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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

“Wow.”

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

“Eww.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh-huh,” he prompted breathlessly.

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

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

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

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

“Saving your skin?

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

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

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

“Thirty-eight years!”

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

“Rats? Raw?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth pondering, anyway. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XXIII: how much detail is tutu much?

degas dance class pink

The blogger’s life is all about constantly creating new content to foist upon an eager world, but I have to say, I was so pleased with the way yesterday’s post turned out that I was tempted, albeit briefly, just to pretend that I couldn’t get to my computer for the next week or so. That way, the post would have lingered at the top of the blog for a nice, long time, all of you would have had some time to ponder your individual authorial voices, and I would have gotten a bit of a vacation.

Wait, why did I decide not to do this? It sounds like a great idea.

Oh, yeah: we’re rapidly heading toward August, and I didn’t want to slow down anyone’s revision efforts. Specifically, I did not want any of you coming to me in mid-September, saying, “Wow, Anne, I wish I’d known some of the editing fixes you were talking about late in the summer before I sent off my submission to the agent of my dreams! But there we were, just a few short weeks before the annual August exodus, and you decided to take a week off. Unbeknownst to anyone concerned, the piece of advice that would have enabled me to turn my opus from pretty good to yowsa would be in the very next post!”

Oh, you may laugh — but would you care to hear just how often readers or students in my classes have said similar things to me?

A small forest of hands shot into the air in the middle of the quote from the fantasy creature I choose to regard as representative of future readers. Yes, hand-raisers? “But Anne, why would mid-to-late July be a particularly poor time for you to stop lecturing us on craft issues? And what did your imaginary friends mean about the annual August exodus?”

Ah, the answers to those two trenchant questions are interconnected, my friends. Traditionally, enough of the NYC-based publishing world goes on vacation between the end of the second week of August and Labor Day that it’s genuinely difficult to pull together an editorial committee in order to approve the acquisition of a manuscript or book proposal. That means, in practice, that agents are not all that likely to be able to sell books during this period, so they, too tend to go on vacation during that period. Oh, a Millicent or two might be left behind to watch the store while the rest of the agency seeks less humid climes, but generally speaking, it’s a dead zone.

What does that mean for aspiring writers, you ask? Why, that mid-August through mid-September isn’t usually the best time to query or submit. Unless, of course, one happens to harbor an active desire to have one’s query or manuscript sit on a desk for a month or two.

Did that vast collective gasp mean that at least some of you were expecting to hear back sooner — or at any rate, for Millicent and her boss to get cracking immediately after midnight on Labor Day? Think about it: if you didn’t go into work for a few weeks, how much mail would pile up on your desk?

Got that image firmly in mind? Good. Now imagine the state of that desk if you routinely received 800-1200 queries per week.

On a not entirely unrelated note, had I mentioned that the next few weeks would be a great time to get those queries out the door? Or to polish up and send off those requested materials?

To facilitate your pursuing one or both of those laudable goals, I’m going to be winding down the Frankenstein manuscript series with today’s post. Oh, we’re not going to be leaving the wonderful world of craft — beginning with my next post, we’re going to take a serious foray into pepping up your dialogue. But for the nonce, we’re going to be stepping away from manuscript-polishing issues, so that you may more easily take the time to…well, polish your manuscript.

And honestly, weren’t you getting just a little tired of all those Roman numerals?

To round out the series with a bang, I’m going to devote today to challenging you to assess yet another reader’s actual text. Rather than present you with her opening pages, however, I’m going to show you an action scene, of a sort, and encourage you to try to spot potential revision opportunities.

Why launch into a mid-book scene, you ask, rather than my usual target of choice, the opening pages? Partially, so we could talk about pacing — as the expressive industry term sagging in the middle may already have led you to suspect, narratives are more likely to slow there than at either the beginning or the end — but also, as is my wont, to answer a reader’s question. Quoth abbreviation devotee Kathy:

What if your world, so to speak, involves a skill that not everyone is familiar with? In my case, my MC is a dance student, and much of the WIP occurs during her classes at a studio.

I’ve gotten comments from critters saying both put in more details about the step or combinations and leave out the details. So how do I balance out the necessary details so non-dance readers can visualize my MC’s dance movements and not put in so many that it stalls the action?

As delighted as I am at the mental image of critters providing feedback on a manuscript (and as concerned as I am that not every reader will know that MC = protagonist and WIP = work in progress; while WIP is arguably writing-class jargon, MC is not), this question has been causing me some chagrin. As we have seen throughout this series, this is precisely the kind of question that is impossible to answer without taking a close look at the scene in question — as much as aspiring writers might like for there to be hard-and-fast formulae for figuring out this kind of proportion, what works honestly does vary from story to story.

Yet now that we have a nice, well-stocked revision tool kit, we need fear no writing fix-it challenge. So let’s take a peek at Kathy’s pages with an eye to improving them, shall we?

Before we do, though, I have a confession to make: when I use readers’ examples here, I have been known to clean up the formatting prior to posting them. That way, the reader kind enough to allow me to write about actual text gets the benefit of specific feedback, and you, dear readers, don’t become confused by seeing improperly formatted pages.

Since this is going to be the last concrete example in this series, however, I’m going to show at least the first page of this one initially as it arrived in my e-mail. Kathy’s made two extremely common mistakes for a submitter; Millicents whose boss agents accept e-mail queries and submissions see these all the time. I’m rather pleased to be able to show them to you in their natural habitat, as most professional readers will automatically reject requested materials with either.

See if you can catch them on her first page. Hint: either would be apparent to Millicent the agency screener from ten feet away.

Kathy as is

See the problem? This page is not formatted like a manuscript page: it lacks a slug line (and thus any way to identify this page, should it become separated from the rest of the submission), and there is a skipped line between each paragraph. Also, although it may be hard to tell in this version, the writer skipped only one space after each period and colon, rather than two, rendering it significantly harder to edit. (Which, admittedly, some agents would prefer; check their websites for specific instructions on the subject.)

It’s formatted, in short, as though it were intended for insertion into the body of an e-mail, not as samples from a manuscript page. Which would have been appropriate only had the professional reader in question (in this case, me) specifically asked for the materials to be sent — wait for it — in the body of an e-mail.

In case anyone’s wondering, that request is usually reserved for electronic queries where the agency likes to see a few pages of text or a bio. It’s virtually never the expectation when an agent or editor asks a successful querier or pitcher to send actual manuscript pages.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, I’m particularly pleased to be able to show you this phenomenon in action as I wrap up the Frankenstein manuscript: this level of formatting gaffe might easily be sufficient to prevent Millicent from reading any of the text at all, at least if her agency asked (as I did) for the pages to be sent as a Word attachment, the industry standard means of online submission.

In case I’m being too subtle here: formatting counts in submissions, even e-mailed ones.

That’s not, alas, as widely-known an axiom as it should be. Like so many aspiring writers, Kathy probably mistakenly believed that what this professional reader wanted to see was the content of the requested pages, but that’s not the only thing being judged in a submission. Any professional reader would also be looking to see if the submitter was aware of how manuscripts should be put together.

Why is it problematic if a submission consists of just writing, rather than writing presented in standard manuscript format? Even if Millicent read it and fell in love with the writing, the presentation just screams that this would be a time-consuming client to take on: clearly, she would need to be shown the ropes.

And that, from the other side of the submission desk, is a problem — or, depending upon how serious Millicent is about ever seeing her desktop again, a solution. Given that a good agent will routinely receive 800-1200 queries per week (yes, even during the August break), and that she gets enough properly-formatted submissions to fill her few new client spots hundreds of times over, why should she instruct her Millicent to read improperly formatted materials? By the same token, why should Mehitabel the contest judge consider those same materials for finalist status in a literary contest?

That last bit was not entirely rhetorical, by the way. In the Great First Pages contest I sponsored here in May, a good third of the entries were not properly formatted. Rather surprising, as the rules asked that entries be submitted in standard format as a Word attachment. Or it might have surprised me, had I not so often served as a contest judge; experience had taught me how often contest entrants simply do not read the rules with care. (But don’t worry, Great First Page entrants: finalists have been selected, and the winners shall be announced soon.)

The moral, should you care to hear it: unless an agency, small publishing house, or writing contest’s rules either ask you to submit your writing in the body of an e-mail or SPECIFICALLY ask for some other kind of presentation, you should assume that they’re expecting to see standard manuscript format. And if you don’t know what that should look like on the page, run, don’t walk, to the posts in the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.

Heck, for starters, you could just look at today’s example again, now that I’ve taken the time to format it as Millicent would expect to see it. (As usual, if you are having trouble reading the example, try holding down the COMMAND key simultaneously with +, to enlarge the image.) To protect the innocent, I’ve taken the liberty of changing the last name of the submitter, as well as the title of the book.

Kathy page 1
Kathy page 2

Ready to tackle Kathy’s question now? Well, probably not, if you’ve been following this series closely. I’m guessing that what jumped out at your first was all the word repetition, right?

In case it didn’t, let’s apply our usual test for word and phrase frequency, to see how this page would have looked to Millicent’s critical eye. Notice in particular the name repetition.

Kathy's marked 1
Kathy's marked 2

Colorful, isn’t it? Since we have already discussed word choice stagnation in general and name repetition in particular in some detail in this series, I don’t want to dwell too much on these problems as they manifest here. Except to point out one thing: notice how hard it is to evaluate the text on any other basis while all of that repetition is starting you in the face?

It’s every bit as hard for professional readers. So should anyone still be looking for a great first step toward an overall revision, I would highly recommend starting with word and phrase repetition.

But where, if a savvy reviser had to choose, would the next level of revision start? Would it, as Kathy suggests, be at the jargon level, reassessing the amount of actual dance steps in this scene?

That’s a legitimate concern, but I tend to doubt that would be the very next problem Millicent would notice. Assuming that word repetition is off the table, here are the kinds of issues that might concern her.

Kathy edit 1
Kathy's edit 2

Again, where to begin? My vote would be in the first paragraph, with a problem that dogs many a manuscript these days, especially in YA: having more than one character speak or think per paragraph.

Actually, paragraph #1 presents a couple of rather interesting thought dilemmas. Take a gander as it currently stands:

After class, several classmates huddled outside the large observation window while Miss Sylvia showed Melissa and Peter the first steps of the dance. Both did the same moves, which were simple enough, in Melissa’s mind. Miss Sylvia said, “Peter, offer your right hand to Melissa. Melissa, put your right hand in it and step into relevé arabesque.” Melissa’s heart fluttered for a moment. Finally, some actual partnering.

The perspective is a trifle puzzling here, even for an omniscient narrative. In the first sentence, the action is seen by third parties, from the other side of a window. In the next sentence, the narrative jumps into Melissa’s head, but in sentences #3 and #4, Miss Sylvia is speaking. Yet in sentences #5 and #6, we’re back in Melissa’s perspective, underscored by #6′s italicized thought.

A touch confusing to the spatial sense, is it not? No worries — a bit of judicious application of the pinkie to the RETURN key will instantly clarify matters:

After class, several classmates huddled outside the large observation window while Miss Sylvia showed Melissa and Peter the first steps of the dance. Both did the same moves, which were simple enough, in Melissa’s mind.

“Peter, offer your right hand to Melissa,” Miss Sylvia said. “Melissa, put your right hand in it and step into relevé arabesque.”

Melissa’s heart fluttered for a moment. Finally, some actual partnering.

See how the simple act of giving each perspective its own paragraph removes any possibility of perspective drift? Not to mention being allowing a far more conventional presentation of dialogue.

Do I see some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” italicized thought-lovers everywhere exclaim as one, “why did you remove the italics around Melissa’s thought? They were used correctly the first time around, weren’t they?”

Well, yes, they were — although that’s a qualified yes, since there are plenty of Millicents out there for whom italicized thought equals lazy writing. (Their rationale: “Shouldn’t a genuinely talented writer be able to alert the reader to the fact that the protagonist is thinking without resorting to fancy typefaces?”) Amongst those who do accept this convention, though, Kathy’s use here would definitely fly.

So why did I chose to eschew italics here? Simple: there are so many French terms in this scene. On the manuscript page, it’s rather confusing to the eye to have both the foreign terms and the thought italicized; as the French had to be italicized, the thought was the obvious one to change.

And I ask you: wasn’t it still clear that the last sentence was Melissa’s thought?

Of course, for an editorial change like this to work, it would have to be made consistently throughout the entire manuscript — altering it in this scene alone, or even only in the jargon-heavy ballet scenes, might well result in text that read like a mistake. Every fiction writer needs to decide for herself whether to italicize thought or not, and then cling to that resolve like a leech. (But if you would like some guidance on how to italicize thought correctly, you might want to check out the ITALICS AND WHEN THEY ARE CORRECT TO USE category on the archive list at right.)

There’s another structural problem, also related to RETURN key usage, that might also strike your garden-variety Millicent’s eye forcefully. Any guesses?

If you instantly sent your fingertips shooting skyward, shouting, “By gum, there are a couple of single-sentence paragraphs in this excerpt, but it takes at least two sentences to construct a narrative paragraph,” you have either been paying close attention throughout this revision series, or your eyes are sharp enough to have picked up the rather dim red marginalia above. While a dialogue paragraph can indeed be a single sentence long:

“But I like single-sentence paragraphs,” Kathy pointed out.

it’s technically incorrect to limit a narrative paragraph to a single sentence, like so:

He nodded.

As we’ve discussed, the prevalence of single-sentence paragraphs in newspaper and magazine writing (in AP style, they are perfectly acceptable) has led to an ever-growing acceptance of the things in published books, particularly nonfiction. That’s not going to help you, however, if your Millicent should happen to have graduated from a college with a particularly good English department.

