Please raise a glass (or three) to my 1600th post!

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A few weeks ago, while I was deep in the throes of contemplating what subject I should tackle for this, my 1600th post at Author! Author!, a non-writer — or so I surmise, from the bent of her discourse — abruptly flung a rather profound question in my direction. It was, happily for today’s post, one of those questions that would never, ever occur to anyone who had devoted serious time to courting a Muse.

“You’ve been blogging for 7 1/2 years on the same subject?” she gasped, practically indignant with incredulity. “You’ve posted hundreds of times, haven’t you? It’s only writing — what could you possibly still have to say?”

I know, I know: I was sorely tempted to laugh, too. From a writer’s or editor’s perspective, the notion that everything an aspiring writer could possibly need or want to know about the ins and outs of writing and revising a manuscript, let alone how to land an agent, work with a publishing house, promote a book, and/or launch into one’s next writing project, could be covered adequately in a mere 1599 blog posts borders on the absurd. Writing a compelling book constitutes one of the most challenging endeavors life offers to a creative persons mind, heart, and soul; it’s not as though there’s a simple, one-size-fits-all formula for literary success.

At the same time, I could hear in her question an echo of a quite ubiquitous compound misconception about writing. It runs a little something like this: if people are born with certain talents, then good writers are born, not made; if true writers tumble onto this terrestrial sphere already knowing deep down how to write, then all a gifted person needs to do is put pen to paper and let the Muse speak in order to produce a solid piece of writing; since all solid pieces of writing inevitably find a home — an old-fashioned publishing euphemism for being offered a contract by an agent or publishing house — if a writer has been experiencing any difficulty whatsoever getting her book published, she must not be talented. Q.E.D.

With a slight caveat: all of those presumptions are false. Demonstrably so — egregiously so, even. Just ask virtually any author of an overnight bestseller: good books are typically years, or even decades, in the making.

What could I possibly still want to say to writers to help them improve their manuscripts’ chances of success? How long have you got?

We’ve come a long way together, campers: when Author! Author! first took its baby steps back in August, 2005, in its original incarnation as the Resident Writer spot on the nation’s largest writers’ association’s website, little did I — or, I imagine, my earliest readers, some of whom are still loyal commenters, bless ‘em — imagine that I will still be dreaming up post for you all so many years into the future.

Heck, at the outset, I had only envisioned a matter of months. The Organization that Shall Remain Nameless had projected even less: when it first recruited me to churn out advice for aspiring writers everywhere, my brief was to do it a couple of times per week for a month, to see how it went. They didn’t want me to blog, per se — in order to comment, intrepid souls had to e-mail the organization, which then forwarded questions it deemed appropriate to me.

As your contributions flew in and my posts flew up, I have to confess, the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless seemed rather taken aback. Who knew, its president asked, and frequently, that there were so many writers out there longing for some straightforward, practical-minded advice on how to navigate a Byzantine and apparently sometimes arbitrary system? What publishing professional could have sensed the confusion so many first-time writers felt when faced with the welter of advice barked at them online? What do you mean, the guidelines found on the web often directly contradict one another?

And what on earth was the insidious source of this bizarre preference for the advice-giver’s being nice to writers while explaining things to them? It wasn’t as though much of the online advisors actually in the know — as opposed to the vast majority of writing advice that stems from opinion, rumor, and something that somebody may have heard an agent say at a conference somewhere once — were ever huffy, standoffish, or dismissive when they explained what a query letter was, right?

That rolling thunderclap you just heard bouncing off the edges of the universe was, of course, the roars of laughter from every writer who tried to find credible guidance for their writing careers online around about 2006.

Yet the officers of the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless were not the only ones mystified that there was any audience at all for, say, my posts on how to format a manuscript professionally. Or how to give a pitch. Or how to spot editor-irritating red flags in your own writing. They actually tried to talk me out of blogging about some of these things — because every writer serious about getting published already knows all of that, right?

So why precisely did I think it would be valuable for my readers to be able to see one another’s questions and comments? If I was so interested in building writing community, they suggested, why didn’t I join them in transforming what had arguably been the writers’ association best at helping its members get published into a force to help those already in print find a wider audience? Wouldn’t that be, you know, more upbeat and, well, inspirational than giving all of that pesky and potentially depressing practical advice?

Almost a year and many brisk arguments about respect for writers later, I decided to start my own website. That enabled me to turn Author! Author! into a true blog, a space that welcomed writers struggling and established to share their thoughts, questions, concerns, and, sometimes, their often quite justified irritation at the apparently increasing number of hoops through which good writing — and, consequently, good writers — were being expected to jump prior to publication.

Oh, those of you new to searching for an agent have no idea how tough things were back then. A few of the larger agencies had just started not responding to queries if the answer was no — can you believe it? Some agencies, although far from all, agents had begun accepting e-mailed queries, but naturally, your chances were generally better if your approached them by letter. And I don’t want to shock you, but occasionally, an agent would request a full manuscript, but send a form-letter rejection.

Picture the horror: a book turned down, and the writer had no idea why!

Ah, those days seem so innocent now, do they not? How time flies when you don’t know whether your manuscript is moldering third from the top in a backlogged submission pile, has been rejected without comment, or simply got lost in the mail. Sometimes, it feels as though those much-vaunted hoops have not only gotten smaller, but have been set on fire.

Let’s face it: the always long and generally bumpy road to publication has gotten longer and bumpier in recent years. Not that it was ever true that all that was necessary in order to see your work in print was to write a good book, of course; that’s a pretty myth that has been making folks in publishing circles roll their eyes since approximately fifteen minutes after Gutenberg came rushing out of his workshop, waving a mechanically-printed piece of paper. Timing, what’s currently selling well, what is expected to sell well a couple of years hence, when a book acquired now by a traditional publisher would actual come out, the agent of your dreams’ experience with trying to sell a book similar to yours — all of this, and even just plain, dumb luck, have pretty much always affected what readers found beckoning them from the shelves.

But you’d never know that from most of what people say about how books get published, would you? To hear folks talk, you’d think that the only factor involved was writing talent. Or that agencies and publishing houses were charitable organizations, selflessly devoted to the noble task of bringing the best books written every year to an admiring public.

Because, of course, there is universal agreement about what constitutes good writing, right? And good writing in one genre is identical to good writing for every type of book, isn’t it?

None of that is true, of course — and honestly, no one who works with manuscripts for a living could survive long believing it. The daily heartbreak would be too painful to bear.

But I don’t need to explain that to those of you who have been at this writing gig for a while, do I? I’m sure you recall vividly how you felt the day when you realized that not every good, or even great, manuscript written got published, my friends. Or has that terrible sense of betrayal long since receded into the dim realm of memory? Or, as we discussed over the holidays, does it spring to gory life afresh each time some well-meaning soul who has never put pen to paper asks, “What, you still haven’t published your book? But you’ve been at it for years!”

Now, you could answer those questions literally, I suppose, grimly listing every obstacle even the best manuscript faces on its way to traditional publication. You could, too, explain at length why you have chosen to pursue traditional publishing, if you have, or why you have decided to self-publish, if that’s your route.

I could also have given that flabbergasted lady who asked me why I thought there was anything left to say about writing a stirring speech about the vital importance of craft to fine literature. Or regaled her with horror stories about good memoirs suddenly slapped with gratuitous lawsuits. I could even, I suppose, have launched into a two-hour lecture on common misuses of the semicolon without running out of examples, but honestly, what would have been the point? If wonderful writing conveys the impression of having been the first set of words to travel from a talented author’s fingertips to a keyboard, why dispel that illusion?

Instead of quibbling over whether it’s ever likely — or possible — for a first draft to take the literary world by storm, may I suggest that those of us who write could use our time together more productively? For today, at least, let’s tune out all of the insistent voices telling us that if only we were really talented, our work would already be gracing the shelves of the nearest public library, and settle down into a nice, serious discussion of craft.

Humor me: I’ve been at this more than 7 1/2 years. In the blogging realm, that makes me a great-grandmother.

At the risk of sounding as though I’m 105 — the number of candles on my own great-grandmother’s last cake, incidentally; the women in my family are cookies of great toughness — I’d like to turn our collective attention to a craft problem that seldom gets discussed in these decadent days: how movies and television have caused many manuscripts, fiction and nonfiction both, to introduce their characters in a specific manner.

Do I hear peals of laughter bouncing off the corners of the cosmos again? “Oh, come on, Anne,” readers not old enough to have followed Walter Winchell snicker, “isn’t it a trifle late in the day to be focusing on such a problem? At this juncture, I feel it safe to say that TV and movies are here to stay.”

Ah, but that’s just my point: they are here to stay, and the fact that those forms of storytelling are limited to exploiting only two of the audience’s senses — vision and hearing — for creating their effects has, as we have discussed many times before, prompted generation after generation of novelists and memoirists to create narratives that call upon no other sense. If, at the end of a hard day of reading submissions, an alien from the planet Targ were to appear to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener and ask her how many senses the average Earthling possesses, a good 95% of the pages she had seen recently would prompt her to answer, “Two.”

A swift glance at the human head, however, would prove her wrong. Why, I’ve seen people sporting noses and tongues, in addition to eyes and ears, and I’m not ashamed to say it. If you’re willing to cast those overworked peepers down our subject’s body, you might even catch the hands, skin, muscles, and so forth responding to external stimuli.

So would it really be so outrageous to incorporate some sensations your characters acquire through other sensible organs, as Jane Austen liked to call them? Millicent would be so pleased.

If you’d really like to make her happy — and it would behoove you to consider her felicity: her perception of your writing, after all, is what stands between your manuscript and a reading by the agent or editor of your dreams — how about bucking another trend ushered in by the advent of movies and television? What about introducing a new character’s physical characteristics slowly, over the course of a scene or even several, rather than describing the fresh arrival top to toe the instant he enters the book?

Sacre bleu!” I hear the overwhelming majority of hopeful novelists and memoirists shouting. “Are you mad? The other characters in the scene — including, if I’m writing in either the first or the tight third person, my protagonist — will first experience that new person visually! Naturally, I must stop the ongoing action dead in its tracks in order to show the reader what s/he looks like. If I didn’t, the reader might — gasp! — form a mental image that’s different from what I’m seeing in my head!”

Why, yes, that’s possible. Indeed, it’s probable. But I ask you: is that necessarily a problem? No narrative describes a character down to the last mitochondrion in his last cell, after all; something is always left to the reader’s imagination.

Which is, if we’re being truthful about it, a reflection of real life, is it not? Rarely, for instance, would an initial glance reveal everything about a character’s looks. Clothes hide a lot, if they’re doing their job, and distance can be quite a concealer. And really, do you count every freckle on the face of each person passing you on the street?

You might be surprised by how many narratives do, especially in the opening pages of a book. Take a gander at how Millicent all too often makes a protagonist’s acquaintance.

A lean man loped into the distance, shading the horizon with his length even from eighty yards away. Tall as his hero, Abe Lincoln, Jake’s narrow face was hidden by a full beard as red as the hair he had cut himself without a mirror. Calluses deformed his hands, speaking eloquently of years spent yanking on ropes as touch as he was. That those ropes had harnessed the wind for merchant ships was apparent from his bow-legged gait. Pointy of elbow and knee, his body seemed to be moving more slowly than the rest of him as he strode toward the Arbogasts’ encampment.

Henriette eyed him as he approached. His eyes were blue, as washed-out as the baked sky above. Bushy eyebrows punctuated his thoughts. Clearly, those thoughts were deep; how else could she have spotted his anger at twenty paces?

His long nose stretched as he spoke. “Good day, madam,” he said, his dry lips cracking under the strain of speech, “but could I interest you in some life insurance?”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this description, as descriptions go. Millicent might legitimately wonder if Henriette is secretly Superman, given how sharp her vision seems to be at such great distances (has anybody ever seen Henriette and Superman together?), and it goes on for quite some time, but she might well forgive that: the scene does call for Henriette to watch Jake walking toward her. Millie be less likely to overlook the five uses of as in the first paragraph, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed them? Any professional reader undoubtedly would, and for good reason: as is as common in the average submission as…well, anything you’d care to name is anywhere it’s common.

That means — and it’s a perpetual astonishment to those of us who read for a living how seldom aspiring writers seem to think of this — that by definition, over-reliance on as cannot be a matter of individual authorial voice. Voice consists of how an author’s narratives differ from how other writers’ work reads on the page, not in how it’s similar. Nor can it sound just like ordinary people talk, another extremely popular narrative choice. For a new voice to strike Millicent and her boss as original, it must be unique to the author.

The same holds true, by the way, for the ultra-common narrative practice of blurting out everything there is to know about a character visually at his initial appearance: it’s not an original or creative means of slipping the guy into the story. It can’t possibly be, since that tactic has over the past half-century struck a hefty proportion of the writing population as the right or even the only way to bring a new character into a story.

Don’t believe that someone who reads manuscripts all day, every day would quickly tire of how fond writers are of this method. Okay, let’s take a peek at the next few paragraphs of Henriette’s saga.

She backed away, her brown suede skirt catching on the nearby sagebrush. She tossed her long, blonde hair out of her face. Her hazel eyes, just the color of the trim on her prim, gray high-necked blouse, so appropriate for the schoolmarm/demolitions expert that she was, snapped as strongly as her voice. A pleasing contralto, when she was not furious, but Jake might never get a chance to hear her sing.

“On your way, mister,” she hissed, adjusting her two-inch leather belt with the fetching iron clasp. Marvin had forged that clasp for her, just before he was carried off by a pack of angry rattlesnakes. She could still envision his tuxedo-clad body rolling above its stripy captors, his black patent leather shoes shining in the harsh midday sun. “We don’t cotton to your kind here.”

An unspecified sound of vague origin came from behind her. She whirled around, scuffing her stylish mid-calf boots. She almost broke one of her lengthy, scarlet-polished fingernails while drawing her gun.

Morris grinned back at her, his tanned, rugged face scrunching into a sea of sun-bleached stubble. His pine-green eyes blinked at the reflection from the full-length mirror Jake had whipped out from under his tattered corduroy coat. It showed her trim backside admirably, or at least as much as was visible under her violet bustle. Her hair — which could be described no other way than as long and blonde — tumbled down her back, confined only by her late mother’s cherished magenta hair ribbon.

Morris caught sight of himself in the mirror. My, he was looking the worse for wear. He wore an open-collared poet’s shirt as red as the previous day’s sunset over a well-cut pant of vermillion velvet. Dust obscured the paisley pattern at the cuff and neck, embroidered by his half-sister, Marguerite, who could be spotted across the street at a second-floor window, playing the cello. Her ebony locks trailed over her bare shoulder as her loosely-cut orange tea gown slipped from its accustomed place.

