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

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

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

– Janie

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

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

– Janie

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

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

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

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello Santa.

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

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

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

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

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

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

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

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

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

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

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

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

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

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

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, haven’t I read that someplace before?” — Millicent

old-fashioned writing desk in Victoria

Please join me in a moment of silence, campers. Today, I received one of the saddest pieces of news a person can hear from a writer friend: an extremely talented author of my acquaintance reported that her hard disk had crashed, doubtless from overwork. Not a syllable could be salvaged.

In response to those of you who just gasped audibly: yes, she was almost finished writing her next novel. She had circulated only the first four chapters to her critique group, so physical copies of that much still exist. Beyond that, however…

On a not entirely unrelated note, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Is it recently enough that you could reconstitute your most recent revisions or new text from your unassisted memory?

If the answer to that second question is no, feel free to stop reading right now and make a back-up. At minimum, e-mail them to yourself, for heaven’s sake. I’m perfectly happy to wait, if it means that we can all sleep better tonight, confident that hours, days, weeks, and/or months of your writing time won’t just vanish in the proverbial puff of smoke.

Or ozone, as the case may be. As undoubtedly conducive to creative expression as computers are, the permanence of the results can be illusory. At times like this, I occasionally find myself longing for my father’s good old Olivetti typewriter, or even a simple Edwardian writing desk, like the one above. (Note, please, the requisite photo of a loved one and apparently equally requisite liquor tray.)

True, one had to hit the Olivetti’s keys so hard that when my parents first plopped me down in front of it at age ten to compose the term paper that everyone else in my class was writing by hand, I couldn’t actually force the q, z, p, or ? keys to hit the ribbon with sufficient force to create any impression upon paper. It took me so many hours to write the definitive history paper on the Bonus March that my mother seized the opportunity first to sketch my profile — she had never managed to convince me to sit still long enough before — then to sculpt my head in clay. Considering that my parents insisted that I write it in standard format for book manuscripts, I should probably count myself lucky that she didn’t also have time to cast the sculpture in bronze.

Yes, it was a touch on the tedious side to be forced to retype an entire page in order to rework a single sentence. On the bright side, though, to lose a year’s worth of one’s writing, an author actually had to misplace it physically.

(Were you distracted from the pithiness of that last bon mot by a mental image of a 5th grader using two hands to wrestle the z key into submission? That memory haunts me, too. My mother, however, asks me to inform you that she had faithfully typed my newspaper articles prior to that term paper, and that a little pro of my caliber shouldn’t have graduated from elementary school without learning to touch-type, anyway. And to be fair, she didn’t actually make me try it blindfolded until after I’d turned in the paper.)

Writing on a computer boasts at least one monumental advantage over the all hard copy, all the time method, however: it’s possible, and indeed easy, to check whether that wry observation that just occurred to you also struck you as the last word in style back when you were composing Chapter 3. And Chapter 7. And possibly Chapter 16.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that you had repeated yourself? Trust me, Millicent the agency screener will.

Since aspiring writers so seldom catch their own phrasing reuse, I’m going to spend the next couple of days talking about that ever-popular birthmark of Frankenstein manuscripts everywhere, the sentence — or paragraph, or footnote, or scene — that turns up more than once in a manuscript. Or more than once in a chapter. Or — are you sitting down? — more than once in a page.

Already, I sense some of you rolling your eyes. “Yeah, right, Anne,” writers of 384-page texts huff, “I’m so uncreative, so myopic, so prone to writing only one paragraph per session that I would repeat entire sentences within just a few pages, yet Millicent remembers phrasing so well that she will catch me if I recycle a description from page 73 on page 312.”

Actually, she might — and I hate to be the one to break it to you, but otherwise quite good manuscripts reuse pet phrases all the time. You’ve probably noticed the tendency in the later works of well-established authors, in fact; as television comedy has led us all to expect, revisiting the same premises, jokes, and yes, even descriptions can elicit chortles of delighted recognition from an audience already familiar with one’s work. Heck, Oscar Wilde used to trot out the same laugh lines in play after play after play; he was monumentally good at branding.

For the overwhelming majority of writers, though, self-plagiarism does not constitute a promotional strategy so much as a simple lapse in memory. In the course of writing an entire book, it should perhaps not come as a surprise if the creative brain revisits a favorite turn of phrase, a trenchant observation on the human condition, of striking bit of imagery that strikes a writer as particularly, well, striking.

Hey, if it sounded good in the writer’s mind the first time, what’s to stop it from sounding good the second? Or the fourth? Or the forty-seventh?

Perfectly innocent and understandable, right? Well, perhaps not so much to our old pal Millicent — or her cousin Maury, the editorial assistant, or their aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. To someone who reads manuscripts for a living, such inadvertent redundancy can take on a more sinister aspect: to an uncharitable reader, even a single repetition of a pet phrase can smack of authorial laziness. Or as an aftereffect of that perennial bugbear, insufficient authorial re-reading.

Or, sacre bleu! a first indicator that what she holds in her ink-stained hands is a Frankenstein manuscript.

We’ve all seen Frankenstein manuscripts, right, even if we have not had the misfortune to write one? Many of us have at least a partial monster lurking in a bottom desk drawer or haunting our hard disks, books written over such a long period, in so many moods, at so many different levels of technical skill, and — come on, admit it — under the influence of so many and such varied favorite authors that it would take a small army of literary detectives years of close textual analysis to discern even an embryonic similarity between the authorial voices on pp. 10, 143, and 412.

In a first draft of a first novel, that’s virtually inevitable, right? Contrary to popular opinion amongst those who have never actually sat down in front of the ol’ Olivetti and cranked out a book, few writers are born with completely polished voices; it can take a great deal of trial and error to figure out how to sound original on the page. Then, too, it takes a good, long while to write a book, particularly the first time around: as Millicent would be the first to tell you, it’s not all that uncommon for the manuscript to betray significantly greater technical skill at its end than at its beginning. Or for the first chapter or two to read a great deal more like the end of the book than like the middle, because the writer went back and revised those opening pages after polishing off the draft.

Why is Millicent an expert on the two most common stripes of Frankenstein manuscript? Care to estimate how many first-time novelists and memoirists start querying and submitting their work practically the instant they polish off the first draft? Or the second?

Trust me, those of us who read for a living learn to catch the early warning signs. When Millicent sees a sentence, image, or observation from page 1 turn up on page 26, Frankenstein manuscript warning bells start chiming wildly in her head. From that point on, her already sharp critical sensors turn downright predatory, eager to swoop down upon more tell-tale signs that this is one of those texts whose author either kept changing his mind about the style he wished to embrace — or tone, or target audience, or book category — or just kept revising it so often that the narrative reads like a patchwork of different prose styles.

That does not mean, however, that self-plagiarism does not turn up quite frequently in non-Frankenstein manuscripts. How can an experienced reviser tell the difference? While the Frankenstein manuscript varies substantially as pages pass, the self-plagiarized text merely becomes redundant: passing scenery always described the same manner, for instance, or a clever line of dialogue repeated in Chapters 2, 5, and 24.

Nonfiction writing in general, and academic writing in particular, is notoriously prone to redundancy. So are book proposals. Again, that’s quite understandable. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of footnoting everything in the least questionable, it’s pretty easy to reuse a footnote, for instance, or to come to rely upon stock definitions instead of writing fresh ones every time.

Or, in a memoir, to tell the same anecdote more than once. As, indeed, people who like to talk about themselves tend to do in conversation. (Did I ever tell you about the time my mother wanted me to learn touch-typing as a fifth grader?)

Or, in any kind of writing, for a particular way of describing something to sound good. Many a writer simply finds a certain turn of phrase appealing and forgets that he’s used it before. Or just doesn’t notice, despite the fact that great way to catch this sort of redundancy is — wait for it — to read your manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

Oh, had I suggested that excellent pre-submission strategy before? Had I in fact mentioned it about once per week throughout Queryfest? How silly of me not to notice.

You may laugh, but actually, it’s quite easy for even a fairly conscientious reviser to miss instances of self-plagiarism on the page, especially if — and most revisers do this — she is reading through the manuscript over several days or even weeks. After all, you have to be gifted with an unusually strong memory for phraseology to stop short in the middle of Chapter 15 and shout, “Hey, I’ve seen that image before, and it was on page 36, paragraph four!”

I don’t mean to frighten you (or do I?), but professional readers frequently have astonishingly accurate memories for text. Millicent might not be able to tell you precisely where she’s seen that Ch. 15 image before, but she will almost certainly have the dim impression that it has appeared earlier in the manuscript. I can positively guarantee you, though, that if the first instance of its use pops up on p. 36, and the second on p. 42, she will most assuredly spot the second as redundant.

She should: professional readers are trained for that.

For a self-editing writer, it can be harder to catch — and harder still to remember if you actually used that sentence elsewhere, or merely thought about it. As inveterate commenter and long-time FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) Dave so rightly pointed out the last time we discussed this phenomenon, most good writers spend quite a bit of time mulling over any given scene in a book, not to mention revising it later on; it’s not uncommon, therefore, to have a positive welter of mental associations about the evolution of the aforementioned pp. 36 and 42. Add to that the fact that a reader’s eye will tend to pass over smoothly-written text pretty quickly, especially if it’s a scene he’s read before, and reading through one’s own manuscript by definition entails re-reading, and can we really be surprised when repeated phrasing passes unnoticed under the reviser’s gaze?

Even when the repeated phraseology or image does jump out at the rereading reviser (try saying that four times fast!), it won’t necessarily be for a negative reason. It’s not unheard-of for writers to prefer repeating bits of their own work: those turns of phrase are his favorites for a reason, presumably. They linger in his ears pleasingly when he reads them out loud; they strike him as some of his best writing on the page. If pressed, he might admit to wanting to see one of them chiseled on his gravestone.

Yes, those of you who have been jumping up and down with your hands raised for the last couple of paragraphs? “I know what this writer should do!” survivors of English 101 burble excitedly. “It was for precisely this kind of writer’s benefit that Dorothy Parker started urging all of us to kill your darlings. If he loves those phrases so much, they should be the first axed, right?”

Aspiring writers and the English composition teachers who love them just love this piece of revision advice, eager burblers, but if you want to hear anyone who reads for a living choke on the coffee that’s never far from her elbow (hey, you try staying awake uncaffeinated through the fiftieth YA paranormal novel you’ve seen this week), feel free to trot out this most misunderstood piece of writing advice. We’ve too often seen the slash-and-burn effects of this canonical advice in action. Indeed, going through one’s own manuscript, relentlessly slaughtering any writing that strikes one as excellent is a pretty good prescription for creating a Frankenstein manuscript, not healing one.

And it’s not even what Aunt Dorothy was advising writers to do. She wasn’t talking about ruthlessly excising every piece of writing you like and leaving the stuff you like less, people: she was suggesting that you consider taking a critical look at even your favorite sentences and paragraphs. All too often, inexperienced self-editors will simply skip over their pet bits.

That being said, kill your darlings (selectively!) is excellent advice for habitual self-plagiarists. Perhaps a writer need not sacrifice the first of the litter, but the second through seventeenth should definitely go.

That’s especially good strategy if the phrasing repetition was deliberate in the first place. If a line was clever once, many a darling-coddling writer thinks, the reader will find it so the second time — and the fifth, and the forty-seventh. Deliberate redundancy is particularly common with humor: since situation comedies tend to rely upon repetition of catch phrases, many aspiring writers believe that the mere fact of repetition will render a line funny.

On the page, it seldom works. Sorry to be the one to break it to you sitcom lovers, but it quickly becomes tedious on the stage and screen as well.

Don’t believe me? Consider this: as those of us who live in caucus states know to our perennial (or at least quadrennial) sorrow, nowhere is the practice of self-plagiarism more prevalent than in the garden-variety political speech. Not only from speech to speech — oh, you thought your favorite candidate gave a speech only once, then threw it away? She has fourteen more campaign stops today! — but throughout a political season. Heck, as anyone who has listened closely to two consecutive State of the Union addresses can tell you, they often contain the same phrases from year to year No matter how fiercely THE WEST WING tried to promote the notion of presidential speechwriters as ultra-creative writers, if you look at speeches given by the same politician over time, chances are that you’ll find self-plagiarism of epidemic proportions.

There’s a good narrative reason for that, of course: the repetition of an idea makes it memorable. The ideas — and usually even the actual phrases — of the beginning of a political speech invariably recur throughout, to drive the point home.

Doubt that? Okay, answer this: do you think people would remember that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream if he had said it only once in his famous March on Washington speech?

On paper, phrase repetition is often problematic, but in and of itself, repetition does not necessarily equal self-plagiarism. On paper, repetition can seem very cool to the writer, as a means of creating a galloping rhythm. On paper, phrase repetition can be used for emphasis (as I have just done in this very paragraph, much to Millicent’s chagrin).

We all know how phrase repetition can create a sense of momentum in writing, don’t we? Take, for instance, the ending of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from HENRY V:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Now that’s a political speech, caucus-goers: great spoken out loud, but Millicent-enragingly repetitious in print.

Did that last observation catch you by surprise? Yes, this particular speech happened to fall from an exceedingly talented pen, but unfortunately, a lot of poor writers favor this rhythmic device, too. Because it is ubiquitous, it tends to be a rather risky trick to try to pull off in a short piece, such as a synopsis, or in the first few pages of a manuscript submitted for a contest or as part of a query packet.

Please tell me that you aren’t even considering repetitive phrasing in your query. Or that the first line of your synopsis is the first line of your novel. Please. Please. Please?

Why is it dangerous? Well, to professional eyes, trained to search for the repetition of a single verb within a paragraph as evidence of boring writing, we few, we happy few will not necessarily jump off the page for the beauty of its rhythm. In an ultra-quick reading (as virtually all professional readings are, lest we forget), it may be mistaken for an incomplete edit: you meant to change we few to we happy few,” but you forgot to delete the words you did not want, Bill.

A pop quiz to see if you’ve been paying attention: why would a savvy submitter not want to convey the impression of an incomplete editing job? That’s right: because that’s the birthmark of the dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, the fish that Millicent is only too happy to throw back into the sea.

