Speaking of dialogue revision, part III: avert your eyes, children

ourbodiesourjunkcover

I find myself in a quandary today, campers: I want to announce — nay, trumpet — the release of FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Mike Sacks’ new book, SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK from Random House today. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t have any reservations at all about recommending this hilarious take-off on the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s venerable reference classic, OUR BODIES, OURSELVES. (What took that so long to happen, eh?) It’s funny, it’s comprehensive, and it’s written by a group of well-respected comedy writers under the collective pseudonym the Association for the Betterment of Sex.

What’s not to like?

So what’s the crux of my quandary, you ask impatiently? If I posted the publisher’s blurb for this book verbatim, as is my wont with new releases, most Internet filters of the type employed by parents and public libraries would block this post.

Oh, you may laugh at a screening program’s not being bright enough to tell the difference between comedy and {WORD EXPUNGED}, but it’s actually true — and I find that annoying, as I suspect a lot of smart teenage readers (and public library-users, for that matter) would enjoy Mike’s writing quite a bit. Pardon me while I rack my brains, searching for a way around this knotty problem.

That’s knotty, not naughty, screening program.

Those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while may remember Mike’s guest post last year, a fabulous discussion of the art of being funny with legendary comedy writer Merrill Markoe. I’ve been busily blandishing Mike behind the scenes into gracing us again with his insights on comedy writing; since I’m a champion author-blandisher, I suspect that I shall succeed. (Watch this space, comedy writers.)

Those of you interested in getting tips from the best might also remember him as the interviewer and compiler of AND HERE’S THE KICKER: CONVERSATIONS WITH 21 TOP HUMOR WRITERS ON THEIR CRAFT, a fascinating and very useful volume, containing sections billed as Quick and Painless Advice for the Aspiring Humor Writer, on topics that should make aspiring writers’ hearts sing. To name but three:

Getting Your Humor Piece Published in The New Yorker

Finding a Literary Agent for Your Humor Book Idea

Acquiring an Agent or Manager for Your Script

Ah, how well I recall plugging AND HERE’S THE KICKER last year. It was a simpler time, a happier time, when good new releases had family-friendly language in their blurbs…

All right, already: I’m going to throw caution to the winds and post the publisher’s blurb for OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK. Darn the torpedoes, so to speak; I would like to see my teenage readers have access to both this book and OUR BODIES, OURSELVES. To ascertain that this post will be visible to as many of my regular readers as possible, though, I shall simply place a few discreet visual barriers in front of the words and concepts that might prove problematic.

GOOD GOD—YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG . . .

The Association for the Betterment of Sex (A.B.S.) presents Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk, a radical and invaluable resource for improving your sexual communication—whether you have been in a committed relationship for years, or have just moments ago removed the shrinkwrap from your new {EXPUNGED}.

Here are just a few sensual revelations you’ll find within these pages:

– The precise location of the female {EXPUNGED} (latitude and longitude)

– “Going on tour with Midnight Oil” and more outmoded {EXPUNGED} slang

– Forced perspective and other techniques for visually enhancing the size of {EXPUNGED}

– The Top Five pastry-related euphemisms for {EXPUNGED}

– How to score big at your next {EXPUNGED} party, with our crowd-pleasing ambrosia-salad recipe

– Listings of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” dry-cleaning services, for freshening up your vinyl {EXPUNGED} or adult-sized {EXPUNGED} costume

– Your first {EXPUNGED}, and how the ancient Mayans predicted it wouldn’t go over so hot

Exhaustively researched and fully illustrated, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk is a must-read for you, your sexual partner(s), and anyone who wishes there was more to sex than {EXPUNGED} for a few seconds and begging for forgiveness.

Now that we’ve celebrated Mike’s new release, let’s get back to the topic at hand: dialogue revision. (If you can manage to drag your mind away from speculating about all of those expunged words and phrases, that is. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a little artistic draping of the essentials can actually be quite a bit sexier on the page than {EXPUNGED}.)

At the risk of setting the filtering programs’ red lights flashing, enjoy!

pearlfishers

I went to see THE PEARLFISHERS at the Seattle Opera again last night; since the tenor had been practically inaudible with the cast we saw the first time, we went back and saw the other, in which the baritone was practically inaudible. Oh, well, you can’t have everything — where would you put it? (As comic Stephen Wright has been asking plaintively for years. One should never borrow a good joke without attributing it.)

During opera mach II, I was thinking about you fine people and the list of common reasons submissions get rejected on page 1 we’ve been discussing, admittedly a bit one-sidedly, for the last couple of weeks. During the protracted opening scene with the acres of milling supernumeraries and ten minutes of heavily Balanchine-influenced prancing around (don’t even get me started on the five minutes of dance in Act III that was apparently lifted directly from THE PRODIGAL SON), I kept murmuring to myself, “Um, haven’t we heard this dialogue already? And is it really necessary to tell the audience fifteen times that you’re dancing when the choreographer has placed ocular evidence at the front of the stage?”

I suppose that my response could be regarded as a sort of SCARED STRAIGHT for would-be editors — this is where hardcore manuscript screening leads, kids — but seriously, the opera’s first ten minutes ran afoul of a hefty percentage of our cringe list for manuscript openings. For instance:

3. The opening was about setting, not about story.

6. Took too long for anything to happen.

7. Not enough happens in the opening.

24. The opening spent too much time describing the environment, and not enough on character.

32. Where’s the conflict?

38. Repetition (all of that explanation that they’re dancing in Sri Lanka)

39. Too many generalities.

51. Hollywood narration

It just goes to show you: judging one art form by the standards of another isn’t all that productive — so any of you who are planning to defend repetitious or Hollywood narration-based dialogue to your future agents and editors as something done in movies, plays, or on opera stages all the time might want to think twice.

I just mention. Back to not entirely unrelated business.

I’m writing today’s post between appointments, balanced on the rather unstable table of a coffee-purveying chain that shall remain nameless. While I’ve been sitting here, I’ve been doing the dialogue experiment I suggested to you last time, and I freely admit it: I was mistaken in telling you that 99.9% of overheard conversations would not work in print.

Based on today’s sample, I radically overestimated how much would be bearable as written dialogue.

It may be that the patrons’ caffeine purchases haven’t hit their bloodstreams yet, but if what they said had turned up on the submission page, our old pal Millicent the agency screener would have been reaching for the Xeroxed rejection letters within seconds. You wouldn’t believe how similar the things one customer says to a barista are to the things the next customer says, and the next.

Which brings me to #31 on our list of common reasons submissions get rejected before the list, real-life incidents are not always believable on paper. If I may be so bold as to elaborate upon this excellent observation, permit me to add: and neither is real-life dialogue, necessarily.

This is a point I harp upon this particular point with fair regularity (and if you doubt that, please see the posts under the aptly-named BUT IT REALLY HAPPENED THAT WAY! category on the archive list at right), I’m not going to dwell too long upon why any writer who includes a true incident within a fictional story needs to make absolutely certain that the importation is integrated seamlessly into the novel. Suffice it to say that real-life events are so frequently shoved into otherwise fictional accounts wholesale so often that any Millicent worth her weight in lattes soon learns to spot ‘em a mile away.

Already, I sense some readerly disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” some writers of the real point out querulously, “one of the virtues of fiction is the insight it gives the reader into life as it is actually lived. So how precisely is it a remotely negative thing if Millicent mutters over my manuscript, ‘Oh, that bit seems real’?”

Counterintuitive from the writer’s perspective, isn’t it? It’s a storytelling problem, at base: while there’s nothing inherently wrong with incorporating real events into a fictional narrative, it’s undoubtedly jarring for the reader trundling along merrily within a fictional reality to suddenly be confronted with a scene or incident that is, as the LAW AND ORDER folks like to say, ripped from the headlines.

Why? Because anything that pulls the reader out of the story by breaking the smoothness of the narrative’s worldview is bound to be distracting.

Which is a nice way of hinting obliquely that aspiring writers very frequently just drop in real elements — and real dialogue — into a story as if their very veracity were sufficient excuse to include them. From the reader’s point of view, that’s just not true; to get and remain involved, the story in from of him must appear to be one unbroken piece.

“But Anne,” the disgruntled pipe up again, “I can understand where that might be problematic in mid-book, after the story has gotten up and running, but on page 1, there isn’t an already-established narrative line to break, is there? It seems to me that if I should be dropping real elements into my writing wholesale — which I fully understand that you’re advising me not to do — page 1 would be absolutely the safest place to do it.”

Interesting argument, but no: strategically, you’re going to want page 1 to exhibit not only your best writing — the better to entrance Millicent, my dears — but to be representative of the writing throughout the rest of the book. If, as is often the case in dialogue, the real is not as compelling as the fictional, it’s not going to be as effective an introduction to the rest of the book as a writer might like.

One of the things we’ve learned in this series is that in order to be grabbed by a manuscript, Millicent needs to be sufficiently charmed by the narrative voice and storyline from the very first sentence, so it is imperative for the writing to establish the author’s unique voice and worldview right away. If that first sentence — or anything on the first page, really — is at odds with the rest of the narrative, the transition is going to feel rocky whenever it comes.

And if that displacement rocks the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief on page one, it’s going to be pretty difficult for the reader to sink into the story. Particularly if that reader is as jaded to the practice as Millicent.

But I said I wasn’t going to lecture you on the inherent perils of dropping the unpolished real into your manuscripts, didn’t I? Honestly, all I intend to do is nudge you gently about making sure that the narrative in including such incidents is not biased to the point that it will tip the reader off that this IS a real-life event. I’m not even going to remind you that, generally speaking, for such importations to work, the author needs to do quite a bit of character development for the real characters — which most real-character importers neglect to do, because they, after all, know precisely who they mean.

No, today, I’m going to concentrate on the other side of including the real, the way in which the panelists used it: the phenomenon of including references to current events, pop culture references, etc. in a novel.

The editorial advice against utilizing such elements dates your work is older than the typewriter: Louisa May Alcott was warned to be wary about having characters go off to the Civil War, in fact, on the theory that it would be hard for readers born after it to relate to her characters. (And if you doubt that, try explaining to a 14-year-old why any bystander was shocked when Rosa Parks declined to proceed to the rear of a certain bus.)

Many, many aspiring writers forget just how long it takes a book to move from its author’s hands to a shelf in a bookstore: longer than a Congressional term of office, typically, not counting the time it takes to find an agent. Most of the time, an agent will ask a just-signed author to make revisions upon the book before sending it out, a process that, depending upon the author’s other commitments — like work, sleep, giving birth to quintuplets, what have you — might take a year or more.

Then the agent sends out the book to editors, either singly or in a mass submission, and again, months may pass before they say yea or nay.

This part of the process can be lengthy, even for a book that ultimately sells very well indeed. Even after an editor falls in love with a book, pushes it through the requisite editorial meetings, and makes an offer, it is extraordinarily rare for a book to hit the shelves less than a year after the contract is signed.

Often, it is longer — so a reference that seemed fresh as paint (where that cliché come from, do you suppose?) when it fell off the writer’s fingertips onto the keyboard will almost certainly be at least two and a half years old before it reaches readers of the published book.

Think how dated a pop culture reference might become in that time. It might even generate — heaven forfend! — a bad laugh, a chuckle unforeseen by the author that jars the reader out of the world of the story.

Believe me, agents and editors are VERY aware of just how quickly zeitgeist elements can fade — so seeing them in a manuscript automatically sends up a barrage of warning flares. (Yes, even references to September 11th.)

About seven years ago, I was asked to edit a tarot-for-beginners book. I have to say, I was a trifle reluctant to do it, even before I read it, because frankly, there are a LOT of books out there on the tarot, so the author was seeking to add to an already glutted market niche. (If memory serves, tarot books were at the time on the Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published list of books not to write.) So, as I tried to explain gently to the writer, this manuscript was heading for agents and editors with one strike already against it.

The second strike was a superabundance of references to the TV shows of the year 2001. In an effort to be hip, its author had chosen to use characters on the then-popular HBO show SEX & THE CITY to illustrate certain points. “In five years,” I pointed out, “this will make your book obsolete. You want readers to keep finding your book relevant, don’t you? Could you possibly come up with less time-bound examples?”

The author’s response can only be adequately characterized as pouting. “But the show’s so popular! Everyone knows who these characters are!”

She stuck to her guns so thoroughly that I eventually declined to edit the book; I referred her elsewhere. About a year and a half later, she contacted me to gloat: she had managed to land an agent, who did manage, within the course of another year, to sell the book to a small publisher.

The book came out at almost exactly the time as SEX & THE CITY went off the air. It did not see a second printing.

My point, shout you care to know it: be careful about incorporating current events, especially political ones, into fiction manuscripts — and seriously consider excising them entirely from your first few pages, unless the book is set more than 20 years ago. The chances that Millicent will immediately exclaim, “Well, that’s an interesting example/analogy/temporal marker, but it’s going to read as dated by next week,” are just too high.

Yes, yes, I know: you can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing scads and scads of nonfiction books on current events, even ones recent enough that they could not possibly have gone through the lengthy pre-publication process I’ve just described. The next time you are in that bookstore, take a gander at the author bios of these books: overwhelmingly, current events books are written by journalists and the professors whom they interview. It is extraordinarily difficult to find a publisher for such a book unless the writer has a significant platform.