Had enough yet? Millicent would — and we’re still on page 1. So could you really blame her if she cried over this manuscript, “For heaven’s sake, stop showing me what these people look like and have them do something!”

To which I would like to add my own editorial cri de coeur: would somebody please tell this writer that while clothes may make the man in some real-world contexts, it’s really not all that character-revealing to describe a person’s outfit on the page? Come on, admit it: after a while, Henriette’s story started to read like a clothing catalogue. But since it’s a novel set in 1872, long before any of the characters could reasonably have been expected to watch Project Runway marathons, could we possibly spring for another consonant and let the man wear what most people call them, pants, instead of a pant?

Does that slumped posture and defeated moaning mean that some of you manuscript-revisers are finding seeing these storytelling habits from Millicent’s perspective convincing? “Okay, Anne,” you sigh, “you got me. Swayed by the cultural dominance of visual storytelling, I’ve grown accustomed to describing a face, a body, a hank of hair, etc., as soon as I reveal a character’s existence to the refer. But honestly, I’m not sure how to structure these descriptions differently. Unless you’re suggesting that Henriette should have smelled or tasted each new arrival?”

Well, that would be an interesting approach. It would also, I suspect, be a quite different book, one not aimed at the middle grade reader, if you catch my drift.

Your options are legion, you will be happy to hear: once a writer breaks free of the perceived necessity to run a narrative camera, so to speak, over each character as she traipses onto the page, how to reveal what appearance-related detail becomes a matter of style. And that, my friends, should be as original as your voice.

If my goal in blogging were merely to be inspirational, as Author! Author!’s original hosts had hoped, that would have been a dandy place to end the post, wouldn’t it? That last paragraph, while undoubtedly possessed of some sterling writing truths, did not cough up much actual guidance. And you fine people, I know from long experience, come to this site for practical advice, illustrated by examples.

For insight into how breaking up a physical description for a new character can knock the style ball out of the proverbial park, I can do no better than to direct your attention to that much-copied miracle of authorial originality, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. To render this example even more frantically literary, I have transcribed these excerpts from the 1908 F.F. Collier and Son edition (W. Blaydes, translator) Philip K. Dick gave me for my eleventh birthday.

Why that particular edition, for a reader so young? Because the Colliers had the foresight to corral another novelist in whose work Philip had been trying to interest me, into writing the introduction. Henry James was considered a real up-and-comer at the turn of the twentieth century.

Feeling sufficiently highbrow? Excellent. Here’s the reader’s first glimpse of the immortal Emma Bovary:

A young woman, clad in a dress of blue merino trimmed with three flounces, came to the threshold of the house to receive M. Bovary, whom she introduced into the kitchen where there blazed a big fire. The breakfast of the household was ready prepared and boiling hot, in little pots of unequal size, distributed about. Damp clothes were drying within the chimney-place…

That’s it. Rather sparse as physical descriptions go, isn’t it, considering that this novel’s account of this woman’s passions is arguably one of the most acclaimed in Western literature? Yet at this moment, set amongst the various objects and activities in M. Roulaut’s household, she almost seems to get lost among the furniture.

Ah, but just look at the next time she appears. Charles, the hero of the book so far, now begins to notice her, but not entirely positively.

To provide splints, someone went to fetch a bundle of laths from under the carts. Charles selected one of them, cut it in pieces and polished it with a splinter of glass, while the servant tore up sheets to make bandages and Mlle. Emma tried to sew the necessary bolsters. As she was a long time finding her needle-case, her father grew impatient; she made no reply to him, but, as she sewed, she pricked her fingers, which she then raised to her mouth and sucked.

That’s a nice hunk of character development, isn’t it? Very space-efficient, too: in those few lines, we learn her first name, that she’s not very good at sewing, and that she’s not especially well-organized, as well as quite a lot about her relationship with her father. Could a minute description of her face, figure, and petticoat have accomplished as much so quickly?

But wait: there’s more. Watch how the extreme specificity of Flaubert’s choice of an ostensibly practically-employed body part draws Charles’ sudden observation. At this point in the novel, he and Emma have known each other for two pages.

Charles was surprised by the whiteness of her nails. They were bright, fine at the tips, ore polished than the ivories of Dieppe, and cut almond-shape. Her hand, however, was not beautiful: hardly, perhaps, pale enough, and rather lean about the finger joints; it was too long, also, and without soft inflections of line in the contours.

His being so critical of her caught you off guard, did it not? The paragraph continues:

A feature really beautiful in her was her eyes; although they were brown, they seemed black by reason of their lashes, and her glance came to you frankly with a candid assurance.

This passage reveals as much about Charles as about Emma, I think: how brilliant to show the reader only what happens to catch this rather limited man’s notice. Because his observation has so far been almost entirely limited to the physical, it isn’t until half a page later that the reader gains any sense that he’s ever heard her speak. Even then, the reader only gets to hear Charles’ vague summaries of what she says, rather than seeing her choice of words.

The conversation at first turned on the sick man, then on the weather, the extreme cold, the wolves that scoured the fields at night. Mlle. Rouault did not find a country life very amusing, now especially that the care of the farm devolved almost entirely on herself alone. As the room was chilly, she shivered as she ate, and the shivering caused her full lips, which in her moments of silence she had a habit of biting, to part slightly.

Didn’t take Charles — or the narrative — long to slip back to the external, did it? Now, and only now, is the reader allowed the kind of unfettered, close-up look at her that Millicent so often finds beginning in the first sentence in the book that mentions the character.

Her neck issued from a white turned-down collar. Her hair, so smooth and glossy that each of the two black fillets in which it was arranged seemed a single solid mass, was divided by a fine parting in the middle, which rose or sank slightly as it followed the curve of her skull; and, covering all but the lobe of the ears, it was gathered behind into a large chignon, with a waved spring towards the temples, which the country doctor now observed for the first time in his life. Her cheeks were pink over the bones. She carried, passed in masculine style between two buttons of her bodice, eye-glasses of tortoise-shell.

Quite a sensuous means of tipping the reader off that she’s a fellow reader, isn’t it? Two paragraphs later, we hear her speak for the first time:

“Are you looking for something?” she asked.

The initial words a major character speaks in a story, I’ve found, are often key to developing character on the page. Choose them carefully: in a third-person narrative, it’s the first time that this person can speak for herself. Make them count.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not urging any of you to copy Flaubert. His narrative voice would be pretty hard to sell in the current literary market, for one thing — did you catch all of those which clauses that would have been edited out today? — and, frankly, his work has been so well-loved for so long that a novel that aped his word use would instantly strike most Millicents as derivative. As some wise person once said, a strong authorial voice is unique.

Oh, wait, that was me, and it was just a few minutes ago. How time flies when we’re talking craft.

I hear those gusty sighs out there, and you’re quite right: developing an individual voice and polishing your style can be time-consuming. It took Flaubert five years to write Madame Bovary.

Take that, naysayers who cling to the notion that the only true measure of talent is whether a first draft is publishable. The Muses love the writer willing to roll up her sleeves, take a long, hard look at her own work, and invest some serious effort in making sure that all of that glorious inspiration shows up on the page.

So what, in the end, did I say to the lady who exclaimed over the notion that I could possibly have spent more than seven years writing about writing? Oh, I treated to her the usual explanation of how tastes change, trends waver, and the demands of professional writing differ from year to year, if not day to day. If the expression in her stark blue eyes was any indication, she lost interest midway through my third sentence.

The true answer, however, came to me later: in all of these years, and in 1599 posts, I had never shared my favorite depiction of falling in love with you charming people. A shallow love, to be sure, but a memorable description. And for the prompt to whip out this volume, I owe that lady some thanks.

Do I have more to say about writing? Just try to stop me. Keep up the good work!

Writing a single mystery is difficult; writing a series can be murder by guest bloggers Stan Trollip and Michael Sears, better known to mystery aficionados as Michael Stanley



Ah, the first long weekend of the warm months, a time perfect for relaxing with family, dawdling on a beach, and/or driving that 50+ miles that news organizations always seem so excited to report U.S. residents are planning on embarking upon this weekend every year. Or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know about it, really: writers tend to spend long weekends working on their books. If their kith and kin are out relaxing, beach-combing, or getting stuck in traffic, how would we know? We’re where we always are whenever we can grab a spare minute: wrestling with story, plot, and characterization.

God bless us all, every one.

In that spirit of laudable endeavor, I’ve planned a two-sided treat of all of you stalwart souls plugging away at your computers this weekend, rather than roasting something hefty on a gas-powered grill. Beginning today, I shall be posting a series of guest blogs by hardworking authors about the ins and outs of constructing a series — or making that always surprisingly tough transition from a first book to a second.

Emphasis on hardworking: in pulling together this series, I made a point of asking authors that had paid their dues, and then some. These are the folks that did everything right for years on end. In these days of ostensible overnight successes and surprise bestsellers by authors who have privately been working feverishly for ten or twenty years on craft, I think it’s vital for aspiring writers to understand that publishing is one of the few artistic endeavors where slow and steady not only wins the race in the long run, but tends to produce better books.

Case in point: today’s guest bloggers, the prolific writing team of Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears, better known to awards committees around the nation as mystery novelist Michael Stanley, author of the acclaimed Detective Kubu series. Those of you who have been hanging around the Author! Author! community for a while may remember his earlier excellent guest posts on book tours, the publication process, and writing with a partner.

This pair is among the most dedicated mystery-writing teams on the planet — and lest you think that’s an exaggeration, let me hasten to add that they live in two different hemispheres, presenting collaboration challenges of which stateside co-authors can only have shuddering nightmares. Yet when I contacted Stan to beg implore ask him to contribute a post to this series on series-writing — and reached him the day before he and his collaborator were slated to complete their fourth novel — he not only instantly said yes, but asked how best to focus the post to assist those of you in the Author! Author! community currently writing series.

That’s what I like to see in an author: generosity, professionalism, and a strong understanding that being an author means being part of a writing community. One never stops paying dues to that community, admittedly, but the rewards are pretty delightful.

Something else I like to see in authors that this team has in spades, doubled and redoubled: a talent for keeping the reader constantly guessing. I’m not the only one to recognize this rare gift, either: their most recent release, Death of the Mantis (also available as an audio book at Audiobookstand), has been racking up accolades like Lincoln logs since its release last year. An entirely representative sample:

Shortlisted for Edgar — Best paperback original
Shortlisted for A Minnesota Book Award — Genre Fiction
Shortlisted for a Barry — Best paperback original
The Strand Magazine 12 best mysteries of 2011.
Library Journal top 10 mysteries for 2011

“Impossible to put down, this immensely readable third entry from (Michael Stanley) delivers the goods. Kubu’s painstaking detecting skills make him a sort of Hercule Poirot of the desert.”

Starred Review, Library Journal

“…a must-read for anyone who enjoys clever plotting, terrific writing, and a fascinating glimpse of today’s Africa.”

Charles Todd, New York Times bestselling mystery author

“…the best book yet in one of the best series going… I loved this book.”

Timothy Hallinan, author of The Queen of Patpong and A Nail Through the Heart

“…the best book I’ve read in a very long time…DEATH OF THE MANTIS is a fantastic read. Brilliant!”

Louise Penny, multiple award-winning author of the Inspector Gamache mysteries

Is this where I get to say I told you so? Seriously, in my humble, notoriously-critical-of-English-prose opinion, this is their best book so far. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

Surrounded by a group of Bushmen, a ranger at a game reserve in the Kalahari is discovered at the bottom of a ravine. At first it is assumed that he fell, but it turns out that he was attacked. Although they claim to have chanced upon the injured man, the Bushmen are arrested.

Khumanego, Kubu’s Bushman school friend and now an advocate for the Bushman people, approaches Kubu and asks him to intervene. Khumanego claims the men are innocent and that their arrest is due to racist antagonism from the local police. Kubu investigates the case, resulting in the release of the suspects. But then another man is found murdered in a similar fashion — this time a visitor from neighboring Namibia. The body is discovered by another touring Namibian — an odd coincidence in Kubu’s view — motivating him to follow the clues to Namibia.

Then a third man is murdered and Kubu realizes that the key to the mystery must lie in the depths of the Kalahari itself. And there it is unraveled in a most unpleasant way…

One of the things I like best about Stan and Michael’s work — and in case I haven’t yet made it clear, there are many, many things I like about it — is the impeccable level of detail. These are the kings of show, don’t tell, and that, my friends, takes serious research in a series like this.

I felt some of you twitching at the mention of the r-word, but honestly, you would not believe how often our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees stories with mystery storylines (and, let’s face it, many, if not most, fiction storylines contain mysteries of one sort or another) that practically shout, “Hey, Millie, this manuscript needs a fact-checker!” Although experts abound in fiction, it’s actually rare that a protagonist wielding major credentials comes across as genuinely credible.

So says the lady with the Ph.D. Half the doctorate-sporting characters floating around the fictional ether make me cringe with embarrassment and make me want to mail my diploma back to the university. (Then I remember how very becoming my royal purple doctoral Renaissance cap is, and I resist. I worked hard to look that good.)

Speaking of looking good, I am also not the only professional reader that has noticed Stan and Michael’s incredibly nuanced attention to detail. Take a gander at some reviews by those who know stories about Africa far better than I do:

“The information on the Bushmen…is fascinating. Stanley does an exceedingly good job of presenting their plight and culture in an interesting and sympathetic manner. He also conveys the other characters, both black and white, in rich, multi-layered dimensions… a very readable novel that offers fascinating reflections on life in modern Botswana.”

The Canberra Times, November 5, 2011

“…DEATH OF THE MANTIS is a wonderful piece of work, a novel that is quietly perfect in every way…one of those rare books that transcends its rich genre. While there is a mystery at its core, it is also a study of the human condition, of the best and worst of people who do what they do for the best and worst of reasons. And Kubu is one of the best friends you will make between the pages of a book.”

Bookreporter, October 27, 2011

Yes, those are the kinds of plaudits of which every writer dreams, but let me tell you, it did not come without a tremendous amount of persistent, hard work. These are authors that built their writer’s tool kits, just as you are doing now, and my, has it paid off.

Bear that in mind, please, whenever you find your faith in your writing teetering a bit. It can be done. But you’re going to have to pay your dues — and it’s going to be a lot of hard work.