Remember, too, that it may not take many instances of repetition for Millicent to draw this conclusion. The writer may not realize that she has reused a particularly spectacular image from Ch. 1 in Ch. 3, but believe me, if there is repetition, professional readers will catch it.

And no, I don’t care how many times I have to repeat that point. It’s vital for your happiness as a writer to understand that the pros are trained to catch redundancy. Editors in particular are notorious for remembering entire pages verbatim.

It’s a specialized brain function, sharpened by use. When I was teaching at the University of Washington, I was known for noticing when term papers resubmitted in subsequent quarters, even though I read literally hundreds of papers per term. I would even frequently remember who wrote the original. As you may well imagine, I quickly acquired a reputation amongst the fraternities and sororities who kept files of A term papers for their members to, ahem, borrow.

Which is why, in case those of you who have had the good fortune/petrifying experience of receiving professional feedback, paraphrasing what you’ve said earlier in the manuscript tends to be significantly less frowned-upon in editorial circles than outright literal repetition. While very similar passages may earn you an ill-humored rebuke from Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel, generalized repetition usually will not knock you out of consideration if the recurring bits occur far apart, such as at the beginning and end of a book.

In a shorter piece, however — such as, say, those first 50 pages of your novel that nice agent asked you to send for consideration, or the 15 pages plus synopsis — it certainly can cost you. Repetition sticks in the professional reader’s craw, nagging at her psyche like a pebble in a shoe. It’s in your best interest to do it as little as possible.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there grumbling. “You told us just a few minutes ago that Oscar Wilde repeated the same quips in one play after another. It became his trademark, in fact. So why should I be punished for using a single particularly sterling line 150 pages apart in my novel?”

You have a point, of course, grumblers. The next time you trot out this argument, you might bolster it by mentioning that Aaron Sorkin reused not only lines and speeches from SPORTS NIGHTin THE WEST WING, but entire plot lines and basic characters.

Tell you what: after you make it big, I give you permission to establish a trademark phrase and use it as often as you like. Until you do — as I sincerely hope you will — all I can do is tell you that phrasing repetition tends to annoy agents, editors, and contest judges.

Seriously, I will repeat it all night. Don’t tempt me.

“But Anne,” I hear the well-read among you protest, and with good reason, “many of the classic novelists I studied in my English 101 class used phrasing repetition to create invocatory rhythms. They also repeated dialogue, because, as you like to point out early and often, real-life dialogue is hugely redundant. If it’s good enough for those long-ago greats, why isn’t it good enough for me — or for Millicent?”

One reason leaps to mind: you’re not writing on a typewriter, are you? You’re probably composing your book in a word processing program. Not only can you spell- and grammar-check with an ease that would have made the late, great Ms. Parker gasp with envy — with the touch of a button or two, you can search your own writing to see if you have used a phrase before.

You think Millicent is unaware of that capacity?

You are perfectly right, though, close readers: all writers of book-length works have repeated themselves at one time or another. If a simile struck us as the height of cleverness last week, chances are good that we will like it next week as well. Each time we use it, it may seem fresh to us. These little forays into self-indulgence are so common, in fact, that literary critics have a name for them: tropes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious troper in his short stories. My least favorite: a thwarted heroine’s sobbing out (usually with her face hidden by her smartly-bobbed hair), “I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?” immediately before she does something self-immolatingly stupid to remove herself from the possibility of marrying the story’s protagonist occurs at least four times throughout his collected works.

It may well pop up more; I merely stopped counting after four. That was, not entirely coincidentally, when I threw the book across the room.

Why Uncle Scott found that particular line so very attractive in a pretty woman’s mouth remains a mystery eternal — it’s hard to believe he ever actually heard a sane female utter it, even in jest. But he did, evidently, and now it’s stuck to his name for all eternity.

Learn from his unhappy fate, I beg of you: no matter how marvelous a line of text is, use it only once.

This will require careful reading to enforce. Your garden-variety self-plagiarism is less obvious to the untrained eye than ol’ Scott’s outright dialogue reuse. Spread out over an entire text — or, as it often appears in the case of successful authors of series, once per book — it may be fairly innocuous, the kind of thing that might only bug someone who read manuscripts for a living.

Like, say, Millicent or yours truly. Do not underestimate, for your own sake, our memories. Unbound manuscripts do not typically survive intact being flung across the room.

E.F. Benson, author of two delightful series, the Lucia books and the Dodo books, was evidently extraordinarily fond of using Arctic analogies for one person suddenly grown cold to another. To gather but a small nosegay of examples:

“It was as if an iceberg had spoken,”

“It was as if the North Pole had spoken,”

“icebergs passing in the North Sea” must speak to one another as two characters had, and

“Mapp turned to ice.”

See the problem? As a Benson enthusiast, I was able to come up with four of them without even pulling any of his books off the shelf These repetitions, deliberate or not, stick with the reader, just as surely as repeated phrases stick with the audience of a political speech.

That doesn’t mean it is a bad analogy, of course, if not a startlingly original one. Like any other literary device, however, time it’s used, it becomes less effective.

Yet again, we see an awfully good reason to read your entire book (or requested chapters, or contest submission) out loud before you submit it — and not just as a cursory mumble-through, either. Believe it or not, just as dialogue that seemed fine on the page can suddenly seem stilted when spoken aloud, phrases, sentences, and images that your eye might not catch as repetitious are often quite obvious to the ear.

Another good reason to read aloud: to make sure that each of your major characters speaks in a different cadence. It’s substantially easier for the reader to follow who is speaking when that way.

Don’t stand there and tell me that all of Aaron Sorkin’s and David Mamet’s characters speak in identical cadences, as though they all shared one vast collective mind. To my sensitive antennae, nothing is more potentially migraine-inducing than an evening of the percussive prose of Mamet. (Unless it’s a chamber concert of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest hits.)

As if the prospect of annoying your humble correspondent were not sufficient incentive to eschew identical dialogue patterns for every character, remember what I said back in Queryfest about the dangers of those new to the biz assuming that what the already-established have done, they may get away with as well?

Uh-huh. In a first manuscript, it would be considered poor craft to have every character in the book sound the same. Not to mention poor character development. While I’m on the subject, keep an ear out in your read-through for lines of dialogue that cannot be said aloud in a single breath without passing out — they tend to pull professional readers out of the story.

Why, you shout breathlessly? Well, in real life, listeners tend to interrupt speakers when the latter pause for — wait for it — breath. Cramming too many syllables into an uninterrupted speech usually doesn’t ring true on the page. Allow your characters to breathe occasionally, and your dialogue will seem more realistic.

I’d give you a concrete example, but I meant to post a short blog today, and here I have gone long again. Which begs the question: I’m so beautiful — why can’t I be happy?

There, now at least one real, live human female has said it; don’t say I never did anything for you, Uncle Scott. Keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: tracing the patterns of a life, or, just because something really happened doesn’t mean a writer is excused from making it dramatically appealing on the page

One of the great liabilities of editing for a living — or one of the great advantages, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — is that over time, the dedicated editor becomes decreasingly able to read anything without scrawling corrections in the margins. I’m not merely talking about manuscripts, synopses, and queries here, mind you, but all typed words on a page. The New York Times, for instance, once the standard of American prose, now seldom passes under my long-lashed eyes without picking up some entirely justified marginalia. Nor do any of my alumni magazines go unscathed: I’m looking at you, Radcliffe Quarterly. I routinely take a corrective pen to menus, fliers, and wedding programs. Last November, I had to be restrained bodily from correcting a grievous misprint on my ballot for a county election; the correction apparently would have confused the counting machine.

More confusing than asking the citizenry to select a superior court joge? I think not.

While in some walks of life this level of nit-pickiness would prove somewhat problematic, for professional readers like agents, editors, and contest judges (or, in this county, joges), it’s a positive boon. So what if in some benighted professions, it is neither expected nor considered particularly sane to look one’s coworker in the eye and say, “I like the content of you’re saying, Ziggy, but the fact that you uttered the word exciting fourteen times over the course of a six-minute speech, insisted — wrongly — that impact is a verb, and failed to define a good third of your basic terms detracted from its effectiveness,” without finding oneself cordially disinvited from all future meetings? Someone has to defend the language. And by gum, if that means rending our garments and wailing to the heavens, “You’ve used this metaphor twice in 137 pages! And phrased it almost identically each time, you…you?torturer,” well, we’re up to the task.

Oh, you thought I was kidding about that last one? Half the good professional readers I know would not only have become impatient at the metaphor repetition — they would have assumed that the writer did it on purpose. As opposed to, say, not recognizing the insight of today as the insight of three months, eight days, and sixteen hours ago.

How could you? You know how much such things upset Millicent the agency screener.

All of which is to say: I tried — really, I did — to devote this weekend’s post to the delightful task of critiquing and presenting two more reader-generated query letters, missives devoted to the promotion of what sound like some very interesting memoirs. In pondering the all-too-often misunderstood mysteries of memoir voice, however, and how to present it effectively in a letter as short as a single page, I found my text-addled mind drifting back to a novel-cum-memoir I had read, I kid you not, in junior high school. A pivotal scene in it, I felt, would provide such a glorious illustration of a common memoir querier’s mistake that I just had to drop everything and track down the book.

That’s how little girls with braids grow up to be editors, in case you had been wondering. Sometimes, even other editors are surprised at how well I remember text. A few years ago, when my own memoir was lumbering its way through the publication process, my acquiring editor scrawled in my margins, “Oh, yeah, right — you remember a biography of the Wright Brothers that you read in the third grade? Prove it!” I was able not only to give him a chapter breakdown of the book, but tell him the publisher and correctly identify the typeface.

Do I need to follow up with the story of what happened when one of my students at the University of Washington turned in the same term paper another of my students had submitted a scant five semesters before? I thought not. But the undergraduate disciplinary board couldn’t believe I caught the repetition, either.

So I had good reason to believe that my recollection of a fictionalized memoir ostensibly by a childhood friend of Joan of Arc was reasonably accurate. A lighthearted burrow through the roughly two thousand volumes I carted up from California after my mother moved from my childhood home, so she would have to take only the remaining eight thousand with her (long story), and voil? ! The author of the otherwise charming book had tumbled into a multitude of ubiquitous first-time memoirists’ traps. Including, of course, the one that had jumped up and down in my mind after so many years.

You know, the kind of thing that Millicent thinks so many of you writers of the real do on purpose, just to annoy her. Echoing the all-too-common verbal habit of using and as a substitute for a period in your first-person narration, for instance, in a misguided attempt to make the narrative voice sound more like everyday speech. (It works, but let’s face it, quite a bit of everyday speech is so repetitious that it would be stultifying transcribed directly to the printed page.) Or telling an anecdote on the page as one might do out loud at a cocktail party, with practically every sentence a summary statement. (Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is such a pervasive piece of editorial feedback.) Or, most common of all, not doing much character development for anyone but the protagonist.

Speaking of showing, not telling, here’s the scene that popped to mind. To render the parallels to what Millicent sees on a daily basis more obvious, I’m presenting it here in standard format for book manuscripts. (And if it’s news to you that such a thing exists, or that it differs from what is proper for submitting short stories, articles, or academic pieces, may I suggest a quick foray into the posts under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right?) As always, my blogging program is a trifle hostile to page shots, so if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.

Come on, admit it — while you might have excused all of those ands if you had heard this told out loud, they’re a trifle eye-distracting on the page, are they not? Ditto with the word repetition — could this author possibly have crammed any more uses of to be, to get, or to see into these three pages? And don’t even get me started on concept repetition.

As a story on a page, it’s lacking quite a few elements. A sense of place, for one — is there a reason, the reader must wonder, not to give us some sense of what either the woods or the village were like? As so often happens in memoir, we’re just told that the action is happening here or there, with too little description to enable us to picture Joan and her young friends in a specific place. Nor are those friends fleshed out much, either in character or physically.

Heck, we don’t even get to see the frightening Benoist: instead, the memoirist merely tells us repeatedly that he and Joan were getting closer, without showing us what that might have looked like to a bystander. Like, say, the narrator.

Speaking of the narrator, do you get much of a sense of who he is as a person? How about what his relationship is to Joan? Are you even sure of their respective ages? Any idea what year it is? Heck, if you did not already know that the girl would grow up to be the patron saint of France — actually, one of four, but Joan of Arc is certainly the best known in this country — would anything but the children’s names tip you off about what part of the world these characters inhabit?

While I’m asking so many rhetorical questions in a row — another occupational hazard, I’m afraid — let me ask a more fundamental one: did you notice that while this passage is apparently about how the village’s children reacted to Joan, there’s practically no character development for her at all?

That’s at least marginally problematic, in a book entitled, wait for it, JOAN OF ARC. What, we are left to wonder, does she look like? Why doesn’t she stand up to her playmates (beyond, of course, the justification of being “so girlish and shrinking in all ways”) or, failing that, why doesn’t she simply walk away from the nasty little beasts? Most mysteriously, why can’t a kid brave enough to face down the village madman’s axe (or ax, depending upon where it falls in this passage; the error is in the hard copy in front of me), a rather interesting thing for a person to do, come up with more revealing answers to questions than a simple yes?

And would it be too much to ask the narrator to explain why the villagers left an axe lying anywhere near the madman’s cage in the first place? Might not the locals’ efforts be more productively expended making sure he can’t get out than chopping off his fingers?

More important to the story at large, if you did have more than an inkling of what the real-life Jeanne d’Arc achieved, wouldn’t you find it at least a trifle too pat that her playmates choose to picture her doing more or less what she grew up to do — and to laugh at her about it? If the girl had suggested this role herself, it might merely have been not-particularly-subtle foreshadowing, but honestly, can you think of any reason to include this at all except to make the reader feel cleverer than St. Joan’s playmates?

Millicent wouldn’t think of one. Neither would most professional readers; it’s our job to deplore this sort of narrative ham-handedness.