Being President of Pakistan, for instance, or reporting on Hurricane Katrina for CNN — and at this point, even the latter might well strike an agent or editor as a dated credential. Mainstream culture marches on FAST.

Present-day Anne here: as is abundantly illustrated by just how outdated that Hurricane Katrina reference seems now. It was just-out-of-the-oven fresh when I first drafted a version this post — and still pretty strongly in the public consciousness when I ran an updated version a year and a half ago. Sic transit gloria.

One last point about pop or political culture references: if you do decide to disregard my advice entirely — oh, I have no illusions left about writers’ reactions to even the best editorial advice, at this point — and include present-day references, double-check to make sure that you’ve spelled all of the names you cite correctly. Not only people’s names, but brand names as well.

Stop laughing; this is a mistake I see constantly as a contest judge, and it’s usually enough to knock an entry out of finalist consideration, believe it or not. Seriously. I once saw a quite-good memoir knocked out of finalist consideration solely for referring to a rap band as Run-DMV.

Half of you didn’t laugh at that, right? That joke would have slayed ‘em in 1995. See what I mean about how fast pop culture references get dated?

Make sure, too, that the sources you consult for verification are reliable; remember, it’s not as though everything currently posted on the Internet is spelled correctly. If you’re in serious perplexity about where to turn to double-check, call your local public library and ask where to start looking.

But whatever you do, don’t just run them through a spell-checker — because the more up-to-the-minute those names are, the less likely your spell-checking program is to be aware of them — or check with kith and kin, who may also have been laboring under your misconception that it’s FDR that delivers flowers, rather than FTD.

Not that I wouldn’t pay good money to see President Roosevelt show up on my doorstep bearing a bouquet, mind you. I’m just saying that Millicent up on her presidential history might be a trifle startled to see him navigating a wheelchair festooned with stargazer lilies into her cubicle today.

There’s an important lesson to take from this, over and above the perennial proofreading imperative to get technical matters right before submitting pages containing them: ultimately, the written word is for the ages, not the moment.

That can be easy to forget in catering to agents focused on what’s selling to publishing houses right now, but it’s true, nevertheless. Nothing ages as quickly (or as badly) as last year’s pop culture reference.

Or, to get back to my initial nag, as last year’s cool catchphrase. If you’re devoted to reproducing actual conversation, you might want to bear that in mind, because, as anyone sentenced to listen to ambient chatter in a café could tell you, everyday conversation is loaded with catchphrases and references that would make the reader of ten years from now mutter, “Huh?” under her breath.

And the well-trained Millicent to shake her head over them right now. Choose your references carefully, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part III: as you know, robot, I have a nefarious plan…

Dr. Smith and the robot

Shh! The houseguests are sleeping, so I have tiptoed into my studio to have a few words with you. Perhaps it is inhospitable of me, but all weekend, I’ve been yearning to log in to warn you further of the horrifying perils of Hollywood narration.

That’s not the kind of yen that makes sense to non-writers, in case you’d been wondering. I believe the term most often being applied to it in my household over the last few days is pathological.

But then, most conscientious revisions would strike outside observers as pretty odd, I suspect. “What do you mean, you’re going to go over every syllable in the book several times?” they demand, wide-eyed. “Isn’t that, you know, the editor’s job, not the writer’s? Why don’t you just send off the manuscript and let the publisher take care of any typos — or whatever it is you think you’ll find on your seventeenth read-through?”

Hoo boy — it’s hard to know even where to start countering that pervasive set of misconceptions, isn’t it? Rather than engaging in a lengthy explanation that will only depress all and sundry, let’s get back to the matter at hand.

Last time, I introduced you to Hollywood narration, the perplexing practice wherein backstory is conveyed by dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well — and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having that particular conversation at all. Interestingly, writers who pride themselves on the pursuit of realistic dialogue are every bit as likely to incorporate Hollywood narration as those who do not.

It’s just so darned convenient. Particularly if a reviser is editing for length: a paragraph or two of Hollywood narration can, after all, replace pages and pages of backstory.

But page-slashing self-editors are not the only writers fond of Hollywood narration, unfortunately. Many a first-time novelist or memoirist has panicked at the notion that the reader will walk into a story without knowing basic facts about the participants. As a result, our old pal Millicent the agency screener is constantly confronted with opening pages that read something like this.

Hollywood narration

Did any of that seem a trifle unnecessary to you? It would to Millicent, or indeed to most readers. For this scene to work, we don’t actually have to know how old these people are, how long they’ve been married, or even how long little Tara has been sleeping through the night. We certainly don’t need to hear about all of that on page 1; these tidbits could pop up naturally as the story progressed.

Or, to put it in editing terms, most of those statements of fact slow down the story, rather than adding to it, at least at this juncture. To grab the reader, this opening scene needs to present Helga and Chaz as interesting people in an interesting situation — so why take up page space with matters that, while important in and of themselves, are not integral to the conflict at hand?

Heavy-handed application of backstory isn’t solely the province of dialogue, of course (as that whopper of a sentence in the second paragraph proves abundantly). Most first novel manuscripts (and quite a few first memoirs as well) produced within the last thirty years or so have leaned pretty heavily upon dialogue to introduce facts that both parties already know, for the exceedingly simple reason that we’ve all heard it done so much in movies and on TV.

Thus the term Hollywood narration: all too often, writers forget that having a character essentially narrate backstory or fundamental facts crops up in movies because film is limited in how it may convey the past. On the printed page, however, we have more — and more interesting — options than having a character start waxing poetic about the past to people who shared that past, don’t we?

Before we go any further, and to save confusion in critique groups and editorial conversations in the dim, uncertain future, I should point out that the term Hollywood narration is mine; the agent of your dreams may well look at you blankly if you mention it. She will undoubtedly be familiar with the phenomenon, however: due to its continual widespread unpopularity amongst aspiring writers, it is cursed under many names throughout the publishing world. My personal favorite is the SF/fantasy moniker, as you know, Bob… dialogue.

Whatever you like to call it, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the scourges of both the modern publishing industry and the screenwriters’ guild.

What’s so wrong with it on the manuscript page? From a reader’s perspective, Hollywood narration in dialogue is effectively an interview scene with no interviewer but the author.

The reader is left to wonder: why the heck is that chattering character responding to questions that no one has actually asked him — and furthermore, whose answers must come as a mind-numbing bore to the character to whom he’s saying it? Why, in fact, is this monologue (or dialogue; both Helga and Chaz engaged in Hollywood dialoguing above) appearing on the page at all?

As we discussed last time, the answer to all of those questions usually disarmingly straightforward: because the writer wants the reader to learn the answers to those questions, that’s why. So much so that the characters’ motivations and listening preferences are ruthlessly disregarded in favor of audience enlightenment.

Anyone see a teensy problem with this narrative strategy? Anyone?

No? Well, I could just tell you that Hollywood narration has the characters tell what the narrative doesn’t show — but it would be far, far more effective to show you, wouldn’t it? Especially since it isn’t always easy to catch in revision.

Oh, you may laugh, recalling the throw-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window subtlety of the example above, but sometimes, Hollywood narration can be very low-key. You’d actually have to be looking for it. As you should be, ideally, in the following:

Lois did a double-take at the stranger — or was he? It was so hard to tell behind those thick, black-rimmed glasses. “You remind me of someone. Funny that I didn’t notice it before.”

Clark grinned shyly. “It is funny, considering that we’ve been working together for the last five years.”

Did you catch it?

Or rather, I should say did you catch them, since the Hollywood narration cuts both ways here. Surely, both parties have been aware for quite some time — say, five years — of what Clark’s glasses look like. So why is Lois describing them? On the flip side, Clark is also telling Lois something that she must have known for, at minimum, five years. So why is he saying it, other than to let the reader know that they’ve been working together for — wait for it — five years?

And is that honestly sufficient reason to keep this sterling exchange in the text? As a reviser, you should constantly be asking yourself, “Is this really the most effective way to convey this information? Brilliant writer that I am, could I not find a more graceful way to let the reader in on the backstory — or is it possible that the backstory actually is not integral to this scene, and thus could be introduced later?”

Yes, that is quite a mouthful to keep muttering to yourself. It gets easier with practice.

More often, though, Hollywood narration is laid on with a heavier hand, if not a shovel or a backhoe. Sometimes, the helpings are so lavish that they practically constitute a flashback:

“We could always spend the weekend at our rather derelict lake house,” Desmond pointed out. “We’ve owned it for fifteen years now, and I don’t think we’ve stayed in it five times.”

Elaine shrugged, a good trick, considering that her hands were deeply imbedded in the clay turning on the wheel. She was going to need major chiropractic work on her neck some day soon. “That’s not true. We spent a month there when little Betty came down with the measles during the family reunion, don’t you remember? All 117 of us, the whole extended family as far as it could be traced — or at least as far as Aunt Rose managed to trace it in her three volunteer afternoons per week at the Genealogical Society, bless her heart and reading glasses — locked inside after Dr. Stephens nailed the quarantine sign on the door.”

“I remember. It was the worst three weeks of my life.”

“Worse than the time that we and our three kids fell through that hole in the space-time continuum and ended up chasing the guy we mistakenly thought was Galileo for twelve days? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Which just proves my point,” Desmond said triumphantly. “We need to spend some serious time doing repairs at the lake house. Anyone could tumble through one of those holes and end up in the fourteenth century.”

Reads like an interview scene, doesn’t it? But Desmond didn’t ask Elaine for a recap of their previous adventures — escapades, one hopes, detailed earlier in the book in the reader’s hand, or in a prequel; they sound as though they would be interesting to see fleshed-out, rather than glossed over anecdotally in dialogue. Nor did Sandra represent herself as not knowing how long they had owned the lake house. They were talking about their vacation plans — so why the sudden plunge into backstory?

Even a reader not much given to questioning the printed word might have been brought up short by this passage, as the narrative itself gave a major clue that something’s wrong with this dialogue. But to Millicent and her ilk, the mere fact that Desmond said, “I remember,” is like a neon sign, flashing HE ALREADY KNOWS THIS! fourteen times per minute.

It’s a touch distracting.

Like pretty much every other over-used narrative devices, Hollywood narration can work effectively, if used in miniscule doses and rarely. Unfortunately for Millicent, manuscripts seldom display the trick sparingly, especially in the openings of novels.

Why do those first few pages tend to be prime display space for Hollywood narration, you ask in all innocence? Because, dear friends, few aspiring writers have the patience to allow backstory to reveal itself over the course of chapters; most want to get it out of the way at once.

This is why, in case those of you who have been haunting literary conferences lately had been wondering, so many agents are prone to advising roomfuls writers not to try to cram the entire premise onto the first page — or, when they choose to express it a trifle more politely, to consider waiting until later in the book to reveal background information. “Don’t tell me everything at once,” they beg. “Let me be surprised.”

Good advice: the first page of a novel doesn’t need to include all of the information in the book’s premise. Confident novelists reveal character and situation over the course of an entire book, rather than within the first few paragraphs.

Was that deafening muttering indicative of some discomfort with that last statement? “But Anne,” masses of reveal-it-up-fronters protest, “in your last post, you told me not to have the characters comment to one another on the first few pages; today, you’re trying to dissuade me from having them talk about what happened before the book began. So how on earth am I to introduce these characters to the reader? Telepathy?”

Good question, up-fronters. (Although you might want to watch the sarcasm when you’re asking me to explain something to you as a favor. Your mother cannot possibly know that you’re that flippant with your teachers.) How about opening the book by placing your characters in the middle of a conflict so engaging — and so central to the plot — that the reader quite longs to stick around to find out more about them?

Just a suggestion. It’s always worked for me.

There are a million other ways to introduce characters, of course. Although Hollywood narration might feel satisfyingly efficient — one way to describe cramming a whole bunch of information into just a few lines of text, I guess — it’s actually one of the weakest kind of opening. So much so that anxious conference-goers are sometimes stunned to hear an agent or editor say that he does not like to see a manuscript to open with dialogue at all.

Before the 2/3rds of you whose manuscripts open with dialogue faint, reach for your heart medication, or frantically revise your first pages, let me hasten to add: what this assertion generally means is that the speaker objects to books that open with precisely the type of dialogue that we’ve been discussing, poor interview scenes and Hollywood narration, not to any dialogue, ever.

“How do you know that?” those of you currently clutching your chests demand.

Experience, mostly — and not just editing experience. One of the things that a savvy writer learns by attending many conferences over the years is that sweeping generalizations tend to be common features of conference-given advice; something about sitting on a dais seems to bring out a desire to lay down all-inclusive axioms.

Another way I know is that I read manuscripts for a living, so I have a pretty darned good idea of just how high a percentage of the submissions agents who express this preference see open with Hollywood narration. Trying to stuff backstory into the first few exchanges is awfully common.

The result is, all too often, unrealistic dialogue — and an opening that feels contrived, as in this glorious example of a first scene. I shan’t put this one in standard format; who would blame you if you gave up after the end of page 1?

”So, Ambrose, how was your work at the paper mill today?” Penelope asked, drying her rough hands on the fraying dishtowel that served her as a makeshift apron.

The burly man shook his head. “Having worked there for fifteen years — one before we married, two more before the twins were born, and five years since our youngest girl, Vivienne, fell off the handlebars of Ambrose Junior’s bike and sustained brain damage, forcing me to quit my beloved teaching job and stay home to help her re-learn basic life skills like walking and chewing gum — I sometimes get sick of the daily grind.”

