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!

The Short Road Home, part IV: Tommy! Watch out for that bear lurking at the end of this post! Tommy!

I can’t quite decide whether I am profoundly sorry or oddly pleased that I’ve been digressing from our series-within-a-series on the Short Road Home, my pet name for a storyline that introduces a conflict only to resolve it immediately, sometimes before the reader has a chance to register that the problem raised is at all serious. Yes, too-swift fixes make it harder for the reader to root for the protagonist — or, when faced with a truly galloping case of SRH, to perceive any build-up of narrative tension at all — but since authorial distrust in readers’ attention spans often underlie these apparently self-solving problems, perhaps jumping around between topics has been appropriate.

Those of us who read for a living, however, may be trusted to have attention spans longer than a third grader hopped up on a quart of cola and half a dozen brownies. Oh, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, may be conditioned to reject most manuscript submissions on page 1, but once she gets into a story, she, like any other reader, wants to see it played out in a satisfying manner.

That seems to be news to an awful lot of submitters, however. You’d be amazed at how often not small, potentially character-revealing conflicts are resolved practically as soon as they appear on the page, but major ones. In book openings, it’s not even all that uncommon to use one of these near-momentary crises as a clumsy means of introducing necessary backstory, as the following sterling piece of dialogue illustrates.

“It’s gone!” Marvin scrabbled around frantically in the dry grass next to his sleeping back, careless of the rattlesnake producing marimba rhythms on its tail a scant yard away. “My beloved late great-great-grandfather’s pocket watch!”

Antoinette gasped. “Not the one traditionally passed from dying father to eldest son for a century and a half, and entrusted to you by your father on his deathbed not four weeks ago?”

“The same.” A silver disk flew through the air at his head, glinting in the firelight. “Why, here it is! Where did it come from?”

The sleeping bag on the far side of the fire jackknifed. Jesse’s red face peered out of the opening. “You dropped it three hours ago. I was waiting for you to notice.”

Marvin flung his arms around Antoinette. “My legacy is safe!”

“What kind of idiot brings an heirloom mountain climbing?” Jesse muttered, trying to regain a comfortable position.

Yes, this is Hollywood narration — all three characters are already aware of the significance of the watch, so the only conceivable motivation for Antoinette and Marvin to explain it to each other is so the reader can hear what they say, right? — but you must admit, it is a darned efficient means of shoehorning the watch’s importance to Marvin into the story. It might not even come across as heavy-handed, if the reader had time to absorb the loss, understand its significance through Marvin’s reaction, and gain a sense of what might happen if the watch were never found.

But here, the darned thing reappears practically the instant Antoinette finishes filling the reader in about it, killing any possible suspense before it’s had time to build. Does that strike you as a narrative strategy likely to entrance a professional reader? Or is it likely to seem like the Short Road Home to anyone with an attention span longer than a drunken gnat’s?

Leaving aside for the moment the burning question of whether a gnat could be trained to hold its liquor, let’s consider how much more annoying this narrative strategy would be if (a) it were used frequently throughout the story, (b) it were in fact the primary tactic for introducing conflict into the story, and/or (c) the conflict in question were one that had been hyped throughout the book as central to the protagonist’s personal journey.

Yes, you did read that last bit correctly, campers. You would be stunned at how frequently Millicent sees a manuscript’s central conflict diverted to the Short Road Home. Often in the last chapter — or on the next-to-last page.

“Oh, Marv,” Antoinette moaned, cradling his bloody head, “you are so close to learning the truth about your family. Before you die, let’s look at that watch one more time.”

With effort, he fished it out of his pocket. The last rays of the sun illuminated its broad face. “Wait — I’ve never noticed that notch before. Maybe it has a false back.”

After the third time he dropped the watch, she put her deft fingers to work for him. “Why, you’re right. There’s been a piece of paper hidden back here all the time.”

She spread the paper two inches from his eyes. With difficulty, he made out the words. “Dear descendent: you will have heard all your life about a family curse. There really isn’t one; I just made it up to scare off competition from my gold mine. Please find attached the true map to your inheritance. Love, Marvin Bellamy the First.”

Suddenly, Marvin felt life once again suffusing his limbs. “Why, that’s the answer I’ve been seeking since we began this long, strange trek!”