“Just how ill-informed would a reader have to be not to find that first bit clumsy?” we mutter into our much-beloved coffee mugs. “Isn’t it safe to assume that anyone who would pick up a book about Joan of Arc would know that she lead an army and was burned at the stake, even if that reader knew nothing else about her? And if your garden-variety reader knows that much, isn’t it an insult to his intelligence to drop a giant sign reading Hey, dummy, this is foreshadowing?”

Was that mighty gust of wind that just whipped the cosmos the sound of half of the memoirists out there huffing with annoyance, or was it the first-person novelists sighing gustily? Do you have some insight into this phenomenon that you would like to share? “But Anne,” both groups think loudly in unison, rather like the remarkably collective-minded children in the anecdote above, “this is how I was taught to write first-person narration: it’s supposed to sound exactly like a real person’s speech. So why shouldn’t St. Joan’s childhood buddy sound like anybody telling anecdotes out loud?”

A couple of reasons, actually. Yes, good first-person narration takes into account the narrator’s speech patterns. It also typically reflects the narrator’s social status and education, personal prejudices, and what s/he could conceivably know. And then there are those pesky individual quirks and, yes, the century in which s/he lived.

So I ask you, first-person writers: just how does the narrative voice in this passage indicate that this particular anecdote took place, according to the narrative, not too long after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415? As opposed to, say, the 1890s, when this account was first published?

Operating on the assumption that internal monologues have both always sounded pretty much like modern speech and don’t vary much from individual to individual is as common a mistake in first-person narratives as having all teenage characters sigh and roll their eyes is in YA submissions. Yes, some people do think and talk that way, but must everybody? Should Helen of Troy formulate her innermost thoughts in the same way as, say, Eleanor Roosevelt, Louisa May Alcott, or Confucius? (There’s a dinner party, eh?)

In case I’m being too subtle about it here: doesn’t it make for more interesting narration if your narrator’s speech bears at least some marks of time? And if she has some individual quirks of thought and expression?

Besides, if we are going to be true to the rules of first-person narration, shouldn’t we be objecting to how often our narrator here professes to read the other children’s minds — although, notably, not Joan’s? I don’t know about you, but I find that most of the time, my thoughts are located in my own head, not floating somewhere in the middle of a group of bystanders. So are we supposed to believe that our narrator in this instance is a mind-reader, or that the local children were too simple-minded to be able to form individual opinions about what is going on in front of them?

In fairness to the huffers and sighers above, however, it’s not beyond belief that they were taught to write first-person narration this way — in short stories in their high school English classes. In short bursts, run-on sentences do indeed come across as ordinary speech-like. In the professional examples of this type of narration that tend to turn up in class, it’s not all that unusual for the author’s voice and the first-person narrator’s voice to merge into colloquial harmony: Mark Twain tends to sound like Mark Twain, for instance, no matter whose perspective is dominating a particular story. That’s part of his branding as an author, right, a distinctive narrative voice?

As a strategy, adopting a chatty voice makes quite a bit of sense for narrative voice in memoir. The reader is going to have to like how the narrator/protagonist talks about her life well enough to want to follow the story for a few hundred pages, after all; we might as well get friendly. Yet in practice, the primary danger of relying on the repetitive phrasing, clich?s, and percussive and use to achieve realistic-sounding narrative cadence is precisely that it will put off the reader because as the pages pass, it can become, well, boring.

Think about it: even if a memoir were being told as a verbal anecdote, wouldn’t you rather listen to a storyteller with some individual flair for phrasing, instead of someone who just sounded like everyone else? No matter how inherently exciting a personal story is, a great telling can make it better reading. So can a narrative voice reflective of the time, place, and society in which that tale takes place.

But just try telling that to Mark Twain — who, as the sharper-eyed among you may already have noticed, wrote the scene above, in what he considered his best book. Although that retrospective assessment is a trifle hard to take seriously, in light of the fact that he published the book both under a pen and in serial form. Actually, he took it to even one more remove: he wrote a preface under a nom de plume, presenting himself as the translator of a memoir written by one of Joan’s contemporaries.

Why go to all that trouble? Because by all accounts, he felt that the poor sales of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER were largely attributable to his established audience’s expecting anything published under the name of Mark Twain to be a comedy.

Take that, purists who would like to believe that writing with an eye toward market concerns is a product of an increasingly cynical publishing industry over the last twenty or thirty years. Twain and his publisher worked out that tactic in the 1890s.

But I digress. As a reader, how well do you think his narrative choices worked here, either as fiction narration or as the memoir narration it originally professed to be? In your opinion as a writer, how do you feel about those slips into the first person plural — is the reader carried along with the we perspective as a narrative choice, as we were in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, or does it read like a perspective slip?

Moving back to my earlier point, do you feel that the mostly distinctly modern narrative voice, coupled with the almost entirely uncritical view of Joan, was the best way to tell this tale? Critics in Twain’s time did not think so — they believed (and I must say I agreed with them back in junior high school) that a protagonist who never does anything wrong is a trifle on the dull side, as far as the reader is concerned. Twain’s Joan never sets a wee foot wrong; even in her earliest youth, he tells us, she raised her voice in anger only once, and even then it was to voice a patriotic thought.

A taciturnity unusual in a rabble-rouser, you must admit. Also an unusual characteristic for someone who challenged social norms enough for anyone to want to burn her at the stake: Twain’s narrator presents her as a quiet, universally beloved little girl. Butter, as folks used to say, would not melt in her mouth. No matter how outside-the-box her observations or actions are shown to be (or, as we saw above, summarized to be), in this narrative, nothing she did or said from birth to the age of fourteen so much as ruffled the composure of the inhabitants of a querulous small village in wartime. Surprising, to say the least, in a young lady who by her own account had been engaging in frequent heart-to-heart chats with a couple of your more illustrious virgin martyrs since the age of twelve.

Perhaps the querulous small village where I spent my formative years was atypical, but I’m inclined to think that had I gone around snatching murder weapons from local lunatics or holding confabs with ancient Roman maidens, the Old Lady Mafia might have had a thing or two to say about it. I’m also inclined to think that their observations would not have been entirely favorable, regardless of how winsome and girlish I might have been while disarming the maniac in question. It doesn’t strike me as the type of endeavor best undertaken in a party dress.

I’m not saying that Twain is necessarily factually incorrect about all this; naturally, his best guess is as good as ours on a lot of these points. The lady lived rather a long time ago, so the issue here is less historical accuracy than dramatic plausibility. Still, just because something really happened does not mean it will necessarily come across as plausible on the page; as agents like to say, it all depends on the writing.

As an editor, I think it was the writer’s job to make me believe his take on this. Presuming you agree with me — speak now or forever hold your peace — I ask you: was this narrative choice the best fit for the story?

Literary taste is, of course, to a very great extent individual, so only you can answer that question to your own satisfaction. Am I correct in presuming, however, that you are at least a tiny bit curious about how an editor currently holding down the literary fort in the U.S. publishing world might respond to this particular set of narrative choices? Glad you asked.

What am I hoping you will take from this, you ask, eyes wide with horror? Not merely that being a brilliant writer does not necessarily preclude turning out a clunker of a first draft from time to time — although that’s not a bad thing for aspiring writers to bear in mind. The popular conception of true literary talent’s consisting of perfect creative phrasing dripping from the fingertips directly onto the page, with no further polishing necessary, does not match up particularly well with reality. As any experienced editor could tell you, most of the books people regard as productions of pure inspiration have actually been worked, reworked, and run past half a dozen critical readers.

Remember that, please, the next time you’re struggling with a scene that just doesn’t seem to want to hit the page gracefully — or with much specificity. In moments like that, it can be very tempting to embrace the tack Twain did above, to write up the scene in summary form as quickly as possible, with few vivid details, just to get the darned thing committed to paper.

What makes me think that this was written quickly? Editorial instinct, mostly: I find it hard to believe that a humorist as gifted at reading out loud as I know Twain to have been would have killed the comedy — or bored the reader — with this much word repetition unless he was writing on a deadline. Had he taken the time to revisit this scene and iron out its wrinkles, I don’t think there would have been quite so many references to eyes — and I don’t think that he would have had his narrator faint at the climax of the scene.

Certainly saved the author the trouble of having to figure out how the girl convinced the wild man to give up the axe, though, didn’t it? Trust me on this one: experienced editors — and Millicents — see this type of narrative shortcut often enough to recognize it for what it is.

So what should a savvy writer do when faced with this sort of first-draft dilemma? Go ahead: give in to temptation; there is value in getting a full scene on paper. Just make sure to set aside time later in the writing process to return to that scene and flesh it out. Unless you would prefer to have your future editor bark at you, “This is lazy writing, Ambrose. Didn’t anybody ever tell you to show, don’t tell?”

Just in case nobody has yet snarled that in the general direction of your manuscript: show, don’t tell. Immerse your reader in sufficient details for her to be able to feel as though she is part of the scene, rather than leaving her to fill in the specifics for herself.

Oh, you don’t think that’s what Twain is doing here? Okay, rise from your chair, grab the nearest willing partner, and try to act out this interaction between young Joan and Benoist, based solely upon the choreography the narrator above chose to provide us:

She stood up and faced the man, and remained so. As we reached the wood that borders the grassy clearing and jumped into its shelter, two or three of us glanced back to see if Benoist was gaining on us, and this is what we saw — Joan standing, and the maniac gliding stealthily toward her with his axe lifted. The sight was sickening. We stood where we were, trembling and not able to move. I did not want to see murder done, and yet I could not take my eyes away. Now I saw Joan step forward to meet the man, though I believed my eyes must be deceiving me. Then I saw him stop. He threatened her with his ax, as if to warn her not to come further, but went steadily on, until she was right in front of him — right under his axe. Then she stopped, and seemed to begin to talk with him. It made me sick, yes, giddy, and everything swam around me, and I could not see anything for a time — whether long or brief I do not know. When this passed and I looked again, Joan was walking by the man’s side toward the village, holding him by his hand. The axe was in her other hand.

Not much practical guidance for the actors there, eh? Other than all of that seeing, the actual movements mentioned here are pretty routine: one party standing still, the other moving toward her. The mover threatens, but we are not told how. Admittedly, a lifted axe doesn’t have to move much to seem threatening, but see how pretty much all of the sense of danger is conveyed via the narrator’s dread, rather than through showing the reader vivid, terrifying specifics? And how virtually all of that dread is summarized, rather than shown in any detail?

That lack of specificity distances the reader from what should have been a thrilling scene: by leaving the reader to fill in the details, the narrator abdicates his proper role here. Yes, he grounds us in his experience by telling us repeatedly that he is seeing this or that, and that these sights made him feel sick (and ultimately pass out), but great heavens, man, if you’re going to narrate a story like this, isn’t it your job to at least ask a bystander what happened, so you could share that information with the reader?

Don’t tell me that once you’ve seen one axe-wielding madman, you’ve seen ‘em all. As both a reader and an editor, I want to know what this particular madman looked, sounded, moved, smelled, and felt like. I want to know precisely what our heroine did that gave Benoist pause; I want to be shown how he crept up on her stealthily while apparently walking straight into her line of vision. And gosh darn it, I want to know how an axe of 1415 differed from one I might buy at the corner hardware store today.

Without those details, and phrased in fairly ordinary terms, this is indeed like everyday speech, despite the inherently exciting subject matter. Substitute a memo-wielding boss for the axe-bearing madman, and this could have been an anecdote overheard in a coffee house after work.

Distancing the reader from the action in this manner is an unfortunately common tactic in memoirs and first-person fictional narratives alike. Instead of showing the reader what happened through a fully realized scene, the narrator simply summarizes; rather than demonstrating relationship dynamics through dialogue or action, the narrator just sums up what was said. And by describing subsequent actions in the same words or in hackneyed terms (I believed my eyes must be deceiving me? Really, Mark?), the action may move forward, but the reader’s understanding of what’s going on does not.

Joan stood; Benoist glided. Then Joan stood while Benoist glided. Then she stopped — odd as the narrative had not shown her going forward. Then the narrator conveniently blacks out so we cannot see what is going on. Then the problem is solved. The end.

Seldom is this the most interesting way to convey a story, in my experience. Like having characters answer yes-or-no questions with yes or no, as opposed to more detailed (and thus more character-revealing) responses, the summary route closes off story possibilities. And by definition, repeated phrasing adds nothing new to the scene.

Neither, incidentally, do all of those thens: in a story in which events are being presented in chronological order, the occurrences in Sentence 1 are presumed to have happened before those in Sentence 2, which in turn came before what’s described in Sentence 3. Thens, then, as we have seen them used in that last example, are logically redundant; most editors would advise you to reserve them for moments when what happens next is genuinely unexpected.

Joan stood; Benoist glided toward her with an axe. Then the Wright Brothers and their sister, Katherine, swooped through an opening in the forest canopy in a motorized glider to snatch the weapon away.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last twist coming, did you?

Remember, there’s more to telling a story than simply listing its events in chronological order — or racing from its beginning to its end. You want the journey to be both memorable and enjoyable for the reader, do you not? And if the narrative can manage either to surprise the reader with an unanticipated turn of events, delight her with astonishing imagery, or intrigue her with beautiful phrasing — ideally, all three — all the better.

Before I release you to ponder the challenges of expanding a first-person narrative from the anecdotal level into a completely inhabited scene, I want to talk about another common faux pas: the further distancing effect of the narrative’s reminding us repeatedly that the narrator is seeing this or that. Obviously — at least from a professional reader’s perspective — if an action or object is depicted in a first-person narrative, the narrator perceived it; otherwise, she could not legitimately bring it up, right? So when Twain’s narrator tells us repeatedly that he saw Joan do this or Benoist do that, it’s logically redundant.

Of course, he saw it: he was standing right there. Why bother to remind the reader of that self-evident fact? Or, to put it as a garment-rending professional reader might, does the author think the reader is too brain-dead to remember who the narrator is and that he is present?

Oh, you don’t want the pros to take every word you commit to the page that seriously?

Again: if it’s on the page and the writer appears to possess even the slightest vestige of talent, Millicent is going to assume that it’s there on purpose. She’s also going to assume, with good reason, that if a writer has set up rules for how the story is to be told — in this case, from the point of view of a childhood friend of Joan’s, and only from his perspective — the narrative will follow those rules consistently.

