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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

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

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

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

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part V: push-polling the reader, and other tell-tale signs that you’ve slipped into Hollywood narration

Aspiring writer on the job, keeping the metropolis safe from Hollywood Narration

Aspiring writer on the job, making the world safe from Hollywood Narration

Hello again, campers —

I’m hoping to get back to generating brand-new posts sometime next week; the hand doc turned pale at hearing how often and how much I usually post, but I entertain high hopes of his getting over the shock soon. In the meantime, I am re-running some older posts on constructing effective interview scenes, to keep those revision gears chugging in everybody’s brains. Just so those of you who read it the first time around won’t be too bored, I reserve the right to interpolate comments or make small changes from time to time — or, in this case, add huge, honking sub-sections — but for the most part, I shall be husbanding by hand strength by posting these pretty much as is.

Before anyone decides the result is unlikely to be relevant to the types of manuscript revision we have been discussing, the interview scene is one of the most frequently-muffed types of dialogue; unfortunately, it’s also among the most common, period. Interview scenes, for the benefit of those of you joining us late in this conversation, are spates of dialogue where one character (usually the protagonist) is trying to extract information (the pursuit of which is often the driving force behind the plot) from another character (sometimes, but not always, historically reluctant to spill.)

In discussing interview scenes, we’ve also talked quite a bit about Hollywood narration, my term for a scene where Character 1 tells Character 2 a bit of information or backstory of which both 1 & 2 are already aware, purely so the reader may learn it. Yet Hollywood narration is not the only questionable tool writers sometimes use to shovel heaping piles of extraneous facts into a narrative.

Today, I shall discuss a few others. Enjoy!

You know how I keep saying that real life perpetually volunteers examples at just the point I could really, really use them on the blog? Well, it’s happened again: I was actually writing yesterday’s post on Hollywood Narration and how annoying a poor interviewer character can be, when the phone rang: it was a pre-recorded, computerized political opinion poll.

Now, I don’t find polls much fun to take, but since I used to do quite a bit of political writing, I know that the mere fact that the polled so often hang up on such calls can skew the accuracy of the results. Case in point: the number of percentage points by which most polls miscalled the last presidential election’s results.

So I stayed on the line, despite the graininess of the computer-generated voice, so poorly rendered that I occasionally had trouble making out even proper names. A minute or so in, the grating narrator began retailing the respective virtues and aspirations of only two candidates in a multi-player mayoral race — neither of the candidates so lauded was the current mayor, I couldn’t help but notice — asking me to evaluate the two without reference to any other candidate.

In politics, this is called a push poll: although ostensibly, its goal is to gather information from those it calls, its primary point is to convey information to them, both as advertisement and to see if responders’ answers change after being fed certain pieces of information. In this poll, for instance, the inhumanly blurred voice first inquired which of nine candidates I was planning to honor with my vote (“I haven’t made up my mind yet because the primary is a month and a half away” was not an available option, although “no opinion” was ), then heaped me with several paragraphs of information about Candidate One, a scant paragraph about Candidate Two, before asking me which of the two I intended to support.

Guess which they wanted my answer to be?

Contrary to popular opinion, although push polls are usually used to disseminate harmful information about an opponent (through cleverly-constructed questions like, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Candidate X if you knew that he secretly belonged to a cult that regularly sacrifices goats, chickens, and the odd goldfish?”), the accuracy of the information conveyed is not the defining factor, but the fact of masking advertisement under the guise of asking questions, In a well-designed push poll, it’s hard to tell which candidates or issues are being promoted, conveying the illusion of being even-handed, to preserve the impression of being an impartial poll.

Yesterday’s call, however, left no doubt whatsoever as to which local candidates had commissioned it: the list of a local city councilwoman’s attributes took almost twice as long for the robot voice to utter, at a level of clarity that made the other candidates’ briefer, purely factual blurb sound, well, distinctly inferior. Even his name was pronounced less distinctly. To anyone even vaguely familiar with how polls are constructed, it was completely obvious that the questions had, at best, been constructed to maximize the probability of certain responses, something that legitimate pollsters take wincing pains to avoid, as well as to cajole innocent phone-answerers into listening to an endorsement for a political candidate.

To be blunt, I haven’t heard such obvious plugging since the last time I attended a party at a literary conference, when an agent leaned over me in a hot tub to pitch a client’s book at the editor floating next to me. In fact, it’s the only push poll I’ve ever encountered that actually made me change my mind about voting for a candidate that I formerly respected.

{Present-day Anne here: FYI, she lost.}

Why am I telling you fine people about this at all, since I seldom write here on political issues and I haven’t mentioned who the commissioning candidate was ? (And I’m not going to — the pushed candidate is someone who has done some pretty good things for the city in the past, and is furthermore reputed to be a holy terror to those who cross her — although something tells me it may crop up when I share this story with my neighbors at the July 4th potluck. Unlike the polling firm, I’m not out to affect the outcome of the election.)

I’m bringing it up because of what writers can learn from this handily-timed phone call. True, we could glean from it that, obviously, far too much of my education was devoted to learning about how statistics are generated. A savvy interpreter might also conclude that cutting campaign expenditures by hiring polling firms that use badly-faked human voices is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

But most vital to our ongoing series, in an interview scene, it’s important to make it clear who is the information-solicitor and who the information-revealer.

If the interviewer’s biases are heavy-handedly applied, he/she/the computer-generated voice appears to be trying to influence the content of the answers by how the questions are phrased. (As pretty much all political poll questions are designed to do; sorry to shatter anyone’s illusions on the subject, but I’ve written them in the past.) While a pushy interviewer can make for an interesting scene if the interviewee resists his/her/its ostensibly subtle blandishments, the reader may well side against a protagonist who interviews like a push-poller.

The moral of the story: impartial questions are actually rather rare in real life. When constructing an interview scene, it’s vital to be aware of that — and how much interviewees tend to resent being push-polled, if they realize that’s what’s happening.

Got all that? Good. Because the plot is about to thicken in an even more instructive way. Let us return to our story of civic communicative ineptitude, already in progress.

Being a good citizen, as well as having more than a passing familiarity with how much a poorly-executed campaign ad (which this poll effectively was) can harm an otherwise praiseworthy candidate, I took the time out of my busy schedule to drop the campaign manager an e-mail. I felt pretty virtuous for doing this: I was probably not the only potential voter annoyed by the pseudo-poll, but I was probably the only one who would actually contact the campaign to say why.

You know me; I’m all about generating useful feedback.

So I sent it off and thought no more about it — until this morning, when the campaign manager sent me the following e-mailed reply:

Dear Dr. Mini,

Thank you for your comments. We appreciate the feedback on any of our voter contact and outreach efforts. In everything we do, we want to make the best and most professional impression. You are right that automated surveys are cost competitive {sic}. In this situation, the need for feedback from voters was important {sic} and we hope that almost everyone was able to hear the questions clearly.

I have included the following link to an article on what push polling is {sic} (address omitted, but here’s the relevant link). I assure you that our campaign does not and will not ever be involved in push polling.

Thank you for supporting (his candidate) for Mayor {sic}.

At first glance, this appears to be a fairly polite, if poorly punctuated, response, doesn’t it? He acknowledged the fact that I had taken the time to communicate my critique, gave a justification (albeit an indirect one) for having used computerized polling, and reassured an anxious potential voter that his candidate’s policy was to eschew a practice that I had informed him I found offensive.

On a second read, he’s saying that he’s not even going to check in with the pollsters to see if my objections were valid, since obviously I am stone-deaf and have no idea what push polling is. Oh, and since push polling is bad, and his candidate is not bad, therefore no polls commissioned on her behalf could possibly be push polling. Thank you.

In short: vote for my candidate anyway, so I may head up the future mayor’s staff. But otherwise, go away, and you shouldn’t have bugged me in the first place.

To add stupidity icing to the cake of insolence, the article to which he referred me for enlightenment on how I had misdefined push polling confirmed my use of the term, not his: “A call made for the purposes of disseminating information under the guise of survey is still a fraud – and thus still a ‘push poll’ – even if the facts of the ‘questions’ are technically true or defensible.”

Wondering again why I’m sharing this sordid little episode with you? Well, first, to discourage any of you from making the boneheaded mistake of not bothering to read an article before forwarding the link to somebody. An attempt to pull intellectual rank is never so apparent as when if falls flat on its face.

Second, see how beautifully his resentment that I had brought up the issue at all shines through what is ostensibly a curt business letter, one that he probably thought was restrained and professional when he hit the SEND key? If any of you is ever tempted to respond by e-mail, letter, or phone to a rejection from an agent or editor, this is precisely why you should dismiss the idea immediately as self-destructive: when even very good writers are angry, they tend not to be the best judges of the tone of their own work.

And when a writer is less talented…well, you see the result above.

Another reason you should force yourself not to hit SEND: such follow-ups are considered both rude and a waste of time by virtually everyone in the industry. (For a fuller explanation why, please see my earlier post on the subject.) Like a campaign manager’s telling an offended voter that her concerns are irrelevant for semantic reasons, it’s just not a strategy that’s at all likely to convince your rejecter that his earlier opinion of you was mistaken.

Trust me: I’ve been on every conceivable side of this one. Just hold your peace — unless, of course, you would like the recipient of your missive to do precisely what I’ve done here, tell everyone within shouting distance precisely what happened when you didn’t observe the standing norms of professionalism and courtesy.

Yes, it happens. As you see, the anecdote can be made very funny.

Okay, back to the business at hand. Last time, I sensed some of you writers of first-person narratives cringing at the prospect of minimizing the occurrence of Hollywood narration in your manuscripts.

Oh, don’t deny it: at least 10% of you novelists, and close to 100% of memoir-writers — read through my excoriation of Hollywood narration and thought, “Oh, no — my narrator is CONSTANTLY updating the reader on what’s going on, what has gone on, other characters’ motivations, and the like. I thought that was okay, because I hear that done in movies all the time. But if Hollywood narration on the printed page is one of Millicent the agency screener’s numerous pet peeves, I’d better weed out anything in my manuscript that sounds remotely like screenplay dialogue, and pronto! But where should I begin? HELP!”

Okay, take a deep breath: I’m not saying that every piece of movie-type dialogue is a red flag if it appears in a manuscript. What I’ve been arguing is that including implausible movie-type dialogue can be fatal to a manuscript’s chances.

Remember, in defining Hollywood narration, I’m not talking about when voice-overs are added to movies out of fear that the audience might not be able to follow the plot otherwise — although, having been angry since 1982 about that ridiculous voice-over tacked onto BLADE RUNNER, I’m certainly not about to forgive its producers now. (If you’ve never seen either of the released versions of the director’s cut, knock over anybody you have to at the video store to grab it from the shelf. It’s immeasurably better — and much closer to the rough cut that Philip K. Dick saw himself before he died. Trust me on this one.)

No, I’m talking about where characters suddenly start talking about their background information, for no apparent reason other than that the plot or character development requires that the audience learn about the past. If you have ever seen any of the many films of Steven Spielberg, you must know what I mean. Time and time again, his movies stop cold so some crusty old-timer, sympathetic matron, or Richard Dreyfus can do a little expository spouting of backstory.

You can always tell who the editors in the audience are at a screening of a Spielberg film, by the way; we’re the ones hunched over in our seats, muttering, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell!” like demented fiends.

I probably shouldn’t pick on Spielberg (but then, speaking of films based on my friend Philip’s work, have I ever forgiven him for changing the ending of MINORITY REPORT?), because this technique is so common in films and television that it’s downright hackneyed. Sometimes, there’s even a character whose sole function in the plot is to be a sort of dictionary of historical information.

For my nickel, the greatest example of this by far was the Arthur Dietrich character on the old BARNEY MILLER television show. Dietrich was a humanoid NEW YORK TIMES, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and KNOW YOUR CONSTITUTION rolled up into one. (He also, several episodes suggested, had a passing familiarity with the KAMA SUTRA as well — but hey, it was the ‘70s.) Whenever anything needed explaining, up popped Dietrich, armed with the facts: the more obscure the better.