“Did your boss, the redoubtable Mr. Facinelli, terrify you for the fourth consecutive week by sticking his hand into a working chipper to demonstrate how reliable the shut-off mechanism? Doesn’t he recall the hideous accident that deprived your former foreman, Eldon Wheelford, of the use of his left arm, leaving him embittered and lopsided after that unsuccessful lawsuit against his negligent employer?”

“Which he would have won, had Mr. Facinelli’s rich uncle, the mill owner, not bribed his second cousin, the judge. It probably also didn’t help that the entire jury was made up of mill workers threatened with the loss of their jobs.”

“I wish you would stand up to management more.” Penelope sunk her hands into the bread dough that always seemed to be sitting in a moist ball, ready to knead, on the kitchen table. “But you are my husband, my former high school sweetheart, so I try to be supportive of all you do, just like that time I went down to the police station in the middle of the night in my pink flannel nightgown to bail you and your lifetime best friend, Owen Filch, out after you two drank too much near-beer and stole us the biggest Sequoia in the local national park — renowned for its geysers and the annual migration of the canary finch — for our Christmas tree.”

Ambrose stroked his graying head ruefully. “How could I forget? I had gotten you that nightgown for Valentine’s Day the year that little Fatima, then aged six, played Anne Frank in the school play. I never miss one of her performances — nor, indeed, anything that is important to you or the kids. But since our eldest daughter, the lovely and talented Lulu, won that baton-twirling scholarship to State, I have felt that something was lacking in my life.”

”Why don’t you go downstairs to the workshop you built in the basement with the money from that car-crash settlement? You know how much you enjoy handcrafting animals of the African veldt in balsa wood.”

”What would I do without you, honey?” Ambrose put his arms around her ample form. “I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you, clutching a test tube over a Bunsen burner in Mr. Jones’ chemistry class in the tenth grade. That was when the high school was housed in the old building, you recall, before they had to move us all out for retrofitting.”

”Oh, Ambrose, I’d had a crush on you for six months by then, even though I was going out with my next-door-neighbor, Biff Grimley, at the time! Isn’t it funny how he so suddenly moved back to town, after all those years working as an archeologist in the Sudan?” Ambrose did not respond; he was busy kissing her reddish neck. “But you always were an unobservant boy, as your mother Joanna, all sixty-four years of her, invariably points out when she drops by for her weekly cup of Sanka and leftover cookies from my Tuesday night Episcopalian Women’s Empowerment Group social.”

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme example — but honestly, anyone who has read manuscripts professionally for more than a few weeks has seen narratives almost this bald. Make no mistake: Hollywood narration is telling, not showing in its most easily-identifiable form.

As in Millicent can spot it from a mile away. Or at least within the first line or two.

Like so many transgressions of the show, don’t tell rule, Hollywood narration does provide some definite benefits to the writer who incorporates it. Placing backstory and description in dialogue instead of narrative text is a shorthand technique, a means of allowing the author to skip showing entire scenes — or, even more commonly, to avoid figuring out how to reveal necessary information in a slower, more natural manner.

It is, in short, a trick — which is precisely how a professional reader who has seen it used 500 times this month tends to regard it. Millicent might not see it as necessarily the result of narrative laziness (although it can be that, too), but at least as evidence of a writer’s not being conversant with the many ways a text can convey information to a reader without just coming out and telling him outright.

Is that a thicket of raised hands I see before me, or did half of my readership spontaneously decide to stretch in unison? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “I don’t quite understand. I see Hollywood narration in published novels fairly often, especially in genre works. Hasn’t it become common enough that it’s simply an accepted storytelling convention by now?”

Good question, hand-raisers or stretchers, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days: you are in fact correct that Hollywood narration has become pretty ubiquitous amongst established authors. But that doesn’t mean that an aspiring writer hoping to break into the book-writing biz is going to win friends and influence people in the publishing industry by embracing it. Submission is definitely one time when you shouldn’t be following the crowd in this respect.

That strikes some of you as unfair, doesn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear large numbers of you sputtering, “can you seriously be arguing that dialogue in movies, on TV shows, and in books first published in English aren’t indicative of what an agent might be looking to find in my novel? How is that possible, when I can find such dialogue on the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble right now?”

I’m betting that the examples you so long to wave at me, oh objectors, are not first novels by North American writers who landed their North American agents within the last five years — and for the sake of this particular discussion, the dialogue in no other books can possibly be relevant. In order to be successful, an aspiring writer’s manuscript usually has to be quite a bit better than what’s currently on the shelves, at least on average.

Why? Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along with me now: the standards governing established authors — i.e., those who already have published books — is considerably less stringent than those agents tend to apply to the manuscripts submitted by writers seeking representation. Established authors have, after all, already demonstrated that their work can charm at least a few people at publishing houses, if not droves of book-buying readers. A new writer, by contrast, is effectively asking an agent to take a chance on her talent without that kind of a track record.

Speaking of relevant backstory.

Setting aside this marketing reality, however, it’s still a good idea to minimize Hollywood narration in your manuscripts — and not just because relying on it in your opening pages is usually a pretty good way to alienate Millicent’s affection for your storyline darned quick. Readers tend to have a pretty good ear for dialogue; exchanges that might pass muster when spoken by a gifted actor — whose job, after all, is to make lines read plausibly — don’t always ring true to readers. And dialogue that doesn’t ring true, unavoidably, makes it harder for the reader to suspend her disbelief and sink into the world of the story.

Give it a bit of thought, please. Your readers will thank you for it.

Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XX: banishing that dreaded feeling of déjà vu

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Since we’ve been on such a roll, discussing dialogue with vim, I’ve been rather reluctant to wrest us back to a subject that we absolutely must cover before we round out the Frankenstein manuscript series, conceptual redundancy. (Don’t worry, dialogue-huggers; I’ll be getting back to it in a few days.)

Actually, as topics go, it’s not all that far removed from edit-worthy dialogue: as I mentioned in passing just a few days ago, real-life dialogue tends to be rife with both phrase, idea, and even fact repetition. Add to that the simple truth that since it can take a heck of a long time to write a book, a writer does not always remember where — or even if — he’s made a particular point before, and even if he does, he may not be confident that the reader will remember it from 200 pages ago, and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, ends up grinding her teeth and muttering, “You TOLD us that already!” a great deal more than any of us might like.

Yes, do take a moment to admire that last epic sentence. I doubt we’ll see its like again.

We’ve already talked about some reasons that redundant dialogue bugs your garden-variety Millicent so much, but at least the problem is easy for a reviser to spot. Heck, if your antagonist favors a catchphrase — please tell me she doesn’t — the fix is downright easy: a quick confab with Word’s FIND function, a few creative substitutions, and voilà! Problem solved.

Conceptual redundancy, however, requires both time for close reading of the entire manuscript and a retentive memory for a reviser to catch. Even if that reviser happens to have been blessed with both, after slaving over a Frankenstein manuscript for months or years on end, repeated or largely similar snippets of dialogue, explanations, and even relatively important plot points can seem…well, if not precisely fresh, at least not memorable from earlier in the latest draft.

Unfortunately, this quite predictable byproduct of revision burnout does not always fill professional readers with sympathy for the writer’s dilemma. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Great jumping Jehoshaphat!” Millicent groans over many a submission. “Didn’t this writer bother to read this manuscript before sending it to us? Couldn’t she see that she TOLD us this already!”

To give you a sense of just why she might have this reaction, allow me to regale you with an anecdote from the dim reaches of my past. Some of you may remember it; it’s an example I have often used before when discussing conceptual redundancy.

I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B- range.

Frankly, my tepid-to-begin-with enthusiasm had begun to fade practically as soon as I stepped into a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. All brown eyes and braids, I had already spent several hours holding my mother’s hand while my father took my older brother on D and E ticket rides. And I was not particularly enamored of PETER PAN as a story: the business of telling children that if they only wish hard enough, their dead loved ones will come back from the dead has always struck me as rather mean.

Because, honestly, what does that story about the motivations of all of those kids whose late relatives persistently remain dead?

So I was not especially psyched to take this particular ride. It was merely one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. The longer we stood in line, the harder I found it to muster even the appearance of childish joie de vivre.

Why was I feeling so oppressed, the six-year-old in all of us cries? Because as each ship-shaped car took a new crew of tourists whirring into the bowels of the ride, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

After about five minutes of listening to that annoying howl while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions. By the time it was our turn to step into the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times.

It’s all I remember about the ride. I told the smiling park employee who liberated us from our ship at the end of the ride that it would have been far, far better without all of that phrase at the beginning.

He patted me on the back as he hurried me toward the exit. “I know,” he whispered. “By the end of the day, I want to strangle someone.”

I was mightily impressed by the power of so much mindless repetition. And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors.

Actually, it’s probably fortunate that I was aurally assaulted by a cartoon character chez Mouse in my formative years — it’s helped make me very, very aware of just how much repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time. Not just in everyday conversations, but in TV and movies as well.

Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Mortimer — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist, Yvette, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

My all-time favorite example of this phenomenon — again, this may seem a tad familiar to some of you, but that sort of is the point here — came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. In case, you know, kids might not have picked up on any of that.

The writers and producers of the Afterschool Specials seemed genuinely concerned about the retentiveness of its young viewers’ memories, or perhaps our general level of intelligence: it was rare that any point was made only once — or that the fate of the Good Kid Who Made One Mistake was not obvious from roughly minute five of the program. True to this storytelling tradition, Strangers With Candy’s heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphed upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.”

Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

It was funny in the series, of course, but foreshadowing is substantially less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly if your eyes are attuned to catching repetition, as many professional readers’ are. Characters honestly do say things like, “But Ernest, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

Seriously, Millicent sees this all the time. Yes, even when the first 50 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping. And every time such a reference is repeated, another little girl with braids vows to grow up to devote her life to excising all of that ambient redundancy.

At base, conceptual repetition is a trust issue, isn’t it? The writer worries that the reader will not remember a salient fact crucial to the scene at hand, just as the screenwriter worries that the audience member might have gone off to the concession stand at the precise moment when the serial killer first revealed — wait for it — that he had a lousy childhood.

Wow — who could have predicted THAT? How about anyone who has seen a movie within the last two decades?

Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. As we discussed earlier in this series, one of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions.

That’s a problem, because one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day. We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. Really boring. As in it makes Millicent wish she’d gone into a less taxing profession. Like being a test pilot or a nuclear physicist.

Why, you ask? Here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are MORE likely to notice repetition of every variety than other readers, not less. (Perhaps Peter Pan traumatized them in their younger days, too.) Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition across manuscripts as well.

Yes, I am indeed saying what you think I’m saying. If 6 of the last 10 submissions Millicent has screened were conceptually redundant — a proportion not at all beyond the bounds of probability; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive — your first repetition may annoy her as much as the eighth in her first manuscript of the day.

And no, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to affect where your work falls in her to-read stack. Thanks for asking, though.

All a savvy reviser can do is — speaking of concept repetition — re-read his submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before allowing it to see the inside of a mailbox or hitting the SEND key. Minimizing the conceptual redundancy within the manuscript is the best (indeed, the only) insurance policy a writer can take out against the submissions read just before hers is to make hers as clean as possible.

I see some of you shrugging. You don’t think your manuscript could possibly fall prey to that level of bad luck? Okay, oh confident ones, here’s a challenge for you: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim. Ever.

Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

Did you find even one? Then you actually do need to worry about Millicent’s cry of, “Oh, no, not THIS again!”

For those of you who did not turn pale: what if I also ask you to highlight similar and culturally-common phrases in the narration, as well as the dialogue?

First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows. So is YA. Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition.

Honestly, it would be surprising if common dialogue hadn’t made its way into all of our psyches: according to CASSELL’S MOVIE QUOTATIONS, the line, “Let’s get outta here!” is heard in 81% of films released in the US between 1938 and 1985.

Care to take a wild guess at just how often some permutation of that line turns up in submissions to agencies? Better yet, care to take a wild guess at how many agents and editors notice a particular phrase the second time it turns up in a text? Or the second time it’s turned up in a submission this week?

“Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s been lifting lines doesn’t mean that an agency screener won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

It happens. Or, to put it in Afterschool Special terms, Checking for Both Types of Repetition is Good.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it from time to time. And for good reason: the rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are.

Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries tells me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance.

But remember — once again, this concept should be at least slightly familiar by now — just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. Or, better yet, have a good reader you trust check for you. (And if you’re not sure whether a particular twist or line is common enough to count, film critic Roger Ebert maintains a database of them.)

Often, it’s surprising how small a textual change will turn an incipient cliché into a genuinely original moment. A writer cannot perform that magic trick, however, without first identifying where it should be applied.

Is your head aching from all of the homework I’ve heaped upon you already today? Oh, but I’m far from done.

For starters, here’s a pop quiz: did any of you sharp-eyed self-editors happen to catch the really, really subtle test of your conceptual editing skills cleverly concealed in this post so far?

If your hand immediately shot into the air, accompanied by a vigorous shout of, “By Jove, Anne, I’m glad you brought this up; it’s been driving me mad. Your comments on conceptual redundancy were themselves conceptually redundant. You’ve made some of the points above two or three times — and via examples you’ve used before, too. How relieved I am to hear that you did it on purpose!” not only should you award yourself a full seventeen gold stars for the day, but you should start thinking about offering your services to your writer friends as a first reader.