Join me, please, in welcoming a team of authors that help show all of us why this endeavor is so worthwhile. Take it away, Stan and Michael!

When we started writing our first book in 2003, we had no idea that it was going to turn into a series. We actually had no idea that we would even finish the book. This was our first venture into writing fiction, so we were complete novices.

Our initial idea had formed about 15 years earlier when we and four friends were on a flying safari in Botswana. (Stanley is a private pilot) One evening we saw a pack of hyenas attack and kill a wildebeest. By morning there was nothing left except the horns and hooves. Yes, hyenas eat the bones as well as the flesh.

That evening, over a glass or two of wine, we had the idea that should we ever want to get rid of a body, we would leave it out for hyenas. No body, no case!

When we eventually decided to write a novel with that as the premise, our opening scene had a professor (of Ecology) and a game ranger stumbling upon a hyena just before it finished devouring the remains of a human being. The perfect murder was no longer perfect.

You may wonder why there was a professor with the game ranger. Well, we’d been told that we should write what we knew. We were both professors, so we planned to have our professor be our protagonist. However, even in third world countries like Botswana, where our mysteries are set, the police need to be involved. So we sent a Botswana Police detective, David “Kubu” Bengu, from the country’s capital, Gaborone, to the remote tourist camp where the remains of the body lay waiting. By the time Kubu arrived at the camp, he had taken over as the main character.

This was our first lesson — authors aren’t always in charge of the novels they write. Sometimes, the characters take over.

Researching the Okavango Delta in a local dugout, called a mokoro

It took us three years to finish our manuscript. We quite liked it, so decided to try to have it published. After considerable research, it became obvious that we needed an agent to represent us. After some of the usual disappointments, we eventually found an excellent agent in New York. To our complete surprise, she sold the book, titled A CARRION DEATH, to HarperCollins. To our greater surprise, she actually sold a two-book contract.

Yikes! That meant we had to write a second book with the same protagonist, Detective Kubu.

By the way, Kubu means hippopotamus in his native language, Setswana, the common language of Botswana. Hippos are large, normally placid, and the most dangerous mammals in Africa.
So Kubu is a large man. He enjoys eating a great deal and loves good wine, when he can afford it. Surprisingly, he is also happily married. Like hippos, he is slow to anger, but when crossed is very dangerous.

Little did we realize what additional difficulties would surface as we started on the second book. Some became apparent as soon as we started plotting, others sneaked up on us at unexpected times during the writing. Here are some issues we discovered during the course of writing our second book, titled THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU in North America, and A DEADLY TRADE elsewhere.

First, the characters from the first book who carried over to the second would have to be adequately introduced for readers who hadn’t read A CARRION DEATH. But not overly so, otherwise readers who had started with A CARRION DEATH may be bored with the repetition.

This wasn’t easy. For example, in A CARRION DEATH, Kubu recalls a time when he went into the desert with a Bushman friend of his, Khumanego. It was Khumanego who taught Kubu to see what was behind the obvious — that what appeared to be a boring patch of sand was actually a world teeming with interesting flora and fauna.

It was this experience that caused Kubu to want to become a detective. In the second book, we obviously needed to provide new readers with the same background, but it had to be done carefully so as not to put previous Kubu readers off. This is obviously true of all characters.

Establishing a sense of place

Second, even though the action in THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU takes place only a few years after that in A CARRION DEATH, the characters needed to evolve. People who read a series in order want to see characters, particularly the protagonist, grow. They want to see the impact of important events on character and outlook. One thing we did in the second book was to put Kubu’s wife in danger, which allowed us to show a different side of Kubu’s normally placid character.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult, we had to remember all the habits, looks, interactions, etc., of the characters in the first book, so we didn’t contradict ourselves in the second. One of the unexpected revelations from our initial book tour was how well many readers knew A CARRION DEATH. We often felt that they knew more than we did — and they certainly remembered more of the detail than we did. So we realized that any slips would be caught immediately by our eagle-eyed readers.

We couldn’t afford to have Kubu look or behave fundamentally differently in the second book — the habits he had shown in the first book needed to carry over. Similarly he couldn’t interact differently with the people in his life — boss, wife, parents, and colleagues — except because of the ways he had matured. For example, because of the passage of time and because of his successes as a detective, the previously prickly relationship with his boss, Director Mabaku, has mellowed a little. Mabaku continues to be testy, but slivers of softness begin to show.

So, as we wrote THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, we found ourselves going back to A CARRION DEATH time and time again to ensure that we were getting things right.

A supporting character in Chobe National Park

Then we started the third book, DEATH OF THE MANTIS, and most of the issues discussed above grew in importance. How could we make Kubu, for example, interesting to those people who had already read two books about him? Obviously, he continues to have success as a detective, but we did two things differently.

First, he is now a father — unexpectedly, I might say. This provided us the chance to bring out a previously untapped aspect of his character, namely how to deal with pressures at home, as well as pressures at work. It also allowed us to explore some quirks in his character. Specifically, parts of his traditional upbringing clash with his self-image of being a liberated New Age man.

Second, through his own fault, blinded by assumptions, Kubu finds himself in a situation that nearly ends his life. How does he handle himself as he realizes he has been a fool and, as a consequence, is likely to die?

We also realized that it would have been a very good idea to build a biography of the main characters as we wrote. That would have made it easy to find out such things as how much does he weigh, how old is he, what schools did he go to, what did his parents do before retirement, when did he get married, and so on and so on? It would also help us to keep track of when things happened in our characters’ lives, particularly Kubu’s. When did the various cases take place? What was he doing in his private life at the time? How long has he been married? Has he aged chronologically in our books as time has passed?

As we write, we have to know or have access to this sort of information, otherwise we make mistakes. And one thing I can promise is that there will be numerous readers who will catch the errors.

Actually, in order to make our writing easier, we are seriously considering trying to find someone who would prepare a biography for us, perhaps as part of a university project or paper. We think it would be an interesting project.

On the fly in pursuit of new material at Tsodilo Hills

We have just finished writing the fourth Kubu mystery, tentatively called POTIONS OF DEATH. Again the same issues arise. How does one write a book that will be the fourth in a series for some and the first for others? I think we now have shifted the balance a little towards first-time readers — the book has to be compelling on its own.

We hope, of course, that new readers will like it enough that they will go back and read the earlier books. Readers of our earlier books, fortunately for us, really like Kubu and his family, and look forward to new ones. So far, we have had no pushback that later books are repetitious.

How did we maintain interest for series’ readers in POTIONS OF DEATH? Among other things, we introduced the first female detective into the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department — a woman who is driven to bring to justice witch doctors who sell potions made from body parts of people they have killed. Her obsession is fueled by the fact that one of her childhood friends was murdered for just such a reason.

In real life, this is something that happens in parts of Africa, and prosecutions are few and far between because the clients are usually influential politicians or businessmen and because of the very real fear amongst the police that any witch doctor under suspicion would cast a spell on them.

In some ways, we have concerns about how the whole notion of witch doctors will be received by Western readers. We hope the story is not pooh-poohed. The reality is, of course, that witch doctors are real. And many, if not most, people in Africa believe in them, to the extent that there are instances of people dying purely because they believed a spell had been put on them.

Bushman painting at Tsodilo

The final issue that we keep in mind is not to be formulaic. We think interest in a series will wane if readers feel that our new books are basically the same as earlier ones. Our way around this is to change the backstory for each book. A CARRION DEATH is a mystery built on the back-story of blood diamonds. The background of THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU is the nasty civil war in Rhodesia in the 1970s and the impact it had on neighboring countries. DEATH OF THE MANTIS puts Kubu in the middle of the fight for survival of the traditional Bushman peoples of Botswana, and POTIONS OF DEATH is about witch doctors who kill people.

These different back-stories allow us to move the location of the mysteries to different parts of Botswana, as well as providing totally different motivations and environments for the characters and stories.

We are about to start the fifth Detective Kubu mystery. This time, Kubu will be involved in the unpleasant results of a cultural clash between the local Batswana people and Chinese laborers who have been brought in to build paved roads. This is another issue of contemporary significance. Throughout Africa, the Chinese are bartering construction projects for access to Africa’s resource riches — oil, iron, coal, gold, diamonds, platinum, etc. Almost everywhere you travel in Africa today, you will see Chinese people. Our observation is that they do not integrate well or easily with local communities — a perfect back-story for murder and mayhem.

Tim and Vaughn Pearson with Nosipho Qolo showing off Kubu t-shirts

Our last comment about writing a series concerns the protagonist. He or she has to be able to keep readers’ attention over many books. If, after your first book, your main character hasn’t garnered your readers’ affection, or at least attention, you may find a series difficult to sustain.
Think about Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, etc. It is almost always the case that it is these characters that make people continue reading the series, not the plots or stories, although these may also be appealing.

We lucked into Kubu — our readers have a real passion for him and can’t wait to find out about his next exploits, about his family life, and whether any of his diets will ever be successful. Please visit our website at http://www.detectivekubu.com to find out more about Kubu and his colleagues. You can also sign up for a newsletter we send out a few times a year.

By the way, if you are going to write a series, a website is an excellent way to keep faithful readers up to date with what is happening to their favorite character. Browse through our site to see how we provide additional information about ourselves, about upcoming books and events, as well as photos and stories related to our books.

We wish you good luck (which is usually needed) and good writing.

Michael Stanley smiling with catMichael Stanley is the writing team of Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. They were both born in South Africa. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a tournament bridge player. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. He splits his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the United States. He is an avid golfer.

Their first novel, A CARRION DEATH, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, was published in 2008 and received critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of its top ten crime novels of 2008. It is a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

And how could I round off a series on Millicent’s pet peeves (part XXX) or one on Structural Repetition (part VII) without bringing up this little number?


Before I launch into today’s magnum opus, allow me to present you with a challenge: what do all of the men above have in common? Other than being, you know, men?

While you are pondering the possibilities, this seems like a good time to mention that beginning next week, I shall begin my much-anticipated Pitchingpalooza series. Because getting through that before my local pitch-centric writers’ conference will require daily posting — in the finest ‘palooza tradition — I will be warming up by tackling a few more pet peeves over the weekend. That will give you time, if you are so inclined, to leave any pitch-related questions, concerns, or special requests in the comments section of this post. The more I know about what you hope and fear in a verbal pitch, the better I can gear Pitchingpalooza to be truly helpful.

Back to today’s business. Have you given up on the brain-teaser above?

Here’s a hint: these are pictures (from left to right and top to bottom) of Man in Black Johnny Cash, John Bunyan (author of a book those of you who grew up loving LITTLE WOMEN may know indirectly, PILGRIM’S PROGRESS), a post-Beatle John Lennon, President John Quincy Adams (in a beefcake portrait, obviously painted prior to his mutton-chops phase), the Great Profile himself, John Barrymore, and John Smythe Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-Cola. Sensing a pattern here?

I should hope so, now that you’ve been sharpening your eye throughout this series on spotting Millicent the agency screener’s pet peeves. But are you as talented at spotting the problem in its native environment?

name repetition example

How did you do? Award yourself a gold star if you spotted all 9 iterations of John in the body of the text — and another if you caught it in the header. (No, that wouldn’t count as repetition in the text, now that you mention it, but to a redundancy-weary Millicent at the end of a long day of screening manuscript submissions, it might contribute subconsciously to her sense of being bombarded by Johns. She’s only human, you know.)

But let me ask you: did the 5 Paulines bug you at all? Or did they simply fade into the woodwork, because your brain automatically accepted them as necessary to the text?

If you’re like 99.99% of the reading public, the repetition of Pauline’s name probably didn’t strike you as at all unusual, but to that other .01% — a demographic that includes practically everyone who has ever read for a living, including agents, editors, and contest judges — it might well have been distracting. Amongst Millicents, submissions (and first drafts in general) are positively notorious for this type of redundancy.

As is so often the case with Millie’s pet peeves, name repetition drives her nuts precisely because it so common — and it’s so common because most aspiring writers don’t notice it in their own work at all. You’d be astonished at just how often a given character’s name will pop up within a single page of text in the average manuscript submission. Like the bugbear of our last few posts, the ubiquitous and, major characters’ names seem to become practically invisible to self-editing writers.

While I’m on the subject of ways to drive Millicent to madness without even trying, let’s talk about a pet peeve shared by practically all of us who read for a living, at least in the U.S.: the radical overuse of the character name John.

Although John is only the second most popular male name in the United States (James has been #1 for a while now), writers can’t get enough of our pal John. Next to him, poor old Jim, as well as lonely old Robert (#3), bereft Michael (#4), and left-at-loose-ends William (#5) lead lives undocumented by the creative pen. As a group, we also have a practically unbounded affection for Jon and Jack. And don’t even get me started on how many Johnnies there are running around YA landscapes, taunting our heroines with their bad-boy ways.

On some days, Millicent’s desk so overfloweth with J-men that he can seem to be stalking her from manuscript to manuscript. “Leave me alone!” she moans, and who can blame her? “And bring me a character named Leopold!”

Of course, even as unusual a name choice as Leopold could become annoying if it appears too often on a single page — but let’s face it, Leo is infinitely less likely to have been popping out at Millie all day as John. L is also not nearly as often the first letter of a proper noun as J, and thus less susceptible to confusing a skimming eye.

Oh, you weren’t aware that many a reader-in-haste would read no farther into a proper noun than its first letter? That fact alone should lead those of you fond of John, John, and Jack to avoid christening any of your other characters Jim, Jason, or Jeremy. For abundant proof why, stand up now, take a few steps back from your computer, and try reading the following as fast as you can:

John jerked Jeremy’s arm sharply. Jostled, Jeremy joked, “Jason, are you going to let John jumble our chess pieces?”

“Jeez, Jason,” John jeered. “You can’t take jesting anywhere near as well as Jared, Jimmy, or Jamal.”

Jared jutted his head from behind the jerry-rigged doorjamb. “Did you call me, John?”

“Just joshing, Jared.” John just missed Jeremy’s playful shove, sending him sprawling into Jason. “Jeremy here can’t take a joke.”

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to avoid giving any other character a name that begins with the same first letter as your protagonist’s. If John had been the only J rambling across the passage above, his too-common moniker might still have irritated Millicent a trifle, but it certainly would have been easier for her to keep track of who was doing what when. Take a gander:

John jerked Harry’s arm sharply. Jostled, Harry joked, “Arnold, are you going to let John jumble our chess pieces?”

“Jeez, Harry,” John jeered. “You can’t take jesting anywhere near as well as Bertrand, Georgie, or Douglas.”