Antoinette struggled to contain her annoyance. “And to think, if you’d only given that watch more than a passing glance after your father gave it to you, we wouldn’t have had to spend fifteen months hiking these mountains barefoot.”

“Oh, stop your moaning.” He sprang to his feet. “Your shoes didn’t wear out until month three. Let’s go find the gold mine — it’s only a few hundred yards away.”

“Um, excuse me?” Millicent asks politely. “Is there a reason that I had to read the 312 pages prior to this one? The entire plot has just been sewn up in seven paragraphs.”

Ah, but you should be grateful, Millie: at least this protagonist had to do something in order to send us careening down the Short Road Home. Granted, it wasn’t much; he simply had to manhandle his main prop a little to find his long-sought truth. As you know from experience, many a passive protagonist simply has another character hand the key to the plot to him on a silver platter.

The shadowy figure was closer now, bending over him. If this was Death, he certainly wore nice cologne.

Wait — he knew that scent. Hurriedly, Marvin wiped the dust from his eyes, but he still didn’t believe what they told him. “Dad? I thought you were…”

“Dead?” Marvin the Fifth chuckled ruefully. “No, not quite, son. That was merely the necessary push to aim you toward your legacy. Still got that watch?”

Marvin dug it out of his pocket. Snatching it, the old man cracked it in half.

“My inheritance!” Marvin screamed, horrified.

“Oh, it’s just a cheap knock-off.” Dad poked around in the shards. “But it contained this key to a safe-deposit box located twenty-two feet from this very spot. Come on, kid, let’s go claim your real inheritance. On the way, I’ll tell you all about your great-great grandfather’s plan for making his descendents rich.”

“Do I have to walk?” Marvin whined. “I’m tired from all of that mountain-climbing.”

“Hello?” Antoinette shouted after the pair. “Remember me? The lady who has been carrying your backpack for the last 100 pages?”

Come on, admit it: Marvin, Jr. is not the only one who seems a trifle lazy here. This writer appears to have dropped a deus ex machina into this plot, having a new character waltz into the story at the last minute to explain away all of the remaining mystery, rather than engaging in the hard, meticulous work of setting up sufficient clues throughout the story for the protagonist to be able to solve it himself.

Like other forms of the Short Road Home, the external explainer is a tension-killer. It could have been worse, though: ol’ Dad could have popped up periodically throughout the story, making it clear to all and sundry that he could have filled Marvin in at any time, if so chose he. What a pity that Marvin was just too darned lazy — or dim-witted, or determined that this story would take 324 pages to tell — to ask the obvious question.

Oh, you laugh, but narrators effectively tease the reader in this manner all the time in both novel and memoir submissions, through the use of the historical future tense. The openings of chapters are particularly fertile ground for this sort of suspense-killing narration. Often mistaken for subtle foreshadowing, transitional statements like I was happy — but my illusions were about to be shattered forever. actually minimize the tension to come.

How? Well, before the conflict even begins, the reader already knows the outcome: the narrator’s illusions will be shattered. She may not yet know the details, but you can hardly expect her to begin reading the next scene hoping for the best, can you?

Section-opening paragraphs that tell the reader how the scene how it’s going to end before the scene begins are alarmingly ubiquitous. Sometimes, such foreshadowing is subtle:

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my days of wine and roses were soon to come to an end — and in a way that I could never have anticipated in a thousand years of constant guessing. How was I to know that every child only has so many circuses in him before he snaps?

When my great-uncle Cornelius came down to breakfast waving the circus tickets that Saturday in May, I couldn’t have been happier…

Sometimes, though, foreshadowing is so detailed that it more or less operates as a synopsis of the scene to follow:

My hard-won sense of independence was not to last long, however. All too soon, the police would march back into my life again, using my innocuous string of 127 unpaid parking tickets (hey, everyone is forgetful from time to time, right?) as an excuse to grab me off the street, throw me in the back of a paddy wagon, and drag me off to three nights’ worth of trying to sleep in a cell so crowded that the Black Hole of Calcutta would have seemed positively roomy by contrast.

