Continuing our discussion of standard format for book manuscripts: not all truths are self-evident

gumballs

Hard to believe anyone in his right mind would actually need to be told that those are gumballs, isn’t it? They strike me as the epitome of the breed: large, spherical, colorful, and — dare I say it? — potentially jaw-breaking. Yet clearly, at some point in the probably not-too-distant past, some passing myopic presumably asked the proprietor, “What are those, gumballs?”

Or maybe it was not a solitary forgetter of much-needed spectacles, or even a half-dozen passers-by with a shared clawing, pathological need to have even their most mundane personal observations confirmed by external sources. Perhaps the poor proprietor simply got tired of answering the same question 4,217 times per week and slapped up a sign.

Those of us who work with manuscripts for a living can sympathize. Merely breathing an editor (or my preferred title, a book doctor), preceded by the pronoun I and the verb to be in quick succession, anywhere in the vicinity of someone harboring even the slightest urge to pen the Great American Novel is to invite an avalanche of questions about manuscripts: how to get them published, how to position them under the eyes of an agent, how to keep them from getting rejected, and, surprisingly often, what they should look like.

Perfectly reasonable questions all, of course: no writer, regardless of how many times the Muses may have whacked her with their talent wands, is born knowing all about the practical aspects of manuscript production. As Plato suggests in his Theaetetus (oh, you thought I was just a pretty face?), in order to recognize something for what it truly is, one first must have a mental image of that thing with which to match it.

To put it a trifle less esoterically: it’s much, much harder to make your pages look right if you’ve never seen a professionally-formatted book manuscript. Call me zany, but in my experience, the best remedy for that is to show aspiring writers — wait for it — a few dozen examples of professionally-formatted book manuscript pages, rather than making them guess.

In close-up, even, as in the first post in this series. I like to think of this endeavor as both pleasing to ol’ Plato and a serious contribution to, if not the future of literature, at least to human happiness. Too many good writers have gotten rejected over the years for not being aware of the rules, or even that rules exist.

Look, kid, here’s a gumball. Study it well, so you may recognize it in the wild.

I know: how nice would it have been had some kind soul discreetly pulled you aside 35 seconds after you first decided to write a book and explained that to you, right? If you’re like most writers, it would have saved you a tremendous amount of time and chagrin to have known before you sat down to compose page 1 that since (a) all professional book manuscripts in the U.S. look more or less alike and (b) any writer who has worked with an agent or publisher would presumably be aware of that, (c) those of us who read for a living can often tell just how long an aspiring writer has been at it by the briefest glance at the page. Thus, contrary to what virtually every aspiring writer completely reasonably presumes at first, (d) one of the best things you can do to get your writing taken seriously by the pros is to format it according to their expectations.

Let me guess, though: you did not tumble squalling into this world knowing any of that, did you? The weird thing is that neither were agents, editors, contest judges, or screeners. Once you’ve had the benefit of seeing a few hundred thousand correctly-formatted manuscript pages, however, you don’t even have to look very hard to notice the difference between a page 1 like this:

And one that looked like this:

You can see the difference from halfway across the room, can you not? So, as it happens, can Millicent the agency screener, her boss, the agent of your dreams, and the editor who will someday, the Muses willing, acquire your book. That’s the inevitable result of experience. Year in, year out, come rain, shine, or hailing wildcats, we cast our eyes over book manuscripts done right and, well, the other kind.

And that, in case any of you perplexed by how much of the information about manuscript formatting floating around out there seems to come from somewhere in the ether, rather than directly from, say, an agency or a publishing house, is why professional readers don’t spend much time doing what I’m sure a lot of aspiring writers positively long for us do, policing the Internet for rogue advice on manuscript formatting. Why would someone who already familiar with the rigors and beauties of standard format bother to look it up online, much less fact-check?

We already know a properly-formatted page when we see it — and when we don’t. “What do you mean — are those gumballs?” we mutter, incredulous. “Isn’t it self-evident?”

So strongly do some of us have the Platonic standard manuscript page in mind that it might not even occur to us that, say, there exist writers in the English-speaking world not aware of what a slug line is. It astounds us to hear that indented paragraphs are not the automatic choice of every literate person. It makes sense to us that, as much as anyone might want to conserve paper, submitting a manuscript printed on both the front and back sides and/or — sacre bleu! — spiral- or perfect-bound would generally result in its being rejected unread.

Because we are so steeped in the standard format tradition, even the smallest deviation from it draws our attention like the lone zebra in a crowd of centaurs. How could it not affect our perception of a writer’s eye for detail to discover that s/he apparently thought her page 2 would look better like this:

Than like this:

Less obvious that time, wasn’t it? Still, I suspect you were unlikely to confuse the bona fide gumball with the stick of spearmint. Unless, of course, you’d heard someplace that the last thing Millicent ever want to see in gum is a spherical shape.

Oh, don’t bother to deny it — most aspiring writers glean at least a bit of misinformation while constructing their first book-length manuscripts. How do I know? Those of us who spend any time at all around aspiring writers find ourselves constantly in the position of being asked to confirm what to us has become through long experience self-evident. Even more often, we’re called upon to defend the shape of the Platonic gumball to those who have heard somewhere that even so much as a curled-up edge will result in instant and contemptuous rejection.

“What do you mean, paragraphs have to be indented?” writers who have entertained alternate theories often snap at us, flabbergasted. “I’ve heard that’s considered old-fashioned now. And are you mad, recommending doubled dashes?”

Since either of those formatting innovations would be news to folks who read manuscripts for a living, it can be a bit trying to be told otherwise, sometimes at ear-splitting volumes, early and often. Even as a great proponent of explanations as yours truly tends to find it wearying the 87th time in any given month that a total stranger burning for publication accosts me like the Ancient Mariner, wanting to spend two hours arguing about the latest rumor flying around the web about how standard format has abruptly altered in some fundamental-yet-mysteriously-secret manner rightly understood by only whatever generous soul chose to promulgate the change.

No one knows who this public benefactor is, of course; aspiring writers seeking confirmation of such rumors name their sources so seldom that by the turn of the century, I had begun to think of them collectively as He Who Must Not Be Named. (Take that, Voldemort!) In recent years, however, I have rechristened this shadowy figure by the name his proponents must often cite: But I heard…

But I Heard is an insidious opponent, believe you me, as only a faceless entity can be — he seems to be everywhere. His power, as nearly as I can tell, stems almost entirely from his amorphousness. Because it’s impossible to find out where he’s getting his ostensibly inside information, no amount of proof can refute his arguments to his adherents’ satisfaction; because he so seldom explains himself, logic has been known to bounce right off him and hit innocent bystanders. And that’s kind of annoying to those of us who juggle manuscripts on a daily basis, because But I Heard seems to be retailing some pretty wacky notions these days.

That puzzles the pros: standard format for manuscripts actually hasn’t changed all that much since Saul Bellow was a callow youth, much less since he shuffled off this mortal coil. Once typed manuscripts became the norm, standard format pulled up a chair and stayed for a while. And contrary to astoundingly popular opinion, it has shifted in its seat relatively little since Truman Capote joined the choir invisible.

But that’s not what you’ve heard, is it? The rise of the personal computer has made less of a difference than But I Heard would have you believe. Oh, underlining is out and italics are in to designate words in foreign languages (in the post-Capote universe, one should never underline anything in a book manuscript; I’ll be getting to that), and how one actually figures out how much to indent a paragraph has altered a bit with the adoption of Microsoft Word as the industry standard for electronic submission (unlike a typewriter, Word measures its tabs in fractions of an inch, not character spaces). Overall, though, the professionally-formatted book manuscript of today quite closely resembles the professionally-formatted book manuscript of, say, 1958.

Which is to say: not very much like the short stories of that very good year for short stories. The gumball’s shape has not altered much over that period, either.

The relative lack of change, But I Heard tells me, is far from self-evident. He would prefer to believe that all writing should be formatted identically, regardless of type. In that, alas, he is misinformed: short story format is different from standard format for books and book proposals, and has been for quite some time. So are essay format, academic format, journalistic format, and even how a published book will look on a page.

That very notion makes But I Heard squirm. But that’s not going to stop me from saying what I know from experience to be true: book manuscripts presented in standard format look professional to people who handle book manuscripts for a living. If those are the people a writer is trying to please, does it really matter what anybody else thinks writing should look like on the page?

Does that mean every professional reader, everywhere, every time, will want to see your work formatted as we have been discussing? No, of course not: should you happen to be submitting to an agent, editor, or contest that specifically asks you to do something other than I advise here, obviously, you should give him, her, or it what he or his stated guidelines request.

That’s just common sense, right? Not to mention basic courtesy. Yet judging by the plethora of ambient speculation on the subject, it’s not self-evident.

Yet if an agent or agency has been considerate enough of its future clients to post submission guidelines, it just makes sense to acknowledge their efforts. I would actively encourage every writer currently milling about the earth’s crust not only to check every agency’s website, every time, to make sure that any individual agent to whom you were planning to submit does not harbor alternate preferences — some do — but also to Google him, to double-check that he hasn’t stated in some public forum that, for instance, he is so deeply devoted to paper conservation that he actively prefers only a single space after a period or a colon. Or that due to a childhood trauma involving a newspaper (she doesn’t like to talk about it), she positively twitches at the sight of Times New Roman instead of Courier. Or that a particular agency’s staff believes that a doubled dash is the secret symbol of the kind of murderous cult that used to populate 1970s horror movies.

Really, though, if the agent of your dreams says he wants to see your submission formatted a particular way, can you think of any particular reason you wouldn’t want to honor that preference?

“I can think of one!” But I Heard shouts. “It would be considerably less work to format my manuscript once and submit it that way to every agent currently drawing breath, rather than taking the time to hunt down a specific agent’s expressed preferences, saving a separate copy of one’s manuscript, applying those preferences to it (and only it), and sending a personalized version to that agent. Why, think of how time-consuming to go through those same steps for every agent, every time!”

It might be, if alternate preferences were either widespread (they’re not, particularly) or often posted on agency websites (see previous parenthesis). At the risk of repeating myself, standard format is called that for a reason.

But I Heard certainly has a point, though. He also has, as you may have noticed over the years, an exceedingly simple means of promoting that point and ones just like it: by leaping to the conclusion that because one has a strong preference for a non-standard format element, every agent or agency must necessarily have tossed all previous norms to the winds in order to embrace that preference. And, for reasons best known to themselves, they’ve elected not to notify any working author you might care to mention about this monumental collective decision, preferring instead to disseminate the information via the much more reliable and trustworthy game of Telephone.

You remember that game, right? The first kid whispers a secret to the person next to her; #2 repeats what he heard to #3, and so on around the circle. By the time the news has passed through a dozen pairs of lips, the original content has become so transfigured in transit that it’s hardly recognizable.

I hate to spoil But I Heard’s good time — there’s little he likes better than inflating something someone said someone else overhead an agent said say at a conference once upon a time into the new trend sweeping the nation — but personal preferences do in fact exist. And contrary to what you might have heard, agents and agencies that favor specific deviations from standard format tend not to be all that shy about mentioning them.

In case I’m being too subtle here: check their websites. Or their listings in one of the major guides to literary agents.

Do I spot some timid hands raised out there in the ether? “But Anne,” point out some confused by conflicting advice — and who could blame them, given how busy But I Heard has been in recent years? “I’ve been checking websites, and the overwhelming majority of agency websites I’ve found don’t talk about manuscript format at all. Does that mean that they don’t care about how I present my writing?”

Of course, they care, but standard format is just that: standard. If what they want is a gumball, why should they take the time to explain that they don’t desire a bar of chocolate?