Bertrand jutted his head from behind the jerry-rigged doorjamb. “Did you call me, John?”

“Just joshing, Bertie.” John just missed Harry’s playful shove, sending him sprawling into Arnold. “Harry here can’t take a joke.”

Better already, isn’t it? Still, that’s a lot of capital Hs, Js, and Bs on the page.

News flash: proper nouns are as susceptible to over-use in writing as any other kind of words. Although aspiring writers’ eyes often glide over character and place names during revision, thinking of them as special cases, there is no such thing as a word exempt from being counted as repetitive if it pops up too often on the page.

In fact, proper noun repetition is actually more likely to annoy your garden-variety Millicent than repetition of other nouns. Why? Repetition across submission, of course, as well as within them. Too-frequent reminders of who the characters are and the space on the map they happen to occupy makes the average editor rend her garments and the middle-of-the-road agent moan.

If it’s any consolation, they’ve been rending and moaning for years; proper nouns have been asserting and re-asserting themselves on the manuscript page for a couple of decades now. Pros used to attribute this problem to the itsy-bitsy computer screens that writers were working upon back in the 80s– remember the early Macs, with those postcard-sized screens? They weren’t even tall enough to give a life-sized reflection of an adult face. If the user made the text large enough to read, the screen would only hold a dozen or so lines.

But as technology has progressed, the screens on even inexpensive computers have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Even on a laptop, you can usually have a view of half a page, at least, at full size. My extra-spiffy editor’s monitor can display two full-sized manuscript pages side by side. I could serve a Thanksgiving dinner for eight upon it, if I so chose.

I doubt I shall so choose. But it’s nice to have the option, I suppose.

“So why,” Millicent demands, shuddering at the sight of her co-workers’ disheveled wardrobes, “given how much easier it is to see words on a screen than in days of yore, do submitting writers so seldom have a clear idea of how distracting name repetition can be on a printed page? Is it merely that writers christen their major characters with their favorite names — like, say, the dreaded John — and want to see them in print again and again?”

A good guess, Millie, but I don’t think that’s the primary reason. Partially, it has to do with how differently the eye reads text on a backlit screen: it definitely encourages skimming, if not great big leaps down the page. So does re-reading the same scene for the 157th time. But mostly, I believe it has to do with how infrequently writers read their own work in hard copy.

Hear that Gregorian-like chanting floating through the ether? That’s every writer for whom I’ve ever edited so much as a paragraph automatically murmuring, “Before submission, I must read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. Particularly the opening pages, because if Millicent has a problem with those, she’s not going to read beyond them.”

I MAY have mentioned this two or three thousand times before. I repeat this advice so often that writers who read this blog religiously have been heard to mutter this inspiring little rule of thumb unconsciously in their sleep, under their breath during important meetings, just after saying, “I do,” to their no doubt adorable spouses, on their deathbeds…

So yes, I admit it: I’m a broken record on this subject. But for some very, very good reasons, I assure you.

To name but the two most relevant for our purposes today: first, reading in hard copy makes patterns in the text far more apparent to the reading eye than scanning text on a computer screen. Hard copy is also how most editors, a hefty proportion of agents, and practically every contest judge currently deciding between finalists will be seeing your submissions.

Yes, even in this advanced electronic age. Many agencies still don’t accept e-mailed submissions; neither do most editors at publishing houses. (Some do, of course, so it’s worth your while to download your manuscript to an electronic reader — my agent uses a Kindle — to see how your pages look on it.) The major literary contests for aspiring writers have been quite slow to switch over to purely electronic entries, probably because regular mail submissions are very handy for sending the admission fee.

But enough theory. Let’s apply some of this to a practical example. As always, if you’re having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

a-sample-page

See how your eye tries to leap from one J to the next? Sing along with me now, campers: the skimming eye is automatically attracted to capital letters in a text.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, not-especially-literate people tend to Capitalize Words for Emphasis. (When they’re not placing words that no one has ever said aloud inside quotation marks to indicate that those words are somehow “special” — another widespread professional readers’ pet peeve.) It’s almost always grammatically incorrect, but it definitely does the job of eliciting attention.

That’s not always a good thing, as far as Millicent is concerned. I can show you why in 14 words.

The West Wind whipped through the screen door as if it were not there.

Clearly, the writer intends the reader to respond to this statement with a comment like, “My, but that’s a forceful wind.” An ordinarily critical reader might ask, “Um, isn’t the whole point of a screen door that it allows air to travel through it unobstructed?” Every Millicent currently treading the earth’s surface, however, would produce precisely the same response.

“Why,” they will demand, “is west windcapitalized? Is it someone’s name?”

The practice is, in short, distracting. As a general rule of thumb, anything that causes Millicent to wonder why the writer chose to include it — rather than, say, why the protagonist did or what’s going to happen next — is worth removing from a submission.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s in your best interest to avoid capitalized words altogether. Due to proper nouns’ completely legitimate use of capitals, they jump off the page at the reader — which can be a good thing, if a manuscript is crammed to the gills with action, unnamed characters, and other literary titivations that do not involve the major characters. The reader’s eye will be drawn to the major players when they show up. Problem solved, right?

Not in most manuscripts, no. Since most novels and pretty much all memoirs deal with their respective protagonists on virtually every page, it isn’t precisely necessary to keep calling attention to the protagonist by referring to him by name. Constantly.

Or is it, John? John? Are you listening, John?

Frequent repetition of the protagonist’s name is seldom necessary, especially in scenes where only he appears — and it can become downright irritating over the course the dialogue of a two-character scene. Unless the one of the characters happens to have multiple personalities, it’s generally assumed that the names of the conversants will not alter substantially within the course of a few pages of dialogue.

“So why,” Millicent wants to know, “do so many writers keep labeling the participants every few lines, even in scenes where there’s little probability of confusing the reader by reverting entirely to pronouns?”

An excellent question, Millie. That’s why professional editors so often excise tag lines (he said, she said), rather than having the narrative identify every speaker ever time s/he opens his or her pretty mouth: with only two possible speakers and alternating dialogue, any reasonably intelligent reader may safely be relied upon to follow which lines of dialogue are being spoken by which character. And, let’s face it, this:

John peered through the grimy window. “Is that you, Arlene?”

“Who else would it be?” She pushed the door open with her hip. “Mind helping me with these grocery bags?”

“Oh, of course.”

“Thanks.” As soon as she dropped her burden on the counter, she tossed her car keys in his general direction. “There are twelve more in the trunk.”

moves a heck of a lot faster on the page than this:

“Is that you, Arlene?” John asked, peering through the grimy window.

“Who else would it be?” Arlene asked rhetorically, pushing the door open with her hip. “Mind helping me with these grocery bags?” Arlene added.

“Oh, of course,” John replied.

“Thanks,” Arlene said. As soon as she dropped her burden on the counter, Arlene tossed her car keys in his general direction. “There are twelve more in the trunk,” Arlene said.

Rather pedantic by comparison, no? In published writing, it’s actually considered a trifle insulting to the reader’s intelligence to keep reminding her that the guy who was speaking two lines ago is speaking again now.

What was his name again? Could it possibly have been John?

That reasonably intelligent reader we were discussing a while ago is also more than capable of remembering what both of those people are called by their kith and kin, once the narrative has established proper names. But you’d never know that by the number of times some manuscripts have their discussants call one another by name — and how often the narrative refers to them by name.

John doesn’t think it’s in John’s best interest to do that. John would like to believe that Millicent would remember who he is for more than a sentence or paragraph at a time, even if the narrative did not keep barking his name like a trained seal: “John! John! John!”

In many manuscripts, simply reducing the number of tag lines in a dialogue scene will cut out a startlingly high percentage of the name repetition. In dialogue where the use of tag lines has not been minimized, proper names can pop up so frequently that it’s like a drumbeat in the reader’s ear. Let’s take a gander at a slightly less obvious example.

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

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

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

Susan played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

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

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

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

Susan sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

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

Yes, speakers in the real world do call one another by name this much sometimes, but — feel free to sing along; you know the words by now — like so much of real-life dialogue, that level of repetition would be snore-inducing, if not downright hypnotic, on the page. Especially when name-bearing tag lines are featured in the text, even dialogue between just a couple of characters can convey the sense of a very crowded room.

And that’s more than a little puzzling to professional readers. “Why,” Millicent wonders, hastily taking a sip of her too-hot latte, “would a writer go to such lengths to label people the reader already knows?”

Even when both characters share the same sex, and thus the same personal pronoun, constant name repetition is rarely necessary for maintaining clarity. Yet over-labeling is so common that after reading a few hundred — or a few thousand — manuscripts, Millicent would have to be pretty darned unobservant not to have begun to suspect that many writers simply harbor a prejudice against the innocent-but-effectual pronouns he and she.

Seriously, a lot of submitters seem to go out of their way to eschew pronouns, even in narrative paragraphs. To take not an unusually proper noun-ridden example:

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Tanya did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Tanya. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” Eve bellowed. “Tanya!”

Quietly, Tanya retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at Tanya with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night. As you would know if you had been paying attention, Tanya. May I have another?”

Come on, admit it — that was kind of annoying to read, wasn’t it? Until you’ve seen this phenomenon in action, it seems a trifle counter-intuitive that reusing a single word within two consecutive lines might be irritating to a reader, but as we’ve just observed, it can be, even if the word in question is not a proper noun. The capitalization of a name makes it stand out more, however.

Of course, if for some reason the writer of that last piece of sterling prose wanted for some reason best known to himself to render it infinitely more annoying to Millicent, we already know how he might manage that, don’t we? All he needs to do is rechristen Eve and Tanya with names beginning with the same capital letter.

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Edna was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Edna did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Edna. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” Eve bellowed. “Edna!”

Quietly, Edna retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at Edna with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night. As you would know if you had been paying attention, Edna. May I have another?”

Remarkable how much more difficult that was to read, isn’t it? To get an even better sense of how repetitious it would seem on a printed page, take a few steps back from your computer (if you can manage that logistically) and take a gander at the pattern all of those capital Es make in the text.

Now, admittedly, the writer of this exceptional excerpt may merely have been trying to clarify matters by repeating the names so often: there are in fact two women in this scene. If both were only called she every time, naturally, the narrative might conceivably become confusing. (If you have any doubts about how confusing a narrative can be when no proper names are used at all, get a 4-year-old to tell you the plot of a movie she’s just seen.)

However, like many proper name-heavy manuscripts, the writer here (who was me, obviously, so I guess it’s not all that productive to speculate about her motivation) has constructed the narrative to make opportunities for name repetition where it isn’t logically necessary. Here’s the same scene again, streamlined to minimize the necessity of naming the players:

She slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when no one came running, she filched a straw from the table next to her — the guy tapping away on his computer never even noticed — and made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of life. For good measure, she upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” she bellowed.

Quietly, Tanya retrieved the now-airborne glass before it could crash to the floor. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at her with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night, as you would have known had you been paying attention. May I have another?”

Anybody confused? I thought not. As you may see, proper nouns were not necessary very often in this passage.

Before any of you proper noun-huggers out there start grumbling about the care required to figure out when a pronoun is appropriate and when a proper noun, that was not a very time-consuming revision. All it really required to alert the reader to which she was which was a clear narrative line, a well-presented situation — and a willingness to name names when necessary.

That, and an awareness that repeating names even as far apart as three or four lines just doesn’t look good on a printed page; it’s distracting to the eye, and therefore a detriment to the reader’s enjoyment of the text. A proper noun repeated more than once per sentence — or, heaven help us — within a single line of text — is almost always a sign that sentence is in need of serious revision.

Ready to accept the general principle, but unsure how you might apply it to your manuscript? Never fear — next time, I shall run you through so many practical examples that you’ll be excising proper nouns in your sleep. You might enjoy some variation from the IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD song.

Night-night, John-John, and keep up the good work!

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!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXIV, structural repetition, part II, or, are these concurrent series starting to get out of hand?

No, that image isn’t doctored — that’s a quick snapshot I took today of my garden’s first summer poppy. Eat your heart out, Georgia O’Keeffe.

I wasn’t playing hooky in the garden, honest; I was prowling my flowerbeds for bright, arresting color to illustrate our topic du jour. What, after all, would remind a self-editing writer more of structural repetition — the phenomenon of a writer’s falling in love with a certain kind of sentence and consequently over-using it throughout a manuscript — than a flower that might attract a passing motorist’s attention from half a block away?

“But Anne,” metaphor enthusiasts throughout the writing world protest, “I don’t get it. How are these two apparently unrelated things akin?”

That’s a perfectly legitimate question from a writerly point of view, metaphor-huggers, but from an editorial perspective, the connection is self-evident: both seem to leap out at the observer. To most of us who read manuscripts for a living, a manuscript that keeps recycling sentence structures, pet phrases, or even individual words might as well be covered with flashing neon signs.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is a page stuffed to the gills with one of the more common types of repetition, the over-use of proper nouns in general and character names in particular. I’ve made the image a trifle larger than usual, to render the pattern easier to spot.

In fact, you don’t even have to read the text to notice it: stand up, back away from your computer until you can’t make out individual words, then walk slowly toward the screen. Ready, set — observe!

All of those Js and Ps were the first thing you saw on your return trip, were they not? A sharp-eyed pro like Millicent the agency screener would have that reaction scanning the page at a normal reading distance.

Now let’s take a gander at how the visual problem is exacerbated if the sentence structure is also repetitious. To render this tortured page even more likely to annoy our Millie, I’ve selected a common construction in the passive voice.

Quite a bit less amusing to read, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be at all astonished if you were tempted not to read it all the way to the end — although the page was not in fact made up entirely of it was X and it was as though sentences, it certainly began to feel like it by halfway down the page, didn’t it?

A trained eye would be drawn immediately toward those repeated patterns — and thus away from other aspects of the text a savvy writer might want a professional reader like our old pal Millicent to notice instead, such as the compelling storyline, the interesting characters, and/or the overall beauty of the writing. Because repetition in general and structural repetition in particular are so very common in submissions, Millicent and her ilk not only find it distracting; they tend to regard it a symptom of both a small authorial vocabulary and — you’re sitting down, I hope? — weak writing.

On the off chance that I’m being too subtle here: you might want to think twice about incorporating much repetition into your preferred authorial voice. Especially in your opening pages — which, lest we forget, folks who screen manuscripts for a living are prone to regard, rightly or not, as representative of the writing in the rest of the manuscript.