The best thing about the Dietrich device is that the show’s writers used it very self-consciously as a device, rather than pretending that it wasn’t. The other characters relied upon Dietrich’s knowledge to save them research time, but visibly resented it as well. After a season or so, the writers started using the pause where the other characters realize that they should ask Dietrich to regurgitate as a comic moment.

(From a fledgling writer’s perspective, though, the best thing about the show in general was the Ron Harris character, an aspiring writer stuck in a day job he both hates and enjoys while he’s waiting for his book to hit the big time. Even when I was in junior high school, I identified with Harris.)

Unfortunately, human encyclopedia characters are seldom handled this well, nor is conveying information through dialogue. Still, as we discussed yesterday, most of us have become accustomed to it, so people who point it out seem sort of like the kid in THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES:

”Why has Mr. Spielberg stopped the action to let that man talk for three solid minutes about backstory, Mommy?”

”Hush, child. There’s nothing odd about that. In film, it’s an accepted narrative convention.”

In a book, there’s plenty odd about that, and professional readers are not slow to point it out. It may seem strange that prose stylists would be more responsible than screenwriters for reproducing conversations as they might plausibly be spoken, but as I keep pointing out, I don’t run the universe.

I can’t make screenwriters –or political operatives — do as I wish; I have accepted that, and have moved on.

However, as a writer and editor, I can occasionally make the emperor put some clothes on, if only for the novelty of it. And I don’t know if you noticed, but wasn’t it far more effective for me to allow the campaign manager to hang himself with his own words, allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions about his communication skills and tact levels before I gave my narrative opinion of them, rather than the other way around? Trick o’ the trade.

Trust me, when Millicent is pondering submissions, you want your manuscript to fall into the novelty category, not the far more common reads-like-a-movie-script pile. Which, as often as not, also serves as the rejection pile.

No, I’m not kidding about that. By and large, agents, editors, and contest judges share this preference for seeing their regents garbed — so much so that the vast majority of Millicents are trained simply to stop reading a submission when it breaks out into Hollywood narration. In fact, it’s such a pervasive professional reader’s pet peeve that I have actually heard professional readers quote Hollywood narration found in a submitted manuscript aloud, much to the disgusted delight of their confreres.

Funny to observe? Oh, my, yes — unless you happen to be the aspiring writer who submitted that dialogue.

What may we learn from this degrading spectacle? At minimum, that if your characters tell one another things they already know is not going to win your manuscript any friends. There’s a lesson about bad laughter to be learned here as well: if a device is over-used in submissions — as Hollywood narration undoubtedly is — using it too broadly or too often in a manuscript can in and of itself provoke a bad laugh from a pro.

And that, too, is bad, at least for your manuscript’s prospects of making it past Millicent. As a general rule of thumb, one bad laugh is enough to get a submission rejected.

This danger looms particularly heavily over first-person narratives, especially ones that aspire to a funny voice. All too often, first-person narratives will rely upon the kind of humor that works when spoken — the anecdotal kind, the kind so frequently used in onscreen Hollywood narration — not realizing that pretty much by definition, a spoken joke does not contain sufficient detail to be funny on the printed page.

Especially on a printed page where the narrator is simultaneously trying to sound as if he’s engaging the reader in everyday conversation and provide the necessary backstory for the reader to follow what’s going on. Think, for instance, of the stereotypical voice-over in a film noir:

Someone kicked my office door down, and this blonde walked in on legs that could have stretched from here to Frisco and back twice, given the proper incentive. She looked like a lady it wouldn’t be hard to incite.

Now, that would be funny spoken aloud, wouldn’t it? On the page, though, the reader would expect more than just a visual description — or at any rate, a more complex one.

Present-day Anne breaking in again here, feeling compelled to point out two things. First, people from San Francisco have historically hated it when others refer to it as Frisco, by the way. It’s safe to assume that Millicent from there will, too.

Second, and more important for revision purposes, memoirs fall into this trap ALL THE TIME — and it’s as fatal a practice in a book proposal or contest entry as it is in a manuscript. It may be counterintuitive that an anecdote that’s been knocking ‘em dead for years at cocktail parties might not be funny — or poignant, for that matter — when the same speech is reproduced verbatim on the page, but I assure you that such is the case.

The result? Any Millicent working for a memoir-representing agent spends days on end scanning submissions that read like this:

So there I was, listening to my boss go on and on about his fishing vacation, when I notice that he’s got a hand-tied fly stuck in his hair. I’m afraid to swipe my hand at it, because I might end up with a hook in my thumb, and besides, Thom hadn’t drawn breath for fifteen minutes; if the room had been on fire, he wouldn’t want to be disturbed.

The fly keeps bobbing up and down. I keep swishing my bangs out of my eyes, hoping he will start to copy me. Then he absent-mindedly started to shove his hair out of his eyes — and rammed his pinkie finger straight into the fly. That’s a fish story he’ll be telling for years!

Did those paragraphs make your hands grope unconsciously for highlighting pens and correction fluid? After all of our discussion of Frankenstein manuscripts and how to revise them, I sincerely hope so. Like so many verbal anecdotes, this little gem wanders back and forth between the past and present tenses, contains run-on sentences, and is light on vivid detail.

For our purposes today, however, what I want you to notice is how flat the telling is. Both the suspense and the comedy are there, potentially, but told this tersely, neither really jumps off the page at the reader. It reads like a summary, rather than as a scene.

It is, in short, told, not shown. The sad part is, the more exciting the anecdote, the more this kind of summary narration will deaden the story.

Don’t believe me? Okay, snuggle yourself into Millicent’s reading chair and take a gander at this sterling piece of memoir, a fairly representative example of the kind of action scene she sees in both memoir and autobiographical fiction submissions:

The plane landed in the jungle, and we got off. The surroundings looked pretty peaceful, but I had read up on the deadly snakes and vicious mountain cats that lurked in the underbrush. Suddenly, I heard a scream, and Avery, the magazine writer in the Bermuda shorts, went down like a sacked football player. He hadn’t even seen the cat coming.

While I was bending over him, tending his slashed eye, an anaconda slowly wrapped itself around my ankle. By the time I noticed that I had no circulation in my toes, it was too late.

Now, that’s an inherently exciting story, right? But does the telling do it justice? Wouldn’t it work better if the narrative presented this series of events as a scene, rather than a summary?

Ponder that, please, as we return to the discussion already in progress.

To professional readers, humor is a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two of a partial, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

But think about why the Frisco example above made you smile, if it did: was if because the writing itself was amusing, or because it was a parody of a well-known kind of Hollywood narration? (And in the story about the campaign manager, didn’t you find it just a trifle refreshing that he didn’t speak exactly like a character on THE WEST WING?)

More to the point, if you were Millicent, fated to screen 50 manuscripts before she can take the long subway ride home to her dinner, would you be more likely to read that passage as thigh-slapping, or just another tired piece of dialogue borrowed from the late-night movie?

The moral, should you care to know it: just because a writer intends a particular piece of Hollywood narration to be funny or ironic doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t push the usual Hollywood narration buttons.

I shudder to tell you this, but the costs of such narrative experimentation can be high. If a submission tries to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

I hear some resigned sighing out there. “Okay, Anne,” a few weary voices pipe, “you’ve scared me out of the DELIBERATE use of Hollywood narration. But if it’s as culturally pervasive as you say it is, am I not in danger of using it, you know, inadvertently?”

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is that you’re absolutely right, weary questioners: we’ve all heard so much Hollywood Narration in our lives that it is often hard for the author to realize she’s reproducing it. Here is where a writers’ group or editor can really come in handy: before you submit your manuscript, it might behoove you to have an eagle-eyed friend read through it, ready to scrawl in the margins, “Wait — doesn’t the other guy already know this?”

So can any other good first reader, of course, if you’re not into joining groups, but for the purposes of catching Hollywood narration and other logical problems, more eyes tend to be better than fewer. Not only are multiple first readers more likely to notice any narrative gaffe than a single one — that’s just probability, right? — but when an aspiring writer selects only one first reader, he usually chooses someone who shares his cultural background.

His politics, in other words. His educational level. His taste in television and movie viewing — and do you see where I’m heading with this? If you’re looking for a reader who is going to flag when your dialogue starts to sound Spielbergish, it might not be the best idea to recruit the person with whom you cuddle up on the couch to watch the latest Spielberg flick, might it?

I just mention.

One excellent request to make of first readers when you hand them your manuscript is to ask them to flag any statement that any character makes that could logically be preceded by variations upon the popular phrases, “as you know,” “as I told you,” “don’t you remember that,” and/or “how many times do I have to tell you that…”

Ask them to consider: should the lines that follow these statements be cut? Do they actually add meaning to the scene, or are they just the author’s subconscious way of admitting that this is Hollywood narration?

Another good indicator that dialogue might be trending in the wrong direction: if a character asks a question to which s/he already knows the answer (“Didn’t your brother also die of lockjaw, Aunt Barb?”), what follows is pretty sure to be Hollywood narration.

Naturally, not all instances will be this cut-and-dried, but these tests will at least get you into the habit of spotting them. When in doubt, reread the sentence in question and ask yourself: “What is this character getting out making this statement, other than doing me the favor of conveying this information to the reader?”

Flagging the warning signs is a trick that works well for isolated writers self-editing, too: once again, those highlighter pens are a revising writer’s best friends. Mark the relevant phrases, then go back through the manuscript, reexamining the sentences that surround them to see whether they should be reworked into more natural dialogue.

And while you’re at it, would you do me a favor, please, novelists? Run, don’t walk, to the opening scene of your novel (or the first five pages, whichever is longer) and highlight all of the backstory presented there. Then reread the scene WITHOUT any of the highlighted text.

Tell me — does it still hang together dramatically? Does the scene still make sense? Is there any dialogue left in it at all?

If you answered “By gum, no!” to any or all of these questions, sit down and ponder one more: does the reader really need to have all of the highlighted information from the get-go? Or am I just so used to voice-overs and characters spouting Hollywood narration that I thought it was necessary when I first drafted it but actually isn’t?

Okay, that’s more than enough homework for one day, I think, and enough civic involvement for one day. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part II: consistency, consistency, consistency. And did I mention consistency?

partial trees

A quick reminder before we get begin today’s free-for-all: this coming Monday, May 31, is the deadline for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. To allow each and every one of you to squeeze every last second of productive time out of your Memorial Day weekend, entries do not need to be date-stamped until midnight in your time zone.

I would especially love to see entries from those of you who have spent the last couple of weeks reading my super-close analysis of a reader’s opening pages and slowly turning bright green with envy: here is your chance to subject YOUR first page to similar scrutiny, free, gratis, and without charge. And not only my scrutiny, either: the quite genuinely fabulous Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the newly-released YA novel WHISPER, has graciously agreed to join me in this critiquing venture.

The complete rules, should you care to take a peek at them, may be found here. We shall now rejoin the blog already in progress.

Yesterday, as sometimes happens, the universe obligingly stepped up and provided me with a simply delightful metaphor for what we were already in the depths of talking about here at Author! Author! Accompany me, if you will, to the wildlife-harboring, honeybee-attracting, neighbor-annoying thicket of blackberry bushes that spans the wee creek running outside my house.

Okay, so maybe the snapshot above doesn’t really give you much of an idea of it. If you squint at that mass of green behind the trees, though, you may see the yellow glint of raccoon eyes.

Due to a brisk little bout of rezoning a few years back, all of the land above us on our hill has been concreted or asphalted over, so we like to keep some of our yard wild for the sake of the critters. (Also, so the abundant local rainfall has someplace to go — hasn’t anyone else noticed that as more and more land is paved and built over, overflowing rivers have less and less ground to suck up excess? Why is anyone surprised that flooding ensues?)

Not all of our neighbors are crazy about our impromptu wildlife sanctuary. Why, only last autumn, one set of civic-minded folk expressed their aesthetic opinions by flinging a large wooden pallet formerly used for their building materials into the aforementioned blackberry bushes.