It all began as I was minding my own business, driving to work on an ordinary Tuesday…

In both cases, the narrative is telling, not showing — and, even more troubling to writing rule-mongers, telling the story out of chronological order. The latter is generally a risky choice, because, let’s face it, unless you’re writing a book that features time travel, most readers will expect events to unfold in chronological order — or if not, for flashbacks to be well-marked enough that the reader never needs to ask, “Wait, when is this happening?”

For the sake of clarity, beginning a scene at the beginning and proceeding to the end without extensive temporal detours is the established norm. That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, the frequent use of and then tends to annoy your garden-variety Millicent: unless a narrative specifically indicates otherwise, actions are assumed to have occurred in the order they appear on the page. I lost my footing and plunged into the water. And then the bear ate me, therefore, does not convey any more information to the reader than I lost my footing and plunged into the water. The bear ate me.

I hear some of you giggling. “Oh, come on, Anne,” lovers of conversational-style narration and/or run-on sentences protest. “I can see that and then might have been logically unnecessary here, but what’s the big deal about adding a couple of extra words?”

If they appear only once or twice in the course of a manuscript, they might not be a big deal. Given the extreme popularity of chatty-voiced narration, however, and the common conception that first-person narration peppered with conversational conjunctions is a valid reflection of everyday speech, Millicent sees an awful lot of and thens in a work day. Often, more than once on a single page. Or within a single paragraph.

You might want to give it a rest. I’m just saying.

Back to the benefits of telling a story in chronological order, rather than skipping around in time. Showing events in the order they occurred renders maintaining narrative tension easier, particularly in first-person narration: the reader may be safely left in the dark about surprising developments until they’re sprung upon the narrator, right?

Let’s face it, though, if the reader already knows what is going to happen before a scene begins, the temptation to skim or even skip the recap can be considerable. Particularly, say, if the reader in question happens to be a Millicent trying to get through a hundred submissions in an afternoon. Maybe she should run out and grab a latte to perk herself up a little…

All of which is to say: if you were looking for a good place to start trimming a manuscript, running a quick scan for the historical future tense might be a dandy place to start. Often, such opening paragraphs may be cut wholesale with little loss to the overall story. Ditto with premature analysis.

Oh, wait: I’m foreshadowing — and to render it even more confusing, I’m doing it by jumping backwards in time. The last time I addressed this topic, a reader wrote in to ask:

I’m assuming that it’s still okay to occasionally employ the historical future (foreshadowing) comments, as long as we don’t prematurely spill the beans…or choke on them…in our rush to analyze, yes?

That’s an interesting question. So much so that I strongly suspect that if this reader had asked it at a literary conference, agents and editors would glance at one another sheepishly, not wanting to generalize away the possibility that a writer in the audience could wow ‘em with foreshadowing, and then fall back on that time-worn industry truism, it all depends upon the writing.

Which would be precisely true, yet not really answer the question. But did you notice how gratuitous that and then was?

To address it head-on, let’s take another gander at our last two examples. In a novel or a memoir, a writer could probably get away with using the first, provided that the story that followed was presented in an entertaining and active manner.

Yes, Example #1 does provide analysis of action that has not yet happened, from the reader’s point of view — and doesn’t it make a difference to think of a foreshadowing paragraph that way, campers, instead of as a transition between one scene and other? — but it does not, as our questioner puts it, spill the beans. The reader knows that something traumatic is going to happen, and where, but not enough about either the event or the outcome to spoil the tension of the upcoming scene.

In Example #2, by contrast, not only does the narrative announce to the reader the specifics of what is about to occur — told, not shown, so the reader cannot readily picture the scene, so revisiting it seems dramatically necessary — but shoves the reader toward an interpretation of the events to come. After such a preamble, we expect to be outraged.

Which, too, is dangerous strategy in a submission: such an introduction raises the bar for the scene that follows pretty high, doesn’t it? If a text promises Millicent thrills and doesn’t deliver them, she’s not going to be happy. Or impressed. Frankly, though, if she’s already in a touchy mood — how many times must the woman burn her lip on a latte before she learns to let it cool before she takes a sip? — the mere sight of the historical future might set Millicent’s teeth on edge, causing her to read the scene that follows with a jaundiced eye.