To put it rather less gently: if the sentence structure and vocabulary on page 1 don’t show much variation, Millicent’s unlikely to keep reading until page 50 to find out whether these traits are consistent features of the author’s chosen voice. Heck, she probably won’t turn to page 2 to confirm that suspicion.

It’s hard to blame her, given the provocation. As we saw in the second example, even when the word choices vary enough to keep things moderately interesting, it’s simply more tiring to read the same kind of sentence over and over than to read text where the form varies more.

That’s true, incidentally, regardless of the subject matter: even an inherently fascinating topic can quickly be rendered stultifying by the simple expedient of writing about it in structurally similar sentences. Repetitive phraseology can render even the most exciting, conflict-ridden scene quite a bit less nail-biting than its activity level should dictate. That’s true, surprisingly, even if the chosen structure is quite complex.

Did my reuse of the that’s true + adverb structure bug you more in that last paragraph, or the recycling of even? By this point, I would hope that neither escaped your attention.

Back to the principle at hand: let’s observe the soporific effect of a more complicated repeated structure in action. So I don’t plunge all of you into a deep, refreshing slumber, I shan’t subject you to an entire page of it.

Obviously, no one plans to crash a motorcycle into the side of a cross-town bus, but that is precisely what Barnaby did. Fortunately, he was wearing his inflatable jumpsuit, saving him from significant injury, but clearly, his morning was not going to be a smooth one. Resignedly, he collected his scattered belongings, including the small thermonuclear device he later planned to smuggle into the state dinner, but he could not resist cursing under his breath.

Something tells me that a scene with stakes this high could have been written about in a slightly more compelling manner. There’s more to good storytelling, after all, than just getting all of the facts down on the page. To see why this is true, we need look no farther than the early reader books of our youth.

You know the type, right? See Spot run. See Spot bite Dick. See Dick shiv Jane. Stab, Dick, stab.

Dull, from an adult perspective, weren’t they? But dull with a purpose: part of their point was to encourage new readers to recognize letter patterns as particular words. Varying the sentence structure enough to render the insipid story interesting to more advanced readers would merely have distracted from the task at hand.

So we were treated to the same sentence structure for what seemed like the entire book. I have a distinct memory of taking my kindergarten copy of FROG FUN home from school (Hop, frog, hop. Hop, hop, hop: hardly Thackeray), reading a two pages of it to my father, and both of us deciding simultaneously that no self-respecting human being would keep slogging through that much narrative repetition. He wrote a very amusing little note to my teacher about it.

Suffice it to say that my teacher quickly learned to send me to the library for alternate reading material. And stopped teaching kindergarten shortly thereafter. I’m told that she still winces whenever she sees a frog.

It’s even easier to make Millicent wince — at any given moment, her to-read pile overfloweth with submissions that, if not as word-repetitious as FROG FUN, have fairly obviously not been carefully revised with an eye to sentence variation. That’s a pity, because when a professional reader sees a manuscript that uses the same sentence structure or the same few verbs use over and over, the specters of Dick, Jane, and Spot seem to rise from the page, moaning, “This is not very sophisticated writing!”

Why? Well, when one’s eye is trained to note detail, it’s doesn’t take much redundancy to trigger a negative reaction.

In fact, a good professional reader will often catch a repetition the first time it recurs — as in the second time something is mentioned in the text. It’s not unheard-of for an editorial memo to contain an angry paragraph about the vital necessity to curb “your inordinate fondness for” phrase X when phrase X shows up only three or four times in the entire manuscript.

As in over the course of 382 pages. Had I mentioned that we pros are trained to be extremely sensitive to redundancy?

Imagine, then, how much more annoying they find it when every third sentence begins with a structure like, Blinking, Sheila backed away or George was…” or the ever-popular, As she was doing X, Y happened.

That last one caught you a bit off guard, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised: if an alien from the planet Targ were to base its understanding of human life solely upon the frequency with which protagonists in first novels do something while something else occurs, it would be forced to conclude that humanity is doomed to perpetual multitasking. Either that, or it would surmise that the space-time continuum is somehow compressed by the mere fact of someone’s writing about it.

Oh, you laugh, but how else could the poor visitor to our solar system possibly interpret a passage like this?

As Monique turned the corner, she spotted Clarence. He dodged as she came up to him. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Aiming, she cleared her throat. “The jig’s up, Clarence.”

That’s quite a bit of activity happening simultaneously — and quite a few logically similar sentence structures shouldering one another for prominence. But contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact that two things occurred at the same time is not particularly interesting to most readers. Unless the simultaneity of the motions in question is crucial to the reader’s understanding what’s going on, as and while can be awfully easy to overuse.

How so? Well, let me put it this way: if our imaginative little run-in with the Targian had not tipped you off in advance, would you have noticed that there were two things going on contemporaneously in every sentence in that last example?

If so, you’re certainly not alone: most aspiring writers — i.e., the folks who have not yet had the professional opportunity to hear an editor go on a tirade about it — would not see a problem with that excerpt. Millicent, however, would, and that’s likely to spark some rather unpleasant consequences at submission time.

So how might a savvy reviser rearrange that passage so as to leave her eyebrows mercifully unraised? Vary the sentence structure — and cut out any extraneous activity. While you’re at it, reserve as for those relatively rare occasions when it’s imperative that the reader be made aware that things happened at the same time. The result might look a little bit like this:

Monique strode around the corner, surprising Clarence so much that he dropped his bullwhip. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Carefully, she took aim at his Adam’s apple. “The jig’s up, my friend.”

The contrast between this version and the previous one is pretty stark, is it not? To repetition-sensitive eyes, a page filled with structural and word repetition is like badly-done CGI in movies, where battle scenes between thousands of characters are created by filming 50 extras flailing at one another, copying that image, and plastering it seventeen times across the scene, perhaps alternated with two or three other images of the same actors in different positions. Honestly, to those of us who count patterns for a living, that level of repetition can be downright migraine-inducing.

“Wait just a nit-picking minute, Anne!” I hear some conscientious revisers exclaiming. “English grammar only permits so many ways of arranging sentences properly. Isn’t any manuscript going to exhibit a certain amount of pattern repetition, necessarily?”

Yes, of course — but that does not give writers carte blanche to use the same structures back-to-back, or to utilize a favorite complex sentence form twice per page. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s not as though your garden-variety writer is repeating herself on purpose: in the vast majority of instances, the writer simply likes a kind of sentence or a particular verb enough to use it often.

You lucky souls, however, are going to be one up on that kind of writer come revision time, because we’re about to take a run at spotting the phenomenon in its natural habitat. Since last post’s foray into A TALE OF TWO CITIES was so obvious, let’s try a comparatively subtle one on for size.

Rubbing his sides for warmth, Stephen glanced unhappily at his fellow cheerleaders. Waving his pom-poms in a wan impression of good sportsmanship, he reminded himself never to be stupid enough to accept one of his sister’s bets again. Pulling up his flesh-colored tights –- oh, why hadn’t he listened to Brian, who had told him to wear nylons under them on this near-freezing night? – he wondered if Tammy would be vicious enough to demand the performance of the promised splits before the game ended. Sighing, he figured she would.

How did you do? Individually, there is nothing wrong with any given sentence in this paragraph, right? Yet taken communally — as sentences in submissions invariably are — the repetition of the same kind of opening each time starts to ring like a drumbeat in Millicent’s head, distracting her from the actual subject matter, the quality of the writing — and, alas, even the blistering pace you worked so hard to achieve on the page.

That’s not just a voice problem — it’s a marketing problem.

Why? Well, think about it: very, very few agents and editors can afford to work with specialists in a single type of sentence. And don’t start waving random pages ripped from Ernest Hemingway’s oeuvre at me, either: present-day readers expect a narrative with a broad array of sentence structures.

The sad thing is, most of the time, writers don’t even realize that they’re repeating patterns, because unless the repetition bug has really bitten them, the redundancy isn’t in every sentence. Or if it is, the repetition often lies in words or phrases that are similar, but not identical, so the writer does not think of them as the same word. Consider:

Arnold began sweating, sweating as though his sweat glands were going on strike tomorrow. Should he go to the window and throw it open, beginning the cooling-down process? Or should he go downstairs, into the basement, to the cool of the pickle cellar? Or should he wait for the seller on the cooler porch?

Subtle, isn’t it? Sometimes, the structures a writer favors may be common enough in themselves that she would need to read her pages IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch the problem. As in:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted, “because I had no reason.”

“But you did take it,” Edmund shot back, “because you needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Claire’s eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, since you don’t know her.”

These three lines of dialogue feature different words, of course, but they sport identical structures. This may not seem like a serious problem on any given page, but once a professional reader notices a manuscript exhibiting this kind of repetition a couple of times, she will simply assume — feel free to sing along; you should know the words by now — that the pattern will recur throughout the manuscript.

How does s/he know, you ask? Experience, my dears, experience. How many horror films did you have to see before you realized that the monster/killer/Creature from the Black Lagoon wasn’t really dead the first time it appeared to be?

Go back and re-read that last example out loud: did you notice how similar those three paragraphs sound in the mouth — almost as though they were not the words of two different speakers? The repetitive structure here makes Claire and Edmund speak in essentially the same rhythm, as though they were echoes of the same voice. (Which, from an authorial point of view, they are.)

When two characters speak in the same rhythm, it mutes the conflict between them a little — not to mention making it harder for the reader to follow the dialogue. Check out how varying the sentence structure ramps up the tension between them, even in an excerpt this short:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted. “I had no conceivable reason.”

“You lie,” Edmond shot back. “You needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, me bucko, since you don’t know her.”

“Aha! I knew you were concealing a pirate past!”

“I ought to keel-haul you.” Sullenly, she removed her eye patch. “What gave me away, the parrot?”

Nifty, eh? That, in case you were wondering, is the kind of character development benefit a writer is likely to derive from reading her work OUT LOUD. I just mention.

But a writer need not only pay attention to how many times he’s using the same words or similar sentence structures in back-to-back sentences, but also on any given page, or even over the course of a scene. Let’s take a look at how non-consecutive repetition might play out in practice.

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Harold’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Harold, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

My, but our examples are violent today. To most self-editors, this paragraph would not seem especially problematic. However, to a professional reader, it contains two of the most commonly-repeated structures, our old friends, the While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was Z…. Standing alone as individual sentences, either form is perfectly valid; the problem arises when either appears too frequently on the page. To a professional reader, this is how the paragraph above would scan:

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Harold’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Harold, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

See how even spread-out repetition jumps off the page, once you’re sensitized to it? Millicent (and her boss, and the editors at the publishing house across the street, and even the average contest judge after reading the first handful of entries) is so attuned to it that she might not even have made it as far as the end of the paragraph.

To use the most overworked word in her vocabulary: “Next!”

Of course, you may strike lucky: your submission may be read by a screener who hasn’t been at it very long, a contest judge brand-new to the game, or an agent whose tolerance for pattern repetition is unusually high. Heck, your work may even land on the desk of that rara avis, the saint who is willing to overlook some minor problems in a manuscript if the writer seems to have promising flair. In any of these cases, you may be able to put off winnowing out pattern repetition until after the book is sold to an editor — who is most unlikely to be so forgiving.

Do you honestly want to gamble on Millicent’s possible saintliness at the submission stage?

Because editorial response to this kind of repetition tends to be so strong — I wasn’t kidding about those migraines — you would be well advised to check your first chapter, especially your opening page, for inadvertent pattern repetitions. (Actually, since quick-skimming pros tend to concentrate upon the openings of sentences, you can get away with just checking the first few words after every period, in a pinch. But you didn’t hear that from me.)

The most straightforward way to do this is to sit down with five or ten pages of your manuscript and a number of different colored pens. Highlighters are dandy for this purpose. Mark each kind of sentence in its own color; reserve a special color for nouns and verbs that turn up more than once per page. You probably already know what your favorite kinds of sentence are, but it would be an excellent idea to pre-designate colors for not only the ever-popular While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was… sentences, but also for the X happened and then Y happened and Gerund Adverb Comma (as in Sitting silently, Hortense felt like a spy.) forms as well.

After you have finished coloring your pages, arrange all of the marked-up pages along some bare and visually uncomplicated surface — against the back of a couch, along a kitchen counter, diagonally across your bed — and take three steps backward. (Sorry, kitty; didn’t mean to step on your tail.)

Does one color predominate? If you notice one color turning up many times per page — or two or three times per paragraph – you might want to think about reworking your structures a little.

If this all seems terribly nit-picky to you, well, it is. But the more you can vary the structure and rhythm of your writing, the more interesting it will be for the reader – and, from a professional perspective, the more it will appeal to educated readers.

Think about it: good literary fiction very seldom relies heavily upon a single sentence structure throughout an entire text, does it?

You know what kinds of books use the same types of sentences over and over? The ones marketed to consumers with less-developed reading skills. If that is your target readership, great — run with the repetitive structure. (Run, Jane, run! Don’t let Dick stab, stab, stab.) But for most adult markets, the industry assumes at least a 10th-grade reading level.

In my high school, Ernest Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA was assigned in the 9th grade. If you catch my drift.

Then, too, agency screeners and editorial assistants typically hold liberal arts degrees from pretty good colleges. That’s a long, long way from the reading level that was contented to watch Dick and Jane running all over the place with Spot and frogs having fun hop, hop, hopping.

Let your structural choices be as exciting as the writing contained within them — and let your voice emerge as more than a repetitive collection of your favorite words and sentences. Incorporate your pet structures and phrases, by all means, but have them appear rarely enough that they will seem like revelations, not just narrative-as-usual.

Above all, keep mixing up those sentence structures. You may be pleasantly surprised at how much interest merely preventing a sentence from reading like the one before it can produce. 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.

Sincerely,

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!

Pet peeves on parade, part XVII: once more — and this time with feeling!

All finished with your income taxes, campers? Since the 15th was a holiday in Washington D.C., giving us a whole extra weekend to gnaw on our erasers and scratch our heads, I figured that the end of last week was a good time to take a short break from blogging. Call me zany, but I suspect that a fairly hefty percentage of the Author! Author! community is more word-oriented than number-obsessed.

Hey, my high school calculus teacher didn’t call me Liberal Arts Annie for nothing. He had worked his way through college playing poker (or so he claimed); I edited other students’ term papers. It takes all types to make a world.

Which renders it surprising, does it not, that wildly different sorts of people say such similar things in real-life dialogue? Admittedly, I may be more sensitive to verbal repetition than usual at the moment– you wouldn’t believe how often someone recovering from car crash injuries is asked the same questions. Not only by different practitioners, but by the same practitioner at each visit.