I was all for moving it immediately: it was partially on public land. What if, I asked my significant other, the city suddenly took it into its collective head to cut back the part of the thicket that impinges upon the road, as it occasionally does? Once the blackberries grew over the pallet, wasn’t a sleepy public employee only too likely to run his mower smack into it? And since I was neither physically strong nor raccoon-repellent enough to extricate the pallet from its green grave myself (wildlife interprets my cries of “Shoo!” as “Here’s your dinner!”), was my SO not the logical candidate to head off that municipal disaster by moving the silly thing before, say, any city-owned machinery were permanently incapacitated and we were fined?

In the time-honored tradition of inter-spouse communications all over this great land of ours, my SO chose to regard these questions as purely rhetorical. He must have found them interesting food for thought, however, if not action, as the pitter-patter of tiny raccoon feet on wood slats prompted me to repeat these questions roughly once per month. I can only attribute his not actually doing anything about the pallet to a great and abiding love of the sound of my voice — and to an oft-expressed opinion that the neighbors should clean up their trash themselves.

Yesterday, about a month after the neighbors in question had moved away (much to the relief of local wildlife), I was startled from my daily creative reverie by the immistakable racket of heavy machinery being driven up our hill by someone rather unused to the task. The clipper attachment dragged on the ground.

I went running into my SO’s study. (Actually, I limped slowly, due to my recent back injury, but allow me a bit of creative latitude here.) “They’ve come for our blackberry bushes! Did you ever manage to move that pallet?”

He admitted that he had not; the neighbors, he said, should have taken care of it. Upon further questioning and a spirited discussion on the nature of reality vs. wishful thinking and the annoying imperatives of linear time, he was heard to opine that it was now too late now to do anything about it.

Well, as long-time readers of this blog are, I hope, quite well aware, I’ve never been a big fan of letting fixable problems just lie there. Upon my repeated urgings, he begrudgingly invested the roughly 2 1/2 minutes required to shout at the operator to stop, free the pallet, and moving to our garbage bin. He explained glibly throughout about the nature of linear time and our deadbeat ex-neighbors’ ethical shortcomings.

The municipal handyman was effusively grateful. “I never would have seen that. It would have smashed up my machine.”

“Naturally,” my SO said, with a perfectly straight face. “Anyone could have predicted that.”

What does this little domestic homily have to do with our ongoing discussion of necessary manuscript revisions, you ask? Why, I should have thought that was obvious: if you wish to please a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener, there’s just no substitute for taking the time to learn the rules of grammar, spelling, structure, and formatting, incorporate them consistently into your text — and then, before you submit your manuscript, double-checking how you have implemented those rules by reading your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Oh, that wasn’t your first thought after reading that anecdote? How puzzling. What about if I put it this way: if you know the rules but don’t implement them every time, you should expect Millicent to be annoyed when she stumbles over them in your submission.

But most of us writers don’t expect that, do we? In fact, even the submitters of the most egregiously error-prone manuscripts and contest entries are both astonished and hurt when agents, editors, and contest judges respond as though not unprofessionally-presented writing were bad writing, or as if an apparently unproofread first page were an infallible indicator of a manuscript rife with spelling, grammatical, and logic problems.

To spare anyone reading this any shocks in future: they will respond that way, predictably. In their minds, it’s the writer’s job to free a manuscript of distracting errors, rather than a professional reader’s job to try to see past those errors in order to discover new writing talent.

And it’s not enough to present your writing professionally in some parts of your manuscript and not others, either; a pallet hidden deep in the weeds is as likely to wreck the machinery as one left out in the open. But if the inflexible rules of spelling, grammar, and connective logic are the necessary foundation of a strong submission, consistency is the hallmark of a strong authorial voice.

Just in case I’m being too subtle about what this means for submissions: the Millicents of this world just abhor inconsistency in manuscripts, whether those gaffes lie in the realm of format, spelling, grammar, story details, style, or tone — and with good reason. People who read manuscripts for a living are trained to spot and deplore unevenness.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: as a result of this necessary but rather pedantic focus, a manuscript whose voice is sure and consistent tends to strike Millicent’s tired eyes like the sight of a cool river on a blazing summer day.

Why is it such a rare sight? Well, think about it: very, very few of us, no matter how talented we might happen to be, find our authorial voices the first time we sit down to write a novel. Or memoir. Or any other type of book, for that matter. It’s not even all that uncommon for a good writer to finish the first draft of her first novel, only to discover that her voice is significantly stronger, or even quite different, at the end of the book than at the beginning.

That should not surprise us very much, should it? After all, no one is born a technically perfect writer. And even after a writer has honed her professional toolkit, consistent authorial voice requires work to produce — and usually quite a bit of revision and re-reading.

Those of you who write only when you feel inspired are squirming right now, aren’t you?

I’m not astonished by that reaction — all too often, we writers talk about voice as though it were more or less synonymous with talent, as if it were something a writer is either born with or not. I don’t think that’s true. Oh, it’s true enough that talent can’t be learned, but craft can be, and many a great sentence-builder has missed becoming a great writer because she relied too much on the former at the expense of developing the latter.

Here’s a novel thought: consistent voice is almost always the product not of original inspiration, but of conscientious revision.

Let that one sink in for a moment. I’ll wait. I’ve got this pretty view to ponder.

Voice is more than self-expression, a way of writing a sentence, or even inspiration: it’s tone, level of detail, analytical perception, sense of humor, rhythm, and all of the other hyper-personalized ways in which one writer tells a story differently than another. Learning to wield these weighty tools to produce a consistent and seemingly effortless result takes practice, patience, and much trial and error.

Or, to put it another way: it’s a whole lot harder to write a good book than a good individual sentence, paragraph, or scene. Why? Because the alchemy doesn’t need to come together only once, as it does in a well-written sentence; it has to come together every time, and in a similar way.

On an artistic level, I’m always thrilled when a client (or any other talented writer, for that matter) finds her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work to come. Because, you see, once a writer discovers the right voice and perspective for the story he’s telling, he will have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, back to the Frankenstein manuscript, doesn’t it? Funny how that worked out.

A Frankenstein manuscript, for those of you joining us late, is a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, may create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

To forestall your getting blank looks at writers’ conferences, I should hastily add: this is my personal nickname for such a book, not an industry-wide moniker. (Although since this blog has readers in circles in circles that might surprise you, the term has been gaining currency over the last couple of years.) I assure you, however, every single agent and editor currently working in North America is aware of the phenomenon and dreads it — because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Especially, alas, a writer so excited by an agent’s request for materials that he simply prints out the latest version of his manuscript and sends it off right away. Regardless of where it might happen to be in the revision process, getting it out the door before the requesting agent changes her mind seems more important than taking the time to make sure that each and every revision has been implemented consistently all the way through the manuscript.

I won’t make those of you who have fallen into this trap, only to kick yourself later, raise your hands. You know who you are.

The fact that aspiring writers generally don’t realize that their manuscripts are uneven should not surprise us unduly, right? Writing a book takes a long time: authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK — which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Let me repeat that, as it’s awfully important: there is absolutely no way to diagnose and treat a manuscript’s Frankensteinish tendencies without sitting down and reading the whole darned thing. Preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

If the prospect of improving artistically is not enough to set you running for your comfy reading chair, pronto, here’s an excellent marketing incentive to send you scurrying in that direction, manuscript in hand: unfortunately for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author.

Translation: if you don’t catch the problem, they will. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript on your hands, you are far, far better off recognizing the fact yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

Again, not precisely a surprise, is it?

But for most aspiring writers, tackling an entire manuscript, even if its their own, is a rather overwhelming prospect — so much so that many simply dismiss the idea of reading their own manuscripts in their entirety, much less fixing them, as impracticable. To assuage some of those fears, let’s embrace the old-time editors’ trick of attacking only one manuscript megaproblem at a time.

Seriously, revision is a process, not a one-time deal: breaking up that immense task into bite-sized pieces and eating them one at a time is far more sensible than trying to force your psyche to think about every conceivable problem in a 400-page manuscript simultaneously. Worry about the totality of the diagnosing and revising down the line — just for now, focus on only one easily fixable gaffe and repair that.

You can read through your work, searching for only a single problem, can’t you? Piece o’ proverbial cake.

Then, after you are positive that your manuscript is perfect in that respect, pick another megaproblem and work on that — for every page of the manuscript, so you may be absolutely positive that you haven’t missed anything. Repeat as often as necessary. When you are pretty sure that you’ve systematically rooted out all of the ongoing problems, sit down and read your manuscript — wait for it — IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, to catch any remaining Frankenstein tendencies.

Sound time-consuming? It is. But it’s far, far less likely either to drive you mad or lead you to throw up your hands in despair and abandon the book altogether than trying to tackle a universal revision in one fell swoop.

Don’t shrug off the latter danger as improbable, please: revision burnout is a very real phenomenon. I’ve seen many, many more promising manuscripts tossed into trash cans by their writers out of despair over how long revision might take than out of anger at rejection.

In the spirit of incremental progress, let’s begin with a single, extremely common manifestation of Frankensteinery with an eye to rooting it out of the manuscript: the text that hasn’t yet really decided which tense it is in, and so meanders back and forth between (usually) the present and the past.

In fiction, the explanation for this phenomenon is usually pretty straightforward: the writer thought at one point that it would be nifty to write the book in the present tense, realized part-way through that it’s darned difficult to tell a story that way (how does one writing in the present tense of events that have been in progress for some time, for instance?), and changed to the past. Only in the transition process, not all of the verbs got changed.

Oops. What an annoying-yet-easily-fixable problem.

Spotting this particular Frankenstein problem is great practice for sharpening your editorial eye, because once you’re on the look-out for improper tenses, they will just start leaping off the page at you. (Hint: don’t try to catch them on your computer screen; sit down with a hard copy of your latest draft and a highlighting pen.) Quite quickly, you’ll begin to regard those tense slips in the same light as Millicent does: like an indicator that the writer did not take the time to sit down and re-read his work after revision.

Hmm, where have I heard before that such a course of action really isn’t the best strategic move? I’m sure it will come to me…

Fair warning: sometimes tense slips are intentional. Sometimes — and this one is more common in nonfiction, notoriously so in memoir — the writer just thinks it’s cool to present past events in the present tense. It sounds more colloquial that way, she reasons, the way someone might tell an anecdote verbally.

The trouble is, flipping past actions into the present tense can rapidly become darned confusing for the reader. To illustrate how and why, let’s take a gander at a favorite (and kind of surprising, from so usually consistent a writer) example of mine, Sarah Vowell’s THE WORDY SHIPMATES:

Williams in Salem is such a myopic researcher of biblical truth he doesn’t care who gets hurt. His intellectual fervor, coupled with a disregard of practical consequences, reminds me of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, running his secret Manhattan Project lab in Los Alamos with a single-minded zeal, then quoting the Bhagavad Gita as the first test of his atomic bomb lights up the desert. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he said.

Now, this paragraph makes perfect sense, on one level: an intelligent reader could figure out that the narrator is in the present, talking about Oppenheimer and Williams in the past. But quick, tell me based upon this passage alone: who was born first, Oppenheimer or Williams?

If you said Oppenheimer, you were following the hint given by the tense choices in this passage. Since Oppenheimer is clearly speaking in the past, and Williams is presented in the present tense, the implication is that Williams is the more recent trodder of the earth’s crust, right? Perhaps even a contemporary of Vowell’s?

So would it astonish you to learn that Williams was obsessing in 1635, not 2008, when the book came out?

For some reason best known to herself, Vowell chose to describe the actions of Williams and his fellow Puritans in both the present and the past tense, sometimes within the same paragraph. Since her background is in radio (by definition a speaker’s medium), I am forcing myself to conclude that this was a well-considered authorial choice, not merely the result of a reluctance to re-read her own work (which she does regularly on NPR) or an editorial oversight.