Yes, But I Heard? You would like to add something? “I get it,” he moans, rattling the Jacob Marley chains appropriate to his disembodied state. “All my long-time nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, cares about in a submission is how it looks, not how it is written. How literature has tumbled from its pedestal! No one cares about good writing anymore!”

Did you see what that dastardly wraith just did to my non-threatening piece of sugar-laden analysis? But I Heard is a past master at ripping statements out of context, blowing them out of proportion, and whisking them off to parts unknown to their original utterers. But you’re too savvy, I’m sure, to join him in the wild surmise that Millicent’s paying attention to how a manuscript looks means, or even implies, that how a submission is written doesn’t make a difference. Of course, writing talent, style, and originality count. Yet in order to be able to appreciate any of those properly, a reader has to approach the page with a willingness to be wowed.

That willingness can wilt rapidly in the face of incorrect formatting — which isn’t, in response to what But I Heard just shouted in your ears, necessarily the result of mere market-mindedness on Millie’s part. After you’ve read a few thousand manuscripts, deviations from standard format leap out at you. As will spelling and grammatical errors, phrase repetition, clich?s, telling rather than showing, and all of the tried-and-true submission red flags about which But I Heard has been kind enough to keep us informed over the years.

Again, he has a legitimate point: all of these are distractions from your good writing. So, as it happens, are deviations from standard format, to a reader used to seeing writing presented that way. That means, in practice, that presenting your manuscript as Millie expects to see it is the way that she is least likely to find distracting.

What does she see if you present your manuscript as she expects to see it? Your writing.

I hear those of you who have spent years slaving over your craft groaning — believe me, I sympathize. For those of you who have not already started composing your first drafts in standard format (which will save you a lot of time in the long run, incidentally), many of the tiny-but-pervasive changes I am about to suggest that you make to your manuscript are going to be irksome to implement. Reformatting a manuscript is time-consuming and tedious, and I would be the first to admit that at first, some of these rules can seem arbitrary.

At least on their faces. Quite a few of these restrictions remain beloved even in the age of electronic submissions because they render a manuscript a heck of a lot easier to edit — and to read, in either hard or soft copy. As I will demonstrate with abundant examples later in this series, a lot of these rules have survived for completely practical purposes — designed, for instance, to maximize white space in which the editor may scrawl trenchant comments like, “Wait, wasn’t the protagonist’s brother named James in the last chapter? Why is he Aloysius here?”

Ready to take my word for that in the meantime? Excellent; help yourself to a gumball. Let’s recap the rules we covered last time:

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way. For submission to US-based agencies, publishing houses, and contests, the pages in question should be US-standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should NOT resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Is everyone happy with those? If not, I await your questions. While I’m waiting, however, I’m going to move on.

(5) The entire manuscript should be in the same font and size — no switching typefaces for any reason. Industry standard is 12-point font.

No exceptions, please. No matter how cool your favored typeface looks, be consistent. Yes, even on the title page, where almost everyone gets a little wacky the first time out.

No pictures or symbols here, either, please. Just the facts. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term for title pages with 24-point fonts, fancy typefaces, and illustrations.

It’s high school book report. Need I say more?

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript but on the title page — and not even there, it’s not a particularly good idea.

This seems like an odd one, right, since word processing programs render including boldface so easy? Actually, the no-bolding rule is a throwback to the old typewriter days, where only very fancy machines indeed could darken selected type. Historically, then using bold was considered a bit tacky for the same reason that wearing white shoes before Memorial Day is in certain circles: it’s a subtle display of wealth.

You didn’t think all of those white shoes the Victorians wore cleaned themselves, did you? Shiny white shoes denoted scads of busily-polishing servants.

You may place your title in boldface on the title page, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be in boldface. (Unless it’s a section heading in a nonfiction proposal or manuscript — but don’t worry about that for now; I’ll be showing you how to format both a book proposal and a section break later on in this series, I promise. I shall also be tossing many, many examples of properly-formatted title pages your way, never fear.)

(7) Every page in the manuscript should be numbered, except the title page. The first page of text is page 1, not the title page.

Even if you choose to disregard literally everything else I’ve said here, please remember to number your pages. Millicent’s usual response to the sight of an unnumbered manuscript is to reject it unread.

Yes, really; this omission is considered genuinely rude. Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission or contest entry. It ranks right up there with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, Dear Agent instead of Dear Ms. Smith.

Why? Gravity, my friends, gravity. What goes up tends to come down. If the object in question happens to be an unbound stack of paper, and the writer who sent it did not bother to number those pages…well, picture it for yourself: two manuscript-bearing interns walking toward each other in an agency hallway, each whistling a jaunty tune. Between them, a banana peel, a forgotten skateboard, and a pair of blindfolded participants in a three-legged race clutching a basket stuffed to the brim with ping-pong balls between them.

You may giggle, but anyone who has ever worked with submissions has first-hand experience of what would happen should any two of those elements come into direct contact. After the blizzard of flying papers has subsided, and the interns rehash that old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial’s dialogue (“You got romance novel in my literary fiction!” “You got literary fiction in my romance novel!”), guess what needs to happen?

Some luckless soul has to put all of those pages back in proper order, that’s what. Just how much more irksome is that task going to be if the pages are not numbered?

Obey Rule #7. Trust me, it is far, far easier for Millicent to toss the entire thing into the reject pile than to spend the hours required to guess which bite-sized piece of storyline belongs before which in an unnumbered manuscript.

Wondering why the first page of the text proper is page 1 of the text, not the title page, and should be numbered as such? Or why, if your opus has an introduction or preface, the first page of that is page 1, not the first page of chapter 1?

Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because gumballs are round, and books manuscripts do not resemble published books.

The title page is not the only one commonly mislabeled as 1, by the way: epigraphs — those quotations from other authors’ books so dear to the hearts of writers everywhere — should not appear on their own page in a manuscript, as they sometimes do in published books. If you feel you must include one (which you might want to reconsider at the submission stage: 99.9999% of the time, Millicent will just skip over it), include it between the chapter title and text on page 1.

If that last paragraph left your head in a whirl, don’t worry — I’ll show you how to format epigraphs properly later in this series. (Yes, including some discussion of that cryptic comment about Millicent’s wandering peepers. All in the fullness of time, my friends.)

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

Including the slug line means that every page of the manuscript has the author’s name on it — a great idea, should you, say, want an agent or editor to be able to contact you after s/he’s fallen in love with it. Or be able to tell your submission from the other one that ran afoul of the banana peel in our earlier example.

The slug line should appear in the upper left-hand margin (although no one will sue you if you put it in the upper right-hand margin, left is the time-honored location) of every page of the text except the title page (which should have nothing in the header or footer at all).

A trifle confused by all that terminology? I’m not entirely surprised. Most writing handbooks and courses tend to be a trifle vague about this particular requirement, so allow me to define the relevant terms: a well-constructed slug line includes the author’s last name, book title, and page number, to deal with that intern-collision problem I mentioned earlier. (The slug line allows the aforementioned luckless individual to tell the romance novel from the literary fiction.) And the header, for those of you who have not yet surrendered to Microsoft Word’s lexicon, is the 1-inch margin at the top of each page.

Having trouble finding it in our page examples above? Here’s a subtle hint:

Since the only place a page number should appear on a page of text is in the slug line, if you are in the habit of placing numbers wacky places like the middle of the footer, do be aware that it does not look strictly professional to, well, professionals. Double-check that your word processing program is not automatically adding extraneous page numbers elsewhere on the page.

Do not, I beg of you, yield like so many aspiring writers to the insidious temptation add little stylistic bells and whistles to the slug line, to tart it up. Page numbers should not have dashes on either side of them, be in italics or bold, or be preceded by the word page. Trust me, Millicent will know what that number is, provided that it appears here — and only here:

Sensing just a bit of urgency on this one? Good. Those of us predisposed to regard gumballs as inherently spherical are always surprised to see how many aspiring writers regard page numbering as a tempting forum for self-expression. Remember, professional readers do not regard formatting choices as matters of personal style. The point here is not to make your slug line stand out for its innovative visual impact, but to provide practical guidance in reestablishing sequence should those ping-pong balls start bouncing about underfoot.

If your book has a subtitle, don’t include it in the slug line — and if it boasts a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep the slug line from running all the way across the top of the page. Millicent needs to be able to identify the manuscript at a glance, not to reproduce the entire book jacket.

Why not? Well, technically, a slug line should be 30 spaces or less, but there’s no need to stress about that in the computer age. (A slug, you see, is the old-fashioned printer’s term for a pre-set chunk of, you guessed it, 30 spaces of type. Aren’t you glad you asked?) Let’s assume for the sake of example that I’ve written a novel entitled THE SMILING FROWNER BEMUSED– 26 characters, counting spaces. Since my last name is quite short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:

Mini/The Smiling Frowner Bemused/1

If, however, my last name were something more complicated, such as Montenegro-Copperfield — 22 characters all by itself, including dash — I might well feel compelled to abbreviate.

Montenegro-Copperfield/Smiling Frowner/1

Incidentally, should anyone out there come up with a bright idea for a category heading on the archive list for this issue other than SLUG LINE — a category that already exists, but is unlikely to be found by anyone not already familiar with the term — I’d be delighted to hear suggestions. I’ve called it a slug line ever since I first clapped eyes on a professional manuscript (an event that took place so long ago my response to the sight was not, “What’s that at the top of the page, Daddy?” but “Goo!”), so I’m probably not going to be coming up with a good alternative anytime soon. Thanks.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page. The chapter title should appear on the first line of the page, not on the line immediately above where the text begins.

That’s fourteen single-spaced lines down, incidentally. The chapter title (or merely “Chapter One”) should be centered, and it should neither be in boldface nor underlined. To revisit today’s first example:

“But Anne,” But I Heard protests, “why shouldn’t the title appear immediately above the text? I’ve often seen that suggested — and illustrated online. What gives?”

Would any of you care to field that one? Perhaps someone who took the time to read the text of today’s positive and negative examples? Feel free to chant the answer with me, sharp-eyed perusers: “Because that’s where the title of a short story lives, not a book’s.”

Self-evident once you’ve heard it, isn’t it?

Because confusing the two formats is so common, very frequently, agents, editors and contest judges are presented with improperly-formatted first pages that have the title of the book, by Author’s Name, and/or the writer’s contact information floating in the space above the text. To professional eyes, a manuscript that includes any of this information on the first page of the manuscript (other than in the slug line, of course) seems like it just ended up in the wrong office. Clearly, the writer wanted not the agency to which she sent it, but the magazine down the street.

So where does all of that necessary contact information go, you ask? Read on.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, not on page 1.

This is one of the most obvious visual differences between a short story submission (say, to a literary journal) and a book-length manuscript. To submit a manuscript — or contest entry, for that matter — with this information on page 1 is roughly the equivalent of taking a great big red marker and scrawling, “I don’t know much about the business of publishing,” across it.

Just don’t do it. Millicent likes her gumballs.

“But wait,” I hear some of you out there murmuring, “My gumball — I mean, my manuscript — needs a title page? Since when?”

What a timely question.

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

This one seems to come as a surprise to a lot of aspiring writers. You should include a title page with ANY submission of ANY length, including contest entries and the chapters you send after the agent has fallen in love with your first 50 pages.

And again, But I Heard expresses disgruntlement. “More work!” he cries. “If you’d only let us shoehorn our contact information onto page 1 (as I notice you have artfully resisted showing as a counterexample, lest some reader mistake it for acceptable book format), this would not be at all necessary!”