I realize that these well-meaning, healing-mongering individuals have forms to fill out and file, but since presumably one is not not their only patient on any given day, or even in the course of any given hour, I can’t imagine that they, too, are not bored to death by the sheer repetition. Quoth the parrots:

“So how are you feeling today? Better? Worse? The same? How is that {fill in body part here} doing? How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with one being none and ten the worst pain you have ever experienced?

Naturally, as a fully-vested member of the storytellers’ guild, one would try to vary one’s answers each time, to spice up the collective dialogue. What they want, of course, is not for the patient to respond in a manner that might conceivably be interesting to another human being (or to me) to hear or read, but in an extremely limited vocabulary and in the brevity permitted on their forms. They want our dialogue, in short, to resemble their dialogues with every other patient so closely that the only thing that differentiates us is the answer to those questions.

No personalities, please: just the facts, ma’am. Preferably delivered in so clipped and uncommunicative a manner that a Bertolt Brecht drama would seem positively chatty by contrast:

“So how are you feeling today?” Dr. Synonym asked brightly.

“Okay,” Patient No. 8276494/14A replied.

“Better?”

“No.”

“Worse?”

“No.”

“The same?”

Patient No. 8276494/14A sighed. Had s/he not already implicitly answered this question? “Yes.”

“How is that…” Dr. Synonym glanced down at the chart. “Knee doing? Better? Worse? The same?”

“About the same.”

“How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with one being none and ten the worst pain you can imagine?”

Patient No. 8276494/14A pictured being ripped to pieces by dingoes. “Five.”

On the manuscript page, this exchange would be pretty dull, even the first time around — in fact, unless the point were to show how dull and repetitious this round of questions was, most professional readers would probably advise the author to cut it. And we should all hope that this was the point of the submission from which our example was borrowed, because it appeared more than once throughout the course of a narrative, it would be stultifying.

Don’t believe me? Okay, I dare you: read it again.

The problem here isn’t merely that this is generic dialogue, a question-and-answer session so generic that neither question nor answer reveal much about either of the speakers. Or, indeed, about the situation both parties are ostensibly concerned with discussing.

So I ask you, manuscript revisers: is this dialogue, although unquestionably lifted from real life, worth preserving on the page for posterity? If not, how would you go about rendering more character- and/or plot-revealing?

The most obvious fix would be to have Dr. Synonym ask less generic questions — or at least ones that a good third of the patients currently scurrying around clinics in those fiendishly-designed little smocks that invariably leave half of one’s body exposed to the elements have answered within the last 20 minutes. Throwing even one curve ball into the mix would render the scene less predictable. Let’s try two.

“So how are you feeling today?” Dr. Synonym asked brightly. “Better?”

“No.”

“Worse?”

“No.”

Was he even listening? “Experiencing any difficulty climbing the giant rock candy mountain to snatch the magic beans from the resident ogre?”

“No.”

The doctor noted on the chart: sprained sense of humor. “Been eaten by crocodiles, lately?”

“No.”

“How is that knee doing?” She decided to make it multiple choice this time. “Better? Worse? The same?”

“About the same.”

“You’re tired.” She snapped her notebook closed with a strained smile. “Let’s see if we can do better tomorrow.”

Quite a different dynamic, isn’t it? Now, there’s conflict in the scene: the doctor is trying to elicit an individuated response, but the patient insists upon being minimally communicative. By playing with the expected, we end up with more tension on the page.

I’m sensing some of you lovers of slice-of-life literature just itching to jump into the fray. “But Anne,” reality-huggers protest, “I don’t believe a doctor would say that in real life. What I like in dialogue is seeing actual speech mirrored precisely on the page. Yes, it’s occasionally boring, but aren’t most readers prepared to put up with a little dullness if the scene rings true?”

Some readers, yes. Professional readers, seldom. And our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, when she’s in the throes of reading a stack of submissions between now and her long-delayed lunch? Very rarely indeed.

Besides, who is to say that a real-life doctor wouldn’t ask a couple of funny questions in this situation? You really should get out more, slice-of-lifers.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that it’s necessary to the plot or characterization to depict the doctor’s asking precisely the questions the reader will expect him to ask. (Yes, I changed Dr. Synonym’s sex this time around. Had I mentioned that I like variety on the page?) A savvy reviser could embrace the strategy that has not worked so well in my myriad medical appointments: beefing up the answers. Or even allowing a question or two to go unanswered.

Dr. Synonym leaned over her battened-down body, apparently addressing her chin. “So how are you feeling today?”

“Like some idiots have tied me to a hospital bed,” Jenna spat. “How else would a sane person feel?”

His expression did not alter. “Better?”

“Better than what?”

“Worse?”

She closed her eyes wearily. “Untie me, and maybe I’ll tell you.”

“The same, then?”

She could hear his fountain pen scratching. Clearly, that last question had been rhetorical.

“How is that knee doing? Better? Worse? The same?”

Jenna had not seen her legs in three weeks. “You tell me. I don’t have eyes on my toes.”

“How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with one being none and ten the worst pain you can imagine?”

“Eighty-seven. Fourteen hundred. Five thousand and twelve.”

“You’re tired.” He snapped his notebook closed with a strained smile. “Let’s see if we can do better tomorrow.”

Much more interesting than all of those nos, isn’t it? This is an old, old professional writer’s trick: avoid having your characters answer yes-or-no questions with either a yes or a no, since they add so little new information to the scene. Or an I don’t know, which typically adds even less.

Why avoid these three in particular? They often shut down a conversation, rather than moving it in an unexpected direction. Besides, yes,no, and I don’t know are usually the least interesting ways to answer a question;. We live in a full and fascinating universe, after all: neither fiction nor reality — complex fiction and reality, anyway — lend themselves to simple, dismissive answers.

Besides, if they come at the beginning of a fuller response to a yes/no question, the actual yes/no response is often not necessary. It’s implied in the rest of the statement.

“Is your leg feeling better today?”

“No, I feel as though it were about to fall off.”

Yes, a patient might actually say it this way, but on the page, this means essentially the same thing, doesn’t it?

“Is your leg feeling better today?”

“I feel as though it were about to fall off.”

It’s every bit as realistic, too. But it works better on the page: real-life dialogue tends to be rife with both phrase, idea, and even fact repetition.

Unfortunately, so does a hefty percentage of the dialogue in manuscript submissions. Rather than improving upon real-life speech by minimizing redundancy, sticking to the topic at hand, avoiding clichés, and varying phrasing — to name but a few of the many, many benefits of only selectively mirroring the way people actually talk — or using it to develop character, many aspiring writers don’t give much thought to how interesting the dialogue on their pages might be for someone else to read.

Seem perverse, in a population characterized by a clawing, desperate desire to have others read their writing? Strange to say, it seems to be true, judging by what turns up on the submission page. It’s as though dialogue were magically exempt from the thou shalt not bore thy reader rule applicable to the narrative portions of the manuscript.

Stop rolling your eyes. Even in manuscripts that have obviously been put together with care and revised meticulously, the dialogue is often repetitious in both phrasing and content. Add to that the simple truth that since it can take a heck of a long time to write a book, a writer does not always remember where — or even if — a character has made a particular point before, and even if he does, he may not be confident that the reader will remember it from 200 pages ago, and Millicent ends up grinding her teeth and muttering, “You TOLD us that already, Francine!” a great deal more than any of us might like.

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

What’s the solution for repetitive dialogue on the whole manuscript level? Well, it depends upon the type of repetition a writer tends to favor. If a character’s dialogue is redundant because she likes to spout a catchphrase — please tell me she doesn’t — the fix is downright easy: a quick confab with Word’s FIND function, a few creative substitutions, and voilà! Problem solved.

If the problem is more complex than that, I’m afraid I must be redundant and suggest reading though every line of dialogue in your manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD. Why not silently and on your computer screen? The eye reads much faster on a backlit screen, rendering any sort of proofreading more difficult, and your ear may catch what your eyes do not.

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

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

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

Would you believe me if I told you she is not only likely to formulate this complaint if she finds the same line of dialogue or repeated explanations three lines apart or three chapters? Or that it’s not unheard-of for a professional reader to notice reused phrasing or concepts if there are only two iterations hundreds of pages apart?

How is this possible, you ask? It’s an editor’s job to be that preternaturally observant of manuscript details; we’re trained to respond to it as if it were the sound of fingernails scraping across a blackboard. Because editors are so sensitive to repetition, agents learn to keep an eye out for it, too. So when the agent of your dreams was teaching her Millicents what red flags were deal-breakers, guess what was high on the list?

Every time we discuss this issue, I am transported back to the dim reaches of my past. I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B- range.

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

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

Alas, the Peter Pan ride was one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. But the longer we stood in line, the more difficult I found it to muster even the appearance of childish joie de vivre.

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

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

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

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

And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors. While most of the population comes to accept the conceptual and phrase repetition that is constantly flung at all of us, all the time, in both everyday conversations and on TV, we remain painfully alive to it.

We think it should go-o-o-o.

Wait — some of you tuned out that anecdote, didn’t you? You remembered it from last year’s discussion of conceptual repetition, I’m guessing. Well, I have just one thing to say to those of you who skimmed past it: that’s exactly how Millicent feels when she sees a snippet of conversation from Chapter 3 turn up again in Chapter 17.

Actually, your reaction was almost certainly more charitable than hers, and with good reason. Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“I know we’ve been over this before, Trevor, but I must reiterate: cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a left-handed cellist and the provost of this college, Yvette, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

My all-time favorite example of this phenomenon — again, this may seem a tad familiar to some of you, but I’m trying to sensitize you — came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Specials that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Peer Pressure Exists, Drugs are Bad, and You Should Have Self-Esteem.

In case, you know, the average kid might not have picked up on any of that from the 1,247 times he had heard adults tell him these things before. Stand up straight.

The writers and producers of the Afterschool Specials seemed to be operating upon the assumption that either young viewers’ memories or our general level of intelligence was inherently suspect. It was rare that these shows ever made any major point only once — or that the fate of the Good Kid Who Made One Mistake was not obvious from roughly minute five of the program.

True to this storytelling tradition, Strangers With Candy’s heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphed upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.” Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

Oh, you may smile, but this species of heavy-handed foreshadowing is substantially less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly to someone attuned to catching repetition. You would be astonished by how often characters say things like, “But Ernest, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

Because that’s the kind of thing that’s likely to slip one’s mind. I’ll bet hardly a week goes by without your uttering a sentence like that.

Or so one might conclude from the frequency with which such statements turn up in submissions — even when the first 50 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping. And every time such a reference is repeated, another little girl with braids vows to grow up to devote her life to excising all of that ambient redundancy.

Hey, someone’s got to make the library safe for readers with retentive memories. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XV: speak to me, protagonist. Or blink twice to let me know that you’re alive.

After yesterday’s unusually lengthy post, even by my standards (which is saying something), I thought I’d limit myself this evening to a light, sparkling addendum to last time’s intensive session of nit-picking. It will be a struggle, I fear; well-constructed dialogue is a subject upon which I, like Millicent the agency screener, hold quite passionate views.

Why work ourselves into a lather over dialogue, you ask, instead of, say, punctuation placement? Well, while I, for one, have been known to wax eloquent about our friend, the humble comma, its placement is largely a technical issue: it’s rare that a great new writer will stake her claim to fame upon her bold and innovative use of commas.

Seriously, would you want your name to be passed down to posterity as King of the Commas? Wowing the literary world with an unusually good ear for dialogue, on the other hand, is a goal to which many a fledgling writer of fiction and/or memoir aspires. It’s certainly a worthwhile one: writing dialogue well requires not merely a strong sense of what people actually say and the rhythms in which they say it, but also the creativity to pepper the dialogue with enough originality that it won’t seem ho-hum.

Yet for some reason that perpetually escapes me, even writers who pride themselves on their fresh, original notions and execution frequently choose to bore poor Millicent to extinction with uninteresting dialogue. “But people really talk like that,” they hedge. “It’s not my fault if most people are not scintillating conversationalists.”

Well, that’s not entirely true, realism-huggers. While no one can hold you accountable if the couple at the next table elects to immerse themselves in dull chit-chat (“How about this rain?” “We sure do need it.” “I’ll say.”), it’s not fair to expect readers to suffer through dialogue that has no legitimate claim to attention other than its fidelity to real-life talk.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly: not everybody in the world is under an obligation to produce entertaining sentences. Writers are.

Messes with your head a little to think of dialogue in those terms, doesn’t it? If so, you’re not alone: most dialogue in submissions is clearly aimed at realism, rather than entertainment. Only a relatively small percentage of submissions demonstrate a commitment to developing character through speech by having characters say interesting and unexpected things in their own distinct voices.

Which is to say: you’d be amazed — at least, I hope you would — by how frequently otherwise creative narratives are bogged down by mundane, unrevealing, or cliché-ridden dialogue.

How common is it? Let me put it this way: if an alien from the planet Targ were to drop from the sky into Millicent’s cubicle tomorrow, determined to learn about how human beings communicate by leafing through a few hundred submissions, it would stroll out of her office sounding just like that couple at the next table. If you ran into it at a cocktail party, you’d be eavesdropping on nearby conversations within a couple of minutes.

What a pity — it might be fascinating to hear about living conditions on Targ these days. But even someone with something interesting to say can seem boring if he doesn’t express himself in interesting terms.

Or if, as we saw last time, if he chooses not to vouchsafe an opinion of his own. All too often, supporting characters — or even more common, passive protagonists whose idea of solving a mystery is to ask one or two questions, then sit back and wait while someone who has defined her very existence by the secret she has kept just blurts out the long-hidden truth — are only nominal participants in dialogue scenes. By not engaging the primary speaker with an alternate point of view, the character becomes simply a monologue-encourager.

Trevor glanced around the musty basement, wondering how anyone could possibly survive for an hour there, much less thirty-eight years. “So you have been in hiding all of this time?”

“You call it hiding.” Veronica’s teeth wobbled visibly with every word. “I call it saving my skin.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes. When I first sought out the basement, it was merely as temporary shelter from the horrors of the street. I had no idea that I would be spending the better part of my life here.”

“Wow.”

She flipped her lank gray bangs out of her eyes, and just for a second, she resembled the seventeen-year-old she had been when she last stood in natural light. “Well might you say wow. Do you know how long it took me to figure out how to transform the disused washer/dryer unit into a convection oven? Eight long years. Before that, I had to eat the rats that sustain me raw.”

“Eww.”