If you just like the way single-line paragraphs look — many an aspiring writer seems to positively pine for them — use them as judiciously as you would profanity. To co-opt Mark Twain’s quip about taking the Lord’s name in vain, select a time when it will have effect. How about, for instance, limiting their use to when the statement that follows a full paragraph is actually surprising?

Again, we’ve already talked about this issue earlier in the series, so I shall not harp upon it. For the moment, it’s enough to realize that Millicent would notice and zero in such paragraphs — enough so that it really would behoove the writer to make sure that he’s deriving some significant benefit from breaking the rules. In this excerpt, at least, neither of the single-line paragraphs rises to that level of usefulness.

I hear a positive fusillade of fingertips drumming on desks. “But Anne,” cut-to-the-chase types protest, “while all of this is interesting, from a self-editing perspective, you haven’t yet addressed Kathy’s question. Is there a reason that we needed to discuss all of these technical matters before getting to the issue of whether she’s overusing detail here?”

Yes, actually, a very good reason: from a professional reader’s perspective, it’s difficult to assess questions of style before the more basic writing issues — spelling, grammar, clarity — and presentation requirements — our old pal, standard format; choices like word repetition and italic use that might produce eye distraction on the page — have been resolved. That’s partially why I’ve been talking about attacking a Frankenstein manuscript in waves of revision: as each level of text scrubbing takes place, the style and voice lying just beneath can emerge.

It follows, then, as dawn succeeds the night, that as a self-editing writer winnows away his manuscript’s technical problems, underlying stylistic difficulties may leap to the fore. In the case of today’s example, two related problems have cropped up — maintaining narrative tension and the use of necessary technical jargon.

Let’s tackle the latter first. Kathy had asked how best to tell how much detail to include in her dance studio scenes, but from the perspective of a reader unfamiliar with ballet terminology, there’s actually not a great deal of detail in this scene. There is, however, quite a bit of dance jargon, a series of phrases that leap off the page by virtue of being italicized.

Why, we were discussing the eye-distraction potential of those words and phrases just a few moments ago, were we not? What a coincidence.

The fact that so many of these terms are in French, and thus require italicization, is not the only reason that the ballet jargon is problematic in this excerpt, however. Much of the time, the jargon is taking the place of description, not adding to it.

What’s the difference, those of you who have done some time in ballet class ask? The answer to that one is easy: please tell us, readers who don’t know an arabesque from the proverbial hole in the ground, how are you picturing the action in this scene?

Not very clearly, I’m guessing — which is almost always the case when a narrative leans very heavily upon jargon for its descriptions. Naming an action or object is not the same thing as showing what it looks like, after all.

That’s genuinely a pity in this scene, as I suspect (having put in my time in ballet class) that the movements the characters are making would be quite pretty to see. So my first choice for stylistic revision would be to replace at least some of the jargon with some lyrical description of flowing arms and tremulous balances, enough so that a reader who did not know much about dancing could still enjoy the movement of the scene.

And you thought I wasn’t going to answer Kathy’s question!

The other problem — maintaining narrative tension — also speaks to her concern. If the level of detail is too high, the tension of the scene can suffer; as we discussed last time, one way to keep an action scene moving along is the thoughtful application of summary statements.

So I ask you: is the level of detail appropriate for the ideal pacing of the scene?

I’m turning it over to you in part because personally, I find that question a trifle difficult to answer; I suspect a reader who had not spent her wayward youth glissading and pas de bouréeing would have quite a different response than one who had. If the target audience is made up solely of girls who live in leotards, the level of detail may not need to be tweaked much. If, however, the intended readership includes — and I think it should — kids who always wanted to take dance classes but have not had the opportunity, the illustrative details should be ramped up a thousandfold.

You want them to feel as though they are in that dance studio, don’t you?

Not convinced that’s a pacing issue? You bet your boots it is. A reader already familiar with the terminology would be able to skim through this scene in 60 seconds flat. She might long for more connection to the plot and characters as they exist outside of the dance studio — all three characters in this scene seem to be living entirely in the moment, a relatively rare condition for both real-world residents and characters in books — but I doubt she would feel that the scene dragged. Its characters have a goal to achieve, and they attain it in under two pages.

But what of our other reader, the one who will either be puzzled by the undefined jargon or will simply skip over it? (Not an uncommon response to encountering technical talk on the page, by the way.) To her, the scene might well seem slow, or even confusing. What are these people doing, she wonders, that cannot be described adequately in English?

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about revision solutions seldom being one-size-fits-all; a savvy self-editor is constantly juggling any number of relevant issues. Because this is a not a simple process we’re talking about, my friends — like an onion, a Frankenstein manuscript with potential has many, many layers.

And can induce tears.

Keep those good craft questions rolling in, everybody, and many thanks to Kathy for letting us take an informative peek at her manuscript. Next time, we tackle dialogue — but may I suggest taking a glance at the calendar and perhaps resolving to send out a query or two on the side?

Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XVI: oh, say, can you see?

Monseurrat and rear view

Since my last post focused so tightly on the nit-picky aspects of revision (go through and check all the tabs? Scrutinize every semicolon? Really, Anne?), I thought I would let it sink into your brains slowly over a couple of days. Today, however, I’m back and full of vim for editing.

Why so excited? Because today, my friends, I’m going to be walking you through an even nit-pickier type of revision.

Oh, you may laugh, but this time around, I’m going to be challenging you to catch some pretty subtle stuff. (Can’t you feel the excitement burbling through the air?)

I certainly can. Since we concentrate so often here at Author! Author! on problems within a writer’s power to fix — as opposed to larger, less predictable pitfalls that fall outside a submitter’s control, such as whether a particular book category will still be popular a year hence, or if Millicent the agency screener has just burned her lip on a too-hot latte immediately before reading your query — I tend to show negative examples. That’s been especially true in this series on Frankenstein manuscripts, stuffed to the proverbial gills with practical illustrations, so you may learn to spot creeping manuscript illnesses in their natural habitat.

Today, I’m going to turn my usual approach on its head, approach it from another angle, sneak in the back door, and engage in any other euphemism for changing tactics you might happen to name. This time, I’m going to present you with a very good set of opening pages and challenge you to find the subtle problems that might tempt Millicent to change her “Wow!” to “Oh, so close.”

Interestingly, today’s example first came to my attention because of its writer’s doubts about whether she had pulled off a conceptually difficult passage in her work. Those of you who have been following this series may recall reader Christie’s thought-provoking question on a recent post:

You really made me think today, and I thank you, Anne. I have a scene that was bothering me anyway that came to mind when I read your post. My difficulty lies in the fact that the scene involves looking into a rear-view mirror, and I am finding it hard not to resort to all of the visual words associated with looking. I know that I still have too many of them, but it’s hard to know how to change them.
When I printed the pages in question, and read them aloud, I realized how irritating it would be to a reader. I had never considered reading my manuscript aloud until I came upon your blog recently… Any other advice you might offer on the subject would be appreciated.

I love good questions from readers — especially when, like this one, they are so politely phrased. But Christie’s question was unusually hard to answer: as we have seen in recent posts, the answer to how much repetition is too much? varies from book category to book category, as well as from manuscript to manuscript. What works on Writer X’s page 1 will often not work at all on Writer Y’s.

I could, of course, have given my standard answer: when in doubt about what is stylistically acceptable in your chosen book category, rush off to a well-stocked bookstore, start pulling recently-released books akin to yours off shelves, and start reading random pages.

This trick works equally well for writing-based questions ranging from establishing the vocabulary level of your target audience, getting a feel for the expected narrative tone in your subgenre, and determining when, if ever, semicolons may appear in a manuscript. Just make absolutely certain to select pages from many different books, rather than those by your favorite authors, and that any book you consult came out within the last five years. (Longer than that, and you won’t be learning about the current market.)

Since the phenomenon Christie was talking about was unlikely to turn up very often in a well-edited published book, however, this answer, though good advice in itself, seemed a trifle dismissive. So I did what any self-respecting nit-picker would do: I took a look at the pages in question.

Here, by her kind permission, is her opening scene. (If you have trouble reading it, try increasing the size by holding down the COMMAND key while pressing +.)

Christie page 1
Christie page 2
Christie page 3

Pretty good grabber, isn’t it? It introduces the characters well, establishes the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation, and tosses the reader smack into the middle of an ongoing conflict, all in a believably chatty first-person narrative voice. This scene is, in short, a good hook for a submission. The closing dialogue is a bit conceptually repetitive, but overall, well done, Christie!

But I come to address her question, not to praise her. So I ask you: are there too many visual references in these pages? If so, which do you think should go?

While you’re pondering those two pertinent issues, allow me to raise another: in which fiction book category would you say, based solely upon these three pages, does this opening belong?

I imagine that each of us will have a slightly different answer to those three questions. Let’s get technical for a moment, to make sure that we’re all concentrating upon the same things. To keep things interesting, let’s apply the same test I’ve been advising for ferreting out any kind of repetition: highlighting every instance of it. Take a gander:

Christie 1 marked
Christie 2 marked
Christie 3 marked

Seems like quite a few more vision-based references now, doesn’t it? To a professional reader, all of those references to sight would have popped out the first time around, without all of the green ink.

And yet compared to most fiction and memoir submissions, these pages actually rely upon vision and visually-based conclusions rather less than most. In fact, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that in 90% of first pages, no sensations either than sight or sound appear at all.

Happily, Christie has been savvier than that: her opening paragraph is stuffed to the brim with sensual imagery. That choice saves the page, from a reader’s perspective: yes, there is quite a bit of reliance upon sight here, but all of that seeing and appearing (what, you hadn’t regarded that as a vision-based term?) is balanced by observations based upon the narrator’s other senses. (Kudos again — but, nit-picker that I am, I would have liked to see that trend continue for the rest of the scene.)

That’s the answer from the reader’s perspective — but the writer is not the reader, right? So short of running out into the street the moment she finished her most recent revision, grabbing the nearest stranger, and forcing him at knifepoint to read these pages, how might a writer go about trying to answer the just right or too much question herself?

Ah, but we highlighted those visual references for a reason. The real test here is how often those green boxes rear their frog-like little faces: how many are there per page, and do they occur in clusters?

Here, the eye activity is not pervasive, but congregated in certain parts of the text. Guess where it would make the most sense to begin revising?

Is the scratch-scratch-scratch sound I’m hearing an indication that half of you are making furious notes to yourself about what to tackle next in your Frankenstein manuscripts, or has a race of giants suddenly all found its respective tummies itchy?

Some of you are managing to raise your hands while taking notes, I see. “But Anne,” those who are thinking strategically inquire, “while the marked-up pages certainly make clear where the writer might start revising, I’m not quite sure how she might go about it. Should she just proceed from box to box, eliminating as many references to sight as she can?”

Actually, that’s not where I would advise making changes first. Since, as Christie herself points out, quite a few of the sight references are integral to the action, I would first try removing all of the non-essential visual words.

Oh, didn’t those leap out at you? They would have at Millicent.

1. Words and phrases that imply seeing
Remember, many words and phrases can mean different things in different contexts; our exemplar may not have been thinking of some of these words and phrases as visually-based, but the reader may perceive them that way.

For instance, several of the word choices here are visually based, logically speaking: apparition, apparently (as I said, almost everyone overlooks that one, so to speak), em>appeared (ditto), vanishing act (although it is used literally here, it often is not), hallucination. Simply selecting other words would substantially reduce the amount of vision-based description in this narrative voice.

Other candidates for changing the wording: some of the phrases used to describe activities other than seeing. Tried to focus, for example. The narrator is not literally trying to focus upon anything, but within a scene with a lot of visual references, is this really the best way to phrase it?

2. Activities that would require seeing, but use different words
This is a subtle one, so stick with me here: as we have discussed before, most manuscripts rely almost exclusively upon the senses of sight and sound, as if no others existed. We could quibble endlessly about how much the ubiquity of these two senses in narrative prose may be attributed to the rise of television and movies, which can use only sight and sound to make their points.

Writers of books, on the other hand, have more possibilities, and you really should take advantage of them. Why must your protagonist see that field of flowers through her window, for instance, instead of smelling it?

That’s a change that would tend to please a professional reader. A revision far less conducive to Millicent’s happiness would be — and don’t pretend that this hasn’t occurred to you throughout this series — when a writer just seeks out all of the visual words (see, look, regard, etc.) and replaces them with other ways of saying that the protagonist is seeing something.

This is such a common revision tactic for Frankenstein manuscripts (especially, I suspect, in the months after we have been discussing repetition here) that even if the writer intends no such thing, Millicent may well draw the conclusion that someone’s been very busy indeed with the search-and-replace function.

In an opening like this one that contains a lot of visual references, that would be a dangerous conclusion for her to draw. But it’s not at all unlikely: go back and re-read the first ten lines of our example, if you don’t believe me.

They contain 8 visual references, right? Of them, 3 are necessary for the reader to understand what is going on: the protagonist checked the rear view mirror; she felt watched; the lights behind her flashed in the mirror. Another, momentarily blinding me is a reaction to the flashing, and thus probably worth keeping.

The other 4, however, could easily be changed; indeed, we’ve already discussed altering one of them. But what are we to make of the repetition of I checked the rear view mirror (line 3) and I kept hastily checking (line 7)?

I can tell you now what an eye-weary Millicent would make of them. She would either assume that the writing in the rest of the manuscript relied on relatively few verbs (not a fair assessment, given the rest of this scene) or that the writer did a word search, noticed two instances of I looked in the rear-view mirror, and changed them both to I checked the rear-view mirror.

Which, of course, is another way of saying that the protagonist looked at something. And, as you may already have noted, is also word-repetitious.

In order to slay the I looked dragon, it’s not enough just to change specific words. Often, the writer will have to come up with both a different way of phrasing and another means of showing the reader what is going on.