At the risk of sounding callous, so what? You want to make it as easy as humanly possible for the agent of your dreams to let you know that she wants to represent this book, don’t you? And it’s not as though she would ever dream of sending anything you wrote to an editor at a publishing house without a title page.

Yes, really. Literally every manuscript that any agent in North America submits to any editor in hard copy will include one, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s the page that includes the agent’s contact information.

Yet, astonishingly, a good 95% of writers submitting to agencies seem to be unaware that including it is standard. I blame But I Heard: to him, the cover letter, address on the SASE, or the e-mail to which the requested materials were attached are identification enough. But in practice, it’s none of those things will necessarily still be attached to your pages at the point when your ideal agent says, “By jingo, I’m thoroughly wowed. This is a writer I must sign, and pronto!”

Oh, you thought that your SASE won’t go flying when those interns collide in the hallway? Or that e-mails never get deleted accidentally? Once those ping-pong balls get rolling, they end up everywhere; the damage they do is incalculable.

On the plus side, the broad reach of But I Heard’s pernicious influence — coupled, I suspect, with the fact that including a title page just never occurs to a lot of first-time submitters — means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope. It’s never too early to make a good first impression, right?

If you do not know how to format a proper title page — and yes, Virginia, there is a special format for it, too — please see the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT TITLE PAGE category on the archive list at right. Or wait a few days until I cover it later in this series.

It’s entirely up to you. No pressure here. Have a gumball while you wait.

Before anyone who currently has a submission languishing at an agency begins to panic: you’re almost certainly not going to get rejected solely for forgetting to include a title page. It’s too common a gaffe to be an automatic deal-breaker for most Millicents. Ditto with improperly-formatted ones. And yes, one does occasionally run into an agent at a conference or one blogging online who says she doesn’t care one way or the other about whether a submission has a title page resting on top at all.

Bully for them for being so open-minded, but as I have pointed out to relative strangers roughly 147,329 times in the past year, how can you be sure that the person deciding whether to pass your submission upstairs or reject it isn’t a stickler for professionalism?

I sense some shoulders sagging at the very notion of all the work it’s going to be to alter your pages before you send them out. Please believe me when I tell you that, as tedious as it is to change these things in your manuscript now, by the time you’re on your third or fourth book, it will be second nature to you. Why, I’ll bet that the next time you sit down to begin a new writing project, you will automatically format it correctly.

Think of all of the time that will save you down the line. Goody, goody gumdrops.

More guidelines follow in the next couple of posts — yes, those of you whose hearts just sank audibly, standard format does indeed have that many rules — and then we shall move on swiftly to concrete examples of what all of this formatting looks like in practice. I want you to have enough information on the subject to be able to understand why following them might be a good idea.

Rather than, say, walking away with the vague feeling that you heard about these rules somewhere. Keep up the good work!

Yet another typo prone to distracting the professional reader’s eye just a trifle

Okay, I’ll confess it: I find writing for an audience as diverse as the Author! Author! community more gratifying than I would addressing a readership more uniformly familiar with the ins and outs of the writing world. I particularly like how differently all of you respond to my discussions of fundamentals; it keeps me coming back to the basics with fresh eyes.

I constantly hear from those new to querying and synopsis-writing, for instance, that the challenge of summarizing a 400-page manuscript in a paragraph — or a page, or five — strikes them as almost as difficult as writing the book they’re describing; from the other direction, those of us who read for a living frequently wonder aloud why someone aiming to become a professional writer would complain about being expected to write something. A post on proofreading might as easily draw a behind-the-scenes peek at a published author’s frustration because the changes she made in her galleys did not make it into her book’s first edition as a straightforward request from a writer new to the challenges of dialogue that I devote a few days to explaining how to punctuate it.

And then there are days like today, when my inbox is crammed to overflowing with suggestions from all across the writing spectrum that I blog about a topic I’ve just covered — and approach it in a completely different way, please. All told, within the last week, I’ve been urged to re-tackle the topic in about thirty mutually-exclusive different ways. In response to this barrage of missives, this evening’s post will be devoted to the imperative task of repairing a rent in the fabric of the writing universe that some of you felt I left flapping in the breeze.

In my appropriately peevish post earlier this week about the importance of proofreading your queries — and, indeed, everything in your query packet — down to the last syllable in order to head off, you guessed it, Millicent the agency screener’s pet peeves in the typo department, my list of examples apparently omitted a doozy or two. Fortunately, my acquaintance amongst Millicents, the Mehitabels who judge writing contests, the Maurys that provide such able assistance to editors, and the fine folks employing all three is sufficiently vast that approximately a dozen literature-loving souls introduced my ribcage to their pointy elbows in the interim, gently reminding me to let you know about another common faux pas that routinely makes them stop reading, clutch their respective pearls, and wonder about the literacy of the writer in question.

And if a small army of publishing types and literature aficionados blackened-and-blued my tender sides with additional suggestions for spelling and grammar problems they would like to see me to address in the very near future, well, that’s a matter between me, them, and my chiropractor, is it not? This evening, I shall be concentrating upon a gaffe that confronts Millicent and her cohorts so often in queries, synopses, book proposals, manuscripts, and contest entries that as a group, they have begun to suspect that English teachers just aren’t covering it in class anymore.

Which, I gather, makes it my problem. Since the mantle of analysis is also evidently mine, let me state up front that I think it’s too easy to blame the English department for the popularity of the more pervasive faux pas. Yes, many writers do miss learning many of the rules governing our beloved language, but that’s been the norm for most of my lifetime. Students have often been expected to pick up their grammar at home. Strange to relate, though, houses like the Mini abode, in which children and adults alike were expected to be able to diagram sentences at the dinner table, have evidently never been as common as this teaching philosophy would imply.

Or so I surmise from my friends’ reactions when I would bring them home to Thanksgiving dinner. Imagine my surprise upon learning that households existed in which it was possible for a diner without a working knowledge of the its/it’s distinction to pour gravy over mashed potatoes, or for someone who couldn’t tell a subject from a predicate to ask for — and, I’m incredulous to hear, receive — a second piece of pumpkin pie. Garnished with whipped cream, even.

So where, one might reasonably wonder, were aspiring writers not taught to climb the grammatical ropes either at home or at school supposed to pick them up? In the street? Ah, the argument used to go, that’s easy: they could simply turn to a book to see the language correctly wielded. Or a newspaper. Or the type of magazine known to print the occasional short story.

An aspiring writer could do that, of course — but now that AP standards have changed so newspaper and magazine articles do not resemble what’s considered acceptable writing within the book publishing world (the former, I tremble to report, capitalizes the first letter after a colon, for instance; the latter typically does not), even the most conscientious reader might be hard-pressed to derive the rules by osmosis. Add in the regrettable reality that newspapers, magazines, and even published books now routinely contain typos, toss in a dash of hastily-constructed e-mails and the wildly inconsistent styles of writing floating about the Internet, and stir.

Voil? ! The aspiring writer seeking patterns to emulate finds herself confronted with a welter of options. The only trouble: while we all see the rules applied inconsistently all the time, the rules themselves have not changed very much.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that, though, if your literary intake weren’t fairly selective. Take, for instance, the radically under-discussed societal decision to throw subject-object agreement in everyday conversation out with both the baby and the bathwater — contrary to popular practice, it should be everyone threw his baby out with the bathwater, not everyone threw their baby out with the bathwater, unless everyone shared collective responsibility for a single baby and hoisted it from its moist settee with a joint effort. This has left many otherwise talented writers with the vague sense that neither the correct usage nor the incorrect look right on the page.

It’s also worth noting that as compound sentences the length of this one have become more common in professional writing, particularly in conversational-voiced first person pieces, the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees paragraph- or even page-long sentences strung together with seemingly endless series of ands, buts, and/or ors , has skyrocketed, no doubt due to an understandable cognitive dissonance causing some of the aforementioned gifted many to believe, falsely, that the prohibitions against run-on sentences no longer apply — or even, scare bleu, that it’s actually more stylish to cram an entire thought into a single overstuffed sentence than to break it up into a series of shorter sentences that a human gullet might conceivably be able to croak out within a single breath.

May I consider that last point made and move on? Or would you prefer that I continue to ransack my conjunctions closet so I can tack on more clauses? My neighborhood watch group has its shared baby to bathe, people.

It’s my considered opinion that the ubiquity of grammatical errors in queries and submissions to agencies may be attributable to not one cause, but two. Yes, some writers may never have learned the relevant rules, but others’ conceptions of what those rules are may have become blunted by continually seeing them misapplied.

Wait — you’re just going to take my word for that? Really? Have you lovely people become too jaded by the pervasiveness or sweeping generalizations regarding the decline of grammar in English to find damning analysis presented without a shred of corroborative evidence eye-popping? Or to consider lack of adequate explanation of what I’m talking about even a trifle eyebrow-raising?

Welcome to Millicent’s world, my friends. You wouldn’t believe how queries, synopses, and opening pages of manuscripts seem to have been written with the express intention of hiding more information from a screener than they divulge. They also, unfortunately, often contain enough spelling, grammar, and even clarity problems that poor Millie’s left perplexed.

Doubt that? Okay, let’s examine a not-uncommon take on the book description paragraph from a query letter:

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty eight year old out of work pop diva turned hash slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself. Fiercely pursuing her dreams despite a dizzying array of obstacles, she struggles to have it all in a world seemingly determined to take it all away. Can she find her way through her maze of options while still being true to herself?

Excuse me, but if no one minds my asking, what is this book about? You must admit, other than that long string of descriptors in the first sentence, it’s all pretty vague. Where is this story set? What is its central conflict? What is Pandora running from — or towards — and why? And what about this story is better conveyed through hackneyed phrasing — running from her past, true to herself — than could be expressed through original writing?

On the bright side, Millicent might not stick with this query long through enough to identify the clich? use and maddening vagueness as red flags. Chances are, the level of hyphen abuse in that first sentence would cause her to turn pale, draw unflattering conclusions about the punctuation in the manuscript being offered, and murmur, “Next!”

I sense some of you turning pale at the notion that she might read so little of an otherwise well-crafted query, but be honest, please. Are you wondering uneasily how she could possibly make up her mind so fast — or wondering what about that first sentence would strike a professional reader as that off-putting?

If it’s the latter, here’s a hint: she might well have lasted to be irritated by the later ambiguity if the first sentence had been punctuated like this.

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty-eight-year-old out-of-work pop-diva-turned-hash-slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself.

Better, isn’t it? While we’re nit-picking, the TITLE is the story of… is now widely regarded as a rather ungraceful introduction to a query’s descriptive paragraph. Or as an opening for a synopsis, for that matter. Since Millicent and her boss already know that the purpose of both is — wait for it — to describe the book, why waste valuable page space telling them that what is about to appear in the place they expect to see a book description is in fact a book description?

There’s a larger descriptive problem here, though. If the querier had not attempted to shove all of those multi-part descriptive clauses out of the main body of the sentence, the question of whether to add hyphens or not would have been less pressing. Simply moving the title to the query’s opening paragraph, too, would help relieve the opening sentence of its heavy conceptual load. While we’re at it, why not give a stronger indication of the book’s subject matter?

As a great admirer of your client, A. New Author, I am writing in the hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction manuscript, OPAQUE. Like Author’s wonderful debut, ABSTRUSE, my novel follows a powerful, resourceful woman from the public spotlight to obscurity and back again.

By the tender age of twenty-eight, pop sensation Pandora has already become a has-been. Unable to book a single gig, she drives around the back roads of Pennsylvania in disguise until she finds refuge slinging hash in a roadside diner.

