John, have you seen Jon, James, and/or Jeremy lately? What about Jessica, Jacqueline, Jessamyn, or Jasmine?

cardinal richelieu tripych

Three guesses: which particular species of word repetition am I going to tackle today?

Actually, that was a trick question — I’m going to be talking about two of the most common, gratuitous character name repetition and character naming that inadvertently gives the impression of same. Why talk about them together, you ask? Because in manuscript submissions, faux pas of a feather tend to flock together.

Why, yes, that was a mixed metaphor, now that you mention it. Would that the following not-all-that-uncommon type of fiction opening suffered from only metaphor-blending.

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Mona, I’ve had enough,” Morris said. “It’s me or Maurice!”

Mona moaned. “Darling Morris,” Mona mentioned, “whatever do you mean? Marius means nothing to me, and Mencius hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Merton, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” Morris gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard, Mona!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years, Morris,” Mona murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Marius, Mona — I am accusing you of being in love with Maurice!” Morris muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that, Mona?”

Mona looked blank. “Maurice who?”

Maddening to read, is it not? If you really want to drive yourself mad, try reading it out loud. Or simply step into Millicent the agency screener’s shoes and read a good third of the fiction openings on any given day.

Why are these phenomena so pervasive in submissions? Believe it or not (but I hope you select the former), as evident as the too-similar names would be to virtually any reader, most aspiring writers — nay, most writers, period — seem to have a hard time noticing how their name choices can distract the reader. Or so I surmise from how defensive writers often get when editors like me suggest, however gently, that perhaps their manuscripts might benefit from some name fine-tuning.

In fact, I would bet a wooden nickel of the variety that folks are always urging one not to take that a fairly hefty proportion of the otherwise excellently-humored writers reading this have already taken a bit of umbrage from the nation’s seemingly inexhaustible supply. “But character names are a creative choice!” writers everywhere protest, indignant. “And if I like a character’s name, why shouldn’t I use it a lot? It’s necessary for clarity, you know!”

Is it now? More to the point, is it always? I ask because usually, what indignant name-dropping writers have in mind as the only feasible alternative is something like this:

He strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “I’ve had enough,” he said. “It’s me or him!”

She moaned. “Darling, whatever do you mean? He means nothing to me, and that other guy hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now a third fellow, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” he gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years,” she murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit — I am accusing you of being in love with You Know Who!” He muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that?”

She looked blank. “Who?”

Yes, this pronoun-fest would be a bit difficult for your garden-variety reader to follow. As justifying examples go, however, you must admit that this one’s a bit of a straw man. I’m not saying that you should never mention your characters by name at all. No one — no one sensible, anyway — would seriously suggest that, because you’re right: naming characters can be awfully handy for identification purposes.

Nor is anyone here arguing that character names don’t fall firmly within the province of authorial discretion (but don’t be surprised if your future agent/editor/some random guy from your publisher’s marketing department harbors few thoughts on the subject). No, what we sensible editorial types have in mind was a revision more along these lines:

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Elaine, I’ve had enough,” he said. “It’s me or Armand!”

She sat bold upright on a chaise clearly designed for supporting an inclination to recline. “You mean Armand Jean, the Duc du Plessis, otherwise known as Cardinal Richelieu? Why, he’s been dead for either decades or centuries, depending upon when this scene is set!”

Morris sank to the floor, clutching his head in his hands. “Oh, God, have I been time-traveling again?”

Just kidding — that was the edit the guy from marketing wanted. (Oh, come on — you wouldn’t keep reading?) Simply making the names less similar would produce a run of text a little more like this:

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Elaine, I’ve had enough,” Morris said. “It’s me or Arnold!”

Elaine moaned. “Darling Morris,” Elaine mentioned, “whatever do you mean? Stefan means nothing to me, and Ned hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Edmund, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” Morris gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard, Elaine!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years, Morris,” Elaine murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Stefan, Elaine — I am accusing you of being in love with Arnold!” Morris muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that, Elaine?”

Elaine looked blank. “Arnold who?”

Come on, admit it — that’s easier to follow, isn’t it? As little as writers might want to hear it, anyone who has ever screened manuscripts or judged contest submissions could tell you (quite possibly whilst clutching his aching head and/or bathing his weary eyes) that the best or only test of the strength of a character’s name is not whether the writer happens to like it.

Yes, yes, I see your hackles rising, defenders of authorial rights: the writer of this turgid little exchange may well have been deeply enamored of every name in the original draft. I can guarantee, though, that the reader will find this set of monikers considerably more individually memorable — and thus more conducive to matching with each character’s personality.

While you’re retracting those hackles, however, let me ask you: this time through, did you notice how often Morris and Elaine’s names appeared for no good reason?

If you’re like most writers, the answer is no. Seriously, folks, you’d be astonished at just how often a given character’s name will pop up within a single page of text in the average manuscript submission — and even more astonished at how difficult it is for chronic name-repeaters to spot the problem in their own writing. Like the bugbear of our last few posts, the ubiquitous and, major characters’ names seem to become practically invisible to self-editing writers.

But you know better, right? In a two-person scene, is it remotely necessary to keep reminding the reader who those two people are? Yes, it’s helpful to identify speakers the first time around, but couldn’t any reader familiar with the principle of alternating dialogue be relied upon to keep track of which is speaking when thereafter?

And while we’re at it, isn’t audibly a trifle redundant here? What else are the quotation marks for, if not to alert the reader to words having been uttered aloud? Could not the writer assume sufficient intelligence in the reader to render this rendition a viable option?

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “I’ve had enough. It’s me or Arnold!”

Elaine moaned. “Darling, whatever do you mean? Stefan means nothing to me, and Ned hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Edmund, on the other hand…”

“Aha! Hoist with your own petard!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years,” she murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Stefan — I am accusing you of being in love with Arnold!” He muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that?”

She looked blank. “Arnold who?”

Oh, there go those writerly hackles again — it takes so little to raise them. Clarity and flow not enough for you?

“I guess that’s fine,” hackle-raisers mutter, kicking the nearest piece of heavy furniture, “but really didn’t see a problem with the earlier version. I miss the fun names.”

Of course you do — as a writer. As a reader, you almost certainly wouldn’t; let’s face it, the similarity of the names of Mona’s presumptive lovers could only be amusing for so long. It’s also a type of joke that our Millicent sees often enough in submissions that even if it did tickle her funny bone at first, it could hardly strike her as original. On the whole, she’s more likely to be pleased to see some naming restraint. She spends so much time trying to remember which character is which, you see.

Oh, you think that’s not difficult? Okay, try a little experiment: hie yourself to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and pull twenty books off the shelves. Stack them neatly before you and read the first page of each. Wait five minutes, then jot down as many of the main characters’ names as you can.

It’s not so easy. Especially if you happened to select books in which the characters boast similar names. Which prompts me to ask: everyone did catch the plethora of Js in today’s title, right?

I sincerely hope so: names beginning with J have for years been by far the most common in submission, especially in YA. Isn’t that right, Jeremy, Josh, and Jesse? And don’t even get me started on the many, many years during which John, Jon, Jonathan, Jack, and Johnny traipsed merrily through the pages of virtually any novel one might happen to pick up in an airport.

Just between us, Justin, a screener or contest judge doesn’t have to be on the job for very long to start longing for the odd Anthony, a wayward Terence, a charming Gregory, merely for the sake of variety. “Would it kill the average submitter,” Millicent moans into her third latté of the morning (hey, something’s got to keep her awake), “to give a passing thought to naming his protagonist Keith?”

Oh, Millie, I feel your pain — but at the risk of repeating myself (oh, John, must we go over this again?), it’s my considered opinion that on the manuscript page, writers just don’t spot the problem. Partially, that’s attributable to an unfortunate fact of submission: a good 90% of writers currently sending off manuscript pages to agencies, small publishers, and writing contests have never actually clapped eyes upon another writer’s manuscript.

So is it really any wonder that any given submitter should be unaware that by the time Millicent meets his protagonist, Joshua Jefferson, in the course of her screening day, she will have already had the pleasure of making the literary acquaintance of 13 other Joshes, Jeffs, and possibly their sons? As far as they know, her Josh is the only one in town.

Then, too, all of us are just used to knowing quite a few people with the same first name. So is Millicent. In her case, though, all the sympathy this experience sparks is to wonder why so few writers seem to have noticed that in the real world, it’s often kind of inconvenient when several people moving within the same circles share the same name.

Says the former coed who could walk into her collegiate dining hall, shout “David!” and see a third of her male classmates turn around. Someone in the admissions office — and in the nation’s maternity wards a couple of decades earlier — sure must have been awfully fond of it.

Before any of you slice-of-life aficionados leap to your feet to argue the virtues of having a manuscript’s naming strategy hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, let me hasten to add that it’s really, really common for readers to confuse characters whose names begin with the same capital letter, let alone the same first syllable. It may be fun to plan a story about adventurous twins Ken and Kendra, but on the page, it’s likely to confuse a skimmer. So are those intrepid best friends, Dustin and Justine.

Oh, you don’t believe me, friends of Morris, Maurice, and Marius? Okay, let’s take a peek at some of these naming faux pas in their native environment, the manuscript page. If you’re having trouble reading such small type so fast, I recommend holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

For those of you who would like to replicate Millicent’s experience within the comfort of home, I invite you to try to read your way all the way down the page in less than 30 seconds. On your marks, get set — squint!

Name rep example

How did you do? Award yourself a gold star if you spotted all 9 iterations of John in the body of the text — and another if you caught the author’s name in the header. (No, that wouldn’t count as repetition in the text, now that you mention it, but to a repetition-weary Millicent at the end of a long day, it might contribute subconsciously to her sense of being bombarded by Johns. She’s only human, you know.)

So far, so good. But let me ask you: did the 6 Paulines bug you at all? Or did they simply fade into the woodwork, because your brain automatically accepted them as necessary to the text?

Again, for most writers, the answer would be no — as long as this page had fluttered gracefully out of their own manuscripts. Admittedly, though, not all of them would have instantly leapt to their feet, crying, “My heavens, Mr. or Ms. Johns, have you never met a pronoun you’ve liked?”

That’s quite a bit more charitable than what a nit-picky reader would have shouted — and since that demographic includes practically everyone who has ever read for a living, including agents, editors, and contest judges, you might want to worry about that. Millicent, I assure you, would have found the level of name-repetition here eye-distracting.

How eye-distracting, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, let me put it kindly: how distracted from your fine writing would you find it acceptable for her to be? Wouldn’t you rather she focused upon the many excellencies of your style than all of those Js and Ps?

News flash: proper nouns are as susceptible to over-use in writing as any other kind of words. Although aspiring writers’ eyes often glide over character and place names during revision, thinking of them as special cases, to professional eyes, there is no such thing as a word exempt from being counted as repetitive if it pops up too often on the page.

In fact, proper noun repetition is actually more likely to annoy your friendly neighborhood Millicent than repetition of other nouns. (Did you catch how frequently fog appeared in that last example, by the way?) Too-frequent repetition of the character and place names makes the average editor rend her garments and the garden-variety agent moan.

If it’s any consolation, they’ve been rending and moaning for years; proper nouns have been asserting and re-asserting themselves on the manuscript page for a couple of decades now. Pros used to attribute this problem to itsy-bitsy computer screens.

Oh, did that reference perplex you, children? Ask your parents about the early Macs’ postcard-sized screens. They weren’t even tall enough to give a life-sized reflection of an adult face. If the user made the text large enough to read, the screen would only hold a dozen or so lines.

But as technology has progressed, the screens on even inexpensive computers have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Even on a tablet, you can usually view of half a page, at least. My extra-spiffy editor’s monitor can display two full-sized manuscript pages side by side. I could serve a Thanksgiving dinner for eight upon it, if I so chose.

I never have so chosen, in case you were curious. But it’s nice to have the option.

Given how much easier it is to see words on a screen now than in days of yore, Millicent is left at a loss to explain why writers so seldom have a clear idea of how distracting name repetition can be on a page. Could it possibly be as simple as writers tending to christen their major characters with their favorite names (I’m looking at you, John), ones they like so much that they simply cannot see the darn things crop up often enough?

Good guess, Millie, but I don’t think that’s all that’s going on. I suspect it has to do with how differently the eye reads text on a backlit screen: it definitely encourages skimming, if not great big leaps down the page. But for the most part, I believe it has to do with how infrequently writers read their own work in hard copy.

Hear that Gregorian-like chanting floating through the ether? That’s every writer for whom I’ve ever edited so much as a paragraph automatically murmuring, “Before submission, I must read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.” I repeat this advice so often that writers who read this blog religiously have been heard to mutter this inspiring little axiom unconsciously their sleep, under their breath during important meetings, on their deathbeds…

So my prescription for learning to head this Millicent-irritant off at the pass will not, I suspect, come as a complete surprise: the best way to catch any visual pattern on the printed page is, you guessed it, to print out the page in question and read it. As I think you will soon discover, proper nouns are unusually gifted at flagging down a reader’s attention.

Since I don’t see too many of you stampeding in the direction of your manuscripts to verify this in your own writing, here’s another example. Again, you’ll get the most out of this exercise if you read it at top speed.

name rep 3

Did you notice how your eye longed to leap from one T to the next, even if it meant skipping some text? That’s only natural. Come a little closer, and I let you in on a closely-held professional readers’ secret: the skimming eye is automatically attracted to capital letters.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, not-especially-literate people tend to Capitalize Words for Emphasis. When they’re not placing words that no one has ever said aloud inside quotation marks, that is — another widespread professional readers’ pet peeve. It’s virtually always grammatically incorrect to Use Punctuation to Attract Unwarranted Eyeballing, just as it’s seldom literarily acceptable to “surround” words like “this,” presumably to demonstrate to the “reader” that were these words being “spoken aloud,” someone might emphasize them, but that doesn’t seem to stop devotees of either practice.

To be fair, using punctuation as a substitute for writing that calls attention to itself does indeed work. Just be aware that among print-oriented people, that attention will probably not be positive.

Proper nouns, on the other hand, claim capitalization as a natural right. Completely legitimately, they jump off the page at the reader — which can be a good thing, if a manuscript is crammed to the gills with action, unnamed characters, and other literary titivations that do not involve the named characters. That way, reader’s eye will be drawn to the major players when they show up. Problem solved, right?

In most manuscripts, no. It’s pretty common for narratives to remind readers unnecessarily often of even the protagonist’s name. And since most novels and pretty much all memoirs deal with their respective protagonists on virtually every page, that can result in a whole lot of capital letters competing for Millicent’s attention.

Are you satisfied with that outcome, John? John? If you don’t start paying attention, I’ll have to page Pauline.

Millicent’s constantly confronted by scenes constructed by authors evidently terrified that some reader will forget who is speaking. Or so she must conclude by the frequency with which characters address one another by name — much more often than would be bearable in real life. And it’s not just the characters that seem to fall prey to this fear: narratives often compulsively name and rename everyone in sight. Heck, while we’re at it, why not remind the reader of how those characters are interrelated?

“But that’s not fair, Mom!” Cecile wailed.

Her mother stroked her bent head. “Now, Cece, you knew running for Congress was going to be hard.”

The daughter batted the maternal hand away. “It’s no use, Mom. I simply cannot kill another baby. My pucker is broken.”

Call me zany, but I cling to the hope that when one character refers to another as Mom, a conscientious reader will be able to figure out that the latter is the former’s mother. Similarly, once that reader has been made aware that the latter gave birth to the former, I’m pretty confident that the conclusion that Cecile is the daughter will not be an especially surprising revelation.

Besides, we’re not dealing with legions of characters here. Unless the one of the characters happens to have multiple personalities, most readers will leap to the radical conclusion that the names of the conversants will not alter substantially within the course of a few pages of dialogue. So why keep labeling the participants in a scene where there’s little probability of confusing the reader?

A fine question — and the reason professional editors so frequently cut tag lines (he said, she said), rather than having the narrative identify every speaker every time s/he opens his or her pretty mouth. Once the narrative has established the speakers in two-person dialogue (far and away the most common variety, by the way), a reasonably intelligent reader is more than capable of remembering what both of those people are called by their kith and kin.

So if your text seems to have broken out in capital letters, look first at the dialogue, both inside the quotation marks and without. In dialogue where the use of tag lines has not been minimized, proper names can pop up so frequently that it’s like a drumbeat in the reader’s ear.

And it’s my job to get you to hear it as you read. I can keep producing these examples all day, people.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why not?” April asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, April. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” April said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, April. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we tarred and feathered our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

April sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Yes, speakers in the real world do call one another by name this much sometimes, but like so much of real-life dialogue, that level of repetition would be snore-inducing, if not downright hypnotic, on the page. Especially when name-bearing tag lines are featured in the text, even dialogue between just a couple of characters can convey the sense of a very crowded room.

Does that combination of frantic jumping and wild arm-waving mean that some of you would like to add something here? “But Anne,” some perennial reader-distrusters point out, “wasn’t that last example rather unwise? I mean, if you took your vicious red pen to that exchange, slashing all of the proper nouns but the first set required to set up the alternating dialogue rhythm, you’d end up in precisely the dilemma we saw at the top of this post, the one you dismissed as a straw man: a scene in which the characters share a pronoun. Get out of that one, smarty-pants!”

In the first place, I seldom edit with red pens: due to early school training, virtually any adult will perceive red-inked marginalia as more critical than commentary scrawled in another color. (And you might be shocked at how excited some adult writers become when they learn that if a paragraph is especially good, I have been known to slap a gold star next to it. Book-length revisions have been fueled by the hope of gold stars.) And in the second place, with a little finesse, depicting an exchange between pronoun-sharers need not be at all confusing.

We’re writers, after all: why should the only possible word choice to replace a proper noun be a pronoun? Use your creativity, as well as your scissors. And don’t be afraid to rearrange a little text.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why not?”

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it is. How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one. It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we tarred and feathered our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

She edged out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

We weren’t exactly flung headlong into a morass of confusion there, were we?

“But Anne,” pronoun-eschewers protest, and who could blame them? “You keep giving us dialogue examples. I find myself going out of my way to eschew pronouns in narrative paragraphs as well. Is there then no hope of quelling my deep and abiding fear of being misunderstood when I’m describing a couple of similarly-gendered characters?”

Never fear — we already have a very capable quelling device in our tool kit. And look, here’s a dandy excerpt to which we can apply it, fresh from the pen of someone terrified that two shes in a scene is one lady too many.

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Tanya did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Tanya. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen.

Silently, Tanya retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. Tanya inclined her head toward the wall clock: ten minutes past closing time.

Eve looked up at Tanya with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. Haughtily, Eve tapped her fountain pen on each of the seven empty Perrier bottles before her. How dare Tanya treat her like a drunk?

At this juncture, dare I hope that you found this at least a bit annoying to read? Come on, admit it — if I had opened the post with this example, it would have struck you as better prose, right? Which is why, I can reveal at long last, I’ve been positively burying you in examples today: until you’ve had to read page after page of name-heavy prose, it can seems a trifle counter-intuitive that reusing a single word — any single word — within two consecutive lines might be irritating to a reader.

Yes, even if the word in question is not a proper noun. The capitalization of a name merely makes it stand out more, bellowing at Millicent, “Look at me! Repetition here! Wouldn’t want to miss it, would you?”

So what, the fearful ask, are we to do about it? Clearly, we can’t just replace all of the proper nouns with she; the narrative might conceivably become confusing. (If you retain any linger doubts about how confusing a narrative can be when no proper names are used at all, get a 4-year-old to tell you the plot of a movie he’s just seen.) And clearly, going after tag lines and characters naming one another wouldn’t be helpful in a scene containing neither.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t perform a little judicious proper noun removal surgery. We’ll just have to exercise a little more creativity. Here’s the same scene again, streamlined to minimize the perceived necessity of naming the players.

She slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when no one came running, she filched a straw from the table next to her — the guy tapping away on his computer never even noticed — and made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of life. For good measure, she upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen.

Silently, Tanya snatched the glass in mid-flight. She inclined her head toward the wall clock: ten minutes past closing time.

Eve looked up at her with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses. God, she hated being treated like a drunk. Haughtily, she tapped her fountain pen on each of the seven empty Perrier bottles before her

Anybody especially confused? I thought not.

Before any of you proper noun-huggers out there start grumbling about the care required to tell when a pronoun is appropriate and when a proper noun, let me hasten to point out that this was not a very time-consuming revision. All it required to alert the reader to which she was which was a clear narrative line, a well-presented situation — and a willingness to name names when necessary.

That, and an awareness that repeating names even as far apart as three or four lines just doesn’t look good on a printed page; it can draw the eye away from an orderly, line-by-line reading, and therefore detrimental to the reading experience. A proper noun repeated more than once per sentence, or within a single line of text, almost always seems just a trifle odd to a reader — and more than a little annoying to Millicent.

