There’s more to writing a memoir than sitting down and telling the truth?

Surprised not to see a post on formatting occupying this space, campers? You should be: for the past seven years, I have embraced the decline of the old year and the advent of the new as an opportunity to provide the members of the Author! Author! community with a solid explanation of something that new writers are simply expected to know how to do before they even consider approaching an agent. For some reason that defies human understanding, formatting a book manuscript or proposal as the pros do is implicitly regarded as piece of practical know-how the Literature Fairy bestows on talented writers at birth.

Perhaps my decades of experience as a writer and editor have skewed my sample, but in my experience, approximately no one is born with that knowledge. Innate literary talent has nothing to do with the learned skill of presenting one’s writing professionally, any more than having a naturally good ear for dialogue correlates with the ability to place a comma in the right place or wield a semicolon correctly.

Contrary to popular belief, quite a lot goes into writing a book other than inspiration, patience, and the willingness to sit in one place, typing your little heart out, for a year or two. So don’t panic, rookies: I shall be reviving my annual explanatory tradition next week.

For the next few days, though, I’d like to talk with those of you writing about reality — as memoir, as narrative nonfiction, as everyday life interpreted on the pages of a novel. It’s some of the most difficult writing to do well, yet strangely, we writers tend to discuss walking the truth tightrope far less amongst ourselves than the more fanciful aspects of craft.

Why? Well, fact-based fiction is considerably in less popular than it used to be, for one thing. While 30 or 40 years ago, someone who burned to write would have tended to churn out a slice-of-life piece the first time out — and, in all likelihood, seen it treated as a more serious literary production than a nonfiction piece covering precisely the same subject matter — new writers in recent years have been turning in greater numbers to genre fiction. It’s not that Millicent the agency screener no longer sees the vividly-rendered descriptions of living room slipcovers, meaningful glances, and tense non-verbal exchanges over WASPy Thanksgiving dinners of yesteryear cross her desk; it’s that realism in fiction has very largely been supplanted by fast-paced street fighting, a little light bondage, and sparkling vampires who, in defiance of tradition, wander about freely in daylight.

Nothing wrong with that, of course: publishing has always been a trend-oriented business. The explosion of YA, paranormal, and fantasy in recent years has brought incredible richness to all of those categories, partially through definitional expansion — YA in particular now regularly takes up subject matter that would have made even the most hardened high school librarian blush in the 1970s — and partially, let’s face it, through good writers rushing toward those readerships. Since the economic downturn began, even quite well-established mainstream and adult fiction authors have found themselves gravitating toward these categories — and if they haven’t of their own accords, their agents may well have suggested it. Trends, you see.

Memoir, too, has seen quite a sea change in recent years — and that has generated some immensely positive effects for memoir aficionados and writers alike. My personal favorite: like genre fiction, good memoir writing has very largely lost the stigma it once carried.

Does that sharp collective intake of breath indicate that those of you new to the joys and challenges of memoir were not aware that for many years, it was not considered high literary writing? While there have always been wonderfully-written memoirs, it used to be routine for fiction-lovers to sniff at them as literary efforts — and not only in private. It was an accepted species of snobbery. Blame Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Parker, and their ilk: for a good century or more, even the most beautifully-composed first-hand nonfiction account was generally dismissed in literary circles as a less serious endeavor — or at least one that deserved to be taken less seriously — than garden-variety slice-of-life fiction. Even, interestingly enough, if they covered essentially the same subject matter at a similar level of characterization.

Oh, you may laugh, but writers of promise (what ever happened to that lovely phrase?) were often actively discouraged from writing nonfiction accounts. “That’s journalism,” the literati would say. “You would have to approach your subject matter with absolute objectivity. If you wrote it as fiction, you could be as subjective as you liked! Not to mention using nicer language.”

Today, however, if a novelist snorts derisively at the very notion of telling some aspect of his life story in nonfiction form — or, to put it a bit more bluntly, by being up front about his being a character in his own book — readers and interviewers alike tend to respond in much the same way they would if he said that genre fiction contains no legitimate character development. They’d just assume that he doesn’t read very widely.

Because, let’s face it, there is great writing in every book category. Being a well-read person no longer means reading only certain types of books; the average reader’s tastes are now recognized as being fairly eclectic.

And hallelujah for that, I say. Pretending that consumers of literary fiction never cracked a graphic novel or fantasy was a strain on everybody, was it not? Although watching a literary snob swiftly shove the paperback he was avidly reading into a copy of PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT did constitute one of the great amusements of modern life, it’s one that I readily gave up in the service of an expansion of what counts as good writing.

The rehabilitation of the memoir also owes a debt to the narrative nonfiction revolution. Largely the brainchild of novelists, narrative nonfiction brought fiction techniques to real-world subject matter, presenting actual events accurately (ideally, verifiably so) while casting the storyline as a novel would, with a distinct narrative arc, intensive character development, and fleshed-out scenes. Like literary fiction, narrative nonfiction’s language not only conveys the facts; it evokes a mood. And, unlike objective journalism, narrative nonfiction voice often contains a distinct authorial point of view.

Admittedly, as is so often the case in the literary world, definitions of narrative (also known as creative or literary) nonfiction vary. There is a certain amount of debate, for instance, about how much factual research must go into narrative nonfiction: need it be sourced as exhaustively as a journalistic treatment of the same story? If the writer was not physically present for certain scenes, how much can she legitimately make up? How extensively can she embellish a scene? If the storyline includes dull or dramatically unsatisfying sections, may they ethically be glossed over?

A question that does not crop up much in the publishing world, however, but one often hears aspiring writers of the real asking at literary conferences: should a first-person narrative dealing primarily with events in the author’s own life should be categorized as narrative nonfiction or memoir? The confusion is understandable, of course — while a cookbook containing travelogue or extensive personal stories is fairly obviously a cookbook (the recipes are a dead giveaway), where the precise line falls between a personal essay (a distinct sub-category of narrative nonfiction) and memoir can be less clear-cut.

So why don’t the pros get thrown by the question? While a narrative nonfiction book and a memoir might well share a distinct story arc, a strong authorial voice and point of view, and pretty writing, narrative nonfiction tends to be more concept-oriented than memoir. While a personal essay might bring in scenes, events, and characters from the author’s life to speak to an overall philosophical, analytical, or even political point, a memoir would concentrate primarily upon telling the story.

Still confused, writers of the real? Let me put it another way: while the writer can be a character in both memoir and narrative nonfiction, a memoir is first and foremost that character’s tale. A narrative nonfiction treatment of the same set of events might well include the author’s activities, but it’s often as an observer of larger events. Think MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL or IN COLD BLOOD, or, better still, if you happen to be a Capote fan, HANDCARVED COFFINS: while the reader does learn quite a bit about the writer over the course of those narratives, the narrator is an observer of a larger play.

In a good memoir, however, the reader gets not only to see through the narrator’s eyes, but live through her flesh — not only for individual scenes tucked within a mostly descriptive narrative, but throughout the entire storyline. Indeed, a memoir can hardly be said to be successful on a writing level if the reader isn’t drawn into the action sufficiently to feel and think along with the protagonist.

Some eyebrows just hit some hairlines, I’m guessing. “But Anne,” sputter flabbergasted memoirists the English-speaking world over, “I hadn’t been thinking of myself as the protagonist of my story, as if I were writing a novel. I’m the narrator in a nonfiction book — naturally, I’m bound by the truth, but I’m telling the reader what happened, the way I would recount my adventures to a friend. Or to someone I met at a party. Or, ideally, to the agent of my dreams, shortly after she claps eyes on my query letter.”

That may well be your intent, memoirists, but to an editorial eye, those three audiences would call for three completely different levels of narrative intimacy. You would almost certainly include more personal details in regaling your friend with your adventures, would you not, than a total stranger at some dubious social gathering? And wouldn’t you be more inclined to make yourself look good as a character if you were trying to impress the hearer?

I get what you’re saying, though: aiming for a chatty, anecdotal-style voice is a fairly common memoir tactic. Common enough, unfortunately, that it can be a problematic narrative choice at submission time. I’ve said it before and shall no doubt say it again: just as real-life dialogue is often stultifying if transcribed directly to the printed page, the storytelling norms of everyday speech tend to be rather boring to read.

For starters, spoken sentence structure and word choice typically fall far below the standards of good memoir writing. Everyday speech also leans pretty heavily on stock phrases. New writers often don’t think about this, but using the same words, phrases, and kinds of sentences over and over again, as most of us routinely do when chatting with our friends, is rather tiring for the reader. Take, for instance, how I might legitimately describe something that happened to me recently should you be unfortunate enough to allow me to buttonholed you at a cocktail party whilst I was still miffed:

I’m starting to think my UPS man can’t read. Since getting to my front door from my studio means climbing down a couple of flights of stairs, I put a great big sign over my doorbell reading: PLEASE LEAVE PACKAGES ON RIGHT SIDE PORCH. Every time I have a package delivered, I put it in the address line. My side door has a sign reading: THANK YOU FOR DELIVERING PACKAGES HERE. Yet on each of the last three business days before Christmas, there he was, standing at my front door, ringing the doorbell over and over again, whistling, expecting me to climb down all of those stairs to give him a signature. No amount of shouting down from second-floor windows can make him budge.

Not precisely Dickens, is it? Or perhaps it is, if we consider the notoriously word-repetitious opening sentence of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted upon its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Funny, certainly, but equally certainly stuffed with sweeping generalizations and eye-distracting word, phrase, and structural repetition. Not to mention being one lulu of a run-on sentence. Poor old Charles would have a heck of a time getting this opening past Millicent today — and not only because anything that read remotely like this would now be immediately dismissed as derivative of Dickens. That’s the trouble with those much-vaunted experiments in which disgruntled writers submit the opening pages of something like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to agencies in an attempt to prove that good, solid writing no longer stands a chance, by the way: any Millicent who has been at it a while would recognize, if not the first few lines of P&P itself, then at least a manuscript attempting to copy Austen’s well-known satirical voice.

What was fresh in 1813 can hardly be called the cutting edge of literary style today. Had I mentioned that this has always been a trend-driven business?

My point, should we all care to veer back to it, is that while some stalwart soul with magnificent lungs might conceivably be able to utter Dickens’ epic opening sentence within a single breath to a crowd of hearers who would not necessarily wince at all of that textual repetition, it would be significantly harder for a reader to plow through a similar speech on the page. (As perhaps you recall from sophomore English class.) People in publishing would find it even more difficult: because most adult readers become bored and/or distracted by repetitious prose — if you don’t believe that, consider how annoying it’s been that I’ve kept using various forms of repetition throughout the last few paragraphs — agents and editors develop a sharp eye for it.

So, as it happens, do experienced Millicents. Now that Uncle Charles has been kind enough to irritate you into noticing repetition (there’s that darned word again!), let’s take a peek at how our favorite screener would read our earlier example of ordinary-voiced memoir writing:

I’m starting to think my UPS man can’t read. Since getting to my front door from my studio means climbing down a couple of flights of stairs, I put a great big sign over my doorbell reading: PLEASE LEAVE PACKAGES ON RIGHT SIDE PORCH. Every time I have a package delivered, I put it in the address line. My side door has a sign reading : THANK YOU FOR DELIVERING PACKAGES HERE. Yet on each of the last three business days before Christmas, there he was, standing at my front door, ringing the doorbell over and over again, whistling, expecting me to climb down all of those stairs to give him a signature. No amount of shouting down from second-floor windows can make him budge.

Awfully hard to follow what’s going on in the face of all of that visual noise, isn’t it? And that’s not even factoring in how high the generalization to detail ratio is here: as is so often the case with verbal storytelling, this paragraph is a festival of telling, not showing. That’s entirely appropriate for interpersonal communication, but not necessarily the best tactic for sharing a real-world story in print.

Why? Well, verbal anecdotes tend to be light on specifics, relying on swiftness of telling and sudden reversals to maintain momentum. As a result, they often don’t work well when translated directly to the page, which cries out for detail and fully fleshed-out interactions.

That often comes as a gigantic surprise to first-time memoirists — especially if they happen to be funny people. They expect, and with good reason, that the same story told in the same words will evoke the same reaction in any context. Yet as Millicent knows to her sorrow, many an anecdote that’s been slaying ‘em at parties for decades falls completely flat on the printed page.

A spoken anecdote’s success with hearers is frequently dependent upon the teller’s storytelling skills — a different set of skills than a writer wields, and requiring a significantly different sense of timing. That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, a reader with a personal relationship with a writer of memoir (or personal essay, for that matter) will often have a significantly more positive response to reading that memoir or essay than a stranger would. The writer’s kith and/or kin will be mentally hearing the prose on the page in the writer’s spoken voice.

That’s impossible, obviously, for readers who don’t already know the author — a group which for your garden-variety aspiring writer includes Millicent, the agent of his dreams, his future acquiring editor, and, if we’re being honest, virtually everybody who will ever buy his book. I wish more aspiring memoirists thought about that; I can’t even begin to count how often I’ve seen great personal stories not be able to fly as memoir, simply because the narratives relied upon the reader to imagine tone and delivery style that just didn’t show up on the page.

Celebrity memoirs, particularly those written by comedians, are notoriously susceptible to this pitfall: if the reader can imagine the text read in the celebrity’s voice, it’s funny, but otherwise, the prose just sits on the page, unremarkable, crying out for a dramatic reading. These literary efforts represent, I think, a fundamental pessimism about the possibilities of readership. Presumably, the celebrity, the acquiring editor, and any ghost who might happen to have contributed some text to the festivities (allegedly) all believe in their heart of hearts that absolutely no one who has not heard the author’s speaking voice often enough to be able to produce a spontaneous and reasonably accurate impression would ever consider picking up his book. Were I a celebrity with something to say, I might find that a trifle depressing.

While stand-up comics and their ilk can indeed sell books that suffer under this presumption, it’s not the best strategic move for writers trying to make a name for themselves. Millicent does not use a smile for her umbrella, typically; she’s seen too many attempts at humor die a miserable death on the submission page. Unless you are absolutely positive that something is funny — and would be funny to a complete stranger who had never heard you utter a syllable out loud — you might want to consider punching it up. If you’re not sure, track down some objective feedback.

And don’t try to wiggle out of it by saying that your witticisms left your kith and kin rolling in the aisles. “But my mother thought it was hilarious!” has literally never convinced an agent or editor — or anyone else, for that matter — that an anecdote was funny if it didn’t elicit a chuckle on a first read. If there’s any rule to which those who work with writers cling tenaciously, it’s that the person who gave a writer birth — or shares his bed, or has been her best friend since the second grade — is not the ideal first reader for a memoirist. They’re simply too likely to read something into the text that isn’t actually on the page.

That’s true to a lesser extent of any form of writing, of course, but for memoir, the response of someone who knows the writer is likely to deviate even more wildly from the average reader’s. Even if your chum/relative/guy unwise enough to say, “Oh, you write? I’d love to read something of yours sometime,” isn’t actually a character in your memoir, s/he will already have formed opinions about you as a person, right? That relieves the narrative of the burden of character development for you, at least for that particular reader. Ongoing relationships also, more often than not, cause too-close first readers to peruse the text with a too-indulgent eye — or a too-critical one.

And although your kith and kin are no doubt delightful people, charming to know in any other context, when they are reading your memoir, they will probably also fill in necessary logic, should your narrative have happened to omit it. Indeed, many first-time memoirists so firmly picture their kith and kin’s past reactions to their verbal anecdotes that they elect to leave out connective logic, description, and character development requisite for an impartial reader to follow what’s happening.

Much to Millicent’s chagrin, many of these well-meaning writers — who, after all, are quite sensibly, they think, relying upon their past storytelling experience in constructing their memoir voices — will believe that telling their tales in a conversational manner will be an asset to the story. You wouldn’t believe how many memoir submissions open something like this, as if the narrator were addressing a close friend:

You’re not going to believe this, but that crazy UPS man appeared on my doorstep again. You know, the one who believes that the only physical space in the universe where it’s possible for a human being to sign for a package is the front doorstep?

I could go on, but why? There’s nothing wrong with the phrasing here, but already, the anecdote is predicated on the assumption that the reader will be willing to accept this rushed, limited back-story as a legitimate means of setting up what’s about to happen. Instead of showing us precisely how and why the guy’s nutty — or giving us enough insight into the narrator’s character to be able to discern whether we should take her word for this casual diagnosis — the text just expects us to try to picture what’s already happened before the story began, even though we don’t have access to enough information to be able to guess.

But that’s not the usual narrative presumption in a verbal anecdote, is it? We seldom assume that total strangers will already know what’s been going on in our lives, but fortunately for speed in storytelling, we’re often in the comparatively easy narrative position of relating our anecdotes to people who have already heard about our earlier interactions with the same characters. In this case, if I were actually telling this story to a friend (let’s call her Antoinette) I would have already regaled with my earlier interactions with the UPS man (which were positively hair-raising, incidentally). She also might have seen first-hand that since I’ve been walking with a cane since a car crash, hobbling down a flight of stairs, much less two, might be a trifle dangerous.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that any of the three times I shared this anecdote as memoir text? Changes your mental image of what’s going on, doesn’t it? An objective first reader might have caught that, but Antoinette probably wouldn’t.

