Capturing the distinctive buzz of reality

As Virginia Woolf — whose birthday all right-minded literary types are celebrating today — tells us, “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” Our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, might like to add, however, “Yes, but that does not mean that everything that has ever occurred on the planet Earth would necessarily make a good scene in a novel, or even a plausible one. And that goes double, perversely enough, for memoir.”

Are you wondering just how that is possible, those of you devoted to writing about reality? Feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-time readers: just because something actually occurred does not mean that it will ring true on the page. In a book, it’s the writer’s job to make everything that happens seem plausible; within the world of the story, everything has to make sense.

That can be a daunting task for the writer devoted to truth-telling, because, let’s face it, the world as we actually experience it on a day-to-day basis frequently defies understanding. Storylines meander; villains do not receive their well-earned comeuppances; virtue is not always either its own reward or lauded by anyone else.

In fact, when you come right down to it, quotidian life is usually dramatically unsatisfying, and have you ever paused to consider the kinds of characters reality routinely introduces onto its stage? Totally unbelievable; the average reader would laugh ‘em off the page. And let’s not even begin to discuss how some of those characters talk.

All of which means, contrary to apparently popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that simply jotting down a transcript of a real event and inserting it into a novel may not work particularly well; all too often, a purely factual account will not provide the reader accustomed to fiction’s standards of world-depiction with sufficient information to be able to picture what the writer experienced. Nor does lifting a living, breathing person and inserting him into a novel necessarily create a character that will spring to life on the page, unless the writer fleshes him out as fully as any character dredged up from her imagination.

There’s a reason that perennial cry of the realistic writer — “But it really happened that way!” — doesn’t particularly impress agents, editors, or contest judges, you know. With apologies to Aunt Virginia, no matter how true the facts, it’s the writer’s responsibility to make them seem true to the reader.

By the same token, while reporting accurately what happened in one’s own life is necessary in a memoir, it’s not the only storytelling requirement; it has to sound true as well. More than that, the narrative needs to present the memoirist’s world vividly enough that the reader can, to recycle a metaphor, walk in the protagonist’s shoes. Plausibility on the page is largely dependent upon style. As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing.

Do I spot some raised hands out there in the ether? “Fair enough, Anne,” writers of the real across the globe admit. “I never conceived myself as a mere recorder of human events. I want to add my unique authorial voice, trenchant analysis, and distinct worldview to the story I’m telling. But now that you’ve got me worried about the difference between factual accuracy and literary plausibility, how about sharing some tips on how to tell the difference on the page?”

A perfectly reasonable request, reality-lovers, but as it does indeed all depend upon the writing (where have I heard that before?), there really are not any one-size-fits-all criteria. Some plausibility faux pas crop up in submissions and contest entries more than others, however. So that you may learn to spot them in the wild, let’s take a gander at a few of them roaming about their natural habitat.

Here, for your Millicent-imitating pleasure, is an honest-to-God, hand-to-heart real event, rendered for the fiction page as professional readers often see it. Does it ring true to you, or could it use a reality overhaul?

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

Excited, Antoinette extended a shapely leg from the covers to test the air. Chilly, but bearable: surely, by the time she got down to work, the room would have risen to a temperature that would not cause her fingers to cramp. Antoinette clambered out of her cot and into her robe and slippers, shuffling to her cabin’s door.

Nothing there but freezing air and a bit of lingering snow on the doorstep. Laughing at her own optimism, Antoinette turned to fill the electric teapot next to her makeshift desk.

Strange that a place that boasted such an endowment would expect her to balance her laptop on a sheet of plywood resting on sawhorses made out of two-by-fours. It did not make Antoinette sanguine about breakfast down at the dining hall; maybe she’d wait for lunch before she ventured out. That would give Antoinette a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended. She was glad she’d had the foresight to slip some Lady Grey tea and a few protein bars into her luggage.

If you immediately cried, “In heaven’s name, why must every other female leg depicted on the printed page be described as shapely? Couldn’t some of them be, say, nicely-formed or well-rounded? Sometimes, I think that there are no other leg-related words in the language,” well, Millicent would agree with you there. She’s seen enough shapely legs trot across the manuscript page to keep the Rockettes fully staffed until the end of the next millennium. And not, as some genre snobs might assume, merely in the kind of hard-boiled mystery in which dames with gams that go all the way down to the floor lure tough guys into the kind of trouble of which film noir is made.

I tremble to report, though, that this description — and this type of description — is fairly common in both memoir and fiction based upon real events, especially if those events happened to occur in the writer’s own life. Any guesses why?

The answer is rather charming, I think: when writers are describing themselves, even fictionally, they tend to focus upon what they consider their best features — or their worst. Our writer friend above may well feel that the leg in question is what would catch a discriminating bystander’s eye first.

Neither Millie nor I have any reason to doubt that, of course. We just wish that the writer would have come up with a means of describing her leg with sufficient clarity that after having read about it, we could recognize it in a crowd of well-constructed torso support systems, if you catch my drift.

Does the sound of two thousand of you shifting uncomfortably in your desk chairs mean that I hadn’t mentioned lately that those of us who read for a living often develop some rather strong negative reactions to clich?s — or phrasing that turns up in submissions and contest entries so often that it might as well be on every set of lips in North America? That’s an inevitable side effect of screening, I’m afraid: after the 7,259th iteration, even a pleasing and apt description can seem a bit, well, overdone.

The moral, should you care to know it: a writer has no control over where a submission or contest entry falls in a screener or judge’s reading queue. It would behoove a savvy writer, then, to make sure that the page is phrased so it will come across as original and stylish if it’s Millie’s first of the day or her 105th. Give those gams a rest, will ya?

Now that I’ve lectured you into feeling good and protective about the text we’re discussing — oh, you thought I was being nit-picky for its own sake? — let me ask: did you notice the red flag that might have prompted Millicent to shout, “Next!” even if she personally can never get tired of the sight of a shapely leg? While you were at it, did you notice the yellow flag that might merely have irritated her a bit?

No? Perhaps it would help to see this excerpt as she would in a submission, on a page. If you’re having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image. And if you really want to replicate the screener experience, read the following fifteen times, walk away for an hour, then return and read it again.

Did one or both leap off the page at you this time? If not, I invite you to try a practical experiment. First, look away from that page for at least fifteen seconds. Then glance back and read the whole thing as quickly as humanly possible.

Notice how much the name repetition grabs the eye when you’re skimming? That’s the yellow flag, and long has it waved over submissions. Why might it bug a tired-eyed screener? Those capital As are visually distracting, so it could feel to someone who has been screening submissions all day as though our writer friend has reminded the reader that the protagonist’s name is Antoinette far more than is strictly necessary for clarity.

Or, as Millicent might put it, “How short an attention span do you think I have, to remind me of this character’s name on every other line?”

A picayune objection? Perhaps, but since fiction and memoir submissions alike tend to name-check their characters over-much — and as writers often love the monikers they’ve given their protagonists most of all — a Millicent can frequently become sensitive to the practice. Especially in a text like this, in which there is only one character, so there is no possibility of the reader’s saying, “Wait — which she are we talking about now?”

Over-naming certainly isn’t limited to writing based upon real-life events, however, any more than the other major red flag here. To get a handle on the second, let me ask you: how much do you remember about the plot of the page you’ve now read twice?

If your answer even remotely resembled, “Um, not much, but then, not much happened on that page,” congratulations; you’re reading like a pro. While you are already meandering in Millicent’s moccasins, then, let me ask you: if you were a screener, would you turn the page and keep reading?”