As a well-established nonfiction writer, she was, obviously, able to get away with this choice, but that does not necessarily mean that the writer of a first book could. As we have often discussed, the standards for breaking into the biz are quite a bit more stringent than those for the folks already in it. So it would behoove you to consider this authorial choice very carefully before submission: when most aspiring writers slip around in time, it’s because they’re trying to mirror the patterns of common speech or believe that actions described in the present tense are more immediate to the reader.

While you are weighing your revision options, you might want to bear in mind that Millicent (a) tends not to be all that big a fan of narrative text that reads just like the spoken word UNLESS the manuscript is written in the first person singular, and (b) very few professional readers believe that ordinary readers are sufficiently now-oriented to prefer the present tense to the past. (“Wait — this isn’t happening right now? Why should I pay attention to it, then?”)

And then there’s the very real possibility that Millicent will simply assume that any slips between tenses are not a narrative choice, but a mistake. A mistake made by — chant it with me now, readers — a writer who did not bother to read his submission IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, to make sure that the tense choices are consistent.

I like using THE WORDY SHIPMATES as an example of this dilemma, as it is one of the rare cases where reviewers were as uncharitable to a well-respected author’s efforts as Millicent would have been had THE WORDY SHIPMATES crossed her desk as a submission from a previously unpublished aspiring writer. “As a whole,” the New York Post’s reviewer commented dryly, “the book reads like an unedited manuscript.”

Like, in other words, a Frankenstein manuscript.

In Ms. Vowell’s defense, I can think of a number of strategic reasons the frequent tense changes might have seemed like a good idea at the composition stage. Casting so much of the Puritans’ story in the present tense might have been a deliberate attempt to draw a parallel with current political conditions at the time the book came out, for instance (which may be why the book already seems a trifle dated). Or perhaps it was an effort to make the lives of our long-dead forebears seem more immediately relevant to the reader.

But whatever the motivation, I don’t think it worked — which irritated me, as this is an author for whom I harbor a great deal of ongoing respect. As a reader, though, I have to say that I found the frequent temporal shifts jarring every single time they occurred in the book. I thought they made the historical tale she was telling significantly harder to follow on the page.

But some of you out there share the belief that writing in the present tense is inherently more grabbing than writing in the past, don’t you? Certainly, those of you who feel this way are not alone: there has been quite a bit of literary fiction over the last 20 years (particularly short stories) that has embraced that notion that placing a narrative in the now is more immediate.

Personally, I don’t think it’s true, largely because anyone who reads on a regular basis is already well versed in the not-very-difficult mental process of becoming absorbed in a past tense story as though it were happening in present time. A reader has to be awfully darned literal to perceive himself to be distanced from action simply because it is presented in the past tense. I also know from experience that writing an entire book in the present tense necessarily entails quite a few technical difficulties that may be avoided almost entirely by placing it in even the most recent of pasts. Even the most minimal tense slip-up runs the risk of yanking the reader out of the world of the book and back into mundane reality.

All that being said, tense choices are entirely up to the author — if you love the present tense and feel it’s the best means of telling your story, by all means write in it. I ask only one thing, for your own sake: if you’re going to write in the present tense, do it consistently.

Again, if you’re not willing to heed this advice for artistic reasons, embrace it because it’s good marketing. Manuscripts that tense-flip for no apparent reason tend to get dismissed as poorly proofed, at best, and poorly revised at worst. So unless a reader has a pretty darned good reason to assume that your authorial choices are deliberate — like, say, Sarah Vowell’s extensive track record of excellent published writing — assume that he’s going to interpret tense inconsistency not as a matter of style, but as a mistake, and an easily preventable one, at that.

Am I suggesting that you might want to save the major experimentation until after you’re already an established writer? Well, I hate to seem cynical, but it’s usually simpler to break into the book market that way. (The norms of the short story market remain quite different, I am grateful to report.) Many a well-respected literary luminary has cut his teeth on less radical ways to make English prose interesting, then moved on later to challenge the language.

Hey, Nobel laureate José Saramago wrote an entire book devoid of periods. Do you honestly believe that a first-time writer could have gotten away with the same trick?

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unfair that the already-published should be judged by less exacting standards than those just breaking into the biz, but I’m not going to lie to you: that’s how it works. I don’t think that THE WORDY SHIPMATES would have made it past Millicent had it been written by a previously unpublished writer.

Which would have been a shame, as it’s an interesting book with some wonderful insights and some very memorable sentences crammed into it. But plenty of interesting books with wonderful insights and memorable sentences don’t clear the first hurdle at agencies or in literary contests.

Why? Often, because those insights and sentences come across as flukes, occasional narrative bright spots not entirely integrated into the overall narrative. The voice is not consistent.

Cue the monster; he’s on again.

Don’t despair, however, if you fear your manuscript has Frankenstein tendencies. Next time, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house — as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Millicent, may I introduce the Frankenstein manuscript, scourge of revisers everywhere?

bride meets frankenstein

For the last week and a half, I’ve been going over a real, live manuscript with the same variety of fine-toothed comb that Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, and Mehitabel the veteran contest judge so frequently pass around amongst themselves. While the experience of seeing just how closely professional readers scan manuscripts can be quite scarifying for a writer new to the game, just being aware that no gaffe, however small, is likely to pass unnoticed under Millicent’s watchful gaze can render that poor, trembling, crestfallen writer a significantly better reviser for the rest of his writing life: never again will he assume, as the vast majority of aspiring writers seem to do, that pretty good is close enough where submissions are concerned.

Or, to put it another way: perfect formatting, impeccable spelling and grammar, and a flowing, likable narrative voice are the minimum requirements for Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel to admire a manuscript, and a legitimately gripping hook, an interesting protagonist(s), and an intriguingly conflict-ridden plot are generally necessary to keep them reading beyond page 1.

This is hardly a well-kept secret, right, accessible only to those brave enough to climb to the top of Manhattan’s tallest building, turn around three times, and sacrifice 17 first editions of PEYTON PLACE on a bonfire to the literary powers that be? In these days of easy Internet access and free dissemination of information, an aspiring writer could hardly make it through the first 20 entries of a web search under getting published without learning that the competition is so fierce for agents these days that the average Millicent sees hundreds of technically perfect submissions in any given year.

Yet most aspiring writers submit manuscripts that fall short in one or more of these areas — and then are astonished when their work is rejected. Whether they admit it openly or not, they had been operating on the presumption that if the writing were stylish enough and/or the story intriguing enough, professional readers everywhere would be perfectly willing to overlook every other manuscript problem.

In fact, most aspiring writers are downright indignant when they first learn that this is not the case. I hate to be the one to break it to you (although that’s never stopped me before, has it?), but to Millicent and her ilk, technically flawless presentation of writing is simply a quality of professionalism, not the ultimate goal of a collaborative editorial process that happens mostly after a writer lands an agent.

Have I convinced you yet that proofreading before submission might be a prudent notion? Think about it: how are you ever going to know for sure how stylistically strong your writing is until it is free of distracting gaffes?

How distracting are those so-called little things, from a professional reader’s perspective? Let’s take a peek at what might happen if the first page of one of the great classics English literature if it happened to land on Millicent’s desk before she’s had her second cup of coffee?

edited-oliver-twist

See? Even a great story well told could use a little presentation help. Or at least a touch of updating: norms of literary style vary over time, like any other aesthetic trend.

I wanted to bring that up, on the off chance that any of you should be trying to land an agent for an aggressively 19th-century style novel. Or in case anyone had been casting about for a comeback for the next time that guy standing next to you at that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America starts griping about how the publishing world isn’t really interested in literature anymore. Why else, he reasons, could anyone possibly have rejected his manuscript?

Even without reading it, I would be willing to hazard a guess: the little things. And probably not just one or two of ‘em, either.

What makes me so sure of that? Well, experience: although submissions get rejected all the time for what most writers would consider nit-picky reasons, it’s virtually unheard-of for any manuscript to have only one problem. As we like to say here at Author! Author! — like ants, writing problems seldom travel alone.

That’s vital for a submitting writer to understand, particularly in these decadent days, when even entire manuscripts are frequently rejected with no explanation at all — or, still worse but increasingly common, rejected without even so much as a form letter notifying the writer. Because it’s so easy to guess wrong when casting about for a rationale, I would STRONGLY caution any aspiring writer against leaping to the conclusion that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the only reason a manuscript was getting rejected. As we have seen in recent posts, Millicent’s decision to reject is often based upon quite a few reasons working in tandem.

Which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for your garden-variety Millicent, Maury, or even Mehitabel to come to believe that an improperly-formatted manuscript, or one containing a few misspellings, will inevitably turn out to be poorly-written overall. In their experience, it’s unlikely to the point of laughability that changing only one thing, even a major one, in the average manuscript would render it rejection-proof.

There is no such thing as a rejection-proof manuscript, you know. While it would indeed be delightful if there were a magical formula that could be applied to any manuscript to render it pleasing to every Millicent currently screening manuscripts, that formula simply doesn’t exist; individual tastes and market trends vary too much. Not to mention the fact that the slow economy is making most agents and editors really, really cautious about picking up any first manuscript at all right now.

Even, alas, very clean ones, free of formatting problems and grammatical mistakes. At the moment, no first-time author is getting a free ride. But you can bet your boots that the ones that are getting picked up are being selected from amongst the cleaner manuscripts.

But clean doesn’t mean devoid of individual style, right? Right? Do stop erasing adverbs from your tag lines long enough to answer me.

It’s most helpful, I’ve found, to think of revising your manuscript as clarifying your style, rather than forcing your story and voice into some mythical conception of perfect writing, the color of which Millicent happens to be thinking while she’s screening manuscripts. Like standard format, manuscript cleanliness is not a magic wand that can be waved over a submission to make every agent, editor, and contest judge on the face of the earth squeal with delight at the very sight of it.

It’s merely is a means of presenting your writing professionally, so Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel will be able to weigh it on its non-technical merits.

Or, to put it another way: taking the time to clean up your manuscript will make it less likely that your submission will be rejected on a knee-jerk basis. But it’s just a fact of publishing even a perfectly clean manuscript is going to garner its share of rejections, if it’s sent out enough.

So what should a savvy submitter be editing toward, over and above minimizing the more notorious of Millicent’s pet peeves? Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a secret of good writing: it flows smoothly. A compelling narrative voice is a consistent one.

Pulling that off is a lot harder than it sounds, you know; a seamless narrative is virtually always the result of many, many careful attempts at revision. The more successful those attempts, the less labored the result will seem — and the more writers brand-new to the writing game will derive the quite mistaken impression that their favorite books were their respective authors’ first drafts, and thus (they assume) that their own first drafts should be marketable without further revision.

That’s an unfortunate misconception, because the author of a well-crafted narrative works hard to create the illusion of spontaneous consistency. Awfully hard. Seamlessness doesn’t happen by accident, you know.

I blame the stubbornly pervasive real talent = first draft so good it needs no tweaking myth for the fact that many aspiring writers become quite testy when even manuscript faults easily discovered in a quick proofreading are pointed out to them. “Oh, the little stuff doesn’t matter,” they insist when some kind soul takes it upon herself to explain that the period belongs within the quotation marks, not after them, or that while a .75 inch bottom margin may well shrink the length of an overlong manuscript, Millicent is quite likely to see through the ruse. “The technical problems can be cleaned up later. All a good agent (editor, contest judge) will really care about is a good story well told.”

Had that ever actually been the case in publishing history — and offhand, I can’t think of a period when these were the only criteria for getting published — a good ten percent of the manuscripts Millicent sees every year would get snapped up immediately. The author would provide the story and the overall voice, and some luckless soul confined to the bowels of the publishing house would be assigned to excise all of the misspellings, grammatical problems, logic problems, continuity problems, storytelling problems, and all other text-based snafus prior to publication.

All the author would have to do is cash the royalty checks and show up to the occasional book-signing. Unfortunately, the publishing world doesn’t work like that.