That expectation of familiarity frequently haunts the anecdote-teller committing her tales to the page: the verbal anecdotalist can legitimately construct a tale under the assumption that the hearer will remember past accounts. Had Antoinette chatted with me on any day since midsummer, she might well have stood, glassy-eyed, while I treated her to a vivid account of how this sterling deliveryman raised my hair, as well as my hackles.

In essence, I am expecting Antoinette to follow a serial already in progress; woe to her if she had not paid attention to the earlier installments. She might have, but I can tell you now that Millicent hasn’t.

Yet you’d be astonished at how many memoir submissions toss poor Millie into the middle of an ongoing series of anecdotes. Perhaps not as obviously as Antoinette was, but honestly, would a screener not need to have pre-knowledge of the writer’s life to be able to make sense of a first paragraph like this?

I walked into my usual bar, ordered my usual drink, smiled at the lady who’s always sitting on that stool where the bar bends. So far, a completely ordinary day.

“I have no doubt of that,” Millicent sighs, “but since neither the reader nor I have any idea what your ordinary days are like, you’re leaving us in the dark here, narratively speaking. I suppose I could make the effort of conjuring up what the bar looked like, smelled like, and felt like underfoot, but that’s not the reader’s job, is it? Nor does my job description compel me to guess what you like to drink, the lady’s back-story, or even what time it is when you walked into the bar, so I can form no opinion about whether I should draw any conclusion whatsoever from your day’s including this activity. Next!”

Why, yes, that’s quite a bit of reaction to only two sentences of text, now that you mention it. But tell me truthfully: if you were Millicent, would you keep reading?

Yes, yes, I know: that’s an extremely difficult question for a memoirist to answer, and probably one that calls up an emotional response. Not only does it require an objective assessment of how the story’s being told here — an objective assessment which, by definition, no memoirist can possibly derive from her kith and kin, who will automatically bring their knowledge of you to the text — but it implies a critique of the events described, too, doesn’t it?

“How dare you?” the memoirist shouts. “Are you calling my story too boring to maintain anyone’s interest? Or are you saying that it’s badly written?”

Neither, necessarily. From Millicent’s perspective — which, lest we forget, will be shared by her boss, an acquiring editor, and the future readers of your book — the question of whether to read on past this paragraph has nothing to do with what’s actually going on in the scene. So far, all that’s happened is that the narrator has walked into a bar and ordered a drink: not a lot to judge there. The narrative style is plain, but perhaps that’s appropriate for the book’s subject matter and target audience.

“Wait a sec,” our beleaguered memoirist interrupts. “Target audience? What does that even mean for a memoir?”

Glad you asked. Most first-time memoirists don’t give any thought at all to who will want to read their books, much less who will be willing to shell out cash to read them. Or, if they do ponder it, the audience they have in mind consists largely of, you guessed it, the array of kith and kin who have already heard at least some of the memoir’s storyline in anecdotal form.

Now, I’m not saying that your Aunt Sadie, your best friend from work, and your significant other won’t be delighted enough to see you in print at last to rush out and buy your book. They probably will — especially if you’re clever enough to explain to them now that published authors get very few free copies; any you distribute to your loved ones gratis will not count toward your sales totals, and you may actually have to purchase them yourself. The sooner the fine folks who love you come to accept that the best way to support an author one happens to know personally is to buy their work, the happier you will be as a working writer.

But as your literary cheerleader and friend in the biz, is it wrong of me to hope that the people who already know you will not make up the entirety of the readership for your memoir? You want complete strangers to be enchanted with your prose, right? Presumably, if you didn’t want to reach readers outside your doubtless warm intimate circle, you would not be going to the effort and taking the considerable emotional risk of sending your work out to agents.

Especially because that risk is quite a bit higher when it’s your own story told as nonfiction, isn’t it, memoirists? I’m inclined to think, then, that you’re pretty committed to reaching some sympathetic strangers.

I applaud your bravery, but that means, in practice, that objective readers’ opinions of your memoir matter. Inevitably, like any book, your memoir will appeal to some readers and not others.

And before you get your mouth fully open to retort, let me stop you from asserting that anyone interested in good writing will like your book because it is a good story well written. I can tell you now that your future agent and editor will be amused, not convinced, by that argument.

Why? Well, from a publishing perspective, there is no such thing as a universally-appealing piece of writing. Some readers are drawn to one type of story, others another. That’s just a fact of pushing books. Even if you happen to have produced a memoir that both taps into an under-mined literary niche and catches the public imagination at just the right time (like, say, ANGELA’S ASHES), your future agent and editor will not think of it as just good writing about your life.

How will they think of it? As a memoir about a specific place and time, told in a specific voice — and as a book that will need to be sold to readers already in the habit of reading similar books.

“Similar books!” memoirists everywhere shout, insulted. “But my story’s unique! So is my narrative voice. How could any reader possibly form a sense of whether he will like it without reading it?”

Yes, yes, you’re a snowflake, but think about it: don’t you decide whether to pick up a book in a bookstore or search for it online without having read it? Don’t you as a reader gravitate toward certain types of narrative, particular varieties of story, a specific species of tone? Don’t you in fact do it all the time?

So does everybody else — including agents, editors, and anyone in a position to help you get your book published traditionally. No agent or editor, even those who handle nothing but memoir, will be attracted to every conceivable personal story that’s written well. Like every other individual reader currently milling about the earth’s crust, they have individual preferences.

And — brace yourselves; this next bit often comes as a shock to first-time memoirists — not all of those preferences concern writing style, or even having a compelling story to tell. Agents, editors, and memoir readers in general also tend to gravitate toward stories about specific types of experiences. From the publisher’s point of view — and thus an agent’s — memoirs are always about something other than the author’s life.

Mostly, I suspect, because to anyone familiar with the concept of a memoir, the statement “What’s the book about? Why, it’s about the author’s life!” is self-evident. It’s also self-evident to Millicent that not every interesting life translates easily into a page-turning memoir.

All of that can be difficult for writers fond of slice-of-life fiction to accept. “Isn’t the point of memoir,” they demand, and who could blame them? “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature? Good books about ordinary life are valuable. If a well-written story happens to be true, it’s automatically going to appeal to memoir readers, right?

Actually, no: thousands of memoirs come out every year, and by definition, all are about real events, yet only a few capture large readerships. Partially, that’s a matter of scarce marketing resources; it’s also often a matter of luck. Sometimes, it’s a function of the writing, but again, no publisher with her head screwed on straight would dream of promoting a memoir by saying, “Oh, it’s really well written. And had I mentioned that it was about the author’s life?”

Of course it is, but at the risk of repeating myself (oh, you thought I’d dropped my earlier point about textual repetition?), not every true story is equally appealing to every reader. Truth is a necessary attribute of memoir, not an optional extra. So are solid, clear writing and a dramatically-satisfying story arc.

If that last paragraph left you grumbling, well, you’re not alone. Most aspiring memoirists think of their books primarily as opportunities to share their life stories with a potentially admiring world. To them, the fact that they are telling their truth couldn’t possibly be more important: who in her right mind would put herself through the genuinely emotion-wracking process of reliving her ups and downs vividly enough to write about them well unless she felt her story burning inside her?

I’m entirely sympathetic to that yearning to shout the truth to the skies. However, as a memoirist myself — and as an author who has written a minor political celebrity’s memoir as well, a fascinating exercise in mind-melding — I know that there’s considerably more to constructing an emotionally and factually truthful memoir than simply telling the reader what happened. It’s not as though one can simply provide a list of events and expect the reader to extrapolate human feeling. A memoirist has to dig deep, be profoundly honest with himself — and then figure out what does and does not belong in the book.

Didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? As much as we memoirists like to claim the mantle of truth, not everything that occurs in even the most fascinating person’s life will be gripping on the page. Part of the art of memoir lies in selectivity — a good memoir tells the story of a particular part of a particular life, not everything that happened. That means, at both the book structuring and writing stages, you will need to weed out actual events that undoubtedly happened, ones that may in themselves be interesting, but do not advance the story arc of the book.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider that; it’s is an aspect of memoir-writing that often confuses those new to the game. Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth may work admirably on the witness stand, but the goal of a memoir is not simply to provide the reader with either a complete transcript or general summary of the author’s life. It’s to recount a specific set of connected events in a truthful, well-written, and entertaining manner, in a narrative voice likable enough that the reader will want to accompany the narrator on that absorbing journey.

That’s necessarily the case, because, let’s face it, the alternative would not be much fun for the reader. In fact, it could be a heck of a lot of work: in an indiscriminate, sprawling memoir, the reader must try to determine which of many protagonist-centered activities are important to the central storyline. Indeed, it’s not at all uncommon for a loosely-organized memoir manuscript not to have a clearly-defined central storyline at all, for the exceedingly simple reason that most new memoirists don’t think of their lives that way.

But if you, the narrator, don’t know what the core story arc of your memoir is, how can a reader possibly figure it out? And is it really the reader’s job?

So I ask you again: what is your memoir about?

While you’re pondering that gargantuan and quite possibly terrifying question, let me share my favorite analogy for creative selectivity in nonfiction: throwing a stone into an otherwise still pond. That will cause a series of concentric ripples, right, altering the surface of the pond over time? A well thought-out memoir will depict the pond, as well as the thrower and the flinging process, following those many small waves as they change everything in their path.

How might that translate into a story arc derived from a rich and diverse life story? Think of the pond and its environs as your day-to-day life prior to a defining moment or decision. In order to gain a clear sense of just how much throwing that stone disturbed the pond, the reader is going to need to experience it as you did: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feelings, what you loved and wanted, what you feared and avoided.

You could simply summarize all of that, I suppose, but wouldn’t the reader gain a stronger impression of what it was like to be you standing on the shore, weighing whether to toss that rock, if you conveyed your experiences via small, evocative details and fully fleshed-out scenes? With all of those sensations filtered through your psyche and perceptions, wouldn’t the reader get to know you pretty well as the protagonist of your own story?

Once you’ve established yourself as an interesting person in an interesting situation, and an intriguingly observant one at that, the reader is going to care about where and whether you cast that rock — or, in a story about being overwhelmed by larger events, about how you were flung bodily into the middle of that pond. How did your life change as a result? What did you do in response? What did you want to have happen, and what barriers did you face?

Starting to sound much more like a cohesive storyline, isn’t it? Much as in fiction, figuring out what is and isn’t central to the overall story you’re telling is not merely a matter of explaining what happened: it’s a matter of identifying the most important conflict the protagonist faces, what obstacles she must overcome, and showing the reader how that conflict played out.

That conflict, my friend, is what your memoir is about. It’s every bit as unique as you had originally thought; it’s merely structured in a manner that’s easier for a reader who doesn’t already know you to follow.

Does it make more sense now that “What is your memoir about?” would be the first thing Millicent, her boss, your acquiring editor, and the reader who will ultimately buy your book would want to know? At least, unless you have had the foresight to have established yourself as a celebrity, giving rise to a reasonable expectation that the very sight of your name on a book jacket will make your target reader gasp with incredulous pleasure and reach for the volume. Barring that kind of extremely helpful platform, it honestly does make sense that your future publisher will want to aim your book at readers most likely to respond positively to it.

Which is why, in the extremely likely event that those of you grumbling your way through writing a book proposal had been wondering, agents and editors expect memoirists, like all hopeful nonfiction writers, to give some serious advance thought to who is likely to buy the book and why. It’s also part of the reason memoirs — again, like other nonfiction — are typically sold in the U.S. not based upon a full manuscript, but merely upon a book proposal and a sample chapter. In all likelihood, your acquiring editor will want to have some input into the selection process, to help define your story arc in the manner most likely to capture the interest of readers already buying similar stories.

But let me guess: you’d been thinking of the proposal as just an annoying hoop through which you would have to leap in order to land an agent for your story, right? Believe it or not, the proposal’s requirements genuinely are intended to help nonfiction writers think about their books — and for memoirists to think of their life stories — not merely as writing about facts, but as gripping stories aimed at a specific readership predisposed to like ‘em.

I wouldn’t lie to you about that; I’m a memoirist, selectively drawing from the world as I find it to create a narrative true on a wide variety of levels. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Premises, premises

I honestly hadn’t intended to take the last few days off from blogging, but I assure you, I have a dandy excuse. To give you a hint, I invite you to contemplate the riddle of the Sphinx: what animal walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three at night?

On to the day’s business — or rather, the business of last week. Scouring my to-blog-about list for amusing and thought-provoking topics to while away the time before the advent of Queryfest, my annual foray into all things query-related, I came across a terrific question from reader Kelly:

I have a question about plot clichés, if you have the chance to address it. Obviously, the ‘it was all a dream’ won’t fly. What other common plot twists do those of you who see so many manuscripts just groan about? Thanks and feel better soon.

That bit at the end will tell you just how long even very good questions sometimes linger in my hey, that would make a great post pile: kind Kelly was wafting me positive energies immediately after my car crash last year. There’s been some recent progress in that area, by the way: after 14 months, I’m finally walking without a cane.

Can tap-dancing be far behind?

So if I’m honest about it, responding to Kelly’s question is really the business of last year. That seems oddly appropriate, given one of the publishing world’s most common complaints about writers: a fondness for procrastination.

Oh, don’t grimace; everyone procrastinates a little. It’s healthy not to be too rigid. Besides, one of the most important lessons any writer of book-length work has to learn is that a full-length manuscript is not the kind of thing that even the most gifted crafter of prose can polish off in a day, a week, or a month.

Oh, some writers (including yours truly) can indeed draft new text very quickly, but that’s not the issue. Writing a book requires consistent, patient application, not merely short, intense bursts of endeavor. So does revising a manuscript. Yet since most of us do our best work if we can devote some unbroken time to it, it can be very tempting to put off diving in — or diving back in — until we can devote a whole day, week, or month to it, isn’t it?

And that temptation, boys and girls, is why most serious writers have woken up on at least one fine spring morning, sat bolt upright in bed, and shouted, “Wait — how much time has passed since I swore that I was going to finish that revision? Or start it?”

Or exclaimed, “Hey, wasn’t my New Year’s resolution to send out ten queries per week? Have I sent out even one this month?”

Or moaned, “Oh, my God — the agent of my dreams requested pages six months ago, and I’m still revising. Should I take another run at Chapter 152, or should I pop the whole shebang in the mail as is? What if she doesn’t want it anymore?”

I’m not bringing this up to depress all of you who swore that Labor Day (or the Fourth of July, or Valentine’s day, or St. Swithin’s day) was going to be the moment you sprung into action, honest. Nor am I passing judgment on the many, many aspiring writers whose lives swamped their good intentions. I’m not even changing the subject so that I may put off answering Kelly’s excellent question for a few more minutes.

I’m bringing it up, if you must know, because writers who procrastinate so often create characters that procrastinate. Seriously, it’s one of Millicent the agency screener’s most frequent complaints about how novelists and memoirists plot books: characters irk her by sitting around and thinking too much.

Or, to mix things up a little, by sitting around and talking through the problems with their best friends, coworkers, mothers, fathers, or, depending upon book category, the people they are about to try to murder. Especially, as is often the case in novel submissions, when these little chats over coffee, in bars, over lunch, over a telephone, or in hastily-improvised torture chambers consist largely of the protagonist recapping conflict that reader has already seen.

How, from an editorial standpoint, could that not seem redundant? “Criminy, move on,” Millicent scolds the text in front of her. “The point of novel narration is not to convey every single thing that happened in the book’s world, but to tell a story in a lively and entertaining manner!”

Because I love you people, I shall spare you what she hisses at memoir submissions in which the narrator agonizes for fifty or sixty pages on end about whether to confront someone who clearly needs some confrontation — only to decide not to do it after all. In fiction and nonfiction alike, her preference nearly always leans toward the active protagonist given to making things happen, rather than a passive one to whom things happen.

Half of you clutched your chests at some point over the last four paragraphs, didn’t you? Relax; I’m not about to suggest the all-too-often-heard advice on this point: telling writers never to show their protagonists thinking is akin to asserting that no character, however devoted to the color pink, may ever be depicted wearing it. Intelligent characters frequently think, and one-size-fits-all writing rules are almost invariably wrong a great deal of the time.

What I am suggesting, heart-clutchers, is merely that Millicent, like most professional readers, has from long experience developed a finely-tuned sense of how much rumination is too much, as well as when it starts to feel repetitious. To eyes trained to spot textual and conceptual redundancy, even a single repeated thought pattern can jump off the page. Small wonder, then, that showing the complexity of a problem by depicting the protagonist revisiting the same set of doubts over and over again is a notorious professional readers’ pet peeve.

Frequently, their impatience is justified: while deeply-felt internal conflict can be quite interesting on the page, most protagonists in first-person and tight third-person narratives don’t think about problems differently each time. Instead, the writer seeks to have the page mirror the way people mull over problems in real life: with redundant logic, facing the same fears and rehashing the same options on Monday as on Friday.