Oh, don’t look at me that way; most manuscript submissions get rejected on page 1. Yes, even ones like this: properly-formatted, free of typos, and clearly written. Remember, this is not the only manuscript Millie will be screening today; she may well have dozens loading her desktop, or even hundreds. If the story and/or protagonist don’t grab her pretty quickly, she’s likely to move onto the next.

Again, though, slow openings are not endemic only to fact-based fiction and memoir — but that does not prevent some of you who write one or the other from taking umbrage, I notice. “But Anne!” reality-huggers everywhere protest, and who could blame you? “If I — I mean, Antoinette — really did all of these things on the occasion described here, isn’t it a trifle dishonest to pretend that she did something else? Didn’t Aunt Virginia tell us at the top of this post that the more closely I cling to what actually happened, the better I will write about it?”

That’s not quite the central point of this ubiquitous piece of writing advice, contrary to popular belief. Possibly because one so seldom sees Woolf quote in its entirety: “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction — so we are told.”

Part of the art of writing fiction lies in providing sufficiently detailed descriptions and character development that the reader can feel she’s inhabiting the scene along with the protagonist. The same holds true for memoir, right? As we’ve discussed, that’s frequently the problem with transcribing a verbal anecdote directly to the page: the way most people tell their kith and kin about a real event does not contain enough evocative detail or subtle characterization to be equally gripping in print. That’s especially likely to be the case when, as in our example above, the real-world inspiration isn’t all that action-packed.

And don’t roll your eyes and mutter that clearly, Millicent’s never read any Proust. No one could be a greater fan than I of sitting around and remembering things past, but let’s face it, what wowed the literati in 1917 would not necessarily receive a kind reception today. Literary tastes change. And, as half of the publishing industry’s denizens would be only too glad to roll their eyes and tell you, even habitual readers of high literary fiction have more demands upon their time than in days of yore.

Oh, you think you’re immune to the pacing expectations of our age? Okay, let me ask you — by the middle of that first page, you were mentally shouting at Antoinette to do something, already, were you not? You wanted her to nibble on a madeleine, at least, if you happen to be a Proust fan.

Or, as editors like to scrawl in margins, “Get out of her head and into the story, already!”

To be fair, most current readers have a much, much higher tolerance for protagonists’ sitting around and thinking about stuff than your garden-variety Millicent, especially after the story has shown the major character(s) act vigorously. The cool-down-and-reflect scene is a staple of movies and television dramas for a reason: it allows Our Hero(ine) to reflect on what has just happened and decide what to do next. Since the cinematic medium requires a voice-over to convey silent thought, this scene often consists of the protagonist’s providing a recap and analysis for her best friend, his law partner, her boss, somebody’s mother, or a random passerby, more often than not while consuming some form of liquid libation.

Which is why, in case those of you who regularly frequent writers’ conferences and workshops had been wondering, agents and editors who have been at it a while sometimes urge startled attendees to cut any and all scenes in which the protagonist and another character imbibe coffee, tea, milk, hot cocoa, or any other drink conducive to cozy conversing. It’s not that, as a group, people who read for a living are hostile to, say, caffeine. Far from it.

It’s that, like Millicent, they’ve just seen so many plots stop dead in their tracks for pages on end in order to tell the reader what he already knows — what’s just happened — and to preview what’s about to occur that they cringe a little at the first hint of it. And don’t even get me started on how often manuscript submissions open with a conversation in which the protagonist explains what has happened just before the story started, as a shortcut for introducing back-story to the reader.

I see you blushing, writers of narratives that open with the protagonist’s calling her mother/best friend/significant other/beloved dog Trey to tell her/him/it about the awful/wonderful/just so-so thing that’s just happened to her. Yes, people do this all the time in real life, but that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to depict it on the page. Or even that it’s solid storytelling strategy: remember, the more Millicent is confronted with a narrative trick, the less effect it will have on her.

At the risk of going out on an interpretive limb, on the page, repetition often seems redundant. And before anyone suggests it, as writers so often suggest to agents and editors, no, the fact that something was done or said more than once in real life does not matter. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: just because something actually happened does not mean it will work well on the page. Or even be interesting.

Stop reaching for that club to bludgeon me. I’m not talking about writing untruthfully about actual events here; I’m merely suggesting selectivity in narrative. Just because real life is, let’s face it, often so darned repetitious that it ought to be brought up on charges of plot plagiarism, that doesn’t mean that having your narrative faithfully reproduce that already literary quite well documented tendency will not run the risk of boring the reader.

No matter how true a story is, a writer owes the reader an entertaining yarn, right? Antoinette’s creator/alter ego seems to have forgotten that, and I think I can tell you why.

But first — see what I did there? I gave reality a small twist, for narrative effect. If I were married to literalism in storytelling, I couldn’t have said that, right? I write 99% of the examples I use here at Author! Author! — why would I have to guess the motivations of today’s text-producer?

That being said, let’s return to the rhetorical conceit already in progress: like so many aspiring writers of the real, the teller of Antoinette’s tale presumed that readers would be interested in a fairly mundane set of thoughts and activities not only because they actually happened, but also because those thoughts and activities appear in a novel. Or a memoir. In any case, in print.

Or so Millicent and her ilk surmise from the fact that so many submissions contain — and open with — the kinds of scenes that do undoubtedly occur in real life, but neither advance the plot of the book in question nor provide character development. So why, the reader is left to wonder, is that part in the book at all?

Especially if, as in today’s example, it appears on page 1. As a reader, I find it hard to believe that this particular moment is the most interesting of Antoinette’s no doubt fascinating journey across this terrestrial orb. Nor, as an editor, do I accept that this was the only conceivable place to begin the story– or that a page of set-up was necessary to establish a mood before the plot could possibly lurch into motion.

And, frankly, as an intimate of Antoinette’s — we could hardly be closer, even at this very moment — it rather irks me that the fictional version of the original rather scarifying event translated this way to the page. In real life, this was quite the action-fest.

How might I — that is, Antoinette’s amanuensis — have conveyed that better? Perhaps by getting out of the lady’s head and into the plot more quickly. At minimum, let’s lose the tea.

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

No such luck, but she could easily skip breakfast. That would give her a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended.

She was deep into the middle of Chapter Three of her Great American Novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Startled, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? That’s the fault of the original page 1, I’m afraid. By devoting its entirety to the relatively uninteresting details of quotidian life, it would have fooled Millicent into thinking that this is a pretty slow book.

And honestly, did you really miss all of the earlier rumination this time around? Heck, if we really wanted to get things moving, we could skip all of that naming of emotions (Millicent sees too many {Name} was {emotion} statements on any given day of screening, anyway) and simply throw poor Antoinette straight into her dilemma — and, not entirely coincidentally, into the plot.

Antoinette had just finished typing the fifty-third joke of her novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Screaming, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk — or, rather, the bowed and frayed sheet of plywood balanced precariously upon makeshift sawhorses the It Shall Remain Nameless artists’ colony had seen fit to provide writers-in-residence. The second bee landed in her lap, the third atop her sleep-ravaged hair. She fled the cabin, sloshing through the March slush in her bedroom slippers.

Much more exciting, isn’t it? yes, Aunt Virginia, this quite different narrative is every bit as factually accurate as the original version; it’s merely told with an alternative emphasis and swifter pacing. Sticking to the facts need not mean relegating stylistic concerns to the compositional back seat, after all.