You, my friend, are starting to read like Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the contest judge. Please, for the sake of your sanity, do not attempt to ride the Peter Pan ride anytime soon.

Even if you were not actively annoyed by my repeating myself, you may well have been a trifle insulted by it. Repeating a concept, fact, or sentence too often — or even once, if the bit in question was particularly memorable the first time around — does convey an impression to readers that the author does not trust them to be able to recall salient matters without a narrative nudge. Or perhaps does not believe they are intelligent enough to figure out even self-evident logical connections without assistance.

What other purpose, after all, would a writer have for producing a sentence like I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you?

“In heaven’s name, why must anyone leap to such an unflattering conclusion?” scream those who currently have pages under Millicent’s critical eye. “I could see being a trifle annoyed by hearing a similar argument a week apart, but why would any sane creature have such an intensely negative reaction to it?”

A couple of very sane reasons, actually. First, the Millicents of this world aren’t typically reading just one manuscript in any given day, but dozens. (Rejecting most of them on page 1 speeds up the screening process like you wouldn’t believe.) So in all likelihood, the manuscript that irritates her by repeating herself isn’t the only redundant submission she has handled that day — and certainly not that week. Conceptual redundancy is one of the more common manuscript megaproblems out there, cutting across lines of genre, book category, and the fiction/nonfiction divide.

All of which should sound annoyingly familiar by now, right? Getting the picture?

To be fair, Millicent was probably pretty even-tempered the first fifty times a narrative assumed that she couldn’t remember basic plot elements. Around the 750th time, however, it had gotten old.

By then, too, she would probably have figured out what an experienced editor could have told her — and this is the second sane reason a professional reader might find conceptual redundancy annoying: writers quite frequently retain multiple iterations of the same point simply because they like the writing of each section that discusses it.

Or, as I did above, because they have an illustrative anecdote that they’d really like to shoehorn into the text. (I admit it: I love the Peter Pan example.) Either way, conceptual redundancy is a signal that a manuscript requires quite a bit more revision.

You can feel more homework coming, can’t you? Clever you; you must have seen this movie before.

(1) Print out all or part of any pages you plan to submit to Millicent or anyone remotely like her.

You may use any part of your manuscript, of course, but as submissions tend to get rejected in the early pages — thus leaving the rest unread unfortunately often — page 1 is a dandy place to start.

(2) Read through it, using a highlighting pen — say, yellow — to mark every time the text repeats the same information.

If you have the time to get fancy, it will make your post-exercise life easier if you take the time to make notes on a separate sheet of every time a specific repetition occurs. That list will render figuring out which iteration to keep much, much easier.

(3) Using a different color of highlighter — pink is nice — mark the first couple of paragraphs (or even the scene) that immediately follows the repeated information.

Why, you ask? Hold your horses; I’m building suspense.

(4) Go back and re-read the yellow sections. Are all of them genuinely necessary for the reader to follow what’s going on? Or could some of them be cut without endangering the reader’s ability to follow the plot?

In answering question #4, assume that the reader is of normal intelligence and average memory, but is reading your book in a single sitting. (Millicent’s boss probably will read it in installments, but Millicent often will not.) Ditto with a contest entry: Mehitabel generally reads each one just once.

(5) Immediately after reading each yellow section, re-read the pink section that follows it. Are all of the highlighted bits actually adding something new to the plot, characterization, or argument? Or are they included primarily because you kind of liked how they sounded?

If it’s the latter, don’t be too hard on yourself: the old writing chestnut kill your darlings was coined for a reason. Remember, this is need not be the only book you ever write; you needn’t include every nice piece of writing that falls off your fingertips.

Save something for the sequel, for heaven’s sake. You needn’t always be raring to go-o-o-o.

(6) Be especially attentive to those pink bits in first-person narratives, memoirs — or in a real-life story told as fiction. Are these sections necessary to the story you’re telling, or are they included merely because these things happened in real life?

Often, this is another of Millicent’s most cherished pet peeves — and this one is usually shared by her boss and the editors to whom the agent typically sells. Far too much of the time, memoirists (and novelists who write in the first person) forget that writing the truth from a sympathetic point of view is not enough to make a good book — it must also be an engaging story.

Ditto with novelists who incorporate the real into the texts: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will necessarily be interesting to read. Or add to the storyline of a book.

Gee, where have I heard all of this before?

Judicious cutting is especially important when writing the real. No reader, however intrigued by a premise, wants to hear everything that ever happened to a character, any more than he wants to plow through a complete list of every object in a room where an important scene occurs. Include only what your story needs to make it shine.

Now that I have alerted you to the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Eleanor, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Fritz dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life (“Say ‘ah,’” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the terrified child.), it’s only fair to mention that both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest lines for a self-editor to identify and cut.

Redundant sentences can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss a sentence if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbrel and ride to the guillotine. As you read, think about just how much trimming could occur without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite hours of manly good fellowship and moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge.

“Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “How on earth did you pick up the habit? Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on the sawed-off shotgun that seldom left his side. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

Yes, text-retentive ones you are correct: I’ve used this example before, too. No exertion of laziness has been spared to drive today’s points home. (Oh, and happy Bastille Day, Cardinal.)

But tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do? Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure; I give you that.

Even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene. Take a gander:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, leaning against the fridge.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

That’s 123 words, down from 253, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit was straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER, right?) and unnecessary conceptual repetition.

How did I know, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happened earlier in the book? Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere – and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus. Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development — as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? — the reader really should have this information prior to the scene.

What would that mean for our example? Well, if the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on — you don’t want to know what happened on those rapids?) Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often signposts telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript.

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information on page 348.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not — and yes, I’ve used it before. I simply will not have my long-time readers walking away from this post willing to tolerate conceptual redundancy.

Think of your draft as a wonderful bouquet, stocked with flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe it’s too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it — but how? A good place to start would be to pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Then you could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier – and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

Be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation, as well as darlings that could be, if not killed, then at least set aside to grace another book. If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time. Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation.

Okay, it’s well past the time for me to go-o-o (curse you, Pan!) for today. Keep those creative spirits riding high, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XX: banishing that dreaded feeling of déjà vu

pear blossoms1pear blossoms3
pear blossoms2pear blossoms

Since we’ve been on such a roll, discussing dialogue with vim, I’ve been rather reluctant to wrest us back to a subject that we absolutely must cover before we round out the Frankenstein manuscript series, conceptual redundancy. (Don’t worry, dialogue-huggers; I’ll be getting back to it in a few days.)

Actually, as topics go, it’s not all that far removed from edit-worthy dialogue: as I mentioned in passing just a few days ago, real-life dialogue tends to be rife with both phrase, idea, and even fact repetition. Add to that the simple truth that since it can take a heck of a long time to write a book, a writer does not always remember where — or even if — he’s made a particular point before, and even if he does, he may not be confident that the reader will remember it from 200 pages ago, and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, ends up grinding her teeth and muttering, “You TOLD us that already!” a great deal more than any of us might like.

Yes, do take a moment to admire that last epic sentence. I doubt we’ll see its like again.

We’ve already talked about some reasons that redundant dialogue bugs your garden-variety Millicent so much, but at least the problem is easy for a reviser to spot. Heck, if your antagonist favors a catchphrase — please tell me she doesn’t — the fix is downright easy: a quick confab with Word’s FIND function, a few creative substitutions, and voilà! Problem solved.

Conceptual redundancy, however, requires both time for close reading of the entire manuscript and a retentive memory for a reviser to catch. Even if that reviser happens to have been blessed with both, after slaving over a Frankenstein manuscript for months or years on end, repeated or largely similar snippets of dialogue, explanations, and even relatively important plot points can seem…well, if not precisely fresh, at least not memorable from earlier in the latest draft.

Unfortunately, this quite predictable byproduct of revision burnout does not always fill professional readers with sympathy for the writer’s dilemma. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Great jumping Jehoshaphat!” Millicent groans over many a submission. “Didn’t this writer bother to read this manuscript before sending it to us? Couldn’t she see that she TOLD us this already!”

To give you a sense of just why she might have this reaction, allow me to regale you with an anecdote from the dim reaches of my past. Some of you may remember it; it’s an example I have often used before when discussing conceptual redundancy.

I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B- range.

Frankly, my tepid-to-begin-with enthusiasm had begun to fade practically as soon as I stepped into a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. All brown eyes and braids, I had already spent several hours holding my mother’s hand while my father took my older brother on D and E ticket rides. And I was not particularly enamored of PETER PAN as a story: the business of telling children that if they only wish hard enough, their dead loved ones will come back from the dead has always struck me as rather mean.

Because, honestly, what does that story about the motivations of all of those kids whose late relatives persistently remain dead?

So I was not especially psyched to take this particular ride. It was merely one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. The longer we stood in line, the harder I found it to muster even the appearance of childish joie de vivre.

Why was I feeling so oppressed, the six-year-old in all of us cries? Because as each ship-shaped car took a new crew of tourists whirring into the bowels of the ride, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

After about five minutes of listening to that annoying howl while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions. By the time it was our turn to step into the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times.

It’s all I remember about the ride. I told the smiling park employee who liberated us from our ship at the end of the ride that it would have been far, far better without all of that phrase at the beginning.

He patted me on the back as he hurried me toward the exit. “I know,” he whispered. “By the end of the day, I want to strangle someone.”

I was mightily impressed by the power of so much mindless repetition. And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors.

Actually, it’s probably fortunate that I was aurally assaulted by a cartoon character chez Mouse in my formative years — it’s helped make me very, very aware of just how much repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time. Not just in everyday conversations, but in TV and movies as well.

Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Mortimer — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist, Yvette, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

My all-time favorite example of this phenomenon — again, this may seem a tad familiar to some of you, but that sort of is the point here — came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. In case, you know, kids might not have picked up on any of that.

The writers and producers of the Afterschool Specials seemed genuinely concerned about the retentiveness of its young viewers’ memories, or perhaps our general level of intelligence: it was rare that any point was made only once — or that the fate of the Good Kid Who Made One Mistake was not obvious from roughly minute five of the program. True to this storytelling tradition, Strangers With Candy’s heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphed upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.”

Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

It was funny in the series, of course, but foreshadowing is substantially less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly if your eyes are attuned to catching repetition, as many professional readers’ are. Characters honestly do say things like, “But Ernest, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

Seriously, Millicent sees this all the time. Yes, even when the first 50 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping. And every time such a reference is repeated, another little girl with braids vows to grow up to devote her life to excising all of that ambient redundancy.

At base, conceptual repetition is a trust issue, isn’t it? The writer worries that the reader will not remember a salient fact crucial to the scene at hand, just as the screenwriter worries that the audience member might have gone off to the concession stand at the precise moment when the serial killer first revealed — wait for it — that he had a lousy childhood.

Wow — who could have predicted THAT? How about anyone who has seen a movie within the last two decades?

Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. As we discussed earlier in this series, one of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions.

That’s a problem, because one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day. We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. Really boring. As in it makes Millicent wish she’d gone into a less taxing profession. Like being a test pilot or a nuclear physicist.

Why, you ask? Here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are MORE likely to notice repetition of every variety than other readers, not less. (Perhaps Peter Pan traumatized them in their younger days, too.) Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition across manuscripts as well.

Yes, I am indeed saying what you think I’m saying. If 6 of the last 10 submissions Millicent has screened were conceptually redundant — a proportion not at all beyond the bounds of probability; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive — your first repetition may annoy her as much as the eighth in her first manuscript of the day.

And no, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to affect where your work falls in her to-read stack. Thanks for asking, though.

All a savvy reviser can do is — speaking of concept repetition — re-read his submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before allowing it to see the inside of a mailbox or hitting the SEND key. Minimizing the conceptual redundancy within the manuscript is the best (indeed, the only) insurance policy a writer can take out against the submissions read just before hers is to make hers as clean as possible.

I see some of you shrugging. You don’t think your manuscript could possibly fall prey to that level of bad luck? Okay, oh confident ones, here’s a challenge for you: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim. Ever.

Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

Did you find even one? Then you actually do need to worry about Millicent’s cry of, “Oh, no, not THIS again!”

For those of you who did not turn pale: what if I also ask you to highlight similar and culturally-common phrases in the narration, as well as the dialogue?

First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows. So is YA. Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition.

Honestly, it would be surprising if common dialogue hadn’t made its way into all of our psyches: according to CASSELL’S MOVIE QUOTATIONS, the line, “Let’s get outta here!” is heard in 81% of films released in the US between 1938 and 1985.

Care to take a wild guess at just how often some permutation of that line turns up in submissions to agencies? Better yet, care to take a wild guess at how many agents and editors notice a particular phrase the second time it turns up in a text? Or the second time it’s turned up in a submission this week?

“Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s been lifting lines doesn’t mean that an agency screener won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

It happens. Or, to put it in Afterschool Special terms, Checking for Both Types of Repetition is Good.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it from time to time. And for good reason: the rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are.

Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries tells me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance.

But remember — once again, this concept should be at least slightly familiar by now — just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. Or, better yet, have a good reader you trust check for you. (And if you’re not sure whether a particular twist or line is common enough to count, film critic Roger Ebert maintains a database of them.)