Or the following Friday. Or two years from Friday.

“God, I wish that this writer had never seen a production of Hamlet,” Millicent has been known to murmur over the fourth slow-moving protagonist of the day. “Would it be too much to ask the narrative to get out of this character’s head long enough for her to do something? It wouldn’t even have to advance the plot — I’d settle for her taking up lion-taming or developing a sudden passion for spelunking. Anything, so she gets out of her chair and moves around the world!”

“But Anne!” I hear some of you chest-clutchers point out, and with good reason, “people honestly do fall into thought loops when they’re worried about something, especially if they lean toward the compulsive in general. I’m sorry if it bores Millicent, but I’m trying to represent reality here: the human psyche is not always bent upon producing entertainingly diverse thought patterns.”

Perhaps it isn’t, but you should be. It’s a writer’s job not just to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, but to create a result that will be a pleasure to read. Redundant thoughts, like redundant action, have a nasty habit of discouraging readers from continuing to turn pages. Obsessive characters can be very interesting, but as the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing: it’s very, very easy for realistic depictions of recurrent thought or even feeling to become positively soporific on the printed page.

Not as easily spotted a cliché as it was a dark and stormy night or you may be wondering why I called you all here, admittedly, but the rumination-obsessed protagonist is actually more common in submissions these days than either of these well-worn tropes. None of these are as ubiquitous as teenagers who roll their eyes, of course, or people under 50 who say whatever and like, but all are equal-opportunity Millicent-annoyers.

Now the rest of you are clutching your chests, but at this late date, most adult readers, even non-professional ones, have seen enough compulsive thought patterns on the page to recognize it within a line or two. At most, it will take them a couple of paragraphs to catch on. How, then, is the writer to maintain interest and tension throughout pages and pages of it?

Honestly, a little obsessive-compulsion goes a long way on the page. Millicent’s seeing less of it these days than when the TV show MONK rendered OCD such a popular character quirk; if a hit TV show or movie contains a noteworthy character trait or plot twist, it’s a safe bet that agencies will be receiving hundreds of iterations of it over the next 2-5 years. The Millies of the early 1980s could have wallpapered both North and South Korea entirely in manuscripts that resembled M*A*S*H, for instance; for the last decade, it’s been rare that a police procedural submission does not include a scene reminiscent of LAW AND ORDER or CSI. And frankly, our time on earth is too precious to waste time toting up how many SF and fantasy submissions fairly reeked of the influence of STAR WARS and STAR TREK.

It’s not that some of the borrowed characters and quirks are not inherently entertaining; in a good writer’s hands, they certainly can be. There’s also something to be said for adhering to the conventions of one’s chosen book category: in a Western, readers expect a confrontation between the fellows in the white hats and the black, just as readers of women’s fiction expect their protagonists to grow and change over the course of the story.

By definition, though, what none of these elements can ever be is fresh.

Which goes right to the heart of Kelly’s question, does it not? While the list of premises, plot twists, and character traits that might set Millicent’s teeth on edge changes perpetually — what might have riled her Aunt Mehitabel when she was just starting out as a reader in the mid-1970s is substantially different from what might occur often enough to get on Millie’s nerves today, or her younger sister Margie five years from now — the basic principle remains the same: even if the writing is good, if she’s seen it before, it’s not going to seem fresh or surprising on the page.

Remember, Millicent is not only charged with the task of sifting through submissions to find great writing and original voices; she’s also looking for unique takes on reality and plots that she hasn’t seen before. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), at submission time, not seeming like a rehash of the most recent bestseller or blockbuster film is a significant asset.

I know, I know: it’s not all that uncommon for agency submission guidelines to sound as though their Millicents are eagerly awaiting a carbon-copy of whatever is hitting the top of the bestseller lists today. Indeed, sometimes they are looking for copycats. Even with monumental bestsellers like the TWILIGHT series or BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, though, it usually doesn’t take too long before Millie and her boss are saying, “Oh, no, another knock-off? I want the next great bestseller, not what was hot two years ago.”

Don’t believe me? How hard do you think it would be to sell BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY as a fresh manuscript today? It would simply seem derivative.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, those oft-repeated experiments in which some bright soul submits the first 50 pages of some classic like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813) to an array of present-day agents and/or publishing houses, in an attempt to test whether their Millicents would know great literature if it fell in their laps, invariably fall flat. Of course, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE would get rejected today; as a new manuscript, it would seem completely lifted from Jane Austen. To a reader familiar with English novels of the period, even the title would seem unoriginal: the phrase PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (in all caps, no less) is repeated no fewer than three times in Fanny Burney’s novel of a generation before, CECELIA, OR, MEMOIRS OF AN HEIRESS (1782).

Besides, have you seen how much time Austen’s protagonists spend thinking?

I know that this might come as a shock to the many, many writers raised on 19th-century literature, but what seemed fresh on the page in 1813 is unlikely to strike Millicent as original or even market-appropriate today. Ditto for 1913, 1943, 1983, or 2003. In fact, what would have wowed ‘em at the agency in any of those years is likely to seem positively dated now, even if the cultural references did not.

Remember, too, that Millie lives in the same media-heavy culture you do: while she might not watch enough T.V. to know what a Snooki is, to catch an Arrested Development reference, or to be able to pick any of the current crop of presidential contenders out of a police line-up, it’s unlikely that she would be lucky enough to have missed any public discussion of these phenomena. If you loved the Saw movies enough to borrow some elements of them for your horror manuscript, chances are that a Millicent working in a horror-representing agency will be harboring some affection for those movies, too.

Which is not to say that a plot similar to the Saw movies might not have done very well, had it hit Millicent’s desk right after the first film in the series came out. Many a writer who has been toiling away quietly for years on a manuscript has suddenly seen it become sought-after as soon as a similar book, movie, or TV show hits the big time. Agents and editors do often clamor for something similar to what’s hot at the moment. Since it takes so long to write a book, however, it’s generally the writers that were already working on a book, not because it was cool, but because they liked the subject matter, who are in the best position to take advantage of such a trend. Or writers who can produce a manuscript with similar appeal within a year or two. After that, imitation is likely to make the book seem dated.

Not sure what a dated manuscript is, or why it might be hard to sell? Okay, let me ask you: if you picked up a book stuffed to the gills with references to Ross Perot, would you (a) embrace it as a book about contemporary politics, (b) assume that it had been published sometime in the mid-1990s, and turn to another book for insights on the current political scene or (c) wonder who in the heck Ross Perot was?

If you said (b), you’re beginning to think like Millicent: the 1992 election was a long time ago. If you said (a), I’m guessing you do not follow politics very closely. And if you said (c), well, ask your parents, but don’t be surprised if they remember his ears more than his politics.

Even if a manuscript avoids the specific pop references that tend to age so poorly on the page — nothing seems more tired than yesterday’s catchphrases, right? — borrowing the plot twists and premises of yesteryear can make a book seem dated. One of the surprisingly immortal premises: neighborhoods where none of the mothers work outside the home, or even consider it. While it’s not beyond belief that such communities still exist, it’s far enough from the mainstream American experience these days that it would require fairly extensive textual explanation.

Embracing writing fads of years past also tends to make a manuscript seem dated. When STAR WARS embraced the Jungian heroic journey structure, it generated a lot of buzz — and for the next two decades, the viewing public was inundated with movies with that same structure. Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, advocating that structure for novels became extremely popular, resulting in manuscript after manuscript with essentially the same story arc falling on Millicent’s desk with clockwork regularity. Because Millicent’s boss was screening manuscripts back then, Millie’s been trained to regard that structure as old-fashioned.

Not to mention predictable. And speaking of repetitive premises, does it bother anyone but me that the mortality rate for mothers in the STAR WARS movies is close to 100%?

Seriously, it doesn’t pay to underestimate just how predictable adhering to a well-worn plot device can render a manuscript, especially to someone who reads as much as Millicent. People drawn to work in publishing tend to be both plot-retentive and detail-oriented: I was surely not the only future editor who walked out of the original STAR WARS saying to her big brother, “You know what would make more sense than that ending? If Leah was Luke’s sister? I mean, honestly — why begin their names with the same first letter, something screenwriters usually take wincing pains to avoid, unless we’re supposed to guess that there’s a familial relationship?”

Okay, so this was probably not how most elementary schoolers reacted to the film, but I read a great deal. Not only science fiction, but fables — and the heroic journey story arc was supposed to surprise me? Nice try, Mr. Lucas.

An original plot twist or premise should surprise the reader — and that’s legitimately hard to do. It’s also often difficult for an isolated writer to spot just how much his plot, premise, or characters might resemble what Millicent is receiving from other writers. Even if the writer can successfully weed out conceptions of dramatic fitness culled from stories floating around the zeitgeist — from movies, television, books, even major news stories — that might be turning up in other submissions, rooting out or even noticing stereotypes (what? The guy with tape on his glasses is a computer expert? Who saw that coming?), stock plot twists (the murderer isn’t the first person the police arrest? Alert the media!), overused premises (the police partners who made the arrest are experiencing some romantic tension? The school bully targeting the gay teen is himself fighting urges in that direction? The guy bent on revenge is actuated by the trauma of having seen his wife and small child murdered out of the reader’s sight and before the story began?) and hackneyed phrasing (“I’m sorry for your loss,” anyone?) can often require an outside eye.

Why? Often, such well-worn story elements are so familiar to the writer, as well as to her nearest and dearest, that they don’t seem like clichés. They just seem like the constituent parts of a story. Therein lies the essential paradox of trafficking in the already-done: that plot twist that feels dramatically right may well come across that way because you’ve seen it before.

And so has Millicent. Remember, clichés don’t irritate agents, editors, and contest judges the first time these fine folks spot them on the manuscript page, typically, or even because the pesky things are repeated over the course of a particular submission or contest entry. What chafes their sensibilities is seeing the same phrases, characters, plot twists, and even premises over and over across hundreds of manuscripts.

Hey, if you’ve seen one completely selfless mother, a lady completely devoid of any personal preferences unrelated to her children, you might not actually have seen ‘em all. After screening the forty-seventh synopsis featuring a selfless mother within a week, however, it might well start to feel that way.

That’s a pretty good test of whether a manuscript might have strayed into over-nibbled pastures, by the way: if the synopsis — or, sacre bleu, the descriptive paragraph in the query letter — makes reference to a well-established stereotype, it’s well worth looking into how to make the characters less, well, predictable.

And now two-thirds of you chest-clutchers are mopping your weary brows. Honestly, this is beginning to read like a word problem on the math section of the S.A.T.

By definition, stereotypes and clichés are predictable: they are the shorthand a culture uses for archetypes. The mean tenth-grade girl, for instance, or the dumb jock. The absent-minded professor who can’t find the glasses perched on top of his head. The sociopathic lawyer who cares only about winning cases, not justice. The tough drill sergeant/teacher/physical therapist who seems like a bully at first, but turns out to be concealing a heart of gold.

Hey, what happened to all the floozies harboring hearts of gold? When did they fall out of the collective mind? Sometime during the Reagan administration? Or was it a decade earlier, when librarians and schoolteachers lost the right to yank the pencils from their collective hair, remove the eyeglasses that they apparently don’t require in order to see, and have the nearest male exclaim, “Why, Miss Jones — you’re beautiful!”

Now, poor Miss Jones would to be an expert in particle physics, save the world in the third act of the story, and look as though she had never eaten a cookie in order to engender that reaction. It’s enough to make an educated woman bob her hair.

Naturally, what constitutes a cliché evolves over time, just as what seems dated in a plot does, but as far as characterization goes, one factor remains the same: a stereotype telegraphs to the reader what kind of behavior, motivations, and actions to expect from a character. A pop quiz for long-time readers of this blog: why might that present a problem in a manuscript submission?

For precisely the same reason that a savvy submitter should avoid every other form of predictability, especially in the opening pages of a manuscript or contest entry:: because being able to see what’s going to happen in advance tends to bore Millicent. If a professional reader can tell instantly from a story’s first description of a character precisely how he is going to act and how he is likely to speak, where’s the suspense?

The same holds true for too-common premises, by the way. Those two coworkers of opposite sexes squabbling? They’ll be in love within fifty pages. That child the woman who swore she never wanted children inadvertently acquires, by accident, theft, or some inconsiderate relative’s leaving him on her doorstep. It will completely transform her life. The completely irresponsible man who discovers he’s had an unknown child for decades? He’s going to be integral to that kid’s life, and vice versa. That wish the protagonist makes on page 2, even though the text explicitly tells us that she never wishes on passing stars? It’s going to come true.

In spades. It’s written on the sand.

Oh, you thought that Millie wouldn’t catch on that teenage Billy was going to wreck his new motorcycle by the second time his parents are shown to be worried about it? I hate to burst anyone’s plotting bubble, but at this juncture in literary history, most professional readers would have said, “Oh, he’s doing to crash it,” halfway through the scene where he bought the bike.

She’s also going to foresee that the character a bystander identifies as having had a hard childhood is going to be the mysterious murderer decimating the summer camp/isolated hotel/submarine’s crew, the grandmother/grandfather/elderly neighbor giving the youthful protagonist with nowhere else to turn sterling (if predictable) advice is going to have some sort of a health scare by three-quarters of the way through the book, and that the otherwise clear-thinking lady who wisely retreated to someplace her violent ex-husband/evil boss/corrupt Congressman isn’t will be startled when he shows up.

Quite possibly standing behind her while she is gazing soulfully into a mirror. A cat will have startled her first, however. That fellow also not going to be dead the first time she, her knight in shining armor, or the few remaining members of that light-hearted weekend canoeing party think they have dispatched him.

Hey, the monster always returns is a cliché for a reason.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but reading manuscripts for a living often results in a serious decrease in the ability to be astonished by plot twist at all. Avert your eyes if you have never seen The Sixth Sense, but I had twice suggested to my date that the psychologist was a ghost before the end of the first therapy scene. I kept asking, “But if he’s alive, why isn’t he talking to the kid’s mother? And why doesn’t she have any interests or concerns unrelated to her child?”

To anyone who has been reading manuscripts for a living for more than a week or two, there’s another problem with stock characters. Millicent tends to associate them with rather lazy writing — and certainly with lax research. I’m not just talking about the astonishingly common phenomenon of novels saddling their protagonists with professions with which their writers are clearly unfamiliar (if I had a nickel for every tax specialist character who takes an annual month-long holiday on April 16th because the writer who created her isn’t aware of how many people file their taxes late, I would be able to afford a month-long holiday right now) or the equally common fish-out-of-water stories in which the writer seems as out of his depth in the new environment as his protagonist (my personal pet peeve: protagonists who inherit wineries, then proceed to run them with a whole lot of heart — and learning valuable life lessons — while clearly learning virtually nothing about the actual practicalities of making wine).

I’m talking about characters, usually secondary ones, that are different in some fundamental way from the protagonist. You wouldn’t believe how often subtly-drawn primary characters share page space with downright cartoonish villains or minor characters.

When writers just guess at the probable life details and reactions of characters unlike themselves, they tend to end up writing in generalities, not plausible, reality-based specifics. A common result: characters whose beauty and brains are inversely proportional, whose behavior and/or speech can be predicted as soon as the narrative drops a hint about their race/gender/sexual orientation/national origin/job/whatever, and/or who act exactly as though some great celestial casting director called up the nearest muse and said, “Hello, Euterpe? Got anything in a bimbo cheerleader? Great — send me twelve.”

Seen once on the page, one-note characters are kind of annoying. When those cheerleaders come cartwheeling across a good 40% of YA set in high schools, even a hint of waved pom-pom can get downright annoying.

Even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions. What tends to get caught by the broom of a sweeping generalization is not Millicent’s imagination, but the submission. If it seems too stereotypical, it’s often swept all the way into the rejection pile.

Why, you ask? Because by definition, a characterization that we’ve all seen a hundred times before, if not a thousand, is not fresh. Nor do stereotypes tend to be all that subtle. And that’s a problem in Millicent’s eyes, because in a new writer, what she’s looking to see — feel free to chant it with me now — originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent.

When a writer speaks in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where her authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive — or, frankly, all that memorable.

“But Anne,” writers of reality-based fiction and nonfiction alike protest, “sometimes, stereotypes have a kernel of truth to them, just as clichéd truisms are frequently, well, true. Isn’t it possible that Millicent sees certain character types over and over again because they pop up in real life so often, and writers are simply reflecting that? Should she not, in short, get over it?”

Ah, editors hear that one all the time from those writing the real, either in memoir form or in the ever-popular reality-thinly-disguised-as-fiction manuscript. In fact, it’s an argument heard in general conversation with some fair frequency: many, many people, including writers, genuinely believe various stereotypes to be true; therein lies the power of a cliché. The very pervasiveness of certain hackneyed icons in the cultural lexicon — the policeman enraged at the system, the intellectually brilliant woman with no social skills, the father-to-be who faints in the delivery room, that same father helpless if he is left alone with the child in question, to name but four — render them very tempting to incorporate in a manuscript as shortcuts, especially when trying to tell a story in an expeditious manner.