Two more common faux pas, and we’ll call it a night. See if you can spot what would raise Millicent’s notoriously easily-levitated hackles as the story moves through its next set of conflicts.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny window — was the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He’s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Did the level of word repetition bug you, so to speak? Again, it might help to see it as Millicent would.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny windowwas the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He‘s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Quite eye-catching, is it not? And entirely for the wrong reasons. For some reason that years of editing and writing experience have left me powerless to explain, word and phrase repetition — up to and including that clich? about the chattering teeth — is notoriously common in both fictional and nonfiction accounts of real events. The prevailing theory (to which I only occasionally subscribe): writers of the real tend to focus more upon recounting the facts accurately than upon how they recount them. In a laudable attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they sometimes forget to show off how well they can write.

I do think that explanation is sometimes applicable to real scenes committed to paper, because all types of writers fall into word repetition patterns at one time or another; when writers are in a hurry to get a good concept down on paper, style often falls by the wayside, at least for the first draft. I suspect, though, that a few other factors frequently nose their heads under the literary fence. The old verbal-anecdote-not-translating-well-to-writing trap, for instance: it’s hard to deny that even the most gifted raconteurs tend to reuse words more than the prevailing standards for professional writing smile upon in these decadent days.

If you still don’t believe that the spoken and the printed word are different, try reading that last sentence out loud. Tumbles awkwardly around the mouth, doesn’t it? Yet most readers would not have perceived it as especially awkward on a first reading. (I would — and did, as soon as I typed it — but hey, I’m a professional reader. Don’t try this at home.)

Writers of fact and fact-based fiction also occasionally fall into this pattern because in their aforementioned laudable effort to tell the truth, the whole…well, you know the rest, they conflate the goal of being factually accurate with a desire to be consistent. If an account is true, they reason, it should sound the same each time it’s told, right? And they’ve been telling it a certain way out loud for years. So telling it any other way can sound not only wrong to them, but actually untrue.

This logic, if you’ll pardon my saying so, drives many of us benighted souls that read for a living nuts. “What do you mean,” they bellow, rending their garments, “there’s only one way to tell this story? You’re a writer — there are a million ways you could tell this story!”

That response, in turn, drives many writers of the real equally nuts, especially if they happen to be writing memoir. “What do you mean,” they wail, bearding heaven with their bootless cries, “I should write about my life in a different way? I’m telling the truth here — so are you asking me to lie about what happened, or are you saying that I should have lived my life in some other way?”

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate realistically. Naturally, a memoir editor wants the writer to present her life story accurately, but if you’ll pardon my repeating myself, it also has to be a good yarn — and well written, too, if the writer can possibly manage it. That means being selective about what real elements to include, as well as exerting narrative authority to ascertain that the story both flows plausibly on the page and entertains the reader.

Oh, holster that throwing knife. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will necessarily read as plausible on the page. All that nice professional reader wants you to do is tweak your account so the reader gets yanked out of the story by muttering, “Oh, that would never happen.”

Exercising some finesse can be quite necessary, as I think we can all agree that sometimes, reality can be mighty implausible. As I may have mentioned, the world is often a genuinely lousy writer, distributing punishments and rewards with little sense of dramatic fitness, jumbling together entirely disparate character traits within a single individual, and generally displaying a perverse affection for the trite and predictable. The real world wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in an editor’s chair.

Or a writer’s, for that matter, because to make sure that the written word is appreciably better than reality. That takes both a discerning eye for the actual and an acutely sensitive sense of story.

Sound like a tall order? You may be encouraged to hear — I know I am — that many writers of autobiographical fiction and memoir do exercise both talents in their submissions and contest entries, imposing a very strong authorial point of view onto the story arc. Sometimes, unfortunately, they go a trifle overboard.

How? See if you can catch the subtle narrative bias in the next segment of Antoinette’s story. Why might this factually truthful account rub Millicent the wrong way at the end of a long day’s screening? (Hint: verbal anecdotes are prone to this misstep, too.)

Antoinette felt as though every bee in the world had landed on her back, buzzing and pacing on its tiny legs. “What am I supposed to do until he gets back?”

The administrative assistant rolled her eyes, clearly thinking what a wimp. “Why don’t you try ignoring it?”

“Them,” Antoinette corrected her quietly. “I’m being dive-bombed.”

“Try opening a window.”

Antoinette dragged herself downstairs, hoping to delay her unexpected exterminator duties with some scrambled eggs, but the breakfast servers slammed the dining room door in her face. She couldn’t even snag a lousy cup of coffee. With envious eyes, she watched the well-fed sculptors, painters, and photographers amble back to their beautifully lit and undoubtedly bug-free workshops.

Has the self-pitying tone begun to grate upon you yet? No? Okay, I’ll ramp it up.

She waded back through the ankle-deep slush to her cabin, rolling up a newspaper she had snagged from the dining hall into what she hoped and prayed would be an adequate hornet-smasher. Opening the cabin’s door just enough to peek inside, she recoiled. The plywood desk was polka-dotted with groggy be. Dozens more lazily circled the old-fashioned bowl light fixture on the ceiling.

Terrified to her bones but determined not to lose a half-day’s writing time, she clamped her eyes and mouth shut, clenched her teeth, and ran across the room. Grabbing the nearest window by its sash, she wrestled it open, a worrying buzzing just off her right ear the whole time.

The storm window couldn’t be budged. Swatting wildly in all directions, she ran all the way back to the administration building.

“Back already?” the administrative assistant snorted. She called to workers in other parts of the office, laughing.

“Please,” Antoinette begged, “I don’t know what to do. I think there’s an entire hornet’s nest in the ceiling light. I can’t get to my computer to rescue it.”

Everyone laughed. “Can’t you write in longhand?” someone asked.

She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain polite. “I don’t mind trying to work someplace else for the rest of the day, but could I borrow an electric fan or something so I can get back into the cabin for some clothes? Or maybe even my laptop?”

More guffaws. “Look,” the administrative assistant snapped, “if you want, you can write a note for Joe.”

I was pretty flabbergasted at this reaction, I must admit; as I said, reality’s not a very subtle writer. Which is why, believe it or not, this narrative seems to lack authenticity: it’s too obvious where the reader’s sympathies should fall. Not only is our saintly heroine — who is, you will note, unflaggingly polite — entirely in the right while her faceless tormenters cold- and warm-blooded alike are entirely in the wrong, but the humans’ reaction doesn’t even make sense.

“Oh, come on,” the reader would have every right to huff. “What kind of retreat’s administrative staff would be this callous to danger to one of its guests? Some people are allergic to beestings, you know. And even if that possibility hadn’t occurred to anyone concerned, wouldn’t they be worried that a massively bee-stung former writer-in-residence might, if she lived to tell the tale, make certain that any writer who might even consider taking up residence there would hear this dreadful epic of woe and uproar?”

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The purpose of telling this story in writing, though, is presumably not to point a finger at the guilty — or at least not to do it so obviously that the reader perceives a narrative bias — but to beguile the reader with a true-to-life, entertaining yarn. Antoinette’s creator might try, for instance, limiting the dismissive reaction to only one character, the administrative assistant, rather than presenting the rest of the office’s staff and the dining hall’s personnel as uniformly hostile. Some individual character development might be nice. And why not seduce the reader into sharing the protagonist’s horror by giving more of a visceral sense of what it felt, smelled, sounded, and tasted like to be in that room stuffed with bees?