This, too, trips up quite a lot of memoirists and other first-person narrator-wranglers. Once a narrative is committed to a single perspective, it cannot report anything outside of it without shattering the illusion of a limited point of view. Thus, when the narrator slips into the first person plural, informing us that we saw this or thought that, it’s jarring to the reader’s sensibilities.

And when, like Twain’s narrator, he professes to know what we all are thinking…well, let’s just say that maybe Joan isn’t the only one who needs to be worrying about going on trial for dabbling in the supernatural. Unless the narrative establishes some means by which a first-person narrator could possibly have reliable insight into other characters’ thoughts and feelings, he should really stick to his own. If his thoughts and feelings are somehow different from every Tom, Dick, and Benoist’s who might be hanging around in the same place at the same time, great; if he can manage to express them in language evocative, memorable, and tailored to his individual worldview, even better.

Which is not a bad definition of memoir voice, if you think about it: a narrator with a strong personality and specific worldview recounting situations of significance to an overall dramatic story arc in language and from a perspective unique to the teller. If every sentence of your memoir — and, to bring this back to our series-in-progress, every sentence of your query’s book description — does not rise to that level, you might want to think about revising it. Millicent will thank you. So will your readers.

So Mark, darling, as much as I admire your writing in general and short stories in particular, if I were your editor — oh, you thought that editors don’t hope this type of activity would be the first, best use of a time machine? — I would insist that you sat down and revised these three pages. Actually, I would do it because I admire your writing: your narrative voice, even in this rather serious book, is better than what we’re seeing here.

And that axe you keep telling us you’re seeing, narrator? That’s your editor, chopping away all of that phrasing and conceptual redundancy. Trust your reader’s intelligence a bit more, please.

I know, I know: this is a heck of a lot to absorb for a single post. Fear not; I shall be revisiting many of these issues after I polish off the last of the reader-volunteered queries. For that limited purpose — that is, for your edification prior to my next post — just bear in mind that not only does Millicent expect a memoir to have a well-defined voice and story arc; she presumes that by the time that memoirist sends her boss a query, the projected voice and story will be so clear in the writer’s mind that both can be adequately (nay, compellingly) conveyed in a paragraph or two.

Piece o’ cake, right? Well, no, but we can give it the old college try.

Just don’t turn in a term paper I’ve clapped eyes upon before, okay? Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you had dropped it.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

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

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

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

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raising Your Voice in Your Memoir, by guest blogger Bob Tarte

Had you noticed that I had abruptly stopped giving you homework, campers? That’s not entirely coincidental: I figure that you already have distractions enough. I’m quite certain that many, if not most, of the Author! Author! community is spending this long holiday weekend (a) prepping queries to send out after Labor Day, (b) prepping requested materials to send out after Labor Day, (c) writing something fabulous and fresh, (d) revising an existing manuscript so it becomes fabulous and fresh, and/or (e) thinking, “Gee, I really ought to be doing (a) (b), (c), and/or (d) today, but the barbecue is already fired up.”

In order to amuse, enlighten, and inform those of you who are tuning in this weekend, I have blandished some very fine authors into sharing a little just-amongst-us literary advice. Yesterday, we talked about fiction. Today, we’re going to concentrate up memoir.

And not just the oft-discussed conundrum how to work up the nerve to be completely transparent on the page — no mean feat in itself — but a burning topic that I do not believe is discussed nearly enough amongst writers: narrative voice in memoir.

To succeed in grabbing the reader, a memoir’s narrative voice must also be a likable and lyrical — wait for it — narrative voice.

Was that loud BOING that just reverberated around the cosmos the sound of memoirists’ jaws bouncing off the floor? I’m not entirely astonished: in the throes of the hugely challenging task of writing one’s own life, the emotional strain of reliving events vividly enough to write about them well can easily trump the imperative to craft lovely sentences. Or even to depict yourself and your environs juicily enough for a reader to long to follow you through 300+ pages.

Let’s face it, there’s more to composing compelling memoir than having had an interesting life and being able to make it sound interesting on the page. There’s even more to it than sounding like yourself.

In order to tackle this recalcitrant problem, I tracked down one of my all-time favorite memoirists, the inimitable and hilarious Bob Tarte, author of the brilliant pet memoirs ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER, and lobbied shamelessly for him to share his insights with the Author! Author! community. Page for page, Bob has one of the strongest memoir voices I’ve ever seen: humorous, honest, and absolutely original.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: anyone seriously interested in writing humorous memoir should take a gander (so to speak) at his seemingly effortless wit. In case those of you who are not comedy writers are wondering why: there’s nothing more difficult than appearing to be spontaneously funny; it takes careful, meticulous craft.

A great comic premise isn’t a bad idea, either. Here’s the publisher’s blurb for ENSLAVED BY DUCKS:

enslavedbyducksjacketEnslaved By Ducks
How One Man Went from Head of the Household to Bottom of the Pecking Order

When Bob Tarte left the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan for the country, he was thinking peace and quiet. He’d write his music reviews in the solitude of his rural home on the outskirts of everything.

Then he married Linda. She wanted a rabbit. How much trouble, he thought, could a bunny be?

Well, after the bunny chewed his way through the electrical wires and then hid inside the wall, Bob realized that he had been outwitted. But that was just the beginning. There were parrots, more rabbits, then ducks and African geese. The orphaned turkeys stranded on a nearby road. The abandoned starlings. The sad duck for sale for 25 cents.

Bob suddenly found himself constructing pens, cages, barriers, buying feed, clearing duck waste, spoonfeeding at mealtime. One day he realized that he no longer had a life of quiet serenity, but that he’d become a servant to a relentlessly demanding family: Stanley Sue, a gender-switching African grey parrot; Hector, a cantankerous shoulder-sitting Muscovy duck; Howard, an amorous ring-neck dove; and a motley crew of others. Somehow, against every instinct in him, Bob had unwittingly become their slave.

He read all the classic animal books — The Parrot Who Owns Me, The Dog who Rescues Cats, Arnie the Darling Starling, That Quail Robert, The Cat Who Came for Christmas — about the joys of animals, the touching moments. But none revealed what it was really like to live with an unruly menagerie.

Bob Tarte’s witty account reveals the truth of animal ownership: who really owns who, the complicated logistics of accommodating many species under one roof, the intricate routines that evolve, and ultimately, the distinct and insistent personalities of every animal in the house – and on its perimeter. Writing as someone who’s been ambushed by the way in which animals — even cranky ones — can wend their way into one’s heart, Bob Tarte is James Herriott by way of Bill Bryson.

Nor does Bob’s comic genius stop there. FOWL WEATHER was one of NPR’s Nancy Pearl’s Under-the-Radar Books for January 2008. Quoth Dame Nancy: “If you’re longing for a book that will make you laugh out loud, then run, don’t walk, to the nearest library or bookstore and pick up a copy of Bob Tarte’s Fowl Weather.”

Before you lose yourself in daydreaming about receiving a review like that, cast your eyes over the blurb:

fowlweatherjacketFowl Weather
How Thirty-Nine Animals and a Sock Monkey Took Over My Life

Bob Tarte’s second book, Fowl Weather, returns us to the Michigan house where pandemonium is the governing principle, and where 39 animals rule the roost. But as things seem to spiral out of control, as his parents age and his mother’s grasp on reality loosens as she battles Alzheimer’s disease, Bob unexpectedly finds support from the gaggle of animals around him. They provide, in their irrational fashion, models for how to live.

It is their alien presences, their sense of humor, and their unpredictable behaviors that both drive Bob crazy and paradoxically return him to sanity. Whether it’s the knot-tying African grey parrot, the overweight cat who’s trained Bob to hold her water bowl just above the floor, or the duck who bests Bob in a shoving match, this is the menagerie, along with his endlessly optimistic wife Linda, that teaches him about the chaos that’s a necessary part of life.

No less demanding than the animals are the people who torment Bob and Linda. There’s the master gardener who steps on plants, the pet sitter applicant who never met an animal he didn’t want to butcher, and a woman Bob hasn’t seen since elementary school who suddenly butts into his life.

With the same biting humor and ability to capture the soul of the animal world that made Enslaved by Ducks such a rousing success, Bob Tarte shows us that life with animals gives us a way out of our small human perspectives to glimpse something larger, more enduring, and more wholly grounded in the simplicities of love — even across species lines.

So the man knows whereat he speaks, memoir-wise. Those of you even considering setting pen to paper to write about the real should pull up a chair and take good notes.

Join me, please, in a big round of applause for today’s guest blogger, Bob Tarte. Take it away, Bob!

You’re probably itching to get started writing your memoir, to sit down with your notes and let the story flow. But before you flow too far, you might want to tighten the tap as you think about refining one of the most important aspects of your writing. And that’s your narrative voice. Check with agents and publishers, and you’ll discover that a unique voice is at the top of their must-have list when they’re looking for new authors.

Voice can be a slippery, elusive element to grab hold of. But if you’ve got good material for your memoir and a strong point of view, you’re probably most of the way there. It’s tempting to use the same voice in your memoir that you’ve been using in your emails, blog, or journal. But don’t just automatically do that. Although your first-person narrator stands at the center of your story, it’s really just another character that needs to be developed. And you need to develop it to a knife’s edge.

The “I” who tells your story is supposed to be you. But it isn’t you exactly. It’s both more and less than that.

In my three pet memoirs, Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather, and Kitty Cornered (which I promise to only mention a dozen more times), my voice isn’t like the real Bob Tarte at all. The voice in my books is whiny, complaining, self-effacing, and funny. And the real Bob isn’t particularly funny. I’m mostly just droopy.

But if I put that droopiness into a book, it wouldn’t even sell to other droopy people. So I’ve gone with the humor angle instead, and it seems to do the trick. I’m never quite sure if I’m a greater or lesser fool than the “I” who inhabits my memoirs, though I suspect the truth.

The important thing is to sculpt a voice that is indisputably in charge of your narrative. And why shouldn’t it be? If you’re not an authority about your own life, nobody is. You just need to pick a personality that convinces your readers of this fact.

Which “I” Are You, Anyway?
There’s another problem with using a voice that supposedly reflects who you really are. Who are you? Are you just one “I”? Or are you a bunch of little “Is” that weave in and out of dominance throughout the day?

I often start my morning with a good case of the jitters due to existential angst. Later I might get crabby. Neither of these is the basis for an appealing voice. But if I refuse to write until an ecstatic mood seizes me, I’m going to have to wait until fall or spring when the warblers migrate through our woods. And that leaves a lot of dead space in between.

What’s a memoirist to do? You need to do what I did, which is to create an artificial intelligence that stands in for you, an I, Robot narrative contraption that will do your bidding and tell your story better than a swarm of little “Is” ever could. Harness those elements of your personality that can tell your story in the strongest and most engaging manner, and leave the other bits and pieces on the floor.

Did I mention that the voice needs to be engaging? Early this year, a woman sent me the manuscript for a memoir about her collie. She had a definite flair for writing and she had entertaining anecdotes about her dog. But her voice rarely shifted out of hysteria as it wrenched her narrative from one crisis to another with never an intervening moment of quiet. And on nearly every page, the voice shouted something IN ALL CAPS.

When I suggested that her approach was too exhausting and too repetitive, she told me, “But that’s exactly how it all happened.”

I didn’t believe it. But I didn’t blame her. I blamed her voice instead.

Voice Determines Content, Too
If she had chosen a different voice, she would have told her story differently. In her e-mails, she told me how much she loved her collie now that the dog was older and calmer. But in her manuscript she used a voice that was continually caught up in each fresh moment of disaster rather than the voice of experience that reflected who she was now. That more mature voice could have supplied the balance that her story needed not only by changing the tone in which it described events, but also by choosing which events to include and which ones to leave out.

Our elderly cat Moobie passed away while I was writing Kitty Cornered. The voice that I had used in Enslaved by Ducks or Fowl Weather might have worked Moobie’s loss into my book. But the voice of Kitty Cornereddidn’t want anything to do with death. It wanted to keep the story light and funny. So instead of seeing Moobie through her inevitable decline in the book, I ended the tale while she still lolled upon the bed with flashes of kitten-like behavior.

Nobody will notice what I left out, because that’s the coolest thing of all about narrative voice. It’s both transparent and opaque at the same time. It’s a guy who stands holding a pane of glass. Most of the time, you look straight through the glass at the action and get caught up in it without even noticing that the guy is there. From time to time he shifts his body. A cuff or a finger get in the way as he points at something happening through the glass, but you don’t mind the intrusion, because he’s showing you something interesting. He’s kind of a magician. And he’s a lot like you.

The ideal voice might not come to you immediately. It always takes me a while to find it. Sometimes I have to write 50 pages while my voice and material dance with one other before they finally make a connection. It’s frustrating because I don’t know how to tell my story until I discover my “I,” but I can’t discover my “I” without writing. So I just have to wait it out.

And speaking of waiting, I thank you for your patience as I flounder around trying to get these simple ideas across. Part of the problem is that I don’t think I’ve ever quite found my voice here. And I wouldn’t, because I’m writing about writing instead of writing about my life with cats, ducks, parrots, or geese.

Bob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell. When not fending off mosquitoes during temperate months and chipping ice out of plastic wading pools in the depths of winter, Bob writes books about his pets, namely Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather. In April 2012, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill will publish Bob’s new book, Kitty Cornered How Frannie and Five Other Incorrigible Cats Seized Control of Our House and Made It Their Home.

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton has taken on an option on the dramatic rights to Enslaved by Ducks. and Fowl Weather was selected as an “Under The Radar” book for 2008 by Nancy Pearl on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Bob wrote the Technobeat world music review column for The Beat magazine from 1989 to 2009. He has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Miami New Times newspapers.

Bob also hosts a podcast for PetLifeRadio.com called What Were You Thinking? that’s supposedly about “exotic pets” as a general topic, but the show just as often turns into a chronicle of life with his own troublesome critters.

Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, a rabbit, doves, cats, and hens. They also raise and release orphan songbirds (including woodpeckers) for the Wildlife Rehab Center, Ltd. in Grand Rapids and have the scars to prove it.