Feel as though you will be excising proper nouns in your sleep? Excellent; my work here is done. Night-night, John-John, and keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part VII: I’d describe the forest for you, but I’m too busy talking about Tree #147. And oh, look at Tree #412!

Can you stand to see one more post on structural repetition, campers, before we move on to the promised two-week overview of how to prepare a literary contest entry? I honestly shan’t blame you if the answer is no: many writers, even those deeply devoted to discussion of craft in general, become a trifle uncomfortable when it becomes time to sit down with their own manuscripts, whip out the highlighter pens, and try to identify recurrent patterns in their own writing. Hits a trifle close to the knuckle, I suspect: as loath as any of us may be to admit it, the writing gaffes that make our old pall and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, go pale and reach for the pile of photocopied form-letter rejections that’s never far from her elbow, are less often daring word experiments too radical for the current literary marketplace than simple reader-irritants like using and too often.

Sad but true, I’m afraid — and even I, inveterate in-depth technical discussion-monger that you know me to be, can readily admit that it’s a whole lot more fun to sit around and complain about recent trends in literature than to put our collective heads together for a confab on common forms of redundancy in submission. I’m not averse to a good gossip on the former; it’s merely been my experience that devoting some serious attention to the latter is considerably more useful to most good writers at submission or contest entry time.

I’m a reasonable person, however: all work and no play makes Jack a boy that types all work and no play on every page of a manuscript in a snow-bound hotel, right? So before I launch into that practical discussion that you knew would be coming, let’s have a little fun, shall we?

Not too long ago, an author who had established her literary credentials some decades ago — let’s call her Martha, because it’s nothing like her name — came over to my house for tea and a vigorous discussion of the ever-changing literary market. I love chatting with well-read, highly opinionated people on this particular subject, and Martha did not disappoint. She is, to put it mildly, no fan of what she calls “the recent vampire/werewolf/zombie craze,” nor does she entirely approve of this golden age of YA.

“I keep meeting wonderful writers,” she says, “who have just given up on writing for adults. Or about anyone with a pulse.”

I do, too, but actually, I find this view a trifle outdated: when I walk into, say, a Barnes & Noble today, what strikes me is not the size of the YA section (I think the expansion of this particular book category has yielded some great things) or how few novel protagonists boast pulses (for me, a little contact with the undead goes a long way), but what a high percentage of the books currently available for sale were written by those who no longer have pulses at all. I’m as fond of Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as the next person, but do they really need to take up half the recommended reading table AND an entire shelf of the sale books? Might an enterprising publisher not shell out for some display space for a few more living authors?

And while we’re at it, is there a particular reason that so many bookstores stock only FRANKENSTEIN, but not any of Shelley’s other novels? Again, I’m as fond of, etc., etc., but the lady was prolific. For my money, VALPURGA, her fictional account of the Inquisition, dances circles around FRANKENSTEIN.

But perhaps that’s merely another manifestation of my preference for living protagonists, rather than revivified ones. And for heaven’s sake, walking corpses, stick to ruling the night — it annoys me when vampires traipse around in daylight, sparkling.

Compared to Martha, however, I’m a positive paranormal-hugger. As so often happens, in this particular conversation, I ended up defending publishing trends I do not necessarily applaud, simply because she seemed so very determined to ring the death knell for the industry — because, she said, “All publishers think about now is cash.”

That’s a very popular complaint amongst those who landed their agents back when it was considered a trifle gauche for writers to admit that they wanted to make a living at it. I have to say, though, that my kith and kin have been involved in producing books since the 1920s, and I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of a time when publishing was purely a charitable enterprise.

It is true that both agents and publishers routinely used to nurse promising authors through half a dozen books, despite anemic sales, in the hope that someday, he (and it was almost always he) would gain a larger audience. Now, if a new author’s book does not sell well, she (and it often is she these days) and her agent may well have trouble convincing even an editor absolutely besotted with her prose stylings to take a chance with her next.

Hey, the bookstore needs that shelf space for its fifth copy of FRANKENSTEIN.

To be fair, though, readers also have quite different expectations than they did when Shelley’s debut novel hit the shelves — or, for that matter, when Martha’s did. Pacing is considerably faster these days, particularly in the U.S. fiction market; the passive voice so popular prior to World War II is considered stylistically rather weak. In deference to that type of browser who habitually grabs books off the shelves and reads page 1 before purchasing — or takes up the LOOK INSIDE challenge on Amazon — action tends to appear much earlier in plots than in years past.

Yes, even in literary fiction. If you don’t believe me, do some comparative reading of what was considered a cutting-edge literary novel in 1934 and what is coming out today. Or 1954. Or even 1984.

If it’s any consolation, Martha didn’t want to believe it, either. Like most writers, she would prefer to believe that good writing is good writing, period.

But that’s not precisely true. Because I am, as you may have noticed, deeply devoted to concrete examples, I reached over to my fiction bookshelves for an example of good, solid literary writing that might have trouble getting published, or even landing an agent, today. I didn’t have to run my fingertips past more than half a dozen spines before I found a great page 1: William Styron’s breakthrough 1951 novel, LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS.

For decades, Styron was considered a writer’s writer: not only was he a grand storyteller, but his prose stylings made other writers drool with envy. In fact, I would urge all of you to read this lyrical, moving book in its entirety (after you polish off VALPURGA, perhaps). For our purposes, though, I’m going to show you only what I read to Martha. Try to absorb it on two levels: for the quality of the writing — and Millicent might respond to it if it landed on her desk as a submission from an unknown writer today. To aid in that imaginative feat, I’ll even show it to you as she would see it.

“Wow, I had forgotten what a wonderful writer he was,” Martha said. “Why did you stop there?”

“Because,” I said, bracing myself for the inevitable outcry of the literary-minded, “an agency screener wouldn’t have read any farther.”

Any guesses why? How about that paragraph-long, 118-word opening sentence? Or the two subordinate clauses beginning with which and the one with where? Or the piling-up of prepositions? Or the abrupt shift from the third person to the second on line 6?

None of this, of course, mars the inherent loveliness of the writing; hearing it read out loud, Martha was quite right to be impressed. As seen on the submission page, though, how likely to you think Millicent is to exclaim, as my guest did, “Wow, this is a wonderful writer,” rather than “Wow, that’s quite a run-on sentence?”

And having emitted the second, how likely is she not to follow it with, “Next!”

Darned right, that would be a pity: this is a beautifully-written, incisive novel. But Millicent is in fact justified in believing that a browser picking up this page 1 is likely to set the book back on the shelf again halfway through that gargantuan opening sentence.

What would make her so sure of that? Because the difference between the literary market of 1951 and the literary market of 2012 lies not merely in how quickly professional readers make up their minds about submissions, but also in non-professional readers’ expectations for what constitutes good writing.

I know, I know. After I made that argument to Martha, she kept feeling my head to see if I had developed a fever.

Why might a browser not be able to see past the length of that opening sentence? Memory, partially: the browser’s high school English teacher would have marked her down for producing a run-on of this magnitude. Besides, subordinate clauses are simply not as highly regarded as they used to be. Back in the day, literature was rife with these; now, most Millicents are trained to consider them, well, a bit awkward.

In fact, chances are very good that she was specifically trained to zero in on relative pronouns like which and subordinate conjunctions like where with the intent of ferreting out run-ons. That, I suspect, is going to come as surprise to those of you who love 19th-century novels.

We could quibble for hours about whether literary tastes have changed for better or worse. Since they have undoubtedly changed, though, it’s vital for aspiring writers who prefer more old-fashioned structures to realize that what was hailed by critics in 1951 might well give Millicent pause on page 1 today.

Or even give her an excuse to stop reading. But that does not necessarily mean that if the late lamented Mssr. Styron were trying to break into the literary fiction market today, I would advise him to lose all of the subordinate clauses.

Oh, I would certainly recommend some tinkering. That semicolon, for instance, could be replaced by a period at no great loss to the passage. Because the writing is so pretty here, however, I would be reluctant to impose the necessary cuts and changes on this passage, even for the purposes of an instructive example. As an editor, all I can justifiably do is point out the problems; it’s the writer’s job to rewrite.

That, too, often comes as a surprise to those harboring old-fashioned views of publishing. I meet aspiring writers all the time who greet any and all revision suggestions with an airy and dismissive, “Oh, I’m sure the acquiring editor/the agent of my dreams/some luckless proofreader will take care of that. All that matters at the submission stage is the quality of the writing.”

To a professional reader, that sentiment is, I’m afraid, nonsensical. Sentence-level difficulties are not external to the writing; they’re integral parts of it.

How a writer revises — or doesn’t — is as important to the ultimate quality of the book as the initial composition. Contrary to popular belief, though, there is no such thing as a single best way to revise a narrative, any more than there is a single best way to tell a story.

That being the case, how could an editor justifiably perform all necessary revisions to a manuscript? Or an agent, for that matter? And why wouldn’t a savvy writer prefer to make those changes herself, so she can control the voice?

Part of the charm of individual authorial voice is that it is, in fact, individual — but you’d never glean that from how writers (and writing teachers) tend to talk about revision. All too often, we speak amongst ourselves as though the revision process involves no more than either (a) identifying and removing all of the objectively-observable mistakes in a manuscript, or (b) changing our minds about some specific plot point or matter of characterization, then implementing it throughout the manuscript.

These are two perfectly reasonable self-editing goals, of course, but they are not the only conceivable ones. When dealing with what I call, with apologies to Madame Shelley, a Frankenstein manuscript — a text that, while perhaps prettily written, has not yet been revised to the level of professional polish — a conscientious self-editor might well perform a read-through for voice consistency, another for grammatical problems, a third for logic leaps, a fourth because the protagonist’s husband is a plumber in Chs. 1 -8 and 15, but the member of Congress representing Washington’s 7th District in Chs. 9-14 and 16-22…

And so forth. Revision can come in many, many flavors, variable by specificity, level of focus, the type of feedback to which the writer is responding, and even the point in publication history at which the manuscript is being revised.

Does that all sound dandy in theory, but perplexing in practice? Don’t worry; I am empress of the concrete example, remember? To help you gain a solid sense of how diverse different of levels of revision can be, I’m going to treat you to a page from one of my favorite fluffy novels of yore, Noël Coward’s POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE, a lighthearted romp set in a tropical British colony on the eve of a royal visit.

I chose this piece not merely because it retains a surprisingly high level of Frankenstein manuscript characteristics for a work by a well-established author (possibly because it was Coward’s only published novel), or even because it deserves another generation of readers. (As it does; his comic timing is unparalleled.) I think it’s an interesting study in how literary conventions change: even at the time of its release in 1960, some critics considered this novel a bit outdated. Coward’s heyday had been several decades before, they argued, so the type of sex comedy that used to shock in the 1920s was a bit passé, and wasn’t it a bit late in the literary day to steer so firmly away from sociopolitical commentary?

Now, sociopolitical commentary has largely fallen out of style, at least in first novels, and sex, as Coward himself was fond of observing, seems to be here to stay. Here is a page from the end of the book, where our narrator, a harried British matron living on a South Sea island, finds herself entertaining Droopy, the husband of her best friend Bunny’s would-be mistress.

Yeah, I know: try pitching that at a writers’ conference today. To our muttons:

P&C sample

Amusing, certainly, but a bit Frankensteinish on the page is it not? At first glance, how would you suggest Noël revise it? Would your revision goals be different if this were page 5, rather than page 272?

Before you give your final answers, here’s that page again, after it has been subjected to just the kind of repetition-spotting mark-up I’ve been asking you to perform of late. Sorry about the dark image; I honestly didn’t take the photograph in a dank basement, but it certainly looks that way here. (If you’re having trouble reading the specifics, try pressing COMMAND and the + key simultaneously to enlarge it.)

P&C edit 1

Replete with structural redundancy, is it not? By today’s publication standards, as Millicent would no doubt be overjoyed to tell you, it would deserve instant rejection on that basis alone. And that’s not even taking into account how under-commaed the text is.

But would you agree? Or is the very repetition an inherent part of this comic voice?

Arguments could be made in both directions, you know. After all, this narrative voice is not all too far from the kind of writing we all see every day online, or even in the chattier varieties of journalism. We can all see why some writers would favor this kind of voice, right? Read out loud, this kind of first-person narration can sound very natural, akin to actual speech.

That’s not to say, though, that Millicent would not cringe at the very sight of it in a novel submission. And why? Feel free to chant it with me: the level of repetition that works in everyday speech is often hard to take on the printed page. Normal chit-chat is God-awfully repetitious.

As you noticed yourself in the example above, I suspect. Now that you see all of those ands and other word repetition marked on the page, you must admit that they are mighty distracting to the eye. By repeating the same sentence structures over and over, our buddy Noël is practically begging Millicent to skip lines while skimming.

Nor is all of the redundancy here literal; there’s a certain amount of conceptual repetition as well. Take note of all of those visually-based verbs: not only do people look a great deal (as they do in a good 95% of fiction submissions that tumble onto Millie’s desk, incidentally), but our heroine also envisages AND tries to imagine how she might appear in his eyes.

And did you catch the over-use of subordinate clauses, all of those whiches in yellow? While a tolerant Millie might be inclined to glide past one every ten or fifteen pages, even a screener noted for her restraint would begin to get restless with a quarter as many as appear on that single page above.

That almost certainly would not have been Millicent’s forebears’ primary objection in 1960, though, right? The literary gatekeepers would have concentrated on quite different parts of this page — the grammatically-necessary missing commas, for instance, and the back-to-back prepositions.

Longing to see how Millicent’s grandmother would have commented on this page? Well, you’re in luck; I just happen to have her feedback handy.

P&Eedit2

Let’s linger a moment in order to consider Grandma M’s quibbles. First, as she points out so politely in red at the top of the page, it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph. In dialogue, a single-line paragraph is acceptable, but in standard narrative prose, it is technically incorrect.

Was that gigantic clunk I just heard the sound of jaws belonging to anyone who has picked up a newspaper or magazine within the last decade hitting the floor?

In theory, Grandma M is quite right on this point — and more of her present-day descendants would side with her than you might suppose. Millie’s grandmother did not bring her up to set grammar at naught lightly, after all. But does that necessarily mean it would be a good idea for you to sit down today and excise every single-sentence narrative paragraph in your manuscript?

Perhaps not: the convention of occasionally inserting a single-line paragraph for emphasis has become quite accepted in nonfiction. The practice has crept deeply enough into most stripes of genre fiction that it probably would not raise Millicent’s eyebrows much. But how can you tell if the convention is safe to use in your submission?

As always, the best way of assessing the acceptability of any non-standard sentence structure in a particular book category is to become conversant with what’s been published in that category within the last few years. Not just what the leading lights of the field have been writing lately, mind you; what an established author can get away with doing to a sentence is not always acceptable in a submission by someone trying to break into the field.

Pay attention to what kinds of sentences first-time authors of your kind of book are writing these days, and you needn’t fear going too far afield. As a general rule, even first-time novelists can usually get the occasional use of the single-sentence paragraph device past Millicent — provided that the content of the sentence in question is sufficiently startling to justify standing alone. As in:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

That is, until I tripped over the werewolf lying prone across my doorstep.

Didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? The paragraph break emphasizes the jaggedness of the narrative leap — and, perhaps equally important from a submission perspective, renders the plot twist easier for a skimming eye to catch.

Grandma M would growl at this construction (my, Granny, what big teeth you have!), and rightly so. Why? Well, it violates the two-sentences-or-more rule, for starters. In the second place, this problem could have been avoided entirely by eschewing the RETURN key. In a slower world, one where readers lived sufficiently leisurely lives that they might be safely relied upon to glance at every sentence on a page, all of this information could have fit perfectly happily into a single paragraph. Like so:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind. That is, until I tripped over the werewolf lying prone across my doorstep.

I bring this up not only to appease Grandma M’s restless spirit, currently haunting an agency or publishing house somewhere in Manhattan, but so that those of you addicted to single-line paragraphs will know what to do with hanging sentences: tuck ‘em back into the paragraph from whence they came. Ruthlessly.

At least a few of them. Please?

Really, it’s in your submission’s best interest to use the single-line paragraph trick infrequently, reserving it for those times when it will have the most effect. That will at least give your narrative the advantage of novelty.

How so? Well, amongst aspiring writers who favor this structure, moderation is practically unheard-of. Many, if not most, novelists and memoirists who favor this device do not use the convention sparingly, nor do they reserve its use for divulging information that might legitimately come as a surprise to a reasonably intelligent reader.

As a result, Millie tends to tense up a bit at the very sight of a single-sentence paragraph — yes, even ones that are dramatically justifiable. Hard to blame her, really, considering how mundane some of the revelations she sees in submissions turn out to be. A fairly typical example:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

Beside the sidewalk, a daffodil bloomed.

Not exactly a stop-the-presses moment, is it?

Often, too, aspiring writers will use a single-line paragraph to highlight a punch line. This can work rather well, if the device does not crop up very often in the text — any literary trick will lose its efficacy if it’s over-used — AND if the joke is genuinely funny.

Much of the time in manuscripts, alas, it isn’t. At least not hilarious enough to risk enraging Grandma M’s spirit by stopping the narrative short to highlight the quip. See for yourself:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

My Algebra II teacher would have fallen over dead with astonishment.

Gentle irony does not often a guffaw make, after all. And think about it: if the reader must be notified by a grammatically-questionable paragraph break that a particular line is meant to be funny, doesn’t that very choice indicate a certain authorial doubt that the reader will catch the joke? Or that it’s funny in the first place?

Grandma M’s other big objection to Noël’s page 272 — and this pet peeve, too, is likely to have been passed down the generations along with the porcelain teacups and the first edition of LEAVES OF GRASS — would be to, you guessed it, the many, many run-on sentences. The run-ons here, however, are not the result of the driving rhythmic pattern or descriptive complexity that made ol’ William go overboard on his opening; clearly, Noël was just trying to sound chatty.

Like so many aspiring novelists, our Noël favored an anecdotal-style narrative voice, one that echoes the consecutiveness of everyday speech. That can work beautifully in dialogue, where part of the point is for the words captured within the quotation marks to sound like something an actual human being might really say, but in narration, this type of sentence structure gets old fast.

Why might that be, dear readers? Sing along with me now: structural repetition reads as redundant. Varying the narrative’s sentence structure will render it easier, not to mention more pleasant, to read.

Are some of you former jaw-droppers waving your arms frantically, trying to get my attention? “Okay, Anne,” these sore-jawed folk point out, “I get it: Millicents have disliked textual repetition for decades now. No need to exhume Grandma M’s grandmother to hammer home that point; there are enough zombies lurching around the literary world at this juncture. But I’d had the distinct impression that Millie was a greater stickler for bigger-picture problems than her forebears. Don’t I have more important things to worry about than grammatical perfection when I’m getting ready to slide my manuscript under her nose?”

Well, grammatical perfection is always an asset in a submission or contest entry, ex-jaw-droppers. A completely clean manuscript is not at all an unreasonable goal for your pre-submission text scan.

You are right, however, that present-day Millicents do tend to be weighing a great many more factors than their grandmothers did when deciding whether the manuscript in front of them has publication potential. But not all of those factors involve large-scale questions of marketability and audience-appropriateness; Millicent is also charged with going over the writing with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. Using, of course, today’s standards as a guide.

What kinds of manuscript problems might catch on her comb that Grandma M’s would have missed, you ask with fear and trembling? See for yourself — here’s Millie’s response on the page we’ve been examining:

P&E edit 3

I sincerely hope that your first thought upon seeing her much, much higher expectations was not to wish that you’d had the foresight to try to land an agent back in 1960, rather than now. (Although I would not blame you at all if you kicked yourself for not launching your work back in the 1980s, when the home computer was available but not yet ubiquitous, astronomically increasing the number of both queries and submissions Millicent would see in a given week.) True, the competition to land an agent is substantially fiercer now, but it’s also true that a much, much broader range of voices are getting published than in Grandma M’s time.

Back then, if you weren’t a straight, white man from a solid upper-middle class home, Granny expected you at least to have the courtesy to write like one. (Styron’s father worked in a shipyard, so he had to fudge it a little; so did his contemporary Gore Vidal, for other reasons.) If you did happen to be a SWMFaSUMCH, you were, of course, perfectly welcome to try to imagine what it was like not to be one, although on the whole, your work would probably be more happily received if you stuck to writing what you knew. And if there was a typo in your manuscript, well, next time, don’t have your wife type it for you.

You think I’m making that last part up, don’t you? That’s a quote, something an agent told a rather well-known author of my acquaintance in the mid-1960s. The writer kept quiet about the fact that he was unmarried at the time and composed his books on a typewriter. “Yes,” he said, shaking his head with what he hoped was credible Old Boys’ Network condescension. “The little woman does occasionally miss the right key.”