Let me answer that last question myself: I’d rather not relive that nasty moment any more intensely than I already have to write the story so far, thank you very much. If I were writing this scene for a memoir or autobiographical fiction manuscript, however, it would be my job to envision it down to the very last flutter of wings.

The truer the facts, the better the fiction, right? Otherwise, how could the reader possibly gain a true sense of what it was like to be living inside Antoinette’s skin? And wasn’t that what the writer telling her story set out to achieve?

Hey, nobody ever said writing about reality well is easy. Often, it’s not particularly fun, either. But you chose your subject matter because you wanted a writing challenge worthy of your ambitions and talent, didn’t you?

In the interest of factual accuracy, I should add that Joe did eventually turn up — he’d gotten embroiled in a still life — but since the hornet’s nest extended all the way into the cabin’s disused attic, he wasn’t actually able to stop the hailstorm of hornets until well until the middle of the next day. I slept on a crumbling couch between two other writers’ bedrooms. My slippers did not dry out fully until the beginning of Week 5.

P.S., I wrote roughly 200 pages while I was in residence. But I’ve never looked a hornet in its beady little eye again.

Seriously, I could have constructed a far more dramatically satisfying resolution to that storyline, reality. You really do need to work harder on your craft and characterization.

But nice job on all of the shapely legs with which you’ve managed to stock the world. Keep up the good work!

Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXIII, and Structural Repetition, part X: a parting glance before we move to pastures new

Are you still palpitating over that false suspense I managed to build up by the end of yesterday’s post, campers? Or is that heavy panting I hear all of you who are planning to give verbal pitches this summer tumbling onto my virtual doorstep, breathlessly eager to begin our long-anticipated Pitchingpalooza bright and early tomorrow?

Well, it probably won’t be bright and early, unless you are prone to measure such things by moonrise, rather than sunrise; tomorrow is going to be a rather full day. But I shall be launching our latest ‘Palooza, never fear.

“Um, Anne?” the more pacing-minded among you murmur, tapping your watches meaningfully. “Is it my imagination, or did you just extend the false suspense about today’s promised professional readers’ pet peeve by another two whole paragraphs by the simple expedient of digressing into another topic?”

Quite right, pace-minders — and you lengthened it by another paragraph through pointing it out. Now, I’m stretching it to four. Whee! We could keep this up for hours.

But we won’t, because we’ve all gotten the message by now, right? When our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, picks up a page 1, she expects the story (or argument, in the case of nonfiction) to get going right away. When the opening lines dither, evade, and generally avoid leaping right into the meat of the story, she has been known to become just a trifle impatient.

“What is this story about?” she fumes over her latte. “And why isn’t this writer getting on with it?”

Certainly an understandable reaction — and if it isn’t, I can only advise you to go back and read the first four paragraphs of this post again. Perhaps it’s the circles in which I move, but personally, I’ve never met a Millicent — or agent, editor, or contest judge, for that matter — who didn’t share this preference for a book’s opening to get on with it, already. Rarely, if ever, does one hear a professional reader say, “I liked that book, but do you know what would have made it better? A slower page 1. Heck, it would have benefitted from not beginning the central story at all until, oh, page 12 or so.”

I bring this up not only because a page 1 that drags is very frequently enough to trigger rejection — yes, even if the writing that lulls the reader along is beautifully constructed — and this will be my last post in our long-lingering Pet Peeves on Parade series. No, I’ve treated you to this last-minute admonition as a segue into one of the most important rules for a revising writer to remember: just as each authorial voice is individual — good authorial voice, anyway — so is each writer’s pattern of problems. Some very talented writers just can’t manage to get their stories started until page 34; others use and in every other sentence, and still others are purely incapable of remembering the difference between there, they’re, and their. Some rechristen their characters every thirty pages, then forget to go back and change earlier names; some meant to do background research on their protagonist’s mother’s job as a beekeeper, but never seemed to get around to it.

Yes, falling prey to any or all of these tendencies could result in Millicent’s shouting, “Next!” over your submission. You could waste endless energy worrying about that outcome. But rather than fearing her ire or resenting the professional reader’s notoriously sharp eye, may I make a suggestion for a better use of your time? Why not devote yourself to learning what your personal writing patterns are, and figuring out which ones you like enough to keep?

After all, there is no secret formula for writing success: what works for one story will be appallingly inappropriate in another, and vice versa. A thoughtful writer often experiments with a number of different voices, literary devices, and writing styles before settling on the best fit for her book. That’s healthy and a necessary part of a good writer’s learning process — hey, nobody is born knowing every craft trick in the book — but it’s vital to get into the habit of re-reading one’s own manuscripts (ideally, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course) with an eye to figuring out which of those experiments are worth incorporating into the book’s overall voice.

Why? Chant it with me now, those of you who have been intrepid enough to follow this series all the way through to the bitter end: because the hallmark of a really good authorial voice is consistency.

That’s not going to happen all by itself, you know — but you’d be surprised at how many submitters seem to act as though it would. As Millicent would be only too happy to tell you if you take her out for a latte (you think it’s easy to stay awake through all of those slow openings?), submissions and contest entries that begin in one voice and switch to another 2, 10, or 100 pages in are almost as common as manuscripts that have no distinctive voice at all.

It may seem self-evident, but in order to clarify your authorial voice or make it consistent across a manuscript, you’re going to need to recognize what it is. How are you going to know what’s good about your writing if you don’t read it? And reread it with each subsequent draft? Not only to catch your personal pattern of mistakes, but to learn what you sound like at your best.

“That’s a lovely sentiment, Anne,” the clock-watchers we met above chime in, “and I’m sure it’s practical advice, well worth heeding. But haven’t you also just distracted us from the fact that you STILL haven’t filled us in on the identity of the Millicent-baiter you teased us about on Monday? Jeez, Alfred Hitchcock himself would have revealed the culprit by now.”

Quite right, pacing-minders. The notorious species of structural repetition that causes professional readers to gnash their teeth and mutter under their breath is — wait, Millie, put down that ice pick! Help! Hel…

Just kidding. You watch-tappers didn’t think you were going to walk away unscathed after the Hitchcock crack, did you?

Actually, one eagle-eyed reader delved into her own manuscript and diagnosed this dreaded form of repetition for herself. Kudos to intrepid Anne A. for bringing it up in the comments a couple of months back:

I’d been looking back at my writing and trying to get rid of my characters’ excessive nodding, shrugging, and looking…especially looking. I’m having a lot of trouble with the looking.

I’ve found that I tend to use looking as a cue in the dialogue for whom a particular phrase is targeted; that is, there are four or five characters standing around and if one character says something directed specifically to another (e.g., “Can you fight?”), I have the speaker look at the target first. I’m finding these terribly difficult to get rid of, because without them the conversation makes little sense.

Any advice on how to handle this? It appears I cycle through, in decreasing frequency: “looked to”, “turned to”, “said to”, and direct address by name. I have a terrible feeling that all of these sound far too repetitive.

We have a winner: looked is one of the most frequently repeated words in manuscript submissions. If I had a nickel for every time I had spotted look, watch, saw, etc. on the manuscript page, well, I’d have a heck of a lot of nickels.

I’m not talking about enough to buy my own publishing house, mind you. Don’t be ridiculous. I’m talking about enough nickels to build a publishing house from sub-basement to rafters entirely out of the things.