Bob Tarte’s website includes photos of Bob, Linda, and the animals, information about Bob’s books, links to Bob’s music review website and pet podcast, Bob’s email address, and several videos of Bob and his animals.


Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXVII: plausibility, realism, and the wildly variable potentials of plot

I return to you an injured warrior, campers: for the past few days, my keyboard has lain idle while I have been recovering from a viciously broken fingernail. I’ve been lolling around with my left hand elevated, muttering ruefully.

Were those giant guffaws I just heard rolling about the ether an indication that some of you would not consider this a debilitating injury? I defy anyone to type successfully while a significant part of the nail bed on the pointer finger so dear to those who use the hunt-and-peck method is protected from the elements by nothing but the largest Band-Aid currently available to the medical community. Or to touch-type with any accuracy whilst said Band-Aid extends that finger to clownish lengths. Should any writer out there not care if his intended Fs are 5s and his Ps plus signs, I have yet to meet him.

In the course of all of that enforced lolling, however, I had leisure to contemplate once again the burning issue of plausibility on the page. Now that I’m back, I’m going to fling it into your consciousness, too: honestly, if you encountered the story above on page 57 of a novel, would it seem remotely realistic to you?

To a reader either unfamiliar with the torrid history of my long, accident-prone nails or happily inexperienced in having their own nails violently bent back, I’m guessing it would not. I’m also guessing that would come as a surprise to some of you, because as anyone who reads manuscripts for a living can tell you, the single most common response to an editorial, “Wow, that doesn’t seem particularly plausible,” is an anguished writer’s cry of, “But it really happened!”

I can tell you now that to a pro like Millicent the agency screener, this argument will be completely unconvincing — and not merely because she has, if she’s been at it a while, heard it applied to scenes ranging from cleverly survived grizzly bear maulings to life-threatening hangnail removals to couples who actually split the domestic chores fifty-fifty, rather than just claiming that they do. (Oh, like I was going to do laundry with a bent-back fingernail.) Any guesses why that cri de coeur about the inherently not-very-believable nature of reality will leave her cold?

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just because something has occurred in real life does not necessarily mean it will be plausible written as fiction. Nor does the fact that a human being might actually have uttered a particular phrase render it automatically effective dialogue. For that reason, it’s the writer’s responsibility not simply to provide snapshots and transcripts of real life on the page, but to write about it in such a way to make it seem plausible to the reader.

Let’s face it, plenty of real-life shenanigans are completely absurd; plenty of what tumbles out of people’s mouths is at least equally so. The world as we know it does not labor under the novelist’s imperative to render actions dramatically satisfying, or even interesting. None of us is empowered to walk up to someone who does something astonishing and say, “Hey, that’s completely out of character for you. Editing! Cut what this man just did.” (Although, admittedly, it would be an interesting approach to winning friends and influencing people.) And don’t even get me started about how a good editor could improve the dialogue all of us overhear in the movie ticket line, at the grocery store, or at your garden-variety garden party.

Besides, as a novelist, isn’t your job to improve upon reality? Isn’t it, in fact, your art and your pleasure to take the real and dress it up in pretty language, garnishing it with trenchant insights?

So you can’t really blame Millicent and her cronies for preferring fiction writing to have more to recommend it than its resemblance to something that might have happened on this terrestrial sphere. I suspect all of us who love good writing harbor a similar preference.

But I ask you as a reader: would you have felt differently if the tale at the opening of this post had turned up on page 143 of a memoir?

Most readers would; based on a true story is not ubiquitous in book and movie marketing simply because folks in those industries happen to like the sound of the phrase, after all. It’s human nature to like to be in the know.

That does not mean, however, that any truthful memoir — which, as the series of scandals that have rocked the publishing world in recent years have made all of us aware, are not necessarily synonymous terms — is automatically and inherently plausible. Yes, the reader picks up a memoir with the expectation that it will provide a fact-based portrayal of reality, but once again, it’s not just the accuracy of the facts that makes them seem true-to-life on the page.

What might the decisive factor be, campers? Could it be how the writer conveys those facts on the page?

As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing. Just as many a ho-hum real-life event has been punched up by a gifted prose stylist into an unforgettable scene on the page, many an inherently fascinating occurrence has been rendered downright turgid by a dull telling.

Don’t believe me? Okay, try this little experiment: the next time you find yourself at a gathering that contains both interesting and uninteresting people, pick a few of each at random. Ask these people to describe their first really vivid memories — or, if you have ears of iron, their first memories of how their parents responded to a major public event like men walking on the moon, the shooting of President Reagan and James Brady, or a celebrity couple’s breaking up. (Hey, one person’s intriguing public event is another person’s snoozefest.) Listen attentively to each account without interrupting.

Then ask yourself afterward: “Did all of those stories seem equally true?”

If it’s not apparent to you a few sentences into the first poorly-told account why the storyteller’s skill makes all the difference to the audience’s perception of the story, well, I shall be very surprised. What might be less apparent — and thus require more careful listening to detect — is that you’re probably going to care less whether what the speaker is saying is true if she happens to tell the tale well.

And that, my friends, sums up the private reactions of many, many denizens of the publishing world in the wake of the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal. For months afterward, while people in the outside world were asking, “But is this accurate?”, folks who dealt with books for a living — and, I suspect, most habitual readers of memoir — kept saying, “But was it well-written?”

Frankly, for a memoir to work, it needs to be both. Unless the memoirist in question is already a celebrity — in which case he’s probably not going to be the sole writer, anyway — a simple recital of the facts, however titillating they may be in and of themselves, will not necessarily grab Millicent. Nor will a beautifully-told collection of purely imaginary events fly in the memoir market.

You know where gorgeous writing that doesn’t confine itself rigidly to what actually happens in the real world works really well, though? In a novel. Provided, of course, that the writer presents those fictional — or fictionalized — events in such a manner that they are both a pleasure to read and seem plausible within the context of the world of the book.

Do I spot some timidly-raised hands out there? “But Anne,” those of you who specifically do not write about the real point out shyly, “I don’t think this applies to my work. I create storylines out of whole cloth, creating plots where vampires roam freely, werewolves earn master’s degrees, and denizens of other planets lecture in political science departments. Of course, my stories aren’t plausible; that’s part of their point.”

Actually, to work on the page, any storyline needs to be plausible. That is, the narrative must be sufficiently self-conscious about its own premise that any reader who has accepted its underlying logic that everything in the story could have happened that way.

You would be amazed at how often paranormal, science fiction, and fantasy manuscripts do not adhere to this basic precept of storytelling. Implausible fantasies are perennially among Millicent’s pet peeves.

That got a few goats, did it not? “What part of fantasy don’t you understand, Millie?” I hear some of you mutter under your respective breaths. “It’s not intended to be realistic.”

No, but it does need to be plausible — which is not necessarily synonymous with realism. In fact, in a completely fantastic story, remaining plausible might actually require being anti-realistic.

How so? Well, for the reader to be carried along with a story, its internal logic must make sense, right? A narrative that deliberately eschews the laws of physics of our world can’t just ignore physical properties and motion altogether; the writer must come up with a new set of rules governing the world of the story. The less like the real world that fantasy world is, the more vital to the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief maintaining the reader’s sense of plausibility is.

That means, in effect, that while a fantastic plot allows the writer to play with reality, in order to be plausible, the narrative must be respectful of the fictional reality. So when, say, the three-toed sloth protagonist first sets a digit upon the Planet Targ, a place the reader was informed 138 pages ago was exempt from both gravity and dirt, and ol’ Three-Toe leaves a footprint, that’s going to jar a reader who has been paying attention. And the negative effects of even minor inconsistencies can pile up awfully fast: when T-T appears with his designer jeans covered in mud thirty pages after the footprint faux pas, the reader is obviously going to be less accepting than the first time the writer broke the rules.

What is the cumulative effect likely to be? For a lay reader, being knocked out of the story altogether. To a professional reader, however, the results are usually more dire — and are likely to be triggered by the first plausibility lapse, not the third or fourth.

“Oh, no,” Millicent sighs over The Saga of the Sloth. “This writer has set up a really interesting set of rules for this world, and now she’s violated one of them. That’s too bad; I was buying the premise here, and now I have to question it. Next!”

From Millicent’s perspective, the inconsistent detail about the footprint, while not necessarily a rejection-worthy problem in itself, represented a symptom of a plot-level plausibility issue, one that she does not necessarily feel compelled to read on to see confirmed thirty pages later in the muddy jeans. It was the writer’s job to make Three-Toe’s trip to Targ believable within the context of the book’s logic, after all. Since the narrative has already demonstrated a lax approach toward internal plausibility, an experienced Millie would expect to see more lapses later on in the manuscript.

And most of the time, she would be quite right about that. If you really want to set your fantastic world apart from 99% of the others she sees, make its attributes perfectly consistent.

That should be a piece of cake, right?

I’m kidding, of course; editing one’s own work for consistency is one of the most difficult self-editing tasks there is. That’s true, incidentally, no matter where your story might fall on the fantastic-realistic scale. In fact, proofing a hyper-realistic text can be even more challenging than a completely fictional one: even if it’s vitally important to the story that the broom is always kept behind the china cabinet, not the ottoman, the very mundanity of the detail may render it harder to keep in mind.

But you don’t want your heroine to expend her last gasp of breath futilely flailing behind the wrong piece of furniture, would you?

Naturally, from the reader’s perspective, the less predictable a detail is, the more memorable it is likely to be. Case in point: what kind of animal is visiting the Planet Targ? Would you have been able to answer so quickly if the story had just been about some guy named Bart?

Does that gasp of frustration mean that those of you who write reality-based fiction and memoir are already familiar with the problem of how to make the real memorable while still maintaining a sense of realism? Let’s face it: most of real-life details are likely to be on the unmemorable side. While a fantasy writer has the option — nay, the responsibility — to transform that perfectly ordinary mailbox on the corner into a flying monkey that happens to deliver mail for a living, a writer painting a picture against a backdrop of this world can’t.

(At least not until I have finished organizing my secret Chimps-on-Wings postal service. Mum’s the word until I put the finishing touches on that promising enterprise.)

But details need not strain the credulity in order to capture the reader’s imagination. Allow me to tell you a little story to illustrate — or, rather a series of little stories. But first, let me prime the creative pump by showing you a couple of literal illustrations.

fortune side onefortune side two

These are the two sides of the single fortune I found tucked into an end-of-the-meal cookie last year, right around census time: a tactfully-phrased prediction of my future happiness — by mail, no less! — accompanied by a terse statement about my general standing in the world. Now, had I been a less secure person, I might have taken umbrage at my dessert’s presuming to judge whether I counted or not, but since I had already sent back my census form, I found the symmetry very pleasing: clearly, Somebody Up There (or at any rate, Somebody Working in a Cookie Factory) was planning to reward the civic virtue of my outgoing mail with something fabulous in my incoming mail.

Imagine how dismayed I would have been, though, had I not yet popped my census form into the mail — or, even worse, if I had not yet received my census form. As I rearranged vegetables and yogurt containers in preparation for fitting my leftover asparagus in black bean sauce and Hunan pork into my overstuffed refrigerator, I would have kept wondering: is the census form the mail I’m supposed to find so darned pleasant? I mean, I understand the Constitutional obligation to be counted every ten years, but who is this fortune cookie to order me to enjoy filling it out?”

Admittedly, in a real-life fortune cookie-consumption situation, this might have been a bit of an overreaction. (Although what’s next, I wonder? Miranda warnings printed on Mars bars, for easy distribution at crime scenes? The First Amendment immortalized in marzipan, lest bakery patrons temporarily forget about their right to freedom of assembly whilst purchasing fresh macaroons?) Had the protagonist in a novel or memoir stumbled upon this chatty piece of paper, however — and less probable things turn up on the manuscript page all the time — it would have seemed pretty significant, wouldn’t it?

Any thoughts on why that might be the case? Could it be that this bizarre means of communication is one of those vivid details I keep urging all of you to work into the opening pages of your manuscripts, as well as the descriptive paragraph in your queries, synopses, verbal pitches, and contest entries? Could the paragraphs above be crammed with the kind of fresh, unexpected little tidbits intended to make Millicent suddenly sit bolt upright, exclaiming, “My word — I’ve never seen anything like that before,” at the top of her lungs?

Or, to put it in terms the whole English class can understand, in choosing to incorporate that wacky fortune cookie into the narrative, am I showing, rather than telling, something about the situation and character?

How can a savvy self-editing writer tell whether a detail is vivid or unusual enough to be memorable? Here’s a pretty reliable test: if the same anecdote were told without that particular detail, or with it described in (ugh) general terms, would the story would be inherently less interesting?

Don’t believe that so simple a change could have such a dramatic subjective effect? Okay, let me tell that story again with the telling details minimized. To make it a fair test, I’m going to keep the subject matter of the fortunes the same. Because I always like to show you examples of correctly-formatted manuscript pages, however, this time, I’m going to present it to you as a screening Millicent might see it. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the individual words, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing +.

It’s not as funny, is it, or as interesting? I haven’t made very deep cuts here — mostly, I’ve trimmed the adjectives — and the voice is still essentially the same. But I ask you: is the story as memorable without those telling details? I think not.

Some of you are still not convinced, I can tell. Okay, let’s take a more radical approach to cutting text, something more like what most aspiring writers do to the descriptive paragraphs in their query letters, the story overviews in their verbal pitches, and/or the entirety of their synopses, to make them fit within the required quite short parameters. Take a peek at the same tale, told in the generic terms that writers adopt in the interests of brevity:

Not nearly as much of a grabber as the original version, is it? Or the second, for that matter. No one could dispute that it’s a shorter version of the same story, but notice how in this rendition, the narrator seems to assume that the reader will spontaneously picture the incident so clearly that no details are necessary. Apparently, it’s the reader’s job to fill in the details, not the writer’s.