Often, it’s surprising how small a textual change will turn an incipient cliché into a genuinely original moment. A writer cannot perform that magic trick, however, without first identifying where it should be applied.

Is your head aching from all of the homework I’ve heaped upon you already today? Oh, but I’m far from done.

For starters, here’s a pop quiz: did any of you sharp-eyed self-editors happen to catch the really, really subtle test of your conceptual editing skills cleverly concealed in this post so far?

If your hand immediately shot into the air, accompanied by a vigorous shout of, “By Jove, Anne, I’m glad you brought this up; it’s been driving me mad. Your comments on conceptual redundancy were themselves conceptually redundant. You’ve made some of the points above two or three times — and via examples you’ve used before, too. How relieved I am to hear that you did it on purpose!” not only should you award yourself a full seventeen gold stars for the day, but you should start thinking about offering your services to your writer friends as a first reader.

You, my friend, are starting to read like Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the contest judge. Please, for the sake of your sanity, do not attempt to ride the Peter Pan ride anytime soon.

Even if you were not actively annoyed by my repeating myself, you may well have been a trifle insulted by it. Repeating a concept, fact, or sentence too often — or even once, if the bit in question was particularly memorable the first time around — does convey an impression to readers that the author does not trust them to be able to recall salient matters without a narrative nudge. Or perhaps does not believe they are intelligent enough to figure out even self-evident logical connections without assistance.

What other purpose, after all, would a writer have for producing a sentence like I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you?

“In heaven’s name, why must anyone leap to such an unflattering conclusion?” scream those who currently have pages under Millicent’s critical eye. “I could see being a trifle annoyed by hearing a similar argument a week apart, but why would any sane creature have such an intensely negative reaction to it?”

A couple of very sane reasons, actually. First, the Millicents of this world aren’t typically reading just one manuscript in any given day, but dozens. (Rejecting most of them on page 1 speeds up the screening process like you wouldn’t believe.) So in all likelihood, the manuscript that irritates her by repeating herself isn’t the only redundant submission she has handled that day — and certainly not that week. Conceptual redundancy is one of the more common manuscript megaproblems out there, cutting across lines of genre, book category, and the fiction/nonfiction divide.

All of which should sound annoyingly familiar by now, right? Getting the picture?

To be fair, Millicent was probably pretty even-tempered the first fifty times a narrative assumed that she couldn’t remember basic plot elements. Around the 750th time, however, it had gotten old.

By then, too, she would probably have figured out what an experienced editor could have told her — and this is the second sane reason a professional reader might find conceptual redundancy annoying: writers quite frequently retain multiple iterations of the same point simply because they like the writing of each section that discusses it.

Or, as I did above, because they have an illustrative anecdote that they’d really like to shoehorn into the text. (I admit it: I love the Peter Pan example.) Either way, conceptual redundancy is a signal that a manuscript requires quite a bit more revision.

You can feel more homework coming, can’t you? Clever you; you must have seen this movie before.

(1) Print out all or part of any pages you plan to submit to Millicent or anyone remotely like her.

You may use any part of your manuscript, of course, but as submissions tend to get rejected in the early pages — thus leaving the rest unread unfortunately often — page 1 is a dandy place to start.

(2) Read through it, using a highlighting pen — say, yellow — to mark every time the text repeats the same information.

If you have the time to get fancy, it will make your post-exercise life easier if you take the time to make notes on a separate sheet of every time a specific repetition occurs. That list will render figuring out which iteration to keep much, much easier.

(3) Using a different color of highlighter — pink is nice — mark the first couple of paragraphs (or even the scene) that immediately follows the repeated information.

Why, you ask? Hold your horses; I’m building suspense.

(4) Go back and re-read the yellow sections. Are all of them genuinely necessary for the reader to follow what’s going on? Or could some of them be cut without endangering the reader’s ability to follow the plot?

In answering question #4, assume that the reader is of normal intelligence and average memory, but is reading your book in a single sitting. (Millicent’s boss probably will read it in installments, but Millicent often will not.) Ditto with a contest entry: Mehitabel generally reads each one just once.

(5) Immediately after reading each yellow section, re-read the pink section that follows it. Are all of the highlighted bits actually adding something new to the plot, characterization, or argument? Or are they included primarily because you kind of liked how they sounded?

If it’s the latter, don’t be too hard on yourself: the old writing chestnut kill your darlings was coined for a reason. Remember, this is need not be the only book you ever write; you needn’t include every nice piece of writing that falls off your fingertips.

Save something for the sequel, for heaven’s sake. You needn’t always be raring to go-o-o-o.

(6) Be especially attentive to those pink bits in first-person narratives, memoirs — or in a real-life story told as fiction. Are these sections necessary to the story you’re telling, or are they included merely because these things happened in real life?

Often, this is another of Millicent’s most cherished pet peeves — and this one is usually shared by her boss and the editors to whom the agent typically sells. Far too much of the time, memoirists (and novelists who write in the first person) forget that writing the truth from a sympathetic point of view is not enough to make a good book — it must also be an engaging story.

Ditto with novelists who incorporate the real into the texts: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will necessarily be interesting to read. Or add to the storyline of a book.

Gee, where have I heard all of this before?

Judicious cutting is especially important when writing the real. No reader, however intrigued by a premise, wants to hear everything that ever happened to a character, any more than he wants to plow through a complete list of every object in a room where an important scene occurs. Include only what your story needs to make it shine.

Now that I have alerted you to the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Eleanor, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Fritz dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life (“Say ‘ah,’” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the terrified child.), it’s only fair to mention that both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest lines for a self-editor to identify and cut.

Redundant sentences can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss a sentence if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbrel and ride to the guillotine. As you read, think about just how much trimming could occur without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite hours of manly good fellowship and moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge.

“Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “How on earth did you pick up the habit? Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on the sawed-off shotgun that seldom left his side. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

Yes, text-retentive ones you are correct: I’ve used this example before, too. No exertion of laziness has been spared to drive today’s points home. (Oh, and happy Bastille Day, Cardinal.)

But tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do? Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure; I give you that.

Even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene. Take a gander:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, leaning against the fridge.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

That’s 123 words, down from 253, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit was straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER, right?) and unnecessary conceptual repetition.

How did I know, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happened earlier in the book? Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere – and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus. Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development — as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? — the reader really should have this information prior to the scene.

What would that mean for our example? Well, if the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on — you don’t want to know what happened on those rapids?) Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often signposts telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript.

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information on page 348.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not — and yes, I’ve used it before. I simply will not have my long-time readers walking away from this post willing to tolerate conceptual redundancy.

Think of your draft as a wonderful bouquet, stocked with flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe it’s too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it — but how? A good place to start would be to pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Then you could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier – and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

Be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation, as well as darlings that could be, if not killed, then at least set aside to grace another book. If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time. Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation.

Okay, it’s well past the time for me to go-o-o (curse you, Pan!) for today. Keep those creative spirits riding high, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!

Am I hallucinating, or is the screen going wavy again?

oil spill on beach

Did any of you sharp-eyed self-editors happen to catch the really, really subtle test of your conceptual editing skills cleverly concealed in yesterday’s post? Nobody left a comment about it, so I assume nobody noticed. Or perhaps those who did were merely too kind to point it out. Any guesses?

If your hand immediately shot into the air, accompanied by a vigorous cry of, “By Jove, Anne, I’m glad you brought this up; it’s been driving me mad since first I read that otherwise excellent post. It was a post on conceptual redundancy that was itself conceptually redundant. You had already lectured us about the dangers of repeating salient plot points in a post the previous week. How relieved I am to hear that you did it on purpose!” not only should you award yourself a full seventeen gold stars for the day, but you should start thinking about offering your services to your writer friends as a first reader.

You, my friend, are starting to read like Millicent the agency screener.

Or indeed, like most people who read manuscripts or contest entries on a regular basis. She and her ilk wouldn’t merely have noticed my conceptual redundancy over the course of a week; she would have been outraged by it.

“In heaven’s name, why?” scream those who currently have pages under Millicent’s critical eye. “I could see being a trifle annoyed by hearing a similar argument a week apart, but why would any sane creature have an intensely negative reaction to it?”

A couple of very sane reasons, actually. First, the Millicents of this world aren’t typically reading just one manuscript in any given day, but dozens. (Rejecting most of them on page 1 speeds up the screening process like you wouldn’t believe.) So in all likelihood, the manuscript that irritates her by repeating herself isn’t the only redundant submission she has handled that day — and certainly not that week. Conceptual redundancy is one of the more common manuscript megaproblems out there, cutting across lines of genre, book category, and the fiction/nonfiction divide.

To be fair, Millicent was probably pretty even-tempered the first fifty times a narrative assumed that she couldn’t remember basic plot elements. Around the 750th time, however, it had gotten old.

By then, too, she would probably have figured out what an experienced editor could have told her — and this is the second sane reason a professional reader might find conceptual redundancy annoying: writers quite frequently retain multiple iterations of the same point because they like the writing of each section that discusses it.

Or, as I did yesterday, because they have an illustrative anecdote that they’d really like to shoehorn into the text. (I admit it: I love the Peter Pan example.) Either way, conceptual redundancy is often a signal that some editing is needed.

You can feel your homework coming, can’t you?

Who am I to disappoint you? Here it is:

(1) Print out all or part of any pages you plan to submit to Millicent or anyone remotely like her.

You may use any part of your manuscript, of course, but as submission tend to get rejected in the early pages (thus leaving the rest unread unfortunately often), page 1 is a dandy place to start.

(2) Read through it, using a highlighting pen — say, yellow — to mark every time the text repeats the same information.

If you want to get fancy, it will make your post-exercise life easier if you take the time to make notes on a separate sheet of every time a specific repetition occurs. That list will render figuring out which iteration to keep much, much easier.

(3) Using a different color of highlighter — pink is nice — mark the first couple of paragraphs (or even the scene) that immediately follows the repeated information.

Why, you ask? Hold your horses; I’m building suspense.

(4) After you finish, go back and re-read the yellow sections. Are all of them genuinely necessary for the reader to follow what’s going on?

In answering that question, assume that the reader is of normal intelligence and average memory, but is reading your book in a single sitting. Millicent’s boss probably will read it in installments, but Millicent often will not.

(5) Go back and re-read the pink sections. Are all of them actually adding something new to the plot, characterization, or argument? Or are they included primarily because you kind of liked how they sounded?

If it’s the latter, don’t be too hard on yourself: the old writing chestnut kill your darlings was coined for a reason.

Remember, this is need not be the only book you ever write; you needn’t include every nice piece of writing that falls off your fingertips. Save something for the sequel.

(6) Be especially attentive to those pink bits in first-person narratives, memoirs — or in a real-life story told as fiction. Are these sections necessary to the story you’re telling, or are they included merely because these things happened in real life?

This is another of Millicent’s most cherished pet peeves — and this one is usually shared by her boss and the editors to whom the agent typically sells. All too often, memoirists (and novelists who write in the first person) forget that writing the truth from a sympathetic point of view is not enough to make a good book — it must also be an engaging story.

Ditto with novelists who include the real: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will necessarily be interesting to read. Or add to the storyline of a book.

Judicious cutting is especially important when writing the real. No reader, however intrigued by a premise, wants to hear about everything that ever happened to a character, any more than he wants to plow through a complete list of every object in a room where an important scene occurs. Include only what your story needs to make it shine.

Okay, that’s enough looking backward for today. Time to move ahead.

Of course, in order to do so, I’m going to need to backtrack a little first. In my last installment on self-editing, I went to town on the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Maude, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Mortimer dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life (“Say ‘ah,’” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the child.). As I pointed out, both species are problematic in submissions, because they are so common.

Translation: professional readers get really, really tired of seeing examples of them.

But both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest lines for a self-editor to identify and cut. Redundant sentences can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss it if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbrel and ride to the guillotine. Note just how much trimming could occur without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite hours of manly good fellowship and moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge.

“Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “How on earth did you pick up the habit? Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on the sawed-off shotgun that seldom left his side. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

Tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do? Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure; I give you that.

But even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

That’s 123 words, down from 253, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit is straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER, right?) and unnecessary conceptual repetition.

How did I know, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happened earlier in the book? Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere – and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus. Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development — as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? — the reader really should have this information prior to the scene.

So if the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on — you don’t want to know what happened on those rapids?)

Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often flares telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript.

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information on page 348.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not. Listen:

Think of your draft as a wonderful bouquet, stocked with flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe it’s too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it — but how? A good place to start would be to pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Then you could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier – and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

Be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation, as well as darlings that could be, if not killed, then at least set aside to grace another book. If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time, in fact. Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation. Bear that in mind, please, and keep up the good work!

Laying the foundations of plot so they don’t fly up and hit passersby in the nose

What did you expect me to be taking pictures of while workers are crawling all over my yard for months on end — rainbows and cattle?

Last time, I wrote about how frustrating many professional readers find it when a narrative forces them to follow a poor interviewer through an information-seeking process that seems one-sided or lacking in conflict. Or when — heaven forbid — the answers just seem to fall into the protagonist’s lap without significant effort on her part, exactly as if — wait for it — SOMEONE HAD PLANNED IT THAT WAY.