Why is look so pervasive? Well, aspiring writers rely upon it, and upon vision-related verb phrases in general, quite heavily, and not always because most human beings glean most of their information about the world around them through their eyes. Often, characters — particularly protagonists — will look things as a means of introducing those things into the narrative. Essentially, the character’s eyes act like a laser pointer, directing the reader’s attention someplace specific. Lookee:

“Oh, I give up,” Albert said crossly. “I’m tired of trying to find that last Easter egg. It can rot, for all I care.”

Sharon cast her eyes around the room, taking in the disordered bookcase, the emptied-out desk drawers, and the overturned couch. She saw no trace of an eggshell of any sort.

Effectively, Sharon is acting as the reader’s eyes in this passage: she moves her eyes, and we are shown objects. Although she is acting, she is passive; she’s not commenting upon those objects — say, drawing the conclusion that Albert is not a particularly well-organized searcher or that the hotel’s maid is likely to find his pastime annoying — nor is she changing the situation through doing anything like knocking over a bookcase herself. She’s not so much advancing the scene as allowing herself to be used as a narrative device.

That’s good news for the self-editor, believe it or not. Instead of showing us the room via a seeing-eye Sharon, the reviser can radically reduce the number of looking references by simply showing what is in the room. That would free up Sharon to engage in activities of her own.

Albert sat in the midst of chaos of his own making. He had disordered the bookcase, emptied out several well-packed desk drawers, and upended the couch. “Oh, I give up. I’m tired of trying to find that last Easter egg. It can rot, for all I care.”

“And I’m tired of cleaning up after you.” Slowly, Sharon withdrew a brace of pistols from her fashionable purse. “We duel at dawn. The maid has offered to be my second.”

Another popular use for looking verbs is to remind the reader from whose perspective she’s approaching the story. This is particularly common in first-person or tight third-person narratives. As in:

I looked at the beautiful blue sky and the hopeful buds on the green trees; they made me sad.

That’s one way to alert the reader to the existence of the buds on the trees and the beauty of the sky — which is, we are told explicitly, blue, as opposed to all of those other colors beautiful skies are always sporting — but it’s not the only narrative possibility, and usually not the most imaginative one. It also slightly blurs the author’s intention: is the reader supposed to concentrate upon the fact that the trees are budding hopefully, or the fact that our narrator saw the buds and projected hope onto them?

Even if the image hitting the narrator’s cornea actually were the most important aspect of this particular sentence — in this example, it isn’t — often, the point of the protagonist’s looking at things is not the action itself, but to alert the reader that the objects being seen exist. Unless this device is used very sparingly, though, most readers will tire pretty quickly of being told over and over again that the protagonist is — stop the presses — seeing or noticing everything around her.

Hard to blame the reader for that, you must admit. From his point of view, it’s self-evident: the object is present in the environment, so naturally, the protagonist sees it. So?

Millicent’s reaction, predictably, is quite a bit less forgiving. “Stop telling me over and over that the protagonist is seeing things!” she will mutter, reaching for her third latte of the afternoon. “You don’t need to keep reminding me of the narrative perspective!”

So what’s a reviser to do with this type of Millicent-annoying look? Cut ‘em without mercy. With a little careful planning, it’s almost always possible simply to have stimuli external to the protagonist just show up, without reminding the reader that the players in the scene have seen them or having the protagonist acknowledge their existence.

Fringe benefit: because this approach encourages the things in question to be more active, the result is often a more vibrant narrative. Take a peek:

The sun shone in a cloudless sky, sending a caressing warmth to encourage the hopeful buds on the green trees. Their very exuberance made me sad.

Anne A’s concern sounds like combination of these two types of looking patterns, a mélange that used to be quite widespread in YA and many categories of genre fiction. In this combo, not only do the characters’ eyeballs serve as the narrator’s means of calling the reader’s attention to something in the physical environment as a sort of, “Hey, you — notice at that!” substitute — those busy, busy peepers also provide the transition between description (often presented as the result of observation) and the next set of actions.

What might that look like on the page, you ask? Let us turn to our next example. While I’m at it, I’ll toss in a little name repetition, since Anne A. mentioned that it was one of her personal bugbears.

Helene looked around the room. Not much there; the occupants must have moved out in a hurry. Suddenly, she saw a glint of silver on the mantelpiece.

She turned to Karen. “Look, Karen! Could that be Aunt Monica’s long-lost broach, the one we have been seeking for hours? If it is, maybe we will be able to figure out how to open its secret compartment and find the combination to the wall safe our beloved aunt told us three times a week throughout our collective girlhood was stored there.” She looked to her cousin for confirmation. “Well? Is it her broach?”

Karen picked up the round pin, examining it. “Possibly, Helene. Strange…”

Helene looked at her cousin expectantly. “What’s strange?”

Karen glanced nervously back toward the door. Did she hear movement out there? “Oh, that the search party, the militia, and the bloodhounds would have missed its being in such an obvious location.”

As you may see — looking verbs are addictive, aren’t they? — it’s not difficult for this type of looking to turn into Hollywood narration, dialogue in which the speaker tells the hearer things both parties already know, purely to convey the information to the reader. Like most dialogue plagued by this phenomenon, this passage benefits from trimming it. All of that visual activity could easily go, too, making room for some more revealing details or more action. (Why didn’t Helene pick up the darned broach herself, if she was so interested in it?) Also, if we really put our editorial minds to it, we could probably stop our heroines from squawking their names at each other constantly like hyacinth macaws.

The room’s dark wood paneling emphasized how quickly the former occupants had decamped. Dust outlines showed where a sinuously curved sofa, an ornate-footed chair, an old-fashioned two-sided partner desk had rested for decades. Only the mantelpiece seemed to have been cleaned within the last year. Silver glinted against the mahogany.

“Aunt Monica’s broach!” She dashed across the room, but Karen beat her to it.

Her cousin ran her fingertips across the polished surface. “How could it be this shiny, if it’s been lying here for a year?”

Helene completed the thought: “And why would everyone else who’s traipsed through here miss it? This was planted!”

Another tendency to keep an eye out for (oh, you think it’s easy to keep coming up with these?) is looking used as a stand-in for other, more interesting activity. It’s indigenous to recently revised manuscripts, as a means of identifying speakers without cluttering up the dialogue with all of those tag lines that graced the first draft. Unfortunately, not every alternative to he said makes for particularly scintillating reading.

Art looked askance at his adopted brother. “You’re not afraid, are you, Kay?”

Kay glanced at the dragon breathing fire nearby. Surely, any sane human being would be afraid. “Not if you will hand me that sword over there on your right. No, farther, next to the tumbledown shack in which that strange old man lives. That’s it, right next to the bronze chicken our grandmother smelted in her dotage. Oh, now you’ve gone too far. Don’t you see it there, beside that gently rippling stream?”

Art recoiled at the sight of it. “You mean the sword stuck in the stone?”

Here, the narrative falls into another Millicent-annoying trap: presentation of the physical environment not via explicit description, but by talking about it as though the narrator (or in this case, the character Kay) and the reader were watching a film of the scene together. Rather than giving us enough detail to be able to picture it as the writer imagines it, we’re left to guess what type of landscape could possibly contain all of those disparate elements.

And why might that narrative choice irritate Millicent? Sing it out loud and clear, campers: it’s the writer’s job to convey a sense of place, not the reader’s job to fill in descriptive details.

Another extremely common use of looked is as a substitute for showing emotional reactions. As any Millicent who has been at it for a while knows to her cost, aspiring writers just love having characters look at one another instead of evincing a more revealing response to something that has just happened.

All of a sudden, the wind chime over Violet’s left shoulder began ringing violently; Llewellyn’s chair seemed to be slipping sideways beneath him. They looked at each other.