Oh, you don’t regard stereotypes as shortcuts? Okay, which would require more narrative description and character development, the high school cheerleader without a brain in her head, or the one who burns to become a nuclear physicist? At this point in dramatic history, all a pressed-for-time writer really has to do is use the word cheerleader to evoke the former for a reader, right?

Unless, of course, a submission that uses this shortcut happens to fall upon the desk of a Millicent who not only was a high school cheerleader, but also was the captain of the chess team. At Dartmouth. To her, a manuscript that relies upon the usual stereotype isn’t going to look as though it’s appealing to universal understandings of human interaction; it’s going to come across as a sweeping generalization.

Can you really blame her fingers for itching to reach for the broom?

“But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “Isn’t this all going a little far afield from Kelly’s original question? Wasn’t she really asking for a list of overused plot twists and premises a savvy aspiring writer should avoid?”

Possibly, but that’s precisely the conundrum of freshness. What would have struck Millicent as fresh a year ago, when Kelly first brought this up, is not what would seem so to her now. Freshness is an ever-moving target, difficult for an aspiring writer — who, after all, usually takes at least a year or two to fashion a premise into a full manuscript — to hit predictably. Since nobody can legitimately claim to know what will be selling well a couple of years from now, committing to a premise is always going to be something of a risky proposition.

All a writer can do is strive to make her plot and characterization as original as her voice — and, ideally, as surprising. The best means of figuring out what will come as a pleasant surprise to her is to read widely in your chosen book category. What kinds of plot twists are used, and which overused? What’s been done to death, and what’s new and exciting? What’s considered characteristic and expected in your type of book these days, and what’s considered out of bounds?

Once you have come up with provisional answers to those questions, ask yourself another: how can I make my book’s premise, characterization, and plot even better than what’s already on the literary market?

Speaking of conundrums, have you solved the riddle of the Sphinx yet? It’s the humble human being: as babies, we crawl; in our prime, we walk on two legs; in old age, we use canes.

Actually, people tend to use walkers now, but who are we to question the wisdom of the Sphinx? All I know — and this is so far from a standard premise that I can’t recall a bestselling novel of the last twenty years that has dealt with this subject in any significant depth — is that after one has been hobbling around on three legs, it’s astonishingly tiring to wander around on just two. And that, my friends, is the explanation for my recent blogging silence: I’ve been taking a long change-of-season nap.

All the better to launch into Queryfest next time, my dears. Keep up the good work!

But enough about you — what about me?

Today, I had planned to launch headlong into my annual foray into how to construct a graceful and effective query letter, campers, but frankly, didn’t we devote an awful lot of the summer to discussing how to pitch? After so many weeks on end of dealing with practicalities, I feel that the artist in each of us deserves a little holiday.

So let’s refresh ourselves by talking craft for a while. Queryfest will be every bit as useful next week.

Memoir-writing and writing about reality as fiction has been much on my mind of late, and not merely because my memoir remains in publishing limbo. (Yes, still. Let’s just be grateful that not every memoirist’s extended family has the wherewithal to make credible $2 million dollar lawsuit threats.) While we writers talk endlessly amongst ourselves about craft and structure for fiction, it’s actually quite rare to stumble into a knot of literary conference attendees avidly discussing how to make a personal anecdote spring to life on the page.

Why is that, when it is so very hard to write memoir well? All too often, the prevailing wisdom dictates that all a writer needs to produce a successful memoir is an exciting life, an ability to write clearly, and, if at all possible, celebrity in another field, so the writing will matter even less. The writer’s platform and the inherent interest of the story, we’re told, are all that matter in a memoir. Anything beyond that, presumably, is gravy.

As to structure, that’s held to be self-evident. In the immortal words of Lewis Carroll,

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

As a memoirist and an editor who works regularly with same, I must disagree. While a chronological structure can work, not all human events start out scintillating; depending upon the story, another structure might work better.

Then, too, a memoir cannot really be deemed a success unless readers find it entertaining, enlightening, or at the very least, interesting. That’s not merely a matter of story. Any long-form writing, be it fiction or nonfiction, will benefit from a strong narrative structure, a consistent, likable narrative voice, a plausible and engaging story arc, believable, well-drawn characters, a protagonist the reader would be happy to follow for a few hundred pages…

In short, many of the elements one might find in a well-constructed novel. But that’s not all that a good reality-based story requires, is it? After all, few readers will want to read a story, whether it is presented as memoir or as fiction, simply because it really happened. It needs to feel real on the page — and it needs to be enjoyable to read.

What makes me think that this might be news to many writers of memoir and reality-based fiction, you ask? For my sins, I have served quite frequently as a contest judge, assessing both memoir and novel entries, and I’m here to tell you, they look more similar on the page than one might think.

How so? They tend to share a few characteristics: a one-sided approach to scenes, as if the protagonist’s perspective were the only possible one; an apparent assumption that the reader will automatically side with the protagonist, regardless of what is going on, and bolstering both, a propensity for relating conflictual exchanges as though they were verbal anecdotes, light on detail but strong on emotion. Or, to boil all of these down to a single trait, these narratives tend to be disproportionately weighted toward a single point of view.

And memoirists’ hands fly heavenward all over the world. “But Anne,” they point out, and who could blame them? “My memoir is my story. Why wouldn’t it be biased toward my perspective?”

It should, of course — but in the interests of representing one’s own point of view, memoirists and writers of the real often render the narrative so one-sided that the situation neither seems plausible nor fairly presented. It just reads like a diatribe in scene form, a piece of prose whose primary point is not storytelling, but getting back at someone.

About half of you have started to blush, have you not? I’m not surprised; in both memoir and reality-based fiction, the scene where the reader is evidently expected to take the protagonist’s side, not because the antagonist is shown to be particularly awful, but because the narrative presents the antagonist without any sympathy — or, usually, any redeeming characteristics — is a notorious pet peeve of our old pal, Millicent the agency screener. And not just as a generality, either. When Millicents, their boss agents, and the editors to whom they cater gather to share mutual complaints in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, the annoying coworker stereotype often crops up in conversation.

As in, “You think you’re tired of conceptual repetition? I’ve read fourteen submissions this week alone with omitable annoying coworker scenes.”

It’s perhaps not altogether astonishing that memoirs would be rife with interactions between the protagonist/narrator and the people who happen to rile her, told in a breathlessly outraged tone, but aspiring writers of fact-based fiction are often stunned to discover that they were not the first to think of inserting actual conflicts into fictional stories. They shouldn’t be: there’s a pretty good reason that such scenes are ubiquitous in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Care to guess?

If you immediately cried out, “By gum, Anne, every writer currently crawling the crust of the earth has in fact had to work with someone less than pleasant at one time or another,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Given how often aspiring writers resent their day jobs — and, by extension, the people with whom they must interact there — that such unsavory souls would end up populating the pages of submissions follows as night the day.

If these charming souls appeared in novel and memoir submissions in vividly-drawn, fully fleshed-out glory, that actually might not be a problem. 99% of the time, however, the annoying co-worker is presented in exactly the same way as any other stereotype: without detail, under the apparent writerly assumption that what rankles the author will necessarily irk the reader.

Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case — it can take a lot of page space for a character to start to irritate a reader. So instead of having the character to demonstrate annoying traits and allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions, many a narrative will convey that a particular character is grating by telling the reader directly (“Georgette was grating”), providing the conclusion indirectly (through the subtle use of such phrases as, “Georgette had a grating voice that cut through my concentration like nails on a chalkboard”), or through the protagonist’s thoughts (“God, Georgette is grating!”)

Pardon my asking, but as a reader, I need to know: what about Georgette was so darned irritating? For that matter, what about her voice made it grating? It’s the writer’s job to show me, not tell me, right?

I cannot even begin to count the number of memoirs and novels I have edited that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why.

Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, the response is identical: “But it really happened that way!”

No surprise there. These scenes are pretty easy for professionals to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true.

The author is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader. Ultimately, this is a point-of-view problem — the author is just too close to the material to be able to tell that the scene doesn’t read the way she anticipated.

Did I just see some antennae springing up out there? “Hey, wait a minute. Mightn’t an author’s maintaining objective distance from the material — in this case, the annoying co-worker — have helped nip this particular problem in the bud long before the manuscript landed on Millicent’s desk?”

Why, yes, now that you mention it, it would. Let’s look at the benefits of some objective distance in action.

Many writers assume, wrongly, that if someone is irritating in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned, from the reader’s perspective. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. I have read scenes where the case against the villain is so marked that most readers would decide that the hero is the impossible one, not the villain.

This character assassination has clearly not gone as planned. A little more objective distance might have made it go better. Who was it that said, revenge is a dish best served cold?

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

My most vivid personal experience of this species of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. And at the risk of having this story backfire on me, I’m going to tell you about it as nonfiction.

Call it a memoir excerpt. To prevent confusion, I’m going to offset the narrative from the discussion.

A few years before I began blogging, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a fragrant month-long stay in a cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day to a sojourn in a medieval village in southwestern France to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills.

A word to the wise: it pays to do your homework before you apply.

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for the month of March was a writer, sculptor, photographer, or painter. While world-class painters and sculptors were imported up ice-covered rural roads every few days to critique and encourage those newer to their respective arts, the National Book Award winner scheduled to give feedback to the writers didn’t bother to show up for the first week of her residency. Amenities like kilns, darkrooms, and ladders to facilitate the construction of 20-foot woven cardboard cocoons seemed to appear whenever the visual artists so much as blinked. The writers, a tiny minority, had been shoved into a dank, dark cellar with cinder block walls; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and compared them to the caves to which they had been assigned.

See what I just did there? I skewed the narrative so you would resent the visual artists.

But was that necessary? Objectively speaking, they were not the villains in this situation; they, like me, were visitors to the retreat. Besides, since the overwhelming majority of the Author! Author! community is made up of writers, couldn’t I simply have assumed that my readers would identify with the cave residents pretty much automatically?

Or, better yet, couldn’t I have included a vivid detail or two that would have nudged the reader in that direction without the narration’s appearing to be presenting a myopic account?

What kind of detail, you ask? Let’s try this one on for size.

Due to the musty dampness of the writers’ cellar, I elected to write in my assigned bedroom, in order to catch the occasional ray of sunlight. Sure, there were certain drawbacks — the desk had been designed for a hulking brute twice my size, while the desk chair had apparently been filched from a nearby kindergarten — but at least the heat worked. Too well, in fact: an hour and a half into my first afternoon of writing, a sleepy hornet emerged from the gaping hole around the charming antique light fixture and aimed straight for my head.

It was not the best moment to learn that the windows had been sealed for the winter. You know writers: we can’t be trusted not to let all of the heat out. Unlike, say, painters, whose windows might safely open onto vast vistas of forested hillside.

As the afternoon sun warmed the room, hornet after hornet emerged from its long winter’s nap. After the eighth had expressed its displeasure at my having had the temerity to have turned on either the light or the heat, I shook the bees off my jacket, wrapped my head and shoulders in several scarves, and plunged into a blizzard. By the time I reached the administration building, I was chilled to the bone.

Perhaps naïvely, I had assumed that the hornet’s nest in my room would come as a surprise to the retreat’s administrators. The writer who’d had the room the previous November — the local authorities had deemed it inadequately heated for winter residence — had complained about the bees, too. The painter-in-residence charged with rooting them out had simply not gotten around to it.

And didn’t for three days. He was too busy with a canvas that just couldn’t wait to be handed down to posterity. The administrators encouraged me to regard sleeping on a couch next to the dining hall as my contribution to the world’s supply of art. I had to wait until after dark in order to retrieve my laptop.

That engaged your sympathies more robustly, didn’t it? It’s still my experience and my perspective, told in my voice — but I’ve allowed you to draw the conclusion. That’s simply better storytelling.

Don’t see it? Okay, contrast the fleshed-out account above with the following series of summary statements.

Sharing meals in a dining hall was a bit high school-like, conducive to tensions about who would get to sit at the Living Legend in Residence’s table, squabbles between the writers and the painters about whether one should wait until after lunch to start drinking, or break out the bottles at breakfast (most of the writers were on the first-mentioned side, most of the painters on the latter), and the usual bickerings and flirtations, serious and otherwise, endemic to any group of people forced to spend time together whether or not they have a great deal in common.

An environment ripe, in other words, for people to start to find their co-residents annoying.

Aren’t you already longing for me to show you how specifically they were annoying, rather than merely telling you that they were? Let’s exacerbate the problem in the manner so many writers of the real do, creating the illusion of narrative distance by switching the text almost entirely into the passive voice.

Of course, such problems are endemic to large artists’ colonies. One classic means of dealing with the inevitable annoying co-resident problem is to bring a buddy or three along on a retreat; that way, if the writer in the next cubicle becomes too irritating, one has some back-up when one goes to demand that she stop snapping her gum every 27 seconds, for Pete’s sake. I am of the school of thought that retreating entails leaving the trappings and the personnel of my quotidian life behind, but there’s no denying that at a retreat of any size, there can be real value in having someone to whom to vent about that darned gum-popper. (Who taught her to blow bubbles? A horse?)

Doubtless for this reason, several artists had brought their significant others to the hornet-ridden New England village. Or, to be more accurate, these pairs had applied together: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise. Although every fiber of my being longs to use their real names, I shall not.

Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.

And let’s see how this telling, not showing thing I’ve got going works for character development, shall we?

Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic, social, or his personal favorite, explicitly sexual. The dining hall’s Lothario, one constantly spotted him flirting with…hmm, let’s see how best to represent how he directed his attentions…everything with skin.

Amusing, but wouldn’t some details have brought his predilections more clearly before the reader’s eyes? Let’s try showing some of his work.

His eyes flickered over the female residents so persistently that I wondered if he was looking for a model. On day three, when he invited me to his palatial sculpture studio, I realized that he might have been seeking a lady to encase in plaster of Paris: practically every flat surface held representations of breasts, legs, pudenda, and breasts. He practically backed me into a backside. Murmuring some hasty excuse about needing to get back to my hornets, I slipped away from his grasping hands and dashed out into the pelting snow.

Still don’t see why that was better? Okay, let’s revert to generalities.

Being possessed of skin myself, I naturally came in for my fair share of Hansel’s attentions. (How’s that for a colorless summary of the proceeding story?) Generally speaking, though, I tend to reserve serious romantic intentions for…again, how to put this…people capable of talking about something other than themselves. Oh, and perhaps I’m shallow, but I harbor an absurd prejudice in favor of the attractive.

This is precisely the type of paragraph that will absolutely slay ‘em in a verbal anecdote, or even in a blog, but often falls flat on the page. Yes, it’s amusing; yes, people actually do speak this way, so it’s a plausible a first-person narrative voice. But it’s vague. It’s character development, in the sense that it purports to tell the reader something about the narrator, but the reader just has to take the narrative’s word for it. Is that really the best way to convince the reader what a protagonist is like?

An artists’ retreat tends to be a small community, however; one usually ends up faking friendliness with an annoying co-resident or two. Since there was no getting away from the guy — believe me, I tried — I listened to him with some amusement whenever we happened to sit at the same table. I was, after all, the only other artist in residence who had read any Henry Miller. We had coffee a couple of times when there was nobody else in the town’s only coffee shop. And then I went back to my room, battled away the wildlife, and wrote for 50 hours a week.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon over the salad bar. Apparently, she thought I was after her man.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they derived pleasure from manufacturing jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I do have standards” to an angry wife, is there? So I simply started sitting at a different table in the dining hall.

A little junior high schoolish? Yes, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable — and frankly, who needed the drama? I was there to write.

Let’s pause here to consider: what do you, the reader, actually know about Gretel at this point? Are your feelings about her based upon what you have actually seen her do or my conclusions about her motivations? And are the facts even clear: was I the only resident of whom Gretel was jealous, or did she fume over the salad bar with anyone possessing two X chromosomes?

Wouldn’t it have worked better had I just shown her slapping peanut butter violently onto some white bread while I tried to make pleasant conversation with her, or depicted her veering away from me with her cracked metal tray? In short, wouldn’t it have made more sense to show this as a scene, rather than telling it as an anecdote?

Often, this fix is expressed rather confusingly: writers are told to insert some narrative distance into such scenes. I’m not a big fan of this language, for the simple reason that most memoirists and writers of the real new to editor-speak tend to interpret it as a call to make the narrative appear objective by, you guessed it, retreating into the passive voice. Let’s take a gander at this strategy in action.

Another phenomenon that often characterizes a mixed residency — i.e., one where different types of artists cohabitate — is a requirement to share one’s work-in-progress. At this particular retreat, painters and sculptors had to fling their studios open to public scrutiny once a week. Each writer had to do at least one public reading in the course of the month.

Feels like you’ve been shoved back from the story, doesn’t it? That’s how verbal anecdotes tend to read on the page: as rather vague summaries. When they are in the passive voice as well, the narrator can come across as the passive puppet of circumstances, rather than as the primary actor of the piece, the person who makes things happen.

Let’s borrow a tool from the novelist’s kit and make the protagonist active, shall we?

Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. By the end of the second week, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I had flirted with her mostly unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the retreat, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. (You have to do your own laundry at every artists’ retreat on earth; don’t harbor any fantasies about that.) My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a sandwich near the couple to spark a fit of jealous pique, but that was it.

Aha, so Gretel had singled me out. Was there a good narrative reason not to make that plain earlier? It almost certainly would have been funnier — and made both my reactions and my conclusions as narrator make more sense to the reader.

At the end of the third week of our residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and National Book Award winner who had finally deigned dropped by (in exchange for a hefty honorarium) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected to read highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

Wow, I’ve left you to fill in a lot of details here, have I not? How could you possibly, when the narrative so far has given you only a very sketchy view of time, place, and character?

Four writers were scheduled to read that night. The first two shared beautifully varnished work, safe stuff, clearly written long before they’d arrived at the retreat. Then Gretel stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me venomously, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

See how I worked in the false suspense there? Rather than showing precisely what her venomous glance was like — impossible for you to picture, right, since I have yet to tell you what she looks like? — I embraced the ever-popular storytelling shortcut of having the protagonist’s reaction to an event or person take the place of showing what was actually going on. Think that was the best strategy for this story?

Let’s try another tack. How about getting a little closer to what’s happening in that crowded room, so the reader may feel more like she is there? Or at least more like she’s standing in the narrator’s shoes?

Gretel settled a much-abused spiral notebook onto the podium and began to read a lengthy interior monologue in stentorian tones. Her eyes never left the paper, and with good reason: the plotless account depicted Hansel and Gretel — both mentioned by name on page 1, incidentally — having sex in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the interaction, in terms neither titillating nor instructive. It was simply a straightforward account of a mechanical act, structured within a literal countdown to the final climax: “Ten…nine…eight…”

It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launching that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

I cringed for her — honestly, I did. I’d read some of Gretel’s other work: she was a better writer than this. So what point was she trying to make by reading this…how shall I put it?…a literarily uninteresting piece whose primary point seemed to be to inform the uncomfortable audience that she and her husband had consummated their marriage?

See how I used my response to develop the narrator’s character? Memoirists and writers of the real too often forget that the narrator is the protagonist of the story they are telling, and thus needs to be fleshed out as a character. If I’d attacked that last paragraph with a big more descriptive vim, I might have worked in some interesting insights into both Gretel and Hansel’s characters — how did her account jibe with his sculptural depictions of the act, for instance?

Oh, you thought that all of those body parts were languishing around his studio solo? Alas, no; I’ve seen less accurate models in biology classes. Again, wouldn’t it have been more effective storytelling to have shown that — or even made that last comment — while the protagonist was in the studio?

That would also have been the natural time to work in that Hansel’s sculptures did not…again, how to put this tactfully?…appear to have been based upon his wife’s womanly attributes. Artistically, he favored curves; she was so angular that she could have cut vegetables on her hip bones.

Lingering too long in the narrator’s head can be distracting from the action, though. Throughout the next paragraph, I invite you to consider: as a reader, would you have preferred to see the action more directly, or entirely through the narrator’s perspective?

Maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece: the painters in the back row, the ones who had been drinking since breakfast, waved their bottles, hooting and hollering. They seemed not to notice that although the monologue was from a female perspective, there were no references whatsoever to the narrator’s physical sensations, only what Hansel was doing. The part of Gretel might have been quite adequately played by a robot.

Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants seem to be counting the seconds until the act is over, it’s not the best romantic coupling imaginable. Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. “Three…two…one.” No one applauded but Hansel.

In first-person pieces, the narration will often switch abruptly from inside the protagonist’s head to an ostensibly objective set of descriptions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You be the judge: how well do you think the next paragraph carries the story forward from the last?

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again, it was written in the first person, again with herself and her husband identified by name, again an interior monologue. However, this had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first few paragraphs. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character entered the scene, sat down at a table, picked up a sandwich — and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade that included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, {expletive deleted}!” and “Are those real?”

Need I even mention that her physical description of the object of these jabs would have enabled anyone within the sound of her voice to pick me out of a police line-up?

Wouldn’t it have been both more interesting and better character development to have shown the opening of Gretel’s second piece, rather than leaving it to the reader’s imagination? Ponder how that choice might have affected your perception of whether this scene is funny or tragic, please, as the narrative belatedly tells what it should have shown in the previous section.

She read it extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. From a literary standpoint, though, the piece fell flat: the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. While that might have been interesting as a dramatic device, Gretel hadn’t done enough character development for either “Jan”– cleverly disguised name, eh?– for the reader either to sympathize with the former or find the latter threatening in any way.

There was no ending to the story. She just stopped, worn out from passion. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

The first comment from the audience was, “Why did the narrator hate Jan so much? What had she done to the narrator?”

Had I been telling this anecdote verbally — and believe me, I have — this spate of summary statements and analysis of what the reader has not been shown might well work beautifully. Memoirists tend to be fond of paragraphs like this, commenting upon the action as if the reader had also been there. It makes abundant sense, from the writer’s perspective: after all, I was actually there, right?

But talking about events creates a very different impression on the page than writing about them vividly enough that the reader can picture the action and characters for herself. If I had shown you the story Gretel was reading, at least in part, you could have judged this character based on her own words — much more powerful than the narrator’s simply telling you what you should think about her.

A professional reader like Millicent — or, heck, like me — might well raise another objection to that last section: since the narration is so skewed to the protagonist’s side, some readers may feel that this account lacks credibility. Could Gretel actually have been as vitriolic (or unstrategic) as I’ve depicted her here?

Actually, she was, every bit — but does that matter, if the narrative can’t make her seem plausible on the page? The fact that Gretel existed and that she chose to act in this extraordinary manner is not sufficient justification for the reader to finish this story. It also has to work as a story, and that’s going to require some serious character development for not only the narrator, but the other characters as well.

You’d be astonished at how often memoir submissions do not treat either as characters. Frequently, Millicent sees memoirs — and slice-of-life fiction, for that matter — that are simply commentary upon what was going on around the protagonist. Yet a memoir isn’t a transcript of events, interesting to the reader simply because they happened to the narrator; it’s one person’s story, skillfully pruned to leave out the dull parts. If the reader doesn’t get to know that narrator, though, or come to experience the other characters as real, the memoir is likely to fall flat.

Why? Because it will read like a series of anecdotes, rather than like a book.

Fictionalizers of real life tend to have an easier time thinking of their protagonists as protagonists, I notice, but as any Millicent could tell you, they often give away the narrative’s bias by clearly siding with one character over another. Or by depicting one character as all sweetness and light and the other as all evil. A popular secondary strategy: describing other characters’ reactions to the antagonist as universally in line with the protagonist’s, as though any onlooker would have had exactly the same response.

I was very nice to Gretel afterward; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible, congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. (“Three…two…one.”) Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around.

True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly belly flopped, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I went out of my way to be courteous to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, I was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Is there anything more stinging than someone you hate feeling sorry for you?

At last, we come full circle, back to my original point in sharing this anecdote in the first place: if your answer was any flavor of yes, you might want to consider waiting until you’ve developed some objective distance from your annoying co-worker before committing her to print. Think at least twice about what you’re putting on the page, particularly for work you are submitting to contests, agencies, or small presses.

Or, heaven forbid, reading to a group of people you want to like you. Or your narrator.

If you’re still angry, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective — at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate — consider giving it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

It’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before promotion becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer — and, let’s face it, a lot of us do — please seriously consider joining a writing group. To be blunt about it, finding good first readers you can trust can save you from looking like an irate junior high schooler on a rampage.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human — which renders me a more interesting protagonist in a memoir, right? As a memoirist, I have to assume that my readers too intelligent to believe that I was 100% perfect in this trying situation (I must admit, I did make an unkind joke or two in private), or that Gretel was 100% nasty (in actuality, she was rather nice to people her husband did not appear to be obsessed with sculpting), I suspect that most readers would also wonder whether Hansel actually stood by passively while his wife seethed with jealousy (he didn’t: he egged her on, in what appeared to me to be characteristic of their relationship). Were I planning to use this dynamic in a memoir, it would be in the story’s best interest to develop those less-neat elements into a more plausibly complete account.

If I hoped to fold this frankly pretty darned annoying incident into a novel, the imperative to flesh these people out into fully-rounded characters would be even stronger. Showing their foibles through action and dialogue, rather than just telling the reader what conclusions to draw, is not only better storytelling — it’s less intrusive narration.

Would I feel as vindicated? Perhaps not. Enough time has passed, however, that I now see this story as fundamentally sad: instead of befriending a more experienced writer who could have conceivably helped her on the long, twisty road to publication, Gretel allowed the troubled dynamic of her marriage to become the central focus of a bunch of not-particularly-sympathetic strangers. She, too, was in that dank basement, while her husband created his fantasies of women who did not resemble her in comparative comfort. If he hadn’t chosen me to as the prod with which to keep poking her insecurities, I’m sure he would have found somebody else.

So who is the actual villain of this piece? You decide; that’s the reader’s job, after all.

Keep up the good work!

Fear of revision, by guest blogger Julie Wu — and a contest!

After spending so many weeks talking about the ins and outs of book pitching, as wells as devoting a significant portion of yesterday’s post on the soul-satisfying and practical virtues of making friends with other writers, I’ve decided to put my proverbial money where my metaphorical mouth is. The world needs more good examples of conference pitches, and let’s face it, what aspiring writer could not use more Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (or ECQLC, as we like to call it around here)?

For the first time ever, Author! Author! will be holding a pitching contest. The rules follow below.

As if that weren’t sufficient reason for the masses to rejoice — heck, take a long weekend out of petty cash — I have treat for us all, as a reward for having had the moxie and perseverance to work so diligently through the Pitchingpalooza series. Today, I have the great pleasure of bringing you the kind of guest post I love to share, one that I think will be a true inspiration to writers everywhere.

I am delighted to introduce Author! Author! to Julie Wu, a literary fiction author whose lyrical first book, THE THIRD SON, will be coming out from Algonquin Books in the autumn of 2012, a triumph she talks about in this interesting interview on Book Architecture. If her name sounds familiar to those of you who have been hanging around here at Author! Author! for a while, there’s a good reason: back in April, I rhapsodized about a wonderful essay on rejection and literary success that she had just published. It’s rare that published authors are as forthcoming — or as honest — about the difficulties of getting into print. I highly recommend its perusal.

She’s also, in the interests of full disclosure, the college roommate I mentioned yesterday, the one whose initial book sale made my month. I’ve known Julie since I was 17, when this California girl dragged a 60-pound suitcase up three flights of stairs in Harvard Yard to meet the three East Coasters to whom I had (I assumed) been randomly assigned as a roommate. I had never been to New England before; she was kind enough to fill me in on Massachusetts ways. (The leaves change? Really? Why?) She introduced me to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a phenomenon my upbringing had previously neglected to reveal to me; we used to make it in the dead of night before midterms in the electric wok my mother had for some reason decided was absolutely indispensible to dorm life. She also probably saved my life by instructing me on the delicate art of crossing Massachusetts Avenue on foot without being flattened like a pancake.

The local joke at the time was that Cambridge traffic tended to separate Harvard students into two categories: the quick and the dead.

In fact, she was the person who calmed me down when it first occurred to me that brick buildings covered in ivy would not be a particularly safe place to be if the region were hit by the earthquakes my West Coast-trained body had come to expect. (That line was funnier a month ago, when I originally wrote it, by the way. It just goes to show you: a writer can never predict what’s going to seem dated by the time it hits print.)

It became apparent pretty quickly, in short, that it hadn’t been a random assignment; it couldn’t have been. Otherwise, what would be the chances that two of the four residents of Wigglesworth B-32 would both grow up to be authors? Or that a third roommate would have spent the summer before college working as a Millicent at a publishing house then, as now, renowned for literary fiction?

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. At the time, Harvard’s freshman housing questionnaire was significantly longer than the application to get in, and certainly more detailed.

So I had plenty of reasons to rejoice when I learned that Julie had sold her first novel — and frankly, I think readers of interesting literary fiction will be pretty pleased next fall, too. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

The Third Son, set in the oppressive political and social climate of World War II Taiwan, is about a Taiwanese boy whose only happy childhood memory is of meeting and saving a kind girl in an air raid. When he finds this girl, grown up and at his oldest brother’s side, he fights to claim her, and to prove that he is worthy of her. His journey takes him to 1950′s America and the Space Race, but even across the world he struggles against the bonds of oppression that have followed him.

Sounds fascinating, eh? Sounds, in fact, like precisely the kind of substantive, serious novel aspiring writers are constantly being told at conferences has gone the way of the dodo. I’m really looking forward to Julie’s proving that never-particularly-true truism wrong.

She also, like me, is a great believer in writers helping one another down the long and curvy path to publication. So psst, Boston-area novelists: Julie will be teaching a class on scene structure and revision at Grub Street on September 14. It looks really yummy:

Raising the Titanic: Giving Power to Weak Novel Scenes

Wednesday, September 14th, 6:30-9:30pm, at Grub Street headquarters.

Drafts of many novels contain scenes that sink the book. They are flat, meandering, tangential, or just plain boring. Attempts to spruce up the prose or dialogue may not fix such scenes because they lack crucial structural elements. Don’t waste time rearranging deck chairs! In this seminar you will bring a troublesome scene from your novel and we will discuss not only how to give your scene internal propulsion, but also how to nail your scene to the novel’s central story arc and drive it forward. Land, ho!

I’m a huge fan of seminars where writer work on their own early drafts, rather than composing fresh material in class. Oh, the latter can be very useful, especially when a writer is first starting out, but few of us were actually born knowing the internal mechanics of a scene, anymore than we toddled into kindergarten already familiar with the strictures of standard format.

Okay, so I did,. Perhaps that’s why the Harvard Housing Office saw fit to make me Julie’s freshman roommate.

My point, should you care to know it, is that out of the literally thousands of classes out there aimed at aspiring writers, relatively few seem to be focused upon the all-important art of revision. I find that strange, not only as an editor, but as a writer: no one’s first drafts are perfect. There’s a monumental difference between writing that matches the image in the writer’s head and writing that successfully transmits that image to the reader.

Wow, that would be a fabulous segue into Julie’s guest blog; I should have planned it that way. (See what I mean about how first drafts are not necessarily perfect the moment they fall off one’s fingertips?) But I promised you a contest, and a contest you shall have.

In the fine tradition of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence (and as part of my ongoing quest to provide good writers with much-needed ECQLC), I am proud to announce:

Author! Author! Perfect Pitch Competition of 2011

In order to celebrate the end of Pitchingpalooza and encourage the practical application of the skills learned and polished there, Author! Author! is calling upon its talented readers to enter pitches for their books into healthy competition. Winners will not only receive fabulous prizes (see below), but will have their pitches, the first page of their manuscripts, and an author photo featured in a post here at Author! Author! for all the world to see and admire.

Sound good? Wait, it gets better. To make the experience more interesting for onlookers, pitchers may present their fabulous premises in three distinct categories:

Category I: The keynote or Hollywood hook, a one-sentence teaser for your book

Category II: The elevator speech, a 100-word or less presentation of your book’s premise and central conflict

Category III: The formal 2-minute pitch, a 250-word introduction of your protagonist, the central conflict, and what’s at stake in your story OR the problem that your nonfiction book addresses

All entries must be submitted via e-mail to contest@annemini(dot)com by Friday, September 30, at midnight in your time zone. Late entries will not be considered.

Entrants may enter more than one category. Please submit each entry in a separate e-mail, in accordance with the rules below.

The grand prize winner in each category will receive a half-hour Mini Consult on his or her query, synopsis, and first 10 pages, as well as having the winning entry, the first page, and an author photo posted on Author! Author! Runners-up will see their entries, first pages, and photos posted and critiqued as well, as vivid examples of how good a pitch can be when it is done right.

Because winners will also be awarded life-long bragging rights and coveted ECQLC , the judges reserve the right to award as many (or as few) prizes as the quality of the entry pool warrants. Awards are purely up to the discretion of the judging panel.

Those are the general rules. Here are the specific steps required to win. Do read them all carefully, as I am anticipating vigorous competition.

1. Polish your pitch to a high gloss and save it as a Word document.
Only .doc entries in Word will be accepted — not TextEdit, PDF, or any other formats, please. Please title the Word file with either your name or the title of your book, not just as contest entry. (The last time I ran a contest like this, I received 37 with that file name.)

2. Make sure that the entry is properly formatted.
All entries must be in standard format for book manuscripts. No exceptions, I’m afraid. If it is not double-spaced, in 12-point type, and featuring a slug line with your name and the book’s title at the top of the page, the judges will not consider it.

3. On a separate page of the same Word document, write the book’s title, the book category, and a BRIEF (
In other words, what is fresh about your book? (Hint: this question will be significantly easier to answer if you mention what your book category of choice is.) Please be as specific as you can about what is new and different about your book. Vague claims of being the best novel since WAR AND PEACE probably won’t impress the judges.