3. Visually-based emotional shorthand
There are also places in the text where vision is invoked as a means of expressing emotion: my eyes practically leapt out of their sockets, to give him my best icy glare, my eyes shut instinctively in disbelief, I blinked in total bewilderment. If these emotions could be expressed other than through eye activity — especially since in context, none of them need be conveyed through the eyes — half of the visual references on page 2 would be gone.

4. Head-hopping and narrative assumptions
Stand well back, because I’m about to trumpet a rule: for a first-person narrative to ring true to the reader, it must adhere to two basic rules: report in the narrative only what the narrator could actually have seen, heard, felt, etc., and don’t make unwarranted guesses about other characters’ motivations, feelings, or thoughts.

So mentioning a visual detail that could only be observed from outside the narrator (his own eyes glazing over, for instance), or saying why another character is doing something is not playing fair. That’s just logical, right? One person cannot say for sure what another is seeing or feeling, any more than he can be absolutely certain that he knows why somebody else does something.

Thus, when a first-person narrator reports that her pursuer was trying to get a better look at me, that’s technically a perspective slip. It may be a correct conclusion, but it is necessarily a conclusion, not a fact. For the same reason, the helmeted head was studying me is our heroine’s best guess of what the person on the motorcycle was doing; she may not be correct about that.

5. Characters who look instead of doing something more interesting
As we discussed earlier in this series, aspiring writers often have characters look, as if the act of looking were to the independent observer particularly fascinating. It isn’t, usually — so why not enliven your text by having all of those lookers do, well, almost anything else?

Christie could cut quite a few of the visual references from this scene in this manner. What if, for example, the thing she fears is following her wasn’t sitting in the back seat with an axe, instead of being bottom-lined as nothing stared back at me? How about if the narrator did or said something in response to being startled, rather than just blinking, as my eyes shut instinctively in disbelief and I opened them again imply?

6. Reminding the reader that the narrator or protagonist is in fact the one observing things.
We’ve already talked about this one, right? Once a first- or tight third-person narrative has established that the reader is being shown only a single perspective, anything that the narrative reports is ASSUMED to be from that character’s perspective. Continually inventing narrative excuses to remind the reader who is seeing what (or, more commonly, to justify including a description) is unnecessary — and, when done in excess, downright annoying to Millicent.

The good news is that this type of reminder can usually be cut in its entirety, with no cost to the text. For instance, removing I glanced in the side mirror to get a better idea of who I was dealing with could be excised from the top of page two without lessening the tension or altering the reader’s perception of the flow of events at all.

Notice anything, campers? Once all six kinds of looking are revised away, not even the hardest-nosed Millicent would carp over the amount of visual references in this scene.

So I ask you again: were there too many in the original text?

For my taste, yes — but not by very much. Since the tension level was consistently high throughout the first two pages (it flags a bit once the conversation starts, since the narrator is no longer conveying panic), I would have kept reading.

But that’s just me; another professional reader might feel differently.

Also, it’s important to remember that even though we are focusing for the sake of discussion upon visual references, they might not strike every Millicent as the potential red flags in this opening. Remember, professional readers are trained VERY closely; not much gets past them. So while Christie has presented us with an unusually clean manuscript, that doesn’t mean that solving the vision problem is necessarily all of the revision she would want to do.

Scratching your head, wondering what else she might try afterward? Let’s take a peek at how Millicent might see these pages, to see if she can help steer us in the right direction. (Speaking of visual criteria, my apologies for these photos; apparently, my studio was invaded by some bright red lights today.)

Page 1
Page 2
Page 3

That’s a lot of purple ink, isn’t it, for an opening few pages that we all saw for ourselves were in pretty good shape. And they are in pretty good shape, by submission standards — even if Christie decided to embrace each and every one of Millicent’s suggestions, this is probably only a few hours’ worth of revision. (Don’t strain your eyes, Christie — I’ll send you the marked-up pages.)

That places these pages far, far ahead of the vast majority of what our Millie sees. But that doesn’t mean that they could not use some further revision. In all probability, no individual issue we’ve discussed today would be sufficient to provoke a knee-jerk rejection, but together? Who knows?

Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, every professional reader has slightly different tastes in literary style. What virtually all of us share, however, is an affection for nicely-written, well-proofread, grammar-checked, professionally formatted text that tells a good story well.

Which means, in essence, that going over your submission line by line, checking for red flags, is not just likely to increase your chances of pleasing Millicent; it’s her minimum expectation of what a talented writer will do. It’s not as though most manuscripts are rejected based upon a single problem, after all; like formatting problems, writing goof-ups tend to travel in groups.

A high bar to leap? You bet. Lest we forget, Millicent’s standard for comparison is not merely the other submissions that cross her desk on the same day as yours; it’s presentation perfection, solid writing, and a marketable book concept.

That may seem like a gigantic set of goals for as detail-oriented a process as revision, but what you’re doing here is not merely ironing out the rough spots in this manuscript. Working through a really conscientious manuscript revision is going to change the way you write — for the better, if you’ve done your homework. Those old-fashioned schoolteachers who used to make their students write out sample sentences a hundred times had a point, you know — once you’ve devoted a few days to tracking down and examining every single visual reference in a 350-page manuscript, the probability that you’ll have to perform the same search on your next manuscript is rather low.

Trust me on this one. A Frankenstein manuscript can offer a magnificent growth experience for a writer. Like most growth experiences, it’s not much fun in the moment, but the results are ultimately worth it.

Please join me in extending many thanks to Christie for the excellent question and the great example, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part III: the light at the end of the passage, or, but wait, I WANTED it to read that way!

light along castle walls

Over the long holiday weekend (originally dedicated, in case those of you reading this from abroad had been wondering, to remembering the fallen on both sides of the Civil War), I introduced you to the Frankenstein manuscript. This alarming 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 indicative 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.

Everyone with me so far? Except, perhaps, those of you who have had your hands in the air since I started this series?

“But Anne,” the patient many protest, and with good reason, “were we or were we not talking as recently as five weeks ago about multiple-perspective novels? I could see how a third-person novel could maintain an even tone and voice while dealing with different perspectives, but stylistically, I kind of like it when the writing is different when different perspectives are being portrayed. Also, wouldn’t it actually be a very bad idea indeed for a multiple first-person novel to have the same voice throughout?”

Excellent points both, multiple perspective-lovers. An argument, and an exceptionally strong one, could be made for structuring a multiple-perspective third-person narrative so the text ran slower when a more dim-witted character dominated, quicker when a more impatient one prevailed, and so on. An even better argument could be made for giving each first-person narrator a distinctively individual voice. Acting upon either argument well would require a lot of writerly pondering and meticulous craft.

Acting on either would also require an even greater editorial attention than to a manuscript with narrated by a single voice throughout, however. Why? Well, if a writer is going to wow readers by switching between compelling multiple voices, he must (a) develop equally compelling multiple voices, so the reader won’t tire of one or another, (b) render those voices different enough that the reader can easily tell the difference between a scene written in one voice and a scene in a second, and (c) make absolutely sure via rigorous re-reading and revision that there’s no blurring of those voices.

In short, every voice in the book would need to be separately consistent.

But craft wasn’t all that concerned you hand-raisers, was it? “That’s right, Anne,” they instantly reply. “I was thinking more of how Millicent would respond to my multiple-perspective novel’s switches in voice — particularly the one between the first scene (pp. 1-3 of my current manuscript) and the second (pp. 4-17). Isn’t she likely to, you know, assume that my book doesn’t have a consistent voice?”

The short answer: yes — if you do not make it clear in the text whose perspective is whose.

The long and infinitely more disturbing answer: unfortunately for those who like to experiment with multiple voices, voice-meandering Frankenstein 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.

Before anyone cries out upon the inherent unfairness of this, allow me to do it for you: there are many, many fine examples of good books where authors have adopted a Frankenstein format self-consciously, in order to make a point. It’s especially common in literary fiction.

For instance, 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, to spare my back a bit of typing time), 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 had been 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 does not, however, mean that the latter would necessarily find favor with Millicent, 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 — and 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…

You know the tune by now, don’t you?

The rather sticky moral: 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. And as I mentioned last time, 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 pellucidly clear over the course of the book why I’m doing it. By the end, my tactics seem downright clever to the reader — or so my spouse/mother/best friend since the age of 2/beloved cocker spaniel tell me. Do you mean to say that if my narrative strategy 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?”

The short answer is 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, the first thing the sight of a Frankenstein manuscript says to me is that it’s going to be unusually time-consuming to edit — and thus probably quite a bit more expensive, in terms of both money and revision time, for the writer. At minimum, I’m going to need to sit down with the writer, have a major discussion about what she wants the book be, and help guide the work toward more internal stylistic consistency. Basically, the process will entail 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?

When a screener at an agency or an editor at a publishing house receives a Frankenstein manuscript, however — 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 Millicent 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 her boss agent (or, in the editor’s case, himself) to nursing the author through precisely the kind of boxing match I described above, or s/he 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 Millicent will select more often?

When a contest judge receives a Frankenstein manuscript, the choice is even quicker and more draconian. Mehitabel 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 magnificently 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.

How might one pull this off, you ask? Consider making your deviations from standard structure and narrative rules bold, rather than slipping them in here and there — and, at the submission stage, at least toy with devoting the entirety of the first chapter to a single voice. 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.

Or, as critics of modern art used to like to snipe early and often: what’s the difference between a canvas painted by a 5-year-old and a canvas by a serious artist in the style of a 5-year-old? Intention, my dears, and craft.

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.

I haven’t dissuaded many of you intrepid literary experimenters from trying, though, have I? “But I don’t want to exaggerate my stylistic choices,” some of you argue, and who could blame you? “I’m a big fan of subtlety, as it happens. So how can I revise my work in order to avoid running afoul of Millicent?

Well, your first step should be to steel yourself for a certain amount of rejection. When 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 impeccably: 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 by his description; 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.) Obviously, he said huffily, we all 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.

Yet 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, as I mentioned last time, 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 if I have not yet sufficiently hammered into your brainpan that 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, I can only advise scrolling back up to the beginning of this post and re-reading it from the beginning.

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. Our old pal, 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 — and almost invariably conducive to the reader’s getting pulled out of the story from time to time. 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.

Next time, I shall talk about practical measures to keep your manuscript from falling accidentally into the Frankenstein realm, but before I sign off for the day, I should mention one more confluence of writing events that may result in a Frankenstein manuscript: when the writer doesn’t realize until several revisions in how she wants the book’s voice to sound.

Stop laughing. This happens to talented new writers all the time.

A few years back, an editing client of mine called me in the dead of night (a practice I discourage, as a rule) burbling with excitement because she had just made a major breakthrough with her book. This surprised me a little, I must admit: she had, to put it mildly, not been particularly receptive to feedback; I have it on good authority that she once took a match to a marked-up page of text, just so she would not have to look at my suggestions about comma use again.

One day, after months upon months and chapters upon chapters of experimenting with different styles — writing which she had never before perceived to be experimentation, 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.

It was beautiful. So beautiful, she was overjoyed to report, she was quite confident that I would have nothing whatsoever to write in the margins this time around.

She was wrong about that, of course; when one does not listen to one’s editor about proper comma usage, one attracts marginalia.

Which just goes to show you that even a beautifully-written manuscript can usually stand at least a bit more improvement — a fact that tends to fill first-draft enthusiasts with dismay. “But it’s done!” they cry, whipping out their cigarette lighters to singe feedback off the edges of their pages. “I’m the author — I get to be the one who decides when it’s finished!”

That’s not true, actually, at least if one wants to get a manuscript published. As far as folks in the industry are concerned, a manuscript is never finished until it is printed and sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble — and for nonfiction, sometimes not even then. As a direct result, writers under contract are frequently expected to revise their books long after the point that they consider the darned things complete. It’s not even uncommon for them to have to make requested revisions that they firmly believe will harm the book.

So put those lighters away, first-drafters: to the pros, unwillingness to revise is simply a mark of inexperience. And rightly so, because — who knows? — that next revision may abruptly reveal a book far more beautiful than you ever dreamed.

Hold that positive thought until next time, please, when I shall be delving back into practicalities. 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!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part V, in which I run afoul of a whole lot of writing truisms

Attwood book covershaun-attwood-author-photo

Before I launch into today’s post proper, I’m delighted to announce some delightful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: blogger Shaun Attwood’s memoir, Hard Time: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail will be coming out from Random House UK this coming August! It’s already available for pre-sale from the publisher and (at a slight discount, I notice) from Amazon UK.

Congratulations, Shaun!

I’m looking forward to both the book’s British release and its advent over here. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Attwood book coverUsing a golf pencil sharpened on a cell wall, Shaun Attwood wrote one of the first prison blogs, Jon’s Jail Journal, excerpts of which were published in The Guardian and attracted international media attention. ??Brought up in England, Shaun took his business degree to Phoenix, Arizona, where he became an award-winning stockbroker and then a millionaire day trader during the dot-com bubble.

But Shaun also led a double life. An early fan of the rave scene in Manchester, he formed an organization that threw raves and distributed Class A drugs. Before being convicted of money laundering and drug dealing, he served 26 months in the infamous jail system run by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. ??Hard Time is the harrowing yet often darkly humorous account of the time Shaun spent submerged in a nightmarish world of gang violence, insect infested cells and food unfit for animals. His remarkable story provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of prison life.

As if this weren’t already a pretty darned intriguing story (and it is, believe me), today’s news renders it even more relevant to those of us on this side of the pond: this afternoon, Arizona’s governor signed into a law a bill requiring police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to produce proof of residency status on the spot. Not only will violators of this law be entrusted to Arizona’s county jails prior to facing trial — many of them will undoubtedly be incarcerated in the very jail Shaun depicts so vividly.