“What’s happening?” Violet cried.

Doesn’t add all that much to the scene, does it? That’s because from the reader’s perspective, the mere fact that Violet and Llewellyn chose that moment to train their eyeballs on each other isn’t all that illuminating. Described this flatly, it’s such a generic act that mentioning it doesn’t either advance the plot or reveal character. It begs the question: how did they look at each other? Why did they look at each other?

Okay, so that was two questions. Here’s a third: is there something else that one or both of them could do or say here that would do a better job of advancing the plot and/or revealing what these people are thinking or feeling in this particular moment?

And, of course, there’s the ever-popular self-sufficient glare:

Not looking where he was going, Armand tripped over Patrice’s extended feet. She shot him a look.

Again, what kind of look? What did she intend it to convey, and was it in fact an accurate external representation of her internal mental processes? And while we readers are asking so many questions, why on earth didn’t the writer save us all this trouble by coughing up a substantive description of a meaningful response in the first place?

Be on the lookout, so to speak, for versions of she looked away, a sentence widely used as shorthand for a character’s conscious attempt to avoid conveying emotion to another character. While flesh-and-blood people do actually look away from one another from time to time, and for that very reason, this phrasing, too, can start to feel pretty redundant if characters do it very often.

At the risk of giving away a trade secret, looking away is also not usually the most interesting reaction a character can have to a stressful situation. Frequently, this action is a drama-killer, a means of allowing a character to avoid a direct confrontation. That may be desirable in real life, but since Millicent likes to see conflict on every single page of a novel or memoir — you knew that, right? — do you really want to squander a golden opportunity for injecting more of it into your story?

In short, you’re going to want to take a close look at all of those looks, evaluating on a case-by-case basis. Each time it appears, ask yourself: is this an effective way to convey the meaning I want to the reader, or is this just shorthand? Is it a stand-in for something else, a more revealing action, perhaps, or more interesting possibility? Would the plot or characterization would benefit from a different kind of sentence?

What you should most emphatically not do, however, is simply do a search for the word and cut every use indiscriminately. You’re going to want to exercise your judgment — always bearing in mind, of course, that the reader cannot read your mind, and thus may not interpret shorthand in quite the way you intended. You can’t blame her for that: since all she knows about the story you are telling is what the narrative shows and tells her, if you don’t fill in the details, she has to rely upon her imagination.

Don’t make me start the chanting again. You know the tune by now, right?

Remember, too, that what might work perfectly well in an individual sentence may well become a distracting pattern over the course of a paragraph, page, or even scene. Look is a sneaky one; it is used in so many context to mean so many things. To sharpen your eye to its many means of imbedding itself in text, let’s take a gander at few frolicking in their natural habitat.

He looked at me passionately. “But I want you to marry me, Mary!”

Quickly, I looked down at the fringe decorating my skirt. “I think you should go, Didier.

“Go?” He gave me a look of disbelief. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

I looked up. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

Taken individually, each of these uses of look is perfectly legitimate. But the problem here isn’t just the word repetition — it’s that looking is acting as a stand-in for a whole lot of potentially interesting human interaction. Over and over and over again.

Don’t look away — we already know what do in this situation, right? When confronted with characters merely looking in response to stimuli, we ask: could they have more character-revealing (or situation-revealing) responses?

The possibilities are endless, of course — which is precisely why I’m a big fan of this particular revision strategy; it can open a simple scene up in some fascinating ways. For instance:

He kissed my hand passionately. “But I want you to marry me, Mary!”

I abruptly became absorbed in studying the fringe decorating my skirt. “I think you should go, Didier.”

“Go?” His tone implied that I’d just asked him to leap off a fifty-foot cliff. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

So much for sparing his feelings. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

Is everyone comfortable with the prospect of tackling all of those looks in context, retaining some, and coming up with interesting and creative substitutes for others? Good. Now that you’ve started thinking about revising with your reader’s reaction in mind, let’s go back and apply the principles we’ve been discussing to the problem of proper noun repetition in a manuscript.

Oh, did you think that you were through with practical examples, because we were so close to the end of this series? Not a chance — over the past few weeks, we have established a method for dealing with word repetition. Now that we have added the last tool, placing ourselves behind the reader’s spectacles in order to figure out whether the over-used word in question is serving the narrative well, to our writer’s tool belt, aren’t you just dying to trot out the whole set of wrenches?

I’m going to take that look you’re all giving me as a yes. Perhaps if I’m really lucky, you’ll exchange glances. Maybe even meaningful ones.

Suppose for a moment that in mid-revision, you have suddenly become overwhelmed with doubt: have you been over-using proper names? Rather than panic in the face of such a dreadful possibility, you know precisely what to do: first, ascertain just how many of the darned things there are in your manuscript, so you may see just how serious the problem is — and where to begin to attack it.

So you, wise soul, print up a hard copy of your manuscript, pull out your trusty highlighter pens, and mark every time a character’s name appears, dedicating one color to each character. After highlighting up a storm for a chapter or two, you go back and flip through the pages. If a single color appears more than a couple of times on a page, you know that you might want to see where you could trim.

This test, which can be used to diagnose any suspected repetitive pattern in a manuscript, will reveal the most about Millicent’s probable reaction if you begin marking on page 1, of course, rather than at some random point in Chapter 12. If you can only find time to do a few pages, though, you might not want to start marking on page 1. A good, quick check on your name-usage habits is to highlight a two-person dialogue between major characters from the middle of the manuscript.

Why a two-character scene, you ask? See if this pattern seems at all familiar:

”I’ve never seen that giant centipede before,” Tyrone lied. “It just crawled into the house, Mom.”

Angela placed her fists upon her ample hips. “I suppose it opened the back door by itself?”

“It certainly has enough legs to do it,” Tyrone said, examining it. “Or it could have crawled through the keyhole.”

“Next you’ll be telling me that the cat is the one who has been opening the kitchen cabinets,” Angela retorted.

“I’ve seen her do it!” Tyrone insisted.

Angela placed her hand upon his head. “Tyrone, I hate to break it to you, but cats don’t have opposable thumbs. Neither do centipedes. So unless you’re harboring a chimpanzee I don’t know about, I’m going to assume that human hands did all these things.”

The boy cast a nervous glance at his closet door; did Mom know about Archie? “If you say so.”

Did you catch the patterns here? If you immediately said, “By gum, a skimming reader’s eye might mix up Angela and Archie, since they both start with the letter A,” give yourself a gold star for being able to remember that far back in this series. Take another star out of petty cash if you also murmured, “This writer is identifying speakers far, far more often than necessary. I wonder if the same pattern persists throughout the manuscript?”

In this excerpt, the pattern is clear, right? In case those baleful looks you’re giving me mean no, let me ask a follow-up question: how do we know that this scene doesn’t really require this many tag lines?

After the first set of exchanges, there really isn’t any doubt about who is speaking when, is there? So why does the reader need to be reminded so frequently who is who, when the speeches are alternating in a predictable rhythm?

The over-use of tag lines is quite pervasive in submissions, and for good reason: like over-abundant proper names, aspiring writers often believe that they reduce confusion. But to professional eyes, the author of the example above has apparently invented unnecessary opportunities for repeating her characters’ names.

Be on the lookout, too, for frequent use of relational terms as substitutes for names: her mother, my brother, her boss. Often, writers who lean heavily upon name usage will pepper their manuscripts with these, too — and again, physically marking them in the text is generally the best way to figure out if there’s too much pepper in your manuscript.