4. On the same page, include your contact information.
Name, address, and e-mail address will suffice. You want us to be able to let you know if you have won, don’t you?

5. Make sure to mention which category you are entering.
Again, the three possibilities are: the keynote or Hollywood hook, the elevator speech, and the formal 2-minute pitch.

6. Attach the Word document you’ve created to an e-mail.
Please include PERFECT PITCH ENTRY in the subject line, and mention the category you’re entering in the body of the e-mail. (It makes it easier to process the entries.) Make sure to say who you are, too, so we don’t get entries mixed up.

It’s also a nice touch to say something pleasant (like “Happy Labor Day, Anne!”) in the e-mail itself. I just mention.

7. E-mail the whole shebang to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by Friday, September 30, at midnight in your time zone.
Do I need to explain that the (dot) should be rendered as a period when you are typing the address? Nah, probably not.

Those are the rules! I am hoping to see a broad array of wonderful stories — and some great examples from which those brand-new to pitching can learn.

Of course, to benefit fully from winning this contest — or from giving a good pitch at a conference, for that matter — you will need to whip your manuscript into fabulous shape. Many a great premise has been lost to posterity for lack of necessary revision.

It’s easy to lose faith in mid-revision, though — and even easier to reject the notion of revision at all. Because we’ve all felt the insidious pull of both, I am delighted to present Julie Wu’s words of inspiration to revisers everywhere.

You might want to bookmark this post, for re-reading when your revision energies start to ebb. Just so you know, though, I’m not the roommate mentioned in the piece; I couldn’t throw a pot to save my life. Which, too, probably came up on the housing application.

Take it away, Julie!

My roommate once made a clay pot in art school. Threw it on the wheel, drew up its walls between the tips of her fingers, fired it, glazed it. When she and her classmates held up their finished pots, gleaming and beautiful, the instructor led the students to a pit and ordered them to throw down their pots. The point was, he said, not to become attached to a particular piece of work. You can always make more.

Some students cried. My roommate was traumatized, still bitter about the experience years later when she told me about it.

Hearing her story made my stomach twist. I had written a few short stories, and they were my precious babies, conjured up as I sat cross-legged in the dark in an apartment overlooking the Hudson River. My stories were praised in student workshops, but their strengths were no more robust or reproducible than the street lights’ glinting on the water’s surface. Even after the literary magazine rejections came in, I revised only a sentence here or there, hoping that would be enough.

Because I was afraid that if I revised more, I would ruin what was good and never get it back again. I was one of those art students, crying and clutching my pot at the edge of the pit.

Here’s the thing: that instructor was right. It has taken me ten years to understand that. Make one beautiful pot–maybe you were lucky. Make another from the ground up, and another, still more beautiful, and you are an artist. It takes practice, study, the making and smashing of many pots beautiful, average, and ugly, to really know that clay, to know exactly how to push your hands into it to get what you want.

It took me ten years to understand, because it took me ten years to write my first novel. I revised it countless times—a little when it first didn’t sell, then more and more. Eventually, I changed its structure, its point of view, its tone, its style. With each revision I received comments and started over, page one. Each time, I learned more, until I could revise without fear. And it was then that I sold the book.

In writing we have a safety net: the computer. Open a new file and you have smashed your pot and kept a picture of it at the same time. How to proceed at that point is a study in humility, in open-mindedness, in self examination. It’s remembering all the advice you read about in the craft books—that you must have an interesting protagonist, a need, lots of conflict—and admitting you need to take that advice yourself. It’s hearing all the feedback from your readers—that the protagonist is unsympathetic, that nothing happens, that what happens is implausible—and admitting that they are true. It’s realizing that there’s power in depth, and that depth is a function of your narrative arc. It’s an equation of equal parts emotion and mechanics, and it’s fueled by that elusive beast, imagination.

After so many years, book one is done. I’m thinking about book two. I’ve got clay in my hands again, but I feel different now. Because I’m not afraid. Because I know now I can make a pretty good pot. And because if it doesn’t turn out well, I don’t have to cry. I can throw it into the pit, and make something better.

Julie Wu‘s novel, The Third Son, won a short-listing in the 2009 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress Competition and will be published by Algonquin Books in Fall, 2012. Her short fiction has won honorable mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest and has been published in Columbia Magazine. Also a physician, she has published a personal essay in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). She earned a B.A. in Literature from Harvard and spent a year studying opera performance at Indiana University in Bloomington, many lifetimes ago.

Pet peeves on parade, part XI: the many advantages of straying off the beaten path, or, did I drift off again?

I’m a bit drowsy today, campers; blame the lowering skies of a gray Seattle spring day. All I want to do is curl up with a cat or two and a new release by a promising first-time author. I would even feel virtuous doing that, because, let’s face it, if we all want to live in a world that’s open to giving a fresh voice a break, it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep buying debut novels.

Oh, you hadn’t thought about it in those terms? Trust me, agents and editors do. They have to: those books are their bread and butter. And if you hope someday for a book to be your bread and butter, getting into the habit of supporting first- and second-time authors in your chosen book category is the single best way to encourage the agent and editor of your dreams to keep an open mind toward books like yours.

That’s more than enough moral reasoning for a sleepy day, I think. Since I don’t have Millicent’s ever-present too-hot latte in my hand, I’m going to devote today’s post to the kinds of faux pas that tempt her to keep downing them: opening pages that lull her into a deep, refreshing slumber. Or at least a jaw-cracking yawn.

I know, I know –-this one couldn’t possibly apply to any of my readers, all of whom are as scintillating as scintillating can be, both on and off paper. Yet strange to report, agents, editors, and their respective screeners routinely report finding many submissions snore-inducing. In fact, slow openings are common enough in submissions that no discussion of notorious pet peeves would be complete without some serious discussion of them.

Thus Millicent’s oft-burnt tongue: she’s just trying to stay awake. Not only due to the dreaded-yet-ubiquitous slow opening — you’d be astonished at how many manuscripts don’t really get going for 4, 5, or 23 pages — but also because once one has been reading submissions or contest entries for a while, the sheer repetition of certain premises begins to…be…

Oh, I’m sorry: did I nod off for a moment?

Frankly, I do not think we writers talk enough amongst ourselves about either of these widespread narrative problems. There’s a awfully good reason for that: since writers commit to spend months or years with a story, we’re usually pretty taken with the story. And nothing renders a section of prose more interesting than agonizing over every word choice, sentence structure, and comma.

So who can blame us if we don’t really notice that nothing much happens on page 1? Or Chapter 1? Or — and this is even harder for a self-editor to catch — if our openings employ similar narrative tricks to hook the reader’s attention and/or stray into plot territory that Millicent has already seen claimed by a few dozen aspiring writers within the last week?

Given how frequently similar tactics and premises crop up in submissions — and how very frequently those of us who read for a living complain about it to one another in private — it’s astonishing how infrequently agents, editors, or even writing coaches bring these problems to aspiring writers’ attention. Perk up your ears the next time you’re at a writers’ conference: when the pros give advice about how to guide manuscripts through the submission process relatively unscathed, the rather sensible admonition don’t bore me is very seldom heard.

Perhaps we can chalk this up to a natural reluctance to admit in a room stocked to the brim with the authors of tomorrow just how little they read of most manuscripts before rejecting them: as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while already know, the average submission gets rejected on page 1; one doesn’t hear that mentioned much at conferences, either. And I can easily imagine how an agent might feel a tad sheepish about implying in front of a group of total strangers that he has an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners. Or that on certain mornings, the length of time it takes to bore a screener is substantially shorter than others, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control.

Hey, they don’t call it the city that never sleeps for nothing, you know. But heaven forfend that an agent should march into an agents’ forum the morning after a long night of the kind of conferring that often happens in the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America and say, “Look, I’m going to level with you. If I’m dragging into the office on three hours of sleep, your first page is going to have to be awfully darned exciting for me even to contemplate turning to the second. Do yourself a favor, and send me an eye-opening page 1, will ya? Now where is that conference volunteer with my COFFEE?”

On an entirely unrelated note, had I mentioned to those of you planning to give pitches at upcoming conferences that you might not want the first appointment of the day? Or one of the first several? (You didn’t hear it from me, but at the writers’ conference thrown annually in my neck of the woods, enough conferring goes on that on one memorable occasion, only two of the scheduled dozen or so pitch-hearers showed up for the scheduled morning pitch sessions. If we are to believe the agent who is still complaining about no one having told him that he could have slept in that day.)

Obviously, there’s nothing a writer can do about it if his page 1 — or morning pitch, for that matter — is being judged by someone in desperate need of a gallon of coffee and a B-12 shot, but one can maximize the probability of being the manuscript that makes Millicent’s eyes fly open. One of the best ways of doing this is to avoid having your page 1 read like 4 out of the 16 first pages she has already screened that morning. Or like a third of what she has read in the last week. Even an innocuous writing or formatting problem may begin to annoy a professional reader after she has seen it 700 times.

In response to what half of you just thought very loudly: no, someone who has not had the experience of reading that many first pages probably would not know what those often-repeated problems are. (Although keeping up with new releases in one’s chosen book category would be an excellent means of learning what is and isn’t considered an outdated type of opening.) But yes, the pros honestly do believe that a serious writer would have taken the time to learn her craft well enough to avoid falling into these traps.

Oh, you thought I had devoted so many weeks of posts to common page 1 pet peeves because I liked chatting about them? I’m just trying to give you a peep into what it’s like to hold Millicent’s job.

They also expect, and with greater justification, that a talented writer with a strong premise won’t bore them before the bottom of page 1 — which is not by any means as easy as it sounds. These people see a LOT of plots, after all; if a Millicent is experienced enough to be able to tell from the first reference to a character’s hard childhood that he’s going to turn out to be the perpetrator of those seemingly random murders of everyone who was mean to him as a kid, it’s going to be difficult to keep her interested in the mystery.

And if that reference crops up on page 1 — as happens astonishingly often with plot flares — can you really blame her for muttering, “Well, I’ve seen this before; I want to see something fresh. Next!”

Okay, so maybe you can blame her, if it happens to be your submission over which she is muttering like one of the witches in Macbeth. But you can see why the sight of a genuinely fresh take on a well-worn premise might fill her with gleeful hope, can’t you?

Nor is predictability the only reason she might have the opposite reaction. Over the years, agents and their screeners have been able to come up with many, many reasons that manuscripts bore them, and almost as many euphemisms. Trying to differentiate the various sub-species reminds me of that often-repeated truism about Arctic peoples having many words for different types of snow: to someone not accustomed to observing the variations during the length of a long, long winter, it all kind of looks white and slushy.

But that’s not going to stop me from trying, I notice. Here, for your anxious perusal, are the most common reasons professional reasons give for nodding off over a submission.

Not enough happens on page 1.

Where’s the conflict?

The story is not exciting enough to hold my interest.

The story appears to be boring.

There’s too much repetition on pg. 1 (!)

The narrative takes too many words to tell the reader what happened.

The writing is dull.

Now, to those of us not lucky enough to be reading a hundred submissions a week, that all sounds like snow, doesn’t it? Millicent, however, is in a line of work where she actually does have to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between not exciting and boring.

Which is to say: all seven of these actually do mean different things, so let me run through them in order, so you may see why each is specifically annoying, even if you weren’t out dancing until 4 a.m. All of them are subjective, of course, so their definitions will vary from reader to reader, but here goes.

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

That startled some of you out of your late-afternoon doze, didn’t it? “But Anne,” past recipients of open with conflict admonitions point out, rubbing your blurry eyes, “I’ve always heard that the point of a hook is to draw the reader into the story. I’ve literally never heard anyone say that it mattered whether the opening was integrally related to the central conflict of the book.”

Well, I’m saying it now, and for a very good strategic reason. Remember earlier in this series, when I urged you to sit in the chair of that burnt-tongued screener, racing through manuscripts, knowing that she will have to write a summary of any story she recommends?

Think about it for a moment: how affectionate is she likely to feel toward a story that doesn’t give her a solid sense of what the story is about on page 1? Or what kind of novel it is?

You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — by how many fiction submissions begin with frenetic action that has virtually nothing to do with the plot that follows, or that is wildly out of proportion with the action in the rest of the book. Because so many aspiring writers have heard that they should open their novels with conflict, Millicent’s very, very used to first pages that splatter the reader with blood or appall her with explicit violence. That alone won’t necessarily grab her.

Violence isn’t the only kind of conflict, after all. Nor is argument. Like so many other one-line pieces of writing advice, open with conflict is widely misinterpreted to mean a novel must open with a life-threatening (or life-ending) scene. While that may well work in a thriller, in most fiction book categories, it would be inappropriate.

So what kind of conflict do the pros have in mind when they spout this aphorism? Conflict between the protagonist and other characters, usually, or between the protagonist and a situation. A scene where the main characters disagree about how to solve the central problem of the plot. A disagreement between lovers. A winsome child abruptly noticing that her beloved cocker spaniel is missing.

Or, yes, a rural policeman stumbling upon some body parts, if that is genre-appropriate. Just make sure to pick a scene that is representative of both the story you’re telling and the prevailing tone of your book category.

If you aren’t sure about the latter, I have to ask: have you been reading enough recent releases of first- and second-time authors in your book category? (You didn’t think I’d tumbled off that high horse, did you?)

While you are conducting that little piece of self-examination, let’s move on to the next objection on our list, where’s the conflict? This cri de coeur gained considerable currency in the 1990s, when writing gurus began touting using the old screenwriter’s trick of utilizing a Jungian heroic journey to structure the story arc of a novel. Within that journey, the protagonist starts out in the real world, not to get a significant challenge until the end of Act I, many novels put the conflict on hold, so to speak, until the first call comes. (If you’re really interested in learning more about the hero’s journey structure, let me know, and I’ll do a post on it. But there are a LOT of writing advice books out there that will tell you this is the only way to structure a story. Basically, all you need to know for the sake of my argument here is that this ubiquitous advice has resulted in all of us seeing many, many movies where the character learns an important life lesson on page 72 of the script.)

While this can be an effective way to structure a book, there’s no denying that tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter. I find this phenomenon fascinating, because most people’s everyday lives are simply loaded of conflict.

Oh, you’ve never had a coworker who got on your nerves?

Even if you want to start out in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, make an effort to keep that hung-over screener awake: ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1. Even if that conflict needs to be purely internal: Arnold cringed at the sound of plastic slapping into metal. Would Bruce never learn to treat the coffeemaker with respect? is, after all, as fraught with tension as Arnold stirred his coffee absently, unaware that Bruce had snuck up behind him, a filter full of steaming used grounds in his hand. They’re merely introducing different kinds of narratives.

Perhaps the best way to figure out how much and what kind of conflict is most appropriate to open your novel is to think about why writing teachers came up with the open with conflict aphorism in the first place: the many, many manuscripts that begin in a mundane present, introducing the protagonist and her environment before the central conflict of the book arrives to trouble her life. Millicent can’t even begin to count the number of page 1s she’s seen within the last month that began with something like this:

Arianna gazed out upon the blue-purple twilight, clutching her ever-present cup of tea. Peaceful tonight on Skullcracker Island, the perfect invitation to curl up by the fire with a good book. Spot rubbed purringly against her legs.

She bent to rub the furry orange head of her most recent shelter find. For a cat the vet had said was suffering heavily from post-traumatic stress disorder, the one-eared beast had certainly become affectionate quickly. “Don’t worry, Spot,” she crooned. “There will be a nice, warm lap for you soon.”

Zzzz…oh, did I miss something?

There’s nothing wrong with this as writing (although rubbed purringly might strike Millicent as rather purplish prose). In fact, it might work very well in the middle of the novel (if for some reason it were necessary to impress the reader with a great deal of information about that cat within a startlingly short stretch of text, and by telling, rather than showing).

But come on, admit it — even if the next line were

The axe severed her hand before the cat had finished rubbing against it.

you might have stopped reading before you got to it, mightn’t you? So would Millicent, in all probability. As a general rule of thumb (severed or not), if the first paragraph of a manuscript does not contain either conflict appropriate to the book’s category or a strong, nicely-described image, it may strike a professional reader as opening too slowly.

That got some goats out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” openers-with-conflict protest in injured tones, “I’ve always heard that I had to work conflict onto the first page, not into the first paragraph. Consequently, I’ve been making sure that my submissions feature a startling last line on the bottom of the first page, to tempt Millicent to turn to page 2. Are you telling me that she might not have been reading that far, since my first three paragraphs depict my protagonist chatting with her mother on the phone about nothing in particular?”

In a word, yes. And in several words: what on earth made you think that chatting about nothing in particular — your words, not mine — constituted opening with action?

Or, to answer your question on a more practical level: do you really want to make Millicent wait until the bottom of the page before depicting any relevant conflict? When she might not yet have had her morning latte? Or have slept more than a couple of hours last night?

The next two rejection reasons on our list — the story is not exciting enough to hold my interest and the story appears to be boring, respectively — are fairly self-explanatory on their faces, but usually refer to different types of text. A not exciting story is one where the characters are well-drawn and the situation is interesting, but either the stakes are not high enough for the characters or — wait for it — the pace moves too slowly.