Hooray — Millicent’s no longer left to speculate what the book’s about! Now that the generalities and stock phrases have been replaced with specifics and original wording, she can concentrate upon the story being told. Equally important, she can read on without having to wonder uneasily if the manuscript will be stuffed to the proverbial gills with typos, and thus would not be ready for her boss, the agent of your dreams, to circulate to publishing houses.

While I appreciate the refreshing breeze coming from so many heads being shaken simultaneously, I suspect it indicates that not everyone instantly spotted why a professional reader would so vastly prefer the revised versions to the original. “I do like how you’ve unpacked that overburdened first sentence, Anne,” some brave souls volunteer, “but I have to say, the way you have been moving hyphens around puzzles me. Sometimes, I’ve seen similar phrases hyphenated, but sometimes, they’re not. I thought we were striving for consistency here!”

Ah, a common source of confusion: we’re aiming for consistency in applying the rules, not trying, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, to force the same set of words to appear identically on the page every time it is used. The first involves learning the theory so you can use it appropriately across a wide variety of sentences; the second entails an attempt to memorize how certain phrases appear in print, in an attempt to avoid having to learn the theory.

Trust me, learning the rules will be substantially less time-consuming in the long run than guessing. Not to mention more likely to yield consistent results. Oh, and in the case of hyphens, just trying to reproduce how you saw a phrase used elsewhere will often steer you wrong.

Why? Stop me if this sounds familiar: anyone who reads much these days, especially online, routinely sees more than his share of hyphen abuse. Hyphens crop up where they don’t belong; even more frequently, they are omitted where their inclusion would clarify compound phrasing. No wonder writers — who, after all, tend to read quite a bit more than most people, and certainly read with a closer eye for picking up style tips — sometimes become confused.

And frankly, queries, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts reflect that confusion. You’d be amazed at how often aspiring writers will, on a single page, hyphenate a phrase correctly on line 5, yet neglect to add a hyphen to a similar phrase on line 18. Or even, believe it or not, present the same phrase used in precisely the same manner in two different ways.

Which raises an intriguing question, doesn’t it? Based on that page, how could Millicent tell whether a sentence was improperly punctuated because the writer was in a hurry and just didn’t notice a one-time typo in line 18 — or if the writer didn’t know the rule in the first place, but guessed correctly on line 5? The fact is, she can’t.

That’s a shame, really, as this type of typo/rule wobbling/dizzying confusion can distract the reader from the substance and style of the writing. To see how and why, take a gander at a sterling little passage in which this inadvertent eye-attractor abounds.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. ”

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Okay, okay, so Millicent seldom sees so many birds of a feather flocking together (While I’m at it, you look mahvalous, you wild and crazy guy, and that’s hot. And had I mentioned that Millie, like virtually every professional reader, has come to hate clich?s with a passion most people reserve for rattlesnake bites, waiting in line at the D.M.V., and any form of criticism of their writing skills?) In queries and synopses, our gaffe du jour is be spotted traveling solo, often in summary statements like this:

At eight-years-old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Or as its evil twin:

Alphonse was an eight year old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Am I correct in assuming that if either of these sentences appeared before your bloodshot eyes in the course of an ordinary day’s reading, a hefty majority of you would simply shrug and read on? May I further presume that if at least a few of you noticed one or both of these sentences whilst reading your own query IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, as one does, you might either shrug again or not be certain how to revise it?

Do I hear you laughing, or is Tyrone at it again? “I know what the problem is, Anne!” experienced query- and synopsis-writers everywhere shout, chuckling. “Savvy writers everywhere know that in a query’s book description, it’s perfectly acceptable to introduce a character like this:

Alphonse (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk.

“As you will notice, it’s also in the present tense, as the norms of query book descriptions dictate. By the same token, the proper way to alert Millicent that a new character has just cropped up in a synopsis involves presenting his or her name in all capital letters the first time it appears, followed by his or her age in parentheses. While I’m sure you’d like to linger to admire our impeccable subject-object agreement in that last sentence, I’m sure readers new to synopsis-writing would like to see what the technique described in the first sentence of this paragraph would look like in print, so here it is:

ALPHONSE (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk — and now that a tragic Tonka Toy accident has left him temporarily unable to walk or swim, what is he going to do with his time?

I’m impressed at how clearly you’ve managed to indicate what is and is not an example in your verbal statements, experienced ones, but we’re straying from the point a little, are we not? Not using parentheses to show a character’s age in a book description is hardly an instant-rejection offense, and eschewing the ALL CAPS (age) convention is unlikely to derail a well-constructed synopsis at submission time. (Sorry, lovers of absolute pronouncements: both of these are matters of style.)

Those are sophisticated critiques, however; I was hoping you would spot the basic errors here. Basically, the writer immortalizing Alphonse’s triumphs and tribulations has gotten the rule backwards. Those first two examples should have read like this:

At eight years old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Alphonse was an eight-year-old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Does that look right to you? If so, can you tell me why it looks right to you?

And no, Virginia, neither “Because you said it was right, Anne!” nor “I just know correct punctuation when I see it!” would constitute useful responses here. To hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question.

The answer, I hope you will not be astonished to hear, depends upon the role the logically-connected words are playing in an individual sentence. The non-hyphenated version is a simple statement of fact: Alphonse is, we are told, eight years old. Or, to put it another way, in neither that last sentence or our first example does eight years old modify a noun.

In our second example, though, eight-year-old is acting as a compound adjective, modifying boy, right? The hyphens tell the reader that the entire phrase should be taken as a conceptual whole, then applied to the noun. If the writer wanted three distinct and unrelated adjectives to be applied to the noun, he should have separated them with commas.

The small, freckle-faced, and tenacious boy flung himself into the pool, eager to join the fray.

Are you wondering why I hyphenated freckle-faced? Glad you asked. The intended meaning arises from the combination of these two words: freckle-faced is describing the boy here. If I had wanted the reader to apply the two words independently to the noun, I could have separated them by commas, but it would be nonsensical to say the freckle, faced boy, right?

Applying the same set of principles to our old friend Pandora, then, we could legitimately say:

Pandora is an out-of-work diva.

The diva is a has-been; she is out of work.

Out-of-work has-been seeks singing opportunity.

Let’s talk about why. In the first sentence, the hyphens tell the reader that Pandora isn’t an out diva and an of diva and a work diva — she’s an out-of-work diva. In the second sentence, though, out of work does not modify diva; it stands alone. Has-been, however, stands together in Sentence #2: the hyphen transforms the two verbs into a single noun. In the third sentence, that same noun is modified by out-of-work.

Getting the hang of it? Okay, let’s gather our proofreading tools and revisit Tyrone, Hortense, and Ghislaine, a couple of paragraphs at a time.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

Some of that punctuation looked pretty strange to you, I hope. Let’s try applying the rules.

“All of this build-up we’ve talked about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the tabletop build-up of wax at the drive-in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed in on the sign-in sheet. “I know she’s stepped in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick up my backpack and run away through my back door to my back yard. ”

Hortense revved her pick-up truck’s engine, the better to drive through and thence to drive into the parking space. “That’s because Anne built up your hopes in a much-talked-about runaway attempt to back up her argument.”

All of those changes made sense, I hope. Since drive-in is used as a noun — twice, even — it takes a hyphen, but when the same words are operating as a verb plus a preposition (Hortense is driving into a parking space), a hyphen would just be confusing. Similarly, when Tyrone signed in, he’s performing the act of signing upon the sign-in sheet. He and his friends talked about the build-up, but Hortense uses much-talked-about to describe my runaway attempt. Here, back is modifying the nouns door and yard, but if we were talking about a backdoor argument or a backyard fence, the words would combine to form an adjective.

And a forest of hands sprouts out there in the ether. “But Anne, I notice that some of the compound adjectives are hyphenated, but some become single words. Why runaway, backpack, and backyard, but pick-up truck and sign-in sheet?”

Because English is a language of exceptions, that’s why. It’s all part of our rich and wonderful linguistic heritage.

Which is why, speaking of matters people standing on either side of the publishing wall often regard differently, it so often comes as a genuine shock to agents and editors when they meet an aspiring writer who says he doesn’t have time to read. To a writer, this may seem like a simple matter of time management — those of us in favor with the Muses don’t magically gain extra hours in the day, alas — but from the editorial side of the conversation, it sounds like a serious drawback to being a working writer. How on earth, the pros wonder, can a writer hope to become conversant with not only the stylistic norms and storytelling conventions of his chosen book category, but the ins and outs of our wildly diverse language, unless he reads a great deal?

While you’re weighing both sides of that potent issue, I’m going to slip the next set of uncorrected text in front of you. Where would you make changes?

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

Have your edits firmly in mind? Compare them to this:

At her lived-in post at the drive-through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick-up sticks. “Hey, lay off. You mean build-up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head into this head-in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned-out coworker could tune out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the backdoor logic — it’s the runaway pace.”

How did you do? Admittedly, the result is still a bit awkward — and wasn’t it interesting how much more obvious the style shortcomings are now that the punctuation has been cleaned up? That’s the way it is with revision: lift off one layer of the onion, and another waits underneath.

In response to what half of you just thought: yes, polishing all of the relevant layers often does require repeated revision. Contrary to popular myth, most professional writing goes through multiple drafts before it hits print — and professional readers tend to be specifically trained to read for several different types of problem at the same time. So as tempting as it might be to conclude that if Millicent is distracted by offbeat punctuation, she might overlook, say, a characterization issue, it’s unlikely to work out that way in practice.

With that sobering reality in mind, let’s move on to the next section.

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. “

I broke the excerpt there for a reason: did you happen to catch the unwarranted space between the final period and the quotation marks? A trifle hard to spot on a backlit screen, was it not? See why I’m always urging you to read your work IN HARD COPY and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you slip it under Millicent’s notoriously sharp-but-overworked eyes?

And see what I did there? Believe me, once you get into the compound adjectival phrase habit, it’s addictive.

I sense some of you continue to shake off the idea that proofing in hard copy (and preferably by reading your work OUT LOUD) is more productive than scanning it on a computer screen. Okay, doubters: did you notice the partially deleted word in that last excerpt’s second sentence? Did you spot it the first time you went through this scene, when I presented it as an unbroken run of dialogue?

The nit-picky stuff counts, folks. Here’s that passage again, with the small matters resolved. This time, I’m going to tighten the text a bit as well.

“Oh, pick up your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick-up’s back door behind her — a good trick, as she had previously been sitting in the driver’s seat. “We’re due to do over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back-up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste to the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed up! “Just give me time to back out of the room. I have lived in too many places where people walk into built-in walk-in closets, and wham! They’re trapped. “

Still not precisely Shakespeare, but at least the punctuation is no longer screaming at Millicent, “Run away! Run away!” (And in case the three times this advice has already floated through the post today didn’t sink in, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Do you have a recent back-up stored somewhere other than your home?)

The text is also no longer pointing out — and pretty vehemently, too — that if her boss did take on this manuscript, someone at the agency would have to be assigned to proofread every draft of it. That’s time-consuming, and to be blunt about it, not really the agent’s job. And while it is indeed the copyeditor’s job to catch typos before the book goes to press, generally speaking, agents and editors both routinely expect manuscripts to be thoroughly proofread before they first.

Which once again leads us to different expectations prevailing in each of the concentric circles surrounding publishing. To many, if not most, aspiring writers, the notion that they would be responsible for freeing their manuscripts of typos, checking the spelling, and making sure the grammar is impeccable seems, well, just a trifle crazy. Isn’t that what editors do?