“Oh, you get used to it. It’s the right seasoning that’s the trick. The same holds true for cockroach goulash, incidentally.”

“Weren’t you going to tell me about the horrible incident that drove you underground?”

She clutched her mouse fur bed jacket around her fiercely. “I swore I would never tell. Never!”

Trevor’s heart sunk within him. He had come so far in the last forty-eight hours; he couldn’t turn back without one last push. “Pretty please? With sugar on top?”

Veronica looked at him, and her last reservation melted. “It was a dark and stormy night in 1973. I was just a girl then, getting ready for the prom. My dress was hanging over my David Cassidy poster, waiting for me to pick out which of my six sets of platform shoes I would wear. Suddenly, I had the eerie feeling I was being watched.”

“Uh-huh,” he prompted breathlessly.

Trevor’s not adding very much to this interaction, is he? By choosing to be a mostly passive listener, rather than a participant in the conversation, he’s done more than abdicate his role as the reader’s guide through this part of the plot; he’s basically pulled up a chair and plopped himself down right next to the reader, drinking in Veronica’s story as though he were just another audience member.

But at least he is responding in a manner that reveals his feelings about what she is saying. All too often, passive protagonists in interview don’t even do that.

Trevor glanced around the musty basement. “So you have been hiding here all this time?”

“You call it hiding.” Veronica’s teeth wobbled visibly with every word. “I call it saving my skin.”

“Saving your skin?

“Oh, yes. When I first sought out the basement, it was merely as temporary shelter from the horrors of the street. I had no idea that I would be spending the better part of my life here.”

“The better part of your life? Why, how long has it been?”

“That depends. What year is it?” She laughed loudly before he could answer. “Just kidding. It’s been thirty-eight years.”

“Thirty-eight years!”

“The trick was keeping myself busy. Do you know how long it took me to figure out how to transform the disused washer/dryer unit into a convection oven? Eight long years. Before that, I had to eat the rats that sustain me raw.”

“Rats? Raw?”

“Oh, you get used to it. It’s the right seasoning that’s the trick.”

Pardon my asking, but couldn’t Trevor’s part in this scene be very adequately played by a parrot? Or a very high, cavernous ceiling that could echo Veronica’s words back to her?

Certainly, he’s providing neither conflict nor any additional information to the scene. Heck, he’s barely contributing any new words.

So what is he doing in the scene at all? Perhaps he is seeking clues to an ongoing mystery he is trying to solve, and is merely going about it poorly. Or maybe he is actually an immensely clever sleuth, trying to lull poor Veronica into a false sense of security by giving incisive questions about what he wants to know a wide berth. Or he could have just suffered a brain injury that deprived him of the ability to understand what someone is saying until he’s heard every part of it twice.

Or maybe he’s just rather stupid. At least, he appears so on the page.

That made some of you real dialogue-echoers sit bolt upright in your desk chairs, didn’t it? “But Anne,” you point out with some vim, “I know that you’ve just been saying that the fact that people actually talk that way shouldn’t be the only justification for a line of text, but people actually do talk this way. Repeating what’s just been said is a standard means of asking for clarification. Why, I can barely watch five minutes of any TV drama without hearing a character repeat a phrase that’s just been said to her.”

I believe it — and that alone might be a good reason not to embrace this conversational tactic in your dialogue. Since the rise of reality television (does anyone but me remember that producers originally embraced the format because the writers’ guild was on strike?), we’ve all become accustomed to highly repetitious speech pouring out of characters’ mouths, often with a blithe disregard for the rules of grammar. Heck, it’s become quite normal for even speakers who should know better to misuse words.

And I’m not talking about tiny gaffes, like saying further when the speaker really meant farther, either. (In response to that silent plea for clarification: the first refers to concepts, the second to distance.) I’m talking about the increasingly common practice of substituting the intended word or phrase with one that sounds similar to it — a doggy-dog world instead of a dog-eat-dog world, for instance, or mano y mano instead of mano a mano — as if getting it right simply didn’t matter. Or simply using a term so loosely that its original meaning dissipates, as when someone dubs an outcome ironic when it’s merely symbolically apt (in itself ironic, since irony is when the intended and literal meaning are at odds). Or says unironically, “We will be landing momentarily,” when he means “We will be landing in a few minutes,” not “We will be landing for a few moments, then taking off again.”

Yes, yes, I know: if I were correcting these commonly-misused phrases in the middle of an actual conversation, I would come across as a joy-killing curmudgeon. (Blame my upbringing: children in the Mini household were expected to be both seen and heard, but never to end a spoken sentence with a preposition.) And to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have a problem with a writer’s reproducing these gaffes on the manuscript page — provided that their use was limited to dialogue and not every character made similar mistakes.

Which character would I select to talk this way? The one the reader is supposed to regard as a little slow on the uptake, of course.

Oh, you laugh, but back when writers composed and refined every word that fell out of characters’ mouths on TV and in movies, placing improper grammar and malapropisms into dim-witted characters’ mouths was a standard comic device. It was also a time-honored means of establishing a character’s level of education, social class, or susceptibility to prejudice: much of the recent furor over whether it was legitimate to clean up the language in HUCKLEBERRY FINN so that it could be assigned in more high school classrooms turned on Mark Twain’s devastatingly frequent use of a certain pejorative term to illustrate his protagonist’s change of perspective on issues of race throughout the book.

Even now, one of the quickest means of making a character come across as less intelligent on the page is to have him misuse words or repeat what’s just been said to him. The latter can be particularly effective, enabling the dialogue to convey that he doesn’t understand what’s going on without having to resort to the blunt expedient of having another character call him stupid.

Don’t believe that a few misused or repeated words can have that great an impact on character development? Well, they might not to a reader who habitually makes similar mistakes, but to a literate reader — and Millicent, her boss the agent, and the editor to whom the agent pitches pride themselves on their literacy — conversational faux pas will leap off the page. They’re a way to show, not tell, that a character has trouble expressing himself.

I sense that some of you are still not convinced. Okay, here’s an anecdote about how the repetition of a single misused word made a university professor seem substantially less intelligent.

When I was in graduate school, I took several small seminars with Professor Baker, an elegant, well-spoken woman who delighted in quoting Ancient Greek playwrights in even the most informal conversations. No mere cold intellectual, she was deeply interested in her students’ personal development. “Don’t cut off your options,” she would tell us frequently. “Go out and explore. I want to see you living a fulsome life!”

The first time she said this, I was convinced that I must have misheard. Fulsome, after all, means grossly overabundant or insincere; a fulsome complimenter would heap on praise after exaggerated praise until it was impossible to believe anything he said at all. It can also mean disgusting or offensive to the sensibilities. Somehow, I doubted that my professor was wishing me a life that resembled rotting meat.

Yet at the end of practically every seminar session, she would repeat her admonition: she seemed pretty darned insistent that my fellow students and I should be actively pursuing fulsome lives.

What she meant, of course, was that we should lead full lives; she must have just thought the -some bit added emphasis. But when I suggested that she truncate the word, she snapped at me like an irate turtle.

“Are you questioning my erudition?” she demanded. “I would hardly use a word if I were unaware of its definition.”

In that moment, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, she dropped so low in my regard/I heard her hit the ground. Not because she had consistently been using her favorite word incorrectly, but because she was too inflexible even to consider the possibility that she might have been wrong. And because had she been right, all she would have had to do was stretch that elegant, beringed hand across her well-appointed desk, open a dictionary, and show me the definition.

If she had wielded her pet piece of advice with more discretion, she would probably have gotten away with it, right? I might have chuckled over my notebook, but her momentary gaffe would soon have been obliterated in my memory by other, more lucid statements. But by repeating it so often, essentially turning it into her catchphrase, she made sure that single mistake would become entrenched in my mind as the key to her entire character.

Would this tactic work on the page? You bet, although I would advise giving a fictional character a wider array of conversational missteps. Repeating the same one over and over might well backfire: since professional readers are trained to spot textual repetition — how else would they be able to point out to you that you used the same metaphor twice in 157 pages? — the second iteration might strike Millicent as unintentional. (In answer to what half of you just shouted mentally: oh, you’d be surprised how often aspiring writers will plagiarize themselves within a manuscript. They don’t mean to be repetitious; they simply forget that they have used an image or even a sentence earlier in the book.)

Speaking of low-level carelessness, there’s another reason it might behoove Trevor’s creator to ramp up his contribution to the scene. You really don’t want Millicent to start wondering if the only reason he’s in the scene is to provide the narrative an excuse to show the reader what it’s like down there.

You’re chuckling again, aren’t you? Think about it: in a close third-person (or first-person) narrative, Trevor would have to be there to justify the reader’s venturing into that basement. Including a scene in which he did not appear would necessarily entail jumping into someone else’s perspective — or slipping out of the dominant voice of the book into an omniscient point of view.

“Whoa!” Millicent cries. “This manuscript is breaking its own rules!”

You can hardly blame her for being hyper-sensitive on this point: since tight third person and first person are the two most popular point of view choices, she sees an awful lot of protagonists wander into an awful lot of situations where they have no business being, simply because writers want to include specific scenes in their books. She’s also privy to a great many instances of a narrative’s abandoning the strictures the writer had been following for the rest of the story — sticking to a single perspective, allowing the narrative to be colored by the chosen character’s prejudices, and so forth — because the writer apparently could not figure out a way to show a desired activity from the dominant perspective.

In answer to that collective gasp: yes, she will notice, whether the point of view slips for an entire scene or a single paragraph. She’s going to be on the lookout for such voice inconsistency problems, in fact. It’s all a part of her fulsome rich and meaningful life.

Make sure your protagonists pursue existences almost as full as hers: don’t allow them to become bystanders in their own lives, even for a page. Show them engaging in the world around them; let their presences add substantially to any scene they grace. Those contributions do not need to be limited to the dialogue, either: in a close third-person or first-person narrative, even a protagonist forced to remain stock-still and silent can interrogate her boss in her thoughts, signal another prisoner with a poke of her toe, struggle to breathe calmly while that cursed monologue-happy teacher bellows in front of the chalkboard…

The possibilities are, as they say, limitless. In a universe both frequently fulsome and perpetually full, why restrict the scope of your creativity by not taking complete advantage of your protagonist’s ability to react?

Worth pondering, anyway. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIII: repetitive activities and other things that wouldn’t be interesting to most readers if you set them on fire

Before I launch into today’s festivities, campers, I would like to call your attention to some festivities on this coming Saturday, April 9th. At 6 p.m., Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience will be holding its annual fundraising dinner and auction. A door prize for all attendees: a pre-release copy of Harold Taw’s The Adventures of the Karaoke King.

What a creative promotion idea, eh?

If Harold Taw’s name sounds familiar to those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while, it should: Harold is the long-time member of our little community whose first novel got plucked out of the plethora of entries in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest and brought to publication through AmazonEncore. I plan to be raising a toast to his book’s astonishing journey to publication at his book release party at Elliott Bay Books on April 27th, by the way, while folks are marking calendars; I’d love to lead the wave in an Author! Author! cheering section.

As eagle-eyed readers may have been able to discern through the lines of that last paragraph, I love announcing my readers’ triumphs along the long and bumpy road to publication. Keep that good news rolling in, everybody!

While we’re on the subject of subtleties of the tossing-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window variety — how’s that for a light-handed segue? — I’d like to devote today’s post to a species of manuscript problem that seems to be practically invisible to most writers who produce it. The fact that it is so hard for a self-editor to catch, however, in no way impairs its ability to irritate professional readers like our old pals, Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, and Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, to madness.

“Not again!” Millicent exclaims, her fingers itching to reach for the form-letter rejection pile. “This submission has gotten caught in a conceptual repetition loop!”

Surprising that a subtle problem could engender such a strong reaction? Don’t be: professional readers are trained to focus on the little stuff. Millicent in particular is trained to be on the look-out for typos, formatting problems, missing words, and all of the other signs that a manuscript is at least one revision away from being ready to market to editors.

Or, to express it in her terms, a submission that causes her itchy fingers to make actual contact with that stack of rejection letters. “Next!” she cries.

Yes, I know: I harp quite a lot on the importance of a manuscript’s being completely clean — at least in the opening pages — in order to skirt the specter of knee-jerk rejection, but I’m continually meeting very talented aspiring writers who complain about how often their work is getting rejected…but haven’t taken the time to remove, or even notice, the seven typos within the first two pages of their texts. While it’s certainly understandable that someone who wants to write for a living would be shocked or even horrified upon learning just how high professional standards actually are, this is no time to be in denial: assuming that one’s first draft is going to meet those standards without further revision or even proofreading has led thousands upon thousands down the primrose path to rejection.

Has that sunk in this time, or shall I play another verse on my harp? My fingers are all warmed up now.

To be fair, even writers who have been working on their craft for years are often stunned to realize that the pros pride themselves on noticing everything. And with good reason: contrary to popular opinion, to a pro, the proper use of language is an integral part of an author’s literary style and voice, not a purely cosmetic addition to it.

As a freelance editor, I find it fascinating how often aspiring writers equate Millicent’s focus on proper language use — which is part of her job, incidentally — with a dislike of good writing. In reality, quite the opposite is usually true: the people who choose to work in agencies and publishing houses almost invariably love beautiful writing and strong stories.

Paradoxically, this affection for the well-constructed sentence often renders reading a promising submission or contest entry more irritating than one where the writing just isn’t very good. “Oh, dear,” Mehitabel says, shaking her head regretfully over a page full of potential, “I hate it when this happens. If only this writer had taken the time to notice that he’s made the same point four times over the course of this scene, it would have been so much more compelling. Next!”

Seem like a petty reason to knock an otherwise well-written entry out of finalist consideration? Actually, it’s a rather common one. As I hope has become clear over the course of this series on notorious professional readers’ pet peeves, the manuscript problems that cause Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel to rend their garments are not always major gaffes like an authorial indifference to punctuation or a storyline that provokes the ejaculation, “Huh?” every other line.

They see those kinds of submissions, of course, but astonishingly often, the irritant is simply a page of text that makes the same point too many times. Why, here’s an example of that species of scene coming along right now.

See if you can catch the subtle narrative problem that might elicit a cry of, “Next!” Actually, you might want to hunt for three of them.

“What is it you are trying to say, Carol?” With infinite care, Alphonse flicked the blindingly white tablecloth over the polished oak surface. “Apparently, I’m not getting it.”

She sighed. “We’ve been over this same ground thirty-seven times, Alphonse.”

He settled the cloth over the table. “Make it thirty-eight, then.”