On the bright side, having your story called not exciting by an agent is reason to be hopeful: if you tightened it up and made the characters care more about what was going on, it could be compelling reading. A boring story, on the other hand, is devoid of any elements that might hold a droopy screener’s interest for more than a paragraph or two.

Again, I doubt any of my readers produce boring stories, but it’s always worthwhile to run your submission under an impartial first reader’s eyes, just to make sure. The same diagnostic tool can work wonders for a not-exciting opening, too: there’s no better tonic for a low-energy opening than being run by a particularly snappish critique group.

Perhaps one that hasn’t had its morning latte yet, either. You might want to try scheduling your next meeting at 5 a.m.

The final three — too much repetition on pg. 1, taking too many words to tell the reader what happened, and the writing is dull — also respond well to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. As we have discussed earlier in this series, agents have good reason to avoid redundant manuscripts: editors are specifically trained to regard repetition as a species of minor plague, to be stamped out like vermin with all possible speed.

Ditto with excess verbiage and lackluster writing: publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them.

The best way to determine whether your submission has any of these problems is –- please chant it with me now — to read your opening page IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. If the page’s vocabulary isn’t broad enough, or if it contains sentences of Dickensian length, believe me, it will be far more evident out loud than on the printed page. Or on your computer screen.

I’m afraid that you’ll have to trust me on this one. I would give you some concrete examples, but I feel a well-deserved nap coming on. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XVIII: the story’s not just about that melancholy Dane, is it?

Ophelia's mad scene

All aglow with excitement, writers of multiple-protagonist novels? I sincerely hope so, because last time, we whiled away an autumn Sunday evening discussing an array of strategies for folding spindling mutilating gently compressing a work of literature told from several distinct points of view — or by several different narrators — into (gusty sigh) the 1-page synopsis that so many agency guidelines and contest rules seem to be requiring these days.

And what did the golden rule of not driving yourself crazy in a valiant attempt to squish 400 pages of narrative told from 8 perspectives into 1 page of readable text? Not those panicked 40-pages-boiled-down-to-a-sentence generalizations so popular with first-time synopsizers everywhere, but not even trying to replicate the narrative complexity of the book in a space that scanty. Instead, in a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-perspective book, tell the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

I suspect that conclusion did not altogether astonish those of you who had been following the rest of last weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza posts: as we saw in Saturday morning’s post on 1-, 3-, and 5-page novel synopses, Saturday evening’s dizzying array of memoir synopses, and Sunday morning’s multiple takes on a nonfiction synopsis, a 1- or 2-page synopsis has different goals than its longer counterparts.

Oh, the primary purpose of any query or submission synopsis, regardless of length, is to generate a great longing in our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to see all or part of the actual manuscript, of course, but in a 1-page synopsis, all a novelist really has space to pull off is to demonstrate the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it. Preferably entertainingly, and ideally, in a voice and tone similar to that of the book.

Or, to put it in the checklist format we’ve been embracing throughout Synopsispalooza, a 1-page synopsis should:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise(s),

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist(s), and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Those expectations remain basically the same, regardless of how many protagonists or narrators any given manuscript might happen to be able to boast. It’s not as though a querier, submitter, or contest entrant can shout at Millicent or Mehitabel, “Wait — my manuscript has more narrators than all of those other queriers/submitters/competitors for a blue ribbon in your fine literary contest. It’s only fair to give me more space for my synopsis, since I have more to summarize. About ten times as much should be about right,” and expect her to waive any pre-set length restrictions.

Oh, s/he can shout it until s/he is blue in the face, if s/he wants to give Millicent and Mehitabel a good laugh. That one should have ‘em rolling in the aisles. But the instant they stop chuckling, either will say, “No, but seriously, where’s your 1-page synopsis?”

So just tell the story of your book, as any other novelist would. As we saw last time, a successful 1-page synopsis for a multiple-perspective novel need not — and should not — contain any discussion of the narrative choices at all. To revisit our favorite plotline:

1-page Hamlet

Yes, this 1-page synopsis would work equally well for a single-voiced telling of HAMLET as for one that followed Hamlet, his father, his mother, Ophelia, and Horatio around in the tight third person in alternating chapters, now that you mention it. Or even, since a novel synopsis should always be in the third person, no matter what the narrative voice of the book might be, a version where Ophelia and Hamlet narrate in the first person, Hamlet, Sr. and Gertrude’s perspectives are presented in the third person, and the reader is implicitly drafted into operating as both a castle guard and Greek chorus throughout versions told in the second person plural.

The possibilities are endless. A very flexible document, that 1-page synopsis.

Actually, since the synopsis is not the proper place to be discussing point of view choices, anyway, all of you multiple perspective-mongers could extend the same logic to a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis: tell the book’s story precisely as you would if the manuscript did not feature interestingly different point-of-view choices. Seriously, it could work, and very well, too.

Do those hundreds of pencils, pens, and wadded up pages of synopsis draft flying in my general direction mean that some of you don’t believe me? Okay, let’s try an experiment: take a gander at this 3-page synopsis of the same story — and, as always, if you find you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Hamlet-3-page-1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

All through? Excellent. Now let me ask you: how does the manuscript described in that synopsis tell the story? Is it written in the tight third person? A distant third person? Is it in the voice of an omniscient narrator, or the voice of one of the characters?

Come on, admit it: it’s possible that the book is told in the voices of several of the characters, isn’t it?

Again, that’s not entirely accidental, since a novel synopsis for any of those narrative choices would need to be written in the third person, rather than the voice(s) of the book, and eschew English Lit-class discussion of protagonists and antagonists, right? In fact, any 3-, 5-, or even 8-page novel synopsis could share essentially the same structure — and definitely shares the same goals.

All together now — a longer synopsis should:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise(s),

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist(s),

(4) show the central story arc(s) through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

(5) show how the plot’s primary conflict(s) is resolved.

(6) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

#6 just put some wind back into some diversity of voice-lovers’ sails, didn’t it? “But Anne,” the full-sailed crow triumphantly, “aren’t you hoist with your own petard? How can I possibly demonstrate the voice of the book in my synopsis when my novel is written in 14 distinctly different voices? Obviously, I’m going to need to reserve some page space to explain that — because, equally obviously, I don’t want my beautifully differentiated array of perspectives to be mistaken for some manuscript told entirely from (ugh!) one point of view.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Millicent expects voice and perspective choices to be a pleasant surprise not revealed to her until she actually starts reading the manuscript. So no matter how cleverly constructed your 14 voices might be — and kudos if you’ve managed to make each distinct; after 2-3, multi-voiced narratives often begin to blur a trifle — the synopsis is not the right place to bring them up.

I feel your pain, though, former crowers: this approach probably sounds an awful lot like being told to ignore all of your protagonists but one. “Here we go again,” you’re probably muttering under your breath, “expecting my book to be just like everybody else’s: the story of an interesting person in an interesting situation. By definition, though, a GOOD multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations! How can I possibly choose?”

How about by not choosing to privilege one protagonist over the others? Even in a 3- or 5-page synopsis, your best bet is to tell the story of the book, not the various stories of the characters.

Hey, you did it for the 1-page synopsis, right?

Stop wincing; repeating that nifty trick for the higher dives of the longer synopses may not be as hard as you think. For a novel with multiple protagonists to work, it must have an underlying unitary story — necessarily, unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories. (Which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be queried and submitted as such.) Even if it is told from the point of view of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That commonality makes far more sense as focus of your synopsis than many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell the story in your book. Strip the story to its basic elements, and talk about that for 3-5 pages. To be absolutely blunt about it, at the synopsis stage, you’ll probably have an easier time pleasing Millicent with a simplified version of a complex storyline, anyway.

Why, you demand in horrified tones? Well, there’s a practical reason — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason.

Let’s take the most straightforward one first: from Millicent’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within those first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie. That’s even more likely to happen in a pitch — unless the pitcher makes it absolutely clear right off the bat how all of those names are all tied together, the pitch-hearer’s eyes will begin to glaze over.

How might that affect even a very careful synopsizer of a multiple-protagonist plot? As I mentioned earlier in Synopsispalooza, it’s actually fairly common for novel synopses to talk about several characters in some detail, leaving Millicent to guess which is the main character. As a matter of expedience, then, most experienced Millicents will simply assume that the first character mentioned by name in a synopsis is the protagonist.

Well might you gasp, writers of multiple points of view. If a synopsis for a multiple protagonist novel were written to be purely reflective of the order of events in the plot — the most popular means of structuring a fiction synopsis, always — and the person who happens first to take action on page 1 is not the primary plot-mover in the rest of the book, Millicent is likely to wonder where he’s gone. She’s also, unfortunately, prone to stop reading if the welter of names gets too confusing.

Yes, yes, I know: for writers of character-heavy prose, this may seem grossly unfair, but try to picture what’s going through Millicent’s head just before she makes the decision to move on to the next query or submission packet. She’s been reading packets for hours on end; if all of the named characters from all of those synopses suddenly rushed into her office, the floor would collapse. Then, with all of those proper names and premises swirling around in her head, her next synopsis begins like this:

Hamlet chronological synopsis

Come on, own up: all of those names had your head spinning by the middle of the second paragraph, didn’t they? Even the most open-minded professional reader would be likely to zone out at that point. There’s just too much to remember.

To those of you who are chortling at the notion that remembering twelve names in two paragraphs might strike anyone as being a heavy intellectual burden, I have a question for you: if you didn’t already know what the play was about, which of those 12 characters would you think was the most important to the story, based upon this account?

Not so easy when you’re on the other side of the submission packet, is it? The play’s not called FRANCISCO, GUARD OF ELSINORE, campers — but I think we can all begin to appreciate why a weary-eyed Millicent in her fifth hour of opening query packets might leap to that conclusion.

Still not convinced that a laundry list of plot points is not the best synopsis strategy for a complex narrative like yours? Including that much detail is an incredibly inefficient use of space. Lest you doubt: the full page above takes us only up to midway through Act I, Scene V; HAMLET has five acts.

At that rate of summation, how many pages would the synopsis have to be to contain the whole plot? 15? 20?

No wonder so many writers of multiple POV novels find themselves banging their foreheads against their computer monitors in frustration over requested synopses, shrieking, “5 pages? That’s impossible! I mean, if they allowed me 10, I might have a chance, but…” A completely understandable reaction, if the goal actually were to boil down the entire plot and narrative choices of a 500-page novel down to those 5 pages.

Fortunately, it’s not. While I sympathize heartily with the angst those head-bangers experience, the problem here isn’t really the length of the synopsis — it’s the writer’s insistence upon seeing the plot and the narrative structure as so inextricably interwoven that story cannot be broken out from it. Thus the frustration: the task of summarizing everything in the manuscript is, in fact, an impossible one.

First-time pitchers often set themselves the same mile-high hurdle, by the way. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake. And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 4.

Out of 27.

How does this happen? Thinking of the book as an integrated whole incapable of dissection, mostly — that, and not having much practice talking about their work with professionals, or even other writers. I’m perpetually astonished by how often first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before approaching an agent. Not having had the experience of observing just how quickly the average hearer’s eyes glaze over, they think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean ENTIRE. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that, in either a pitch or a synopsis. If you ramble on too long in either, the person on the receiving end may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

Word to the wise: keep it snappy, and emphasize the storyline.

If you are totally at a loss about how to begin to figure out what is essential, enlist the assistance of a sympathetic friend who has not yet read your manuscript. (No fudging on this point, or the exercise won’t work.) Ideally, you’ll want to choose someone with a fine memory and a good sense of humor, as the favor you are about to ask is likely to try her patience.

Find her a comfortable seat, hand her a pad of paper and a pen, and ask her to take notes on the story you are about to tell. Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes and start talking about your book.

If the time runs out before you have finished with the story, have her tear up her notes before your doubtless watering eyes. (Yes, it’s cruel, but nobody ever said trimming a complex plot was easy, right?) Then reset the timer and start again at the beginning of the book.

Once you have made it all the way through the plot in the allotted time, take a quick glance at her notes, your handy highlighters in hand. Mark every reference to perspective; do the same with any bottom-lining summary statements about characterization along the lines of Bertrand was a busy man. Hand the pad back to your long-suffering friend, grab your own notepad, and ask her to tell the story back to you, leaving out the highlighted parts. Make a note of every major plot point and scene she mentions — and no fair correcting her if she leaves out elements you consider essential.

After you have praised your helpful friend to the skies, promised to heap her with appropriate tokens of your undying gratitude, and sent her home for some well-deserved rest, take a long, hard look at your notes. If someone unfamiliar with the book heard just those bullet points, would he be able to follow the story? If not, what patches would be necessary before he could?

If your list of plot points does not yield an outline that you can use as a structure for a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis, don’t be downhearted — that wasn’t the point of the exercise. The goal here is to help you become comfortable of thinking of your manuscript as a story, not as a collection of words on paper.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? I freely admit it: this is not the kind of practical exercise I usually assign, but it’s essential for anyone tackling the daunting task of writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel to stop thinking of the book as a collection of disparate characters’ stories. There’s a communal story there somewhere. The more often you tell your story out loud beginning to end — and, I must say it, the more sensitive you become to the points at which your hearer begins to fidget with impatience because you’re going into too much detail — the more prepared you will be to sit down and write a synopsis that focuses upon that story, not the narrative tricks.

I know that it’s counterintuitive, but in a synopsis for a complex plot about complex characters, the fewer the narrative tricks, the better, generally speaking. Remember, yours is almost certainly not going to be the only synopsis that Millicent has read recently, and if she is even remotely backlogged, she will be skimming: drawing your plot in broad strokes is more likely to draw her in than super-intense blocks of minute twists.

One of the simplest ways to steer her in the right direction is to talk about only one or two characters in the opening paragraph, setting the stage, as it were, for the rest of the synopsis to be about those people. Clearly, this may not be a viable solution for a novel about, say, 7 or 8 people, unless there happens to be a scene near the opening of the book where they all appear.

In practice, the opposite is often the case: many, many multiple perspective manuscripts don’t bring all of the protagonists together until the final chapter or scene. Yet another reason that organizing the synopsis to be slavishly reflective of the book’s running order, including each and every plot point, may not be helpful at all. In fact, it might even be harmful to the story’s clarity.

But before any of you run rushing I hasten to add: that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to open your synopsis with, Once upon a time, there were 18 protagonists…, either. Or even, in the case of our last example: My version of the Hamlet legend is told from the points of view of five protagonists: Prince Hamlet, his father, his mother, his girlfriend, and his best friend.

Oh, I realize that stating the perspective rules up front might seem like the most straightforward way to minimize the probability of Millicent’s spending the first three pages of your 5-page synopsis waiting for Francisco and Bernardo to dominate the plot once more. I also, from years of teaching pitching and querying classes, am aware that to most writers of multiple-protagonist novels, the point of view choices are the very first thing mentioned when describing their books.

If the number of voices is not the most important fact for Millicent to grasp about the manuscript, this emphasis seems to imply, it’s certainly the most interesting. Actually, from the writer’s point of view, there’s an excellent reason to think of a multiple POV manuscript in this manner: the different perspectives are an integral part of the story being told.

From the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are indeed monumentally important. But from a marketing point of view — which is to say: the view of anybody who has worked at an agency or publishing house, ever — they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question.

Yes, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written — and yes, that would be a problem, if Millicent genuinely expected a 3- or 5-page synopsis to provide her the same experience as reading the book. Fortunately for the sanity of synopsizers everywhere, however, she knows the difference between a 450-page manuscript and a 5-page synopsis of it.

When I say that a good synopsis gives some indication of the voice and tone of the book, I’m not referring to the literal voices that make up a multi-narrator narrative. I’m talking about literary voice: the way of using words, the rhythm, the vocabulary choices, the sentence structures. In a smoothly integrated multi-voiced narrative, the authorial voice carries over into each and every protagonist’s narration, right?

What I’m suggesting, then, is that for the purposes of writing your longer synopsis, you should mentally separate the overall story from how you have chosen to tell it in the book; continuing to think of them as inextricably linked will render writing a compelling overview significantly more difficult. Instead, try creating an new character — an omniscient third-person narrator who stands outside the story, yet knows everything that’s going on.

Why, that’s you, isn’t it? Who better to tell the book’s story to Millicent in the synopsis?

What’s that you’re wailing, campers? That this advice would require you to come up with yet another narrative voice? Why is that problematic, when part of the point of shoving this synopsis into your query or submission packet is to show Millicent that you can write. If you can — and you can, can’t you? — telling the book’s story in your own voice as the novel’s creator, rather than from the POV of any individual character, should be, if not a walk in the park, at least a doable jog several times around the duck pond.

And, honestly, isn’t it a more interesting challenge than either trying to show each protagonist’s initial situation and conflict in succession in such a short amount of page space or just listing the book’s events in chronological order? It’s certainly more likely to show off your writing talents than the usual first-time synopsis-writer’s method of just summarizing everything in the book as bluntly as possible.

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as, “Well, a missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.”