Curious for a sneak peek? Take a gander at Shaun’s guest blog from last year. I found it bone-chilling — and trust me, my marrow is not easily refrigerated.

It just goes to show you: no matter how grim the predictions we keep hearing from the publishing industry, a good story by a good writer can still get picked up. Please keep the good news rolling in, everybody — I love announcing happy news.

On that cheerful note, let’s get back to work. Today, I would like to discuss another classic bugbear of the multiple-protagonist novel: uneven handling.

You know what I’m talking about, right? The narrative is written from multiple perspectives, yet instead of hearing from each of them in either an orderly manner (say, by having Protagonist A’s perspective dominate Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7…while Protagonist B’s story is followed in Chapters 2, 4, 6, etc.) or in a balanced way (where roughly half the book is devoted to A, and half to B), some perspectives pop up a bit more often than others.

Or a LOT more than others. As in when one or more of them simply falls out of the narrative structure in the second half of the book.

The example that springs to mind is William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY, where the decline of a grand old Mississippi family is told through the perspectives of three of its members and one of its servants, each in its own section. While undoubtedly a masterpiece (of the depress-you-into-a-stupor variety), it’s hard for even the most casual reader not to notice that the fourth perspective is somewhat slighted.

How slighted, you ask? After a multitude of chapters from each of the men’s perspectives, here’s Dilsey’s, in its entirety: They endured.

Now, the authorial choice to limit this perspective so sharply may well have been, as so many of our high school English teachers haughtily informed us, a brilliant piece of understatement and trenchant social criticism, but structurally, we are left wondering: did Faulkner believe this character wouldn’t have said anything about the issues of the book if asked?

Or did he just not care very much what she thought?

Was that gasp I just heard out there in the ether the outraged umbrage of the entire American literature class — or the terrified recognition of writers who have just realized that a reader might derive the unintended conclusion about certain authorial choices?

Say, a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener?

If your reaction fell into the latter category, pat yourself on the back: your writerly instincts are coming along nicely. If a character is important enough to warrant her own perspective, most readers are going to read something into the choice to limit that perspective to, say, four paragraphs where the dominant perspective gets fourteen chapters.

That’s putting it nicely, of course. Millicent might be prompted to wonder why the minimized perspective is included at all: is it only there because this character sees something that the other characters do not? Would a more graceful narrative structure have provided greater balance amongst the protagonists — or fewer of them?

Such doubts could lead to the kind of follow-up question none of us wants asked about our work until after it’s been declared a masterpiece for a generation and being assigned in high school English classes: was including this perspective the best way to tell this story, or merely the most convenient?

What? That wasn’t a question that would have been asked in your high school English class? Heavens, what are the future writers of the world being taught?

It’s worth giving some serious thought to the balance between the perspectives in your novel. Not that you should be literal about it — after all, few readers are going to be counting lines devoted to each characters to test for proportion — but to be aware of any messages about relative importance these characters’ relative weights might be sending.

If one protagonist’s perspective dominates the narrative, for instance, consider the possibility that readers will conclude that her story is the real plot of the book, while characters we hear from less are bit players. Or at the very least, that readers will assume that the character the narrative follows the most often is the one they’re supposed to care about the most. This logic also works stood on its head: If a particular perspective turns up only a few times in the course of the book, is it really necessary, or could you tell the story without it?

Do be aware of the possibility that you might be favoring a character or two unconsciously, especially if the story you’re telling is reality-based. Evenness of handling is genuinely difficult when writing from multiple perspectives; it’s only human to like some characters better than others, and give them the lion’s share of one’s writing time.

However, leaning too heavily toward one protagonist raises an inevitable question in agents’ and editors’ minds: if Character A is interesting enough to dominate half of the book, and the Characters B-D deserve only a chapter or two each, why isn’t the whole book told from A’s perspective?

Where this is the case, it might be worth considering — brace yourself, POVNs — whether the novel actually does work best told from multiple perspectives. Perhaps it would work best as a single-perspective narrative. Or maybe it’s a complex enough set of characters and events that it would benefit from the continuity of a single, overarching narrative voice throughout.

Yes, I am talking about omniscient narration, now that you mention it: anyone got a problem with that, other than the POVN shaking his fist in the corner? I don’t care that some people consider it old-fashioned — sometimes, it honestly is the best choice for a particular storyline.

I know, I know — just a couple of days ago, I was waxing eloquent upon the advantages of incorporating character perspective into the narrative, but omniscience has its benefits, too. Most notably, never having to worry about the question, “Wait, how did this narrator know about that?”

To clarify: there is nothing technically wrong with a third-person novel that narrates every character’s perspective in essentially the same voice, observing the fictional world in a similar way: it just requires vigilance to maintain. Which is why writers are so often told that it is too difficult to pull off, and (the logic continues) they might as well not try.

But successfully implementing any narrative choice calls for sticking to its rules, doesn’t it? There are plenty of good books out there that rely heavily and consistently upon a single narrative voice to tie a disparate group of perspectives together. Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22, for instance, relies upon an essentially unchanging voice as the protagonist du chapter is portrayed in the tight third-person.

Seriously, the focus flits around with a firefly’s attention span — it keeps coming back to Yossarian, the dominant protagonist, but the reader is treated to chapters inside the heads of practically an entire squadron. The book has been known to send POVNs into years of therapy, but it works, because the overarching narrative voice and tone never waver.

To make it a dive from an even higher board, Heller keeps making the narrative jump around in time, so you have to read the whole darned book in order to figure out what’s been going on. It’s a brilliant book, a groundbreaker, a genuine masterpiece.

Do I think Joseph Heller would have a hard time selling it today? Heavens, yes. (He was aware of it, too: there’s a famous writers’ conference circuit story about the upstart reporter who had the nerve to ask Mssr. Heller toward the end of his long and distinguished career why he had never again written a book as good as CATCH-22. Heller’s reported reply: “Who has?”)

There are a number of reasons CATCH-22 would be difficult to market now — not the least of which being that now, the manuscript would seem a bit derivative of both SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and M*A*S*H. (I realized after I typed this that this joke would have been significantly funnier if I had already mentioned that CATCH-22 was released in 1961, M*A*S*H in 1968, and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE in 1969. It just goes to show you: explaining a joke after the fact doesn’t make it funnier.)

Heller’s perspective shifts would probably strike today’s Millicents as too abrupt and hard to follow, and Maury (that’s Millie’s editorial assistant cousin, for those of you tuning in late) would almost certainly either advise Heller to tell the story in chronological order or market the book as fantasy.

Look: there are plenty of writing advisors out there who will tell you the omniscient perspective is dead. Poppycock. A swift stroll down the aisles of almost any bookstore with a good fiction section will demonstrate that simply isn’t true.

What is true is that it’s hard to pull off well — and that agents and editors, like everyone else in the writing community, have heard over and over again that omniscience is old-fashioned. That sometimes renders omniscience a pain to query or submit, but again, taking a serious look at the kind of narrative choices showing up on bookshelves your chosen category in recent years is the best barometer of that.

Let me repeat that, just in case anyone missed it: regardless of what anyone tells you, checking what is selling now is the only really good way to find out what can be sold now — and even that’s not going to tell you what agents are going to be looking to pick up six months hence.

The market’s simply too mercurial to make permanent predictions of the sweeping variety. Remember that, please, the next time you hear a speaker at a writers’ conference insisting that nobody publishes that kind of book anymore. A year before COLD MOUNTAIN came out, you couldn’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who would tell you with absolute authority that no one was buying historical fiction anymore; they would have laughed if you had pitched one. A year later, you couldn’t have gone to an agents’ panel at any conference in the country without hearing half of them insist that they were there primarily to find good new historical fiction.

Ditto with chick lit and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, memoirs about poor childhoods and ANGELA’S ASHES, novels about Catholic conspiracies and THE DA VINCI CODE…well, you get the picture. Nothing’s hot until it’s hot. There’s a big, big difference between onerous and impossible — and an even bigger difference between generalities and reality.

So the next time someone tells you that nobody is buying the kind of book you’re currently writing, don’t waste your energy arguing: toss your anorak over your shoulders, run to the bookstore, and see what is selling in your book category right now.

Bear in mind, though, that just because a writing choice is popular right now does not necessarily mean it is a shoo-in to sell. If you do go tiptoeing through the stacks in the dead of night, you will undoubtedly find volumes and volumes of tight third person; it was the primary narrative choice in most fiction categories for quite a bit of the last decade. But that means — regular readers, get ready to sing out the answer — that screener Millicent and her ilk still see its most common pitfalls on an hourly basis.

Some of you are still nervous about your daring narrative choices, aren’t you? “But Anne!” a few innovative souls offer timidly. “I’m afraid to venture back into the bookstores. The last time I tried, I couldn’t find anything released recently in my chosen book category that’s structured like my book — and it’s not the first time that’s happened. If I decide to write a single-perspective novel in the first person, the publishing world goes wild for tight third-person narratives. If I get really excited about multiple perspectives in the third person, every new release I see features a plethora of chapters, each from a different first-person perspective. I can’t win!”

I sympathize with your frustration, oh experimenters — honestly, I do — but the phenomenon you describe is largely a function of the bestseller phenomenon I described above. Once a surprise blockbuster hits the big time, half the agents in the country will be eager to make lightning strike twice; they go out trawling for books similar to the blockbuster.

That’s only natural, right? And it’s definitely great news for aspiring writers who got the idea to write that kind of book three or four years earlier: suddenly, agents are eager for it, as are editors, at least for a little while. So eager, in fact, that while the trend is at its height, some of them will complain at writers’ conferences, on their blogs, on their Twitter accounts, etc., that they aren’t seeing enough of this type of manuscript.

What’s wrong with writers today, anyway? they wonder, often quite vocally. Don’t they ever read the bestseller lists?

Aspiring writers are no fools: after they hear this lament several times over, a hefty percentage of them will decide to leap onto the bandwagon, even if they would not have considered writing that kind of book before. It’s not even uncommon for a writer to abandon a work in progress or stop querying a recently-completed project because — chant it with me now, readers — nobody is publishing my kind of book anymore.

Thus it follows as inevitably as night follows the day that a year or two after the surprise bestseller made such a splash, Millicent is up to her caffeine-addled eyeballs with manuscripts like it: similar narrative choices, similar characters, even suspiciously similar plotlines. As she probably will be for the next five or six years.

Don’t underestimate how welcome a well-written submission that doesn’t fall into that mode could be at that moment. If all Millie’s seen for the past three weeks is straightforward first-person narratives, your multiple-perspective third-person gem may be a positive relief.

So how’s a habitually off-trend aspiring writer to handle all of this conflicting and ever-changing input? Simple: give some serious thought to your perspective choices, then stick to your guns, regardless of fashion. Someday, your choice may be the new standard.

Next time, by special request, I’ll be talking about how to construct a query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel. And if you’re very nice indeed, I may follow that up with a discussion of how a savvy writer pulls together a synopsis for this type of book.

Hey, once I launch into a topic, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part IV: setting the world in motion

sunshine moving in trees2

No, the photo above isn’t a representation of what a stand of trees might look like through allergy-blurred eyes — although the lilac tree in my back yard has apparently decided that this is the year to make its shot at shattering all previous records for pollen production. It’s a shot of blinding sunlight coming through trees, taken while I was ineffectually exclaiming, “Wait! Slow down! That would be a beautiful shot!”

Sometimes, all you get is a momentary glimpse of what’s going on around you. Blink, and it’s gone.

That’s a darned hard experience to replicate on the page, isn’t it? Particularly in an action scene shown simultaneously from several different perspectives: as tempting as it may be to include blow-by-blow accounts from every relevant point of view, once the reader knows a punch was thrown, an instant replay from another perspective may strike him as redundant — or even confusing.

How often did Sluggo swing? Was the fist that just went by Protagonist #2’s cheekbone the same one that Protagonist #3 just mentioned sending in his general direction, or did it belong to Protagonist #4? And pardon my asking, but did it just take 3/4 of a page of text to show three punches?

Revisers sit in front of action scenes like this, grinding their teeth in frustration. “How on earth,” they cry as soon as they can force their molars apart, “can I clarify what’s going on here without slowing the scene down to a crawl? Perhaps neither Anne nor Millicent the agency screener would notice if I switched the scene to a bystander’s perspective, so I don’t need to deal with the fighters’ points of view until the battle has died down.”

Nice try, teeth-grinders, but trust me, Millicent knows all about that evasive maneuver. And I know you’re far too serious about craft to take the tawdry easy way out of a narrative conundrum.

And to those of you jumping up and down, screaming, “Wait — tell me about the easy way! I long to embrace the tawdry short cut!”, I’m not listening.

I can sympathize, however, with a certain amount of shock at being flung with barely a preamble straight into the heart of our knotty problem du jour. For the sake of those ground-down molars, I’ll back up and ease into it a trifle more gently.

Last time, we discussed means of allowing tight third-person narrative to reflect individual quirks in depicting a particular scene. Rather than the protagonist’s presence or participation alone casting her primary shadow across the scene, I suggested infusing the text with her worldview, unique powers of observation, and other characteristics. This works marvelously as a method of differentiating between multiple protagonists’ sections of a novel, whether it is written in the third or first person.

Actually, it’s kind of a nifty trick in a single-protagonist novel, too, and definitely in a biography or memoir. Whenever the world is being shown from a specific point of view, I think it’s interesting when the narrative reflects the unique observational style of the teller.

Differentiation can get tricky, though, in a book with scads of protagonists. With two or three, the variations in observation can be fairly subtle, but if you try it with twelve, the reader is likely to lose track of whether Penelope’s frequent sneezes are the result of a canary-in-a-coal-mine sensitivity to mold due to that summer she spent on an archeological dig in a swamp, or if that was Tim’s excuse, and Penelope was the one who abhorred grass ever since that terrible day on the football field.