“We don’t want to hold you back from other employment opportunities, Alphonse.”

“Nonsense.” He smoothed the tablecloth over the flat surface, checking for any lingering wrinkles his iron had missed. “It’s a pleasure to work here.”

“But Alphonse, we can’t afford to keep you.”

He lowered a fork into its proper place. “I don’t cost much, Carol. I live mostly on my tips.”

She pounded the table, making the fork dance. “Alphonse, you live entirely on your tips. We haven’t paid you in seven months.”

“Well, then,” Alphonse reached to nudge the fork back into line, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Alphonse!” Carol shouted. “I’ve fired you thirty-seven times already!”

He smiled, apparently at the fork and spoon he had just placed. “Thirty-eight, isn’t it?”

She slumped. “I give up.”

Alphonse laid down a soup spoon. “You always do, Carol. You always do.”

Come on, admit it — by halfway through this excerpt, you wanted to shout, “Criminy, Alphonse, enough with the table-setting! Move on to something else.”

So would Millicent, and she has the power to enforce that preference. Being editorially trained, she’s more likely to express it as, “Um, couldn’t most of the inter-dialogue narrative have been replaced very adequately by Alphonse set the table with care?” but you get the picture, right? To an intelligent reader who is paying attention, attenuating the description of a process by mentioning each and every step can make a scene seem much longer than it is.

In a case like this, where the activity is not inherently interesting — he’s setting a table, for heaven’s sake, not cross-checking the details for the first manned flight to Venus — it can be downright irritating. That page space could have been used for far more fascinating ends.

We’ve discussed a version of this phenomenon before, right? The Walking Across the Room (WATR) problem dogs many a manuscript submission: instead of just stating that a character does something relevant, like answer a ringing doorbell, the narrative will describe him hearing the ring, rising from his seat, taking step after step across the room, opening the door into the hallway, passing down the hallway, approaching the front door, grasping the knob, turning it, and pulling.

All of which could quite nicely be summed up as The doorbell rang. Yves answered it., right?

The meticulous-minded have had their hands politely raised for the last few paragraphs. Yes? “But Anne,” process-huggers protest, “I don’t agree that Alphonse has a WATR problem. The passage above merely shows his attention to minute detail, showing (not telling) that he’s a perfectionist. That’s legitimate character development, isn’t it?”

Well, in a way, detail-hounds. Yes, it demonstrates character; it’s just not the most interesting way to do it. Nor are these details in and of themselves likely to hold the reader’s attention.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about these problems being difficult to catch in one’s own work. To Alphonse’s creator, all of the mundane specifics above may well be gripping.

Remember, though, just because a character might conceivably perform an action isn’t necessarily enough reason to include it a manuscript. Since this is a process that it’s safe to assume every reader will have observed before, however, the page space would be better spent demonstrating his attention to detail in an activity with which most readers will be less familiar — constructing a multi-layered wedding cake, for instance.

Or at least one that tells the reader a little more about what kind of restaurant it is. Take a gander at how much more revealing this scene is if our Alphonse busies himself prepping the restaurant’s signature dessert.

“What is it you are trying to say, Carol?” With infinite care, Alphonse sharpened his personal paring knife — off-limits to the rest of the wait staff — on the whetstone he kept in his left pants pocket. “Apparently, I’m not getting it.”

She sighed. “We’ve been over this same ground thirty-seven times, Alphonse.”

He wiped the gleaming knife on his handkerchief. “Make it thirty-eight, then.”

“We don’t want to hold you back from other employment opportunities, Alphonse.”

“Nonsense.” Holding his breath, he began cutting the zest off an orange in one long strip. “It’s a pleasure to work here.”

She held her breath, too; if his blade slipped, the curly peel would be too short for the flames to dance down its liquored length to the customer’s coffee cup. “But Alphonse, we can’t afford to keep you.”

A perfect peel tumbled from his knife into the waiting silver bowl. “I don’t cost much, Carol. I live mostly on my tips.”

“Alphonse, you live entirely on your tips. We haven’t paid you in seven months.”

“Well, then,” Alphonse studded the peel with whole cloves, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Alphonse!” Carol shouted. “I’ve fired you thirty-seven times already!”

He smiled, apparently at the brandy awaiting his match. “Thirty-eight, isn’t it?”

She slumped. “I give up.”

With a pointing finger, Alphonse laboriously counted all of the ingredients on his café brulôt cart. “You always do, Carol. You always do.”

Nice way to combine character development for him and information about the restaurant, isn’t it? By killing the proverbial two birds with one stone, the reader is not only treated to a more interesting process to observe, but is faced with far less repetitive and predictable activity throughout the scene.

Speaking of repetitive, did you catch the two subtle narrative problems remaining in the text? Hint: one is on the scene level, and the other is on the sentence level.

If you grasped the nearest tablecloth, waved it over your head, and exclaimed, “The constant name repetition is visually most annoying,” help yourself to an extra orange off Alphonse’s cart. The characters’ names are mentioned far too often than is necessary for clarity. Indeed, since the only two characters in the scene are of different sexes, the narrative sections could dispense with all but the first of those eye-distracting capital letters.

But the narrative repetitions of their names actually account for relatively few if the iterations. The real culprit here is the extremely pervasive phenomenon of having the characters address one another by name far more often than people actually do in real life.

As a group, aspiring writers seem to adore this. Editorial opinion on why varies: some of us maintain that writers tend to compose lines of dialogue in short bursts, rather than entire scenes, so they don’t notice how often their characters are barking their names at one another; others assert that writers just like the names they have picked for their characters to want to see them again and again. (It’s not all that uncommon for first-time novelists to believe that simply changing a name will completely destroy the reader’s conception of the character, as if the name choice were so significant that no other character development was needed or wanted.) The more practical-minded believe that writers sometimes overuse name repetition in dialogue deliberately, to make it easier for readers to follow who is speaking when; the more cynical think that writers repeat the names to remind themselves who is speaking when.

If it’s the last, it’s not a bad strategy — at the composition stage. Alternating lines of dialogue where the count has gotten off is another of Millicent’s pet peeves, after all. It’s surprisingly common in submissions, and it’s often an instant-rejection trigger. Proofreading each and every line of dialogue that does not contain a tag line (the he said bit that identifies who is speaking), then, can make the difference between Millicent’s remaining involved in a dialogue scene and “Next!”

At the polishing stage, though, the training wheels should come off: the extraneous name markers need to go. Fortunately, if the scene is clearly written, with each character’s dialogue being distinct from the other’s, these cuts can be made with virtually no cost to the story.

“What is it you are trying to say, Carol?” With infinite care, Alphonse sharpened his personal paring knife — off-limits to the rest of the wait staff — on the whetstone he kept in his left pants pocket. “Apparently, I’m not getting it.”

She sighed. “We’ve been over this same ground thirty-seven times, Alphonse.”

He wiped the gleaming knife on his handkerchief. “Make it thirty-eight, then.”

“We don’t want to hold you back from other employment opportunities”

“Nonsense.” Holding his breath, he began cutting the zest off an orange in one long strip. “It’s a pleasure to work here.”

She held her breath, too; if his blade slipped, the curly peel would be too short for the flames to dance down its liquored length to the customer’s coffee cup. “But we can’t afford to keep you.”

A perfect peel tumbled from his knife into the waiting silver bowl. “I don’t cost much. I live mostly on my tips.”

“You live entirely on your tips. We haven’t paid you in seven months.”

“Well, then,” he studded the peel with whole cloves, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Alphonse!” she shouted. “I’ve fired you thirty-seven times already!”

He smiled, apparently at the brandy awaiting his match. “Thirty-eight, isn’t it?”

She slumped. “I give up.”

With a pointing finger, he laboriously counted all of the ingredients on his café brulôt cart. “You always do, Carol. You always do.”

Did it surprise all of you self-editors that I kept Carol’s shout of “Ambrose!” That’s the one that has the strongest emotional resonance: essentially, she is trying to call him back to reality. Now that all of her other repetitions of his name are gone, it stands out as it should.

There’s one final pet peeve that remains uncorrected — and no, it’s not the dubiously-constructed clause about the pointing finger. I’ll give you a hint: there’s an improperly-formatted tag line haunting this scene.

Or, as Millicent would put it: “Studded is not a speaking verb! Neither is reach! Next!”

Not positive what she’s talking about? Okay, here are the offending sentence from each version, ripped out of context.

“Well, then,” Alphonse reached to nudge the fork back into line, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Well, then,” he studded the peel with whole cloves, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

See Millie’s point now? No? Okay, would it help to know that what the author originally meant was this?

“Well, then,” Alphonse said, reaching to nudge the fork back into line, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

The problem lies in the first two versions of this sentence using reach or stud, respectively, as substitutes for said. Since only verbs that refer to speech may legitimately be used in a tag line, the end result is improper — and a misuse of that first comma.

How so? “Well, then,” he studded the peel with whole cloves, is a run-on sentence. In a tag line, the comma indicates that a speaking verb is to follow. So while this is correct:

“I’m coming, Harry,” Celeste said.

This is not:

“I’m coming, Harry.” Celeste said.

Nor is:

“I’m coming, Harry,” Celeste put on her hat.

Those last two look very wrong, don’t they? Yet you would not believe how often these errors appear in otherwise well-written dialogue. My theory is that it’s a Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon: aspiring writers may write tag lines correctly the first time around, but come revision time, they change the verb without noticing that they have not altered the punctuation to match.

Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel can’t believe the frequency with which tag line problems crop up, either, but their explanation tends to be less charitable. “If these people want to write dialogue professionally,” they ask one another over flaming cups of coffee, “why wouldn’t they take the time to learn how tag lines work? Or to proofread?”

You have to admit, those are pretty darned good questions. If you’ll just hang around while I set the table for 18 people, perhaps we could discuss them at length.

Just not, please, on the manuscript page; both life and Millicent’s overloaded reading schedule are too short to read repetitive descriptions of uninteresting activities. Keep up the good work!

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the premiere of Author! Author! Interviews: a chat about literary fiction with Bellwether Prize winner Heidi Durrow

Welcome back, campers! How was your week? Mine was, as predicted, hectic, but the niece is married, the dishes washed (no mean feat, considering the family produced a five-course sit-down dinner for the wedding reception), and we are now living on leftovers.

How stressful was it all? Well, let me put it this way: my doctor offered to write me a note to excuse me from all of this ostensible frivolity.

But off with the shackles of the past — on to a monumental new development in the ever-evolving Author! Author! community offerings. Today, I am delighted to bring you the first in what I hope will be may in-depth conversations with wonderful recently-published authors about not only their books, but also the art and craft of writing itself.

You know, the kind of chat that writers find fascinating, but disillusions non-writers and those who would prefer to believe that good writing simply falls from the heavens into the author’s mind, with no actual work involved.

In this series, I’m going to be talking with these authors about the actual work of writing. I’m very excited about this, not only because I suspect that these conversations will prove inspirational and educational to members of the Author! Author! community — and to that end, please feel free to post questions and comments; I shall forward them to the authors — but also because, frankly, when a book comes out, 99% of interviewers will ask precisely the same set of questions.

All of us who read author interviews are familiar with the standards, right? So how did you get the idea for this book? Is this novel autobiographical? How did you get started writing in the first place? Did you always want to be a writer — as opposed to, say, a fireman? Are any of the characters based upon real people? What’s your next book about? No, really, what part of this novel is based upon real life?

It’s all fun and interesting for the author the first dozen or so times, but after that, one begins to feel that one’s part in the interview process could very adequately be played by a tape recorder. Nor is this phenomenon new: I spent a large part of my childhood and adolescence helping science fiction author Philip K. Dick prepare for interviews — oh, you thought that established authors didn’t rehearse? In what sense is an author interview not a public performance? — and believe me, in any given year, we could count the original questions interviewers asked on the fingers of two hands.

Believe me, we longed to be able to start counting on our toes.

So part of my goal in this interview series is to allow good authors more latitude than they are generally allowed in literary interviews — because, let’s face it, what is likely to interest other writers about a book is not necessarily what will fascinate other readers. These interviews will be by writers, for writers.

Are you picturing yourselves chatting with me when your first book comes out? Excellent — you’re in the perfect mindset to enjoy my January 11, 2011 conversation with the exceptionally talented Heidi Durrow, author of the recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, now available in paperback.

If Heidi’s name sounds familiar, you’ve probably either been perusing Best Books of 2010 lists or were hanging out here at Author! Author! in recent months. For those of you who missed my glowing tribute to what I consider the best debut of last year, allow me to introduce you to a writer I believe is going to be remembered as one of the greats. Take a peek at the publisher’s blurb:

Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

Durrow book coverRachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on their Chicago rooftop.

Forced to move to a new city, with her strict African-American grandmother as her guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It’s there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity.

This searing and heartwrenching portrait of a young biracial girl dealing with society’s ideas of race and class is the winner of the Bellwether Prize for best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice. In the tradition of Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John,Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, here is a portrait of a young girl—and society’s ideas of race, class, and beauty.

The book has developed something of a cult following amongst lovers of serious literary fiction. How much do its fans respect it? Well, let me put it this way: when I first discovered the novel in a wee bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky, the clerk nearly knocked me over, so eager was she to rush to my side to recommend the book.

Apparently, that enthusiasm was catching, for by the time my plane was over the Rockies, heading home to Seattle, was already raving about the book to everyone in the seats near me. Flight attendants will remember that as the time two of them sidled down the aisle to ask, “Um, why are all of you talking about falling from the sky? Flying is perfectly safe, you know.”

The intriguing mystery of just how and why an entire family fell from a Chicago apartment building’s roof — yes, veteran interviewers, based upon a real-life incident — may be the unusual premise of the story, but the core of the writing is centered upon the growth and development of incredibly real-feeling characters.

As I mentioned before, Heidi pursued character in a completely original manner, calculated to delight those intrigued by the interesting use of language: via punctuation in dialogue. THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY depicts social class and intellectual development through such subtle nuances in the characters’ speech patterns that at first, I kept having to re-read lines to make sure I was not imagining it.

I wasn’t; it’s one of the most brilliant uses of dialogue I’ve seen in years. (And trust me, I read a lot of dialogue in any given year.) Join me, please, for a discussion of it, conducted at the ever-fabulous Third Place Books, just north of Seattle.

A quick technical note before you click on the video: my apologies for the background noise; the Author! Author! staff did not realize that the microphone would pick it up so well, or that it should have been placed a trifle closer to Heidi. Turning up the volume on your computer before you start watching might prove helpful.