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise. Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it make for a strong synopsis tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a paragraph on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on? We tried that yesterday, recall; it looked a little something like this:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

All of those perspectives are distracting from the story, are they not? Not only is the plethora of characters likely to confuse Millicent, but the structure here is repetitious: in granting each protagonist a separate set-up, the synopsis necessarily revisits the premise of the book over and over again. Is that really the best way to convince Millicent that here is a strong story by a writer worth reading?

Don’t let the innovative structure and perspective choices of your book become a liability in your synopsis; you want your storytelling skills to shine. Instead, highlight the major characters by ramping up the character development. And why not show off your good writing and trenchant insights through the inclusion of unexpected little details here and there that she won’t have seen before?

You’re expecting me to toss off a 5-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist version of HAMLET abounding in such details and character development, aren’t you? Well, I’m not going to do it — and not merely because this post is running awfully long, even by my standards. After all, those charming little touches, vivid images, and startling insights into the human condition are going to be different for each authorial voice, aren’t they? So I won’t encourage you to copy me; I’m sure your own literary voice is just itching to come out and play.

Next time, we shall once again be discussing synopsis length — and, if I know myself, probably a few more concrete examples as well. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XVII: you tell your side of the story, Hamlet; I’ll tell mine. Later, perhaps.

sarah-bernhardt_hamlet

Still hanging in there, campers? I hope so, because we’ve been covering a whole lot of material in this expedited Synopsispalooza weekend: various lengths of novel synopsis on Saturday morning, an assortment of memoir synopses that evening, and this morning, different flavors of nonfiction synopsis. This evening, I had planned on blithely tossing off 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions of HAMLET told from multiple perspectives, as an aid to the many, many writers out there struggling with queries and submissions for multiple-protagonist novels — and then I noticed something disturbing.

As I often do when I’m about to revisit a topic, I went back and checked our last substantive Author! Author! discussion of diverse perspective choices. Upon scrolling through last April’s lively discussion of multiple-protagonist narratives (which began here, if you missed it), I realized that I had inadvertently left all of you perspective-switchers with a cliffhanger when I injured my back last spring: I devoted a post to writing a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel, fully intending — and, heaven help us, promising — that I would return to deal with 3- and 5-page synopses on the morrow.

You poor patient souls are still waiting, are you not? I’m so sorry — after my injury, I took a two-week hiatus from blogging, and I completely forgot about finishing the series. Then, to add insult to injury, I’ve been chattering about complex novel synopses under the misconception that those of you who followed last April’s discussion were already conversant with the basic strategy of synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel.

Why on earth didn’t any of you patient waiters tell me that I had left you hanging? Who knows better than a writer juggling multiple perspectives that no single actor in a drama, however important, has access to the same sets of information that each other actor does?

No matter: I’m going to make it up to you perspective-jugglers, pronto. This post and the next will be entirely about writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel.

So that those new to the discussion will not have to play catch-up, this evening, with your permission, I would like to revisit the substance of that last post before I went silent, as it honestly does (in my humble opinion, at least) contain some awfully good guidelines for pulling off one of the more difficult tricks in the fiction synopsizer’s repertoire, boiling down a story told from several perspectives into a 1-page synopsis. To render this discussion more relevant to this weekend’s festivities, I shall be both updating it and pulling in examples from our favorite story, HAMLET.

You didn’t expect me to banish the melancholy fellow before the weekend was over, did you?

Let’s leap back into the wonderful world of the 1-page synopsis, then. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces, and who can blame us? Obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to a single page.

Unfortunately, if one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time. The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. But it is rather apt, as the bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. It makes even the most harden synopsizer feel, well, treed.

Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles. Even if you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect be quite daunting — but if you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done. The synopsis-writing part, not just returning air to your lungs.

How? By clinging tenaciously to our general rule of thumb for querying a multiple-protagonist novel: the key lies in telling the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option. So let’s spend the rest of this post talking about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting. Here goes.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh and potentially marketable — and my, is this ever unusually well-written for a single-page synopsis,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in the weekend? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

Still not convinced? Okay, step into Millicent’s dainty slippers for a moment and consider which species of 1-page synopsis would be more likely to make her request the manuscript (or, in the case of a synopsis submitted with a partial, the rest of the manuscript). First, consider the common multiple-perspective strategy of turning the synopsis into a laundry list of what parts of the story are told from which characters’ perspectives:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

Poor Will is so busy accounting for all of his narrative perspectives that he does not have room to present much of the plot, does he? This structural choice forces him to cover the same plot elements over and over again. Compare this to the same story told as a single storyline, a smooth, coherent narrative that gives Millicent a sense of the actual plot of the book:

1-page Hamlet

There really is no contest about which presents Shakespeare as the better novelist, is there? That’s no accident: remember, in a 1-page synopsis, the primary goal is not to produce a carbon-copy of the entire book, but to tell what the book is about in a manner that will prompt the reader to want to hear more.

So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis. Trust me, Millicent is not going to think the worse of your book for having to wait until she actually has the manuscript in her hand to find out every nuance of the plot — or, indeed, how many individual perspectives you have chosen to weave together into a beautifully rich and coherent whole.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere cry out in anguish, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary to include and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. The short answer is that in a 1-page synopsis, almost everything should be excluded except for the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it.

If you still fear that you have trimmed too much, try this classic editors’ trick: write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I most emphatically did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the narrative as it appears in the manuscript. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript.

Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story in your synopsis may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most struggling synopsizers to try. Yet in a multiple-perspective novel that skips around in time and space, as so many do, or one that contains many flashbacks, telling the overarching story simply and clearly may necessitate setting aside the novel’s actual order of events in favor of reverting to — gasp! — a straightforward chronological presentation of cause and effect.

Chronological order may not be your only option, however: consider organizing by theme, by a dominant plotline, or another structure that will enable you to present your complex story in an entertaining manner on a single page. Opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — yes, even if doing so necessitates leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot or ten of closely-observed character development.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book, just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it. If you try to do too much here, you’ll only drive yourself into a Hamlet-like state of indecisive nuttiness: because no version can possibly be complete in this limited amount of space, no over-stuffed option will seem to be right.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags in a vain attempt to regularize your breathing again: believe me, #3 is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel — or, indeed, upon the complexity that tends to characterize the multiple-perspective novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes. Let’s move on.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of any fiction synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may lacerate your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13′s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts now, haven’t they? “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that virtuoso trick showing that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of a synopsis that no one outside a few agencies and publishing houses will ever see?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis, especially a super-short one. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this Synopsispalooza. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English Lit class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

Again you ask why? Veteran synopsis-writers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk about the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.

Don’t believe me? I’m not entirely surprised: convinced that the proliferation of narrators is the single most interesting and marketable aspect of the novel — not true, if the manuscript is well-written — most perspective-juggling aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that a narrator-by-narrator approach is the only reasonable way to organize a synopsis.

On the page, though, this seldom works well, especially in a 1-page synopsis. Compare the second example above with the following, a synopsis entirely devoted to analyzing the book as a critic might, rather than telling its story:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad 2

Not particularly effective at giving Millicent a sense of the overall plot, is it? Because the story is so complex and the individual characters’ perspectives so divergent, the seemingly simple task of setting out each in turn does not even result in an easily-comprehended description of the premise. Heck, the first three perspectives ran so long that our Will was forced to compress his fourth protagonist’s perspective into a partial sentence in the last paragraph.

Minimizing one or more narrators in an attempt to save space is a tactic Millicent and her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran literary contest judge, see all the time in synopses for multiple-protagonist novels, by the way. Protagonist-juggling writers frequently concentrate so hard on making the first-named protagonist bear the burden of the book’s primary premise that they just run out of room to deal with some of the others. In a synopsis that relies for its interest upon a diversity of perspectives, that’s a problem: as we saw above, an uneven presentation of points of view makes some look more important than others.

I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent or end up crushing the last two or three into a single sentence at the bottom of the page, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short — which brings me back to another suggestion from earlier in this series:

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more wrench left in our writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. That’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which is neither for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel nor for HAMLET, but bear with me here; these are useful examples):

pride-and-prejudice-synop

with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complicated plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the last example exhibits in spades but the one just before it avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not? Can you imagine how easy it would be to present Hamlet’s story as if he never budged an inch on his own steam throughout the entire story?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Speaking of distractions, I’m going to sign off for the night before I provide you with any more. Next time, I shall be discussing strategies for folding your many protagonists into 3- and 5-page synopses.

I really do mean it this time, honest. Tune in tomorrow, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XV: alas, poor Yorick; I knew him in his 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions

hamlet and yorick

Is everyone excited about this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza schedule, or, as I like to think of it, the Saturday and Sunday of Synopses? In this morning’s post, I provided you with concrete examples of 5-, 3-, 2-, and 1-page synopses for the same story, so you might see the different level of detail expected in each, as well as how the content selection and tone might be varied to fit the story into a couple of other book categories.

To that noble end, I borrowed from a story most of you were likely to know, a little number called THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK, by an up-and-coming writer named William Shakespeare. This evening, I am going to use that same storyline to come up with examples of 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for memoir.

Hey, if you weren’t familiar with it before this morning’s post, you’ve certainly seen enough versions of it to be conversant with it now, right?

Why go over memoir synopses in their own post, since a savvy memoirist could use the same storytelling techniques as a novelist does to shape a compelling narrative? (For some tips on how to pull that off, please see my previous Synopsispalooza post on the subject.) Several reasons, actually.

First, as I mentioned in this morning’s post, the vast majority of aspiring writers in general — and, it’s safe to conclude, first-time memoirists in particular — have never seen a professional synopsis for their type of book. As, indeed, I surmised from plaintive-yet-practical questions like the following, posted by intrepid memoirist Pamela Jane on an earlier Synopsispalooza installment:

Is there any place where we can view an successful memoir synopsis? That would be wonderfully helpful.

As an experienced writing teacher, I make bold to interpret requests like this as an indication that I might not have been generating enough practical examples of late. Surely, that alone would make for an excellent second reason to devote an entire post to making up the shortfall. (And don’t worry, nonfiction-synopsizers who do not write memoir: I shall be churning out concrete examples for you tomorrow a.m.)

Third, and perhaps most important for instructive purposes, while memoir synopses share basic formatting and goals with novel synopses — chant them with me now, campers: any synopsis should be in standard manuscript format, and the primary purpose of a query or submission synopsis is not to summarize the book so well that every question is answered, but to prompt Millicent the agency screener to ask to see the manuscript — there are some essential differences. To name but three:

(1) A memoir synopsis should be written in the past tense, whereas a novel synopsis should be written in the present tense.

(2) A memoir synopsis should be written in the first person singular, whereas a novel synopsis should be written in the third person, regardless of the narrative voice of the book.

(3) A memoir synopsis should tell the story of the book in standard manuscript format, without special formatting for the introduction of new characters, whereas a novel synopsis should alert the reader to the first appearance of a character (but only the first) by presenting his name in all capital letters, preferably followed by his age in parentheses.

I suspect that none of those will come as a complete surprise to any of you memoirists out there, but as I’m not entirely sure whether I’ve covered #3 explicitly in a previous Synopsispalooza posts (hey, cut me some slack — do you have any idea how many pages of text it has already run?), let’s talk about it now. Although the capitalization convention is specific to fiction, Millicents (and their contest-judging aunts, Mehitabels) do frequently see memoir synopses with characters introduced as JOAN OF ARC (19). Heck, they occasionally break open submission envelopes to encounter memoirists introducing themselves as I, ARNETTE (7 at the beginning of the story).

That’s neither necessary nor expected in a memoir synopsis. Thus, while a memoir synopsis would mention that Milton Sedgwick sat next to me in my first-grade class. Evidently, he intended to major in yanking my pigtails, a novel synopsis might herald ol’ Milton’s advent in the story with MILTON SEDGWICK (6) devoted our first-grade year to yanking Janelle’s pigtails.

Yes, yes, I know: some of you have probably heard otherwise, but having sold a couple of memoirs, I know whereat I speak. Trust me, both Millicent and Mehitabel may be relied upon to understand that the perpendicular pronoun appearing frequently throughout the memoir synopsis refers to the author/protagonist; neither is at all likely to confuse you with your constantly-weeping track coach or your sociopathic sister just because you haven’t capitalized their names on the synopsis page.

Everybody clear on that? Please chime in with questions, if not; I would hate to have Millicent or Mehitabel perplexed by a half-capitalized set of characters on the synopsis page.

The fourth reason — yes, I’m still justifying, thanks — is the first cousin the first: since very few aspiring writers ever get a chance to take a peek at a professionally-formatted synopsis, some of you might not be aware that under no circumstances should a synopsis of any length be in business format. Or, to put it in terms every user of e-mail can understand, unless an agency’s guidelines, requested materials letter, or contest’s rules specifically ask you to include your synopsis in the body of an e-mail, a synopsis should NEVER be single-spaced, devoid of indentation at the beginning each paragraph, block-justified (i.e., with straight margins on both the left and right sides of the page), or contain a skipped line between paragraphs.

Again, is everybody clear on why that is the case? Not all aspiring writers are: Millicent and Mehitabel shake their heads on a daily basis at synopses formatted as though the writer were unaware (as is, indeed, often the case) that indenting paragraphs is not optional in English prose. Save the non-indented paragraphs and single-spacing for business letters and e-mail, where such barbaric practices belong.

Don’t you tell me that a query letter is a business letter. Part of presenting yourself professional entails adhering to the formatting standards of the industry you are seeking to join. Believe me, the fine folks who work in agencies and publishing houses think of their business as exceptional.

So what should a properly-formatted memoir synopsis look like, whether it will be gracing a query packet, livening up a submission packet, or increasing your chances of winning in a contest entry? A little something like this 5-page synopsis for HAMLET — written, for your educational pleasure, from the melancholy Dane’s own point of view. (As always, if you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key while pressing + to enlarge the image.)

Hamlet memoir 5.1a

Hamlet memoir 5.2

Hamlet memoir 5.3

Hamlet memoir 5.4

Hamlet memoir 5.5

See how easy it would be for Millicent to tell from a quick glance at the first couple of lines that this is a synopsis for a memoir, not a novel? Or for Mehitabel to notice that an entry in the memoir category of her contest had accidentally ended up in the fiction category pile?

While we’re straining our eyeballs, trying to read like these two worthy souls, did anyone catch the gaffe on page 4? (Hint: it’s in the first line of the third full paragraph.)

Spot it now? To Millicent or Mehitabel, it would be fairly obvious what happened here: this synopsis was originally written as if it were for a novel, in the present tense. In the rush to change it over to the proper presentation for a memoir — possibly because the writer had only just learned that the past tense was proper for memoir synopses — one verb got missed.

And what’s the best preventative for that kind of Millicent-annoyer, campers? That’s right: reading your synopsis IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you stuff it into an envelope or hit the SEND button.

As you may see, a 5-page synopsis (or the rare one that’s even longer) permits the memoirist to tell his story in some fairly complete detail. Like the novel synopsizer, he’s usually better off describing individual scenes within the story than simply trying to summarize huge chunks of activity within just a few quick sentences.

The same principle applies to the 3- or 4-page synopsis. Obviously, though, since there’s less room, Hamlet can describe fewer scenes:
Hamlet memoir 3.1

Hamlet memoir 3.2

Hamlet memoir 3.3

Admittedly, there are a few more summary statements here — the first paragraph contains a couple of lulus — but for the most part, this synopsis is still primarily made up of descriptions of scenes, not just hasty summaries of activity. Cause and effect remain clear. Notice, too, that the sentence structure varies throughout: none of the repetitive X happened and Y happened and Z happened that dog the average mid-length synopsis here.

As we saw in this morning’s post, quite a different strategy is required to pull off the dreaded 1-page synopsis. Here, our boy is going to have to rely pretty heavily on summary statements — but that does not mean specificity need be abandoned altogether.

Hamlet memoir 1 page

Still a pretty gripping yarn, isn’t it? That’s because Hamlet managed to retain the essential story arc, even when forced by length restrictions to jettison most of the scenes upon which his longer synopses rested.

If you’re still having trouble either seeing the difference between these levels of detail and/or are having trouble translating from theory into practice, don’t start out trying to synopsize your own book. Pick a story you know very well and try writing 5-, 3-, and 1-page versions of it. Repeat as often as necessary until you get the hang of it, then go back to your own opus.

Hey, writing a synopsis is a learned skill. What made you think you would be good at it without some practice?

Why start with somebody else’s book, you ask? If you’re not close to the story, it’s often easier to catch its essence — and that goes double if your story actually is your story.

Remember, the key to writing a great memoir synopsis of any length is to treat yourself as the most interesting character in the most interesting story in the world. Tell that story — but don’t leave either why you are fascinating or why your situation is compelling to Millicent or Mehitabel’s imagination. Make sure both show up on the page.

Hey, if Hamlet can compellingly retell the five-hour play of his life in 5-, 3-, and 1-page versions, so can you. Join me tomorrow for some nonfiction synopsis examples, and keep up the good work!