Okay, so that was a bad joke, but it was intended to soften a hard reality: until repetitions of these phrases are actually highlighted on the manuscript page, it’s well-nigh impossible for most aspiring writers to understand fully why this particular type of repetition drives the pros mad. Relationship repetition may seem merely descriptive or innocuous to a casual reader, but it reduces professional readers to apoplexy; they read it as the writer’s insecurity about the reader’s caring enough – or not being smart enough — to remember how these people are related.

Speaking of over-reactions: “Criminy,” Millicent has been known to mutter. “Is there a REASON you feel the need to tell me three times per page that Roger is Yvette’s son?” Do you think I have no memory at all?”

Sound at all familiar?

In this instance, I think Millicent has some justification for feeling that the writer is talking down to the reader. Unless you are writing a story that will be published in serial form, as so many of Dickens’ works were, it’s not necessary, and can be downright annoying, to keep referring to a character by her relationship to the protagonist.

Especially when, as often happens, the reader is presented with the relationship from several different perspectives. As in:

Brenda looked up at her mother. “Are you sure he’s dead? Couldn’t it be another false alarm?”

Mona cradled her husband’s blue-tinted face in her wrinkled but bejeweled hands. “You’re thinking of my last husband, Martin, the swimmer. Bert’s not capable of holding his breath this long.”

“I didn’t say he was faking it.” Brenda lifted her stepfather’s lifeless arm, dropped it. “I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between comatose and dead.”

“Fine.” Mona kicked her purse at her daughter. “Root through there until you find my compact, and hold the mirror under his nose. If he’s alive, it’ll fog up.”

“For heaven’s sake!” Millicent will be crying by this point in the manuscript, startling fellow screeners in adjacent cubicles. “If Mona is the mother, OF COURSE Brenda is the daughter! What do you think, I’m an idiot?”

Generally speaking, the formal relationship between two characters, particularly if one of those characters is the protagonist, needs to be mentioned to the reader only once in a chapter, at most. If it’s a significant relationship, it may well need to be brought up only once in the book, unless there honestly are issues of mistaken identity involved.

Otherwise, try giving the reminders a bit of a rest.

While you have your marking pens out, it’s not a bad idea to check your submission pages for other instances of phrase repetition as well. I’m not talking about pet phrases here — come on, admit it: every writer has a few phrases and words he likes enough to reuse with some frequency — but overworked nouns and descriptive phrases. Those have a nasty habit of offending the professional eye, too.

You’d be astonished at how much the repetition of even a single verb in two consecutive sentences, for instance, can make a manuscript seem less interesting. Especially — and this is almost impossible to catch when editing on screen, but genuinely irksome to see on a printed page — if the same word or phrase begins or ends two or more sentences in a row.

If you are clever and professional-minded enough to scan your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD (gee, where have I heard that advice before?), it will immediately become apparent why: it reads as though the point of the paragraph is to get through the information within it as quickly as possible, rather than to write about it as beautifully as possible.

In a race run amongst the stylish, my friends, even a couple of lines that fall down on the job can cost you a head start. You’re in this to express yourself marvelously: try to be consistent about it, but use your best judgment on a case-by-case basis.

That’s such a pretty thought that I am going to sign off here for the day — and the series. Next time, it’s on to the rigors and joys of pitching. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXI: enough with the shoptalk, already — we have work to do here, people!

Yes, yes, I know: we had all been expecting that my next post would revert to our series-in-progress on the Short Road Home, too-quick resolution of potentially absorbing plot-moving, character-illuminating, and/or relationship-defining narrative conflict. However, a thoughtful reader posted such an interesting follow-up question to our last discussion that I couldn’t resist devoting a post to it. Quoth Nancy, in a slightly abbreviated form:

How do you handle dialogue in a scene…where the two speaking are both medical professionals? I have an emergency room scene in my novel and, after a considerable amount of research, I used one drug and three medical terms. I didn’t go overboard or anything, but do you think two doctors working on a patient in that setting using professional jargon is too much for the reader? The only people in the room participating are the medical personnel so it seemed appropriate to me.

Now, there are a couple of ways to responding to a question like this. The first — and, I must confess, the one that appeared most reasonable to me in the state of end-of-a-day-stuffed-with-medical-appointments exhaustion in which I initially read it — would be to take the issue very literally. What would happen if we took that jargon-crammed example from last time…

“At first glance, I’d say that this is a moderate case of angulation of the patella.” Dr. Ferris poked around her kneecap, nodding whenever she vocalized a negative response. “You’re a little young for it to be chondromalacia. Does that hurt?”

“Tremendously,” she whimpered.

“Lateral sublexation.” That apparently deserved a note on the chart. “You see, Georgette, if the displacement were in the other direction, we might have to resort to surgery to restore a more desirable Q-angle. As it is, we can work on VMO strength, to reduce the probability of this happening again. In the short term, though, we’re going to need to rebalance the patella’s tracking and more evenly distribute forces.”

“What do you mean, rebalance…”

The wrench knocked her unconscious. When she awoke, her entire leg on fire, a piece of paper was resting on her stomach.

…and changed it from a doctor/patient interaction to a doctor/doctor conversation? It could, after all, be achieved as easily as simply having another doctor walk into the room for a consult.

“At first glance, I’d say that this is a moderate case of angulation of the patella.” Dr. Ferris poked around her kneecap, nodding whenever she vocalized a negative response. “But what do you think, Dr. Wheel?”

The specialist frowned, fishing around in the capacious pockets of his lab coat. “She’s a little young for it to be chondromalacia. Ah, there it is. Move your hand, Dr. Ferris.” He raised a small silver hammer far over his head, bringing it down viciously on the side of Georgette’s knee. “Does that hurt?”

“Tremendously,” she whimpered.

The two doctors exchanged significant glances. “Lateral sublexation?” Dr. Ferris suggested with a sign. “Darn, I was hoping to get in there surgically.”

“A pity, but it can’t be helped. If the displacement were in the other direction, we could have restored a more desirable Q-angle surgically.”

“What does that mean?” Georgette asked.

Ferris turned back to Wheel. “We can work on VMO strength, to reduce the probability of this happening again. In the short term, though, we’re going to need to rebalance the patella’s tracking and more evenly distribute forces.”

“Indubitably,” Dr. Wheel agreed.

“Hello?” Georgette shouted. “It’s my leg, remember? What precisely are you planning to do?”

The wrench knocked her unconscious. When she awoke, her entire leg on fire, a piece of paper was resting on her stomach, and the doctors were leaving the room.

“That’s a prescription for painkillers,” Dr. Ferris called back over her shoulder. “You can have it filled at any pharmacy.”

A voice wafted back from the hallway. “You might try some ice.”

What do you think? From a purely realistic perspective, we can see that Nancy’s justification for why those particular people might use those particular terms makes a lot of sense: doctors might well say these things to each other. But as a reader, how did you feel about having all of that medical jargon tossed at you?

Don’t be shy — there is no single right answer here, merely what works on the page. If you said, “Gee, Anne, I felt that this use of jargon added to the credibility of these characters. I might not have understood all of the undefined terms they were throwing around so vigorously, but I feel like that around real doctors. An A for realism!” then you are thinking like many aspiring writers. For many a creator of a character with advanced degrees or specialized technical knowledge, jargon makes the man.