It’s not enough to recognize that literary standards — and thus professional expectations for self-editing — have changed radically over time. It’s not even sufficient to accept, although I hope it’s occurred to you, that what constituted good writing in your favorite book from 1937 — or 1951, or 1960 — might not be able to make it past Millicent today. If you’re going to use authors from the past as your role models — a practice both Grandma M and your humble correspondent would encourage — you owe it to your career as a writer also to familiarize yourself with current releases in your book category.

Just for today, what I would like you to take away from these examples is that each of the editorial viewpoints would prompt quite different revisions — and in some instances, mutually contradictory ones. This is one reason the pros tend not to consider the revision process definitively ended until a book is published and sitting on a shelf: since reading can take place on many levels, so can revision.

Don’t believe me? Okay, clap on your reading glasses and peruse the three widely disparate results conscientious reviser Noël might have produced in response to each of the marked-up pages above. For the first, the one that merely noted the structural, word, and concept repetition, the changes might be as simple as this:

P&C basic edit

“Hey, Anne!” the sharper-eyed among you burble excitedly. “Despite the fact that Noël has added a couple of paragraph breaks, presumably to make it easier for the reader to differentiate between speech and thought, the text ends up being shorter. He snuck another line of text at the bottom of the page!”

Well-caught, eagle-eyed burblers. A thoughtfully-executed revision to minimize structural redundancy can often both clarify meaning and lop off extraneous text.

I hope you also noticed that while that very specifically-focused revision was quite helpful to the manuscript, it didn’t take care of some of the grammatical gaffes — or, indeed, most of the other problems that would have troubled Grandma M. Let’s take a peek at what our Noël might have done to page 272 after that august lady had applied her red pen to it. (Hint: you might want to take a magnifying glass to the punctuation.)

P&C revision 2

Quite different from the first revision, is it not? This time around, the punctuation’s impeccable, but the narration retains some of the redundancy that a modern-day Millicent might deplore.

Millie might also roll her eyes at her grandmother’s winking at instances of the passive voice and the retention of unnecessary tag lines. Indeed, for Noël to revise this page to her specifications, he’s going to have to invest quite a bit more time. Shall we see how he fared?

P&C final edit

Remember, not every close-up examination of a single tree will result in a pruning plan that will yield the same forest. A savvy self-editor will bear that in mind, rather than expecting that any single pass at revision, however sensible, will result in a manuscript that will please every conceivable reader, anytime, anywhere.

By familiarizing yourself with the current norms in your chosen book category, you can maximize the probability that your self-editing eye will coincide with Millicent’s expectations. 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!

And how could I round off a series on Millicent’s pet peeves (part XXX) or one on Structural Repetition (part VII) without bringing up this little number?


Before I launch into today’s magnum opus, allow me to present you with a challenge: what do all of the men above have in common? Other than being, you know, men?

While you are pondering the possibilities, this seems like a good time to mention that beginning next week, I shall begin my much-anticipated Pitchingpalooza series. Because getting through that before my local pitch-centric writers’ conference will require daily posting — in the finest ‘palooza tradition — I will be warming up by tackling a few more pet peeves over the weekend. That will give you time, if you are so inclined, to leave any pitch-related questions, concerns, or special requests in the comments section of this post. The more I know about what you hope and fear in a verbal pitch, the better I can gear Pitchingpalooza to be truly helpful.

Back to today’s business. Have you given up on the brain-teaser above?

Here’s a hint: these are pictures (from left to right and top to bottom) of Man in Black Johnny Cash, John Bunyan (author of a book those of you who grew up loving LITTLE WOMEN may know indirectly, PILGRIM’S PROGRESS), a post-Beatle John Lennon, President John Quincy Adams (in a beefcake portrait, obviously painted prior to his mutton-chops phase), the Great Profile himself, John Barrymore, and John Smythe Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-Cola. Sensing a pattern here?

I should hope so, now that you’ve been sharpening your eye throughout this series on spotting Millicent the agency screener’s pet peeves. But are you as talented at spotting the problem in its native environment?

name repetition example

How did you do? Award yourself a gold star if you spotted all 9 iterations of John in the body of the text — and another if you caught it in the header. (No, that wouldn’t count as repetition in the text, now that you mention it, but to a redundancy-weary Millicent at the end of a long day of screening manuscript submissions, it might contribute subconsciously to her sense of being bombarded by Johns. She’s only human, you know.)

But let me ask you: did the 5 Paulines bug you at all? Or did they simply fade into the woodwork, because your brain automatically accepted them as necessary to the text?

If you’re like 99.99% of the reading public, the repetition of Pauline’s name probably didn’t strike you as at all unusual, but to that other .01% — a demographic that includes practically everyone who has ever read for a living, including agents, editors, and contest judges — it might well have been distracting. Amongst Millicents, submissions (and first drafts in general) are positively notorious for this type of redundancy.

As is so often the case with Millie’s pet peeves, name repetition drives her nuts precisely because it so common — and it’s so common because most aspiring writers don’t notice it in their own work at all. You’d be astonished at just how often a given character’s name will pop up within a single page of text in the average manuscript submission. Like the bugbear of our last few posts, the ubiquitous and, major characters’ names seem to become practically invisible to self-editing writers.

While I’m on the subject of ways to drive Millicent to madness without even trying, let’s talk about a pet peeve shared by practically all of us who read for a living, at least in the U.S.: the radical overuse of the character name John.

Although John is only the second most popular male name in the United States (James has been #1 for a while now), writers can’t get enough of our pal John. Next to him, poor old Jim, as well as lonely old Robert (#3), bereft Michael (#4), and left-at-loose-ends William (#5) lead lives undocumented by the creative pen. As a group, we also have a practically unbounded affection for Jon and Jack. And don’t even get me started on how many Johnnies there are running around YA landscapes, taunting our heroines with their bad-boy ways.

On some days, Millicent’s desk so overfloweth with J-men that he can seem to be stalking her from manuscript to manuscript. “Leave me alone!” she moans, and who can blame her? “And bring me a character named Leopold!”

Of course, even as unusual a name choice as Leopold could become annoying if it appears too often on a single page — but let’s face it, Leo is infinitely less likely to have been popping out at Millie all day as John. L is also not nearly as often the first letter of a proper noun as J, and thus less susceptible to confusing a skimming eye.

Oh, you weren’t aware that many a reader-in-haste would read no farther into a proper noun than its first letter? That fact alone should lead those of you fond of John, John, and Jack to avoid christening any of your other characters Jim, Jason, or Jeremy. For abundant proof why, stand up now, take a few steps back from your computer, and try reading the following as fast as you can:

John jerked Jeremy’s arm sharply. Jostled, Jeremy joked, “Jason, are you going to let John jumble our chess pieces?”

“Jeez, Jason,” John jeered. “You can’t take jesting anywhere near as well as Jared, Jimmy, or Jamal.”

Jared jutted his head from behind the jerry-rigged doorjamb. “Did you call me, John?”

“Just joshing, Jared.” John just missed Jeremy’s playful shove, sending him sprawling into Jason. “Jeremy here can’t take a joke.”

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to avoid giving any other character a name that begins with the same first letter as your protagonist’s. If John had been the only J rambling across the passage above, his too-common moniker might still have irritated Millicent a trifle, but it certainly would have been easier for her to keep track of who was doing what when. Take a gander:

John jerked Harry’s arm sharply. Jostled, Harry joked, “Arnold, are you going to let John jumble our chess pieces?”

“Jeez, Harry,” John jeered. “You can’t take jesting anywhere near as well as Bertrand, Georgie, or Douglas.”

Bertrand jutted his head from behind the jerry-rigged doorjamb. “Did you call me, John?”

“Just joshing, Bertie.” John just missed Harry’s playful shove, sending him sprawling into Arnold. “Harry here can’t take a joke.”

Better already, isn’t it? Still, that’s a lot of capital Hs, Js, and Bs on the page.

News flash: proper nouns are as susceptible to over-use in writing as any other kind of words. Although aspiring writers’ eyes often glide over character and place names during revision, thinking of them as special cases, there is no such thing as a word exempt from being counted as repetitive if it pops up too often on the page.

In fact, proper noun repetition is actually more likely to annoy your garden-variety Millicent than repetition of other nouns. Why? Repetition across submission, of course, as well as within them. Too-frequent reminders of who the characters are and the space on the map they happen to occupy makes the average editor rend her garments and the middle-of-the-road agent moan.

If it’s any consolation, they’ve been rending and moaning for years; proper nouns have been asserting and re-asserting themselves on the manuscript page for a couple of decades now. Pros used to attribute this problem to the itsy-bitsy computer screens that writers were working upon back in the 80s– remember the early Macs, with those postcard-sized screens? They weren’t even tall enough to give a life-sized reflection of an adult face. If the user made the text large enough to read, the screen would only hold a dozen or so lines.

But as technology has progressed, the screens on even inexpensive computers have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Even on a laptop, you can usually have a view of half a page, at least, at full size. My extra-spiffy editor’s monitor can display two full-sized manuscript pages side by side. I could serve a Thanksgiving dinner for eight upon it, if I so chose.

I doubt I shall so choose. But it’s nice to have the option, I suppose.

“So why,” Millicent demands, shuddering at the sight of her co-workers’ disheveled wardrobes, “given how much easier it is to see words on a screen than in days of yore, do submitting writers so seldom have a clear idea of how distracting name repetition can be on a printed page? Is it merely that writers christen their major characters with their favorite names — like, say, the dreaded John — and want to see them in print again and again?”

A good guess, Millie, but I don’t think that’s the primary reason. Partially, it has to do with how differently the eye reads text on a backlit screen: it definitely encourages skimming, if not great big leaps down the page. So does re-reading the same scene for the 157th time. But mostly, I believe it has to do with how infrequently writers read their own work in hard copy.

Hear that Gregorian-like chanting floating through the ether? That’s every writer for whom I’ve ever edited so much as a paragraph automatically murmuring, “Before submission, I must read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. Particularly the opening pages, because if Millicent has a problem with those, she’s not going to read beyond them.”

I MAY have mentioned this two or three thousand times before. I repeat this advice so often that writers who read this blog religiously have been heard to mutter this inspiring little rule of thumb unconsciously in their sleep, under their breath during important meetings, just after saying, “I do,” to their no doubt adorable spouses, on their deathbeds…

So yes, I admit it: I’m a broken record on this subject. But for some very, very good reasons, I assure you.

To name but the two most relevant for our purposes today: first, reading in hard copy makes patterns in the text far more apparent to the reading eye than scanning text on a computer screen. Hard copy is also how most editors, a hefty proportion of agents, and practically every contest judge currently deciding between finalists will be seeing your submissions.

Yes, even in this advanced electronic age. Many agencies still don’t accept e-mailed submissions; neither do most editors at publishing houses. (Some do, of course, so it’s worth your while to download your manuscript to an electronic reader — my agent uses a Kindle — to see how your pages look on it.) The major literary contests for aspiring writers have been quite slow to switch over to purely electronic entries, probably because regular mail submissions are very handy for sending the admission fee.

But enough theory. Let’s apply some of this to a practical example. As always, if you’re having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

a-sample-page

See how your eye tries to leap from one J to the next? Sing along with me now, campers: the skimming eye is automatically attracted to capital letters in a text.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, not-especially-literate people tend to Capitalize Words for Emphasis. (When they’re not placing words that no one has ever said aloud inside quotation marks to indicate that those words are somehow “special” — another widespread professional readers’ pet peeve.) It’s almost always grammatically incorrect, but it definitely does the job of eliciting attention.

That’s not always a good thing, as far as Millicent is concerned. I can show you why in 14 words.

The West Wind whipped through the screen door as if it were not there.

Clearly, the writer intends the reader to respond to this statement with a comment like, “My, but that’s a forceful wind.” An ordinarily critical reader might ask, “Um, isn’t the whole point of a screen door that it allows air to travel through it unobstructed?” Every Millicent currently treading the earth’s surface, however, would produce precisely the same response.

“Why,” they will demand, “is west windcapitalized? Is it someone’s name?”

The practice is, in short, distracting. As a general rule of thumb, anything that causes Millicent to wonder why the writer chose to include it — rather than, say, why the protagonist did or what’s going to happen next — is worth removing from a submission.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s in your best interest to avoid capitalized words altogether. Due to proper nouns’ completely legitimate use of capitals, they jump off the page at the reader — which can be a good thing, if a manuscript is crammed to the gills with action, unnamed characters, and other literary titivations that do not involve the major characters. The reader’s eye will be drawn to the major players when they show up. Problem solved, right?

Not in most manuscripts, no. Since most novels and pretty much all memoirs deal with their respective protagonists on virtually every page, it isn’t precisely necessary to keep calling attention to the protagonist by referring to him by name. Constantly.

Or is it, John? John? Are you listening, John?

Frequent repetition of the protagonist’s name is seldom necessary, especially in scenes where only he appears — and it can become downright irritating over the course the dialogue of a two-character scene. Unless the one of the characters happens to have multiple personalities, it’s generally assumed that the names of the conversants will not alter substantially within the course of a few pages of dialogue.

“So why,” Millicent wants to know, “do so many writers keep labeling the participants every few lines, even in scenes where there’s little probability of confusing the reader by reverting entirely to pronouns?”

An excellent question, Millie. That’s why professional editors so often excise tag lines (he said, she said), rather than having the narrative identify every speaker ever time s/he opens his or her pretty mouth: with only two possible speakers and alternating dialogue, any reasonably intelligent reader may safely be relied upon to follow which lines of dialogue are being spoken by which character. And, let’s face it, this:

John peered through the grimy window. “Is that you, Arlene?”

“Who else would it be?” She pushed the door open with her hip. “Mind helping me with these grocery bags?”

“Oh, of course.”

“Thanks.” As soon as she dropped her burden on the counter, she tossed her car keys in his general direction. “There are twelve more in the trunk.”

moves a heck of a lot faster on the page than this:

“Is that you, Arlene?” John asked, peering through the grimy window.

“Who else would it be?” Arlene asked rhetorically, pushing the door open with her hip. “Mind helping me with these grocery bags?” Arlene added.

“Oh, of course,” John replied.

“Thanks,” Arlene said. As soon as she dropped her burden on the counter, Arlene tossed her car keys in his general direction. “There are twelve more in the trunk,” Arlene said.

Rather pedantic by comparison, no? In published writing, it’s actually considered a trifle insulting to the reader’s intelligence to keep reminding her that the guy who was speaking two lines ago is speaking again now.

What was his name again? Could it possibly have been John?

That reasonably intelligent reader we were discussing a while ago is also more than capable of remembering what both of those people are called by their kith and kin, once the narrative has established proper names. But you’d never know that by the number of times some manuscripts have their discussants call one another by name — and how often the narrative refers to them by name.

John doesn’t think it’s in John’s best interest to do that. John would like to believe that Millicent would remember who he is for more than a sentence or paragraph at a time, even if the narrative did not keep barking his name like a trained seal: “John! John! John!”

In many manuscripts, simply reducing the number of tag lines in a dialogue scene will cut out a startlingly high percentage of the name repetition. In dialogue where the use of tag lines has not been minimized, proper names can pop up so frequently that it’s like a drumbeat in the reader’s ear. Let’s take a gander at a slightly less obvious example.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, Susan,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, Sue. I’ve known you too long.”

Susan played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” Susan said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, Susan. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

Susan sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Yes, speakers in the real world do call one another by name this much sometimes, but — feel free to sing along; you know the words by now — like so much of real-life dialogue, that level of repetition would be snore-inducing, if not downright hypnotic, on the page. Especially when name-bearing tag lines are featured in the text, even dialogue between just a couple of characters can convey the sense of a very crowded room.

And that’s more than a little puzzling to professional readers. “Why,” Millicent wonders, hastily taking a sip of her too-hot latte, “would a writer go to such lengths to label people the reader already knows?”

Even when both characters share the same sex, and thus the same personal pronoun, constant name repetition is rarely necessary for maintaining clarity. Yet over-labeling is so common that after reading a few hundred — or a few thousand — manuscripts, Millicent would have to be pretty darned unobservant not to have begun to suspect that many writers simply harbor a prejudice against the innocent-but-effectual pronouns he and she.

Seriously, a lot of submitters seem to go out of their way to eschew pronouns, even in narrative paragraphs. To take not an unusually proper noun-ridden example:

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Tanya did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Tanya. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” Eve bellowed. “Tanya!”

Quietly, Tanya retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at Tanya with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night. As you would know if you had been paying attention, Tanya. May I have another?”

Come on, admit it — that was kind of annoying to read, wasn’t it? Until you’ve seen this phenomenon in action, it seems a trifle counter-intuitive that reusing a single word within two consecutive lines might be irritating to a reader, but as we’ve just observed, it can be, even if the word in question is not a proper noun. The capitalization of a name makes it stand out more, however.

Of course, if for some reason the writer of that last piece of sterling prose wanted for some reason best known to himself to render it infinitely more annoying to Millicent, we already know how he might manage that, don’t we? All he needs to do is rechristen Eve and Tanya with names beginning with the same capital letter.

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Edna was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Edna did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Edna. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” Eve bellowed. “Edna!”

Quietly, Edna retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at Edna with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night. As you would know if you had been paying attention, Edna. May I have another?”

Remarkable how much more difficult that was to read, isn’t it? To get an even better sense of how repetitious it would seem on a printed page, take a few steps back from your computer (if you can manage that logistically) and take a gander at the pattern all of those capital Es make in the text.

Now, admittedly, the writer of this exceptional excerpt may merely have been trying to clarify matters by repeating the names so often: there are in fact two women in this scene. If both were only called she every time, naturally, the narrative might conceivably become confusing. (If you have any doubts about how confusing a narrative can be when no proper names are used at all, get a 4-year-old to tell you the plot of a movie she’s just seen.)

However, like many proper name-heavy manuscripts, the writer here (who was me, obviously, so I guess it’s not all that productive to speculate about her motivation) has constructed the narrative to make opportunities for name repetition where it isn’t logically necessary. Here’s the same scene again, streamlined to minimize the necessity of naming the players:

She slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when no one came running, she filched a straw from the table next to her — the guy tapping away on his computer never even noticed — and made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of life. For good measure, she upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” she bellowed.

Quietly, Tanya retrieved the now-airborne glass before it could crash to the floor. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at her with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night, as you would have known had you been paying attention. May I have another?”

Anybody confused? I thought not. As you may see, proper nouns were not necessary very often in this passage.

Before any of you proper noun-huggers out there start grumbling about the care required to figure out when a pronoun is appropriate and when a proper noun, that was not a very time-consuming revision. All it really required to alert the reader to which she was which was a clear narrative line, a well-presented situation — and a willingness to name names when necessary.

That, and an awareness that repeating names even as far apart as three or four lines just doesn’t look good on a printed page; it’s distracting to the eye, and therefore a detriment to the reader’s enjoyment of the text. A proper noun repeated more than once per sentence — or, heaven help us — within a single line of text — is almost always a sign that sentence is in need of serious revision.

Ready to accept the general principle, but unsure how you might apply it to your manuscript? Never fear — next time, I shall run you through so many practical examples that you’ll be excising proper nouns in your sleep. You might enjoy some variation from the IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD song.

Night-night, John-John, and keep up the good work!

Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXVIII and Structural Repetition, part V: wait — there’s a forest out there? How can I possibly be expected to see it through all of these trees?

The other day, an author who had established her literary credentials some decades ago — let’s call her Martha, because it’s nothing like her name — came over to my house for tea and a vigorous discussion of the ever-changing literary market. I love chatting with well-read, highly opinionated people on this particular subject, and Martha did not disappoint. She is, to put it mildly, no fan of what she calls “the recent vampire/werewolf/zombie craze,” nor does she entirely improve of this golden age of YA.

“I keep meeting wonderful writers,” she says, “who have just given up on writing for adults. Or about anyone with a pulse.”

I do, too, but actually, I find this view a trifle outdated: when I walk into, say, a Barnes & Noble today, what strikes me is not the size of the YA section (I think the expansion of this particular book category has yielded some great things) or how few novel protagonists boast pulses (for me, a little contact with the undead goes a long way), but what a high percentage of the books currently available for sale were written by those who no longer have pulses at all. I’m as fond of Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as the next person, but do they really need to take up half the summer reading table AND an entire shelf of the sale books? Might an enterprising publisher not shell out for some display space for a few more living authors?

And while we’re at it, is there a particular reason that so many bookstores stock only FRANKENSTEIN, but not any of Shelley’s other novels? Again, I’m as fond of, etc., etc., but the lady was prolific. For my money, VALPURGA, her fictional account of the Inquisition, dances circles around FRANKENSTEIN. But perhaps that’s merely another manifestation of my preference for living protagonists, rather than revivified ones.

As so often happens, I ended up defending publishing trends I do not necessarily applaud, simply because Martha seemed so very determined to ring the death knell for the industry — because, she said, “All publishers think about now is cash.”