Strange to say, even though a reader would have to be pretty obtuse indeed (or very into the postmodern conceptual denial of individual authorship) not to realize that any protagonist’s adventures have in fact been orchestrated by a writer, a too-obvious Hand of the Creator can yank the reader out of the story faster than you can say, “Sistine Chapel ceiling.”

To work on the printed page, fate has to move in slightly more mysterious ways. Or at least in interesting ones.

Which is to say: interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. And let’s face it — almost every plot involves some element of detective work, however minor. It’s worth triple-checking ALL of your manuscript’s interviews for flow and excitement.

Especially, if you’ll forgive my saying so, toward the middle and the end of a book, where protagonists — or is it their creators? — often become a tad tired of searching for the truth. At that point, crucial clues hidden for years like Ali Baba’s treasure frequently start leaping out of the woodwork, screaming, “Here I am — discover me, already!”

As we all know, though, an agent, editor, screener, and/or contest judge needs to get through the early pages of a submission before getting to its middle or end — so it would behoove you to pay very close attention to the pacing of any interview scene that occurs in the first chapter, particularly within the first few pages, as this is the point in your submission where a screener is most likely to stop reading in a huff.

Was that giant gust of wind I just heard the collective gasp of all of you out there whose novels open with an interview scene?

I’m guessing so; an AMAZINGLY high percentage of novel submissions open with interviews or discussions of the problem at hand. The protagonist gets a phone call on page 1, for instance, where he learns that he must face an unexpected challenge: violà, an interview is born, as the caller fills him in on the details.

Or the book opens with the protagonist rushing into the police station and demanding to know why her son’s killer has not yet been brought to justice: another interview scene, as the police sergeant responds.

Or the first lines of the book depict a husband and wife, two best friends, cop and partner, and/or villain and victim discussing the imminent crisis: bingo.

Or, to stick to the classics, this dame with gams that would make the 7th Fleet run aground slinks into the private dick’s office, see, and says she’s in trouble. Bad trouble — as opposed to the other kind — and could he possibly spare a cigarette?

“What kind of trouble?” he asks – and lo and behold, another interview begins.

There are good reasons that this scene is so popular as an opener, of course: for at least a decade now, agents and editors at conferences all over North America have been urging aspiring writers to open their books with over conflict. And conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information very quickly, isn’t it?

Or, to put it in the language of writing teachers, dialogue is action.

My long-term readers are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know in order to provide the audience with needed data. As in:

My long-term readers are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know purely in order to provide the audience with background information.

Openings of novels are NOTORIOUS for this. As in:

“So, Molly, we have been shipwrecked on this desert island now for fifteen years and seven months, if my hash marks on that coconut tree just to the right of our rustic-yet-comfortable hut. For the first four years, by golly, I thought we were goners, but then you learned to catch passing sea gulls in your teeth. How happy I am that we met thirty-seven years ago in that café just outside Duluth, Minnesota.”

“Oh, Tad, you’ve been just as helpful, building that fish-catching dam clearly visible in mid-distance right now if I squint — because, as you may recall, I lost my glasses three months ago in that hurricane. If only I could read my all-time favorite book, Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE, which so providentially happened to be in my unusually-capacious-for-women’s-clothing coat pocket when we were blown overboard, and you hadn’t been so depressed since our youngest boy, Humbert — named after the protagonist of another favorite novel of mine, as it happens — was carried off by that shark three months ago, we’d be so happy here on this uncharted four-mile-square island 200 miles southwest of Fiji.”

“Well, Molly, at least for the last week, I have not been brooding so much. Taking up whittling at the suggestion of Brian — who, as you know, lives on the next coral atoll over — has eased my mind quite a bit.”

Since I have lectured so often on this VERY common manuscript megaproblem, I shall let this example speak for itself. Suffice it to say that about the NICEST comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is, “Show, don’t tell!”

More commonly, it provokes the cry, “Next!”

Did you notice the other narrative sins in that last example, by the way? Guesses, anyone?

Award yourself high marks if you dunned ol’ Molly for making the mistake we discussed earlier this week, over-explaining the rather uninteresting fact that she managed to bring her favorite book with her whilst in the process of being swept overboard by what one can only assume were some pretty powerful forces of nature.

And as much as I love the work of Jerzy Kosinski, in-text plugs like this tend to raise the hackles of the pros — or, to be more precise, of those who did not happen to be involved with the publication of BEING THERE (a terrific book, by the way) or currently employed by those who did.

Besides, it’s not a very telling detail.

Hear me out. Writers who include such references usually do so in the rather charmingly myopic belief that a person’s favorite book is one of the most character-revealing bits of information a narrative could possibly include. However, this factoid is unlikely to be of even the vaguest interest to someone who hadn’t read the book in question — and might well provoke a negative reaction in a reader who had and hated it.

Out comes the broken record again: it’s never a good idea to assume that ANY conceivable reader of one’s book will share one’s tastes. Or worldview.

Give yourself an A+ for the day if you said immediately, “Hey, if the island is uncharted, how does Molly know so precisely where they are? Wouldn’t she need to have either (a) seen the island upon which she is currently removed upon a map, (b) seen it from space, or (c) possess the magical ability to read the mind of some future cartographer in order to pinpoint their locale with such precision?”

And you have my permission to award yourself a medal if you also cried to the heavens, “Wait — why is the DIALOGUE giving the physical description here, rather than, say, the narrative prose?”

Good call — this is Hollywood dialogue’s overly-chatty first cousin, the physical description hidden in dialogue form. It tends to lurk in the shadows of the first few pages of a manuscript:

Link glanced over at his wife. “What have you been doing, to get your long, red hair into such knots?”

“Not what you’re thinking,” Gloria snapped. “I know that look in your flashing black eyes, located so conveniently immediately below your full and bushy eyebrows and above those cheekbones so chiseled that it would, without undue effort, be possible to use them to cut a reasonably soft cheese. Perhaps not a Camembert — too runny — but at least a sage Derby.”

“I’m not jealous sexually.” Link reached over to pat her on the head. “As your hairdresser, I have a right to know where those luxurious tresses have been.”

Why might introducing physical descriptions of the characters through opening-scene dialogue seem a bit clumsy to someone who read hundreds of submissions a month?

Well, again, it’s common, but this time, at least, that’s not the primary reason. Any guesses?

If you said that Link and Gloria are telling each other things they obviously already know, throw yourself a party. In this era of easily-available mirrors, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would NOT know that he possessed, say, dark eyes, and even the most lax of personal groomers would undoubtedly be aware of her own hair’s color and length.

The only reason this information could POSSIBLY appear in dialogue between them, then, is to inform a third party. Like, for instance, the reader.

That’s a pretty good test for Hollywood narration, incidentally: if a statement doesn’t serve any purpose other than revealing a fact to the reader, as opposed to the character to whom it is said, then it’s Hollywood narration. And it should go.

If you also said that Link and Gloria are engaging in dialogue that does not ring true, give yourself extra credit with sprinkles and a cherry on top. With the exception of medical doctors, art teachers, and phone sex operators, real people seldom describe other people’s bodies to them.

It’s just not necessary. My SO has just walked into the room, but I cannot conceive of any impetus that might prompt me to say to him, “Rick, your eyes are green,” despite the fact that his eyes are indeed green, and I might conceivably want a reader to know it.

In the interest of scientific experimentation, though, I just tried saying it out loud. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out he already knew.

There you have it — several more excellent reasons to read your manuscript OUT LOUD and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you submit it, my friends, and an even better reason to have a third party read it before you send it off to an agent or editor: to see if the dialogue sounds like something a real person might actually say (as Hollywood narration doesn’t), and to check that it is interesting enough to keep a reader moving from line to line in those interview scenes.

More on dialogue spiciness next time — that is, if I can resist the burning desire not to take another run at Hollywood Narration. Must…remain…strong…

Somehow, I suspect that I’m going to lose this particular battle. Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part VII: those pesky teenagers — and a major milestone!

Sic transit gloria.

The reconstruction of my devastated back yard proceeds apace — there have been so many workmen with great big boots tramping through my erstwhile flowerbeds of late that I’m quite positive the resident mole believes a hostile army has invaded his territory.

The photo above represents the last hurrah of our hot tub before it went the way of all flesh. Since my agent is currently circulating my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, it seemed only appropriate that the little statue should be the last thing evacuated.

With great destruction comes the possibility of new growth, though, and I have to say, even as an editor experienced in making large-scale cuts to manuscripts, I have been impressed to see just how many new vista opportunities have been opening up each time a backhoe accidentally knocks over a small tree.

An ornamental cherry, just about to bloom. Talk about killing your darlings.

The process has been reminding me a great deal of the first two years after I sold my memoir to a publisher, actually: after working up courage to dig up a story that hadn’t seen the light of day for over twenty years, all hell broke loose for two solid years. Every time I started thinking, “Okay, I could learn to live with the new status quo around this book,” BANG! Down went another tree. Or a backhoe took a great big hole out a flowering pear, doubtless cutting the coming summer’s crop by a third.

Metaphorically, of course.

The upheaval on both the garden and memoir fronts remains substantial — and ongoing — but I’m sure the wee Buddha would approve of the hourly evidence my environs are giving that nothing is really permanent. And that building something lasting typically involves quite a bit of ground-clearing first.

Doesn’t that just make you want to take out the machete and leap back into revising your manuscript? No? Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

But before we launch into the topic du jour, a drum roll, please, for an announcement of moment: this is my 500th blog on this site!

To those of you who didn’t follow me over from my old Resident Writer blog on the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s website, this total may seem a bit off, as there are about 800 posts archived here, including roughly 300 from my former gig. (Also, I haven’t been counting guest posts and interviews toward the final count.)

So these last half-thousand have all been written specifically for you, the Author! Author! community, under my own aegis. You’re welcome.

When the blog has reached similar milestones in the past, I have gone back and figured out how many pages I’d written, measured in standard manuscript format, but at this point, it’s just too daunting a task. Suffice it to say that it’s been thousands of pages of my ranting at you about the joys and imperatives of standard format, the ins and outs of pitching and querying, and my vast preference for writers reading their work — chant it with me; you surely know the words by now — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it to make its merry way through an agency or publishing house.

Clearly, I need to take a weekend off.

But let’s finish this mini-series (so to speak) first, shall we? For the last week, I’ve been talking about that graveyard of literary tension and promoter of telling rather than showing, the Short Road Home, a scene or plot that resolves conflict practically the nanosecond it appears.

After a lifetime of reading and a decade of editing, I have to say, I don’t think that most writers appreciate just how much the average reader enjoys savoring conflict — or how much more trivial an easily-solved problem appears on the page than one with which the protagonist must struggle for pages or chapters on end. Just as an Idiot Plot that is resolved the instant someone thinks to ask Aunt Joyce her ring size is less than dramatically satisfying, a plot resolved by a Short Road Home tends to leave readers feeling underfed.

They came for a full meal, you know, with many succulent courses. How could they not be disappointed when a narrative merely gives them a glimpse of a nicely-fried brook trout, then whisks it away untasted? Or when the waiter spends the whole meal boasting of the spectacular dessert, then brings out a single cookie for the entire table to share?

And that’s non-professional readers’ reaction; the pros are even more ravenous. Just because Millicent spends her days grazing upon query letters and munching on synopses doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be thrilled to have a full meal come submission-reading time.

Please say you’ve grasped the concept, because this metaphor is beginning to whimper under its explanatory load.

A good place to start sniffing around for instances of the Short Road Home is when a narrative begins to stray close to stereotype territory. Why? Well, stereotypes thrive upon generalization, so when they rear their ugly heads, they tend to nudge the narrative toward summary statements, conclusions, and the like. Grounding a scene or argument in the specific has the opposite tendency.

This is particularly likely too occur in memoirs and novels where writer is working overtime to make a character likeable — or always right. A character who is never wrong is, among other things, predictable; when predictability has pulled up a chair and seated itself in a scene, tension tends to take a flying leap out the nearest window.

Too theoretical? Okay, let’s take a gander at one of the more common marriages of stereotype and Short Road Home: the troubled child of the protagonist, particularly if it’s a teenager.

At the very mention, Millicent has already started cringing in her cubicle in New York, I assure you. The TCoP crosses her desk so frequently in manuscripts that she can scarcely see a character in the 13-19 age range without instinctively flinching and crying out, “Don’t tell me — she’s going to be sullen.”

You’re quite right, Millicent — 99% of the time, she will be. And rebellious. Not to mention disrespectful, sighing, and eye-rolling.

Yes, troubled kids and teenagers across the land have been known to do all of these things from time to time — but remember what I said a few paragraphs back about predictability? When Millicent encounters the rare non-stereotypical teenager in a submission, it’s a red-letter day.

Not quite a 500th post kind of day, perhaps, but close.

I can feel some of you getting restless out there. “Yeah, yeah,” I hear a few seasoned self-editors piping, “I already know to avoid stereotypes, because Millicent sees them so often and because the whole point of writing a book is to show MY view of the world, not a bunch of clichés. What does this have to do with the Short Road Home?”

In practice, quite a bit; it’s very, very common for a narrative featuring a TCoP to expend considerable (and usually disproportionate) time explaining the kid’s behavior — and, often, justifying how the protagonist responds to it. Unfortunately, this rush to interpret not infrequently begins as early as the first scene in which the TCoP is introduced.

