was just too depressing otherwise. The lot of the first-time author today couldn’t be more different than it was twenty years ago — and as quite a few of those authors walk into the process with expectations more in line with thirty or forty years ago, when advances were significantly higher and authors carried less of the responsibility for book promotion, the expectations clash can be pretty dramatic.

Since, by Louise’s account, realizing her dream resulted in such deep disappointment, I’m reluctant to analyze her career trajectory too much. At least, not before we’ve heard Evelyn’s side of the story.

Oh, you wouldn’t believe what happened. I had my doubts about Louise from the get-go: when she was into what I asked her to do, she couldn’t be happier, but let one little obstacle fall in her path, and she’d freak out. It always made me just a touch nervous when an e-mail from her appeared in my inbox. But I don’t have to tell you what kind of audience a really good memoir pandas would draw. I honestly did fall in love with that proposal.

In retrospect, though, I should have listened to my gut feeling during our first phone conversation: she nearly fell over when I told her that before I signed her, I would want her to revise her proposal to my specifications first. Editors expect a certain style and structure from my agency’s clients, after all. We had quite the little argument; she seemed to feel that any concession now would doom her book. Once I convinced her that I wasn’t going to back down, however, she did an excellent job on the rewrite.

And my hopes proved justified when I started shopping her proposal around; on paper, Louise was a great client. Her proposal was very strong. She wasn’t inexperienced at working with an editor, either; she had a couple of previous publications — articles on another subject, if memory serves. since she had put herself through graduate school as a stand-up comic, I had no qualms about predicting she would be great at readings. I always mentioned it when I was pitching her book.

In practice, though, she could be pretty trying. Everything would be going along fine, or so I would think, and suddenly, I’d find myself on the receiving end of an ultimatum. I wasn’t selling the book fast enough; I was showing it to the wrong people; was this really the right economy to be trying to push a book on pandas? Every time, it was different; sometimes, I got the feeling she was picking fights with me so she would have an excuse to ask if there had been any nibbles on the proposal. Once the book sold, however, she was over the moon — this was the best possible outcome in every way. And she actually delivered the manuscript to the editor a week ahead of schedule.

So when the editor called me to say that Louise had been stormily contesting every single revision suggestion in the editorial memo, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised. Nor was I particularly surprised when Louise called me in tears, convinced that her book was going to get destroyed. It took a lot of hand-holding over a period of weeks, but eventually, she did make the requested changes. I have to say, they made the book better.

Then the marketing department started calling; Louise hated the change they wanted to make to her title. Then she couldn’t stand the cover design, the back jacket, the Amazon blurb, the advance reviews…in short, everything was a battle that went on for weeks on end. And for someone who used to tell jokes for a living, she certainly seemed reluctant to get out and promote her book. She kept telling me that she had a job, family, obligations: did I want her to write her next book proposal, she would demand, or did I want her to do the publisher’s job for them?

Of course, we all expected her to do both: that’s what career writers do. But she seemed to feel that she had paid her dues, and now was entitled to coast. Which would have made more sense, I’ve got to say, had her first book sold particularly well, or if the proposal for the next were anywhere near as strong as the first. I wish I could say that I believed she had put a quarter of the energy into it that she’s evidently focused upon serving me with ultimatums about how I need to do more for her.

After a while, I just stopped reading them closely; I don’t need the drama. A quick skim was enough. When she sent that nasty e-mail saying that thanks to me, she had lost faith in her second book, and so was dropping it for a third, well, let’s just say that I wasn’t surprised then, either. Or when the third lost its shine for her, too, also apparently my fault. I don’t remember why she said she was leaving our agency; I’m sure it was in a similar vein.

There’s quite a bit that could have gone differently here, but for the sake of today’s discussion, let’s not focus on that. Instead, I would like you to notice that it was not just quite divergent expectations that harmed this working relationship; it was also that issues don’t seem to have gotten hashed out much until at least one party was already angry. An ultimatum, after all, is not exactly an invitation to first-round negotiation.

Allow me to make a tiny, insignificant suggestion to anyone contemplating entering this kind of working partnership: try to regard it as a relationship. Relationships take work, after all, and they tend not to thrive on mind-reading. If both parties are not up front about what they want from the other, is it honestly surprising if one or the other occasionally guesses incorrectly?

If I ruled the universe, every writer-agent (and writer-editor) relationship would start out with a full and frank discussion of what the agent expects to do for the writer — and what the writer will need to do to support those efforts. I would also mandate up-front agreement on how often each party feels it is appropriate to communicate; just knowing when to expect an update can make a huge difference to a writer gnawing his fingernails up to the elbow while waiting to hear back on a round of submissions. That way, too, the writer does not have to guess whether it’s too soon to ask a follow-up question.

The last time I checked, though, I did not rule the universe. If I did, libraries would be open 24 hours per day, businesses would allow their employees two-hour lunches — the better to browse at bookstores or finish reading that chapter, my dear — and my former elementary school would be named after Ambrose Bierce, who lived in my home town many years longer than Robert Louis Stevenson, whose name graces my former middle school. And the high school would bear the name of M.F.K. Fisher, who lived there longest at all.

I’m not sure what they would name after me, once I have shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the choir invisible. I’m sure they could come up with an unnamed Quonset hut.

Since none of these things are currently the case, however, I can only conclude that I do not have the power to change writers’ sometimes troubled relationships with the publishing industry with a wave of my wee hand. All I can do is advise, recommend, and, every so often, mediate. And urge everyone concerned to bear in mind that they are all good people (at least, most of them are) committed to the same quite estimable goal: bringing great stories and marvelous writing to readers everywhere. Who, let’s face it, don’t particularly care how difficult it was to bring the books they love into print.

It’s a noble endeavor, from every perspective. Let’s all try to gain some insight into others’ points of view — and, of course, keep up the good work!