Why, you ask? The insidious long-term result of repetition — because writers, unlike pretty much everybody else currently roaming the planet, just LOVE foreshadowing. The historical future makes most of us giggle like schoolgirls tickled by 5000 feathers.

As with any device that writers as a group overuse, it’s really, really easy to annoy Millicent with the historical future. Especially if she happens to work at an agency that handles a lot of memoir, where it’s unusual to see a submission that doesn’t use the device several times within the first 50 pages alone.

Heck, it’s not all that uncommon to see it used more than once within the first five. By the end of any given week of screening, poor Millie has seen enough variations on but little did I know that my entire world was about to crumble to generate some serious doubt in her mind about whether there’s something about writing memoir that causes an author to become unstuck in the space-time continuum on a habitual basis.

Which, in a way, we do. Since memoirs by definition are the story of one’s past, really getting into the writing process can often feel a bit like time-travel. After all, how else is a memoirist going to recall all of those wonderfully evocative telling details that enlivened the day a bear ate her brother?

Tell me honestly: as a reader, would you rather see that bear jump out of the underbrush and devour bratty little Tommy twice — once before the scene begins, and once at its culmination — or only once?

Or, to put it another way, would you prefer to know that Tommy is going to be a carnivore’s dinner, so you may brace yourself for it? Or would you like it better if the scene appeared to be entirely about the narrator and Tommy bickering until the moment when the bear appears — and then have it devour him?

If you’re like most readers — and virtually all professional ones — nine times out of ten, you would pick the latter. And for good reason: genuine suspense arises organically from conflict between the characters as the story chugs along. A surprise that you’ve known was coming for two pages is obviously going to startle you less than one that appears out of nowhere.

Foreshadowing is the opposite tactic: it tells the reader what to expect, dampening the surprise. It’s hard to do without spoiling future fun. All too often, what the writer considers a subtle hint informs the reader that a shock is to come in such explicit terms that when the shock actually occurs, the reader yawns and says, “So?”

That’s a pretty high price to pay for a transitional sentence or two that sounds cool, isn’t it?

Not all foreshadowing utilizes the historical future tense, of course, but it’s not a bad idea to get into the habit of revisiting any point in the manuscript where the story deviates from chronological order for so much as a sentence. Or even — and revising writers almost universally miss this when scanning their own works — for half a sentence.

Why? Well, from a reader’s perspective, even that brief a Short Road Home can substantially reduce a scene’s tension. Take, for example, this fairly common species of scene-introducing prose:

On the day my brother Jacques shocked us all by running away from home, I woke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow him on his uncertain road, leaving the rest of my body behind.

Assuming that the reader had gleaned no previous inkling that Jacques might be contemplating going AWOL, what does the narrative gain from opening with the scene’s big shocker? Yes, announcing it this way might well evoke a certain curiosity about why Frère Jacques departed, perhaps, but why not let the reader experience the surprise along with the family?

Taking the latter tack would not even necessarily entail losing the dramatic effect of foreshadowing. Take a look at the same scene opener without the spoiler at the beginning of the first sentence:

I awoke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow an uncertain road behind the Pied Piper, leaving the rest of my body behind. If this was what summer vacation felt like, give me six more weeks of school.

Mom burst into the room with such violence that I cringed instinctively, anticipating the obviously unhinged door’s flying across the room at me. “Have you seen Jacques? He’s not in his room.”

More dramatic, isn’t it? Starting off with a description of a normal day and letting the events unfold naturally is a more sophisticated form of foreshadowing than just blurting out the twist up front.

Not to mention closer to the way people tend to experience surprises in real life– as a manifestation of the unexpected.

That may seem self-evident, but as Millicent would have been the first to tell you had not I beaten her to the punch, few manuscript submissions contain twists that actually surprise professional readers. Partially, as we discussed earlier in this series, this is the fault of the pervasiveness of the Idiot Plot in TV and film, of course, but it also seems that many aspiring writers confuse an eventuality that would come out of the blue from the point of view of the character experiencing it with a twist that would stun a reader.

Again, it all depends upon the writing. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?) At the risk of espousing a radical new form of manuscript critique, I’m a big fan of allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions — and of trusting her to gasp when the story throws her an unanticipated curve ball. After all, it’s not as though she has the attention span of a gnat, drunken or otherwise.