What might this look like on the first page of a manuscript, you ask? A little something like this — and see if you can catch the subtle narrative bias that often colors this stripe of the Short Road Home:

When hard-working Tom Carver opened the front door, arriving home late from work at the stuffed animal plant yet again, his daughter, Tanya, refused to speak to him. Glaring at him silently with all of the dastardly sneer her fifteen-year-old face could muster, she played with her spiky, three-toned hair until the third time he had considerately asked her how her day had been.

“Like you care!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes dramatically. She rushed from the room.

The now-familiar sound of her slammed bedroom door ringing in his ears, he wandered into the kitchen to kiss his adored wife on her long-suffering cheek. “Criminy, I’m tired of that, Mary. Someday, all of that slamming is going to bring the house tumbling down on our heads. I’ll bet she hasn’t done even one of her very reasonable load of daily chores, either. Why did good people like us end up with such a rotten kid? I try to be a good father.”

Mary shook her head good-humoredly as she dried her wet hands on a dishtowel, slipped an apple pie in the oven, settled the home-make brownies more comfortably on their plate, and adjusted the schedule book in which she juggled her forty-seven different weekly volunteer commitments. “Well, Tom,” she said, “she’s not a bad kid; she just acts like one. Tanya’s felt abandoned since her mother, your ex-wife, stopped taking her bipolar medication and ran off with that bullfighter three months ago, totally ignoring the custody schedule we invested so many lawyers’ bills in setting up. She doesn’t have any safe outlet for her anger, so she is focusing it on you, the parent she barely knew until you gained the full custody you’d been seeking for years because you loved her so much. All you can do is be patient and consistent, earning her trust over time.”

Tom helped himself to a large scoop of the dinner he had known would be waiting for him. “You’re always right, Mary. I’m so lucky to have you.”

Now, this story contains elements of a good character-driven novel, right? There’s a wealth of raw material here: a new custody situation; a teenager dealing with her mother’s madness and affection for matadors; a father suddenly thrust into being the primary caretaker for a child who had been living with his unstable ex; a stepmother torn between her loyalty to her husband and her resentment about abruptly being asked to parent a child in trouble full-time.

But when instant therapy intervenes, all of that juicy conflict just becomes another case study, rather than gas to fuel the rest of the book, diffusing what might have been an interesting scene that either showed the conflict (instead of telling the reader about it), provided interesting character development, or moved the plot along.

Effectively, the narrative’s eagerness to demonstrate the protagonist’s (or other wise adult’s) complete understanding of the situation stops the story cold while the analysis is going on. Not for a second is the reader permitted to speculate whether Tanya’s father or stepmother had done something to provoke her response; we hardly have time even to consider whether Tom’s apparently habitual lateness is legitimate ground for resentment.

A pity, isn’t it? If only Tom had thought, “You know, instead of avoiding conflict, I’m going to maximize it, to make things more interesting for the reader,” and gone to knock on Tanya’s door instead of strolling into the kitchen for coffee and soporific analysis, we might have had all the narrative tension we could eat.

Had the narrative just gone ahead and SHOWN Tom and Mary being patient and consistent, earning Tanya’s trust over the next 200 pages, the reader MIGHT have figured out, I think, that being patient and consistent is a good way to deal with a troubled teenager. But no, the subtle Short Road Home demands that the reader be told what to conclude early and often.

Whenever you notice one of your characters rationalizing in order to sidestep a conflict, ask yourself: am I cheating my readers of an interesting scene here? And if you find you have a Jiminy Cricket character, for heaven’s sake, write a second version of every important scene, a draft where he DOESN’T show up and explain everything in a trice, and see if it isn’t more dynamic. Do this even if your book’s Jiminy Cricket is the protagonist’s therapist.

ESPECIALLY if it’s the therapist.

If you are writing a book where the protagonist spends a significant amount of time in therapy, make sure that you are balancing two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking scenes with scenes of realization outside the office. And make sure to do some solid character development for the therapist as well, to keep these scenes tense and vibrant.

If you are in doubt about how to structure this, take a gander at Judith Guest’s excellent ORDINARY PEOPLE, where most of the protagonist’s breakthroughs occur outside of the therapist’s office. The therapist appears from time to time, punctuating young Conrad’s progress toward rebuilding his life after a particularly grisly suicide attempt with pithy questions, not sum-it-all-up answers.

Here’s a radical thought for revising a Short Road Home scene: what if you tinkered with it so your protagonist learns his lessons primarily through direct personal experience — or through learning about someone else’s direct personal experience told in vivid, tension-filled flashbacks?

Sound familiar? It should: it’s a pretty solid prescription for a narrative that shows, rather than tells.

Which you should strive to do as often as possible — at least in your first book, where you really need to wow the professionals to break in. After you make it big, I give you permission to construct a plot entirely about a couple of characters sitting around talking, motionless.

Happy 500th, everybody — and, as always, keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part III: wait, where did the category list go?

Weren’t expecting THAT plot twist, were you? Frankly, neither was I.

So before any of you start e-mailing me frantically to tell me about it: I’m aware that all 151 categories have vanished from the category list at right — and, believe me, no one could be more appalled at the prospect of losing them than I am. I shudder to think how long it would take to re-code all of those thousands of archived pages. Or to search them all for a relevant topic, for that matter.

Okay, let’s all take a few nice, deep breaths. Nothing to panic about here. It’s not as though the archives themselves have disappeared…

But if everyone reading this would please clap his or her hands (you know, the way you did as a kid to bring Tinkerbell back to life) and chant, “This is a simple problem to fix. This is a simple problem to fix,” until the category lists reappear, I would certainly appreciate it.

Let’s get back to the topic at hand, before I start picturing other parts of the blog vanishing as well.

Over the weekend, I brought up a manuscript mega-problem — i.e., a writing problem that is difficult to catch unless you sit down and read the work straight through, as a reader would, rather than on a computer screen, as most writers do — that I like to call the Short Road Home, a too-quick resolution of a major problem in the plot. For the sake of discussion, I brewed it for you in its full-bodied version, where it directly affects the plot in a notable way: “What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s fallen into the well?”

Today, I am going to deal with the subtle flavor of Short Road Home, scenes where character development or conflict is curtailed by too-quick analysis. Like the full-bodied version, this mega-problem is not limited to works of fiction, but runs rampant through narrative nonfiction and memoir as well.

I see it in my freelance editing practice all the time, and literally every time I have been a judge in a literary contest, I have seen otherwise excellent manuscripts infected with it — and, inevitably, penalized for it.

(Not that the other judges would have called it that when they saw it. Just so you know, the names I tend to bestow upon manuscript mega-problems — and the terms mega-problem and micro-problem themselves — are of my own making. So if you use them with an agent or editor, be prepared to be rewarded with a blank look. You’ll get used to it.)

The subtle flavor of the Short Road Home is easy for the author to overlook, particularly in a first novel. First-time novelists tend to be so pleased when they develop the skill to pin down an emotional moment with precision that they go wild with it for a little while.

Those of you who have done time in critique groups and writing classes are familiar with the phenomenon, right? The instant a solidly conflictual moment peeps its poor little head above ground, these eager beavers stop the plot cold to devote themselves to analyzing it, often for pages on end. If a nuance tries to escape unpinned-down, perhaps in order to grace a later scene, the narrative leaps upon it like a vicious wildcat, worrying it to bits.

Frequently, this analysis takes the form of what could be an interestingly subtle conversational conflict’s being presented as provocation + protagonist’s mulling over the provocation without responding overtly at all. Rhetorical questions are just dandy for this. It tends to run a little something like this:

“No more cake for me,” Moira said with a sigh. “I’m stuffed.”

“Oh, have some more, Moira,” Cheyenne wheedled. “You could use to pack on a few pounds.”

Moira’s hand froze in mid-air, crumb-bedusted dessert plate trembling aloft. What did Cheyenne mean by that? Was he just being polite — or was this a backhanded way of reminding her that she was supposed to be on a perpetual diet, with the Miss America pageant only three months away? Or was he afraid that if the guests didn’t consume every last morsel, he would revert to his habits from before, from those torrid days at the emergency reduction boot camp where they’d met, and snort up all of the remaining calories like a Hoover? She had to smile at the thought: he had been adorable chubby. But that’s not the kind of person who should be seen on a beauty queen’s arm.

She decided to change the subject, as well as her conversational partner. “So, Barbara, how are you enjoying wombat farming?”

See what the narrative has done here? The long internal monologue provides both backstory and character development, but it has also deprived the reader of what could have been a meaningful exchange between Moira and Cheyenne. Instead of allowing the reader to derive impressions of their attitudes toward each other through action and dialogue, the narrative simply summarizes the facts.

Why is this a problem? Well, when situations and motivations are over-explained, the reader does not have to do any thinking; it’s like a murder mystery where the murderer is identified and we are told how he will be caught on page one. Where’s the suspense? Why keep turning pages?

To depress the tension of the scene even further, once the logical possibilities for Cheyenne’s motivation have been disposed of in this silent, non-confrontational manner, the scene proceeds as if no conflict had ever reared its ugly head.

The subtle Short Road Home is, as we’ve just seen, far more conducive to telling than showing — and after Millicent has thought, “Show, don’t tell!” once, she’s probably not going to cut the submission any further slack.

Most aspiring writers tend to forget this, but professional readers do not, as a rule, devour an entire chapter, or even an entire page, before making up their minds about whether they think the submission is marketable. They read line by line, extrapolating patterns.

How might this affect a submission in practice? Let’s say Millicent has in her hot little hands the first 50 pages of a manuscript. She reads to the end of page 1 and stops, because a subtle Short Road Home has already appeared. Because this is her first contact with the writer’s work, she left to speculate whether this is a writing habit, or a one-time fluke. Depending upon which way she decides, she may choose to take a chance that it is a one-time gaffe and keep reading — or, and this is by far the more popular choice, she may pass with thanks.

Generally, she will conclude that this is a recurring writing problem, and score the piece accordingly. She labels the writer as promising, but needing a more experience in moving the plot along.

Subtle Short Roads Home often trigger the feedback, “Show — don’t tell!” But frankly, I think that admonition does not give the writer enough guidance. There are a lot of ways that a writer could be telling the reader what is going on; a subtle Slow Road Home is only one of many, and I don’t think it’s fair to leave an aspiring writer to guess which rule she has transgressed.

But then, as I believe I have pointed out before, I don’t rule the universe. If I did, though, every writer who was told “Show — don’t tell!” would also receive specific feedback on where and how. In addition, I would provide them with three weeks of paid holiday every six months just for writing (child care provided gratis, of course), a pet monkey, a freezer full of ice cream, and a leather-bound set of the writings of Madame de Staël.

Because, frankly, subtle Short Roads Home bug me, as anyone who has ever been in a writers’ group with me can tell you. I feel that they should be stopped in our lifetime, by federal statute, if necessary.

For me, seeing a subtle Short Road Home stop the flow of a wonderful story reminds me of the fate of the migratory birds that used to visit my house when I was a child. Each spring, lovely, swooping swallows would return to their permanent nests, firmly affixed under the eaves of my house, invariably arriving four days after their much-publicized return to Mission San Juan Capistrano, much farther south. For me, it was an annual festival, watching the happy birds frolic over the vineyard, evidently delighted to be home.

Then, one dark year, the nasty little boy who lived half a mile from us took a great big stick and knocked their nests down. The swallows never returned again.

Little Georgie had disrupted their narrative, you see. Once an overly-enthusiastic in-text analysis has laid the underlying emotional rubric of a relationship completely bare, the rhythm of a story generally has a hard time recovering momentum. When a text over-analyzes, the reader is left with nothing to do.

Readers of good writing don’t want to be passive; they want to get emotionally involved with the characters, so they can inhabit, for a time, the world of the book. They want to care about the characters — to keep turning page after page, to find out what happens to them.

Essentially, subtle Short Roads Home are about not trusting the reader to draw the right conclusions about a scene, a character, or a plot twist. They’re about being afraid that the reader might stop liking a character who has ugly thoughts, or who seems not to be handling a situation well. They’re about, I think, a writer’s being afraid that he may not have presented his story well enough to prove the point of his book.

And, sometimes, they’re just about following the lead of television and movies, which show us over and over emotions analyzed to the nth degree. We’ve gotten accustomed to being told immediately why any given character has acted in a particular manner.

The various LAW & ORDER franchises excel at this, particularly L&O SVU: in practically every episode, one of the police officers will, in the interests of drama and character development, lose an apparently tenuous grasp on his or her emotions/underlying hostility/grasp of constitutional law and police procedure and let loose upon a suspect.

Or a witness. Or a coworker. The point is, they yell at somebody.

Then, practically the nanosecond after the heat of emotion has passed, another member of the squad will turn up to explain why the character blew up. Helpfully, they often direct this explanation TO the person who has just finished bellowing.

Whew — just when the audience member thought s/he might have to draw a conclusion based upon what s/he had seen occur.

Or — and this one’s my personal favorite — one of the police officers (or forensic pathologist, or administrator, or someone else entitled to a series of close-ups of an anguished face) does or says something well-intentioned at the beginning of the episode that triggers (however indirectly) someone else to do something stupid. An actual example: “If I hadn’t bought my nephew that computer, he would never have met that online predator!”