From the professional reader’s side of the equation, though, it’s practically incomprehensible that any good writer would be willing to send out pages — or a query — before ascertaining that it was free of typos. Everyone makes ‘em, so why not set aside time to weed ‘em out? You want your writing to appear to its best advantage, right?

Hey, I’m walking you through this long exercise for a reason. Let’s take another stab at developing those proofreading skills.

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Did you catch the extra space in the last sentence, after the comma? Wouldn’t that have been easier to spot in hard copy?

Admit it: now that you’re concentrating upon it, the hyphen abuse is beginning to annoy you a bit, isn’t it? Congratulations: that means you are starting to read like a professional. You’ll pardon me, then, if I not only correct the punctuation this time around, but clear out some of the conceptual redundancy as well. While I’m at it, I’ll throw a logical follow-up question into the dialogue.

“Can we have a do-over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in line for in-line skates.”

“What do skates have to do with anything?” Tyrone snapped.

“To escape if we run into overtime. At this rate, our boss will walk in with that pasted-on grin, take one look at our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay-off list.”

Hey, just because we’re concentrating on the punctuation layer of the textual onion doesn’t mean we can’t also give a good scrub to some of the lower layers. Let’s keep peeling, shall we?

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Quite a bit to trim there, eh? Notice, please, how my initial desire to be cute by maximizing phrase repetition drags down the pace on subsequent readings. It’s quite common for a writer’s goals for a scene to change from draft to draft; to avoid ending up with a Frankenstein manuscript, inconsistently voiced due to multiple partial revisions, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of rereading every scene — chant it with me now, folks — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and, ideally, OUT LOUD after each revision.

Here’s how it might read after a switch in authorial agenda — and an increase of faith in the reader’s intelligence. If Hortense is able to walk into the closet and stay there for paragraphs on end, mightn’t the reader be trusted to pick up that it’s a walk-in closet?

Hortense vanished into the closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut-rate social analyst, is the lounge where we lounge in our loungewear? I’d hate to cut through the rules and regulations.”

“Has she gone nuts?” Tyrone whispered.

“That’s what you get,” Ghislaine muttered under her breath, “for complaining about Anne’s advice. She’s only trying to help writers like us identify patterns in our work, you know.”

A button-down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “I don’t think the build-up for Anne’s larger point is our greatest problem at the moment. Right now, I’m worried that she’s trapped us in a scene with a maniac.”

“Don’t forget to button your shirt to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grab you a jacket.”

“Tremendous,” she called back. Scooting close to Tyrone, she added in an undertone, “If Anne doesn’t end the scene soon, we can always lock Hortense in the closet. That would force an abrupt end to the scene.”

“I vote for a more dramatic resolution.” He caught her in his arms. “Run away with me to Timbuktu.”

She kissed him enthusiastically. “Well, I didn’t see that coming in previous drafts”.

The moral, should you care to know it, is that a writer needn’t think of proofreading, much less revision, as a sterile, boring process in revisiting what’s already completely conceived. Every time you reread your own writing, be it in a manuscript draft or query, contest entry or synopsis, provides you with another opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Rather than clinging stubbornly to your initial vision for the scene, why not let the scene evolve, if it likes?

That’s hard for any part of a manuscript to do, though, if its writer tosses off an initial draft without going back to it from time to time. Particularly in a first book, storylines tend to alter as the writing progresses; narrative voices grow and change. Getting into the habit of proofreading can provide not only protection against the ravages of Millicent’s gimlet eye, but also make it easier to notice if one part of the manuscript to reflect different authorial goals and voice choices than other parts.

How’s the writer to know that if he hasn’t read his own book lately? Or, for that matter, his own query?

This is not, I suspect, the conclusion any of the fine people who suggested I examine hyphen abuse presumed my post would have. But that’s what keeps the conversation interesting: continually revisiting the same topics of common interest from fresh angles. Keep up the good work!

“Thanks for the cookies Millicent,” “What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” and other easily-averted holiday faux pas

This time of year, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver sees it all the time: a reason to move otherwise good girls and boys from the Nice to the Naughty list. Yet often, as both he and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, know only too well, the difference between a properly-punctuated sentence and one that is, well, not, lies in a simple slip of the writer’s finger — or lack of one. Take a gander at the type of hastily-scrawled note that often greets our St. Nick.

Hello Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy. Wow do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

No wonder the otherwise jolly elf weeps at the sight: clearly, the Punctuation Vacuum has beaten him to this household. Either that, or Janie has really, really lazy fingers. The note he had expected to see nestled next to a plate of cookies would have read like this:

Hello, Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy. Wow, do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

Let me guess: to many, if not most of you, these two notes are essentially identical: the words are the same, right, so the meaning must be? That’s an understandable interpretation, given how often we all now see direct address and exclamation commas omitted all the time. Indeed, some modes of electronic expression, such as news program bottom-of-the-screen crawls and Twitter, seem actively to discourage proper punctuation.

But that doesn’t make it right. Santa’s a stickler for rules.

As it happens, so are Millicent and those of us who edit for a living. Punctuation matters to us — and, frankly, folks in publishing tend to laugh when aspiring writers express the astonishingly pervasive opinion that it doesn’t.

Why the ho, ho, ho? Well, leaving aside the perfectly reasonable proposition that one of the basic requirements of a professional writer is the consistent production of clearly expressed, grammatically correct prose, in some cases, improper punctuation can alter a sentence’s meaning.

And that, boys and girls, can only harm self-expression. Take, for instance, the two faux pas in the title of this post.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Most readers would assume, as those of you who didn’t notice that commas had been purloined from Janie’s original note probably did, that what she actually meant to say was this:

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof? Reindeer?

That’s not what the first versions actually said, though, was it? Basically, Janie operated on a presumption evidently shared by an amazingly high percentage of queriers, literary contest entrants, and manuscript submitters: that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the author probably meant, not the writer’s job to express it so clearly that there would be no question.

In practice, most of us are perfectly willing to translate casual communications into more comprehensible prose, at least mentally. People often tap out or scrawl notes in a hurry, or, since the advent of mobile electronic devices, under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s relatively safe, then, to presume that your third-best friend will understand if that text message you sent while hanging upside down from the monkey bars omitted a comma or two.

Writing intended for publication is expected to adhere to a higher standard, however: even an editor wowed by the sentiments expressed in that last set of examples would not seriously consider publishing them without revision. Although the rise of on-screen editing has increased the number of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors that slip through editorial fingers and onto the printed page — nit-picks are significantly harder to catch on a backlit screen than in hard copy — no one who reads for a living would believe for a second that clarity and proper punctuation don’t matter. A manuscript that seems to imply that the writer believes they are unimportant not only is unlikely to impress a pro — to an experienced agent or editor, it simply screams that this is a writer who will require extra time, effort, and, yes, proofreading.

Why might that harm your submission’s chances? Think about it: if the agent of your dreams already has 127 clients, who is his Millicent more likely to regard as a viable candidate for #128, the writer who expects her to guess whether What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer? means what it literally says, or the writer whose prose is so clear that she’s not left in any doubt?

Remember, too, that your garden-variety agency screener or contest judge has very little of a writer’s prose upon which to judge talent and facility with language. How on earth could Millicent possibly know for certain whether the speaker of that first sentence was simply sliding back up the chimney while he was writing, and thus was too busy to devote the necessary thought to the beauty and rigors of proper punctuation, or simply was not aware of the relevant rules? She’s not allowed to base her reading upon what she guesses a writer meant, after all; she can only evaluate what’s actually on the page.

All of which is a nice way of saying: don’t expect her to cut you any slack. A writer familiar with the rules of punctuation and conscientious about applying them is simply less time-consuming for an agent to represent than one who believes that the fine points of how a sentence looks on the page doesn’t really matter. Someone at the manuscript’s future publishing house will take care of the copyediting, right?

Well, no. Not if Millicent or her boss, the agent of your dreams, stops reading after the second missing direct address comma on page 1.

Yes, really. Since this particular rule is pretty straightforward, it’s fairly common for screeners and contest judges to regard non-adherence — or, equally pervasive in submissions, uneven adherence — as an indicator of, if not necessarily poor grammar in the manuscript as a whole, then at least an authorial lack of attention to detail. Any guesses as to why detail-orientation would be a desirable trait in an agency’s client?

Slap a great, big gold star on your tree if you leapt to your feet, shouting, “By gum, a detail-oriented writer could be trusted to produce clean manuscripts!” You’re quite right, shouters: since few agencies employ in-house editors (although some agents do like to edit their clients’ pages), signing a writer who had already demonstrated that he regards the world as his proofreader would inevitably be a more time-consuming choice than snapping up one that could be relied upon to spell- and grammar-check his own manuscripts. On a revise-and-resubmit deadline too short for anyone at the agency to proof pages, that could be the difference between selling a book to a publisher and rejection.

Comma placement is starting to seem a trifle more relevant to your life, isn’t it? Fortunately, the rules governing direct address and exclamations are quite easy.

Hey, wake up. Were you aware that you were snoring, Janie?

There — that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Hey is an exclamation, so it is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. And because that second sentence was directly addressed to Janie, a comma appears between the rest of the sentence and her name.

Armed with those valuable precepts, let’s revisit the punctuation choices that made the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver choke on his milk and cookies — or cognac and truffles, as he always insisted on being left for him in the Mini household throughout my childhood. (My parents said that he deserved the upgrade for shinnying down our unusually small flue.) How do they look to you now?

Hello Santa.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy.

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Now that you’re looking for those commas, the paucity of them — and, I hope, the extra one in that last sentence — is distracting, is it not? Let’s talk about why. Sentences 1 and 4 are aimed at Santa and Millicent, respectively, right? The names are a tip-off that each requires a direct address comma.

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

Sentence #2 is a bit trickier, since what Janie is calling the reader (old boy) is not a proper noun. If we don’t apply the direct address rule here, though, the most logical interpretation is actually this:

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave for the old boy.

Yet Janie’s household does not contain any old boy, or indeed any boys at all — and if Santa knows when they are sleeping and knows when they are awake, he must logically be aware of where said boys are sleeping, must he not? He might be forgiven, then, for finding this sentence perplexing. Fortunately, all it would take is a single stroke of the pen to render Janie’s intended meaning crystal clear.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy.

No question that the reader — Santa, presumably, if Janie’s been a good girl this year — is the old boy being addressed, right? Now that we’ve cleared up that cosmic mystery, what should we note-proofers do with this?

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Wow is an exclamation — and we have a rule for that, do we not? Let’s try applying it. While we’re at it, why not allow Janie’s punctuation to reflect the intensity of her gratitude?

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

If you’re ever in doubt about whether an expression is sufficiently exclamatory to require separation from the rest of the sentence, here’s a nifty test: vehement exclamations can stand alone. As in:

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

Heavens! What an enormous cake! You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge!

What a difference a punctuation choice can make to a sentence’s meaning, eh? (See what I just did there? Eh is an exclamation, albeit not a particularly intense one.) A detail-oriented punctuator could become even more creative, depending upon context. Let’s have some fun.

Wow — do I ever appreciate it? I would have thought my reaction to your having given me a rabid wolverine last Christmas and the Christmas before would have told you that.

Oh, my, what a beautifully-wrapped present…if you happen to believe that bacon is an appropriate wrapping medium for a desk lamp.

Heavens, what an enormous cake. You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge: as much as we all enjoyed seeing your immediate family leap out of that enormous pie at Thanksgiving, that’s really the kind of surprise entrance that works only once, don’t you think?