Or maybe it’s just hay fever season. There’s a limit to how many subtleties the reader can reasonably be expected to remember — and we writers tend to forget that.

“What do you mean, Tina’s fatal wool allergy came out of left field in Chapter 26?” we exclaim indignantly when our manuscripts are critiqued. “She cleared her throat twice next to Eliot’s sweater in Chapter 3!”

I hate to admit it, but personal quirks and background dissimilarities can be overdone; a protagonist with 137 pet peeves is probably going to annoy a reader more than one with 13. But now that I’ve gotten you into the habit of looking at your various protagonists’ sections of the text with an eye to varying them, let’s talk about means of increasing individuality in a protagonist’s section of narrative without taxing the reader’s memory banks.

What if, for instance, the vocabulary were quite different in Protagonist A’s sections of the text and Protagonist B’s?

This is a characterization trick lifted from dialogue, of course: no one expects a character with a Ph.D. to speak in the same manner as a character who did not graduate from high school, right? If there are polysyllabic words to be uttered, they’re going to be spilling out of the professor’s mouth.

Indeed — as my fellow Ph.D.s complain amongst themselves early and often — professor characters are often depicted as emitting lecture-quality logic every waking second. Frankly, we real-life professors find this expectation exhausting to contemplate. Even Socrates took some time off from asking annoying questions from time to time.

And look where that got him.

Did you catch the narrative trick I just pulled? I underscored my narrative credibility as a professor by dropping in a philosophy joke. Not a bad investment of just a couple of lines of text, and certainly more interesting for most readers than if I had inserted a five-page essay on the Socratic method.

Or if I had simply started spouting a whole lot of technical terms specific to my former academic field, for that matter. While every profession has its jargon, it doesn’t necessarily render a narrator or speaker more credible to overuse it on the page. What over-reliance upon any field’s jargon is far more likely to produce is in readers is boredom.

Oh, you like it when a mushroom specialist corners you at a party and starts talking spores non-stop? Unless you share her passion for fungi, you’re probably going to be looking to change the subject pretty darned soon.

Because I have lecturing experience, I recognize that the forest of hands waving in the air means that at least some of you have questions about that last observation. (I’m a professional, though; the layperson shouldn’t attempt leaping to that sort of lofty conclusion at home.) Yes, hand-raisers?

“I would be reluctant to include a joke like the one you used above,” they point out, rubbing circulation back into their arms, “even if it conveys something significant about that narrator’s background. The build-up and joke assume that the reader is aware that Socrates went around asking his fellow 5th century BC Athenians probing philosophical questions, eventually irritating them enough that they condemned him to death. Not every reader would know that. But as you may see from the length of this very paragraph, devoting text to explaining the joke would not only slow down the scene already in progress — or even bring it to a screeching halt. So I ask you: is this really effective character development?”

In a word: yes. Moving on…

Just kidding. Actually, the answer depends upon the intended readership for the book: just as it’s safer to assume that 15-year-old readers will recognize current teenage jargon than 50-year-olds (and that the 15-year-olds will find it embarrassing when the 50-year-olds try to sound hip by using it), it’s more reasonable to expect literary fiction readers to catch more historical and literary references than, say, the target audience for terse Westerns. By the same token, a Western writer could get away with presuming that her target readership knew a heck of a lot more about horses than the average reader of literary fiction.

The same holds true for vocabulary choices, of course: since every book category has a pretty well-established reading level, sticking to the one an agent or editor would expect to see in your kind of book just makes good marketing sense. (If you’re not familiar with the expected reading level for your chosen book category, run, don’t walk to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and spend a couple of hours leafing through books like yours, to see what kind of vocabulary they use.) Within those parameters, though, a writer has quite a bit of wiggle room for showing well-read narrators sounding well-read on the page.

In other words: go ahead and let your various protagonists’ speech patterns color the narrative in sections written from their respective perspectives. Just don’t get so carried away with professional jargon that a reader from another field can’t understand what he’s saying — or gives up trying.

This logic is surprisingly infrequently extended to third-person narrative from multiple perspectives. (One sees it applied to first-person narratives more frequently, but then, many first-person narratives are crafted to resemble speech.) But think about it: why wouldn’t a well-read fifth grader’s fine vocabulary extend into her thoughts?

A couple of words of warning about applying this technique to multiple-perspective novel: first, try not to overdo it. If the differences are too extreme, you run the risk of the characters with the smaller vocabularies coming across as a tad dim-witted. Bear in mind that smart people aren’t necessarily well-educated or widely read, after all, and — dare I say it? — not all well-educated people are necessarily smart.

Trust me on this one. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in faculty meetings.

Second, it is very easy to overuse professional jargon. (Wait, where have I heard that before?) Sprinkle it about, by all means, but do be aware that doctors who use the Latin names for common body parts three times a paragraph, emergency room nurses who add, “STAT!” to half their sentences, and lawyers who pepper their conversations and thoughts with whereases and heretofores are a notorious agency screener’s pet peeve.

I just mention. Just because something happens in real life does not necessarily mean it will work in print — or in a submission. Treat the use of jargon associated with particular jobs like any other stereotype: there’s always more to an individual than the obvious.

My next suggestion for individualizing your protagonists’ perspectives is even more fundamental: what if the narrative changed rhythm when the perspective altered?

I’m not talking about anything radical, such as Protagonist A’s sections utilizing exclusively short, declaratory sentences while Protagonist B’s abound in run-ons. (Which I’ve seen in quite a few manuscripts, by the way.) But could the habitual coffee-drinker’s musings pass by the reader like a highly caffeinated freight train, while the obsessively orderly person’s flights of fancy always get cut off short of running amok?

Has some intriguing possibilities, doesn’t it?

The conceivable variations are practically endless — and again, are as useful for constructing dialogue as for narrative. An 80-year-old man with a lung condition would probably speak in shorter bursts than a 25-year-old jogger; differences in lung capacity alone would dictate that, right? Where the speech goes, the thought can surely follow: when the body’s having trouble breathing, wouldn’t you expect that to disrupt, say, lengthy stretches of otherwise uninterrupted thought?

Actually, I would urge you to give some thought into working bodily rhythms into your writing in general; in tight third-person narrative, it’s not done much. There are few novels out there that take situational variations in breathing and heart rate into account at all, even in dialogue during heavy action scenes.

People tend not to have a whole lot of extra breath to talk in the middle of hand-to-hand combat, something screenwriters would do well to remember. Similarly, we might expect a protagonist’s thoughts would tend to run shorter in a moment of imminent crisis than in a moment of calm.

Switching to short, choppy sentences convey a subtle impression of panting breath and elevated heart rate, incidentally, especially if such sentences appear in tandem only in such scenes. Trick o’ the trade.

Just as the best means of catching rhythmic patterns is to read text out loud, the best means of determining what is a realistic bodily response is to act a scene out. Within reason, of course: obviously, if you’re writing about a killer, I’m certainly not advising that you test-drive the mayhem. However, if your protagonist has been carrying a 50-pound suitcase without wheels for 20 pages, your sense of the probable effects upon his body will definitely be heightened if you carry around a heavy suitcase for 10 or 15 minutes.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to test the plausibility of everyday events in your books in general; unverified timing is frequently implausible on the page. You’d be amazed at how many books contain speeches that could not be said within a single breath, for instance, and what a high percentage of exchanges ostensibly between floors in elevators would require three consecutive trips to the top of the Empire State Building to complete.

Admittedly, a writer does occasionally risk astonishing bystanders by this kind of vigorous fact-checking. I once spent a humid Chicago afternoon frightening small children in a park trying to figure out the various body parts that might get bruised if one got jumped from behind while sitting on a park bench. It’s astonishing what one’s friends will do for free pizza, and the scene was better for it.

It’s possible to predict certain reactions without engaging in amateur dramatics, of course. If your protagonist has just chased a mugger for two and half city blocks, or dashed up a flight of stairs because she’s afraid of being late for her first day of work, or flung herself down a manhole to escape the marauding living dead who want to eat her brain, it’s reasonable to expect that her heart will be pounding and her breath drawing short.

No need to recruit the local zombies to ascertain that.

Oh, dear, there are all of those raised hands again. You want to raise a practical difficulty? “I’m open to incorporating any or all of these techniques, Anne, but while we’re talking about action scenes, I want to raise a different sort of practical difficulty. How does one depict an action scene between two people of the same sex without repeating each of their names constantly?”

Wow, that is practical. To make sure everyone knows what the hand-raisers are talking about, let’s take a gander at the combatants in this action-packed paragraph:

Herb pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at Trevor. Trevor ducked, avoiding the blow. Herb, having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, lost his balance. Trevor leaped onto his back the instant Herb hit the ground, pounding Herb’s head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” Trevor howled, grinding Herb’s nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

“Never!” Herb shouted, flinging Trevor off him.

That’s a whole lot of proper noun repetition, isn’t it? Yet the names could not plausibly be replaced with pronouns without causing abundant confusion:

He pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at him. He ducked, avoiding the blow. Having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, he lost his balance. He leaped onto his back the instant he hit the ground, pounding his head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” he howled, grinding his nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

“Never!” he shouted, flinging him off him.

Faced with this difficulty, many revisers will leap to compensate. Descriptors could be used to take the place of some of the hims, naturally, but the result is still a bit cumbersome:

Herb pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at Trevor. The smaller man ducked, avoiding the blow. The mustachioed aggressor, having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, lost his balance. The diminutive and swarthy one leaped onto his perplexed left-handed assailant’s back the instant he hit the ground, pounding his brother’s head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” he howled, grinding his lifelong best friend and canasta partner’s nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

Feels a touch over-explained, doesn’t it? Complex perspective can be very helpful reducing this sort of verbosity.

And you’d thought that I wasn’t going to tie it back to the earlier part of the blog, hadn’t you? Au contraire.

The more deeply the reader is embroiled Herb’s perspective, the more sense it makes to show action and reaction not as external to him, but as part of his rich and varied experience of life.

Okay, so maybe that was overstating it just a tad. But just look at how easily this method clears things up:

His truncheon seemed an extension of his frustration: carrying his entire substantial body weight behind it, it flashed toward Trevor’s face. The wily bastard ducked, avoiding the blow, just as he had dodged every responsibility in their collective lives.

Flailing for balance, Herb felt fists on his back before he hit the ground. What kind of brother pounds your head into wet pavement?

When you’re dealing in enriched perspective, an action scene is never just about the action in it. It becomes another opportunity for character development, for revealed observation, and — dare I say it? — clarifying perspective.

That’s my perspective on it, anyway. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part III: a few ways to make Millicent’s day, or, the living are nice, too.

Mother Goose's grave

Why open one of my normally quite friendly posts with such a grim image, you ask? A couple of reasons: first, according to several official-looking placards scattered about the Boston graveyard where I took this photo, this stone marks the final resting place of Mother Goose, of fairy tale fame. What writer wouldn’t be glad to have readers remember her name more than three hundred years after her last book came out?

Second, I begin today with a horror tale. A few years back — right around the last time I ran an entire series on constructing multiple-perspective narratives, if memory serves — I sat through a movie that seemed calculated specifically to appall the editors in the audience, a crowd-pleasing independent horror film called CRIME FICTION. Even presented within a film festival that positively gloried in depictions of violent death, the kind where protagonists shooting their girlfriends were the norm, this was a standout. (Okay, so one of the films killed the girlfriend off with an overdose of ecstasy, and she did get to come back as a zombie, but honestly, after the sixth dead paramour in a row, who is making fine distinctions?)

In CRIME FICTION, the protagonist killed his girlfriend (of course), but her gory death wasn’t what made me cover my eyes and scream. Nor did the premise — an unsuccessful writer of spy novels becomes jealous when his doomed-because-she’s-in-the-picture girlfriend’s beautifully-written memoir gets a great review from the NYT Review of Books — chill my blood too sharply. Naturally, violence was going to be in the offing, given the focus of the festival.

I didn’t freak out at these developments primarily because I had been queasy since one of the first scenes in the movie. In it, the protagonist sat down to write, and…oh, it’s almost too horrible to describe.

Okay, deep breath: I can convey this. He already has a published book out, but when the audience sees his freshly-written first page, IT’S NOT IN STANDARD FORMAT.

Oh, the humanity! I could barely keep my eyes on the screen. The 3/4-inch top margin! The uncentered chapter title! The too few skipped lines before the text began! And — avert your eyes, if you have a sensitive stomach — the paragraphs were not indented!

After that level of debauchery, frankly, I was barely surprised when he shoved his girlfriend out a window. Clearly, the man had no regard for the norms of civilized society. But then, later in the movie, another, more successful author’s first manuscript page fills the screen, and guess what? It isn’t in standard format, either!

I spent the rest of the film peeking through my fingers, hyperventilating. Would the paper-generated terror never end? Could the second writer’s killing spree be far behind?

Even after several years of seeing manuscript-free movies where positively no one’s girlfriend gets slaughtered, those two scenes of improperly-formatted pages still make me cringe; think of all the poor souls lead astray by such careless imagery choices! (If that last thought does not make you instantly picture Millicent the agency screener shouting, “Next!” I STRONGLY recommend that you review the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at right before sending off your next submission.)

What does any of this have to do with crafting a multiple-perspective narrative, you ask? Glad you brought it up.

Last time, we discussed structural means a savvy writer can use to help alert the reader to perspective shifts in multiple-protagonist manuscripts. Separating points of view by chapter, section breaks, or even paragraph breaks can go a long way toward preventing reader confusion.

Which should be a primary narrative goal in a multi-protagonist novel, right? Unfortunately, sometimes structural signals are not practicable, or even a good choice.

Take, for instance, a scene where two or more of protagonists interact. Often, as I mentioned a few days ago, it works beautifully to pick the more active character’s perspective and stick to it. But what about the case where the primary interest of the scene is the difference in Protagonist A and Protagonist B’s views on what is going on?