In the first place, the average agent is not in a position to pick up the 10% of submissions that are well-written — or even her 10 favorite manuscripts of the year, usually. In the current literary market, most agents are picking up just a few clients per year. Given the choice between signing a client who produces impeccably-edited manuscripts and one whose work needs extensive revision, which would you choose?

Or, to put it another way: had you considered applying to medical school instead of trying to land an agent? Your chances of getting accepted are quite a bit higher.

In the second place, as publishing profits have dropped lower and lower — and it was not all that profitable a business to begin with — fewer and fewer people are charged with shepherding a manuscript from acquisition to publication. It’s a rare editor who has the time to proofread, much less the inclination. Consequently, the value of a writer who can (and does) produce beautifully-edited pages all on her own grows greater with each passing day.

Or, to put it another way: expect to be 100% responsible for copyediting your own work — and for book promotion as well, most likely. Your editor will probably make general revision suggestions, but bringing the finished manuscript up to professional standards is ultimately going to be up to you.

I’m not bringing all of this up merely to depress you, contrary to what 2/3rds of you had been thinking very loudly indeed throughout the last few paragraphs — although frankly, given how radically speakers at most writers’ conferences soft-pedal these realities, I suspect a little well-timed depression-inducement might keep a lot of aspiring writers from assuming that the only possible reason that their work hasn’t landed them an agent is the writing quality. I’m bringing it up so writers may begin to come to terms with the reality that revising your writing is not extraneous to the writing life; it’s an integral requirement of it.

And when I say revising, I mean reworking your pages under the assumption that your target reader’s eye is as critical as this:

page 2 comments

Or, to put it another way (and if the repetition of that phrase automatically made your teeth grind this time, congratulations; you’re starting to read like a professional): it’s in your competitive interest to assume an uncharitable first reader. This places the onus for presenting your writing in its best light squarely where it should be: on you, the writer.

Yet even as I typed that last paragraph, I could feel all of this excellent (if I do say so myself) advice bouncing off the heedless many who simply submit whatever opening pages they happen to have saved on their hard disks at the moment an agent requests materials, even if those pages haven’t even been proofread or spell-checked yet. Yes, well-meant guidance ricochets straight off those people, landing instead upon the already beleaguered heads of compulsive revisers everywhere.

You know who you are: you’re the ones who gasp every time I start a new series of revision tips, scurry toward your manuscripts, and stay up half the night revising. You not only spell-check and proofread — you’ve stared at individual scraps of dialogue so long that you are no longer sure anymore whether the dialogue makes sense. You grind your teeth over battle scenes, wondering if there’s enough conflict on each page. And three days after you have submitted requested materials to an agent, you find yourself compulsively reading over your submission, searching for flaws that could scuttle your chances of making it past Millicent.

In short, you’re just like most working authors, bless your perfection-seeking hearts. We’re a worry-prone breed.

While that worry can be an outright blessing over the course of a book-long revision — what, stop halfway through Chapter 17, when there are 8 more chapters to go? — it can be something of a curse when trying to get requested materials out the door in a hurry. All too often, what chronic revisers end up sending is an uneven draft, hovering somewhere between Revision #12 and Revision #23.

How does that happen? Well, page 1 made it all the way through Revision #23, but at the time the agent of your dreams requested those first 50 pages, page 2 was still in the throes of an incomplete #17. Pages 3-10 are mostly the same as they were way back in #4, while Chapter Two is entirely new as of a week ago.

Getting the picture? The urge toward conscientious, ongoing revision — that drive for constant textual improvement that any agent in her right mind would be overjoyed to find in a new client — can often result in a submission that looks at first glance, ironically, as though it hasn’t been revised at all.

I know: bummer. I like to call it the Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it’s made up of a part from here, a part from there…

Why is that a submission problem, you ask? Again, to put it another way: what do you think Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel thinks when they encounter, say, one sentence that’s in the past tense, followed by three that are in the present, because the phone happened to ring while the writer was in mid-revision? Or a character is named George on page 8 and Jorge on page 127, because the writer just didn’t have time to implement a late-breaking name change all the way through the manuscript?

Or even a problem as subtle as the unintentional perspective shift that follows, because Junior accidentally caught Sissy’s braids in the blender an hour and ten minutes after Mom realized with a shock that the story she had almost finished drafting with an omniscient narrator would work much better as a tight third-person piece focused solely upon the protagonist?

Great heavens, Edna thought irritably, isn’t anything going to go right today? First, the apple pies burned because she stayed too long on the phone with Mom, listening to her complain about her lumbago (what is that, anyway?), then it was so hot in the American Legion lodge’s kitchen that all of her carefully-applied make-up had melted right off her face and down onto her seersucker collar. Jeremy White had been so startled by her appearance when he bumped into her in the corridor that he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from screaming aloud. She couldn’t possibly serve the veterans while sporting runny eyeliner, could she?

You wouldn’t have caught it if you hadn’t been looking for it, would you? (And in case you didn’t catch it: in three of the four sentences, the perspective remains squarely with Edna; in sentence #3, the reader is treated to what’s going on inside Jeremy’s head. Perfectly proper in an omniscient narrative, of course, but out of bounds in the tight third person with a single protagonist.)

Sometimes, the monster’s ways are subtle, as you may see, and sometimes blatant. However he may choose to manifest in the submission at hand, I must repeat my earlier question: what, I ask you, would a professional reader’s response be to any of these perfectly explicable clashes of incomplete revision passes?

“Inconsistency,” Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel breathe in unison. “This manuscript needs more work.”

Or at least (if I may be permitted to chime in here) a good authorial read-through IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

So here, my dear chronic revisers, is a revision series aimed squarely at you. For the next week or so, we’re going to be talking about how to transform that Frankenstein manuscript into a submission that positively glows with professionalism.

And you thought I wasn’t going to give you a Memorial Day present! Keep up the good work!

PS: speaking of Memorial Day, why not spend a few minutes this weekend sending in an entry to the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest? The deadline is this coming Monday at midnight in your time zone. Fortunate entrants will win hard-nosed professional critique of their opening pages BEFORE submitting them to Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel!

The return of the Point-of-View Nazis, Part II: ve haf veys of making your POV singular

Spanish inquisition drawing

Last time, I re-introduced the Point-of-View Nazi, that fine ilk of professional reader who positively insists that the only way to conduct a third-person narrative is to focus upon a single protagonist for the entire duration of the book. Since tight third-person (also known as close third-person) was very much the dominant voice for about ten of the last fifteen years POVNs still have a lot of backing. Because of their long reign — and, as I mentioned on Thursday, the fact that they were disproportionately represented amongst composition teachers in the post-war era — an aspiring writer is still very likely to encounter authoritative-sounding voices eager to tell aspiring writers that their work is going down in flames if they take the smallest step toward omniscience or multiple protagonists.

To paraphrase my last post: piffle.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with a super-tight third-person narrative, naturally — stylistically, there is much to be said for it as a storytelling device. However, perspective choice is a matter of writing style, not formula, is it not?

That deafening roar you’re hearing is not the ride of the Valkyries, but a chorus of dissent from POVNS. To them, the only proper writing perspectives are the first person singular and a tight third person singular, where the narration remains rigidly from the point of view of a single actor in the drama, usually the protagonist. They may not always state it so baldly, but effectively, that’s their stance.

How do POVNs usually convey this impression? By implying (or even stating as law inviolate) that good writing is always either in the first person or the close third-person — and in fiction, they’re often not all that crazy about the first person. Yet no matter how emphatically someone states these opinions, they are in fact a matter of personal taste.

Because this is only of the most commonly-blurred distinction between Thou Shalt Do This dicta and style tips, I want to devote today to giving you a concrete look at what a difference regarding such advice as absolute can make. This may seem like an odd thing for a professional writing advice-giver to say, but I don’t think that it’s ever a good idea to take ANYONE else’s opinion on your writing style as gospel. Particularly if that advice is, well, sweeping.

Yes, even if the advice in question happened to fall from my fingertips. One of the reasons I go on at such length about the rationale behind industry norms and stylistic tips is so you have enough information to make up your own minds about your writing choices.

I was notorious for this inform-’em-and-let-’em-go attitude back when I was teaching at a certain unnamed university (go, Huskies!). Professors would come fuming (or laughing) into the faculty lounge, exclaiming, “I’ve got another of your old students, Anne!”

“How do you know?” I’d ask, although after the first couple of times, I was pretty sure of the answer.

“She’s questioning EVERYTHING I say.”

“Good. You wouldn’t want it otherwise, would you?”

Some of my former colleagues would want it otherwise, it turns out. And the POVNs definitely would.

Philosophically, I find POVNs’ idea that there are only two ways to tell a story troubling, and not especially conducive to the production of good art. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance.

Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of any politically-oriented news program, if you doubt this. I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

And the disagreement amongst writing experts on this point tends to support my argument, doesn’t it?

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the point of view of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, for instance, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work.

If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and the lady who leaps out of a cake at a bachelor party, I shall happily eat my hat. Either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who thinks this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. Almost nobody and nothing can be completely portrayed from only a single third-person point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

But that’s just my opinion. Read a bunch of good novels and make up your own mind.

Regardless of your own perspective preferences, it’s important that you know that there are people out there who will want to impose their stylistic preferences upon yours, because they turn up with some fair frequency in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. They are statistically more likely to be Baby Boomers than Gen Xers or Gen Yers, however, so they are less likely to be agency screeners than in years past. (Being a Millicent is typically someone’s first job in the business, not one kept for decades, the burnout rate is too high.)

Nevertheless, they do turn up, sometimes in agents’ chairs and behind editorial desks, so it’s best to be prepared for them. When your work is attacked with phrases like, well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator in contemporary fiction, you’re going to need to resist the temptation to throw half of Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker, aren’t you?

So how should a prudent writer handle it? Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a gargantuan grain of salt. You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.

But before you do, consider the possibility that the critique may be useful to apply to your manuscript of the moment. Would a more focused narrative perspective add something useful to your story? If not, is the narrative completely free of head-hopping?

That switcheroo caused a few double-takes, didn’t it? POVNs do occasionally have a point: too-frequent perspective switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow. Take, for instance, the following mash-up of point of view — and timeframe, while we’re at it — and assuming that the book so far has been primarily from Marybeth’s perspective.

Trevor stormed noisily into the room, causing her to groan and pull her cat, Mergatroyd, from his perch on her head onto her face. The sudden glare of the overhead light was blinding. Criminy, was Marybeth still asleep? He throws a pillow at her disheveled head on his way to his dresser. “Wake up, sleepyhead, if you want a ride.”

Marybeth glances between Mergatroyd’s limp paws at the 1970s-era clock-radio by her bed: she was supposed to be at work ten minutes ago. Oblivious to the long streak of raspberry mousse adorning her cheek, she adopts her best I’m-in-charge-here tone. “How long were you planning to let me sleep? Next Tuesday?”

Ah, there his tie was. He yanks it from between the mattress and box springs, scowling at the back of his boss’ frizzy head. “Hey, for all I knew, you had a bevy of butlers to wake you in the mornings.”

Yeah, right: attempt to take three steps in this bedroom, and you’d either stub your toe on a cast-aside manuscript or catch your toe in a stray t-shirt and go sprawling. Obviously, her domestic staff was crackerjack. “Throw me my robe, will you?”

Did his job depend upon the civility of his answer? Her kitchen didn’t even have any decent coffee, for goodness’ sake. He’d have to stop at Starbucks on the way in — unless today is Millicent’s day to snag the a.m. lattes? Struggling into her robe, Marybeth watched him wade back to the bedroom door, wondering if she would be pressing her luck if she sent him out for coffee.

A tad confusing, isn’t it? It’s possible to follow, admittedly, but is it really the reader’s job to sort this mess out?

Like abrupt switches of tense, unannounced perspective shifts may puzzle even a reader who isn’t skimming. (As Millicent often is, recall, while she’s sipping that latte Trevor just dropped off at her desk.) That’s unfortunate, because, one of the more common first-novel megaproblems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence.

