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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pause. “Mom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. My ex-business partner.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His rage is clearly escalating,” Mac whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready, set — speculate!

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

Or, as I put it last time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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