Speaking of how punctuation can alter meaning, our remaining example presents some difficulties, doesn’t it? Let’s take another peek at it.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

At first glance, this may appear to be a proper use of direct address: the narrator was simply speaking to a reindeer that happened to be lingering nearby. In today’s incredibly rich fantasy novel market, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a context in which that comma use would make sense.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie shouted. “Your ears are better than mine.”

Blitzen shook his antlers in annoyance. “Ceilings are opaque, you know. I can only fly; I don’t have X-ray vision.”

However, being an intimate friend of the writer’s — we could hardly be closer — I know that the original sentence was tucked within a thriller. I ask you: does a direct address interpretation make sense here?

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie whispered.

The Easter Bunny did not bother to stop stuffing presents into his basket. “Oh, stop jumping at every sound. Santa’s not due for an hour.”

“I still say that we should have hidden in a closet,” the Tooth Fairy hissed, “and waited until after ol’ Kris dropped off the swag.”

“And let Fat Boy snag all the cookies?” The rabbit snapped off a small branch from the tree to use as a toothpick. “I’m in it for the sugar, baby.”

“Then we should have gone to the Minis,” the fairy grumbled. “They have truffles.”

Blitzen’s hoof poked into the small of Janie’s back. “Move, sister, and you’ll find yourself with a face full of tinsel.”

Since the reindeer doesn’t enter the scene until five paragraphs after Janie’s speech, it seems unlikely that she’s addressing him. What the writer intended to convey by that comma was not direct address, but something closer to my original suggestion:

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Reindeer?”

In fairness, though, you can see why even a meticulous self-proofreader might not have caught this one. If Janie had speculated that the sounds were caused by an inanimate object, that comma might have passed muster.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Unless this is a book about a madwoman or a psychic whose ability to cajole roofing substances into telling her Santa’s whereabouts, direct address doesn’t make sense here, does it? Even a skimmer is unlikely to fall into that interpretive trap. Several alternate constructions would obviate the possibility entirely, though. The first option should look slightly familiar.

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Falling shingles?”

“What’s that I hear on the roof — falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Am I sensing some growing excitement about the possibilities? “Hey, Anne,” some of you exclaim, beautifully demonstrating your grasp of how a comma should offset an exclamation, “something has just occurred to me, you sneaky person.” (Direct address!) “Since the natural habitat of both direct address and exclamations is conversation, wouldn’t it make sense to zero in on dialogue while proofreading for these particular faux pas? If I were in a hurry, I mean, and didn’t have time to read my submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Not a bad timesaving strategy, exclaimers — they do tend to congregate in text written in the second person. (Hey, I’m talking to you, buddy!) You might be surprised, though, at how often direct address and exclamations show up in first-person narratives, or even chattier-voiced third-person narratives. For instance:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly, searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove, I was in a pickle.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, may I hastily add that the rookie strategy of attempting to make first-person narration sound more like common speech (as opposed to what it’s intended to represent, thought) by eliminating necessary punctuation and grammar has become awfully hard to pull off in a submission, at least for adult fiction or memoir. You wouldn’t believe how often Millicent sees text like our last example submitted like this:

Oh God I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Yes, yes, we all understand that both versions could arguably be regarded as conveying breathlessness. So could this:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. I felt every last oxygen molecule being sucked out of my lungs.

While style choices vary, naturally, from book category to book category — there honestly is no adequate substitute for reading recent releases of books similar to yours, particularly those written by first-time authors, to gain a sense of what is considered stylish these days — generally speaking, relating what’s going on via actual words tends to be considered better writing than offbeat presentation choices. All the more so if those words show what’s going on, as we saw in that last version, instead of telling it — or requiring Millicent to perform a dramatic reading of the text in order to grasp the fully intended meaning.

Oh, you thought that OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat didn’t convey an expectation that the reader would try saying it out loud? Isn’t the sound of this sentence spoken as a single word the point here?

Style is not the only reason that you might want to give careful thought to whether non-standard presentation choices would be more effective than other means of narration, however. While they may seem like a shortcut, they can actually mean more work for you. Not only must any such punctuation and grammar voice choices be implemented with absolute consistency throughout an entire first-person narrative– quite a bit harder than it sounds, if one happens to know the rules or wants to be able to use Word’s grammar-checking function — but honestly, it’s really only clever the first few times a reader sees it done.

Trust me, any experienced Millicent or contest judge will have seen this tactic crop up too often to find it original at this late date in literary history. And how could either of them tell on page 1 whether the omissions were the result of a manuscript-wide authorial choice or the writer’s not being conversant with proper comma use? Heck, are they even sure that the writer of that last version even knows where the comma key is located?

Judgmental? You bet. If Millicent, a literary contest judge, and Santa’s job descriptions have anything in common, it’s that they are tasked with separating those who make an effort to follow their respective spheres’ recognized standards of niceness from those who do not. Rejection is the literary world’s lump of coal, available year-round.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike so much of the manuscript submission process, proper comma use lies entirely within the writer’s control. Personally, I find that rather empowering — unlike style judgment calls, which must necessarily rely in part upon Millicent’s personal reading tastes, punctuation is governed by rules. And rules can be learned.

Does that huge thunk of jaws hitting the floor reverberating throughout the ether indicate that some of you had been thinking about acceptance vs. rejection purely in terms of writing style? If so, you’re hardly alone: why do you think so many submissions and even queries turn up on Millicent’s desk apparently unproofread? Or spell-checked? Obviously, there are a heck of a lot of aspiring writers out there who think punctuation, spelling, and grammar just don’t matter — or that it’s an agent’s job to see past rule violations to story and talent.

Had I mentioned that to the pros, these things matter very much? Or that in publishing circles, providing error-free manuscript pages containing only sentences whose meanings are clear on a first reading is considered the minimum requirement of professional writing, not an optional extra?

Frankly, every writer who has taken the time to learn her craft should be rejoicing at this. Imagine how hard would it be to get on Santa’s Nice list if you had no idea what he considered nice.

While I’ve got you pondering the hard questions, here’s another: is resting your book’s future on a manuscript draft that does not consistently apply the rules you already know people in publishing expect to see respected really any less of a stab in the dark? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term strategy, as well as a better use of your scant writing time, to invest in making sure that the factors you can control are tweaked in a manner more likely to land you on Millicent’s Nice Job list?

Ah, that suggestion got under some skins, didn’t it? “But Anne!” bellow those who find thinking about rules a barrier to the creative process — and you are legion. “I understand that it’s the writer’s job to make a story come to life on the page, not the reader’s job to decipher convoluted text, but to be absolutely truthful, I don’t feel completely comfortable wielding all of the various rules of grammar and punctuation. I had kinda hoped that once I landed an agent and sold a book, the kind folks who handle books for a living would walk me through all of that.”

I’m glad you brought this up, wobbly rule-appliers — this is one of the greatest divides between how the publishing world thinks of what constitutes a well-written manuscript and how most aspiring writers tend to envision it. To a pro, the technical side of writing is not separable from the overall writing quality; to a new writer, though, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even clarity are primarily sentence-level issues, easily fixed down the line.

No wonder, then, that it comes as such a shock to most first-time queriers and submitters to learn that the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected on page 1. While the pros see a book’s opening as a representative writing sample, writers regard it as a minuscule fraction of a larger work, each page of which is entitled to its own assessment.

“What do you mean, a couple of punctuation, spelling, or clarity problems on page 1 could have triggered rejection?” they wail, and who could blame them? “Shouldn’t a book be judged by — wait for it — the writing in the whole thing?”

Perhaps, in principle, but very, very few readers wait until the end to come to conclusions about a book, even outside the publishing industry. A Millicent at a well-established agency will read literally thousands of submissions every year. If she read each in its entirety, she would have time to make it through only hundreds.

Believe it or not, this way actually provides a writer with a fresh idea and original voice with a better shot of impressing her. It means fewer book concepts are weeded out at the querying stage than would be necessary if agencies routinely assigned Millicents to read every single syllable of every single submission.

And, lest we forget, to a professional reader, a hallmark of a fabulous new literary voice is its consistency. The Great American Novel should read as lyrically on page 1 as on page 147, right? And shouldn’t it all sound like the same author’s voice?

See why I always encourage writers to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting them? All too often, aspiring writers new to the game will start sending out their work practically the moment after they type THE END on a first draft, without double-checking that the voice, style, and — as an editor, I must ethically add this — story are 100% consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s completely normal, however, for a first-time novelist’s voice and sense of the story to develop throughout the writing process; going through, figuring out what you like best about your own writing, and revising the whole so it sounds like that (to use the technical term) before you submit can increase your story’s chance of winning friends at an agency by leaps and bounds.

Or, to put it another way, are you the same writer you were the first day you sat down to work on your book? Aren’t you better at conveying your intended meaning now? And, if you take a long, hard look at your objection to Millie’s rejecting manuscripts on page 1, isn’t part of your chagrin that she might not read long enough to get to your best writing?

Heavy thoughts for a holiday, perhaps, but the Literature Fairy’s annual gift to those of us who work with writers is an awareness of just how many of you lovely people spend the last few weeks of December kicking yourselves for not having landed an agent or gotten published in the previous year. If the past is prologue, a phenomenally high percentage of you will translate those feelings into a New Year’s resolution to be a more active aspiring writer next year — to send out a barrage of queries, for instance, or to come up with a really solid list of agents to query. Perhaps you’re going to finish that manuscript, or get the one an agent requested eight months ago out the door. Or maybe, finally, you are going to rearrange your schedule so you can write a specified number of hours per week, rather than the more popular method of trying to squeeze it in whenever you can find the time.

All of these are laudable goals — don’t get me wrong. I would like to suggest, though, that while you are shuffling through the resolution possibilities, you consider adding one more: promising yourself that this will be the year that you spend January sitting down and reading your manuscript from beginning to end, in hard copy, as a reader would, to gain a sense of what is best about your own writing.

Because, really, wouldn’t you have an easier time presenting your work professionally if you didn’t just know that it’s good, but also why? And wouldn’t you be happier if Millicent judged your page 1 if it actually did represent a consistent voice and style throughout the book?

Just a thought. While you’re reading, of course, you could always humor me by keeping an eye out for omitted commas.

Hey, nobody ever said that making it onto Millicent’s Nice Job list was going to be easy. Who did you think she was, Santa?

Enjoy the holiday, everybody; try not to run afoul of any reindeer. I hear that you wouldn’t want to run into Blitzen in a dark alley. Keep up the good work!

These are the times that try editors’ souls

No time for a lengthy missive today, I’m afraid, but I could not resist sharing a bit of tangible evidence in support of a theory long lurking in the minds of editors across the English-writing world: in recent years, many people’s eye-brain connections seem to have ceased working reliably. At least insofar as signage is concerned, citizens of this great land have evidently decided that if a piece of prose sounds vaguely like what its writer had in mind, well, that’s close enough to print.

To an editor, that logic represents the first step down the slippery slope that leads to, well, a heck of a lot of work. If nailing down a precise meaning in writing has ceased to have social value, what’s next? Widespread confusion of colons with semicolons? Ravening packs of the untutored roaming the streets, doubling or even tripling prepositions? Or even — avert your eyes, children — eschewing proofreading altogether?

Whom the gods would destroy, Euripides informed us, they first drive mad. Clearly, this was the kind of thing he had in mind.