And every time that happens, a POVN Millicent gets her wings. Or at least another justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing.

How so? Well, think about it: if Millie’s been assuming for the past 25 pages that she’s reading a tight third person narrative based exclusively upon Marybeth’s perspective (perhaps one written as a not-very-subtle roman-à-clef by her fellow screener, Trevor, who showed up awfully late to work this morning), why WOULDN’T her first question upon reading this excerpt be, “Hey, why is this suddenly from Trevor’s perspective? And if it isn’t, how on earth could a narrative from Marybeth’s perspective mention a smudge she didn’t know was on her face?”

In Millie’s defense, even if the book so far had been in an omniscient narrative voice (where the dominant storytelling voice can adopt any of the characters’ individual perspectives or none of them at will), this excerpt would have been problematic enough to raise her always rejection-ready hackles. The sad thing is, the perspective problems above would be really, really easy to solve. Any guesses how?

A gold star for the day if you shouted, “Why, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion!” Make it three if you added, “It’s also helpful if a narrative decides whether it’s in the present or the past tense and applies that choice consistently. Get your act together, Trevor.”

Great advice, on both fronts. Let’s take a gander at what this excerpt might look like if Trevor made only those two revisions: (a) rearranged things so each perspective its own paragraph and (b) picked a tense choice and stuck to it.

The sudden glare of the overhead light was blinding. Trevor stormed noisily into the room, causing her to groan and pull her cat, Mergatroyd, from his perch on her head onto her face.

Criminy, was Marybeth still asleep? He threw a pillow at her disheveled head on his way to his dresser. “Wake up, sleepyhead, if you want a ride.”

Marybeth glanced between Mergatroyd’s limp paws at the 1970s-era clock-radio by her bed: she was supposed to have been at work ten minutes ago. She adopted her best I’m-in-charge-here tone. “How long were you planning to let me sleep? Next Tuesday?”

The contrast between her manner and the long streak of raspberry mousse adorning her cheek almost made him giggle. Ah, there his tie was. He yanked it from between the mattress and box springs, scowling at the back of his boss’ frizzy head. “Hey, for all I knew, you had a bevy of butlers to wake you in the mornings.”

Yeah, right: attempt to take three steps in this bedroom, and you’d either stub your toe on a cast-aside manuscript or catch your toe in a stray t-shirt and go sprawling. Obviously, her domestic staff was crackerjack. “Throw me my robe, will you?”

Did his job depend upon the civility of his answer? Her kitchen didn’t even have any decent coffee, for goodness’ sake. He’d have to stop at Starbucks on the way in — unless today is Millicent’s day to snag the a.m. lattes?

Struggling into her robe, Marybeth watched him wade back to the bedroom door, wondering if she would be pressing her luck if she sent him out for coffee.

Clearer, isn’t it? Tense consistency and easily-followed perspective shifts won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage if you choose to write from multiple perspective, of course, but it will make your scene substantially less of a chore for the non-POVN reader.

Because you’ve already given up trying to please a POVN Millicent or contest judge with a multiple-perspective manuscript, right? You know better than to try to battle her personal preferences and the deafening roar of her writing teachers — and perhaps her boss agent’s writing teachers, right? Right? Hello?

I see a few timid hands waving out there in the ether. “But Anne, how can I possibly know before I submit whether the agent of my dreams employs a POVN Millicent — or is one herself, for that matter? Shouldn’t I, you know, just assume that every Millicent and agent out there is a POVN, and make my narrative choices accordingly?”

You could do that, of course; that’s a relatively safe route. You could also go to the agency’s website, find out whom it represents, and spend a fruitful hour in your local bookstore, yanking its clients’ novels off the shelves and checking for narrative voice. At least the ones in your chosen book category. If an agent represents someone who writes from multiple perspectives, you probably don’t need to worry about her Millicents being POVNs. If, however, the agency’s authors seem to make astonishingly similar perspective choices…

Or you could just choose the voice you feel is best for your story and take your chances. Most of the time, submitters don’t know precisely why agents pass on their manuscripts, anyway. In this age of form-letter rejections (and rejecting through silence), it’s unlikely that even the most vitriolic POVN Millicent would reject you by saying, “Great premise, nice writing — but God, I hate omniscient narration!”

Before you commit to any of these three perfectly reasonable strategies, let’s take a look at how knuckling under to the POVNs might conceivably harm a narrative. Suppose that Jane Austen took the following paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to her writing group, a cabal of POVNs:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

As an editor, I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons here, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose, right? Yet, as the POVNs in her group would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives rolling around promiscuously together in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry…(Elizabeth’s POV)

…but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. (the POV of an external observer)

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her… (Darcy’s POV)

Now, a POVN in our Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly implore her to pick a single perspective (Elizabeth’s would be the logical choice) and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly. (Or, more commonly, send out an editorial memo saying that he might consider acquiring the book, but only if Jane revised it so all of the action is seen from Elizabeth’s perspective only.)

Let’s say that Jane was cowed by the vehemence of the POVNs and scuttled home to take their advice. Inevitably, the resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from her original intention. It would probably ending up reading rather like this:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry. Darcy remained silent.

Comparatively terse, isn’t it? Legitimately, that is all that she could keep, if she were going to please the POVNs completely.

I cannot presume to speak for Aunt Jane, of course, but I suspect she would not be particularly satisfied with this revision, both because some characterization has been lost, as well as some long-term plot clues. At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. This would, of course, mean that his proposal would be a greater plot twist, coming out of the blue, but the reader would also end up with absolutely no idea how, beginning from initial indifference, Elizabeth charms began to steal over Darcy, over his own objections.

Which would mean, really, that the title of the book should be changed to just PREJUDICE. And since PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a quote from another novel (Fanny Burney’s excellent-but-dark 1782 novel CECILIA, where the phrase appears three times, all in capital letters), I’m inclined to think that Aunt Jane would have disliked that outcome.

Yet if I may pull up a chair in Jane’s writing group for a moment (oh, as if this whole exercise wouldn’t require time travel), allow me to point out how easily the judicious use of space bar would clear up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what when:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

The moral here, my friends, is once again that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true in every case. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for a good, long while.

You may well find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular writing project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of a single perspective works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the personal opinions of others.

Now that our collective loins are girded for possible knee-jerk objections to multiple perspective narratives, I feel I can move on to the topic of juggling them with a clear conscience. Tune in next time, and keep up the good work!

More of those telling details lifted from real life, or, well-mannered camel seeks wiser man

camel in profile

Last time, in the midst of indulging my passion for telling details, I forgot to tell you about my recent holiday encounter with the camel pictured above. If this isn’t a story where the specifics provide all of the characterization needed…well, I let you judge for yourself. While you’re at it, why not continue our ongoing tradition of figuring out what editorial tweaks could improve the story?

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

I watched scores of children fling hay at them, shouting, “Hey, Reindeer!” (or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before), but the trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

One small pink-clad screamer simply would not leave the animals alone, however. She kicked at the metal fencing, bellowing words I was a surprised a kindergartener would be able to use correctly in a sentence. When she picked up a rock, I wandered over to the fence to distract her with a hastily-constructed fairy tale about our barnyard friends. And camels.

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

Was he going to make her apologize to the camel? I doubted Curly would appreciate it.

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

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

So why, I ask you, would our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, have stopped reading part-way through paragraph #2? Because, I assure you, most Millicents would have: one of her most notorious pet peeves has reared its ugly head here.

If you pointed out that the narration switched tenses between the first and second paragraphs, congratulations! Paragraph #1 is in the present tense; paragraph #2 is in the past. Submissions and contest entries do that all the time. Sometimes, they even switch back within a paragraph or two.

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

Good question, tense-switchers. Remember how I mentioned earlier in this series on self-editing that professional readers — agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, etc. — are trained to spot redundancies in a manuscript? They’re also taught to leap upon inconsistencies.

In other words, Millicent is likely to assume that the change of tense is not the result of well thought-out authorial choice, but simply a mistake that did not get caught in the proofreading process. And, like other commonly-made errors, the tense inconsistency may well jar her out of the flow of the story. Next!

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

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

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

So even if the writer is technically correct, if a tense switch seems unjustified to Millicent — if it appears to be, say, an incomplete revision between a manuscript originally in the present tense and a subsequent draft in the past, or vice-versa — that’s usually the ball game. Why risk it?

Especially when, as in this case, making the tense consistent does not detract at all from either the meaning or the voice of the section. Lookee:

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

I watched scores of children fling hay at them, shouting, “Hey, Reindeer!” (or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before), but the trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

That’s as painless a revision as you’re ever likely to see, folks. It just requires a good proofreading eye to catch — and need I even add that this variety of inconsistency is easiest to catch if one reads one’s submission or contest entry IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, what’s the problem this time? Hint: it’s even more subtle than the last.

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

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

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

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

Do I see a raised hand or two out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “haven’t we already talked about this in this series? Just as absolutely faithful recreations of real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing a nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers also tend to forget that real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as we sometimes expect.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Move ON with it!”

Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.) To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

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

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

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

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

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

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

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

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response. Fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

In other words, this is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well.

But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Most self-editing writers wouldn’t notice this narrative lack — any guesses why?

If you said it was due to the fact that his memory of Dina the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a chocolate sundae with jimmies on top. In his mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

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

And yes, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development.

Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read.

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

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

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

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

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

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

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more insight, then I’m done for the day: you’ve been having just a little trouble paying attention to my arguments, haven’t you? Some part of your mind has been distracted, wondering what happened to the arm in the camel’s mouth?

That, my friends, is how Millicent — and most other readers, professional and non-pro alike — feels when an interesting one- or two-paragraph teaser, the kind that aspiring writers so love placing within italics, gives way to an apparently or only tangentially unrelated second scene. “Hey!” Millicent cries, spitting out her mouthful of scalding latte, “what happened to that darn interesting plot I’d gotten absorbed in? What’s this writer trying to do, hook me with something exciting, then drop me into a comparatively mundane storyline?”

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

Remember, part of being a good storyteller involves knowing when to relieve the suspense. In the case of my camel story, now would be a good time.

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

The crate-kicker and I complied. With his uneaten hand, he began tickling the camel’s lips, rubbing the gums as if he were a mammalian dentist. Curly face elongated, as though he were going to sneeze. A loud pop, a slurp, and the man was freed.

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

“Yes, Daddy,” she whispered, staring aghast at his friction-reddened arm.

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

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

The Frankenstein manuscript, part II: when you should be wary about following in the footsteps of the greats

moat-at-la-cite
Isn’t this a great horror movie castle? It’s the (dry) moat around La Cité in Carcassonne, a 19th-century reconstruction of a medieval walled city. Not just any medieval walled city, mind you — the one that used to be on that very spot.

It’s also, and probably more to the point at the moment, a half-hour drive from La Muse, where I am currently enjoying a particularly productive writing retreat.

Speaking of which: I begin today by repeating yesterday’s announcement about the new deadline for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence: entries are no longer due yesterday. Although as those of you who are already working with agents and editors can probably attest, I need it yesterday actually isn’t all that unusual a request in the publishing industry (which seems to run on two speeds: delay and panic; alternate and repeat as necessary), as you may have heard someplace, I’m on a writing retreat.

In fact, I’ve decided to extend the retreat another couple of weeks. I’m writing up a storm, and where there’s such great support for writing AND magnificent cheese…

So l’m also extending the contest deadline. Entries are due via e-mailed by midnight on Monday, June 1.

Yesterday, I introduced you to the Frankenstein manuscript, the frightening entity that is presented as a book written by a single author, but reads as though it had been written by several, so different are the voices, perspectives, and even word choices throughout. To professional readers — e.g., agents, editors, contest judges, and our old pal Millicent, the agency screener — this kind of patched-together manuscript is a sign of a not-yet-fully-developed authorial voice.

And why is that, boys and girls? Chant it with me now: because a fully-developed voice is consistent throughout the entire narrative.