The character in question exhibits his remorse, naturally, by repeating this sentiment at crucial points throughout the episode, looking tortured. Then he bends some pesky police regulation/federal statute/commandment because (and in the interests of brevity, I’m going to cut to the essentials of the argument here) the ends of catching THAT CREEP justify the means.

Cue recap of feeling guilty — often punctuated by a co-worker’s patient explanation that capturing the creep du jour didn’t REALLY change the underlying emotional situation, raise the dead, get the nephew un-molested, etc. — and leave those emotional threads hanging for next week’s episode. Wash, rise, repeat.

What identifies this kind of plot as a Short Road Home is not so much that the villain is pretty much always caught and convicted, but that complex human emotions that talented actors would surely be delighted to play are simply summarized in the plot.

Or, to put it as an editor might, the turmoil is told, rather than shown. But, to be fair, TV and movie scripts are technically limited to the sensations of sight and sound: they cannot tell their stories any other way.

A novelist, on the other hand, can draw upon the full range of sensations — and show thoughts. A book writer who restricts herself to using only the tools of TV and movies is like a pianist who insists upon playing only the black keys.

Live a little. You have a lot of ways to show character development and motivation; use them.

Consider your manuscript for a moment: does it contain scenes where, instead of interaction between characters showing the reader what the conflicts are and how the protagonist works through them, the protagonist sits around (often in a car) and thinks through the problem to its logical conclusion?

Or sits around drinking coffee with her friends while THEY come up with analysis and solution?

Or — and this one often surprises writers when I bring it up — sits around with her therapist, dissecting the problem and coming up with a solution?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, sit down right away and read your book straight through. Afterward, consider: would the plot have suffered tremendously if those scenes were omitted entirely? Are there other ways you could convey the same points, through action rather than thought or discussion?

Just a little food for thought. (“And just what does she mean by that?” Moira worried, gnawing her fingernails down to the elbow.)

Next time, I shall load you with practical examples of subtle Short Roads Home, and discuss how to work with them. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The screen goes wavy

In my last installment on self-editing, I went to town on the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Maude, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Mortimer dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life (“Say ‘ah,’” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the child.). As I pointed out, both species are problematic in submissions, because they are so common.

Translation: professional readers get really, really tired of seeing examples of them.

But both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest lines to cut. Redundant lines can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss it if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbril and ride to the guillotine. Note just how much trimming could occur without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

***Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge. “Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on his sawed-off shotgun. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.” ***

Tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do? Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure; I give you that. But even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene:

***Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.” ***

That’s 123 words, down from 231, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit is straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER) and unnecessary repetition.

How did I know, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happenedearlier in the book? Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere – and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus. Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development – as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? – the reader really should have this information prior to the scene.

So if the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on – you DON’T want to know what happened on those rapids?)

Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often flares telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript.

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not. Listen:

Think of your draft as a wonderful bouquet, stocked with flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe it’s too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it – but how? A good place to start would be to pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Then you could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier – and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

So be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation. If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time, in fact. Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation. Bear that in mind, and keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part VI: fabricated suspense and other ways to annoy an agency screener without really trying

Sorry I missed posting yesterday — an editing client had a last-minute deadline rush. I’ll do an extra-long post today, the kind that will more than make up for that unpaid overtime your boss made you work last week, to make up for it. (Oh, as if no one ever surfed the net at work. It’s what we Americans get instead of coffee breaks.)

Dealing with other people’s deadlines is just a fact of life in the freelance editing business, and, indeed, in the publishing world in general. Much to the chagrin of plan-ahead people like me, sudden “Oh, my God, I need it by Wednesday!” deadlines abound in the industry. The publishing world is a serious underwriter of overnight shipping.

So it seems like a good time to remind you, my friends: cultivate flexibility. And really fast-typing fingers. You’re going to need both in spades, if you’re going to stick around the industry for the long haul.

After my last post on opening paragraph problems, a reader was kind enough to pass along an amusing factoid, gleaned from a recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer trivia spot: the first sentence of Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST apparently contains 98 words, seven commas, and three semicolons. Somehow, I doubt any of the Idol panelist agents would have made it even halfway through!

Speaking of the list of Idol rejection reasons, let’s get back to it. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, please see my post for October 31.) Going over it is providing a lot of useful insights, isn’t it? More than I expected, I have to admit: the fact is, the first pages of our novels are not what writers tend to sit around and talk about when we get together. And all of us would like to think that an agent who liked our pitch or query well enough to request the first 50 pages would have the patience, if not the courtesy, to commit to reading at least the first 5 of those pages…

Ah, well, live and learn. I’m sure that some great cosmic record-keeper in the sky is keeping tabs on which side of the book-producing process is the more courteous. Go, Team Creative!

Today, I would like to concentrate upon the rejection reasons that have to do with how that latte-drinking, lunchtime date-awaiting, radically underpaid agency screener who is only doing this job for a few years to learn the business does and doesn’t get drawn into the story. (Yes, yes, I know: from a writer’s point of view, talking about how much a reader could possibly get pulled into a story between, say, line 2 and line 3 of page 1 is kind of ridiculous. Bear with me here.) Specifically, I would like to introduce you to the oft-cited concept of being pulled out of the story by something in it.

“Wha–?” I hear many of you cry.

Being pulled out of a story is industry-speak for when you are reading along, happily following a story line — and then you encounter something that you do not like. A jarring or anachronistic element, for instance, or an unexplained switch in perspective or tense; it is very much in the eye of the beholder. Whatever instigates it, the reader’s mind starts wandering off the storyline and onto other matters — usually, to the fact that this particular element is annoying and distracting.

Let me give you a concrete example, so you may recognize the phenomenon when you spot it in the wild: “Caleb Williams stood on the still-smoldering deck of Her Majesty’s Ship Wasp, contemplating the ruins of the ship that had sheltered him since he was a cabin boy. What had become of Beatrice, his long-suffering fiancée? He peered through the smoke, shouting for her, but the dying man clinging to his leg was slowing his search efforts considerably. Impatiently, he drew a Ginsu knife from his Georgio Armani tool belt and slit the man’s throat, so he could move forward unimpeded through the brine seeping up from below. Too soon, however, he tripped over a bloated mass floating before his knees: Beatrice, his heart cried, or just another bos’un’s mate?”

Okay, I know it was subtle, but was there a point where you stopped following Caleb’s saga, wondering for a nanosecond or two what the author was thinking? Yup. In that moment, you were pulled out of the story.

Universally, agents, editors, and their screeners cite being pulled out of the story as a primary reason to stop reading a submission on the spot. This is why, in case you’re curious, agents at conferences so often give the same tired suggestion for evaluating where to revise a novel: “Take a pen,” they advise, “or better yet, have a reader take a pen, and run it vertically down the side of the page as you read. Every time you look up, or your mind starts to wander, make a horizontal line on the page. Then, after you’ve finished reading, go back and revise any spot with a horizontal line.”

Now, in my rather lengthy editing experience, this does not work particularly well as a pre-revision technique; basically, all it spots are boring bits and places where you’re pulled out of the story, and it penalizes those of us who like to read our work in public places (Oh, yeah, like you don’t look up when someone cute walks by) or who live near firehouses. For a good revision, you need to pay attention to more than just flow.

However, it is an incredibly good way to try to see your submission from an agent’s point of view. Instead of drawing the horizontal line, however, just stop reading. Permanently.

Obviously, then, you would probably like to avoid including elements that will pull the reader out of the story on your first page. Here are the reasons on the Idol list most closely affiliated with this phenomenon:

16. The opening has the protagonist respond to an unnamed thing (e.g., something dead in a bathtub, something horrible in a closet, someone on the other side of her peephole…) for more than a paragraph without naming it, creating false suspense.
17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
19. An unnamed character (usually “she”) is wandering around the opening scene.
20. Non-organic suspense, created by some salient fact being kept from the reader for a long time (and remember, on the first page, a paragraph can be a long time).
27. The book opened with a flashback, rather than with what was going on now.
28. Too many long asides slowed down the action of an otherwise exciting scene.
29. Descriptive asides pulled the reader out of the conflict of the scene.

The last two, #28 and #29, are fairly self-explanatory, aren’t they? Basically, these are pacing problems: the agent wanted to find out what was going to happen with the story, but the narrative insisted upon describing every third cobblestone on the street first. (I’m looking at YOU, Charles Dickens!) Or the narrative gave too much background between pieces of action or dialogue (don’t you try to slink away, Edith Warton!), or our old bugbear, the narrative stopped the action cold in order to describe the room, what the protagonist is wearing, the fall of the Roman Empire, etc., in between showing the plot in action. (You know I’m talking to YOU, Victor Hugo!)

The others on the list are a trifle more subtle. Pop quiz, to see how good you are getting at thinking like an agency screener: what underlying objection do all of the remaining reasons have in common?

Give up? They all reflect a serious aversion to being tricked by a manuscript. While a casual reader might not object to early-on plot, structural, or naming choices that encourage him to guess what is going on, only to learn shortly thereafter — gotcha! — that those assumptions were wrong, an agent or editor is more invested in the storyline (and, arguably, dislikes being wrong more). So that gotcha! moment, instead of impressing them with how very clever the author is, tends merely to pull them out of the story.

And we all know what happens when that occurs, right? Straight back into the SASE for that submission. Moral of the story: folks in the industry like being right too much to enjoy being tricked.

Go ahead, have that inspiring axiom tattooed on your mousing hand, so you will never forget it. I’ll wait.

So why, given that your average agency screener loathes first-page bait-and-switches with an intensity that most people reserve for thermonuclear war and tax day, do so many writers elect to trick their readers early on? Unfortunately for our team, many of us were taught at impressionable ages that lulling the reader into a false sense of security, then yanking the rug out from under him, is a great format for a hook. It can work well later in a story, certainly, but as a hook, it tends not to catch many fishes at an agency, if you catch my drift. (My, I am being nautical today, amn’t I? Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!)

Mostly, though, I think most writers don’t think of these strategies as reader-tricking at all. Take, for instance, #27, opening the book with a flashback, rather than in the present reality of the rest of the book. Now, there might be many perfectly valid narrative reasons to do this, right? (A word to the wise: if you are going to flash back briefly first, don’t italicize the flashback to differentiate it from the rest of the text: most screeners will automatically skip over openings in italics, on the theory that they aren’t really germane to the opening scene.) You’re making an interesting commentary on the nature of human memory, perhaps: no one of at least average intelligence, you probably think, is at all likely to be tricked by this.

Not to cast aspersions on anyone in the industry’s smarts, but frankly, they just don’t see it this way, because — actually, no: you take a shot at thinking like a screener, for the practice. On your marks, take a sip of that scalding latte, and GO!

If it occurred to you that the screener might resent being drawn into the action of one scene (the flashback), then expected to switch gears to become involved in another (the present of the book), give yourself high marks. If you also thought that the screener might get a tad testy because, after getting comfortable in one timeframe (the flashback), the time shifts to the present of the book, give yourself extra credit. But really, if you came up with any flavor of, “Hey, this narrative tricked me! I hate that!” or “Hey, that switch pulled me out of the story!”, you’re doing pretty well.

Now that you’re getting the hang of it, figuring out the problem the screener would have with #19, an unnamed character (usually “she”) wandering around the opening scene, should be relatively simple. Here’s a hint: this one usually pulls the screener out of the story the second time the pronoun is used. Why?

Oh, you’re getting so good at this: a gold star to those of you who realized that what pulled the reader out of the story in this case is the reader’s own annoyance with the character’s not being identified by name. “Who is this chick?” the screener cries, eyeing her watch as her lunch date ticks ever-closer. “And why the heck can’t I know her name?”

Which brings me to the most popular reader-tricking tactic on the list, the creation of false suspense (also known as non-organic suspense, if you want to get technical) by the narrative’s withholding necessary information from the reader. Again, this can work as a long-term plotting strategy (and is one of the reasons that many novelists find maintaining tension easier in a first-person narrative, as the reader learns things at the same rate as the narrator, thus necessitating withholding information from the reader), but done too early in a book — in this case, on the first page — it can come across as a trick.

And we all know by now how agents and editors feel about those, right?

Again, in most submissions, tricking the reader is the farthest thing from the author’s mind: usually, she’s just trying to create a tense, exciting opening scene. Yet consider the following rejection reasons, and think how these well-meant tension-building techniques went awry:

16. The opening has the protagonist respond to an unnamed thing (e.g., something slimy in her shoes, something dead in the back seat of her car, a particularly hateful program on the TV set in the room…) for more than a paragraph without saying what the responded-to thing IS.
17. The characters talk about something (a book, another character, a recent trip one of them took to Antarctica, or, the most popular option of all, a recent trauma or disappearance) for more than a line without describing what the discussion topic IS.
20. Some salient-yet-crucial fact being kept from the reader for several paragraphs, such as the fact that the protagonist is on trial for his life or that Rosebud is a sled.

Place yourself in the tattered jeans of that agency screener, my friends, then chant along with me why all of these choices are problematic: they pull the reader out of the story, in order to wonder what IT is.

But that response — which is usually what the agent gives as a reason for rejecting tactics like these — tells only half the story. Engendering reader speculation can be a very good thing indeed, so what’s the real objection here? Simple: the agent fears that she is being set up to be tricked later on.

She doesn’t like that, you know; worrying about whether she is guessing right tends to pull her out of the story. Keep her in it as long as you possibly can — and keep up the good work!