A thorny problem, you must admit. Let’s take a look at the same scene, told first from a single perspective, then in a narrative that shows both points of view.

But what if the cooling system fails again? Delphine thought. It would take more than a hastily-snatched hairpin to mend the reactor next time. “How can you eat at a time like this?”

Charles smiled. “The pie is excellent. Won’t you have some, my dearest?”

Would he be this obtuse after they married? I do seemed unlikely to be the universal solvent of thick-headedness.

She took a miniscule sip of cool water, to calm herself. Someone here needed to act like an adult, and if the President of the United States weren’t up to the task, by God, his future First Lady would have to be. She rose from the table. “You finish dessert. I’m going to have a chat with that shady-looking engineer.”

“See you at dinner, my pet.”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this exchange, right? It’s a tad tell-y (as opposed to show-y), but it demonstrates both perfectly good reasons for Delphine’s annoyance and Charles’ lack of response to it. So far, so good.

Yet if the reader has been following the latter’s perspective for half the book, it might make sense to add a counter-current to the scene by including his perspective as well. Take a gander:

But what if the cooling system fails again? Delphine thought. It would take more than a hastily-snatched hairpin to mend the reactor next time. “How can you eat at a time like this?”

Charles smiled automatically, remembering too late the blackberry seeds that must be embedded between his widely-spaced teeth. He hid his mouth behind his napkin, remembering the vicious look she had cast him at the state dinner with the Prince of Wales. The offender had been strawberry mousse that time. “The pie is excellent. Won’t you have some, my dearest?”

Would he be this obtuse after they married? She took a miniscule sip of cool water, to calm herself. Someone here needed to act like an adult, and if the President of the United States weren’t up to the task, by God, his future First Lady would have to be. She rose from the table. “You finish desert. I’m going to have a chat with that shady-looking engineer.”

She was beautiful when she was worrying about core meltdown. “See you at dinner, my pet.”

Yes, I have brought a structural device into play here (alternating perspective by paragraph), but I have included a stylistic one as well: making the tones of the respective protagonists’ thoughts distinctive enough that the reader can easily tell who is thinking at any given point. A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) still won’t like it, but at least it’s clear which perspective prevails when.

There are a number of ways to render perspectives distinct from one another. Content, as we have seen here, is the most obvious, but worldview and tone form a close second and third. One sees this type of differentiation in novels about families all the time. If Sister A is an introvert, Sister B is bound to be loud and bouncy; if Brother C is a bookworm, Brother D’s usually good at sports. Given these different orientations, all of these protagonists are likely to see the world around them in disparate ways, so the reader would simply understand by a few chapters into the book that the quiet observations are most likely Sister A’s and the rampant baseball analogies Brother D’s.

Pop quiz for those of you currently engaged in self-editing: does your manuscript reflect that expectation?

To put it another way, if you picked a narrative paragraph at random from your manuscript and it did not contain the protagonist’s name, would a reasonably careful reader of the book so far be able to guess whose perspective it contained? Or is the primary difference between Protagonist A’s chapter and Protagonist B’s that they are participating in different events?

Care to guess how often Millicent sees the latter? Uh-huh.

Do make sure, even if your protagonists’ perspectives are broken up by formal breaks — by chapter, section, scene, or even paragraphs — that their perspectives vary enough to be plausible as separate people’s perceptions. Trust me, Millicent has seen thousands of multiple-perspective novels where the thought patterns of Protagonist A and Protagonist B are so similar that they might as well be the same character.

“Why,” she wonders, sliding the latest into the reject pile, “did the writer bother to go to the significant trouble of establishing multiple perspectives if they were all going to have the same voice?”

You have a point there, Millie. There’s a reason for this phenomenon, of course: all of the characters in the book are the product of the same mind, and so even though the structure of the book may dictate that Chapter 3 should reflect a different mindset than Chapter 4, they’re frequently written in identical voices.

And that, dear friends, can lead to precisely the kind of point of view confusion that makes the POVNs feel justified in dismissing the entire multiple-protagonist ilk of novels. So here is your first homework assignment for the day:

1. Think about how your protagonists differ — especially any differences that could potentially affect not only recorded thought, but descriptive passages in their various chapters or paragraphs.

Do keep in mind as you ponder that the great pitfall of relying upon broadly-drawn characteristics to differentiate perspectives is the ease of falling into stereotypes — and I’m not just talking about genre tropes like dead girlfriend stories. What are the chances, for instance, that Brother D, the sports enthusiast, is going to be an insensitive boor, captain of both the school’s football team and the crowd who goes around shoving kids like Brother C into lockers? And what are the chances that the agency screener — who has, after all, read a hundred submissions in this genre already this week — will be able to guess that the jock is a jerk the instant he appears on the page?

To put it in terms the entire festival audience can understand, if Millicent were screening movies for film festivals, she would probably be exclaiming by two minutes into each, “Oh, terrific: another dead girlfriend. Next!”

The horror, the horror. But I’m not going to cover my eyes again: you’re not going to spring either a stereotype or a deviation from standard format on me, are you? Good; let’s move on.

2. Make a list of your protagonists and their major characteristics, likes, dislikes, areas of sensitivity, and so forth.

No, you may not skip this step or do it in your mind, but thanks for asking. Get it all down on paper, so you may refer back to it mid-edit.

3. Review the lists, circling any characteristic that might conceivably cause a particular character to misperceive or embellish upon what’s going on around him. Pay particular attention to any condition that might affect the workings of his eyes, ears, nose, tongue, sense of touch, sense of humor…well, you get the picture.

4. Read through your manuscript, searching for a place where perspective is not entirely clear. Whip out your list: would incorporating any of the circled characteristics in that section make plain whose perspective is dominating it?

5. Repeat Step 4 as often as needed to individualize every murky scene.

This is a terrific technique for keeping perspective shifts snappy, of course, but is also is a marvelous means of increasing character development for your various leading characters. The more protagonists you have, the more helpful this exercise is, potentially.

It’s a great way to get you brainstorming about ways that your protagonists’ respective sections of the narrative could reflect their different mindsets, worldviews, prejudices, charms — in short, subtle means of making it clear to the reader which chapter (or subsection, or paragraph) is focused upon which character. Rather than relying solely upon different events and brazen markers like names and job titles to signal the reader when perspective had changed, try a closer marriage between language and character.

Before anyone starts barking at me, “For heaven’s sake, Anne, if I’d wanted to write a multiple first-person narrative, I would have!” hear me out. There are quite a few excellent reasons to consider differentiating a tight third-person narrative by character being followed at any given moment.

First, and probably most important for character-driven novels, many protagonists equaling only superficial development for each is a classic downfall for multiple-protagonist novels in both the third and first persons. By incorporating worldview and personal quirks into the narrative itself — showing Natalie’s vision blurring as a result of her allergies to the roses Bevis insists upon bringing every time he visits, rather than just telling the reader that Natalie’s allergic to them — a writer can open up many more possibilities for interesting character development.

Second, it doesn’t pay to underestimate the marketing value of making your protagonists’ sections unique, if only for the sake of freshness. Narrative that never varies its tone, vocabulary, type of observation, etc. as it moves from perspective to perspective is actually the norm for multiple-protagonist novel submissions. Thoughtful variety, on the other hand, is so exceptional as to be practically unique.

And what have we learned about what usually happens to manuscripts that exhibit common weaknesses? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: they tend to get rejected rather more quickly than those that exhibit less ubiquitous failings, because the more an agent or editor sees a particular writing problem, the faster she can categorize it.

Think about it: which do you think is easier for the average doctor to diagnose, the flu that everyone in town has or the bubonic plague?

Uh-huh. Let’s talk about ways to stave off that flu that’s going around.

To do so, let’s revisit a rhetorical question from our earlier list: if you read a randomly-selected mid-book section aloud, is it apparent within a paragraph whose point of view it is? If so, how can you tell?

Because Harry is the subject of every sentence? (A popular choice.)

Because other characters keep saying, “Hi, Harry,” to him? (Reminiscent of the old Bob Newhart show; still quite common.)

Because the protagonist is going over the company books at 3 a.m., and Harry is a forensic accountant? (A close third.)

All valid — but let me suggest a more interesting possibility. What if Harry noticed things about ordinary situations that none of the other protagonists would — and those kinds of details only appeared in the parts of the narrative focused upon him?

I’m not talking about heavy-handed introduction of backstory, here, just little tweaks to descriptive passages. Obsessively detail-oriented accountants are kind of hackneyed, but what if Harry put himself through college and graduate school as a car mechanic? Wouldn’t he naturally observe passing traffic differently from, say, co-protagonist Maurice, who spent his teenage years tending his mad great-aunt’s collection of prize orchids? And wouldn’t Cecily’s abusive college boyfriend have left her with a sixth sense for when someone near her might be about to flip out?

Harry might, for instance, automatically diagnose a slipping fan belt from the sound of an anonymous car darting through an intersection as he is arguing with his boss. The squeaky belt would not be the primary focus of the scene, naturally, but it would lend a Harry-specific tone to the moment, wouldn’t it?

Maurice would never catch on to that — but then, he would probably be able to tell a co-worker almost without thinking about it which florist operating within the five blocks from the subway stop to the office habitually displayed the freshest flowers, or why the receptionist’s African violet produced only leaves, but no flowers. Harry wouldn’t have a clue, and Cecily might have developed a violent aversion to roses, because her hideous ex used to cover her dorm bed with them after he socked her.

The possibilities really are endless — and a fabulous way to increase the quotient of sensual details in a book’s descriptive passages, which in turn will make your writing stand out from the crowd. Remember, the vast majority of the descriptions our gal Millicent sees in a given week of screening are visual- or sound-based. Blame the fact that the average person now gets upwards of 85% of her information about the world around her visually (computers, anyone?), or snipe at my favorite bugbears, TV and movies, which can tell stories only through sight and sound, by definition.

However you explain it, Millie’s kind of starved for input from the other senses. She is, after all, typically trapped in a miniscule cubicle, reading under stultifying fluorescent light. A truly original description of a sea breeze might just make her day.

Too few submitting writers use this sad fact to their advantage. Harry’s nose would pick up a malfunctioning catalytic converter half a block away; Maurice would be far more likely to begin nibbling upon a dandelion in the park than someone who did not know that they were edible.

The more protagonists there are, the better this technique works, generally speaking. Protagonist Emily’s years of making gnocchi with her grandmother would certainly heighten her fingertips’ awareness of the texture of wallpaper as she leaned against it, crying because Harry has just been mean to her, and co-protagonist Cecily would be tasting some salt on her lips as she ran out onto the beach, to get away from that weird guy munching dandelions. Infusing the narrative in Harry’s section with his type of observations, and Cecily with hers, will lend both Millicent-tempting depths to the text and render their respective perspectives unique.

Not a bad payoff for the addition of a few details here and there, considering that their inclusion will also develop character in subtle ways, too. Particularly if you — hint, hint — start to regard how a character responds physically to the world around her as a means of revealing herself to the reader, rather than relying exclusively upon showing her thoughts, words and deeds.

A word to the wise about sensual detail: when the sense of smell does make a cameo appearance in a manuscript, the results are usually described only vaguely (The air in the cell stank.), or as if the aroma were invariable to the substance described (The room smelled like cheese).

What kind? Cheddar? Gouda? That nose-assailing goat cheese that nearly gets the protagonist thrown out of boarding school in HEIDI GROWS UP?

Most of the time, the reader is simply left to imagine; the protagonist simply wrinkles her nose and moves on. This is a real missed sensory opportunity, I think. Scents in manuscripts are almost always awful, terrible (as in garbage or a burning building), or intoxicating, gorgeous (as in flowers or perfume), with no further descriptors.

But why shouldn’t that awful garbage be redolent with the aromas of cast-off cheese, warm bananas, and bleach, and that terrible burning building reek of charcoal, soggy linens, and sharp chemicals? Why shouldn’t the flowers intoxicate with the bee-seducing odors of raspberry and honey, and the perfume bite the back of the protagonist’s throat with a whiff of pepper and magnolia essence?

Millicent would thank you if they did, I’m sure, if only as an alternative to the pervasive office odor of stale coffee and cast-off paper. Make her day with a few perspective-defining, character-developing details. Oh, and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part II: sometimes, what we have here is a failure to communicate

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Oh, what a long day it’s been, campers — actually, a long few days. There’s something in the air that’s making all of us just a trifle slow on the uptake. Or something in the water. I include myself as one of the victims of this invidious plague, you see. I must be — how else could I possibly explain the fact that I spent a full half an hour today explaining to an incredulous optician that as hard as he might find it to believe, I did indeed expect to be able to see though my new glasses?

Surely, were I on the top of my communicative game, I would have been able to communicate this admittedly radical and abstruse philosophical concept in half the time. I think my problem was that I waited until twenty minutes in to resort to mime.

“But the frames look so good on you,” he kept saying, as if I has simply misunderstood the primary function of eyewear.

Apparently, ambient blurriness is the appropriate price to pay for fashion. Or so I surmise from the fact that he was not at all amused when I mentioned that if he would prefer that I wore the frames without lenses, I would have to wear my contact lenses at the same time, more or less defeating the purpose of glasses.

That last quip was magical in mime, you’ll be happy to hear. Marcel Marceau would have wept openly, but the optician remained befuddled.

As you may well imagine, carrying on such an argument is quite a strain on both parties. At one point, I briefly considered switching to another language — French, perhaps, or Italian — to see if this native English speaker would understand me better. I’m fairly positive that at least once, I broke into interpretive dance to illustrate a point.

In a week or two, if I’m very good indeed, the capricious optometry gods may see fit to provide me with workable glasses. So I’m sitting here, peering through contact lenses I have worn far too long for one day.