Unfortunately, many aspiring writers apparently don’t trust the reader to catch subtle foreshadowing; they would rather hangs up a great big sign that says, HEY, YOU — GET READY TO BE ASTONISHED. That in and of itself renders whatever happens next less astonishing than if it came out of the proverbial clear blue sky.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” some of you inveterate foreshadowers call out, “what you say about real-life surprises isn’t always true. Plenty of people experience premonitions.”

That’s quite true, disgruntled mutterers: many folks do feel genuine advance foreboding from time to time. Others cultivate chronic worry, and still others apply their reasoning skills to the available data in order to come up with a prediction about what is likely to occur.

Do such people exist in real life? Absolutely. Should one or more of them be tromping around your manuscript, bellowing their premonitions at the tops of their gifted lungs? Perhaps occasionally, as necessary and appropriate, if — and only if — their presence doesn’t relieve the reader of the opportunity to speculate on her own.

In fact, a great way to increase plot tension in a story featuring a psychic character is to show him being wrong occasionally. Mixes things up a bit for the reader. But — correct me if I’m wrong — in real life, most of us don’t hear giant voices from the sky telling anyone who might happen to be following our personal story arcs what is going to happen to us twenty minutes hence.

To those of you who do habitually hear such a voice: you might want to consult a reputable psychiatrist, because the rest of us don’t lead externally-narrated lives. There’s an excellent chance that six-foot rabbit who has been giving you orders is lying to you, honey.

If we were all subject to omniscient third-person narration at the most startling moments of our lives, Tommy wouldn’t have let that bear get the drop on him, would he? Unfortunately for his future prospects, as handy as it would have been had a talking vulture been available to warn him about the nearby hungry beast, that doesn’t happen much in real life.

But that doesn’t mean that if you do find that your life starts being narrated on the spot by a talking vulture, you shouldn’t seek some professional help.

Speaking of professional help: from a professional reader’s point of view, heavy-handed foreshadowing on the page is rather like having a tone-deaf deity bellow driving instructions from a low-hanging cloud bank. Yes, that constant nagging might well cause Millicent to avoid driving into that rock five miles down the road — but, time-strapped as she is, I’m betting that the warning is more likely to convince her to stop driving on that road altogether, rather than hanging on for the now-predictable ride.

Okay, so that wasn’t one of my better metaphors; darn that pesky vulture for distracting me. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIX: there was something about his eyes, something indescribable…



I could not allow another week to end, campers, without filling you in on yet another common professional readers’ pet peeve. Specifically, one that drives your humble servant up the wall, not only because it is ubiquitous in manuscript submissions, but because when it does appear, its context usually makes it pretty obvious that the writer who penned it considers it (a) original, (b) philosophical-sounding, or even profound, and (c) pretty darned good writing, rather than what it actually is: (a) a hackneyed phrase, (b) descriptively vague, and (c) see (a) and (b)

What is this pervasive descriptive shortcut, you cry, famous for causing gentle souls like me — and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — to rend our garments and wail when good writers foist it upon us? Let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat.

Here are five sterling examples of it, ripped from five different manuscripts. Let the garment-rending begin!

“If that’s really the way you feel, I have nothing more to say.”

Something in his eyes made Aileen pause, reconsider, turn back. “What is it you’re not saying, Jeremiah?”

He smiled, slowly, cruelly. “Ah, that would spoil the horrible surprise, wouldn’t it?”

Did anything in that exchange strike you as odd? If you are shaking your head at the computer screen, you’re not alone — most aspiring writers would see nothing wrong with it.

Millicent, to put it mildly, would. To gain a sense of why, let’s examine the phenomenon in another incarnation.

A feeling washed over Emily, strong and powerful. She couldn’t have put it into words, even to her closest friends, but it shook her to the core of her being.

“Yes!” she cried, startling everyone in the courtroom. “I shot the sheriff!” She turned to her incredulous husband. “But I swear to you, Archibald, I did not shoot the deputy.”

See any similarity between those last two examples? Millicent would. She’d also spot a definite familial resemblance between both of them and this:

Oliver walked her forward, keeping his hands over her eyes. Some ten feet of awkward stumbling later, he gently removed them. “Look.”