That’s a very popular complaint amongst those who landed their agents back when it was considered a trifle gauche for writers to admit that they wanted to make a living at it. My kith and kin has been involved in producing books since the 1920s, and I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of a time when publishing was purely a charitable enterprise. It is true, however, that both agents and publishers routinely used to nurse promising authors through half a dozen books, despite anemic sales, in the hope that someday, he (and it was almost always he) would gain a larger audience. Now, if a new author’s book does not sell well, she (and it often is she these days) and her agent may well have trouble convincing even an editor absolutely besotted with her prose stylings to take a chance with her next.

Hey, the bookstore needs that shelf space for its fifth copy of FRANKENSTEIN.

To be fair, though, readers also have quite different expectations than they did when Shelley’s debut novel hit the shelves — or, for that matter, when Martha’s did. Pacing is considerably faster these days; the passive voice so popular prior to World War II is considered stylistically rather weak, and in deference to that type of browser who habitually grabs books off the shelves and reads page 1 before purchasing, action tends to appear much earlier in plots than in years past.

Yes, even in literary fiction — do some comparative reading. Martha didn’t want to believe it, either.

Because I am, as you may have noticed, a big fan of concrete examples, I reached over to my fiction bookshelves for an example of good, solid literary writing that might have trouble getting published, or even landing an agent, today. I didn’t have to run my fingertips past more than half a dozen spines before I found a great page 1: William Styron’s breakthrough 1951 novel, LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS.

I would urge all of you to read this lyrical, moving book in its entirety (after you polish off VALPURGA, perhaps). For our purposes, though, I’m going to show you only what I read to Martha. Try to absorb it on two levels: for the quality of the writing, and as our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, might respond to it if it landed on her desk as a submission from an unknown writer today. To aid in that imaginative feat, I’ll even show it to you as she would see it.

“Wow, he was a wonderful writer,” Martha said. “Why did you stop there?”

“Because,” I said, bracing myself for the inevitable outcry of the literary-minded, “an agency screener wouldn’t have read any farther.”

Any guesses why? How about that paragraph-long, 118-word opening sentence? Or the two subordinate clauses beginning with which and the one with where? Or the piling-up of prepositions? Or the abrupt shift from the third person to the second on line 6?

None of this, of course, mars the inherent loveliness of the writing; hearing it read out loud, Martha was quite right to be impressed. As seen on the submission page, though, how likely to you think Millicent is to exclaim, as my guest did, “Wow, this is a wonderful writer,” rather than “Wow, that’s quite a run-on sentence?” And having emitted the second, how likely is she not to follow it with, “Next!”

Darned right, that would be a pity; this is a beautifully-written, incisive novel. But Millicent is in fact justified in believing that a browser picking up this page 1 is likely to set the book back on the shelf again halfway through that gargantuan opening sentence.

What would make her so sure of that? Because the difference between the literary market of 1951 and the literary market of 2011 lies not merely in how quickly professional readers make up their minds about submissions, but also in non-professional readers’ expectations for what constitutes good writing.

I know, I know. After I made that argument to Martha, she kept feeling my head to see if I had developed a fever.

Why might a browser not be able to see past the length of that opening sentence? Memory, partially: the browser’s high school English teacher would have marked her down for producing a run-on of this magnitude. Besides, subordinate clauses are simply not as highly regarded as they used to be. Back in the day, literature was rife with these; now, most Millicents are trained to consider them, well, a bit awkward. In fact, chances are very good that she was specifically trained to zero in on relative pronouns like which and subordinate conjunctions like where with the intent of ferreting out run-ons.

That, I suspect, is going to come as surprise to those of you who love 19th-century novels. We could quibble for hours about whether literary tastes have changed for better or worse. Since they have undoubtedly changed, though, it’s vital for aspiring writers who prefer more old-fashioned structures to realize that what was hailed by critics in 1951 might well give Millicent pause on page 1 today.

Or even give her an excuse to stop reading. But that does not necessarily mean that if the late lamented Mssr. Styron were trying to break into the literary fiction market today, I would advise him to lose all of the subordinate clauses.

Oh, I would certainly recommend some tinkering; that semicolon, for instance, could be replaced by a period at no great loss to the passage. Because the writing is so pretty here, however, I’m reluctant to impose the necessary cuts and changes on this passage, even for the purposes of an instructive example. As an editor, all I can justifiably do is point out the problems; it’s the writer’s job to rewrite.

That, too, often comes as a surprise to those harboring old-fashioned views of publishing. I meet aspiring writers all the time who greet any and all revision suggestions with an airy and dismissive, “Oh, I’m sure the acquiring editor/the agent of my dreams/some luckless proofreader will take care of that. All that matters at the submission stage is the quality of the writing.”

To a professional reader, sentence-level difficulties are not external to the writing; they’re integral parts of it. How a writer revises — or doesn’t — is as important to the ultimate quality of the book as the initial composition. Contrary to popular belief, though, there is no such thing as a single best way to revise a narrative, any more than there is a single best way to tell a story.

That being the case, how could an editor justifiably perform all necessary revisions to a manuscript? Or an agent, for that matter? And why wouldn’t a savvy writer prefer to make those changes herself, so she can control the voice?

Part of the charm of individual authorial voice is that it is, in fact, individual — but you’d never glean that from how writers (and writing teachers) tend to talk about revision. All too often, we speak amongst ourselves as though the revision process involved no more than either (a) identifying and removing all of the objectively-observable mistakes in a manuscript, or (b) changing our minds about some specific plot point or matter of characterization, then implementing it throughout the manuscript.

These are two perfectly reasonable self-editing goals, of course, but they are not the only conceivable ones. When dealing with what I call, with apologies to Madame Shelley, a Frankenstein manuscript — a text that, while perhaps prettily written, has not yet been revised to the level of professional polish — a conscientious self-editor might well perform a read-through for voice consistency, another for grammatical problems, a third for logic leaps, a fourth because the protagonist’s husband is no longer a plumber but the member of Congress representing Washington’s 7th District…

And so forth. Revision can come in many, many flavors, variable by specificity, level of focus, the type of feedback to which the writer is responding, and even the point in publication history at which the manuscript is being revised.

Does that all sound dandy in theory, but perplexing in practice? Don’t worry; I am queen of the concrete example, remember?

To help you gain a solid sense of how diverse different of levels of revision can be, I’m going to treat you to a page from one of my favorite fluffy novels of yore, Noël Coward’s POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE, a lighthearted romp set in a tropical British colony on the eve of a royal visit.

I chose this piece not merely because it retains a surprisingly high level of Frankenstein manuscript characteristics for a work by a well-established writer (possibly because it was Coward’s only published novel), or even because it deserves another generation of readers. (As it does; his comic timing is unparalleled.) I think it’s an interesting study in how literary conventions change: even at the time of its release in 1960, some critics considered it a bit outdated. Coward’s heyday had been several decades before, they argued, so the type of sex comedy that used to shock in the 1920s was a bit passé, and wasn’t it a bit late in the literary day to steer so firmly away from sociopolitical commentary?

Now, sociopolitical commentary has largely fallen out of style, at least in first novels, and sex, as Coward himself was fond of observing, seems to be here to stay. Here is a page from the end of the book, where our narrator, a harried British matron living on a South Sea island, finds herself entertaining Droopy, the husband of her best friend Bunny’s would-be mistress.

P&C sample

Amusing, certainly, but a bit Frankensteinish on the page is it not? At first glance, how would you suggest Noël revise it? Would your revision goals be different if this were page 5, rather than page 272?

Before you give your final answers, here’s that page again, after it has been subjected to just the kind of repetition-spotting mark-up I’ve been asking you to perform of late. (Sorry about the dark image; I honestly didn’t take the photograph in a particularly gloomy room. If you’re having trouble reading the specifics, try pressing command +.)

P&C edit 1

Replete with structural redundancy, is it not? By today’s book publication standards, as Millicent would no doubt be overjoyed to tell you, it would deserve instant rejection on that basis alone.

But would you agree? Or is the very repetition an inherent part of this comic voice?

Arguments could be made in both directions, you know. After all, this narrative voice is not all too far from the kind of writing we all see every day online, or even in the chattier varieties of journalism. We can all see why some writers would favor this kind of voice, right? Read out loud, this kind of first-person narration can sound very natural, akin to actual speech.

That’s not to say, though, that Millicent would not cringe at the very sight of it in a novel submission. And why? Feel free to chant it with me: the level of repetition that works in everyday speech is often hard to take on the printed page.

As you can see for yourself in the example above, I suspect. Now that you see all of those ands and other word repetition marked on the page, you must admit that they are mighty distracting to the eye. By repeating the same sentence structures over and over, our buddy Noël is practically begging Millicent to skip lines while skimming.

Nor is all of the redundancy here literal; there’s a certain amount of conceptual repetition as well. Take note of all of those visually-based verbs: not only do people look a great deal, but our heroine envisages AND tries to imagine how she might appear in his eyes.

And did you catch the over-use of subordinate clauses, all of those whiches in yellow? While a tolerant Millie might be inclined to glide past one every ten or fifteen pages, even a screener noted for her restraint would begin to get restless with a quarter as many as appear on that single page above.

That almost certainly would not have been a major objection raised by Millicent’s forebears in 1960, though, right? The literary gatekeepers would have concentrated on quite different parts of this page — the grammatically-necessary missing commas, for instance, and the back-to-back prepositions.

Longing to see how Millicent’s grandmother would have commented on this page? Well, you’re in luck; I just happen to have her feedback handy.

P&Eedit2

Let’s linger a moment in order to consider Grandma M’s primary quibbles. First, as she points out so politely in red at the top of the page, it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph. In dialogue, a single-line paragraph is acceptable, but in standard narrative prose, it is technically incorrect.

Was that gigantic clunk I just heard the sound of jaws belonging to anyone who has picked up a newspaper or magazine within the last decade hitting the floor?

In theory, Grandma M is quite right on this point — and more of her present-day descendants would side with her than you might suppose. Millie’s grandmother did not bring her up to regard setting grammar at naught lightly, after all. But does that necessarily mean it would be a good idea for you to sit down today and excise every single-sentence narrative paragraph in your manuscript?

Perhaps not: the convention of occasionally inserting a single-line paragraph for emphasis has become quite accepted in nonfiction. The practice has crept deeply enough into most stripes of genre fiction that it probably would not raise Millicent’s eyebrows much.

How can you tell if the convention is safe to use in your submission? As always, the best way of assessing the acceptability of a non-standard sentence structure in a particular book category is to become conversant with what’s been published in that category within the last few years. Not just what the leading lights of the field have been writing lately, mind you; what an established author can get away with doing to a sentence is not always acceptable in a submission by someone trying to break into the field.

Pay attention to what kinds of sentences first-time authors of your kind of book are writing these days, and you needn’t fear going too far afield. As a general rule of thumb, even first-time novelists can usually get the occasional use of the single-sentence paragraph device past Millicent — provided that the content of the sentence in question is sufficiently startling to justify standing alone. As in:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

That is, until I tripped over the werewolf lying prone across my doorstep.

Didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? The paragraph break emphasizes the jaggedness of the narrative leap — and, perhaps equally important from a submission perspective, renders the plot twist easier for a skimming eye to catch.

Grandma M would growl at this construction (“My, Granny, what big teeth you have!”), and rightly so. Why? Well, it violates the two-sentences-or-more rule, for starters. In the second place, this problem could have been avoided entirely by eschewing the RETURN key. In a slower world, one where readers lived sufficiently leisurely lives that they might be safely relied upon to glance at every sentence on a page, all of this information could have fit perfectly happily into a single paragraph. Like so:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind. That is, until I tripped over the werewolf lying prone across my doorstep.

I bring this up not only to appease Grandma M’s restless spirit, currently haunting an agency or publishing house somewhere in Manhattan, but so that those of you addicted to single-line paragraphs will know what to do with hanging sentences: tuck ‘em back into the paragraph from whence they came. Ruthlessly.

At least a few of them. Please?

Really, it’s in your submission’s best interest to use the single-line paragraph trick infrequently, reserving it for those times when it will have the most effect. That will at least give your narrative the advantage of novelty.

How so? Well, amongst aspiring writers who favor this structure, moderation is practically unheard-of. Many, if not most, novelists and memoirists who favor this device do not use the convention sparingly, nor do they reserve its use for divulging information that might legitimately come as a surprise to a reasonably intelligent reader.

As a result, Millie tends to tense up a bit at the very sight of a single-sentence paragraph — yes, even ones that are dramatically justifiable. Hard to blame her, really, considering how mundane some of the revelations she sees in submissions turn out to be. A fairly typical example:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

Beside the sidewalk, a daffodil bloomed.

Not exactly a stop-the-presses moment, is it?

Often, too, aspiring writers will use a single-line paragraph to highlight a punch line. This can work rather well, if it doesn’t occur very often in the text — any literary trick will lose its efficacy if it’s over-used — AND if the joke is genuinely funny. Much of the time in manuscripts, alas, it isn’t.

At least not hilarious enough to risk enraging Grandma M’s spirit by stopping the narrative short to highlight the quip. See for yourself:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

My Algebra II teacher would have fallen over dead with astonishment.

Gentle irony does not often a guffaw make, after all. And think about it: if the reader must be notified by a grammatically-questionable paragraph break that a particular line is meant to be funny, doesn’t that very choice indicate a certain authorial doubt that the reader will catch the joke? Or that it’s funny in the first place?

Grandma M’s other big objection to Noël’s page 272 — and this pet peeve, too, she is likely to have passed down the generations — would be to, you guessed it, the many, many run-on sentences. The run-ons here, however, are not the result of the driving rhythmic pattern or descriptive complexity that made ol’ William go overboard on his opening; clearly, Noël was just trying to sound chatty.

That should sound familiar by this point in the series, right? Like so many aspiring novelists, our Noël favors an anecdotal-style narrative voice, one that echoes the consecutiveness of everyday speech. That can work beautifully in dialogue, where part of the point is for the words captured within the quotation marks to sound like something an actual human being might really say, but in narration, this type of sentence structure gets old fast.

Why might that be, dear readers? Sing along with me now: structural repetition reads as redundant. Varying the narrative’s sentence structure will render it easier, not to mention more pleasant, to read.

Are some of you former jaw-droppers waving your arms frantically, trying to get my attention? “Okay, Anne,” these sore-jawed folk point out, “I get it: Millicents have disliked textual repetition for decades now. No need to exhume Grandma M’s grandmother to hammer home that point. But I’d had the distinct impression that Millie is a greater stickler for bigger-picture problems than her forebears. Don’t I have more important things to worry about than grammatical perfection when I’m getting ready to slide my manuscript under her nose?”

Well, grammatical perfection is always an asset in a manuscript, ex-jaw-droppers, so a completely clean manuscript is not at all an unreasonable goal for your pre-submission text scan. You are right, however, that present-day Millicents do tend to be weighing a great many more factors than their grandmothers did when deciding whether the manuscript in front of them has publication potential. But not all of those factors involve large-scale questions of marketability and audience-appropriateness; Millicent is also charged with going over the writing with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. Using, of course, today’s standards as a guide.

What kinds of manuscript problems might catch on her comb that Grandma M’s would have missed, you ask with fear and trembling? See for yourself — here’s Millie’s response on the page we’ve been examining:

P&E edit 3

I sincerely hope that your first thought upon seeing her much, much higher expectations was not to wish that you’d had the foresight to try to land an agent back in 1960, rather than now. (Although I would not blame you at all if you kicked yourself for not launching your work back in the 1980s, when the home computer was available but not yet ubiquitous, astronomically increasing the number of both queries and submissions Millicent would see in a given week.) True, the competition to land an agent is substantially fiercer now, but it’s also true that a much, much broader range of voices are getting published than in Grandma M’s time.

Back then, if you weren’t a straight, white man from a solid upper-middle class home, Granny expected you at least to have the courtesy to write like one. (Styron’s father worked in a shipyard, so he had to fudge it a little; so did his contemporary Gore Vidal, for other reasons.) If you did happen to be a SWMFaSUMCH, you were, of course, perfectly welcome to try to imagine what it was like not to be one, although on the whole, your work would probably be more happily received if you stuck to writing what you knew. And if there was a typo in your manuscript, well, next time, don’t have your wife type it for you.

You think I’m making that up, don’t you? That’s a quote, something an agent told a rather well-known writer of my acquaintance in the mid-1960s. The latter kept quiet about the fact that he was unmarried at the time and composed his books on a typewriter.

Let’s return from that rather interesting flashback, though, and concentrate upon the now. It’s not enough to recognize that literary standards — and thus professional expectations for self-editing — have changed radically over time. It’s not even sufficient to accept, although I hope it’s occurred to you, that what constituted good writing in your favorite book from 1937 — or 1951, or 1960 — might not be able to make it past Millicent today. If you’re going to use authors from the past as your role models — a practice both Grandma M and I would encourage — you owe it to your career as a writer also to familiarize yourself with the current writing in your book category.

Just for today, what I would like you to take away from these examples is that each of the editorial viewpoints would prompt quite different revisions — and in some instances, mutually contradictory ones. This is one reason the pros tend not to consider the revision process definitively ended until a book is published and sitting on a shelf: since reading can take place on many levels, so can revision.

Don’t believe me? Okay, clap on your reading glasses and peruse the three widely disparate results conscientious reviser Noël might have produced in response to each of the marked-up pages above. For the first, the one that merely noted the structural, word, and concept repetition, the changes might be as simple as this:

P&C basic edit

“Hey, Anne!” the sharper-eyed among you burble excitedly. “Despite the fact that Noël has added a couple of paragraph breaks, presumably to make it easier for the reader to differentiate between speech and thought, the text ends up being shorter. He snuck another line of text at the bottom of the page!”

Well-caught, eagle-eyed burblers. A thoughtfully-executed revision to minimize structural redundancy can often both clarify meaning and lop off extraneous text.

I hope you also noticed that while that very specifically-focused revision was quite helpful to the manuscript, it didn’t take care of some of the grammatical gaffes — or, indeed, most of the other problems that would have troubled Grandma M. Let’s take a peek at what our Noël might have done to page 272 after that august lady had applied her red pen to it. (Hint: you might want to take a magnifying glass to the punctuation.)

P&C revision 2

Quite different from the first revision, is it not? This time around, the punctuation’s impeccable, but the narration retains some of the redundancy that a modern-day Millicent might deplore.

Millie might also roll her eyes at her grandmother’s winking at instances of the passive voice and the retention of unnecessary tag lines. Indeed, for Noël to revise this page to her specifications, he’s going to have to invest quite a bit more time. Shall we see how he fared?

P&C final edit

Remember, not every close-up examination of a single tree will result in a pruning plan that will yield the same forest. A savvy self-editor will bear that in mind, rather than expecting that any single pass at revision, however sensible, will result in a manuscript that will please every reader.

By apprising yourself of the current norms in your chosen book category, you can maximize the probability that your self-editing eye will coincide with Millicent’s expectations. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XVI: but I don’t want to give away the whole candy store!

Have you noticed a theme running through the last few posts, campers? Yes, we’ve ostensibly been talking about dialogue, but in that fine tradition of narrative where there’s more going on than what’s going on, as Millicent the agency screener might put it, I’ve been sneaking in some other lessons as well. Many of them, as some of you may have noticed, have related to reducing the passivity of one’s protagonist(s).

On the off chance that I’ve been too subtle: a protagonist who merely observes the plot, rather than being a force — or, ideally, the primary force — driving it forward can bring an otherwise exciting story to a grinding halt while s/he ruminates. (Confidential to Elizabeth: you’re welcome.) Similarly, a protagonist who contributes minimally to a scene, remains silent, or does not respond to stimuli that would cause the calmest herd of elephants to stampede for the nearest exit can sap tension.

So it’s not entirely surprising, is it, that a protagonist who is purely reactive on page 1 might cause Millicent to worry about how exciting s/he will be to follow for the rest of the book? Let’s face it, even if the opening scene is chock full of unexpected conflict, seeing it through the eyes and psyche of a protagonist seemingly determined not to get involved, or even one who just doesn’t ask particularly incisive questions, may make it seem, well, less exciting.

Not to mention making the protagonist come across as less intelligent than the author probably intended. Last time, we saw how a character’s repeating what has just been said to him can markedly lowers his apparent I.Q. by a few dozen points. When a protagonist stops the story in its tracks to draw conclusions that would cause a reasonably intelligent eight-year-old to exclaim, “Well, duh!”, it can have a similar effect. Imagine, for instance, having to follow Pauline through a 380-page novel.

Pauline struggled against her bonds, but it was no use. Her tormentor must have been an Eagle Scout with a specialty in knotting, to tie her to the railroad track this firmly. “You don’t mean to…hurt me, do you?”

“Of course not.” Edgar sneered, twirling his mustache. “It’s the oncoming train that’s going to hurt you. Quite a lot, I should think.”

Her eyes widened to the circumference of her Aunt Bettina’s favorite teacups, the ones with the wee lilacs painted upon them. “Are you trying to kill me? Why? What have I ever done to you?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Depressed, he flopped onto a nearby pile of burlap sacks. “I just have this thing for tying pretty women to railroad tracks. You happened to be here.” He buried his head in his elegant hands. “God, I really need to establish some standards.”