Let’s get right to work, then, before my eyeballs turn from mauve to magenta.

Last time, I was waxing poetic on the many benefits of writing a novel inhabited by multiple protagonists. I could, of course, rhapsodize equally long and loudly about the joys of the first person, or omniscient narrator, or distant third person, etc. All of these are perfectly legitimate narrative choices.

No matter what the Point-of-View Nazis (POVNs) like to claim. They would like you to write solely about single protagonists, please, in the tight third person or in the first person; all other choices, they say, are confusing, if not downright unprofessional. And omniscience is so 19th century.

As I’ve been saying for a couple of weeks now, there’s not much you can do if your multiple-protagonist project happens to fall upon the desk of a POVN screener or contest judge. The same generally holds true if you happen to hand your writing to POVN members of even a very good critique group or first reader — which is quite easy to do by accident, since POVNs seldom think to wear a t-shirt reading More than one perspective? Madness! to social gatherings. And don’t even get started arguing with a POVN in an online forum.

Just smile, nod — and get your work into some other reader’s hands as soon as humanly possible. No matter how much or how demonstrably your narrative benefits from incorporating multiple perspectives, you’re simply not going to win this argument. Move on to pastures new.

Must the retreat be that total, you cry in horror? Well, I would recommend it, to minimize the carnage: if you stick around, any further exchange can only end in tears, probably yours.

What distinguishes the POVN from other advocates of particular writing styles is vehemence, typically: once a critic has pronounced that no writing that differs from the two chosen (and not entirely coincidentally, the two of the most common) narrative voices is acceptable, what else is there to discuss?

You have one vision of your book, and your critic another. As the parable of the monomaniacal optician abundantly illustrated, in order to have a fruitful discussion, both parties must agree on at least a few underlying principles of reality.

Move on, I beg you — but before you do, see if you can learn anything from the POVN’s feedback. (Beyond his personal literary preferences, that is.) Because chances are, you can indeed learn something from his monomania.

Why am I so sure about that? There is one lesson that every multiple protagonist user can learn from any POVN: if the reader is ever confused about whose perspective is whose on the page, it’s not the reader’s responsibility to re-read, scratching his head, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s the writer’s job to make the perspective switches easy to follow.

From this, we can derive the first principle of utilizing multiple protagonists successfully: clarity, clarity, clarity. (Which wouldn’t make a bad first principle of optometry, either, in my humble opinion.)

What does this mean, in practical terms? Well, not switching perspectives without warning, for one thing — a surprisingly common lapse in multiple protagonist manuscripts. Once you have established a perspective, stick to it until it’s time for a well-marked perspective switch — or just take the full leap into omniscient narration for the entire book.

In other words: commit. (Commit, commit. Just to keep things symmetrical. Or maybe I’m just seeing double, as the optician suggested.) Otherwise, Millicent the agency screener and other professional readers are all too apt to mistake your genuinely intricate and well-justified perspective choices for mere head-hopping.

“Did the writer just forget that we’re seeing this from Janet’s perspective?” the Millicents of the world mutter over their scalding lattes. “Or is this scene also from Robert’s? And why on earth doesn’t he have any lenses in his glasses?”

Unfortunately for the self-editing writer, commitment slips are often very subtle. So much so that they generally appear to be unintentional to a non-professional reader, making it hard for most first readers to point them out. If your eye isn’t specifically looking for them, they’re even — brace yourself — easy to miss when you read a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Hey, if I don’t mention that tip every few posts, I’m likely to start having headaches. Or so my optician tells me.

You want to see for yourself just how hard perspective slips are to catch, don’t you? Take, for example, this paragraph from a book about the aforementioned Janet and Robert, where Janet has so far been the designated protagonist for the scene:

Janet felt queasy, so she took a quick sip of water, to buy herself time to think. It was clear to her now why Robert had taken the job at Corrupt Executives, Inc.: to hunt her, to taunt her, to hurt her feelings at every possible opportunity, just as he had in high school. Well, she was no longer fifteen years old. She knew how to fight like an adult now.

Her face was pale, but her eyes flashed blue fire. “So’s your mama, Robert. So’s your mama.”

Did it jump out at you? Believe me, it would have made Millicent scream: the narrative was coming from inside Janet’s head all throughout the first paragraph — yet in paragraph 2, the reader is suddenly seeing something she could not possibly see without a mirror. Once again, Millicent is left to wonder, has the perspective suddenly switched to Robert’s, and the author just didn’t bother to tell us? Or is the narration now omniscient?

Trust me, these are not questions that Millie likes to answer for herself. Clarify, clarify, clarify.

The first step to perspective clarity is to make it magnificently clear when perspective shifts occur — and it’s often easier than the average reviser assumes, or at least less word-consuming. No need for a lengthy explanation; just give the reader a simple heads-up when you’re taking them into another head.

That’s an easy enough axiom to remember, isn’t it? Heck, you can even embrace it as an opportunity to enrich the scene. Take another gander at J and R:

Janet felt queasy, so she took a quick sip of water, to buy herself time to think. It was clear to her now why Robert had taken the job at Corrupt Executives, Inc.: to hunt her, to taunt her, to hurt her feelings at every possible opportunity, just as he had in high school.

Well, she was no longer fifteen years old. She knew how to fight like an adult now. “So’s your mama, Robert. So’s your mama.”

He gripped the arms of his leather chair, startled by her transformation. Her face was pale, but her eyes flashed blue fire.

Simple change, wasn’t it? Yet now it’s perfectly obvious that the reader is hearing about Janet’s external characteristics because Robert is observing them.

But you’re no longer thinking about Janet and Robert, I’m sensing. You’re so alert to the nuances of foreshadowing that you are already steeling yourself to receive your homework assignment.

It’s worth making a sweep through your manuscript to make sure that the protagonist of the moment can actually perceive anything you report her to perceive. People seldom see the backs of their own heads, for instance, without the aid of several cleverly-rigged mirrors. Similarly, their hearing from far away and sightlines around corners is often imperfect, as is their ability to reproduce entire conversations taking place in Moscow when they are in prison camps in Siberia.

I’m looking at you, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Also, not all that many people are psychic, at least not to the extent one encounters in manuscripts. Or perhaps these are instances of another common perspective lapse, when a tight third person narrative uses projection in order to get into another character’s head without officially switching perspectives.

Not entirely certain what I’m talking about? Okay, here’s a lovely example. So far, the book has been mostly from Henry’s perspective:

Henry felt Blanche looking at him hard, passionately, as if she had never seen a man before and the sheer nearness of him had induced the onset of puberty on the spot. Odd behavior, in someone he’d just met. He must remind her of some hunk in one of those old movies that had always seemed to be playing at her grandmother’s house throughout her childhood, black-and-white images on a small black-and-white screen. Maybe she didn’t even know that they made films in color now. Maybe she didn’t even know what a man looked like naked, and was dying to find out.

Never mind that you want to keep reading, to find out what happens next. Tell me: what part of this is from Blanche’s perspective?

Offhand, I’d say none of it. Upon close examination, it’s clearly from Henry’s — but if so, how on earth does he know so much about her childhood? So is what the reader learning about Blanche here fact to be relied upon for the rest of the book, or merely a projection of Henry’s over-sexed imagination?

Oh, you wanted to add something, Millicent? Put down that latte and join the conversation, by all means. Give your eyes a rest.

“Does the she in the next-to-last sentence,” Millicent asks, and not without reason, “refer to Blanche or her grandmother? The last sentence implies that it’s Blanche, but like every other reader on the planet, I seldom read all the way to the end of a paragraph before forming a mental image of what occurred in the middle of it. Of course, it makes me grumpy to have to re-read so much as a single word, but when I don’t even know who is who, I just stop reading. Oh, great — now I’ve thought about it so much that I’ve been pulled out of the story. Next!”

Thanks for sharing that, Millicent: from the reader’s side of the page, clarity is indeed 100% the writer’s problem, not yours. Remember that when you are revising, my friends. It may seem a bit restrictive, but within the context of a particular protagonist’s section of text, edit like a POVN.

Yes, you read that correctly. The writer gets to set up the rules of narration, but once they are established, professional readers — even those who are not POVNs — will regard any deviation from those rules as accidental.

And if you thought Millicent came down hard on accidental typos and logic problems, wait ‘til you see her lay into an accidental perspective switch. Even if she is not a card-carrying POVN — which, as I mentioned last week, she is significantly less likely to be than her counterpart of a decade ago — she probably had an English professor who was. Or a boss at the agency. She’s not going to let a thing like this pass, nor is her cousin Maury, who is an editorial assistant at the big publishing house just around the corner.

The best way to avoid their ire is to edit for perspective consistency — and send a strong signal whenever the perspective switches, in order to illustrate that the change is not accidental. Before anyone tenses up at the potential enormity of that task, I hasten to add that there are many good strategies for achieving these laudable goals.

1. Formal breaks in the narrative. Structural means are the simplest signposts, and among the most popular. As we have discussed, you could switch chapters each time you want to change perspectives. Heck, you could even title the chapters with the protagonist-du-jour’s name, to avoid even the remotest possibility of confusion.

2. Just start a new scene. Usually, this involves inserting a section break, then starting a fresh section. This technique, like the chapter trick, works best if the first sentence or two contains a pretty broad indication of whose perspective is on deck now. (If you’re tempted even for a moment to assume Millicent will enjoy guessing, please go back six paragraphs and re-read her observation on Henry’s narrative skills.)

3. Hitting the RETURN key. In other words, try to limit yourself to a single perspective per paragraph.

The space bar can provide quite a bit of clarity, if you will let it help you. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve written in margins, “I cut the paragraph here, to keep the two perspectives distinct.”

Why does this simple trick work so well? To skimming eyes, it’s just too easy to miss the indicators that might make clear that the perspective has changed within a single paragraph; he and she, for instance, don’t look all that different on the page.

I know; the implications of this are a bit depressing. Hey, if I ran the universe, every agency screener and editorial assistant would read every syllable of every writer’s submission with reverent care before pronouncing judgment. Opticians everywhere would strive to maximize their customers’ visual acuity, and friendly cows would roam the streets, giving chocolate milk to every hungry child in the world.

But I don’t — and they don’t, alas.

The primary drawback to all three strategies lies, as drawbacks so often do, in the first pages that you will be submitting to an agent, editor, or contest judge. If a book begins with one protagonist, then switches to another too quickly, one of three professionally unpleasant things may happen.

First, plenty of agents and editors feel cheated if they’ve come to accept one character as a protagonist, only to learn a few pages later that they didn’t need to care about this character much at all. (Yes, really.)

The way around this is — hold on to your hats, boys — clarity: the narrative can make it plain that both the initial protagonist and the next are in fact both critical to the story. A good way to do this: if you’re introducing your protagonists in separate chapters or sections, show each initially in a situation where the stakes are very high for him/her.

Which isn’t a bad way to establish sympathy for a character, either. I just mention.

Second, the initial protagonist may be introduced too briefly to make an emotional impression upon the reader, and so may not appear to the skimming eye to be a true protagonist at all. We’ve all seen enough movies where the identity of the guy shot in the opening scene isn’t clear until the very end of the story, right?

Well, think like Millicent for a moment, and picture that storyline on the page: she began reading that scene assuming, not unreasonably, that the entire book is going to be either about that guy or his assassin. So imagine her surprise (and umbrage) to see her pal weltering in a pool of his own blood by the bottom of page two.

I have a really, really cynical fix for this one, so brace yourself: for the submission version of your book (as distinct from the final, published form), make sure that the most attractive — in whatever sense you choose — protagonist is on stage for at least the first five pages. You can always switch it later, and five pages is plenty of time to make Millicent fall in love with Bill thoroughly enough to be sanguine about meeting co-protagonist Bob on page 6.

I told you it was cynical. I’m all for art, but I’m also all about getting art past the gatekeepers so the public will eventually be able to see it.

Danger #3 is the opposite of #2: the reader may like the first protagonist so much that she will become annoyed when the second emerges. “I was just getting into the story of that coal miner,” she will grumble. “Why am I suddenly reading about a debutante?”

This reaction is especially likely in novels where the connection between the protagonists is not apparent until very late in the story. We writers LOVE this kind of revelation, don’t we? I think we tend to overestimate its surprise value: after all, the reader is aware that all of these people are occupying the same book; the presumption, then, is that they are going to be connected somehow.

And a professional reader has an even greater advantage: if she becomes curious about who is who, all she has to do is flip to the back of the submission and take a gander at the synopsis.

This inherent expectation of connection a good thing to bear in mind while revising. Take a hard look at the first time each of your protagonists appears qua protagonist in the book — if it is not clear how protagonist #2, #3, and so on to the proverbial cast of thousands are connected to the story you are telling in the first protagonist’s first appearance, what specific benefit is the book deriving from maintaining the secret?

If you’re not positive what is being gained (other than the coolness of later revelation which, as I said, is probably not going to come as a jaw-dropping surprise to Millicent), consider letting the reader in on the connection a bit — at least for the submission draft.

Or at least in a subtle manner. Would it be more effective, for instance, if you added a hint or two about possible connections? What about if you had Protagonist #1 make a walk-on in this introductory scene — or if Protagonist #2 make a cameo in Protagonist #1’s chapter, so the reader would already know who he is?

It may not always be desirable — or even possible — to use this tactic in every story, of course. But do consider it: readers love to try to figure things out from subtle hints; it makes them feel smart. And no one loves to feel smart more than Millicent and Maury.

Call it a family failing. Try not to hold it against them.