Perdita gasped. A vista of indescribable beauty spread out before her. “Oh, my! Why hadn’t I noticed this before?”

“Beats me.” Oliver returned to his game of solitaire. “I would have thought the Grand Canyon was kind of hard to miss.”

Starting to feel an inkling of Millicent’s well-justified irritation? One more time, maestro, please.

The audience swayed on its feet, blasted by the power of Mervin’s voice. It was not what he said, precisely, or even the words he chose to express it that moved them so strongly: it was an indefinable manner, a confidence that told them as surely as if he had shouted it that this man was telling the truth.

It’s begun to feel redundant, hasn’t it, even though I assured you at the outset that each of these examples came from a different source? Welcome to the world of the agency screener: if 35 out of the 127 first pages Millicent reads today contain the same descriptive shortcut — certainly within the bounds of possibility, with a trope this popular — Instance No. 34 is going to seem as repetitious as if it had appeared on the same page as Instances Nos. 28-33.

“Not this again!” she mutters, rending her aforementioned garments. “Show me something original, I beg you!”

We could feel smug, of course, that Millicent has just fallen into precisely the same phrasing trap to which she is objecting: the writer would be entirely justified in inquiring what precisely she had in mind. We could also point out that it isn’t particularly fair to the writer of Instance No. 30 that a professional reader might well have been more annoyed by the sight of this descriptive shortcut than she was by Instance No. 2. And who could fail to feel for the aspiring writer who decided that Instance No. 34 is just what his page 1 needed but did not call upon the descriptive device again for another 273 pages being treated as precisely as repetitious as the writer who elected to place Instances Nos. 5-9 all on the same page?

Oh, you don’t think that really happens? Au contraire, mes amis. I can beat that record in two sentences flat.

There it was again, that odd, vague sensation. It told Erminia without words that something, somewhere, somehow, was wrong.

What sensation?” Millicent demands, ripping her cuffs to shreds. “What is Erminia feeling, precisely? What does she think is wrong, and for what possible narrative reason has the writer chosen to hide the content of her fears from the reader?”

You must admit, these are perfectly reasonable questions. After all, it’s the writer’s job to describe what’s going on in sufficient detail for the reader to be able to picture it, not the reader’s job to fill in the details when the writer prefers to remain vague.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from a hefty minority of the submissions that cross Millicent’s desk on a daily basis. Apparently, there are a whole lot of aspiring writers who believe — wrongly, according to the overwhelming majority of professional readers — that leaving crucial sensations, thoughts, intuitions, and even physical descriptions to the reader’s imagination is not only permissible, but stylish. It’s hard to blame them, really: unless one happened to have had the privilege of reading many manuscripts or contest entries back to back, one wouldn’t have any idea just how common this descriptive shortcut is.

Trust me, it decorates many, many first pages. And contest entries. And dialogue. You’d be astonished at how many novels (and memoirs, actually) open with this well-worn trope — it’s an extremely popular (and thus Millicent-annoying) means of establishing suspense from line 1.

A noise came from behind her, causing Jemima to jump. Silly to be so nervous, when she had been through these woods more times than she could count. Admittedly, she had never been carrying quite this heavy a load of goodies for her grandmother, bread and sausage and pears and three whole roasted chickens.

There it was again. Something was following her; she was sure of it now.

Already, Millicent’s collar is in tatters. “What noise?” she wails, beginning on her right sleeve. “What did it sound like? What does she think is following her, and upon what auditory clues is she basing that conclusion. Also, what do three ands in a row add to this description that would not be adequately conveyed by the grammatically correct bread, sausage, pears, and three whole roasted chickens?”

Does the general pallor that just spread over half my readership’s faces indicate that some of you were under the impression that featuring this kind of and repetition within a single sentence was (a) stylish, (b) technically correct, (c) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once every 50 pages or so, (d) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than every 50 lines or so, (e) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once per paragraph, or (f) all of the above? I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, then.

