Premises, premises

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

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

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

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

Can tap-dancing be far behind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or the following Friday. Or two years from Friday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In spades. It’s written on the sand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear X. Tremely Pickison:

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

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

Sincerely,

Starchaser McFameseeker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m guessing not.

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

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

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

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

”Improvise?” he suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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