Vision-correction conditions permitting, I shall take more next time about nifty strategies for keeping perspectives distinct. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

At long last, I keep my promise to talk about narratives with multiple protagonists

tile roof in Spain 3

You know how I keep mentioning that reality is a lousy storyteller, apt to toss in flatly unbelievable elements and time revelations poorly? Still more evidence: within the last week, two of my classmates from my genuinely small high school passed away, one from illness, one from self-inflicted violence. The first died in the hospital where he was born; the kind soul who broke the news to me had been born just down the hallway, within a few days of our late friend. Their mothers had chatted in the maternity ward. The second took his life in his parents basement, I’m told, found by his father, one of the town’s long-standing personal physicians.

And who was one of his patients? You guessed it: our late friend, the party of the first part.

No novelist in her right mind would run with a plot like that; it would be well-nigh impossible to render plausible. And that’s all I’m going to say about why I’ve been posting rather sporadically over the last week.

Back to the business at hand. In the course of our recent discussion of Point-of-View Nazis (POVNs) and how to protect your manuscripts and contest entries from their wrath, I have fleetingly but persistently brought up the plight of the novelist juggling more than one protagonist. Instead of following a single character closely, as the POVNs would prefer, these ambitious narratives trace the careers of several, through either several distinctive first-person voices, each giving her own perspective (in the manner of Pulitzer Prize finalist THE POISONWOOD BIBLE), or through tight third-person narration that sticks to the perspective of a chosen character for a particular period of the book, then switches to another.

What separates the third-person version from an omniscient narrator, generally speaking, is the focus of perspective upon a single character, rather than the masses. When the reader is seeing through Character A’s lenses, he is privy to only the sensations, thoughts, insights, etc. of Character A. This is true even if the following chapter is going to be entirely from the point of view of Character B — and Character B is in the Character A scene.

Taken individually, a POVN would be happy with each of these chapters, because they stick to a single perspective. In theory, at least.

Why only in theory? All too often, POVNs end up dissatisfied with how rigorously the perspective barriers are maintained. In many manuscripts with multiple protagonists, Character B’s perspective will bleed into Character A’s scene, or Character A into Character B’s, as though the author has temporarily lost track of whose turn it is supposed to be.

Unfortunately, professional readers tend to have a very good eye for such perspective slips, rendering multiple protagonists a brave narrative choice: it’s genuinely difficult to pull off, especially in a present-tense narrative. Once the narrative rules are set in a manuscript, even non-POVN readers will expect the writer to honor them.

We’ll talk a bit later about strategies for pulling off this delicate trick well, but for now, let’s stick to the conceptual lever: why attempt a dive from such a high board?

Well, contrary to what the POVNs will tell you, there are plenty of stories that cannot be told plausibly from a single perspective. This is particularly true in first-person narratives, where a lone protagonist may not be physically present for (or emotionally open to) participation in all of the important scenes. When the story arc demands another point of view, the narration simply follows another protagonist. Following two or more characters can allow the reader to see all of the important action from a point of view that allows for close observation of the chosen character’s emotional and physical response. (For an example of how great a difference opening up the perspective can make, please see this recent post.)

For the purposes of avoiding protagonist passivity, too, the multiple-protagonist strategy has some definite advantages, even in a third-person narrative. Switching worldview automatically gives a narrative more texture, if done well, and ideally, the ability to switch allows the reader to follow the most active character during any given scene.

The trick to making this work in a multiple first-person or multiple tight third-person narrative is to make it pellucidly clear from the very beginning of the scene whose perspective the reader will be following, and clinging to it consistently all the way through. As opposed to, say, an omniscient narrative, where the narrator can know what’s going on from every character’s perspective and hop between them at will. That way, a simple section break before the next scene is sufficient to alert readers to an imminent perspective change.

But if you use this trick, make sure you apply it consistently; remember, Millicent tends to regard violations of the rules a manuscript has set for itself as mistakes. If she (or her boss, the agent) is not a POVN, she may well accept be delighted to see a really well-done alternating perspective submission, but the more complex the pattern, the easier it is to see deviations from it.

As you may see from the photo above, come to think of it. So before you even consider submitting a manuscript or contest entry with alternating perspectives, do me (and yourself) a favor:

1. Flip through your manuscript, making a numbered list of each scene in the book. For each, briefly note what happens and who is the protagonist is.

A lot of work? Sure. But trust me on this one: that list is going to become your best friend at revision time. Which may come sooner than you think…

2. Wait a few days, then choose a scene at random from the list. Read through it carefully, asking yourself at the end of each paragraph: is this entirely from the scene’s protagonist’s point of view, or have I engaged in head-hopping here? If it’s the latter, is an alternating first-person or tight single third-person narrative really the best way to tell this story?

3. Repeat Step 2 until the narrative choices are consistent throughout the manuscript.

How may a writer decide which of his many protagonists should be the dominant in any given scene? Often, it’s a matter of simple rotation: once a Chapter 1, Character A/Chapter 2, Character B rhythm is established, many writers seem to be reluctant to mess with the running order. A rigid adherence to pattern does not always pay off from a storytelling perspective, however: sometimes it makes more sense to mix the perspectives up more, as the storyline dictates.

So what other criterion might a writer use? Often, the best choice for protagonist in any given scene is the most active character, or at any rate, the one most central to the conflict. Interestingly, though, many, if not most, aspiring writers of multiple-protagonists texts apparently do not use activity of character as their primary criterion for perspective choice on the scene level.

Indeed, I have seen many a manuscript where the author has taken quite the opposite path, bestowing the protagonist’s mantle upon the guy in the scene who is just sitting around and watching the others emote up a storm. The effect is rather like watching a wedding video where the camera was passed around from guest to guest: the cameraman of the moment may in fact be a fascinating person, but while he is holding that camera, what we see are the other guests’ antics; the cameraman’s perspective is evident primarily through where he chooses to focus the lens at any given moment.

Just between us, that’s not a structuring tactic Millicent tends to favor: it more or less guarantees a passive protagonist, right? So here are a few self-editing tips for multiple protagonist buffs who favor the chapter- (or scene-) alternation method, assuming they have already worked their way through Steps 1-3, above.

4. Go through your list, manuscript at your elbow, marking which scenes have passive protagonists or ones who are primarily observers.

5. Wait a few days, then pick a passive scene from your list. Read through it carefully and consider: would this scene be more active if it stuck to another character’s point of view? If so, try reworking the scene from that character’s perspective.

6. Repeat Step 5 until you have worked through all of the scenes you marked with the dreaded passivity symbol.

Yes, yes, I fully realize that what I just asked you to do might well take hours, if not weeks, of your precious writing time. Your point?

“My point,” those of you who favor observer-narrated fiction, “is that I believe that scenes are better observed by those who are not the primary actor in them. They can notice more, because they are not distracted by being all caught up in that messy conflict. They’re the closest thing to an objective narrator a first-person or tight third-person narrative can get!”

Um, if you don’t mind my asking, oh espousers of passive protagonists, if you’re so fond of objective narration, why aren’t you writing your story from an omniscient or a distant third-person perspective?

That’s a serious question — objectivity may be a positive boon to journalistic accounts, but for a first-person story, it can be dreadfully flattening. Who wants to read a memoir, for instance, that could have been written by just anyone? The first person cries out for individual quirkiness.

As does the tight third person in a multiple-perspective narrative. If every character viewed every situation in the same manner, what would be the point of alternating perspectives? Defining different camera angles aimed at the same immovable object?

Isn’t it more interesting if individual perspectives are presented as, well, individual, incorporating differing worldviews? Even if your various protagonists are from nearly identical backgrounds (or actually identical, like the sisters in THE POISONWOOD BIBLE), even a slight personal bias can present a scene quite differently.

Don’t believe me? Okay, consider these two photographs:

tile roof in Spain 3

tile roof in spain 5

The first is the photograph of a tile roof in Spain at the top of this post, right? So is the second; the picture’s merely been flipped around. Yet objectively, both are a shot of the same roof at the same time of day, and even with the same negative.

There’s nothing wrong with an objective perspective, inherently; it merely tends to be a tad distracting in an alternating-perspective narrative. All too often, writers of such stories will lapse at some point in the manuscript into objective narration, as if they’ve forgotten that one of the premises of the book was to show a multiplicity of individual perspectives.

“Who is this unnamed new narrator?” Millicent thinks, annoyed by what she perceives to be an internal rule violation. “God? Should I expect Him to play an active role in this story, or should I assume that the writer originally wrote this scene in an omniscient voice, then forgot to come back and revise it after she settled on an alternating perspective model. I’m going to throw this one back, to give her a chance to revise it before submitting it again. Next!”

I think the tendency to lapse into so-called objective narration is a side effect of movies and television, where the camera itself is a passive observer of the action at hand, ostensibly undistracted by its own agenda. But one of the charms of the novel as an art form is its unparalleled ability to get inside characters’ heads: I can think of plotting or characterization reasons to forego that opportunity every once in a while, but as a general rule?

Have you already started reaching for your scene list yet, multiple protagonist-generators? (See, I told you it would come in handy as an editing tool.) A grand idea — let’s deepen our examination.

7. Go back to the list, revisiting the scenes you marked earlier as passive. (Yes, even the ones you’ve already revised to a more active perspective; think of it as a tune-up.)

8. Read through those scenes one by one, continually asking yourself: is he acting like a camera here, an observing machine? If so, what is the narrative gaining by his remaining somewhat aloof? What could be gained in terms of plot complexity, insight, and/or character development if the perspective moved closer to the action?

9. Repeat Step 9 until…oh, you know the drill by now, don’t you?

Another great benefit to telling a story from multiple perspectives is a bit less straightforward — and often under-exploited by writers. Having access to different characters’ minds allows individual variation in rhythm, thought pattern, and observation to mark the text distinctively, permitting more latitude of worldview and sensation than is possible with a single focus. On the page, this means that the different sections can read differently, in almost as extreme a way as if Character A and Character B were telling their stories in the first person.

My, that was an extremely technical description, was it not? Anyone mind if I translate that into practical terms?

Everyone has an individual way of observing the world, responding to it, and moving within it, right? A great actor playing identical twins would not play them identically, after all; that would be boring. (If you’ve never seen Jeremy Irons’ brilliant double turn in DEAD RINGERS, you’re missing out. Part of what you’re missing is quite a bit of gore, admittedly, but I think it’s one of the great performances on film.) So naturally, a chapter (or scene, or paragraph) told from Character A’s perspective would differ from one told from Character B’s.

(Yes, yes, that’s a tall order. Next time, I’ll talk about ways to make the perspectives that distinct. Humor me for the moment, because here comes the cool part.)

As a truly gifted writer establishes the various mindsets, tastes, overreaction triggers, etc. for each particular protagonist firmly in the reader’s mind throughout the course of the story, the perspective switches will start to become obvious to the reader. Viewing the world through the various character’s eyes (and minds, and bodies) starts to feel very familiar, natural, the way that you can predict that your mother’s probable reaction to receiving a big bunch of roses would be different than your sister’s.

Admittedly, that’s pretty hard to pull off, and the more dueling perspectives you’ve got going, the harder it is to pull off consistently and decisively. But when it works — oh, baby, it’s magical. Back to our list we go:

10. Pick a protagonist, consult your list, and read all of the scenes grounded in that character’s perspective back to back. Do they all read as though they are from the same person’s perspective?

11. If not, is there a character trait you could emphasize to make them so, something that she and only she does, says, thinks, and/or feels? A particular turn of phrase used habitually (but not often enough to get boring), for instance? A certain cultural or personal bias? An allergy to bananas? A tendency to confuse the colors tangerine and melon?

12. Repeat Steps 10-11 for each protagonist.

Again, a time-consuming exercise. But you were the one who decided to attempt the high dive here; I’m merely coaching you on how to make your mid-air twists prettier.

Another distinct advantage of the multiple-perspective approach is the relative ease of broadening the sensual range of the piece. Before anyone starts giggling, I’m not talking about sex here — I’m talking about how the narrative utilizes the senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.

The more feelers, tasters, sniffers, seers, and hearers a novel features, the more different ways the fictional environment may be brought alive for the reader, right? Think about it: you wouldn’t expect a Brownie to perceive a particular scene in exactly the same way as a professional fire-eater would, would you? (Assuming, of course, that the Brownie in question isn’t a professional fire-eater.)

This advantage is a corollary of the one before it, really — since different people experience the world so differently, broadening the focus of a novel onto the sensations of several people automatically allows for the introduction of distinct sets of sensations. If Character A is a prude, there would be a great deal of room to contrast his perceptions of social interactions with polyamorous Character B’s. Or even ordinary high school sophomore Character C’s.

The mind positively reels with the creative possibilities, doesn’t it?

Again, I think that writers of multiple-perspective books could exploit this more — and not merely in love scenes. (Although that does just leap to mind as one of the human events inherently experienced differently by the various participants in the same act.) Some people have more acute hearing than others; some noses’ perceptual abilities put others to shame.

And so forth. Have some fun with it.

Having trouble opening up this particular Pandora’s box on behalf of all of your 17 protagonists? Don’t worry; I have a fun exercise for playing with perceptual variations.

13. Return to your list. Pick one scene from each of your protagonist’s perspectives and read through them, so they are firmly in your mind.

14. Now return to the first scene and re-imagine it with the protagonist’s sense of smell gone. Changes the scene considerably, doesn’t it?

15. Move on to the next protagonist, but this time, make the protagonist color-blind. Or unable to distinguish sweet from sour. Or chronically cold, or seeing through filthy eyeglasses, or…

Well, you get my point. Multiple protagonists mean multiplied opportunities for wowing the reader with your ability to convey action, environment, and characterization. If you’re going to attempt the high dive of juggling perspective, you owe it to your small army of protagonists to differentiate between them beautifully.

Keep those scene lists handy, campers — next time, we shall be pulling ‘em out again, rolling up our proverbial sleeves, and diving back into your manuscripts. In anticipation of that delightful prospect, keep up the good work!