Except it isn’t. As far as Millicent is concerned, it’s the writer’s responsibility to tell the story in a way that provokes the intended reaction in the reader, not the reader’s to guess what the writer meant. Or to figure out what details might fit plausibly into the scene.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but professional reading is seldom anywhere near as charitable as the average submitter or contest entrant hopes it will be. Blame it on the intensity of competition created by literally millions of aspiring writers seeking to get published: Millicent knows that if the well-written submission in front of her does not provide her with the reading experience her boss the agent believes will sell right now, chances are good that one of the next thousand submissions will.

According to her, then, it’s your job to draw her into your story so completely that she forgets about all of that. It’s your job to wow her with your storytelling — and without relying upon her sense that you might be writing about something that really happened to supply the plausibility strong, tangible details would provide.

So it honestly is in your best interest to assume that the reader is only going to picture the details you actually provide on the page. Since you cannot be sure that every reader will fill in the specifics you want, make darned sure that what you want the reader to take from the scene is not left to his imagination. If the detail is important, take the page space to include it.

This is particularly good advice if you happen either to be writing memoir or a novel with scenes based upon your personal experience. All too often, reality-based narrators rely upon the fact that something really happened to render it interesting to a reader, regardless of how skillfully that story may be told. All that’s really necessary is a clear telling, right? Or that the kind of terse narrative that works so well in a verbal anecdote will inspire the same reaction if reproduced verbatim on the page?

How well does either of these extremely common theories work out in practice? Well, let me ask you: did you prefer the first version of the fortune cookie story, the second, or the third? More importantly for submission purposes, which do you think would grab Millicent the most as the opening of a manuscript?

Uh-huh. The difference between those three renditions was not the voice (although a case could be made that part of the voice of the first was created through the selection of the details) or even the writing quality (although the last version did get a mite word-repetitive), but the narrative’s willingness to include telling details — and unusual ones at that.

What if the entertainment differential between the three lay not in an authorial failure of imagination in composing the last version, but in a failure to recognize that the point of including this anecdote is presumably to entertain and inform the reader? In telling the story as quickly as possible, can a writer sometimes defeat the purpose of including it at all?

“But Anne!” memoirists and reality-based novelists protest nervously. “When I’m writing about the real, I can’t just make up pithy little details to enliven the narrative, can I? I have to stick to what happened!”

True enough, anxious truth-tellers: if you are writing the real, you cannot control the facts. What you can control, however, and what any writer must control, is how you present them to the reader.

No matter what you write, the success of your narrative is going to depend largely upon your storytelling skills — they’re what separates your account of a particular incident from anybody else’s, right? Frankly, this isn’t an easy task, even if dear self doesn’t happen to be the protagonist; it’s genuinely hard to represent the real world well on the page. Let’s face it, reality is sometimes a lousy storyteller.

Oh, your life has never been trite or obvious or just plain perplexing, even for a minute? Okay, all of you English and Literature majors, tell me, please, how the following 100% true anecdote rates on the symbolism front.

A couple of years ago, I was scheduled to give a eulogy for a dead friend of mine — a writer of great promise, as the pros used to say — at our college reunion. Because several of my classmates had, unfortunately, passed away since our last get-together, eight of us were to give our eulogies at the same event. Because I am, for better of worse, known to my long-time acquaintances as a teller of jokes, I was under substantial pressure to…how shall I put this?…clean up the narrative of my late friend’s life a little. Or at least tell a version that might not offend the folks who didn’t happen to know him.

No, that’s not the symbolic part; that’s all backstory. Here’s the symbolism: my throat was annoyingly, scratchily sore for the entire week that I was editing the eulogy.

Now, if I saw a parallel that obvious in a novel I was editing, I would probably advise cutting it. “No need to hit the reader over the head with it,” I’d scrawl in the margins. “Yes, it’s showing, not telling, but please. Couldn’t you come up with something a bit more original?”

(And yes, now that you mention it, I am known for the length of my marginalia. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but explanation is often the soul of clarity.)

Now, if my life were a short story written for an English class, the voice loss in that anecdote might pass for legitimate symbolism — or even irony, in a pinch. A bit heavy-handed, true, but certainly situationally appropriate: outsiders move to silence protagonist’s voice through censorship = protagonist’s sore throat. Both New Age the-body-is-telling-you-something types and postmodern the-body-is-a-text theorists would undoubtedly be pleased.

But the fact is, in a novel or memoir, this cause-and-effect dynamic would seem forced, or even trite. Certainly, it’s unlikely to make Millicent drop her latte and exclaim, “Wow, I never saw that coming!”

As I believe I may have already mentioned, just because something happens in real life doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make convincing fiction. My sore throat is precisely the type of symbolism that comes across as ham-handed in a novel. It’s too immediate, for one thing, too quid pro quo. Dramatically, the situation should have taken time to build — over the years since my friend’s death, perhaps — so the reader could have felt clever for figuring out why the throat problem happened. Maybe even anticipated it.

How much better would it have been, in storytelling terms, if our protagonist had dealt with all the different input with aplomb, not coming down with strep throat until scant minutes before she was to speak? That way, in fine melodramatic style, she would have to croak her way through her speech, while her doctor stood by anxiously with antibiotics.

The possibilities make the writerly heart swoon, do they not?

Just think how long it would extend a funeral scene if a eulogizer were unable to speak more than a few emotion-charged words before her voice disappeared with a mouse-like squeak. Imagine the deceased’s secret admirer creeping closer and closer, to catch the muttered words.

Heck, just think of the dramatic impact of any high-stakes interpersonal battle where one of the arguers cannot speak above a whisper. Or the comic value of the persecuted protagonist’s being able to infect her tormenters with strep, so they, too, are speechless by the end of the story.

Great stuff, eh? Much, much better than protagonist feels silenced, protagonist IS silenced. That’s just so…literal.

Besides, readers like to see a complex array of factors as causes for an event, and an equally complex array of effects. Perhaps if our protagonist had been not spoken about her friend since he passed away (which, in a sense, is quite true: I was unable to make it across the country for his memorial service; that could be transformed into an interesting flashback), then she would be fictionally justified in developing speech-inhibiting throat problems now. Or if he and she had shared deep, dark secrets she had sworn never to reveal (no comment), how telling a slight sore throat might be on the eve of spilling the proverbial beans, eh?

But a single event’s sparking a severe head cold? Dramatically unsatisfying. Not to mention implausible.

Taken too far, it might even make the protagonist seem like a wimp. Readers, like moviegoers, like to see protagonists take a few hits and bounce up again. Even better is when the protagonist is beaten to a bloody pulp, but comes back to win anyway.

One of the great truisms of the American novel is don’t let your protagonist feel sorry for himself for too long — at least, not if his problems rise to the level of requiring action to fix. Simply put, most readers would rather see a protagonist at least make an attempt to solve his problems than spend 50 pages resenting them.

I can feel authors of novels and memoirs where characters sit around and think about their troubles for chapters on end blanching. Frankly, you should, at least if you intend to write for the U.S. market. Domestic agents and editors expect first-time authors’ plots to move along at a pretty good clip — and few characteristics slow a plot down like a protagonist’s tendency to mull. Especially in a first-person narrative, where by definition, the reader must stay within the worldview of the narrator.

Some of you blanching souls have your hands raised, I see. “But Anne,” these pale folks exclaim, “I’ve always heard that the real key to keeping a reader’s interest is to introduce conflict on every page. Well, most of my protagonist’s conflict is internal — she can’t make up her mind where to turn. Surely,” the pallor deepens, “a professional reader like Millicent wouldn’t dismiss this kind of thinking as whining, right?”

That’s a good question, blanchers, and one that fully deserves an answer. The short one is that it all depends on how long the equivocation goes on, how plausible the conflict is, and how repetitive the mulling ends up being. That, and whether the protagonist (or the plot, for that matter) is doing anything else whilst the wheels in her brain churn.

The long answer, of course, is that in order to formulate a really good answer to that particular question, you would need to go out and read a hefty proportion of the tomes released in your book category within the last couple of years. Not EVERY book, mind you: those by first-time authors, because the already-established have to impress fewer people to get a new book into print.

In recent years, most fiction categories have moved pretty firmly toward the action end of the continuum. As opposed to, say, virtually any novel written in English prior to 1900, most of which hugged the other, pages-of-mulling end of the continuum.

This preference isn’t limited to the literary realm, either — we often see this philosophy in movies, too. Don’t believe me? Okay, think about any domestic film with where an accident confines the protagonist to a wheelchair.

No examples springing to mind? Okay, how about if the protagonist is the victim of gratuitous discrimination, or even just simple bad luck? I’m talking about serious drawbacks here, not just everyday annoyances, of course. ( For some reason, whining about trivial problems — “But I don’t have the right shoes to wear with a mauve bridesmaid’s dress!” — seems to be tolerated better by most readers and audience members, provided that the whine-producer doesn’t bring the plot to a screeching halt until she finds those shoes.)

Got a film firmly in mind? Now tell me: doesn’t the film include one or more of the following scenes:

(a) some hale and hearty soul urging the mangled/unemployed/otherwise unhappy protagonist to stop feeling sorry for himself,

(b) a vibrantly healthy physical therapist (job counselor/spouse/friend) telling the protagonist that the REAL reason he can’t move as well as he once did is not the casts on his legs/total paralysis/missing chunks of torso/total lack of resources/loss of the love of his life, but his lousy ATTITUDE, and/or

(c) the protagonist’s lecturing someone else on his/her need to stop feeling sorry for himself and move on with his/her life?

In fact, don’t filmmakers — yes, and writers of books, too — routinely expect their characters to become better, stronger people as the result of undergoing life-shattering trauma?

Now, we all know that this is seldom true in real life, right? As someone who has spent quite a bit of time in physical therapy clinics over the last year, I’m here to tell you that pain does not automatically make people better human beings; it makes them small and scared and peevish. That sudden, crisis-evoked burst of adrenaline that enables 110-pound mothers to move Volkswagens off their trapped toddlers aside, few of us are valiantly heroic in the face of more than a minute or two of living with a heart attack or third-degree burns.

Or ten months of physical therapy. And had I mentioned that my nail had a boo-boo?

Heck, even the average head cold — with or without a concomitant voice loss — tends to make most of us pretty cranky. Yet dramatically, we as readers accept that the little irritations of life might seem like a big deal at the time, even in fiction, because these seemingly trivial incidents may be Fraught with Significance.

Which often yields the odd result, in books and movies, of protagonists who bear the loss of a limb, spouse, or job with admirable stoicism, but fly into uncontrollable spasms of self-pity at the first missed bus connection or hot dog that comes without onions WHEN I ORDERED ONIONS.

Why oh why does God let things like this happen to good people?

One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon comes in that silly American remake of the charming Japanese film, SHALL WE DANCE? After someone spills a sauce-laden foodstuff on the Jennifer Lopez character’s suede jacket, she not only sulks for two full scenes about it, but is later seen to be crying so hard over the stain that the protagonist feels constrained to offer her his handkerchief.

Meanwhile, the death of her dancing career, the loss of her life partner, and a depression so debilitating that she barely lifts her head for the first half of the movie receive only a few seconds’ worth of exposition. Why? Because dwelling on the ruin of her dreams would be wallowing; dwelling on minor annoyances is Symbolic of Deeper Feelings.

So where does that leave us on the vivid detail front — or the plausibility front, for that matter? Should we all shy away from giving our protagonists big problems, in favor of more easily-presented small ones?

Well, I’m not going to lie to you: there are plenty of writing gurus out there who would advise you to do precisely that. Edith Wharton remarked in her excellent autobiography (which details, among other things, how terribly embarrassed everybody her social circle was when she and Theodore Roosevelt achieved national recognition for their achievements, rather than for their respective standings in the NYC social register; how trying.) that the American public wants tragedies with happy endings. It still seems to be true.

So why, you may be wondering, am I about to advise you not only to depict your protagonists (fictional and real both) with many and varied problems, as well as significant, realistic barriers to achieving their goals? Have I merely gone detail-mad?

Not by a long shot. I have heard many, many agents and editors complain in recent years about too-simple protagonists with too-easily-resolved problems. In conference presentation after conference presentation, they’ve been advising that writers should give their protagonists more quirks.

It’s an excellent way to make your characters memorable, after all — and it enables the inclusion of lots and lots of luscious telling details. Give ‘em backstory. If you want to make them sympathetic, a hard childhood, dead parent, or unsympathetic boss is a great tool for encouraging empathy.

Not to mention being plausibly survivable traumas. Do you have any idea how many Americans have experienced one of those things? Or all three?

Feel free to heap your protagonist (and love interest, and villain) with knotty, real-life problems — provided, of course, that none of these hardships actually prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her ultimate goal. Interesting delay creates dramatic conflict; resignation in the face of an insuperable barrier, however, is hard to make entertaining for very long. Make sure that the protagonist fights the good fight with as much vim and resources as someone who did not have those problems — or show her coming up with clever ways to make those liabilities work for her.

Again, this is not the way we typically notice people with severe problems acting in real life, but we’re talking writing that people read for pleasure here. We’re talking drama.

We’re talking, to put it bluntly, about moving a protagonist through a story in a compelling way, and as such, as readers and viewers, we have been trained to regard the well-meaning soul who criticizes the recently-bereaved protagonist by saying, “Gee, Monique, I don’t think you’ve gotten over your mother’s death yet,” as a caring, loving friend, rather than as a callous monster incapable of reading a calendar with sufficient accuracy to note that Monique buried her beloved mother only a couple of weeks before.

While a sympathetic soul might reasonably ask, “Um, why should she have gotten over it already, if she’s not completely heartless?”, strategically, even the deepest mourning should not cause the plot to stop moving altogether.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that professional readers who resent characters who linger in their grief are inherently unsympathetic human beings. They just see far, far too much wallowing on the page.

While that’s undoubtedly realistic, it doesn’t really work in a manuscript. Fictional characters who feel sorry for themselves (or who even possess the rational skills to think at length over the practical ramifications of obstacles in their paths) tend to be passive, from the reader’s point of view. They don’t do much, and while they’re not doing much, the plot grinds to a screaming halt. Yawn.

Or to express it in Millicent’s parlance: next!

Yes, people do this in real life. All the time. But I’m relatively positive that someone told you very, very recently, just because something really happened doesn’t mean it will work on the page.