Was he weakening? Over the roar of the engine, it was so hard to be sure. “Edgar? If you don’t do something, I shall be squashed flatter than the proverbial pancake.”

He did not even lift his head. “I doubt it. With my luck, a handsome stranger will suddenly appear to rescue you.”

A shadow crossed her face. “Why, hello there, little lady,” a stranger blessed with undeniable good looks said. “You look like you could use some help.”

She had to shout to be heard over the wheels. “Yes, I could. You see, Edgar’s tied me to the train tracks, and there’s a train coming.”

Miffed at me for ending the scene before we found out it Pauline survived? Come on, admit it — you were tempted to shout, “Well, duh!” in response to some of Pauline’s statements, were you not? Who could blame you, when apparently her only role in the scene is to point out the obvious?

Millicent would have stopped reading, too, but she would have diagnosed the problem here differently. “Why doesn’t this writer trust my intelligence?” she would mutter, reaching for the nearest form-letter rejection. “Why does s/he assume that I’m too stupid to be able to follow this series of events — and a cliché-ridden series of events at that — without continual explanations of what’s going on?”

That’s a question for the ages, Millicent. In this case, the writer may have considered Pauline’s affection for the obvious funny. Or those frequent unnecessary statements may be Hollywood narration: instead of the narrative’s showing what’s happening, the dialogue’s carries the burden, even though the situation must be clear to the two characters to whom Pauline is speaking.

Or — and this is a possibility we have not yet considered in this series — this scene is lifted from a book category where the imperiled protagonist is expected to be purely reactive.

Didn’t see that one coming, did you? All too often, those of us who teach writing to writers speak as though good writing were good writing, independent of genre, but that’s not always the case. Every book category has its own conventions; what would be considered normal in one may seem downright poky in another.

Case in point: our Pauline. Her tendency to lie there and wait for someone to untie her would be a drawback in a mainstream fiction or high-end women’s fiction manuscript, but for a rather wide segment of the WIP (Women in Peril) romance market, a certain amount of passivity is a positive boon. Heck, if this example were WIP, Pauline might not only be tied to a train track — she might be menaced by a lion wielding a Tommy gun.

As opposed to, say, a bulletproof lady too quick to be lashed down with large steaks in her capacious pockets in case of lion attack. The latter would make a great heroine of an Action/Adventure — and the last thing Millicent would expect her to be is passive.

Unless, of course, Pauline is the love interest in a thriller. Starting to see how this works?

Even if she were a passive protagonist in a genre more accepting of passivity (usually in females; in the U.S., genuinely passive male protagonists tend to be limited to YA or literary fiction), it would dangerous to depict the old girl being purely reactive on page 1: the Millicent who reads WIP at the agency of your dreams may also be screening fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or any of the other genres that tend to feature active female protagonists. As a general rule, then, it’s better strategy to show your protagonist being active and smart on page 1.

Which is to say: place your protagonist in an exciting situation, not just next to it.

Also, you might want to make it clear from the first line of page 1 who your protagonist is. Not who in the philosophical sense, or even in the demographic sense, but which character the reader is supposed to be following.

Stop laughing; this is a serious issue for our Millie. Remember, in order to recommend a manuscript to her boss, she has to be able to tell the agent of your dreams what the book is about — and about whom. Being a literary optimist, she begins each new submission with the expectation that she’s going to be telling her boss about it.

Unless the text signals her otherwise, she’s going to assume that the first name mentioned is the protagonist’s. Imagine her dismay, then, when the book turns out a page, or two, or fifty-seven later to be about someone else entirely.

I can still hear you giggling, but seriously, it’s often quite hard to tell. Don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a fairly typical opening page in a close third-person Women’s Fiction narrative. Based on the first few lines, who is the protagonist?

Were you surprised by the sudden switch to Emma? Millicent would have been. Perhaps not enough to stop reading, but enough to wonder why the first half-page sent her assumptions careening in the wrong direction.

That little bait-and-switch would be even more likely to annoy her on this page than others, because Emma seems like the less interesting protagonist option here. Not only is she an observer of the action — Casey’s the one experiencing the tension, in addition to having apparently been married to someone with allegedly rather nasty habits — but she comes across as, well, a bit slow on the uptake.

How so, you ask? Do you know very many super-geniuses who have to count on their fingers to tell time?

Now, as a professional reader, it’s fairly obvious to me that the writer’s intention here was not to make Emma seem unintelligent. My guess would be that the finger-counting episode is merely an excuse to mention how the rings threw the dull light back at the ceiling — not a bad image for a first page. But that wasn’t what jumped out at you first from this page, was it?

Or it wouldn’t have, if you were Millicent. There are three — count ‘em on your fingers: three — of her other pet peeves just clamoring for her attention. Allow me to stick a Sharpie in her hand and let her have at it:

page 1 edit 4

Thanks, Millie; why don’t you go score yourself a latte and try to calm down a little? I can take it from here.

Now that we’re alone again, be honest: in your initial scan of the page, had you noticed all of the issues that so annoyed Millicent? Any of them?

Probably not, if you were reading purely for story and writing style, instead of the myriad little green and red flags that are constantly waving at her from the submission page. Let’s take her concerns one at a time, so we may understand why each bugged her — and consider whether they would have bugged her in submissions in other book categories.

Opening with an unidentified speaker: Millicent remains perpetually mystified by how popular such openings are. Depending upon the categories her boss represents, she might see anywhere from a handful to dozens of submissions with dialogue as their first lines on any given day. A good third of those will probably not identify the speaker right off the bat.

Why would the vast majority of Millicents frown upon that choice, other than the sheer fact that they see it so very often? A very practical reason: before they can possibly make the case to their respective boss agents that this manuscript is about an interesting protagonist faced with an interesting conflict, they will have to (a) identify the protagonist, (b) identify the primary conflict s/he faces, and (c) determine whether (a) and (b) are interesting enough to captivate a reader for three or four hundred pages.

Given that mission, it’s bound to miff them if they can’t tell if the first line of the book is spoken by the protagonist — or, indeed, anyone else. In this case, the reader isn’t let in on the secret of the speaker’s identity for another 6 lines. That’s an eternity, in screeners’ terms — especially when, as here, the first character named turns out not to be the speaker. And even on line 7, the reader is left to assume that Emma was the initial speaker, even though logically, any one of the everyone mentioned in line 7 could have said it.

So let me give voice to the question that Millicent would be asking herself by the middle of the third line: since presumably both of the characters introduced here knew who spoke that first line, what precisely did the narrative gain by not identifying the speaker for the reader’s benefit on line 1?

99.9% of the time, the honest answer will be, “Not much.” So why force Millicent to play a guessing game we already know she dislikes, if it’s not necessary to the scene?

Go ahead and tell her who is speaking, what’s going on, who the players are, and what that unnamed thing that jumps out of the closet and terrifies the protagonist looks like. If you want to create suspense, withholding information from the reader is not Millicent’s favorite means of generating it.

That’s not to say, however, that your garden-variety Millicent has a fetish for identifying every speaker every time. As we have discussed, she regards the old-fashioned practice of including some version of he said with every speech as both old-fashioned and unnecessary. Which leads me to…

Including unnecessary tag lines: chant it with me now, campers: unless there is some genuine doubt about who is saying what when (as in the first line of text here), most tag lines (he said, she asked, they averred) aren’t actually necessary for clarity. Quotation marks around sentences are pretty darned effective at alerting readers to the fact that those sentences were spoken aloud. And frankly, unless tag lines carry an adverb or indicates tone, they usually don’t add much to a scene other than clarity about who is saying what when.

Most editors will axe unnecessary tag lines on sight — although again, the pervasiveness of tag lines in published books does vary from category to category. If you are not sure about the norms in yours, hie yourself hence to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and start reading the first few pages of books similar to yours. If abundant tag lines are expected, you should be able to tell pretty quickly.

Chances are that you won’t find many — nor would you in second or third novel manuscripts by published authors. Since most adult fiction minimizes their use, novelists who have worked with an editor on a past book project will usually omit them in subsequent manuscripts. So common is this self-editing trick amongst the previously published that to a well-trained Millicent or experienced contest judge, limiting tag line use is usually taken as a sign of professionalism.

Which means, in practice, that the opposite is true as well — a manuscript peppered with unnecessary tag lines tends to strike the pros as under-edited. Paragraph 2 of our example illustrates why beautifully: at the end of a five-line paragraph largely concerned with how Casey is feeling, wouldn’t it have been pretty astonishing if the speaker in the last line had been anybody but Casey?

The same principle applies to paragraph 4. Since the paragraph opens with Casey swallowing, it’s obvious that she is both the speaker and the thinker later in the paragraph — and the one that follows. (Although since a rather hefty percentage of Millicents frown upon the too-frequent use of single-line non-dialogue paragraphs — as I mentioned earlier in this series, it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph in English, technically — I would advise reserving them for instances when the single sentence is startling enough to warrant breaking the rule for dramatic impact. In this instance, I don’t think the thought line is astonishing enough to rise to that standard.)

Starting to see how Millicent considers a broad array of little things in coming up with her very quick assessment of page 1 and the submission? Although she may not spend very much time on a submission before she rejects it, what she does read, she reads very closely. Remember, agents, editors, and their screeners tend not to read like other people: instead of reading a page or even a paragraph before making up their minds, they consider each sentence individually; if they like it, they move on to the next.

All of this is imperative to keep in mind when revising your opening pages. Page 1 not only needs to hook Millicent’s interest and be free of technical errors — every line, every sentence needs to encourage her to keep reading.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea to think of page 1’s primary purpose (at the submission stage, anyway) as convincing a professional reader to turn the first page and read on. In pursuit of that laudable goal, let’s consider Millicent’s scrawl at the bottom of the page.

Having enough happen on page 1 that a reader can tell what the book is about: this is such a common page 1 (and Chapter 1) faux pas for both novel and memoir manuscripts that some professional readers believe it to be synonymous with a first-time submission. In my experience, that’s not always true. A lot of writers like to take their time warming up to their stories.

So much so, in fact, that it’s not all that rare to discover a perfectly marvelous first line for the book in the middle of page 4. Or 54.

How does this happen? As we’ve discussed earlier in this series, opening pages often get bogged down in backstory or character development, rather than jumping right into some relevant conflict. US-based agents and editors tend to get a trifle impatient with stories that are slow to start. (UK and Canadian agents and editors seem quite a bit friendlier to the gradual lead-in.) Their preference for a page 1 that hooks the reader into conflict right off the bat has clashed, as one might have predicted, with the rise of the Jungian Heroic Journey as a narrative structure.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Since the release of the first Star Wars movie, it’s been one of the standard screenplay structures: the story starts in the everyday world; the protagonist is issued a challenge that calls him into an unusual conflict that tests his character and forces him to confront his deepest fears; he meets allies and enemies along the way; he must grow and change in order to attain his goal — and in doing so, he changes the world. At least the small part of it to which he returns at the end of the story.

It’s a lovely structure for a storyline, actually, flexible enough to fit an incredibly broad swathe of tales. But can anybody spot a slight drawback for applying this structure to a novel or memoir?

Hint: you might want to take another peek at today’s example before answering that question.

Very frequently, this structure encourages writers to present the ordinary world at the beginning of the story as, well, ordinary — and the protagonist as similarly ho-hum The extraordinary circumstances to come, they figure, will seem more extraordinary by contrast. Over the course of an entire novel, that’s pretty sound reasoning (although one of the great tests of a writer is to write about the mundane in a fascinating way), but it can inadvertently create an opening scene that is less of a grabber than it could be.

Or, as I suspect is happening in this case, a page 1 that might not be sufficiently reflective of the pacing or excitement level of the rest of the book. And that’s a real shame, since I happen to know that something happens on page 2 that would make Millicent’s eyebrows shoot skyward so hard that they would knock her bangs out of place.

Those of you who like slow-revealing plots have had your hands in the air for quite a while now, haven’t you? “But Anne,” you protest, and not without justification, “I want to lull my readers into a false sense of security. That way, when the first thrilling plot twist occurs, it comes out of a clear blue sky.”

I can understand the impulse, lovers of things that go bump on page 3, but since submissions and contest entries are evaluated one line at a time, holding back on page 1 might not make the best strategic sense at the submission stage. Trust me, she’ll appreciate that bump far more if you can work it into one of your first few paragraphs.

Here’s an idea: why not start the book with it? Nothing tells a reader — professional or otherwise — that a story is going to be exciting than its being exciting right from the word go.

Bear in mind, though, that what constitutes excitement varies by book category. Yes, Millicent is always looking for an interesting protagonist facing an interesting conflict, but what that conflict entails and how actively she would expect the protagonist to react to it varies wildly.

But whether readers in your chosen category will want to see your protagonist weeping pitifully on a train track, fighting off lions bare-handed, or grinding her teeth when her boss dumps an hour’s worth of work on her desk at 4:59 p.m., you might want to invest some revision time in making sure your first page makes that conflict look darned fascinating — and that your protagonist seems like she’d be fun to watch work through it. Whatever your conflicts might be, keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIV: am I talking to myself, or is this guy not holding up his end of the conversation?

“A man of genius can hardly be sociable, for what dialogues could indeed be so intelligent and entertaining as his own monologues?” – Schopenhauer

Last time, I went on a rampage about one type of dialogue that tends to get professional readers’ proverbial goats: the astonishingly common practice of constructing tag lines centered upon verbs that do not imply speech. This one’s a goat-napper for good reason: since the whole point of the he said part of a dialogue paragraph is presumably to alert the reader to who is speaking those words encased within quotation marks, it’s both illogical and rather annoying when the text chooses to shoehorn a non-speaking activity into the sentence. As in:

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Since neither scooped nor contemplated are speaking verbs, they cannot reasonably be expected to form the basis of a tag line, right? What the writer actually meant was this:

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet said, carelessly scooping a nearby scull off the ground and contemplating it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Now, that first comma makes sense: Hamlet said is the tag line completing the dialogue sentence. If a reviser were looking to minimize the number of tag lines in a scene — advisable in most types of adult fiction or memoir, to avoid a Jane, see Dick chase Spot feel to the text — that comma could be replaced by a period, and the original pseudo tag line transformed into an ordinary narrative sentence.

“My uncle may be a murderer.” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it. “But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

After raising this issue and suggesting a couple of viable solutions, I was all set to go merrily on my way — then, as so often happens, some thoughtful readers took issue with one of the fixes. The quite interesting debate in the comments centered around the question of whether the actual speech in a sentence like

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet said, carelessly scooping a nearby scull off the ground and contemplating it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

meant something different than

“My uncle may be a murderer.” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it. “But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

The literal meaning is the same, of course; the question here is a matter of rhythm. In the first version, the speeches before and after the tag line are presented as a single sentence: “My uncle may be a murderer, but you can’t fault his taste in wine.” The comma implies only a minimal pause in between the two halves. In the second version, the period indicates a longer pause: “My uncle may be a murderer. But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Unquestionably, there is a difference, but would it really matter to most readers? Probably not, unless Hamlet were in the last stages of emphysema, rendering the utterance of a sentence of the length of the first too great a strain on his lung capacity to be plausible. Even Millicent, our favorite long-suffering screener of submissions to agencies, would regard both versions as acceptable, unless the text had already established a speech pattern for Hamlet that rendered either length of pause uncharacteristic.

Was that giant collective gasp I just heard an indicator that some of you had not been carefully constructing individual speech patterns for your major characters? Or did half of you just realize that a professional reader might well be paying attention to how and whether the dialogue permits those characters to breathe?

If you’re like most aspiring novelists, it was probably a little of both. Writers new to dialogue usually concentrate almost exclusively upon the content of what their characters are saying, rather than how they are saying it: it’s no accident that in most submissions, any given line of dialogue could come as easily out of one mouth as another. The vocabulary or grammar might vary a little, but essentially, all of the characters are speaking in the same voice.

“I’m tired,” Hamlet said.

Ophelia sighed. “So am I.”

“Are you hungry? We could grab some cheeseburgers on the way home.”

“That would work for me. We could also swing by that all-night taco stand.”

Hamlet turned the wheel so the truck veered across three lanes. “I like tacos. Let’s do that.”

“You’re crazy,” Ophelia said, clutching the armrest for dear life. “I don’t like tacos enough to die for them.”

In short bursts, this type of dialogue can work very well. It’s not particularly character-revealing, but it gets the job done.

It’s a lost opportunity for character development, though. Look what a difference simply giving one of the characters a different cadence and larger vocabulary makes to this perfectly straightforward scene.

“I’m tired,” Hamlet said.

Ophelia sighed. “I believe it. It’s been an utterly exhausting day.”

“Are you hungry? We could grab some cheeseburgers on the way home.”

“If you that sounds tasty to you. We could also swing by that delightfully greasy all-night taco stand.”

Hamlet turned the wheel so the truck veered across three lanes. “I like tacos. Let’s do that.”

“You’re insane,” Ophelia said, clutching the armrest for dear life. “No taco in the world is worth spattering our brains on the pavement.”

The literal meaning is quite similar, but now, a reader could tell simply by the cadence and vocabulary who is speaking when. There’s also more tension in this version: because most readers assume that complexity of speech is an indicator (although not an infallible one) of complexity of thought, the differential in vocabulary could hints at the potential for underlying conflict. Does she want him to talk more, so she is being wordier — and does that attempt annoy him sufficiently that he wants to scare her by driving dangerously? Was he fired that day, and he’s working up nerve to tell her that their days of going out to fancy restaurants are gone for the foreseeable future? Or has he simply been angry with her for the entire exchange, and was expressing it by being terse with her?

Quite a bit of bang for the revision buck, is it not?

The individuated speech patterns also could reflect what occurred just before this exchange, or ongoing conflict. Her lines would take more breath to say than his simple declarative sentences, as well as more effort: is he conserving his energy because he is dog-tired, or is he the strong, silent type? Did he perceive her statement about the greasiness of the food at the taco stand as a dig about his eating habits, something she has been nagging him about for the entire book? Or do these two people suffer under a chronic failure to communicate, and so they take refuge in discussing only mundane topics like whether they would prefer cheeseburgers or tacos?

Seem like a lot to read into an ostensibly ordinary exchange? Professional readers tend to like dialogue that operates simultaneously on several different levels, not only dealing with what is happening in the moment, but with ongoing dynamics. Such exchanges are not only about what is said, but what is left unsaid.

The pros even have a name for this kind of scene, albeit a rather cumbersome one: there’s more happening than is happening. One also hears it as there’s more going on than is going on, but you get the point. Instead of using the dialogue as a blunt instrument to move the plot along, reserving character development for the narrative sections, complex exchanges move the plot along while revealing character, conflict roiling under a seemingly placid surface, long-concealed resentments, etc.

That’s a nifty trick, one that requires a sophisticated understanding of the characters and the story to pull off. It also requires an acceptance of the notion that the point of dialogue is not merely to reproduce how people speak in real life. Just as not every real-world action is worth depicting on the page, the bare fact that someone might actually say something does not necessarily render it entertaining dialogue. A novelist is not, after all, just a transcriptionist: a writer’s job is to improve upon reality, to embroider upon it, to show it to the reader in new and unanticipated ways.

Which is why, should anyone out there have been wondering, Millicent tends to get bored pretty by conversations that don’t seem to be going anywhere, even if the actual exchange is, as they say, ripped directly from real life. It’s hard to blame her, either, when so much of the dialogue she sees runs rather like this:

“Have a hard day?” Ophelia asked.

“Yes.”

“I did, too.” She glanced at the clouds swiftly gathering over the moat. “Looks like rain.”

“Sure does. Did you bring the cat in?”

“Of course. You might want to bring the car into the garage, in case it hails.”

“It’s certainly been cold enough,” Hamlet agreed, “especially at night.”

“Um-hmm. Could you take the recycling to the curb on your way out?”

“Of course, hon.”

Yawn. We’ve all heard a million conversations like this, but since they are not particularly interesting to bystanders in real life, why would we buy a book to see them reproduced on the page? Or, to recast this in revision terms, if a discussion neither advances the plot nor reveals some heretofore-unseen aspect of character, why keep it?

Perhaps I’m an unusually demanding reader — I hope so; it’s my day job — but if dialogue is not entertaining or informative, I’m just not interested. If a character is spouting things that anyone might say, those stock phrases tell me nothing about who she is as an individual. All that standard chit-chat tells me is that the author has conflated realistic dialogue — i.e., speech that sounds as though a real human being might actually have said it — with real dialogue, actual speech transcribed on the page.

Learning to tell the difference is an essential skill for a novelist (and it’s pretty helpful for a memoirist as well). Why? To a professional reader, every line of dialogue has to earn its place on the page.