It’s even worse news if you happen to subscribe to the rather pervasive school of thought that holds that regardless of whether the point of view is in the first, second, or third person — heck, even if it is from the omniscient perspective of Somebody Up There who can pry into every character’s mind — it is always an effective writing technique to make the narrative voice sound like someone speaking out loud in casual conversation in the year in which the manuscript was written. While this can work beautifully for novels and memoirs set in the recent past and written in the first person, chatty contemporary spoken word styles will not fit comfortably with every storyline.

It’s especially jarring in stories set in eras of the past when people spoke more formally — which is to say pretty much anytime prior to the last decade. Every era has its own slang, of course, but there’s no denying that the vagueness of modern conversation would have puzzled Jane Austen exceedingly, either in dialogue or narration.

Everybody knows that a single man who happens to be rich must be looking to get married. Or something.

Whatever you do or don’t know about his feelings or beliefs, no sooner does he set foot in a neighborhood than everyone decides he belongs to one of their daughters. Whatever!

“May one inquire,” Miss Austen demands, ripping her delicate handkerchief in long, clean lines, “to what this author is referring? Why has he elected to dispense with subject-object agreement, that well-belovèd and inflexible rule denoting that the subject of a sentence — in this case, everyone — should agree in number with its object. I would lay it down as a general principle, then, that everyone and his daughter would always be preferred by right-thinking readers to everyone and their daughters. And what, if I may be so bold as to ask, is the significance of whatever in this context?”

Search me, Aunt Jane. Millicent and I have been wondering about that, too.

Another popular species of vagueness in openings — also frequently born, I suspect, out of a desire to create suspense by omission, rather than via a detailed depiction of an inherently tense situation — is a little something we pros like to call the unnamed protagonist cliché. Tellingly, it is also known by another moniker: she ran through the forest…

Oh, you may laugh, but you wouldn’t believe how many manuscripts begin rather like this:

She fled through the forest, her long, red hair whipping against the bundle she hid ineffectually under her cloak in an attempt to shield it from the driving sleet. All she knew was that something was pursuing her, something terrible, something violent. Something that had forced her to leave behind everything she had ever known. Something that had changed her life forever.

Suddenly, a noise came from behind her…

By this point in the afternoon’s reading, poor Millicent’s wardrobe is in tatters. “Who is this woman, and why should I care that her life has changed forever when the narrative hasn’t yet told me anything about her previous life? From what is she fleeing? Am I supposed to think that the bundle is a baby, or am I only thinking that because it was a baby in 15 out of the last 37 similar openings? And why oh why not just tell me what’s chasing her?”

Again, perfectly legitimate questions — but not, it’s probably safe to assume, reactions the author would prefer this opening to elicit from a screener. Or indeed, any reader. Presumably, the writer is hoping that lay reader would read the opening above and murmur, “Heavens, will she get away? What is pursing her? Is the baby alive?” — and be spurred by those questions to keep reading.

Millicent, however, is unlikely to scan even one more line; had I mentioned how frequently she is treated to this kind of false suspense? “Is there any particular reason that I’m being kept in the dark about this broad’s name?” she murmurs, the frayed edges of her garments wafting gently in the air conditioned breeze. “Is it a state secret? Is it really my job to read on until the narrative deigns to tell me something that basic? Or maybe this writer has seen too many movies; in a book written in the third person, you don’t need to wait until someone addresses the protagonist to find out her name.”

Trust me, you’re better off identifying your characters right away.

A few valiant specificity-haters have had their hands in the air for paragraphs on end. “But Anne,” they point out, “in that last example, the writer was obviously just trying to start the story with a bang. You must admit that there’s no shortage of action in that opening, nor is there any serious question about what the book is about: the story that follows is obviously going to concern this woman, her bundle, and all of that red hair in their collective attempt to reach safety from the unnamed threat. Millicent can’t deny that it is exciting!”

Actually, she could — you would be astonished how efficacious sheer repetition can be in sapping the thrill from an exciting-but-common opening scene. And let’s face it, the long, red hair cliché and the everything she had ever known exaggeration would not exactly stun Millicent with their originality, either. Fleeing maidens habitually forget to tie back their long red or blonde hair while they are leaving everything behind, burning their bridges and changing their lives forever, whilst fleeing unnamed pursuers.