If, on the other hand, you yawned and said, “I did what I always do when confronted with technical mumbo-jumbo — I just skipped it. Wake me when the scene shifts back to some action that might actually interest me, please,” then you are like the average reader conditioned by shows like House, M.D. to regard the cessation of normal speech and a sudden barrage of medical terms as normal behavior for doctors. Best to lay one’s head down, take a brief nap, and rejoin the story once the folks in scrubs have gotten it out of their systems.

And if you said, “Wow, I couldn’t get enough of that jargon! I would have been happier if the doctor characters hadn’t spoken any comprehensible non-medical English at all,” well, you’re probably not being very realistic about this manuscript’s target audience. Few stories with a doctor’s office scene have the luxury of being able to appeal only to those with medical degrees.

Approaching the question literally gave us an important insight, didn’t it? Let’s go ahead and phrase it as an aphorism: whether the level of jargon use in dialogue is appropriate or too heavy depends not exclusively upon who the characters speaking it are, but upon who the expected readers are.

Which brings me, not entirely coincidentally, to the second way to approach an issue like this: practically. If your target reader will have trouble following what’s going on in a jargon-stuffed scene — or, as we saw above, might be bored by it — it matters far less whether those people might speak that way. Dialogue’s first duty is to be comprehensible, its second to be entertaining. If realism in dialogue were the only or even the primary criterion for judging its aptness, why would an agent seeking to a medical drama to represent look to a writer who didn’t have a medical degree to write it?

Oh, you may laugh, but hands up, anybody who has ever heard an aspiring writer defend lackluster dialogue with, “But people really talk that way in real life!” They may well, but that doesn’t mean a reader will want to pay $27 to read a transcript of it in hardcover.

Not practical enough for you? Okay, consider this: even in the unlikely event that the scene above is an excerpt from the first fiction series ever aimed exclusively at knee surgeons with a little spare time on their hands for reading, at the submission stage, Millicent and the agent for whom she works are the book’s target audience. If either of them is either confused or bored by a character’s — or, in this case, two characters’ — professional chattering, it’s not going to help to produce a tape recording to prove that doctors might indeed have said these things in real life. If dialogue is unclear or dull, it’s not going to make it past Millicent.

That made some of you just a tad defensive, didn’t it? “But Anne,” jargon-huggers the world over shout in dismay, “that’s not how an ordinary reader would respond. I don’t think a doctor character’s making few references to specific prescription drugs or referring to a body part by its Latin name is going to dissuade most readers. I understood enough of that second scene to be able to deal with it; surely, most readers would be willing to put up with a few unfamiliar nouns in the name of verisimilitude.”

Good point, jargon-lovers — often, the average reader is surprisingly tolerant of jargon. And, like you, s/he will often simply assume that what appears on the page is legitimate jargon used correctly.

You’d be astonished at how often it isn’t: add terminology and stir is quite a common recipe for realism in dialogue. All too often, writers will conduct some minimal research, dig up a few key terms, and simply plop them into the middle of a scene. It drives readers actually conversant with the subject matter nuts.

As any maddened specialist reader or frustrated Millicent would happily tell you, an astoundingly high percentage of such borrowed terms tend to be nouns or adjective-and-noun combinations. So to aficionados of poorly-applied jargon, a strong contrast in the complexity of the subject and verb choices is a tip-off that the writer might not be as familiar with the character’s professional lingo as the narrative might pretend.

So is the appearance of an undefined term in the middle of an array of otherwise relatively simple sentences. Take, for instance, how a fictional exchange between American politics professors might appear in a manuscript.

“Mason is being cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. “He can’t afford to act on his political beliefs.”

Bella straightened her notes. “You just watch him. It is a multi-player Nash equilibrium. You just watch it play out.”

“I couldn’t disagree more, my dear, but time alone will tell.” Jack rose. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a class to teach.”

The undefined jargon just leaps off the page at you, doesn’t it? These two people don’t sound like experts; they sound like they are doing precisely what the writer is, throwing a limited technical vocabulary around.

But simply adding more jargon won’t make them seem more credible, even if it does make the characters sound more true-to-life. Let’s take a peek at the same scene as someone who has taught in a political science department might expect it to appear:

“Mason’s cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. “I can’t see his party jeopardizing a marginal district just to make a philosophical point. Ideology is an exogenous variable here.”

Bella wanted to throw the nearest book at him. “You’re conflating ideology with rational self-interest. It’s not a zero-sum game; Mason’s operating within a multi-player Nash equilibrium.”

“Oh, I see.” His tone was rich with sarcasm. “How silly of me not to reduce complex reality to an everyday collective action problem.”

She leapt to her feet. “And how ridiculous of me to expect someone who regards any two things that have ever happened simultaneously as inherently correlated! You’ve never met a dependent variable you didn’t like.”

“Look up parsimony in a dictionary,” he snarled. “It will change your life.”

Not much fun to read, is it? Yet as someone who has, for her sins, spent a heck of a lot of time in a political science department, the second version is a much better reflection of reality than the first.

But ‘fess up: even those of you who preferred the jargon-heavy doctor scene above were less tolerant of Professor Bella and Professor Jack’s speaking the lingua franca of their profession than you were of Dr. Ferris and Dr. Wheel’s technical talk, weren’t you?

If so, you’re in good company: the less familiar the field is to the reader, the more alien the jargon will seem. Thanks to Dr. House and his literary and filmic brethren and sistern, a lot of us built up quite a tolerance to barrages of medical terminology. But let the talk stray into a less-often-fictionalized field, and it’s cue the yawning.

So where does that leave Nancy’s revision difficulties? Clearly, the mere fact that two characters are purportedly experts in their fields is not sufficient justification for having them spout technical terms all over the place, yet scattering a select few phrases doesn’t ring true. The reader needs to know what they are talking about, of course. However, shoving definitions of relevant terms into the narrative portions of the scene can stop it dead in its tracks.

“Mason’s cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. Cross-pressuring is when one constituent group wants something diametrically opposed to what another constituent group is clamoring to see happen.

He had a point: if Mason voted for the bridge, commuters would love him, but the powerful boating lobby would hate his guts. “True,” Bella said, “but aren’t you conflating ideology with rational self-interest?”

Jack paused to consider that. Mason’s political principles, such as they were, had always been tempered by a healthy tendency to weigh what would be the best for himself in the long run. It would never do to conflate them, combining two distinct factors into a single explanation.

Enough, already: this is supposed to be a novel, not a lecture. And, as we saw yesterday, the result is not much better if one character’s role in the conversation is to lob softball questions at the other, so the reader can hear the answers.

“Mason’s cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. “I can’t see his party jeopardizing a marginal district just to make a philosophical point.”

“Cross-pressured?” Bella asked.

“Subject to conflicting demands from constituents. I tell you, ideology is an exogenous variable here.”

Exogenous who? “Meaning?”

“Meaning that what he believes is not going to affect the outcome.” He gathered his lecture notes together. “Honestly, Bella, where did you go to grad school?”

Where indeed? By turning Professor B into little more than a mouthpiece for the reader’s probable questions about Jack’s jargon, the narrative has instantly made her seem less professionally credible. Not to mention dropping her I.Q. by about fifty points.

So what’s a reviser to do? I would advise applying what I like to call the Scotty test for jargon density.

Yes, as in the original Star Trek: its various iterations have tended to do a spectacularly good job at depicting technical specialists discussing scientific matters without overloading the audience with jargon. Look how little technical-speak is in this scene all about technical problems — and keep your ears perked up, if not actually pointed, for a brilliantly simple-yet-unobtrusive line of explanation for viewer having trouble following what’s going on.