I’m not merely talking about grocery store signage that adds an extraneous -e to potato or tomato, the misguided belief that pointless abbreviations such as tonite, thru, and alright have ever actually saved anybody any time, or even the bizarre gender blindness that struck otherwise perfectly reasonable people in the media to toss subject-object agreement to the winds in the mid-1980s, causing everyone and their monkey to crowd everyone and her monkey practically out of the language as she is spoke — although, naturally, the literate find such slips inexplicable. Many of my fellow editors insist that we should expect no better from people incapable of understanding why a female member of Congress might conceivably be known on paper as a Congresswoman, rather than a Congressman. Once it became necessary to begin explaining to even fairly well-educated people why paragraphs should be indented, handlers of manuscripts everywhere began hearing the resounding thumps of barbarian weaponry upon the gates of civilization.

I do not take such a dismal view of the matter, but I must confess, bungled logic in print drives me precisely as nuts as our pal Euripides predicted. Take, for instance, the undoubtedly generous offer that appeared in a local paper recently:

Did that second paragraph make you beard the heavens with your bootless cries? Or, like vast majority of the comparatively carefree denizens of the greater Seattle metropolitan area, did your eye simply gloss over it?

Unfortunately for editorial sanity, but fortunately for literature, those of us that read for a living do not enjoy the luxury of believing that close enough is fine for print. English is a language that permits, nay, positively encourages precision: just look at the stunning array of adjectives you have at your disposal. The benighted composer of the free pizza offer above had every bit as many tools at his disposal (nice subject-object agreement, eh?) as the next fella, yet fell down on the descriptive job.

To his credit, he does appear to have realized that his prose might be just a tad confusing to those who believe that words carry specific meanings. To an editorial eye, a phrase like to be clear can indicate only one of two authorial fears: either the writing immediately before it lacks communicative oomph, or the writer isn’t too sure of the comprehension capacities of the reader.

In this case, both terrors probably governed word choice. Let’s take a closer look. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the — sacre bleu! — all-caps presentation of the original.

After the costume parade, head up to Pagliacci for a free slice for your little monster! And to be clear, only kids in costume accompanied by a parent will be served.

Did you catch it, now that the eye-distracting formatting is gone? No? Would it help to know that what the writer almost certainly meant was this?

After the community-sponsored costume parade has run its course, we at this fine pizza emporium would be pleased to serve a free slice to any child in costume who shows up clutching the hand of either a biological or adoptive parent.

But that’s not what the original actually said, was it? Read literally, these were the preconditions for scarfing down some pie gratis:

(1) The potential scarfer must be a minor.

(2) The potential scarfer cannot show up before the parade has ended.

(3) The potential scarfer must be in costume.

(4) The potential scarfer’s costume must also be occupied by a parent — and, the use of the plural kids implies, possibly one or more other children.

Now, I can certainly picture a few charming two-wearer costumes — if the child in question were open to being strapped to a guardian’s chest at a 45-degree angle, the pair could form a wonderful spider. However, long practical experience with both advertising and careless writing leads me to conclude that the pizza-hawkers almost certainly did not intend to limit their offer to only literal readers with creative multi-party costumes on hand.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me. It’s my job to nit-pick. “But Anne,” eye-rollers everywhere protest, “I was not confused at all by the original version. It was clear enough what the pizza-mongers meant. I can see why prose imprecision might be unacceptable in a high literary manuscript, but why get so exorcised about a small slip?”

However did you manage to slip through that gate, barbarian? We in the editorial keep already have boiling pitch prepared to fling onto the noggins of all comers.

Seriously, those of us that read for a living are perpetually flabbergasted by how many writers seem to cling to a close-enough-is-good-enough philosophy. Clarity constitutes the minimum requirement for professional writing, not an optional extra. As a reader, I’m sure you would agree: on the printed page, you don’t believe it’s your responsibility to guess what the author probably meant, do you? It’s the author’s job to convey precisely what she had in mind.

Contrary to astonishingly pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, it’s not an agent, editor, or contest judge’s job to speculate, either. No matter how often any of us are treated to the sight of unclear, poorly written, or logically convoluted prose, the trick to catching a sharp editorial eye in a positive way lies in choosing your words with care.

Oh, and not stubbornly retaining topical jokes after their expiration date just because you happen to like them. ( I had intended to use that last paragraph a couple of weeks ago, you see.)

Yet another reason to read your submissions and contest entries IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course. Since the human eye, editorial or otherwise, tends to read about 70% faster on a backlit screen, even the most dedicated self-editor will be substantially more likely to catch subtle gaffes on a printed page. You wouldn’t want to leave Millicent the agency screener wondering just how many family members your text wanted her to envision stuffed into a single costume, would you?

Actually, the barbarians currently howling at the gate might actually prove helpful in this endeavor. Bless their unrepentant hearts, their lack of precision in wielding the language provides would-be self-editors with abundant opportunities to sharpen their editorial eyes. The photo at the top of this post, for instance: scroll up and give it your best nit-pick.

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “By Jove, that restaurant appears to be ordering lunch customers to bring their own egg roll and rice!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Come w(ith) egg roll in any other context would in fact mean that the speaker would expect the hearer either to show up with an egg roll — not the kind of thing most of us tote around habitually — or to accompany an egg roll on some unspecified journey. Neither, you must admit, seems like a particularly inviting prospect for restaurant patronage.

Snag a second gold star from petty cash if you also bellowed, “Nor is that the only labor the poor potential customer is evidently expected to perform. Why should the diner steam her own rice?” As steam is a verb, it must logically be a command to the reader; steamed, on the other hand, is an adjective that might conceivably be applied to rice.

Whom the gods would not see published, first they burden with an inability to spot the differences between parts of speech. While I’d like to think that they have also provided a special spot in Hades for sign-printers too callous to point out such problems, perhaps we should all be grateful for the proofreading practice advertising provides us all on a daily basis.

Excuse me — some charming visitors bearing pitchforks and torches appear to be banging on the gate, just in time for lunch. Perhaps they were courteous enough to bring their own egg rolls. Keep up the good work!

Getting possessive

The Author! Author! community is seldom far from my thoughts, but at moments when I pass a sign like this, I must confess, I find it difficult to think of anyone else. Especially of those of you brave souls that regularly put yourselves — and your manuscripts — through the literary contest-entry wringer.

Why contest entrants in particular? Because in recent years, contest judges have found themselves doing double-takes at the type of punctuation currently blaring at you from that otherwise rather straightforward piece of advertising above in ever-increasing numbers. So, too, has the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, found herself shaking her head over manuscript submissions, murmuring, “I wonder if this is what the writer here actually meant, or if this is yet another instance of the sad decline in punctuation plaguing our society in these decadent days.”

Millie’s mutter was a mighty big hint, by the way, to those of you who did not erupt in merriment the instant you first clapped eye on today’s guest image. See it now?

Chances are, if you were a contest entrant frantic to get your entry postmarked by a deadline, you would not see it; it’s the type of typo that writers in a rush often overlook. And that’s a real shame, if the entry’s well written: I’ve never encountered a writing contest that allowed its judges to assess an entry by what its writer probably wanted to say, rather than what’s actually on the page.

Nor does your garden-variety agency typically permit its screeners to correct punctuation, even mentally, while reading submissions. That, too, is a shame, for many a successful querier or pitcher aglow with the first burst of adrenaline that comes with hearing that a real, live agent or editor wants to see MY WORK has simply glossed over this kind of punctuation as well. Strategically, that’s a mistake: even if it ever were desirable to leave Millie guessing at your intended meaning — and it isn’t, ever — it’s fairly standard for screeners to be told to stop reading at the second or third typo.

And what’s the best preventative medicine for skirting that dreadful fate, campers? That’s right: taking the time to read every syllable of your contest entry, requested pages, and/or book proposal IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Does that chorus of groans mean I’ve poked some of you in a sore spot? Or merely that you wish the Submission Fairy would wave her magic wand and grant six extra hours to writers on deadlines, purely for proofreading purposes? “But Anne,” the time-strapped moan, “I see typos in published books all the time! Surely, that must mean that little punctuation gaffes, misspellings, misplaced quotation marks and the like are no longer taken as seriously as in days of yore, when mistake-free writing was considered the mark of the literate person?”

In some contexts, you’re quite right about this, proofreading-avoiders: thanks in part to a decline in hard-copy proofreading (it’s much, much harder to catch small gaffes on a backlit screen than on a printed page), we do all see more faux pas in print than even ten years ago. Spelling- and grammar-checkers have caused a general decline in proofreading, and not only amongst published writers. E-mails are notoriously typo-prone, as are texts, and Twitter practically demands leaving out otherwise essential words, letters, and punctuation. Given the choice between speed and graceful presentation, most opt for the former.

Then, too, most of us also scan a heck of a lot more unedited writing than would have been imaginable to those whose primary reading experience was before the rise of the Internet. And don’t even get a professional reader started on how much more frequently advertising copy — like, for instance, the sign depicted above — contains typos.

All of which means, in practice, that pretty much all of us have gotten almost as accustomed to seeing writing presented badly as we have to seeing it done well. So often do signs shout things like BOBS’ LIQUORS at us (spot it yet?) that even the most grammar-savvy writer might be forgiven for occasionally placing an apostrophe in the wrong place when she’s in a hurry.

Driving past ads like this all day, it might not even look problematic at first glance. So why, as our short-on-time discussants above asked, should a deadline-facing contest entrant or excited submitter lose any sleep over a questionable apostrophe or two? Won’t it be some copyeditor’s job to catch such problems before the book is published, anyway?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that a typo like this won’t jump off your pages at Millicent, if she’s been properly trained — and if she works at an agency you would want to represent you, she has. It would also look odd to Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. And, frankly, it would drive me nuts to spot on the page.

Or, as in this case, the sign. To any of us, and almost certainly to the agent of your dreams, the very sight of BOBS’ LIQUORS immediately begs the question: just how many Bobs are there in that liquid-filled emporium?

Shall I take the resounding splat of eyebrows against hairlines as an indicator that this particular question has not been dogging some or all of you since this post began? I’m not entirely astonished: although it would make Millicent, Mehitabel, and their confreres choke to hear it, a stunningly high proportion of talented aspiring writers seem never to have learned the rules about creating possessives — or plurals, for that matter. Or at least to have been schooled in them so long ago that misuse of one or the other no longer causes their eyebrows to twitch at all.

So let’s embark on a quick refresher course, not only to revivify those complacent eyebrows, but so you have some guidelines on hand during any future moments of doubt. And if that means alerting everyone within the range of my keyboard to the genuinely puzzling nature of that provocative sign, well, so be it.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do not end in -s or -z — which is to say: most nouns — just add ‘s. If Ambrose happened to own a leopard, then, Millicent would expect the text to refer to Ambrose’s leopard; by the same token, the spots decorating Ambrose’s pet would be the leopard’s spots.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do end in -s or -z — Gladys, a spaz, a passing ibis — the apostrophe goes after the s or z. So if Gladys’ pet ibis happened to become friends with Gladys’ brother Glenn, whose business partner happens to be a spaz, the ibis’ buddy’s business’ interests might be endangered by the spaz’ annoying ways.

I was expecting a certain amount of resistance to that one — and already, a forest of hands have sprouted out there in the ether. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of you hand-wavers are fond of the ways of journalism. Yes, newspaper-huggers? “I can go along with Rule #1, Anne, and I remember when Rule #2 used to be common, but I see #1 applied all the time to nouns ending in -s and -z. Doesn’t that mean that Rule #2 is obsolete, and I may simply form possessives by adding ‘s to any old singular noun?”