Those of us born brunette and/or bob our hair should be deeply grateful, evidently. An alien from the Planet Targ dropped into Millicent’s desk chair to form opinions of life on earth from manuscript submissions would undoubtedly conclude that we dark-haired females alone remain safe at home, rather than being chased by noises offstage into some conveniently nearby woods.

One more omnipresent variety of rend-inducing narrative vagueness, then I shall sign off for an evening of peaceful brunette serenity. See if anything in the following little gem strikes you as a potential Millicent-irritant.

As smoke curled up Blair’s nostrils, the irreality of the situation smote his consciousness head-on. It was like a movie: he simply observed his nearest and dearest go up in flames. As much as he longed to change the channel, he couldn’t.

Actually, there were two classic pet peeves cunningly concealed in that compact paragraph; did you catch them? First, the it was just like a movie trope has been so widely used in submissions since the 1920s that even the most recently hired Millicent is likely to regard it as a cliché at this late date. A more experienced Millicent might also regard it as the narrative shorthand it is: rather than showing readers precisely how and why Blair experienced the situation as divorced from his real life, the narrative not only chooses to tell us in just a few words what it was like — the writer is presuming that every reader will know precisely what she means by it was like a movie.

In essence, then, the writer is expecting the reader to guess in what specific ways Blair’s experience was filmic. And we all know how Millicent feels about that species of narrative expectation, right?

“Is it my job to provide the necessary description?” she fumes, taking a stapler to her hitherto undamaged skirt. “Isn’t it the writer’s responsibility to, well, write?”

Come on, admit it: she has a point. She would also be well within her rights to call out the narrative for its other professional reader-piquer, the mixed metaphor.

Oh, you didn’t catch it? Although we are told that Blair’s current situation is like a movie, he longs to change the channel as if he were watching television.

Someone didn’t reread this submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, clearly.

What’s the cumulative moral here? Select your words with care — remember, all Millicent, or any reader, actually knows about the scene you are presenting is what you describe on the page. Yes, it’s undoubtedly quicker and more convenient to allow the reader to fill in the minutiae, but if you resort to vagueness or shorthand, how can you be sure that every reader will come up with the specifics you intend?

Or to put it another way: isn’t your creative vision worth conveying in detail?

And for heaven’s sake, tempestuous redheads and blondes-in-peril, grab a barrette or a baseball cap on your way out the door. Perhaps without all of that hair flying about in your eyes, you can finally get a good look at who or what is pursuing you.

Maybe then you could describe it to us. Keep up the good work!

Author! Author! interviews: a chat with Song of the Crow author Layne Maheu about literary fiction, seven-year revisions, and what to do when the water rises above your head

Sorry about the several-day silence, campers — I’ve been trying to adjust to a new set-up. Since my car crash last July, I haven’t been able to write at a desk, so I had become accustomed to writing my blog posts on a laptop while reclining like an ancient Roman at a feast. When the docs told me this week to stop taking that whole laptop thing so literally, I had to figure out a new way to recline whilst typing. It turns out to be doable, but very, very slow.

What’s that you say? That the point of the advice may have been to stop me from typing altogether? I may not be hearing you correctly, what with my fingers stuck in my ears and all.

Besides, my will to communicate is just too strong. This does, however, seem like a dandy time to post another in what I hope will be a long and productive series of interviews with published authors about the craft of writing and the often rocky road to publication. After the rollicking success of February’s highly interesting discussion of literary fiction with debut novelist Heidi Durrow, I’ve been blandishing all kinds of authors into sitting down to chat about their first books.

Why first books, rather than just their most recent offerings? Well, frankly, I feel that there are already quite a few venues for the latter, but surprisingly few where authors, particularly those with recent debuts, are encouraged to talk about the day-to-day challenges, hurdles, and triumphs of writing, at least at the level of specificity we prefer here at Author! Author! I wanted to talk to writers with interesting voices about how they developed them. And to be blunt about it, I wanted to grill them on your behalf about how they went about landing their agents.

Today’s interview with literary fiction author Layne Maheu will cover all of that, of course. But as the second offering in this series, it seems particularly appropriate to be talking to an author positioned at what used to be universally acknowledged as a crucial point in his career: after having produced a well-received first novel, he is finishing up revisions on his second. We began the interview, not entirely surprisingly, by chatting about the inspiration for his first.