Unfortunately for those who like to experiment with multiple voices, such meandering manuscripts are common enough that tend to become profoundly suspicious of any manuscript that changes style or voice abruptly — at least, if those manuscripts were produced by first-time authors. With the super-quick readings that manuscripts generally receive in the pre-acquisition stage (and always get in the first round of contest judging), the Frankenstein manuscript and the manuscript genuinely setting out to do interesting things with perspective are easily confused.

There are many fine examples of good books where writers have adopted a Frankenstein format self-consciously, in order to make a point. If you are even vaguely interested in experiments in narrative voice, you should rush out and read Margaret Atwood’s ALIAS GRACE. In this novel-cum-historical account-cum narrative nonfiction book, Atwood tells the story of a murder, alternating between a tight first-person point of view (POV, for the rest of this post), straightforward third-person narrative, contemporary poems about the case, letters from the parties involved, newspaper clippings and even direct quotes from the murderess’ confession.

It is an enjoyable read, but for writers, it is also a rich resource on how to mix battling narrative styles and structures well; as one might expect from a stylist as gifted as she, Atwood constructs her patchwork narrative so skillfully that the reader never has to wonder for more than an instant why (or how) the perspective has just changed.

Which is, in case you were wondering, one of the primary reasons Millicents usually object to narrative shifts: in multiple POV manuscript submissions, it’s not always clear when the perspective switches from one character to another. It’s especially confusing if the different viewpoints — or worse, various narrators in a multiple first-person narrative — are written in too-similar voices.

Is everyone clear on the distinction I’m making here? A Frankenstein manuscript often displays unintentionally displays a multiplicity of voices, tones, vocabulary levels, etc. A well-written multiple POV novel, by contrast, presents each point of view and/or first-person narrative voice as distinctly different, so the reader doesn’t have any trouble following who is in the driver’s seat when, plot-wise.

Or, to put it another way, the Frankenstein manuscript is evidence of a lack of authorial control, consistency, and often, proofreading; a good multiple POV narrative is beautiful evidence of a sure authorial touch, a strong sense of character, and great attention to detail.

That being said, it is just a hard fact of submission that it’s a whole lot easier for an established author to impress professional readers with a multiple POV novel — or, indeed, any sort of experimental writing — than someone trying to break into the biz. I admire Margaret Atwood tremendously as novelist, poet, and essayist; I have spent years crossing my fingers as she hovered around the short list for the Nobel Prize. However, I suspect that even she would have had terribly difficult time marketing ALIAS GRACE if it were her first novel, at least in the current market, due to its arguably Frankenstein structure.

Ditto for the inimitable Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, one of my favorite novels of all time, and also a must-read for any writer considering playing funny tricks with narrative voice. Vargas Llosa is something of a structural prankster, folding, spindling, and mutilating the ordinary rules of storytelling in order to keep the reader off-balance.

The result, I must admit, might confuse a reader who wasn’t already in love with his writing from other books. One might be tempted, upon encountering the third or fourth startlingly radical shift in tone, vocabulary, and apparently intended audience, to conclude that this is just a Frankenstein manuscript by a writer who couldn’t make up his mind what the book is about.

Personally, I admire Vargas Llosa’s dash; when he was running for president of Peru (yes, really), he published an erotic novel, IN PRAISE OF THE STEPMOTHER, about…well, you can probably guess. (He lost the election, incidentally.) He, too, has been rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel Prize for an awfully long time.

But if he were trying to market AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER right now as a first novel…well, you know the tune by now, don’t you?

The moral here is this: once you’ve gained international acclaim as a prose stylist, you have a lot more leeway to mess with the conventional rules of writing. So please don’t kid yourself that just because your favorite author got away with an experiment, you can necessarily do so as well.

Heck, Alice Walker made up entirely new punctuation rules for THE COLOR PURPLE, and that won the Pulitzer Prize. In SEEING, José Saramago treated us to an entire narrative devoid of punctuation that I, for one, consider necessary to clear communication, and he won the Nobel Prize.

But that doesn’t mean you should try either of these things at home. It’s just too likely that Millicent will take one look at your fascinating experiment and exclaim, “Here’s another one who doesn’t know how to use a semicolon!” or “Criminy, what makes this guy think I’m going to read more than two sentences of a book without any periods?”

Sad, but true. In your first book, in the current market, you probably cannot get away with breaking more than one or two of the rules — and even those need to be immistakably marked, so agents, editors, and contest judges know that you broke them for a reason, rather than out of ignorance.

Trust me, no one on the Pulitzer committee seriously believed that Alice Walker did not know how to use a semicolon properly.

“Wait a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you exclaiming. “I take some liberties with narrative style, but it becomes clear over the course of the book why I’m doing it. By the end, it will seem downright clever to the reader. Do you mean to say that if it is not clear in the first 50 pages, or whatever short excerpt the agent, editor, or contest has asked to see, my innovative experiment in English prose might just get thrown into the reject pile because it will be mistaken for bad writing?”

In a word, yes. Next question?

Before you fret and fume too much about how the intense pre-screening of the current agency system prevents genuinely bold experiments in writing from reaching the desks of publishers at the major houses, take a moment to consider the Frankenstein manuscript from the point of view of the agent, editor, or judge who finds it on her desk one busy morning.

It’s not a pretty sight, I assure you; stitched-together corpses seldom are.

As a freelance editor, when I receive a Frankenstein manuscript, I have the option of sitting down with the author, having a major discussion about what she wants the book be, and helping guide the work toward more internal stylistic consistency. Basically, the process entails identifying and compiling a list of all of the battling styles, making the author come up with a justification for using each, and having the justifications duke it out until one (or, rarely, two) is declared the winner by the author.

It takes time, and it’s generally worth the effort. But had I mentioned that freelance editors are generally paid by the hour?

However, when a screener at an agency or an editor at a publishing house receives a Frankenstein manuscript — and yes, some manuscripts are so internally scattered that the problem becomes apparent in just the first chapter or first 50 pages — she is unlikely to have the time to figure out which voice and/or style is going to end up dominating the book. Even if she absolutely loves one of the styles or voices, her hectic schedule does not allow time for equivocation.

She must that she select one of two options, and quickly: either she commits to nursing the author through precisely the kind of boxing match I described above, or she can simply reject the work and move on to the next submission, in the hope of finding a writer whose book will not need as much tender loving care.

With literally hundreds of new submissions coming in each week, which option do you think she’ll select more often?

When a contest judge receives a Frankenstein manuscript, the choice is even quicker and more draconian. The judge knows that there’s no question of being able to work with the author to smooth out the presentation; in the vast majority of literary contests, the judge won’t even know who the author is.

Plop! There it goes, into the no-prize-this-year file. Better luck – and first readers – next year.

The moral, I devoutly hope, is obvious. If you are attempting to play with unconventional notions of structure or style, make sure that it is pellucidly clear in the manuscript exactly what you are doing. Don’t leave it to the reader to guess what you’re up to, because, as I’ve shown above, professional readers just don’t have the time to figure it out.

Also, consider making your deviations from standard structure and narrative rules bold, rather than slipping them in here and there. Experimenting with several styles within a short number of pages is decidedly risky – and perversely, the less daringly experimental you are, the riskier it is, because tentative attempts look to professional eyes like unfinished work.

To borrow E.F. Benson’s wonderful example, let’s say you were planning to paint a picture of a house down the street. The house has a crooked chimney. The novice painter would paint it exactly as is, unskillfully, and viewers of the finished painting would wonder forever after if the chimney had really looked like that, or if the novice just couldn’t paint straight lines. An intermediate painter would paint the chimney as straight, to rule out that conclusion.

But an expert painter would add 10 degrees to the angle of the chimney, so there would be no doubt in the observer’s mind that he had painted it that way intentionally.

The more deliciously complex and groundbreaking your chosen style is, the more clearly you should announce it. Unless, of course, you want to wait until you’re on the short list for the Nobel Prize before you start getting wacky.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about practical measures to keep your manuscript from falling accidentally into the Frankenstein realm.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The Frankenstein manuscript, part I, or, Puritans in the present?

puritan-family-painting

Yes, yes, I know: you were expecting a nice, scenic photograph of France, perhaps something in a medieval castle or a vineyard. But I’m on a writing retreat, people: I’m indoors, tapping away at my keyboard, not traipsing around the countryside with my camera.

Which is as it should be, of course. My work on my novel is going far more quickly than I had expected — hooray! — so much so that I’ve decided to extend my retreat by another couple of weeks.

All the more reason, then, to keep sitting here instead of wandering around outside.

And yet it’s a pity, because the weather is very nice, as nearly as I can tell from this side of my French (in every sense) windows. I’m getting quite a lot of revision done, the point of my being here, but every so often, that cartoon devil sitting on my shoulder does whisper that I could actually work on the novel anywhere, but how often am I in France?

By that same token, I do plenty of blogging back home, so I’m going to be posting some short ones this week, revising some craft issues rather than launching the promised new series on retreating. Because, really, how often am I in France?

Spending hours and hours revising my work, tinkering with voice and story, reminded me of a semi-magical moment a few years back, when an editing client of mine has just made a major breakthrough with her book. One day, after months upon months and chapters upon chapters of experimenting with different styles — writing which she did not perceive to be experimentation, incidentally, but finished draft — she suddenly stumbled upon precisely the tone and perspective that worked for the book, an engaging voice she could maintain consistently throughout the entire story. As happens sometimes, what had been a mess of words just suddenly congealed into something sharp and analytical and true.

Remember what I was saying last week about how the Millicents of this world just abhor inconsistency in submissions, whether those gaffes lie in the realm of format, spelling, grammar, story details, or tone? People who read manuscripts for a living are trained to spot and deplore unevenness. As a result of this necessary but rather pedantic focus, a manuscript whose voice is sure and consistent tends to strike Millicent’s tired eyes like the sight of a cool river on a blazing summer day.

(The view from the aforementioned French windows is really pretty spectacular. A river is involved.)

We writers don’t talk about voice nearly enough, I think, especially the fact that very, very few of us, no matter how talented we might happen to be, find our authorial voices the first time we sit down to write a novel. Voice is more than self-expression: it’s tone, level of detail, analytical perception, sense of humor, rhythm, and all of the other hyper-personalized ways in which one writer tells a story differently than another. Learning to wield these weighty tools to produce a consistent and seemingly effortless result takes practice, patience, and much trial and error.

Or, to put it another way: it’s a whole lot harder to write a good book than a good individual sentence, paragraph, or scene. Why? Because the alchemy doesn’t need to come together only once, as it does in a well-written sentence; it has to come together every time, and in a similar way.

Yet all too often, we talk about voice as though it were more or less synonymous with talent, as if it were something a writer is either born with or not. I don’t think that’s true. Oh, it’s true enough that talent can’t be learned, but craft can be, and many a great sentence-builder has missed becoming a great writer because she relied too much on the former at the expense of developing the latter.

Here’s a novel thought: consistent voice is almost always the product not of original inspiration, but of conscientious revision.

Let that one sink in for a moment. I’ll wait. I’ve got this pretty view to ponder.

On an artistic level, I’m always thrilled when a client (or any other talented writer, for that matter) finds her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work to come. Because, you see, once a writer discovers the right voice and perspective for the story he’s telling, he will have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, back to a topic that reared its ugly head last week: the Frankenstein manuscript, a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, to create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

This is my personal nickname for such a book, but I assure you, every single agent and editor knows what it is, and dreads it – because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Writing a book takes a long time: as was the case for my editing client, authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK – which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Let me repeat that: there is no way to diagnose and treat a manuscript’s Frankensteinish tendencies without sitting down and reading the whole darned thing. Preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

If the prospect of improving artistically is not enough to set you running for your comfy reading chair, here’s an excellent marketing incentive to send you scurrying in that direction, manuscript in hand: unfortunately for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author.