I heard all of you slice-of-life lovers gasp and mutter, but honestly, you would be hard-pressed to find even a single professional reader who would agree that any given line of dialogue has a right to appear on a manuscript page just because an actual person said it. Selectivity is the soul of good writing, after all. Realism is fine, in moderation, but after one has read a few thousand manuscripts in which characters say scads of not-very-interesting things simply because people talk that way, dialogue that is merely realistic can lose a lot of its charm.

Hey, didn’t someone mention something about the desirability of dialogue that serves more than one narrative purpose? Or did I dream that?

Exchanges that rely solely upon sounding like actual speech can seem especially trying if the one in front of Millicent happens to be the 10th or 20th of the day’s crop of manuscripts that features dialogue-only scenes. Why are they so common in submissions? Because an astonishingly high percentage of aspiring writers believe that dialogue in a novel is supposed to read like an excerpt from a play.

We’ve all read dialogue-only scenes, right? These exchanges that take the classic writing advice to make the dialogue itself, not an adverb in the tag line, say everything that needs to be said. After establishing who the two (seldom more) discussants are, the speeches alternate, sometimes for pages on end. Due to the subsequent absence of tag lines, descriptions of tone, mental asides, etc., the writer necessarily relies upon the reader to keep track of who is speaking when.

“To be or not to be,” Hamlet observed, “that is the question.”

“No, it isn’t,” Ophelia retorted. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die.”

“You don’t want anything of the sort. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

“If you had grown up with my mother, the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother, I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“And it’s easy for you to avoid telling her the truth. I’m tired of being the one who always has to break bad news to her.”

“You’re not always the one.”

“Who told her last year that our dog had dug up her prize begonias?”

“I was the one who broke it to her that we were getting married.”

“Along the broad spectrum of global disasters, that ranks pretty low.”

“Again, we clearly grew up with very different mothers. Whatever affects mine is a global disaster, by definition.”

This isn’t terrible dialogue, but you must admit, there’s nothing much happening here except what’s happening. Because of the presentation style, all the reader sees is what is on the surface. That’s not entirely coincidental: such exchanges are usually predicated on the assumption that human beings say precisely what is on their minds 100% of the time.

“So much for subtext,” Millicent mutters. “When I bicker, I like to think that my jibes connect on a variety of complex levels.”

I’m with you, Millie: I seldom find long dialogue-only scenes especially realistic, even if the speeches themselves ring true. Why? Well, the import of face-to-face human interactions seldom lies entirely in the words spoken. Tone, body language, nervous tics, grandiose gestures — all of these play into how one party interprets another’s intended meaning. By presenting the dialogue only, the writer is leaving the reader to fill in all of these potentially important details herself.

Then, too, at the risk of shocking you, it’s been my experience that few people say precisely what they mean every time they open their mouths. No one is perfectly articulate at all times, and frankly, who would want to be? Good manners alone dictate that not everything one thinks should come hopping out of one’s mouth.

Ask your mother. She’s with me on this one.

Speaking of not speaking out of turn, I’ve been sensing those of you who favor dialogue-only scenes squirming in your chairs for quite some time now. “But Anne,” tone-eschewers everywhere point out, “my high school English teacher told me that really good dialogue doesn’t need additional narrative text. If the dialogue genuinely fits the character and the situation, all of that body language stuff is merely window-dressing.”

I mean no disrespect to your sainted English teacher, squirmers, but that’s ridiculous. Admittedly, it was a very common type of ridiculousness in high school classrooms for about 40 years — specifically, the years when it was fashionable to try to teach every freshman to write like Ernest Hemingway. In recent years, adjectives and adverbs have come back into style.

The fact that there was a period in 20th-century American literature when they went out of style is why your English teacher encouraged you to minimize their use in tag lines, by the way. S/he was trying to discourage you from engaging in 19th century-style tag lines, known for their heavy reliance upon adverbs to add meaning to speech. Basically, s/he didn’t want you to write like this:

“To be or not to be,” Hamlet observed laconically, “that is the question.”

“No, it isn’t,” Ophelia retorted with some asperity. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die,” he said morosely.

“You don’t want anything of the sort,” she replied irritatedly. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

“If you had grown up with my mother,” he pointed out angrily, “the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother,” she said understandingly, “I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

A little of this style of tag line goes a long way, doesn’t it? Your teacher had a point: if the narrative relies upon how a character said something to convey the primary meaning of the speech, rather than the content or word choice, the dialogue plays a less important role in the scene. The practice discourages packing the maximum meaning into every line of dialogue.

What those of us for whom English class is but a far-off memory tend to forget, however, is that having students write dialogue-only scenes was an exercise intended to break the habit of leaning on tag lines, not a prescription for good dialogue. To extend that exercise and pretend that play-like exchanges are the only way to write dialogue well is to ignore the fact that most of the good novels of the last century have not embraced dialogue-only scenes as the norm.

In fact, acknowledging that human beings sometimes experience mixed motivations and respond to stimuli not in words or thoughts, but with their bodies has been a hallmark of literary and women’s fiction for several decades now. Or, as editors like to put it, “Could we get out of the protagonist’s head and into her body every so often, please?”

That’s not to say, of course, that dialogue-only scenes are never effective on the page — but like so many other high school English teacher-endorsed narrative tricks, it’s radically overused, and often applied to scenes where a fuller presentation of character, motivation, and non-verbal clues about what is going on would provide the reader with a better reading experience.

How so? Well, isn’t one of the primary benefits of a close third-person or first-person narrative the ability to show the reader what’s going on inside the protagonist’s head, torso, legs, and psyche? Dialogue-only scenes take that advantage and throw it out the window.

And with it often flies the sense that more is going on that meets the eye. Take a gander at how easy it is to add complexity to Hamlet and Ophelia’s philosophical debate by allowing for the possibility that the protagonist in this tight third-person scene has mixed motivations — and that her discussant is sending her non-verbal clues as to his mood.

Hamlet hung up the phone with a bang. “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

Oh, God, he was at it again. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die.”

Ophelia hauled out her standard soothing argument and dusted it off for reuse. “You don’t want anything of the sort. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

He slumped in his chair like a schoolboy waiting outside the principal’s office. “If you had grown up with my mother, the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother, I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

He picked at his nails, even though he knew it annoyed her. “Easy for you to say.”

Her jaw ached with the strain of not nagging him to stop. “And it’s easy for you to avoid telling her the truth. I’m tired of being the one who always has to break bad news to her.”

His face lit up; was he enjoying this? “You’re not always the one.”

She pictured him wrapping the lamp cord around his neck, jumping off the nearest bridge, sticking his pinkie into the light socket, but her tone remained sympathetic. “Who told her last year that our dog had dug up her prize begonias?”

“I was the one who broke it to her that we were getting married.”

Yeah, well, you’ve turned out to be no bargain, either, sweetheart. “Along the broad spectrum of global disasters, that ranks pretty low.”

“Again, we clearly grew up with very different mothers. Whatever affects mine is a global disaster, by definition.”

Quite a different scene, isn’t it? Not a syllable of dialogue is changed from the previous two examples, but now that we can see Hamlet’s behavior and hear Ophelia’s thoughts, the scene is infused with an adrenaline burst of conflict. On the surface, it’s not a fight, but few readers would not catch the underlying tension between these two characters.

To put it bluntly, that makes this a more interesting scene. Why? It operates on more than one level.

“But Anne,” those of you who shrink from depicting conflict on the page pipe up gently, “this makes Ophelia seem really hostile. If she were my protagonist, I would worry that readers would find her completely unlikable.”

That’s a completely legitimate concern, sweetness-mongers, but remember, in that last example, she’s not saying any of those things out loud. In fact, she is making a substantial effort not to be aggressive. She’s merely disagreeing with him.

And that would tend to render her a more interesting protagonist, from Millicent’s perspective; her inbox is perennially stuffed to the gills with books about people too nice (or too shy) to disagree with anyone, ever. Interpersonal harmony may be quite nice on the page, but it can make for some pretty stultifying dialogue.

Not sure why unvarying sugar and spice might get a tad tedious? Here is a representative sample of the kind of conflict-avoiding dialogue super-nice protagonists tend to utter.

Ophelia ran to meet Hamlet at the door. “You look exhausted, sweetheart. A bad day?”

“The worst.” He collapsed onto the couch without taking off his dust-covered jacket. “First, my stupid uncle yelled at me for being thirty seconds late to court this morning.”

“That’s awful.”

“After starting off on that delightful note, he then proceeded to lecture me for half an hour about how it was my responsibility to bring Laertes’ sword skills up to standard.”

“That’s so unfair.”

“I mean, why can’t he hire his own fencing tutor? It’s not as though I don’t have anything else to do. Dad keeps me up half the night, roaming the battlements, and Fortinbras is just waiting for my uncle to do something diplomatically stupid, so he would have an excuse to invade.”

“You’re only one person. You can’t do everything.”

He covered his face with his hand. “Sometimes, I just want to end it all.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s true.”

“Really?”

Had enough yet? Millicent has. If you’re not sure why, allow me to ask you: what precisely do Ophelia’s lines add to this scene, other than a vague undercurrent of supportiveness?

On the fence about that one? Okay, let’s apply a standard editorial test for whether a section of dialogue has slipped into the realm of monologue. Here it is again, with all but Ophelia’s first line excised.

Ophelia ran to meet Hamlet at the door. “You look exhausted, sweetheart. A bad day?”

“The worst.” He collapsed onto the couch without taking off his dust-covered jacket. “First, my stupid uncle yelled at me for being thirty seconds late to court this morning. “After starting off on that delightful note, he then proceeded to lecture me for half an hour about how it was my responsibility to bring Laertes’ sword skills up to standard. I mean, why can’t he hire his own fencing tutor? It’s not as though I don’t have anything else to do. Dad keeps me up half the night, roaming the battlements, and Fortinbras is just waiting for my uncle to do something diplomatically stupid, so he would have an excuse to invade.”

He covered his face with his hand. “Sometimes, I just want to end it all.”

Pretty much the same, isn’t it? By lobbing softball questions that do little more than prompt Hamlet to continue, Ophelia is not a full participant in this scene — she’s a bystander.

Surprisingly, while this kind of monologue-enabling behavior can seem quite supportive in real life — who doesn’t like someone to make sympathetic noises while pouring out one’s woes? — it usually does not render a protagonist more likable on the page. Why not? Well, think about it: is Ophelia helping move the plot along in the last set of examples? Or is she slowing it down by contributing dialogue that doesn’t add anything substantial to the exchange?

To be fair, a single scene of harmonious agreement is probably not going to lead the average reader to begin muttering, “Get on with it, plot.” That sort of response tends to greet the habitually non-confrontational protagonist.

But Millicent is not the average reader, is she? Particularly in dialogue gracing the opening pages of a manuscript, she wants to see not only conflict — external or internal — but dialogue that reveals character. Beyond the fact that Ophelia is generally supportive of Hamlet, what does her dialogue in that last example reveal?

So if the protagonist seems passive and not prone to complex reactions on page 1, would you keep reading just because she seems like a human being who might be nice to know in real life? Or would you shout, “Next!” and move on to the next submission in the hope of discovering a protagonist more likely to do something to move the plot along or surprise you with unexpected depth?

Don’t worry; I shan’t make you give your answer out loud. It might make you seem less likable to other writers.

Softball questions like “Really?” and “How so?” are one means of disguising monologue as dialogue. Another is to have one of the participants in a discussion go on far longer than most real-life hearers would tolerate. In everyday life, people can’t wait to give their opinions: they interrupt, ask questions, contradict, offer anecdotes from their own experience.

On the manuscript page, however, characters are all too given to waiting in tranquil silence while another character lectures them. Often, such speeches devolve into Hollywood narration, permitting the writer to wedge information that both parties already know into the dialogue, so the reader can learn about it, too.

Go ahead and pitch that softball, Ophelia, so Hamlet can take a swing at it.

“But I don’t understand,” Ophelia said. “You think your uncle did what?”

Hamlet took a deep breath, as if he were about to deliver a monologue in front of a packed house. “He poured poison into Dad’s ear while he slept in the garden. You see, Dad was still exhausted from battle; Uncle Claudius always did know how to keep refilling a wine glass without Dad’s noticing. He was a sitting duck. You know how loudly he snored; an elephant could have lumbered across the lawn, and he wouldn’t have been able to hear it. Uncle Claudius must have seen his chance to hold onto the throne — which, as you may recall, he had been occupying while Dad was off at war. Now that Dad was back, he was in line for a serious demotion.”

She shrugged impatiently. “Other people manage to adjust to a workplace organization without resorting to murder. This seems completely far-fetched to me.”

“That’s because you aren’t taking into account Uncle Claudius’ feelings for my mother. You’ve seen how he looks at her during banquets, after the mead gets flowing. He’s been after her for years, and while she’s done nothing but encourage him in public, she’s been sending him awfully mixed messages. Remember that time he nearly knocked Dad’s block off when Mom said only married or engaged couples could compete in the limbo contest? You thought she was only trying to prevent us from winning, or to push me to pop the question, but I’m positive that she was making sure no one would catch on about her secret limbo sessions with Uncle Claudius.”

“I did think that at the time, I’ll admit. But you still could be imagining most of this.”

Given how strongly Ophelia disagrees with what Hamlet is saying, it’s rather surprising that she lets him go on at such length before she even attempts to chime in, isn’t it? If this were a real-world argument, she would have jumped in every time he paused for breath.

How might a reviser know when that might be? You probably saw this one coming: by reading the scene IN ITS ENTIRETY and OUT LOUD. Unless Hamlet has the lung capacity of an Olympic swimmer, he’s not going to be able to get the extensive arguments above out of his mouth in single breaths. The exchange would probably be closer to this:

“But I don’t understand,” Ophelia said. “You think your uncle did what?”

Hamlet took a deep breath, as if he were about to deliver a monologue in front of a packed house. “He poured poison into Dad’s ear while he slept in the garden.”

She hated it when he stopped taking his medication. “Where anyone might have seen him do it?”

“But the garden was empty. Dad was still exhausted from battle; Uncle Claudius always did know how to keep refilling a wine glass without his noticing.”

“Claudius was wearing body armor that night. He couldn’t have budged without waking every bird in the garden.”

“You know how loudly Dad snored; an elephant could have lumbered across the lawn, and he wouldn’t have been able to hear it.”

She changed tactics. Maybe humoring his fantasy would calm him down. “Okay, let’s assume for the moment that it was possible. Why would your uncle want to kill his own brother?”

He looked at her as though he thought she’d tumbled off her rocker. “Because he didn’t want to give up the throne, of course. Now that Dad was back from the war…”

She shrugged impatiently. “Other people manage to adjust to a workplace organization without resorting to murder.”

“You aren’t taking into account Uncle Claudius’ feelings for my mother. You’ve seen how he looks at her during banquets, after the mead gets flowing.”

Not that old court gossip again. “Do you honestly believe that he has a chance? He’s her brother-in-law, for heaven’s sake.”

“Remember that time he nearly knocked Dad’s block off when Mom said only married or engaged couples could compete in the limbo contest?”

Darned right she remembered: Gertrude had never been light-handed with her hints about their getting married. “She just didn’t want us to win. I could limbo circles around her.”

He leaned close, whispering conspiratorially. “She was making sure no one would catch on about her secret limbo sessions with Uncle Claudius.”

Reads more like an argument, doesn’t it? That’s not only the effect of editing out the Hollywood narration: by breaking up Hamlet’s soliloquies into reasonable bursts of breath expenditure, the rhythm of the scene increases markedly.

Speaking of energy expenditure, that’s quite a few examples for a single post. Rather than lecture you further, I shall save my breath for future posts. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part III: wait — was that gigantic edifice there a moment ago? Someone signal for help!

Before we begin today, I have some delightful news to announce about a member of the Author! Author! community: Emily Breunig has just signed with fab agent Lindsay Edgecombe of Levine Greenberg! Congratulations, Emily, and welcome to the ranks of agented writers!

Her novel sounds like a hoot, too. Here’s how she described it in her query:

Will does not believe in an afterlife. Unfortunately, the afterlife seems to be fairly preoccupied with him. Shortly after his father’s death, Will moves to Shanghai to leave his old life behind. Two months into his new teaching job, Katherine Turner, his high school classmate, shows up. The only unusual thing is that she’s been dead for five years. She exists in a parallel Shanghai, a way station for wandering ghosts, and she wants Will’s help. He’d be ready to call the whole thing a hallucination, but she is eerily good at giving him accurate information about his family back home. That, and she’s seen his father. With this, Will steps into an alternate world that exists alongside the constantly changing cosmopolitan cacophony that is modern Shanghai. He is desperate to find his father, but ghosts like Katherine don’t allow the living into their space without exacting a price. A GHOST AT THE EDGE OF THE SEA is a portrait of a young expatriate trying to find his feet in a tumultuous city, in spite of his own tumultuous past.

I must admit, she had me at a parallel Shanghai. Well done, Emily, and I’m looking forward to announcing that your new agent has sold your book!

Back to the matter at hand. Have you been enjoying our foray into the niggling little manuscript elements that tend to irritate professional readers? We writing gurus tend to focus upon larger submission problems, the type of thing that might well get requested materials rejected on the spot. However, it doesn’t always take a single big mistake to trigger rejection: a series of tiny missteps can work just as well.

Especially if, like the gaffes I’ve been discussing in this series, they pop up so often in manuscripts that Millicent the agency screener wants to scream. Or at any rate, to read less charitably. Since the faux pas in this series are exceedingly common, the very sight of one of them — or, more commonly, many of them; like wolves, manuscript gaffes often travel in packs — might well be the final straw that sends her reaching for the form-letter rejection and shouting, “Next!”

Seem like an over-reaction? Not if it’s the 30th submission Millicent has seen in the last two hours that missteps within the same footprint. As much as each of us writers likes to think of our prose stylings as unique, certain catchphrases, clichés, and descriptive phrases turn up in almost everybody’s early drafts. So much so that it’s a shame, really, that so few aspiring writers have an opportunity to read other writer’s submissions; there’s nothing like reading the same phrase 75 times in a day to make one never want to read — or write — it again.

Why is that a problem in an otherwise well-written narrative? An over-reliance upon these phrases can water down individual authorial voice until it is practically inaudible.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take another gander at what the pervasive reliance upon clichés and overused actions looks like in action. To render the example even more true to life, I’ll toss in a few other common gaffes as well. See if you can spot them.

“Yeah? I could care less.” Babette snatched the phone from its cradle before the end of the first ring. “Hello?” Rolling her eyes, she held up a finger at him. “Can you hold on a sec? I have to take this call.”

Pablo sighed, but he nodded. What had started out as a two-minute conversation was bidding fair to take up his entire afternoon. His time was valuable; he had things to do, places to go, people to meet.

Five minutes later, he was still tapping his foot impatiently and drumming his fingers on the marble tabletop. He waved his hand at her. “Babs?” he whispered, gesturing toward the clock. “I’ve got to get going.”

She nodded her head absently. Her loyal staff exchanged glances and smiled.

Resigned, he took a seat, shaking his head ruefully. Perhaps his time wasn’t as valuable as he had thought.

Now, there’s nothing technically wrong with any of these sentences, right? Admittedly, nodded her head and waved his hand are logically redundant, as nodding and waving generally involve the use of the head and the hand, respectively, but otherwise, there’s nothing that would necessarily strike an everyday reader as poorly written. It’s clear enough what’s going on, merely predicable and not that exciting.

It takes more than clarity to impress a professional reader, however. As we’ve seen in the last couple of posts, though, the fine folks who read manuscripts for a living — such as our old pals, Millicent the hardworking agency screener, Maury the literature-loving editorial assistant, and Mehitabel, the dedicated volunteer contest judge — read a whole lot more closely than other people. They also tend to make up their minds far more rapidly than other readers about whether a text has merit: if the first line on the page is well-written, they will move on to the second; if the second passes muster, then it’s on to the third. And so forth until either the story draws them in completely or they have already invested so much time in reading the manuscript that they start to look for reasons to accept it, rather than excuses to reject it.

Even if our example above had fallen late in a manuscript, it’s hard to imagine Millicent’s being able to come up with many reasons to be pleased. It’s stuffed to the gills with common actions and hackneyed phrases. None of them sufficient to trigger a “Next!” on its own, perhaps, but cumulatively, they smother the scene.

At minimum, they are distractions. Instead of being able to concentrate on the story or the characters, Millicent’s psyche is busy snapping out annoyed commentary. Let’s eavesdrop on her thoughts.