My, we’ve covered a lot of ground today. I’m going to leave all of this to germinate in your fertile minds for the nonce, campers, while I turn our attention back to nit-picky issues for the next few posts. (Oh, you thought I hadn’t noticed that I’d digressed from structural repetition?) Trust me, you’ll want to have your eye well accustomed to focusing on sentence-level details before we leap back up to plot-level planning.

A good self-editor has to be able to bear all levels of the narrative in mind simultaneously, after all. This is complicated stuff, but then, so is reality, right? Keep up the good work!

Finding your voice, part III, or, this is no time to make a carbon copy

For the last couple of posts, we’ve been obsessing on the subject of narrative voice. Yesterday, I advanced a modest proposal: it was more to your advantage as an aspiring writer to revise your manuscript with an eye to making it sound like your writing, rather than like a pale (or even very good) replica of an author whom you happen to admire.

And jaws dropped to the floor all over North America. Apparently, this approach to literary success was something of a novelty to a lot of you.

Or perhaps you were merely surprised that anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would want to talk about individual literary voice. In the maelstrom of advice aimed at writers trying to land an agent, the issue of voice often falls by the wayside, as if it were not important. Indeed, in many writers’ fora and at many conferences, the prevailing advice seems to veer away from it: although most of us who write cherish our original voices, pick any four writers’ conference attendees at random, and three of them will swear that they’ve just heard at least one agent or editor say point-blank that the surest path to literary success is not to wow the world with a fresh new voice or innovative story, but to produce a narrative close enough to a currently established author’s that it could easily be marketed to the same audience.

From the publishing world’s perspective, this is just common sense: figuring out who your target reader is, what s/he is reading right now, and what s/he likes best about it is not only a great way to come up with tweaks to render your work-in-progress more marketable, but also a fabulous means of coming up with a list of agents to query. Think about it: an agent has already established a solid track record of representing books in your chosen category that sales records prove appeal to your ideal readership is far, far more likely to be interested in your work than an agent who habitually represents, well, anything else.

But that’s not what 99% of aspiring writers hear in this advice, is it? Ask any one of those three out of four conference attendees: they have derived the impression that their manuscripts are supposed to sound as if they had been written by someone else.

To be precise, by an author on the current bestseller list. According to this theory, all any agent wants to see is a slightly modified retelling of what’s already available on the market. Or so we must surmise from the tens of thousands of YA queries and submissions in recent years for stories that sound suspiciously like something in the TWILIGHT series.

This erroneous belief does not merely affect what’s submitted to agencies; it can have serious repercussions at the revision stage. Rather than approaching their submissions with the intent of sharpening individual voice, many aspiring writers assume that their narratives should sound less like them. Revision, then, becomes a matter of looking at one’s pages, comparing them to a similar bestseller, and attempting to minimize the difference.

See the problem? These writers are setting their sights far too low. They’re also setting them far too late.

Listen: fads fade fast. (And Sally sells seashells by the seashore, if you’d like another tongue-twister.) In the long run, I believe that a writer will be better off developing her own voice than trying to ape current publishing fashions. Provided, of course, that the voice in question is a good fit for the project at hand.

And then there’s the logistical problem: it takes a while to write a novel; by the time a copycat manuscript is complete. Even after a writer signs with an agent, it takes time to market a manuscript to editors — and after the ink is dry on the publication contract, it’s usually at least a year before a book turns up on the shelves of your local bookstore. Often more like two.

Why is that problematic, in practical terms? Well, chances are, the market will have moved on by then. A bestseller’s being hot now doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the same kind of voice or story will be sought-after several years hence.

In fact, what was selling like the proverbial hotcakes a couple of years back often, if it landed on Millicent the agency screener’s desk today, just seem hackneyed, if not downright derivative. “That’s been done,” Millicent murmurs, moving on to the next submission. “What makes this writer think that there are still editors clamoring for the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, HARRY POTTER, or even THE DA VINCI CODE? Copycats of these bestsellers have inundated agencies for years now. What I’m looking for is a fresh take on a story I know my boss can sell, written in a voice that will appeal to the already-established readership in that book category.”

That’s not an unreasonable request, Millie — but imagine how difficult it would be for an aspiring writer to be simultaneously trying to write like a surprise bestseller’s author and to get a completed manuscript ready to market before that bestseller has ended its love affair with the reading public. Even if an offbeat hit has an unusually long run — vampire vs. werewolf romance, anyone? — unless an aspiring writer had already been working on a similar book project when the sleeper hits the New York Times bestseller lists, it’s likely that by the time the copycat manuscript is complete, Millicent will already have been exposed to hundreds of submissions with the same aim.

Oh, they might not all be obvious about it; many will be genuinely interesting twists on the established premise. But you’d be amazed at how many trend-following aspiring writers will be perfectly up front about their stories being derivative. Any agent who has ever represented a genre-busting hit has received hundreds of thousands of queries like this:

Dear X. Tremely Pickison:

I am looking for an agent for my novel, DUSK, a YA paranormal designed to appeal to the millions of readers of the bestselling TWILIGHT series. But while TWILIGHT’s heroine was torn between a vampire and a werewolf, DUSK’s teen protagonist must choose between a sexy merman and a handsome Frankenstein’s monster.

You won’t want to miss out on this next great bestseller! I don’t know that I’m supposed to include a SASE, so you’ll just have to guess how to get in touch with me if you are interested in my work.


Starchaser McFameseeker

Okay, so the part about the SASE was a bit of an exaggeration — most queries like this don’t include one and don’t mention it. But the toss-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window subtlety of the sales approach and the carefully-drawn obvious parallel to the copied book is often this blatant.

Unfortunately for queriers who embrace this strategy, neither this kind of hard sell nor the carbon copy approach to breaking into publishing tend to do much for Millicent. Oh, a book featuring some of the same elements and written in a comparable voice might well strike her as marketable in the wake of a blockbuster — as anyone who visited a bookstore with a well-stocked YA section a couple of years after the surprise success of TWILIGHT can attest, many similar storylines did in fact see publication as publishers raced to replicate the book’s appeal. But the mere fact that thousands of aspiring writers will inevitably look at that blockbuster and say, “Oh, I can write something like that,” means, necessarily, that a writer who embraces the copycat route will be facing a great deal of competition.

Not to mention running the risk of boring Millicent. Believe me, when you’re seeing the same essential storyline or plot elements in every fifth or six query — not at all out of the realm of possibility, about a year after a major blockbuster’s release — you’re going to get tired of it fast.

The same holds true for voice — and for manuscripts that don’t really have a distinct, individual authorial voice. As I mentioned in passing yesterday, part of the reason that many aspiring writers become confused about voice is that not all published writing exhibits an original narrative voice.

That “Wha—?” you just heard was from the chorus of readers who missed yesterday’s post, I’m guessing. “But Anne,” these intrepid souls protest as soon as they have regained their gasped-out breath, “I don’t understand. I’ve been going to conferences and writing seminars for years, and unless I wasn’t paying attention, published writing and good writing were used as essentially synonymous terms. At minimum, I’ve always assumed that writing needs to be good to get published. But how is that possible, if not all published work has a unique voice?”

Whoa there, gaspers — take a nice, deep breath. In the first place, I’m going to go out on a limb here and state categorically that not all published writing is good.

(A long pause while everyone waits to see if a vengeful deity is going to strike me down for sacrilege. Evidently not; let’s move on.)

Books get published for all kinds of reasons, after all. The writer’s platform, for instance, or the fact that he’s a movie star. (I’m looking at you, Ethan Hawke, not Rupert Everett — although, on the whole, I would prefer to gaze upon the latter, for aesthetic reasons.) An eagerness to replicate the success of a freak bestseller. (Ask anyone who tried to sell historical fiction before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time.) Having been a prominent publisher’s college roommate. (One hears rumors.)

In the vast majority of cases, though, a published book without a strong, distinctive narrative voice will at least be clearly written. Perhaps not stuffed to the gills with insights or phraseology that makes you squeal and run for your quote book, but at least unobtrusively straightforward, informative, and decently researched.

You know, like newspaper writing. Clear, non-threatening, generic, ostentatiously objective.

But to have a literary voice is to take a side. At least one’s own. For some stories, that’s not the best option.

In fact, your more discerning professional readers have been known to wrinkle their august brows over a manuscript and ask, “Is the voice the author chose for this appropriate and complimentary to the story?”

Not all voices prove a good fit for all material, after all — and if you doubt that, would YOU want to read a novel about a grisly series of child murders written in the light-hearted voice of a Christmas card? Or a bodice-ripper romance told in the vocabulary of a not-very-imaginative nun?

I’m guessing not.

One of the great fringe benefits of gaining a broad array of writing experience and building up a solid knowledge of craft is developing the ability to switch voices at will. You have to come to know your own writing pretty darned well for that. At the moment, I habitually write in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, the voice I have chosen for my novel-in-progress, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself not to make light of your personal tragedies, for there lies your subject matter.)

Why not write everything in my favorite voice? Because it would not be the best fit for everything I choose to write.

For example, if I used my memoir voice here, to discussing the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor. Author! Author!’s goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world; to achieve that end, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please.

To be blunt about it, what will work for one kind of writing aimed at one kind of audience will not work for another. I speak from experience here: I’ve written back label copy for wine bottles (when I was underage, as it happens), as well as everything from political platforms to fashion articles. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these venues.

(Some professional advice for anyone who should find herself writing wine descriptions: there are only a certain number of adjectives that may be safely and positively applied to any given varietal; nobody is ever going to object, for instance, to a chardonnay description that mention vanilla undertones. Go ask the enologist who blended the wine you’re supposed to be describing to give you a list of five, then start seeing how many of them you can use in a paragraph. Voilà! Wine description!

See? Every writing project is a potential learning opportunity.)

Granted, not all of those writing gigs were particularly interesting, and I would not be especially pleased if I were known throughout recorded history as primarily as the person who penned the platitude tens of thousands of people read only when their dinner dates left the table for a moment and the only reading matter was on the wine bottle. Yet all of my current voices owe a great deal to the discipline of writing for that very specialized audience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in dealing with a variety of situations in real life.

Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay a very young, very naïve Harvard student a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area, fact-checking the previous year’s edition and writing fresh copy.

Often, in my case, by firelight at a dubious campground: my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire. A trifle ironic, given that most of what I was writing was restaurant and motel reviews for places I could neither afford to eat nor stay.

You might want to remember that the next time you rely upon a restaurant review published in a travel guide. (See earlier comment about not all published writing’s necessarily being good.)

Let’s Go’s tone is very gung-ho, a sort of paean to can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads — it is hard to maintain one’s élan. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on picnic tables.

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice: the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. My paycheck was two weeks overdue, so I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket.

It was raining so hard that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be reviewing. When I stepped into the lobby, a glowering functionary with several missing teeth informed me angrily that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

”Excuse me?” I asked, thinking that he had somehow intuited that I was here to critique his obviously lacking customer service skills. “I just want a room for the night.”

“The night?” she echoed blankly. “The entire night?”

Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The desk clerk did not even know what to charge.

(If you’re too young to understand why this might have been the case, please do not read the rest of this anecdote. Go do your homework.)

I suggested $15, a figure the clerk seemed only too glad to accept. After I checked into my phoneless room with the shackles conveniently already built into the headboard and screams of what I sincerely hoped was rapture coming through the walls, I ran to the pay phone at the 7-11 next door and called my editor in Boston.

“Jay, I have $8.15 to my name,” I told him, while the rain noisily drenched the phone booth. “The banks are closed tomorrow, and according to the itinerary you gave me, you want me to spend the night a house of ill repute. What precisely would you suggest I do next?”

”Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to retrieve my $15 and find a free campground that night. Independence Day found me huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously in a new-found tone. I had discovered my travel writing voice: a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing.

My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston –- ate it up.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (which, alas, it is; ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A professional reader would look at the story above and try to assess whether a different type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout.

Pertinent questions for any projected revision, are they not? I asked them of myself: how would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in professional readers’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many submissions — and still more contest entries — either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all.

What might the latter look like on the page? Like a police report, potentially. Let’s take a gander at my Let’s Go story in a just-the-facts-ma’am voice:

A twenty-one-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby. The clerk asks her what she wants; she replies that she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity. The clerk gets the manager, who repeats the information. Noting the seven-by-ten wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lame huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman determines that she might not be in the right place. She telephones her editor, who agrees.

Not the pinnacle of colorful prose, is it? A contest judge would read this second account and think, “Gee, this story has potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story.” She would subtract points from the Voice category, and rightly so.

Millicent would probably just yawn and mutter, “Next!”

Another technical criterion often used in evaluating voice is — wait for it — consistency. Having made a narrative choice, does the author stick to it? Are some scenes told in tight third person, where we are hearing the characters’ thoughts and feelings, while some are told in a more impersonal voice, as though observed by a stranger with no prior knowledge of the characters?

Your more sophisticated professional reader (Millicent’s boss, perhaps, who has been at it a decade longer than she has) will often also take freshness of voice and point of view into account. How often has this kind of narrator told this kind of story before?

Which brings us back to the desirability of copying what you admire. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery — which I sincerely doubt — then the narrative choices of bestselling authors must spend a heck of a lot of time blushing. Or so I am forced to conclude by the many, many stories told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or the many, many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

I’m not going to lie to you — there is no denying that being able to say that your work resembles a well-known author’s can be a useful hook for attracting agents’ and editors’ attention. (“My book is Sarah Vowell meets household maintenance!” “My book is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!” “The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or all the death!”) However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out, while copies may sell in the short term, for the long haul, what is memorable is originality.

Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective a book’s narrative voice is: three days after a reader has finished it, will she remember how the story was told? Individual phrases, even? In a generic-voiced narrative, usually not.

Of course, after Millicent and her cronies take all of these factors into account, whether the professional reader happens to LIKE the narrative voice is still going to weigh heavily into her calculations. That’s inevitable, and there’s nothing a writer can do about it — except to make her narrative voice as strong and true and individually hers as she can possibly can.

Because then one reader, at least, will be satisfied: you. Give it some thought, please, and keep up the good work!