Translation: if you don’t catch the problem, they will. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript, you are far, far better off recognizing the fact yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

Sometimes, the pieced-together nature of a book is intentional, and its similarity to the standard Frankenstein tome will render it very, very easy for agents and editors to dismiss. If you are given to experimenting with multiple points of view, for instance, or changes in voice, or structural alterations in mid-story, you need to be very, very aware that professional readers may well be mistaking your conscious choices for symptoms of Frankenstein array of incompletely-realized narrative ideas.

Many years ago, I met Stan, a promising writer, at a writers’ conference. Stan described his novel beautifully: a coming-of-age story about a boy so engrossed in the messages of the TV shows and movies he saw in the late 1950s that he incorporated these styles into how he viewed his life. The result, Stan told me, was intended to be a picaresque account growing up from the kid’s perspective, real-life stories told as cowboys and Indians, spy thriller, spaceman adventure, etc.

Well, to be frank, I wasn’t all that enthused; it didn’t seem like a particularly fresh book concept. But being well aware that I am not the best audience for works about prepubescent boys, I gave him a patient hearing. Why am I not ideally suited for such stories, you ask? As someone who spent her formative years sitting through sensitive European films where an earthy older woman’s charms gently coax some suspiciously attractive and precocious young boy toward manhood, I become leery every time a young protagonist goes anywhere within five miles of the town bad girl, his best friend’s older sister’s window, or anybody’s mother but his own. But that’s just a fluke of my upbringing.

From a marketing perspective, I think that at this point in literary history, such stories are a hard sell to experienced readers, unless they are AWFULLY well told. There are countless films about 8-to-12 year-old boys learning important life lessons the hard way; if the age is so darned important, why aren’t there as many films from the perspectives of girls in that age group? (An important exception to this: Kasi Lemmons’ excellent film EVE’S BAYOU tells such a story from a young girl’s perspective amazingly well.) I think that if you choose to tackle such a well-documented age group in a work intended for adult readers — particularly if you want to stick to the well-worn ground of white, middle- or upper-middle class boys in suburbia or in small towns with swimming holes — you really have to come up with something startling to rise above the sheer volume of competition.

So as I say, I was leery, but we exchanged manuscripts, despite my trepidations. And lo and behold, long before 50 pages had past, his intrepid wee protagonist had grabbed his fishing pole and skipped his way toward the edge of town, where the local voodoo priestess/cajoler of young boys into manhood lived.

Imagine my surprise.

Yet the fact that I’d seen the plot, conservatively speaking, 2700 times before was not what put me off the book. No, the problem was the fact that each stylistic switch came as a complete and utter surprise — even to yours truly, who knew the premise of the book going in. Each episode was indeed presented in the style of some well-worn visual media style. Quite well, as a matter of fact.

However, since the writing style changed radically every ten pages or so, pretty much any reader was guaranteed to fall into one she disliked occasionally. And since there was no overarching framework to make this junior Walter Mitty’s account of himself hang together, it read like a collection of short stories, unrelated articles of clothing hanging side-by-side on a clothesline, rather than as a cohesive book.

It read, in short, like a Frankenstein manuscript.

Because I liked Stan and thought he was a pretty good writer on the sentence level, I wanted to help him out, so I worked up nerve to make a bold suggestion. “What if you set up very plainly in the first chapter that your protagonist sees life through a directorial lens?” (Sort of like Fellini’s 8 1/2, I added to myself, as a cinematic footnote from my childhood.) “That way, the reader would be in on the conceit right from the beginning, and could enjoy each switch as play, rather than leaving the reader to guess after the style has changed 6 or 7 times that you have a larger purpose here.”

To put it mildly, Stan did not cotton to this advice; it sounded, he said, just like the feedback he had gotten from the agents and editors at the conference, or indeed, every agent he had queried. (Again, imagine my surprise.) We all obviously, he said huffily, just didn’t like the fact that he was experimenting with narrative structure, doing something new and exciting and fresh.

We were, in his considered opinion, sticks in the proverbial mud. Well, we may have been, but we also evidently all knew a Frankenstein manuscript when we saw one, for the exceedingly simple reason that any professional reader sees so very, very many in any given year. So from that perspective, Stan’s trouble was not that he was trying to do something original; it was that his manuscript had an extremely common consistency problem.

But Stan was absolutely convinced that what was being critiqued was his artistic vision, rather than his presentation of it, so while he was perpetually revising to sharpen the differences between the segments, he never seemed to get around to sitting down with the entire manuscript to see if his critics might have had a point about the overall manuscript. Predictably, he continued to have trouble placing his book, because, to professional eyes, such a manuscript means only one thing: the investment of a tremendous amount of editorial time and energy to make the work publishable.

My friend with ambitions to rewrite HUCK FINN had constructed his creature self-consciously, but far more often, writers are not even aware that the style shifts are visible. Particularly in first novels, the stylistic changes are often the inevitable result of the writer’s craft having improved over the years spent writing the book, or simple inexperience in carrying a late-added theme all the way through a story.

In the most extreme cases, the shifts are so pronounced that the Frankenstein book can actually read as a sort of unintentional anthology.

I’m not talking about multiple-perspective pieces — although it is very easy for a book relying upon several storytelling voices to end up as a Frankenstein work, without a cohesive narrative thread tying it all together. No, in a good multiple-perspective novel, each voice and/or POV is sharp, distinct, differentiated to the extent that a reader familiar with each could open the book at any page and know within a paragraph who is speaking. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, for instance, juggles multiple perspectives and voices beautifully, so that although the reader is treated to the overarching story in bits and pieces, the whole blends into seemingly organic coherence.

In a Frankenstein manuscript, no such organic coherence exists, even if the overall plot makes linear sense. The reader is jerked from writing style to writing style, as if the same story were being told on all available networks, but an indecisive child held the remote control, so the style of telling leaps from soap opera to broad comedy to PBS documentary.

It’s tiring to read, and often, hard to follow. It also says pretty clearly to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living that the author has not yet performed a thorough, beginning-to-end edit on the book. And this is a serious problem for the editor, as it is her job to strengthen the dominant style and muffle the rest, so the whole can stand as a unified piece of prose.

It is also a serious problem for the author, since it’s difficult to sell a piece that meanders stylistically. (Just ask Stan.)

Another extremely common manifestation of Frankensteinery is the text that hasn’t yet really decided which tense it is in, and so meanders back and forth between (usually) the present and the past. In fiction, the explanation for this is generally pretty simple: the writer thought at one point that it would be nifty to write the book in the present tense, realized part-way through that it’s darned difficult to tell a story that way (how does one handle events that have been in progress for some time, for instance?), and changed to the past. Only in the transition process, not all of the verbs got changed.

Oops.

And what does the end result look like to a professional reader like Millicent, everybody? That’s right: like an indicator that the writer did not take the time to sit down and re-read his work after revision.

Hmm, where have I heard before that such a course of action really isn’t the best strategic move? I’m sure it will come to me…

Sometimes, though — and this one is more common in nonfiction, notoriously so in memoir — the writer just thinks it’s cool to present past events in the present tense. It sounds more colloquial that way, she reasons, the way someone might tell an anecdote verbally.

The trouble is, flipping past actions into the present tense can quickly become darned confusing for the reader. To take a recent random (and kind of surprising, from so usually consistent a writer) example from Sarah Vowell’s THE WORDY SHIPMATES:

Williams in Salem is such a myopic researcher of biblical truth he doesn’t care who gets hurt. His intellectual fervor, coupled with a disregard of practical consequences, reminds me of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, running his secret Manhattan Project lab in Los Alamos with a single-minded zeal, then quoting the Bhagavad Gita as the first test of his atomic bomb lights up the desert. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he said.

Now, this paragraph makes perfect sense, on one level: an intelligent reader could figure out that the narrator is in the present, talking about Oppenheimer and Williams in the past. But quick, tell me based upon this passage alone: who was born first, Oppenheimer or Williams?

If you said Oppenheimer, you were probably following the hint given by the tense choices in this passage: since Oppenheimer is clearly speaking in the past, and Williams is presented in the present tense, the implication is that Williams is the more recent trodder of the earth’s crust, right? Perhaps even a contemporary of Vowell’s?

So would it astonish you to learn that Williams was obsessing in 1635, not 2008, when the book came out?

For some reason best known to herself, Vowell chose to describe the actions of Williams and his fellow Puritans in both the present and the past tense, sometimes within the same paragraph. Since her background is in radio (by definition a speaker’s medium), I am forcing myself to conclude that this was a well-considered authorial choice, not merely the result of a reluctance to re-read her own work (which she does regularly on NPR) or an editorial oversight.

The New York Post’s reviewer’s response was less charitable — and more, I suspect, like Millicent’s would have been had THE WORDY SHIPMATES crossed her desk as a submission from a previously unpublished aspiring writer. “As a whole,” the review comments dryly, “the book reads like an unedited manuscript.”

Like, in other words, a Frankenstein manuscript. Which is sad, because I really, really wanted to love this book. (I don’t take just any author’s work with me to read on retreat, you know.)

In Ms. Vowell’s defense, I can think of a number of strategic reasons the frequent tense changes might have seemed like a good idea. Casting so much of the Puritans’ story in the present tense might have been a deliberate attempt to draw a parallel with current political conditions at the time the book came out, for instance (which may be why the book already seems a trifle dated). Or perhaps it was an effort to make the lives of our long-dead forebears seem more immediately relevant.

But whatever the motivation, I don’t think it worked. As a reader, I have to say that I found the frequent temporal shifts jarring every single time they occurred in the book. I thought they made the historical tale she was telling significantly harder to follow on the page.

Now, I suspect that some of you out there may share the belief that writing in the present tense is inherently more grabbing than writing in the past. Certainly, those of you who feel this way are not alone: there has been quite a bit of literary fiction over the last 20 years that has embraced that notion that placing a narrative in the now is more immediate.

Personally, I don’t think it’s true, largely because anyone who reads on a regular basis is already well versed in the not-very-difficult mental process of becoming absorbed in a past tense story as though it were happening in present time. I think that a reader has to be awfully darned literal to perceive himself to be distanced from action simply because it is presented in the past tense. I also know from experience that writing an entire book in the present tense necessarily entails quite a few technical difficulties that may be avoided almost entirely by placing it in even the most recent of pasts.

However, tense choices are entirely up to the author –but if you’re going to write in the present tense, please do it consistently.

Again, if you’re not willing to heed this advice for artistic reasons, embrace it because it’s good marketing. Manuscripts that tense-flip for no apparent reason tend to get dismissed as poorly proofed, at best. Unless a reader has a pretty darned good reason to assume that your authorial choices are deliberate — like, say, Sarah Vowell’s extensive track record of excellent published writing — he’s likely to interpret tense inconsistency not as a matter of style, but as a mistake.

So you might want to save the major experimentation until after you’re already an established writer; first, cut your teeth on less radical ways to make English prose interesting. Or, to put it another way: José Saramago wrote an entire book devoid of periods; that doesn’t mean that a first-time writer could get away with it.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unfair that the already-published should be judged by less stringent standards than those just breaking into the biz, but I’m not going to lie to you: that’s how it works. I honestly don’t think that THE WORDY SHIPMATES would have made it past Millicent had it been written by a previously unpublished writer.

Which would have been a shame, as it’s an interesting book with some wonderful insights and some very memorable sentences crammed into it. But plenty of interesting books with wonderful insights and memorable sentences don’t clear the first hurdle at agencies or in literary contests.

Why? Often, because those insights and sentences come across as flukes, occasional narrative bright spots not entirely integrated into the overall narrative. The voice is not consistent.

Cue the monster; he’s on again.

Don’t despair, however, if you fear your manuscript has Frankenstein tendencies. Tomorrow, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house — as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS to those of you who intended to enter the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, but don’t think you can get your entry in by midnight (your time) tonight: go ahead, take another couple of weeks.

After all, I am.

Yes, you read that correctly: if you can get your entry e-mailed by midnight on Monday, June 1, it will still be eligible to win fabulous prizes. (Hey, I happen to have it on good authority that the primary judge is on a writing retreat.)