“Yeah? I could care less.” {She means she couldn’t care less, and this is a cliché.} Babette snatched the phone from its cradle before the end of the first ring. “Hello?” Rolling her eyes {Overused action.}, she held up a finger at him {Whose finger — her maid’s? Albert Einstein’s? A time-traveler from the year 4075? If it’s her finger, why not just say so?}. “Can you hold on a sec? {Stock phrase.} I have to take this call.” {And another.}

Pablo sighed {Overused action.}, but he nodded. {Ditto.} What had started out as a two-minute conversation was bidding fair to take up his entire afternoon. {Not a bad thought, but in the passive voice.}His time was valuable {Cliché.}; he had things to do {Cliché.}, places to go, people to meet. {And the third time’s a charm.}

Five minutes later, he was still tapping his foot impatiently {One of the two standard actions to indicate impatience}, and drumming his fingers {And here’s the other.}, on the marble tabletop. He waved his hand at her. {Overused action — and what would he be waving, other than his hand?}, “Babs?” he whispered, gesturing toward the grandfather clock. {A weak way to indicate that it’s in the room},”I’ve got to get going.” {Stock phrase.},

She nodded her head {As opposed to, say, nodding her Achilles tendon.} absently. Her loyal staff exchanged glances {Overused action.} and smiled. {And another. And heaven forfend that the narrative should not make me guess what the content of the thoughts these completely generic actions conveyed were…}

Resigned, he took a seat {Stock phrasing}, shaking his head {Overused action.} ruefully. Perhaps his time wasn’t as valuable as he had thought. {Kind of clever, but expressed in the passive voice.}

Ouch. Especially that comment in paragraph 3 about gesturing toward the grandfather clock being a weak way to show the reader that such an object is in the room. This is an editor-annoying tactic from way back: much as an inexperienced actor will point to physical objects on the set as he names them, writers new to the game will often depict their characters gesturing toward people or items in mid-dialogue.

Why is that problematic? Well, unless the object or person magically appeared second before the description, it’s seldom the most graceful way to work the information into the narrative. Nor is it particularly realistic. Generally speaking, people notice large objects when they first spot them, not at some undefined point later on.

Yet, as Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel would be only to happy to tell you, scenes are often written as though even the most monumental portions of the scenery came panting up to the characters at the last possible moment, hastily flinging themselves into position just in time for a speaker to notice them. On the page, this phenomenon tends to look a little something like this:

“But Gisèle,” Trevor whined, “we can’t turn back now. We’re almost there.”

She tossed her tempestuous red curls. “Where is there?”

He pointed to the Empire State Building, rising up out of the concrete before them. “Right here.”

Whoa — where did that gigantic edifice come from? Did Trevor tap the sidewalk with a magic wand while the reader wasn’t looking? Did he grow it from enchanted public monument beans?

Or — and this is what Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel will simply assume is the case — did it simply not occur to the writer to show the building to the reader before it was absolutely necessary to the conversation to do so? Like, say, when it would have first come into view from the characters’ perspectives?

What might that look like on the page? Glad you asked. While I’m at it, I’m going to excise all of that long, red hair — buy Millicent a drink sometime and ask her to fill you in on just how high a percentage of novel heroines in submissions are tossing around long red or blonde hair.

Gisèle’s four-inch heels were making each block seem like a marathon course. Was that the Empire State Building she saw looming ahead, or was she beginning to hallucinate?

She stopped dead before a seedy sidewalk café. The slanted writing on the chalkboard out front implied that the writer had lost the will to live in the middle of describing the day’s specials. “I have to stop. Let’s have some coffee.”

“But Gisèle,” Trevor whined, “we’re almost there.”

See how much more natural that is? Not to mention establishing a better sense of place. In fact, I’m going to state this as a general narrative axiom: if it’s important to the scene that an object is in the general vicinity, why not just show it to the reader directly, rather than refer to it obliquely?

Actually, Millicent and Co. would have a pretty good idea why the writer didn’t choose to do that in the first version: like so many other fledgling writers, Trevor’s creator decided to have a character gesture at something big and obvious as an excuse to add a sentence indicating who was speaking. In today’s original example, if you’ll recall, the writer just went all-out and incorporated the object-identifying action into the tag line.

Five minutes later, he was still tapping his foot impatiently and drumming his fingers on the marble tabletop. He waved his hand at her. “Babs?” he whispered, gesturing toward the clock. “I’ve got to get going.”

If the reader already knows that the clock is in the room, that clumsy gesture becomes completely unnecessary. Actually, so does the tag line.

The gold-faced grandfather clock chimed six times. Fifteen minutes later, when it emitted a single ping, he was still drawing abstract shapes on the marble tabletop with his fingertip. “Babs? I’ve got to get going.”

Makes the point, doesn’t it, and in many fewer lines? This draft also helps establish the opulence of Babette’s home through the use of specific descriptive details: the gold on the clock, the marble on the table.

Relieved that our micro-revision is over? “Whew,” I hear some of you first draft-huggers murmuring, ” that was a whole lot of work for very few lines of dialogue. Still, I’m glad to know what the worst of Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel’s wrath looks like.”

The worst, you say? Au contraire, revision-eschewers. Our original example above didn’t even come close to hitting the top of Millicent’s annoyance meter.

Just think of how much less she would have liked this excerpt had all of it been written in the passive voice, for instance, or, as is fairly common, if those overused actions had been happening closer together. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the sight of the former, but I can’t resist treating you to a sample of the latter. While I’m at it, I’m going to toss in some gratuitous word repetition and stir.

The phone rang. Babette snatched the phone from its cradle before the end of the first ring. “Hello?” Rolling her eyes and shaking her head, she held up a finger at him. “Can you hold on a sec? I have to take this call. Won’t take a second.”

What had started out as a two-minute conversation was bidding fair to take up his entire afternoon. Pablo sighed, arching an eyebrow at her rudeness, but he nodded, shrugging, to indicate that he was willing to hold on while she took the call.

Five minutes later, he was still tapping his foot impatiently, drumming his fingers on the marble tabletop, glancing repeatedly at his watch, and humming the theme to The Bridge over the River Kwai to pass the time. Still no sign that she was getting off the phone anytime soon.

Sighing, he waved his hand at her. “Babs?” he whispered.

She nodded absently, arching her brows at him. “Yes?”

He resisted an urge to roll his eyes. He glanced at his watch, tapping its face with his finger as he grimaced. “I’ve got to get going.”

Her brow furrowed, but she nodded her head absently and shrugged. Her loyal staff exchanged glances, rolling their eyes at one another as they smiled at his discomfiture.

Resigned, he pulled up a chair, took a seat, and sat down, shaking his head ruefully and rolling his eyes. Perhaps his time wasn’t as valuable as he had thought.

Quite a bit more annoying, if I do say so myself. A good two-thirds of that verbiage could go, with no cost to the reader’s sense of what is going on.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that if any of us saw a real-life Babette or Pablo engage in so much simultaneous eye-rolling, eyebrow-wiggling, head-bouncing, shoulder-shrugging, and glancing pointedly at things, we’d assume that the poor soul was suffering from a severe neurological disorder. In the quotidian world, most people don’t stop their interactions dead while they grimace and gesticulate.

To be fair, infecting the characters with St. Vitus’ dance was probably not the writer’s intent here. Most aspiring writers who depict such nervous-faced and (-torsoed) characters are simply trying to convey emotion non-verbally. But by piling on so many tics and gestures — ones that sometimes replicate the dialogue, rather than adding to it — the seemingly natural actions come across as unnatural levels of activity.

Which is the most serious problem here, right? Over-writing, over-explaining, and word and phrase redundancy are secondary irritants in this version. The primary problem is all of that frenetic movement. This is a scene about waiting, yet it’s hard to imagine more physical activity had all of the dialogue been conveyed with semaphore flags. Or via interpretive dance.

Not seeing the problem — or, more likely, are you so distracted by the hackneyed phrasing and word repetition that it’s hard to focus upon it? Millicent and her ilk would sympathize. Here’s that same passage again, winnowed down to just the actual movements.

The phone rang. Babette snatched the phone. She rolled her eyes. She shook her head. She held up a finger.

Pablo sighed. He arched an eyebrow. He nodded. He shrugged.

He tapped his foot impatiently (and continuously). He drummed his fingers on the table. He glanced repeatedly at his watch. He hummed.

He sighed. He waved. He whispered.

She nodded (immediately before saying, “Yes,” a bit of redundancy bound to annoy our Millie). She arched her brows.

He glanced at his watch. He tapped its face. He grimaced.

She furrowed her brow. She nodded. She shrugged. Her staff exchanged glances. They rolled their eyes. They smiled.

He pulled up a chair. He took a seat. He sat down. He shook his head. He rolled his eyes.

Quite a lot of activity for an ostensibly quiet scene, isn’t it? Most of these actions occur more than once, too. Yet all by themselves, how much of the core conflict of this scene do these actions actually demonstrate?

Not very much. Nor do these actions reveal much about Babette and Pablo’s personalities — as the fact that they both do some of the same things implies, these activities are not unusual. They appear in the text simply because they are things that a real person might do in this situation. Apparently, the writer is laboring under the pervasive misconception that the goal of an interactive scene is to list everything that the characters did, not to limit the narration and dialogue to only what will advance the plot, reveal character, or add conflict.

In fact, I can easily conceive of a version of this scene that contained none of these actions, and yet remained true to the original spirit of the exchange. Perhaps if I imagine it hard enough, it will appear on the screen below.

Babette snatched the phone from its cradle before the end of the first ring. “Hello?” After a moment’s hard listening, she mouthed at Pablo: “Don’t move.”

What had started out as a two-minute conversation was bidding fair to take up his entire afternoon. Irritably, he grabbed a random book from the leather-bound many gracing the glassed-in shelves: Tolstoy. The gold-faced grandfather clock chimed the hour, then the quarter hour.

Still no sign that she was getting off the phone anytime soon. Unless he was planning on finishing War and Peace, he needed to assert himself. “Babs?” he whispered. “I’ve got to get going.”

She tossed him a smile over her shoulder without interrupting her conversation. The parlormaid refilled his teacup, in recompense.

Perhaps his time wasn’t as valuable as he had been accustomed to think. He tried to immerse himself in the tribulations of the Russian nobility.

Gets the job done, doesn’t it? Of course, this is only one of endless possibilities — which only underscores Millicent’s essential objection to hackneyed phrasing and the overuse of a few everyday actions. It’s not merely that seeing the same actions and phrasing over and over again across many, many manuscript pages is rather boring. She’s also likely to be disappointed that the writer is not embracing the opportunity to use that valuable page space to demonstrate how his writing style, eye for telling details, and storytelling skills are different from every other writer’s who might care to submit to her boss.

Seriously, we professional readers are saddened by the sight of an original voice diluted by the mundane. Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel, genuinely want to fall in love with a new writer’s voice, characters, and story, so when yet another manuscript appears on her desk where the writer’s voice is peppered with stock phrases, the characters do and say things that don’t demonstrate to the reader who they are, and dialogue and activity that appear simply because someone might conceivably say or do those things in that situation.

It’s the writer’s job not only to depict the world of the book believably, but enjoyably for the reader. Surprising the pros with original phrasing, unpredictable dialogue, and an appropriate level of activity for each scene is a far better means of achieving those laudable goals than just envisioning an interaction like a movie and providing a list of each motion, sound, and word the audience might see.

A simple waiting scene doesn’t need to be War and Peace, you know. As Mark Twain pointed out, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Be selective, and show Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel how your voice and worldview are unique.

They are, aren’t they? Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza XVI, in which we get downright chatty

partial pink roses

I ask you: how did it get to be Wednesday already? Clearly, some mad scientist has been sneaking into my life, boxing up hours at a time, and hauling them away to another dimension.

Or so I surmise, from the fact that I began this post yesterday morning, yet don’t seem to have posted it until this afternoon. Let’s get right down to business, before another fifteen-minute chunk just vanishes before my very eyes.

Manuscript submissions, like any other form of human communication, are subject to fashion. Nine months to a year after a surprise major bestseller hits the bookstores, for instance, agencies start seeing scads of queries for books with remarkably similar premises. About the same amount of time after a multiple-perspective novel hits it big, their inboxes are suddenly stuffed to bursting with multiple POV submissions. Even matters as small as semicolon use often, after a suitable lag for composition, enjoy the occasional renaissance.

It’s as predictable as the flowers in May — and just as likely to induce an allergic reaction in Millicent the agency screener, at least when the day’s submissions heavily à la mode. While a manuscript’s fitting neatly into an already well-established book can be a good thing, the fourth DA VINCI CODE knock-off of the morning can easily start to seem a little old.

Other trends, I must confess, catch professional readers by surprise. A few years back, about a tenth of the manuscript submissions appearing on agency doorsteps abruptly lost the second space after a period: one day, the second space was virtually universal; the next, it was as if a pair of giant hands had slapped the left and right margins of America, forcing all of those poor sentences into closer proximity with one another.

“What happened?” the pros demanded of one another, mystified. “Did I miss an industry-wide memo that the standards have just changed?”

In a manner of speaking, the people who ostensibly set those standards had. Miss Snark, a well-known agent-who-blogs of the time, had declared from behind her wall of anonymity that anyone who was anyone simply despised the second space after the period. Within a couple of weeks after she declared it verboten, agencies felt the effects, despite the fact that the standard within the industry had not actually changed.

Now, it wasn’t as though there hadn’t been banshees declaring the demise of the second period for a good decade before Miss Snark’s pronouncement: it had, in fact, been a fairly common writing-class admonition ever since some publishers started cutting it from published books in order to save paper. Surprisingly often, it was presented in precisely the same terms: the double-space convention is old-fashioned, and using it would instantly brand a writer as someone to ignore. That’s never actually been true — unless an agency or publishing house actually states a preference in its guidelines for only a single space after a period, using two is virtually unheard-of as a rejection-worthy offense all on its own — but it certainly sounds convincing, doesn’t it?

Since I already dealt with the one-space-two-space (red space, blue space?) debate in an earlier post, I shan’t go into its pros and cons again here. I merely bring it up to illustrate that although people outside of agencies and publishing houses periodically decide that this or that is the new normal for submissions, those decrees usually come as news to the fine folks on the receiving end of submissions.

You know, the individuals with actual power to change the rules in question. Imagine their surprise.

In a not entirely coincidental development, when one of these sea changes begins to take effect, Millicent’s response is just as likely to be annoyance as approval for those who have leapt on the bandwagon. In fact, the former is more likely. “Why are half the manuscripts I’ve seen today in blue ink?” she wonders. “Did someone at a writers’ conference make a joke that got misunderstood?”

Oh, it happens. And now, thanks to the Internet, such a misunderstanding can make it three times around the world before breakfast.

So when about a year ago, submissions suddenly began appearing in agencies with more than one speaker per paragraph in dialogue scenes, professional readers drew the obvious inference: either some soi-disant writing guru had declared the paragraph break between speakers so old-fashioned, or a recent bestseller had been composed by someone with a broken RETURN key, a broken right pinkie to hit it, or a deep-seated psychological aversion to clarity in dialogue.

“Why else,” Millicent has been heard to mutter, “would anyone deliberately chose a dialogue format that will confuse readers?”

You know what I’m talking about, right? Whereas traditional and — dare I say it? — old-fashioned dialogue is formatted like this:

Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips. “But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent,” Dastardly Duke replied, twirling his mustache. “Or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.”

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent, or I shall deal with you as I mentioned above.”

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“What are you, a tape recorder? You gotta pay your rent, lady.”

A handsome stranger appeared in the doorway, slightly out of breath from having missed his cue. “I’ll pay the rent.”

Polly tapped on her watch meaningfully. “My hero.”

“Curses,” Duke remarked, yawning, “foiled again.”

On the manuscript page, that exchange (and possibly a little more) would be formatted as you see below. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the type, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

dialogue format

That should look at least a trifle familiar to you: the indented paragraphs, one speaker per paragraph convention, and properly-placed quotation marks are all just what you would see in a published book, right? Obviously, though, because this page appears in a manuscript, these dialogue paragraphs are presented in standard format, just as narrative paragraphs would be.

Really, there’s only one unusual element here: did you catch the quote within the quote in paragraph 10? Because Handsome Stranger is reproducing verbiage from Dastardly’s rental ad, rustic charmer with view of railroad track appears within single quotation marks (‘), rather than doubled (“); doubled quotation marks appear around the entire speech.

Everybody’s clear on that, right? If not, now would be a delightful time to speak up.

Clear being the operative word here: while clarity is always required for professional writing, lack of clarity in dialogue is especially likely to be fatal to a submission. If the punctuation had not made it plain that Handsome was in fact quoting something, that paragraph would have made less sense. See for yourself:

“I do believe I will.” The stranger removed his fetching Mountie hat before stepping into the cabin. “I’ve been traveling all morning. The rental ad didn’t mention just how far out of town rustic charmer with view of railroad track actually was.”

Yes, Millicent might have been able to figure out from context (a) that Handsome was indeed quoting and (b) which words in the sentence were being quoted, but you have to admit, it’s not completely obvious at first glance. And one of the practices to which most overworked Millicents are allergic is reading a sentence in a submission twice, because they did not understand it completely the first time around.

The form that allergic reaction typically takes? You’ve probably already guessed: “Next!”

Seem harsh? Actually, it isn’t: conceptual clarity is the minimum expectation for professional writing, not a feature for which a submitter will receive extra credit. By definition, if a reader has to go back over a sentence a couple of times in order to figure out what’s going on in it, it’s not particularly clear.

Fortunately, even though there are three characters talking on the page above, it’s always perfectly clear who is speaking when, isn’t it? That’s because the real hero of this scene is the humble RETURN key: each speaker has his or her own paragraph.

Again, this should not come as too much of a surprise to readers familiar with how dialogue is typically presented in books. Recently, however, Millicent has found herself scratching her pretty head over exchanges like these:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips, but her obvious distress had no effect on Dastardly Duke. He twirled his mustache. “But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

See the problem? A skimmer might well assume that everything within quotation marks was Polly’s speech, and thus become — sacre bleu! — confused.

Why might a swiftly-reading observer leap to that conclusion? For one very good reason: in English prose, the character who gives the first speech in a dialogue paragraph is assumed to be the speaker for every speech within that paragraph, unless there is specific indication otherwise. If there is no tag line (he said, she said), the speaker is presumed to be the first character named in the narrative part of that paragraph.

So technically, Polly is the only speaker here. Even though there are two actors within this paragraph, there’s literally nothing in it to indicate a change of speaker. How could there be, when this paragraph violates the one speaker per paragraph rule of dialogue?

Not seeing it? Okay, let’s break down what the actual text is telling us is going on:

Polly: But I can’t pay the rent!

Polly: But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

Doesn’t make much sense, right? And to a professional reader, neither does cramming two characters’ speeches into the same dialogue paragraph. Not only is it improper, but it leads to needless confusion.

Frankly, this kind of formatting is likely to send Millicent into a sneezing fit if it happens even once in a submission; if it occurs early enough in the text, it’s likely to trigger instant rejection. If she’s in an unusually tolerant mood that day, she might continue reading, but if she spots it again, she will sneeze herself into a whirl of philosophical confusion: why, such paragraphs leave her wondering, would a writer want not to follow the one speaker per paragraph rule of dialogue? Not only is it the norm for dialogue, but it fends off that bugbear of submissions everywhere, conceptual confusion.

If the practice appears to be habitual, she is forced to come to one of only two possible conclusions: either the writer was trying to save a line by not hitting the RETURN key (a sneaky practice which, over the course of an entire manuscript, might actually trim quite a few pages from an over-long dialogue-heavy submission), or he was simply unaware that — wait for it — the character who gives the first speech in a dialogue paragraph is assumed to be the speaker for every speech within that paragraph.

Neither conclusion is, I’m afraid, going to make her think particularly highly of the manuscript in question; either would be ample justification for rejection. Think about it: both a writer unfamiliar with the rules of dialogue nor one who believes that Millicent won’t notice or care if he bends them are likely to be rather time-consuming to represent; their learning curves will need to be pretty sharp in order to work successfully with an editor at a publishing house. Or, indeed, with an agent in preparing a submission to said editor.

But that’s not why misformatting dialogue is potentially fatal to a submission, at least not all by itself. Like not indenting one’s paragraphs, not adhering to the one speaker/one paragraph rule implies, among other things, that one does not read a great deal of English prose containing dialogue. And that’s an extremely dangerous impression to create with a submission, as the publishing industry has long favored writers it perceives as unusually literate.

It’s hard to blame them for that preference, considering that the people who harbor it tend to be the ones correcting any deviations from standard punctuation and grammar. Agents and editors know from experience that a writer who doesn’t pay attention to — or doesn’t know — how to format or punctuate dialogue is simply more time-consuming to guide down the curvy path to publication.

Indeed, many agents feel — and rightly — that it isn’t really their job to play the grammar police. One of the basic requirements of being a professional writer is knowing the rules governing English prose, after all.

You would think this tenet would send aspiring writers everywhere stampeding toward community colleges to enroll in basic composition classes, wouldn’t you? As Millicent’s inbox abundantly demonstrates these days, that’s one trend that doesn’t seem to be sweeping the nation.