Finding your voice, part II, or, why am I introducing you to a small, annoying bug?

My apologies to those of you looking forward to Sunday’s promised foray into book promotion. I shan’t bore you with the details of why it didn’t happen; suffice it to say that I will be really, really grateful when the universe stops finding such amusement in causing the lady with the cane to tumble over sideways. I’m hoping to do a couple of posts on subject this coming weekend, lenient gravity permitting.

I’m walking upright again today — Darwin would be so pleased — but I must confess, I’m feeling a bit stuffy-headed. It’s all in a good cause, however: my backyard lilac tree has been waving bushels of lavender flowers in my general direction. Very beautiful, very pollen-laden.

It reminds me of the small town — a village, really, ensconced within an agricultural preserve — where I grew up, in the Napa Valley. (Note to those not from those parts: please, whatever you do, don’t refer to the entire area as Napa; it makes the locals apoplectic. Napa is a well-developed city on the south end of the quite rural Napa Valley. If you’re thinking of vineyards, you actually mean the latter, and if you’re thinking of a quaint little tourist trap, you’re probably thinking of my home town, 20 miles north of Napa. Believe me, when you’re living there, the difference between a city of 130,000 and a town of 5,000 could not be greater.)

Tourists overrun the Napa Valley in the autumn, when the grapevines sport leaves ranging from bright green to mellow gold to sunburned red, but my favorite time there has always been the early spring. The vines are dormant then, blasted-looking and leaf-free, but the vineyards are full of knee-high fluorescent yellow mustard flowers: acres and acres of neon brilliance.

The local truism runs that if you don’t suffer from pollen allergies during a Napa Valley spring, you never will. Because I am inherently contrary, I never suffered from pollen allergies while I was growing up. Then, years later, I moved to Seattle, where the pollen is evidently virulent in a completely different fashion.

Particularly, I notice, lilac pollen. A-choo.

I bring this up, not merely so you will excuse me if I pause occasionally for a ladylike wipe of the nose, but as an apt metaphor for today’s topic, a continuation of Sunday’s discussion of voice. Let’s cut right to the central issue, as expressed by intrepid and curious reader Gordon’s comment:

Anne — How do we tell if our voice is actually ‘our voice’? Is there an easy answer, or do we rely on our early reader to tell us? Or our editor?

Terrific question, Gordon, and one that is surprisingly rarely discussed at literary conferences or in writing classes. There’s a pretty good reason for this: while craft is general, voice is individual. While craft must be learned — and should be learned, as a means of clarifying and amplifying one’s voice — authorial voice is, like talent, inherent. And, like talent, individual voice is not always apparent in even a very gifted writer’s early efforts.

Which is, I must admit, why my first response to Gordon’s question was, “Please, don’t expect your future editor to define it for you — by definition, the best arbiter for a truly original voice is its author.” Authorial voice can’t really be taught (although there are some writing teachers who would disagree with me on that point). It arises organically, often after years of cultivation.

And I already hear some disgruntled muttering out there. “A very pretty notion, Anne,” these mutterers say, “but we’re looking for practicality here, not philosophy. What precisely is voice, and why should I worry about whether my work exhibits a unique one?”

For those of you who have heard the term bruited about in literary circles but were afraid to ask for a definition, voice is that combination of tone, worldview, vocabulary, rhythm, vocabulary, and style that makes one author’s work differ from another’s, even if they are telling the same story.

It is, to put it as simply as possible, what makes YOUR work sound like YOU, and not like someone else. In a book with a strong, well-developed voice, every paragraph — indeed, every sentence — will be in that voice, a phenomenon the pros call consistency.

And that’s darned hard for a writer to pull off, particularly (as is often the case for those new to the craft) if the writer in question isn’t quite sure what her voice is. “Is my voice how word patterns appear in my brain?” she might catch herself wondering. “Or on the page of a first draft? Or is my voice what ends up in a final revision? And how is what I like to read in other writers’ work different — and the same — as my personal voice?”

Yes, in response to what half of you just thought exceedingly loudly, those are some mighty weighty questions, ones that a thoughtful writer could spend a productive lifetime answering. But think about it on a practical level: as a reader, don’t you expect consistency of voice in a published book? Haven’t you ever read a book where the tone, vocabulary, and/or style abruptly altered so much that it jarred you out of the storyline?

Millicent the agency screener has, alas. So have her cousin Maury, the editorial assistant, and their aunt, Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. Lovers of literature that they are, it genuinely saddens them to see a voice that they have come to like and respect suddenly transmogrify into something else 150 pages into a manuscript. Or 50. Or 10.

And how do you think they are likely to react if the voice is uneven on page 1? Avert your eyes, children — it’s not a pretty image.

Nor are they alone in preferring consistency. Most readers dislike that feeling of being pulled out of the story, so pros tend to edit with an eye to removing it. The result: the authors we tend to love are those whose voices are so consistent that if we took a two-line excerpt from Chapter 2 and another from Chapter 8, we could tell that the same person wrote them.

“Golly,” say the scoffers we met above, “voice sounds awfully important. Why doesn’t every writers’ conference devote immense amounts of time to helping aspiring writers seek out and develop theirs?”

Beats me — unless it’s because by definition, teaching a group means catering to commonalities; to help a writer develop his voice, an instructor would have to read enough of his work to figure out what he does better than any other writer on the planet. That’s assuming, of course, that the instructor has the literary acumen to weed out those elements that are borrowed from other authors’ styles (more common than you might think), as well as the time to encourage the writer, draft after draft, to cater to his own strengths.

Kind of a tough brief for a one-time two-hour seminar with twenty students, no?

To be fair to conference organizers, most submissions do fall under the weight of formatting, grammar, and clarity problems long before your garden-variety Millicent would take issue with inconsistency of voice, so it does make some sense to offer instruction on those issues first. When a writer is still struggling to express herself clearly and in a way that will appeal to an established market, those are definitely the skills she should master up front. And it’s not all that uncommon for an aspiring writer only to begin addressing herself to acquiring craft skills until after she is relatively happy with the overall story she wants to tell.

Or, to put it another way, at the submission stage, if her manuscript is not in standard format, contains many grammatical errors, and is confusing to read, an agent or editor’s rending his garments and crying, “But the voice is not consistent!” is probably the least of her worries. Nor is it likely to be Millicent’s first concern if the story has been insufficiently thought-out.

But let’s assume that you’ve been working tirelessly on these foundational issues, and now are pondering Gordon’s question: how does a writer know when he’s found his voice?

Does his writing abruptly jell in a way it had not before — and, if so, will that appealing congealing be immediately apparent to him? Or will he stumble upon a passage when he is reading his completed manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, AND OUT LOUD (I couldn’t resist) before responding to a request for pages, causing him to cry out, “Wow, I would like my entire book to read like this! I shall instantly drop everything to go back through this entire manuscript, page by page, line by line, to apply this engaging voice consistently throughout the book!”

Um, no, on all three counts. Not usually. Especially that bit where the writer realizes that if his newfound voice is going to work qua voice, he’s going to have to use it consistently throughout the manuscript.

So how does a writer discover her own voice? Well, for starters, it’s extraordinarily rare that an author’s distinctive personal voice shows up in her first writing projects, except perhaps in flashes. Why? Well, as much as we might like to think of ourselves as expressing ourselves as no one else does, doing so in writing is a rather difficult skill to master. Even for those most beloved of the Muses, it takes time, and it takes practice.

It takes, in other words, more than just sitting down and writing a complete draft of a book. That’s the first step, typically, not the last: most writers will experiment with quite a few voices, vocabulary levels, approaches to scenes, etc. in drafting their first book or two. And that’s perfectly fine: after all, how are you going to know what you can and can’t pull off, or even what you like in your own writing, if you don’t try a variety of styles?

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering for the last few paragraphs, professional readers like Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to manuscripts featuring a smorgasbord of voice experiments. To them, inconsistency of voice is a sign that the writer in question has not yet decided what she wants the book to sound like overall. So why not throw that fish back into the sea, to wait for it to grow bigger, stronger, and more consistent?

Okay, so that analogy crumbled a bit at the end; try as I might, I can’t figure out what an inconsistent fish would act like. (Attempt to breathe air every second Thursday of the month, maybe?) But that’s precisely why I used it: see how jarring even a single consistent sentence can be to a narrative?

Besides, most writers begin by imitating the voices of authors they admire, so it’s not at all uncommon to see a manuscript scene that contains a patch that reads a bit of Annie Proulx, a terse dialogue reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, and a blistering line or two of Jay Mcinerney cynicism, all tied together by a few straightforward declarative sentences.

Tell me, out of all of those disparate elements, which part is the writer’s own voice? Is it really Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel’s job to guess?

Most of the time — and you might want to sit down for this one, campers; some of you may find what I have to say next rather discouraging — a writer comes to recognize her own voice because over time, it becomes the most natural for her to use. Its consistency sits up and announces itself to be how she should be writing all the time.

Which means, Gordon, that you may not yet know what your voice is, but you will probably recognize it when you see it.

I know, I know; that sounds very woo-woo, but I swear that it’s true. For most good writers, one day, after seemingly endless writing, a personal voice abruptly emerges and takes over the narration. Like all of those lilac and mustard flowers bursting into bloom on a rainy spring morning, its essence will waft over the page, marking it.

And the writer says, “Hey, I like that. I think I’m going to write like that all the time.”

To complicate matters, just as those early spring flowers make some people smile and others sneeze violently, a strong, original voice will not appeal to all readers. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, no not all published writing exhibits an distinct narrative voice. The more distinctive the voice, the greater the risk, in a way — it can irritate in a way that a merely clear, pleasant, generic voice may not.

Oh, you didn’t know that was one of the many reasons that journalists are trained to sound so much alike on the printed page? They are urged to keep their individual voices out of the story, so as not to distract the reader.

The ambient mutters have been steadily growing to a near-roar. “Okay, now I’m really confused. If I understand you correctly, it’s safer not to write in an individual voice — but if I want to be known for the beauty of my writing, I need not only to do just that, but to do it consistently throughout my manuscript.”

Nicely summarized, ghostly mutterers: it is a genuine paradox. It’s also a choice that every writer has to make for himself. Or herself, as the case may be. (I’ve alternated so often in this post that I’m not sure whose turn it is.)

Feet continue to shuffle out there, and hips to shift uncomfortably on computer chairs. “What I’m really asking, I guess,” my muttering friends continue, “is what separates a good voice from a bad voice. Or, to put it another way, how on earth can an agent, editor, or contest judge rate voice on anything but personal preference?”

Remember last autumn’s Querypalooza series, when I pointed out early and often that contrary to popular opinion amongst the aspiring, a savvy writer shouldn’t want to sign with just any agent — she should aspire to signing with one who truly loves her work? This is precisely why: response to voice is quite individual. No matter how beautifully-written a manuscript may be, it’s not going to be every agent’s proverbial cup of tea.

Is the common rejection line I just didn’t fall in love with it making a bit more sense now?

In order to represent you successfully, an agent needs not only to like your voice, but be able to identify what is individual about it lucidly enough to be able to go to an editor and say truthfully, “Look, based on the books you have been buying lately, I think you are going to like this manuscript, for these twelve reasons…”

Because a runny nose is apparently conducive to decoding cosmic mysteries, allow me to add: that’s why nonfiction is reputed to be easier to sell than fiction; fiction is inherently much more heavily reliant upon voice, right? Particularly literary fiction, where the freshness and strength of the voice is the book’s primary selling point.

And, let’s face it, no matter how strong a story is, few readers will finish a novel if they dislike the author’s voice. “I just couldn’t get into it,” they will say, setting it aside.

Nonfiction, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the interest of the subject matter, the slant of the approach, and — yes, I must say it — the credentials of the author. (Oh, stop your groaning — you didn’t honestly expect me to talk about selling NF without bringing up platform, did you?) Just think of the many, many nonfiction books sold each year by journalists: while a strong voice may be an additional selling point, clarity is generally the main desiratum.

Unless, of course, it’s a memoir, where voice is nearly as important as in a novel.

Is your head spinning from all this? Not to worry; tomorrow, I shall discuss voice choices in greater detail. (And I’m going to try like heck to do it on the literal morrow, not merely the next time the pratfall-happy medical gods happen to allow me enough energy to post.)

For today’s purposes, it’s less important that you come away from this with a clear idea of the strategic uses of voice than to realize that you may well have more than one voice lurking inside your creative mind at this very moment — and that before you can make it consistent throughout the narrative, you are going to have to (a) identify the contenders, (b) decide which one you want to dominate the narrative, and (c) set aside some serious revision time for implementing that decision. If, as sometimes amuses the Muses to facilitate, you happen to like more than one of your voice options, you might want to (d) give some thought to which would be most appropriate to the book project at hand (which would fit most comfortably into your chosen book category, which is most likely to appeal to your target readership, etc.), reserving other options for your second, third, or fourth book.

Hey, no one ever said that developing a unique voice was easy. Or uncomplicated.

“I’ve got just one more question,” the disgruntled mutterers who have been dogging me throughout this post are piping up to say. “Why did you decide to start talking about voice at the end of the Pet Peeves on Parade series? If my authorial voice is what is most distinctively me in my manuscript, shouldn’t we have been talking about it all along?”

Ah, but remember what I said above about the usually progression of the authorial learning curve: first comes story, then craft, with voice discovery generally lollygagging to a distant third-place finish. That’s necessary and appropriate — and, frankly, it’s a heck of a lot easier for a writer who has already invested energy in polishing up storytelling and craft issues to tinker with voice than one who has not.

There is more to revising a manuscript than deciding whether this sentence is necessary, that paragraph is clear, or a scene tells rather than shows. All of these are necessary, of course — but ideally, a revising writer should also be asking himself, “But does this part of the manuscript fit with the overall voice? Does it sound like ME?”

Just a small, noisy bug to stick in your ear while you’re reviewing your manuscript in the wake of the Pet Peeves on Parade series. Allow it to jump around freely until next time; perhaps it will awaken an exciting aspect of your voice that’s been napping, waiting until you were ready to hear it. Keep up the good work!