Did a dragon just fly by, or are some of you hyperventilating? “But Anne,” the puzzled gasp, “isn’t it just a tad unreasonable to draw sweeping conclusions about someone’s literacy based upon just a couple of paragraphs of dialogue? I mean, take another look at that last example: it’s pretty obvious from context that Dastardly is saying the second speech, isn’t it? Would it kill Millicent to extrapolate? Or even just to read it twice, if she’s gotten confused?”

Not kill her, perhaps, but definitely irk her: remember, many screeners will not re-read, on general principle. Bear in mind, too, that Millicent is often reading very, very quickly — she has a lot of submissions to get through in a day, recall, and it’s her job to reject most of what she reads. If she finds a dialogue scene when she skims, she’s likely to reject the manuscript, even if someone reading at a normal pace might be able to follow the passage in question.

Fortunately, there’s a magic fix: hit the RETURN key between speakers. Look at how few keystrokes remove any potential for confusion from our last example.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips.

Her obvious distress had no effect on Dastardly Duke. He twirled his mustache. “But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

Problem solved — and at no cost to the meaning of the original exchange. To reiterate Millicent’s earlier question, why wouldn’t a writer want to do it this way?

She also is left to wonder far more often than strikes her as reasonable why so many submissions of late have taken to violating the one speaker/actor per paragraph rule. All too often, she finds herself confronted with dialogue formatted like this:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now.” She quailed before the rope he brandished. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

If we apply the principle that the first character named in a dialogue paragraph (in this case, she) is the presumed speaker, confusion once again reigns. Not sure why? When in doubt, break the exchange down into a play.

Polly: But I can’t pay the rent! So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

Again, it doesn’t make much logical sense — and it’s not Millicent’s job to re-read it until it does. She’s likely to shout, “Next!” before she even notices that second paragraph presents effect (quailing) before it shows cause (brandishing).

Far, far easier simply to observe the rule that dictates in a dialogue paragraph, the speaker and the primary actor should be the same. If they are not, add a tag line to render who is speaking completely clear to the reader.

Let’s take a gander at both of those principles in practice, shall we? If we separate each speaker/actor by simply hitting the return key as needed, the confusion vanishes.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now.”

She quailed silently before the rope he brandished.

“Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

This isn’t an especially stylish solution, is it? The cause-effect reversal is still there — and technically, it takes at least two sentences to make up a narrative paragraph. Let’s experiment with adding a tag line, so see if we can’t clear up matters:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now,” he said wearily, brandishing the rope at her. She quailed before it. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

Perfectly clear who is doing what now, is it not? While adult fiction tends to minimize tag lines in two-person dialogue, where simple alternation of paragraphs will let the reader know who is speaking when, there is nothing wrong with this last example. Indeed, were this a three-person dialogue, the tag line would be actually necessary, since paragraph alternation works only with two speakers.

Not sure why? Let’s take another peek at that three-person exchange, this time with the speaker identification removed:

dialogue 3 speakers no IDs

Rather difficult to follow the players without a program, isn’t it? In multiple-speaker dialogue, frequent reminders of who is speaking when are downright necessary.

Remember: clarity, clarity, clarity.

In two-person dialogue that adheres to the one speaker/actor per paragraph rule, though, frequent reminders of who is speaking, especially in the form of tag lines, are seldom required, or even helpful. Obviously, the narrative must establish who the speakers are, but once they fall into an alternating rhythm of exchange, most readers will be able to follow who is speaking when — provided that the exchange does not go on for too long, of course, and the two speakers have distinct points of view.

There’s another reason to minimize tag lines in adult fiction. To a professional’s eye, too many he said/she cried reminders can come across as a bit storybookish, as if the narrative were going to be read aloud. A higher level of speaker identification is required in dialogue that’s heard, rather than read: since the hearer cannot see those nifty paragraph breaks that differentiate speakers on the page, she would have a hard time telling the players apart without the narrative’s actually stating who is speaking when.

As much as I would like to sign off and leave you to ponder these weighty issues, I cannot in good conscience leave the issue of dialogue behind without bringing up yet another of Millicent’s tag line-related pet peeves. See if you can diagnose it in the following example — or rather, them. Only one of the three tag lines below is correct.

“I told you so,” Polly pointed to the oncoming train. “That’s the five-ten.”

Dastardly fumbled with the ropes, “But it’s only 4:45! I have should have twenty-five minutes to tie you to the tracks!”

“You’d better hurry up, then,” she said, inspecting her manicure.

If you spotted the third paragraph as the correct one, award yourself a gold star and a pat on the back. “You’d better hurry up, then,” she said, inspecting her manicure.
is a properly-formatted tag line, properly punctuated.

So what’s the problem with the first two dialogue paragraphs?

If you immediately cried out, “By gum, Anne, neither pointed nor fumbled are verbs related to speech,” take yourself out to dinner. A verb in a tag line — and thus form a continuation of the sentence containing the quote, rather than a separate sentence — must at least imply the act of comprehensible noise coming out of a mouth: said, asked, whispered, shouted, exclaimed, asserted, etc.

Since neither pointed nor fumbled are speaking verbs, they cannot take the place of said in a tag line. Thus, the commas are incorrect: Polly pointed to the oncoming train and Dastardly fumbled with the ropes are not continuations of the dialogue sentences in their respective paragraphs, but separate sentences. They should have been punctuated accordingly.

“I told you so.” Polly pointed to the oncoming train. “That’s the five-ten.”

Dastardly fumbled with the ropes. “But it’s only 4:45! I have should have twenty-five minutes to tie you to the tracks!”

Admittedly, that last one is a matter of punctuation, rather than formatting, but as I believe I have mentioned approximately 1,500 times throughout the last few months of ‘Paloozas, writing problems tend to flock together. Especially these days, when the length restrictions of Twitter and Facebook status updates have accustomed so many of us to seeing writing without punctuation.

As any professional reader could tell you to her chagrin, the more one sees incorrect punctuation, spelling, grammar, and formatting, the greater the danger that it will start looking right to one on the page, even if one is aware of the rule dictating its wrongness. So in moving swiftly to reject incorrectly put-together dialogue, Millicent is not only out to protect the language — she’s practicing self-defense.

At the risk of sounding like an editor (funny how that happens from time to time), if you find that you’re starting to become fuzzy about what looks right and what wrong, consult an authoritative source; just assuming that what you see in print must be right is no longer necessarily a good rule of thumb. And if, to the everlasting shame of the educational system that nurtured you, no one ever taught you the rules in the first place, or if they have faded in your recollection, consider investing a couple of months in a basic composition class; most community colleges in the U.S. offer solid refreshers at a very reasonable price.

Seriously, it’s not a bad idea to go in for a grammar tune-up once or twice a decade. Millicent’s not the only one barraged with omitted punctuation, misspelled words, and overlooked grammar rules, after all.

Just something to ponder. Next time, I shall be moving back to pure formatting issues. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

First Pages That Grab: Janine Southard’s Which Star My Destination

Janine Southard author photo

Have you been enjoying these last few winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, campers? I have — they’ve been providing us with a great deal of material for discussion, especially about the joys and challenges of writing YA. I’m toying with running a similar contest in January specifically for literary fiction and memoir, so we could have a nice, jolly time delving into the peculiarities of those highly specialized book categories.

Hands up, readers who would be interested in that.

While you’re giving that some thought, let’s turn to another winner in the YA category, Janine Southard’s WHICH STAR MY DESTINATION. I’ve got to say, by the time I finished reading Janine’s book description, I had already thought of four YA readers for whom I would buy this book for Christmas were it already out. It’s a real grabber of a premise. Take a gander:

When high school is over, Zheng still doesn’t know what to do with his life. Worse, his friends are all moving on, following their dreams, and getting off the planet Hartwell. As one last adventure together, Zheng packs up his interstellar automobile — which he modified in his parents’ garage — for a road trip, taking his university-bound friend to college.

When he and his best friends reach Luna City, Zheng stumbles across what looks like a scholarship scam, but his investigative mind uncovers the truth…revealing an alien organization quietly preparing the human race for galactic culture. Now Zheng knows what he wants to do: he intends to culturally prepare the aliens for humanity.

Yet from the first page of text, it is not entirely clear whether this is a YA book. Why not? See for yourself — and, as always, if you are having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing the + key to enlarge the image.

Southard page 1

Actually, let’s pause a moment before we consider the content in order to examine this page cosmetically. While this page is very close, it isn’t entirely in standard format for manuscripts: there’s a double-spaced line of empty space missing between the chapter heading and the first line of text, and while the dashes are properly doubled, there should be spaces between each end and the words immediately preceding and following them.

Let’s look it again without those distractions, shall we?

Southard revision1

And already, hands have sprouted up all across the galaxy. “But Anne,” the sharper-eyed residents of the universe point out, “you added more space at the top. How on earth did you manage to cram all of the sentences in the original onto the revised page?”

Oh, that was easy, galactic nitpickers: I merely eliminated one of the two single-sentence paragraphs. As we have discussed before, in English prose — at least of the non-journalistic variety — it takes at least two sentences to make up a narrative paragraph. So while single-sentence paragraphs are fine in dialogue, Millicent tends to frown at them anywhere else, at least in fiction submissions. (Due to the phenomenon’s ever-increasing prevalence in journalism, she’s less likely to react negatively to them in nonfiction submissions.) The higher the education level of the intended audience, the more negative her reaction will be.

So if you like how a single-sentence narrative paragraphs look on the page, and you happen to be writing mainstream, literary, or high-end women’s fiction, you might want to reserve the convention for only those moments when what is revealed in that single sentence is genuinely startling enough to be able to carry its own paragraph. That way, the very rarity of its occurrence will add to its impact.

Behind you — aliens!

See? Standing all by itself, that statement is much more startling than if it were merely tacked onto the end of the preceding paragraph — or, sacre bleu! buried in the middle of it. A skimming eye (like, say, a weary Millicent’s when screening her 57th page 1 of the day) may well skip lines mid-paragraph, so if an action is important, a piece of characterization essential, or a sentence particularly lovely, you might want to make sure it appears in either the first or the last line of the paragraph.

Or, if the information is once-in-a-manuscript important, in its own one-line paragraph. There’s a reason that journalists tend to present the most important planks of their arguments in single-sentence paragraphs: the eye jumps right to ‘em.

Speaking of things to which the reader’s eye jumps, did you find all of the capitalization distracting? Most Millicents would have. Obviously, some of it is unavoidable — place and people names do need to sport capital first letters, after all — but some is by choice. Compounding the problem: many of these choices appear quite close to each other in the text.

Not sure why that might be distracting for our Millie? Okay, let’s look at the page again, a capitalization-sensitive reader might see it. While I’m at it, I’m going to highlight the word and phrase repetition as well. See if anything in particular jumps out at you:

Janine repetition sheet

There’s a fair amount of word and phrase repetition here — more acceptable in YA than in adult fiction, of course, but still a pet peeve for many Millicents — but I’d like you to focus on the underlined bits in particular. Do you notice anything about them?

If you squinted at those little lines and immediately cried, “Wow, that’s quite a few instances of the verb to be,” you get a gold star for the day. That particular verb appears in various forms no fewer than 14 times on this page. 4 of those times are in the first paragraph — and in a type of sentence structure that is an even more common submission red flag. Any guesses?

If you pointed to the first few sentences of the story and said, “Hey, those are in the passive voice,” pat yourself on the back sixty-seven times. All of those it was constructions are indeed in the passive voice: instead of actors doing things, the sentences presents things as occurring all by themselves.

Again, this is rather more accepted in YA than in adult fiction, and the younger the target reader, the more acceptable the passive voice is deemed to be. (And yes, both of those last two sentences were in the passive voice. Take another gold star out of petty cash.) Unfortunately for lovers of to be and it was, most Millicents — indeed, most professional fiction readers — are explicitly taught that the passive voice is the least creative way of saying, well, almost anything. So opening a book with several instances of it in a row might well raise some professional eyebrows.

It is worth noting, however, that the only judges who were not bothered by this were the YA authors. But then, they didn’t mind the single-sentence paragraphs, either.

Again: norms vary by book category. If you want to find out what is and is not considered good writing in yours at the moment, there’s just no substitute for going to a well-stocked bookstore on a regular basis, seeking out the shelves devoted to the type of book you write, and plopping yourself down to read the opening pages of some recent releases.

Even better, you could buy new releases in your chosen category. Or ask Santa to do it for you, because what’s a better gift than professional development in the career you want most in your heart of hearts to pursue?

Did you spot any other potential distractions from the story here? Let’s take a gander at what Millicent might have scrawled in the margins.

Janine's edit1

Ah, at last we are starting to talk about plot and characterization. The story definitely drops the reader into an exciting conflict right away — good move, Janine! — but by YA standards, the description of the environment is rather scanty. YA is known for its vivid, sensual descriptions, but other than that very vivid purple imagery in the first paragraph — again, nice choice, Janine — the reader doesn’t gain a very strong sense of what it feels like to be on Luna.

Including just a few more physical details would make all the difference here — and for YA, a great way to do that is through the protagonist’s bodily sensations. Is the gravity heavier on Luna than on Hartwell, for instance, or lighter? Is Does the sunshade affect how plants grow? Are there any plants — and if so, could Zheng be allergic to one of them, because he’s not used to it?

Another prime target for descriptive expansion is the crowd. Are the people in the room all humanoid? Are any of them humanoid? Who is the group, and how can Zheng tell that they are the ones in authority — over and above the death threats, that is? Are the con artists restrained in any way? Is he? Are they close enough together to create a distinctive smell, or to increase the heat in the room?

And so forth. The possibilities here are practically endless; just remember that unless the narrative gives the reader hints of what the environment and characters looks, sound, smell, taste, etc., the author cannot be certain that every reader will envision the same thing. For some details, it’s fine to let the reader’s imagination run free; for others, it can throw off understanding of the plot.

Not sure what the latter might look like in practice? Well, if Zheng’s captors had three arms, when would you want to learn about it, when they first appear in the book, or just after one of them grabs our hero and two other captives as they try to escape?

I want to talk about two more pieces of marginalia, then I shall move to the punch line. In the next-to-last paragraph, the narrative between the dialogue indulges in a few devices quite common for a submission, but rare in published books. Here’s the relevant piece of dialogue, ripped out of context for your tag line-considering pleasure:

“You know far more than you should, and we must keep you from speaking,” the group’s Speaker proclaimed stiltedly to fidgeting from other swindlers around the room. “We should simply kill you, but we’re peaceful people. I’m not going to start killing now.” She paused, then qualified, “Unless you give me no choice.”

Did you spot all three? No? Okay, let’s take them in the order they appear. First, the adverb in the initial tag line, stiltedly, is a trifle awkward — and all the more likely to be noticed as such, because there was an entire generation of English students taught to avoid using adverbs in tag lines at all. Some of you must remember that old writing truism, right? The dialogue itself should demonstrate to the reader just how things were said; lose the -ly words, already.

This writing advice is far less common now, and its adherents certainly less vitriolic, than way back in the day, but it was so influential that millions of Baby Boomers ran terrified out of their English classes, absolutely convinced that they should never use adverbs, ever.

Why should a writer of today worry about that misconception? Millicent may be the child of one of those students. Or the grandchild. Or — brace yourself — the employee.

Just use adverbs with discrimination, okay?

Let’s move on to the second issue: what’s going on just after that adverb isn’t completely clear, is it? The causative to construction is fairly common in submissions, used to indicate that what happens after the to was in response to what came before it.

Unfortunately, a skimming eye often misses the implication. In a manuscript, then, it’s usually safer to spell out causation. Heck, we can even toss in one of those much-maligned adjectives:

“You know far more than you should, and we must keep you from speaking,” the group’s Speaker proclaimed. The swindlers around the room fidgeted uncomfortably.

The third issue is a subtle one, but a surprisingly pervasive professional readers’ pet peeve. “Why, in heaven’s name,” Millicent mutters under her breath, “do aspiring writers insist upon telling me every time a speaker hesitates for so much as an instant? In and of itself, it’s seldom either character- or situation-revealing.”

It’s pretty clear why Janine chose to insert a pause here — to increase the menace of the threat — but you must admit, Millie has a point. The mere fact of pausing doesn’t add all that much to the speech. If the speaker did something more specifically threatening, the menace in could be heightened considerably. Perhaps even by employing an adverb!

“We should simply kill you, but we’re peaceful people. I’m not going to start killing now.” Her ice-gray eyes swept the room contemptuously. “Unless you give me no choice.”

Now that your eyes are sharpened to the particulars, I’m going to ask you to step back, consider the overall picture again — and revisit that burning issue from the beginning of the post. Re-read that first page: does this voice and worldview strike you as inherently and necessarily YA?

If you’re unsure, ask yourself this question: based upon this page alone, just how old do you think the protagonist is?

To the judges’ collective eye, there was no indication here that Zheng was not a full-fledged adult — not the usual choice for the protagonist of a YA book. (Adults drop students off at college all the time, right?) Admittedly, there’s also nothing here that indicates he couldn’t be a teenager, but that might not be enough to stop an impatient Millicent looking to screen out the overwhelming majority of the submissions on her desk that day from huffing, “Oh, this isn’t YA. Next!”

Since we liked the voice, the premise, and the leap right into conflict — well done, Janine! — we wanted to flag this problem. It’s one that dogs many a YA submission, particularly now that so many writers of adult fiction have been tempted by the category’s popularity into switching teams, as it were. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-record8YA has its own distinctive conventions, particularly with respect to voice and subject matter. If it is not apparent from the first paragraph of page 1 that a manuscript is YA, even the best-written YA manuscript runs the risk of rejection on that ground alone.

Not sure in this case? Take another peek at that first page, then ask yourself: is the central conflict of this scene one to which a teenager could relate?

The judges felt — and I concur heartily — that being lectured by an authority figure because one has found out a truth one shouldn’t have might strike teen readers as somewhat familiar. Particularly the part about not speaking up about it. The black-and-white nature of the authority figures’ logic (I’m not going to start killing now… Unless you give me no choice.) would also be more likely to appeal to teenage sensibilities than those of adult readers; in adult fiction, superlatives and extremes tend not to play as well.

A different definitional ambiguity troubled the judges in the book category description. In answer to the question how will this manuscript add something new and exciting to its book category? Janine provided the judges with a rather interesting response:

Which Star My Destination takes the themes of exploration and road trips to grand scale by involving the entire universe. It also reminds us that, different personalities aside, teenagers are faced with the same situations and feelings, even in the far-flung future. Plus, spaceships!

Plus, spaceships! saved this description at judging time, frankly; blanket assertions often raise more questions than they answer in book descriptions. While the notion of a universe-wide road trip was amusing (if rather reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the fantasy writer on the panel was nonplused by the assertion that an exploration story was unusual simply because its extent was intergalactic — that has been a staple of science fiction since its inception, has it not? Other, more historically-minded judges wondered how we could be certain that teenagers in the far future would face the same situations as those today, as it would be difficult to argue that the teenagers of two hundred years ago did, or even the teens of thirty years ago, when feelings-based YA really hit its stride as a book category.

Unsure if that’s true? Try reading Paul Zindel’s classic, Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball; the protagonist’s frequent emotional and even physical abuse of his love interest barely raised eyebrows in 1978, but it would have to be handled as the central problem of the story today. Or E.L. Konigburg’s 1967 Newberry Award-winning From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where two children run away from an apparently perfect home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; if it were written now, there would be some serious problems in that household, and at least one responsible adult would experience some qualms about sending those kids back.

Fortunately, the first page was enough of a grabber to cause even the skeptical judges to want to read more — and the book description’s nod to Jerome Beatty, Jr.’s much-loved Matthew Looney series brought a smile to many a child of the 1970s’ face. All agreed that the combination was a potentially powerful one.

There’s a moral to all of this library-oriented reminiscence, should you care to know it. Any given manuscript will not be the first book in an agent’s chosen book category that she or her staff will have read; if they like those kinds of books enough to devote their lives to representing them, it’s a good bet that everyone concerned has read a wide array of them.

Why is that important for a submitter to know? Because in order to wow Millicent the agency screener, a manuscript is not merely competing with the other submissions of recent months; it’s also competing with all the similar books she has ever read. It had better compare favorably.

While competing with the classics in one’s genre is a tall order, the writers of today enjoy a considerable advantage: you are aware of today’s cultural expectations (“Wait — the female protagonist is supposed to DO something, not just wait around to be rescued? “YA writers of the 60s and 70s marvel), demographic trends (“Hey, when did living with one’s still-married birth parents stop being the norm?”), and, yes, recent bestsellers. (“Tell me why precisely we’re supposed to find vampirism sexy?”)

Current YA writers also reap the benefits of writing during an exciting burgeoning of the category. Boundaries are being pushed; experiments are being wrought, and a diverse array of individual voices of unprecedented complexity is being welcomed. (And yes, all of that was in the passive voice; good eye.)

Janine is poised to take advantage of this expansion with a story that seems interesting, exciting — and a whole lot of fun. Just what a road trip should be.

Keep pressing those boundaries, everyone — and, as always, keep up the good work!