I take your point, journalism-lovers: rarely do I pick up a magazine these days without having some well-meaning reporter inform me that the ibis’s buddy’s business’s interests might be endangered by the spaz’s annoying ways, and quite firmly, too. There’s a reason for that: in recent years, A.P. style, the style favored by newspapers and magazines, has indeed reverted entirely to Rule #1 for singular possessives. So you may expect those sources, along with online media, to slap ‘s indiscriminately on any noun. It has also become quite common for publishers of books by journalists to throw literary tradition to the winds in this respect.

And, to be fair, Millicent probably would not stop reading if you did the same: she, like the rest of us, has seen the ibis’s and similarly ungraceful possessives running amok across newspaper pages for years now. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the language in its most polished form — American English as it might appear in literary fiction, for instance — must drop one of the nicest punctuation rules we have.

To quote your mother: if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you? And if half the people you knew evidently thought — at least strongly enough to put the theory into practice — that it was correct to form a plural in English by adding ‘s, instead of just an s, would you throw the rules that say otherwise off the aforementioned bridge, simply because you’d seen plurals formed incorrectly so often?

Many, many aspiring writers would, as Mehitabel and Millicent could tell you to their sorrow; judging by what’s submitted, they either do not know the rules well enough to apply them consistently or have been rendered unsure enough by the sight of rule variation that they don’t notice when their texts lapse. Even if a contest entrant or submitter is made of stronger stuff and is familiar with the rules for constructing plurals and possessives, if she does not proofread closely, she might as well be unsure of the rules.

Why? Think about it: an agency screener or contest judge can only assess a writer’s talent and skill based upon what’s on the page, right? If none of the possessive usages on page 1 are correct, obviously, Millicent is likely to conclude that the writer needs a crash course in punctuation, which is not any agency’s job to provide its clients. Fair enough. That being the case, though, if two of the six possessive uses on page 1 are incorrect, in addition to the plural of fence being printed as fence’s instead of fences, could you really blame her for drawing the same conclusion?

While you’re still shuddering over the implications of that one, let me add hastily that the logic also tends to hold true in reverse. If your punctuation and grammar are impeccable, not only will the effort win your manuscript or entry Brownie points — always good in a competitive situation — but your pages will also enjoy the not inconsiderable advantage of novelty. To be blunt about it, so many contest entries and submissions contain incorrect possessives and plurals that those that don’t shine by comparison.

If, in addition to the virtues of solid grammar, the pages also manage to apply the elegant, old-fashioned rule of possessive formation in nouns ending in -s or -z, professional readers will usually like the writing even better. Seriously, literate old-schoolers just love seeing this old-fashioned punctuation used correctly. Indeed, amongst ourselves, we tend to complain that the only benefit of adding the extra s to words that do not logically require it is that those who have difficulty with complexity need memorize only one rule.

Hey, I didn’t say we were funny; I said we were literate. But seriously, folks, does it come as a great surprise that contest judges, especially in the early rounds, tend to be culled from the ranks of the conspicuously literate?

So your rhinoceros favors a particular pond, you might want to consider making Mehitabel happy by referring to the rhinoceros’ watering hole. (If there was more than one rhino, it would be the rhinoceri’s watering hole, but that’s a horn of a different color.) If Chaz were the rhinos’ keeper, they would be Chaz’ rhinos.
If you preferred A.P. style, however, you could also render it as Chaz’s rhinos. They would sound the same spoken out loud.

Getting the picture? This one is legitimately up to you, as long as you don’t mind causing Mehitabel to sigh nostalgically. Just make sure that the text is 100% consistent about whether a -z noun takes an apostrophe in the possessive or not.

Even if you decide to get modern on the -z question, I would urge clinging to tradition on the -s front. If the creatures that frequented that pond were flamingos, you would say that it was the flamingos’ favorite place to drink. I feel a rule coming on:

To form a possessive for a plural noun, the apostrophe goes after the s. Thus, the spots belonging to more than one leopard would be the leopards’ spots. Contrary to popular belief, the Thus, if the entire Anderson family owned a leopard ranch, it would be the Andersons’ leopard ranch.

Let me state that another way, because Millicent and Mehitabel see family names and possessives mismatched all the time, for some reason. If the leopard in question belonged to just one person — let’s call him Ambrose Anderson — both Ambrose’s leopard and Anderson’s leopard would leave M & M’s eyebrows mercifully unraised. However, if the leopard were so lucky to belong to both Ambrose and Antoinette Anderson, it would be the Andersons’ leopard.

Is the BOBS’ LIQUORS conundrum starting to make more sense now? Let’s take a gander at why: if it belonged to just one guy named Bob, it should be BOB’S LIQUORS, right? While it would be gracious to give the sign-painter the benefit of the doubt, neither of the two remaining possibilities seems particularly likely. The place could belong to a person named not Bob, but Bobs, in which case BOBS’ LIQUORS would be perfectly correct. It’s also not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the store’s owners may well have intended the literal meaning here; we may well be looking at a two-Bob situation.

But if either of these turns out to be the case, I feel the inhabitants of Lake City are entitled to a full explanation, don’t you? The vast majority of passersby would read this sign as it was probably meant to read: as BOB’S LIQUORS.

Good old Bob may well be counting upon that; he may well believe, and with some reason, that it doesn’t really matter whether his potential customers walk in expecting one Bob or several. It’s not wise, though, for an aspiring writer to play similarly fast and loose with Millicent or Mehitabel’s sense of what’s going on.

Oh, you don’t think Mehitabel will dock your entry points if your punctuation choices imply that there are more Bobs running around your short story than there actually are? Or that Millicent might stop reading if the text seems to indicate a lack of familiarity with the rules governing apostrophes — if, say, a manuscript falls into the pervasive habit of forming plurals by adding ‘s, instead of just s?

To calm the nerves of those of you currently clutching your hearts and hyperventilating: possessive misuse all by itself is not necessarily an instant-rejection offense all by itself (although it can be, if Millicent is in a bad mood). It’s not uncommon, though, for it to combine with one or two other small gaffes to add up to rejection. Heck, I’ve known Millicents to reject a manuscript after the first malformed plural, if it fell within the opening page or two. Contest judges seldom have that luxury, thank goodness, but you’d be astonished at how often an otherwise well-written entry will knock itself out of serious finalist consideration by a typo or two on the first page. Or even — sacre bleu! — the first paragraph.

Why? Well, are you sitting down? I hope so: professional readers are paid to presume that everything on the manuscript page is there because the writer intended it to be. If the text consistently misapplies a rule, then, or simply does not apply it consistently, they tend to assume that the writer simply does not know the rule at all.

Well might you turn pale, time-strapped submitters and contest entrants. What might have started life as a typo actually can transmogrify at entry time into a reason to consider a submission less than literate — and to send the message to an agency that this talented writer would be more work to represent than someone whose work did not include such gaffes.

Why? Well, tease out the reasoning: either the writer is not aware of the rule (and thus the agency would have to invest time in teaching him something any professional writer would be expected to know), the writer is not sure enough of the rule to apply it consistently (so the agency would have to waste time proofreading his work before submitting it to publishers), or the writer knows the rule, but was simply too lazy (or, more likely, too rushed) to reread his own writing before submitting it. Whichever turns out to be the case, it means that it would be inadvisable to trust him to submit clean manuscripts, especially on a short deadline — and short deadlines crop up in the publishing world all the time. The agent of his dreams wants his work to sell, after all: it’s really in no one’s interest for her to submit his work to a publishing house if it’s peppered with typos.

She wouldn’t want to run the risk of the acquiring editor’s assuming he just didn’t know the rules. Or that he wasn’t serious enough about his own writing to proofread.

With those imperatives in mind, let’s try applying the theory to one of the great American apparent exceptions to the possessive formation rules: why is the Oakland A’s correctly punctuated?

If you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “Because that’s what the team calls itself — and proper names are spelled the way the people bearing them say they are,” give yourself partial credit. The team does in fact use the apostrophe in referring to itself. And grammar, I’m pleased to say, is on its side in that respect.

But not, I’m even more delighted to report, because the A is rendered plural by that ‘s. It couldn’t be, right? Adding an apostrophe is not how plurals are formed. That is, however, how contractions indicate that some letters are missing. In this instance, seven of ‘em: thletic. Thus, it’s perfectly acceptable to abbreviate the Oakland Athletics to the Oakland A’s.

Yet another cosmic mystery solved. Now if only we could crack the case of The Possibly Multiple Bobs. Keep up the good work!

There’s more rattling around in wit’s soul than brevity

I have time for only a quick one today, I’m afraid, campers, but at least the reasons are entirely appropriate, symbolically speaking: I shan’t be talking too much about humor in contest entries today because — wait for it — I’m in the throes of solidifying the contest rules for this summer’s Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. I shall be unveiling the criteria this coming Friday, but here’s a hint: at least one of the categories will be integrally related to something we shall be discussing today.

Ready, set — speculate!

On to the day’s business. Last week, I tempted the contest gods by bringing up the seldom-discussed topic of humor in entries and submissions. Contrary to popular opinion, not everything — or, alas, everyone — that seems funny to the writer will necessarily strike a professional readers as equally so on the printed page.

Or, as I put it last time:

Jokes that need to be explained after the fact are seldom funny to the reader.

While amusing real-life incidents often translate well directly to the visually-oriented worlds of film and TV, they do not always work equally well on the pages of a book.

Verbal anecdotes generally feature too little detail or context to be funny when reproduced as is onto the printed page.

Stop glaring at me. It’s true: funny anecdotes do not always funny prose make. Nor do hilarious real-life incidents. Also, verbal anecdotes are seldom redolent with character development, if you catch my drift. Caricature works beautifully there, but on the page, motivation becomes far more important. Not to mention backdrop and context.

All of that goes double for what’s funny on Facebook, unfortunately: quite a lot of everyday humor is situational. Or dependent upon the audience’s already being familiar with the characters and/or premise. As is quite a lot of sitcom humor, actually, but in social contexts, one’s kith and kin tend to cut one slack. Consequently, the amusement bar tends to hover quite a bit lower than it does in situations — like, say, when you enter a writing contest or submit to an agency — in which the prevailing standard of whether a piece of writing is funny is based upon whether it impresses impartial readers who could not pick the author out of a police line-up.

Translation: “But it made my friend/significant other/bus driver laugh out loud!” is not a reliable indicator of whether Mehitabel the veteran contest judge or Millicent the agency screener will find something funny on the manuscript page.

And how to put this gently?…often seems to come as a great big surprise to writers new to the art of making readers laugh, particularly memoirists and novelists that borrow heavily from their quotidian lives. “If an anecdote is funny verbally,” they apparently reason, “it should be equally amusing if I just describe the situation exactly the same way in writing, right?”

Actually, no. Why doesn’t this tend to work? Well, tone, for one thing: a talented anecdotalist puts on a performance in order to give his tale poignancy and point.

Good comic authors are well aware of this — did you know that both Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, renowned in their day as hilarious public readers, routinely used to read crowds versions of their writing substantially different from what those same readers might buy in a bookstore, or even hear in a theatre?

This was exceedingly smart, in case you were wondering. Funny on a printed page and funny in from a podium can be quite different animals. Also, it was brilliant marketing: people who had heard them read could boast about how much more amusing these authors were in person. Great way to sell tickets to one’s next lecture tour.

On the page, though, none of those stage tricks work. Mehitabel and Millicent will not be able to imagine you saying the words in your manuscript out loud, after all. Nor can they possibly see what you are picturing. All they can judge your comic vision by is what is actually on the page.

But most aspiring writers and contest entrants don’t think of that, do they? Or so agents and editors surmise from the fact that surprisingly few humorous passages in submissions seem to reflect a serious attempt to convey a comic tone. Why bother? The situation is inherently funny, right?

Not necessarily. If the narrative does not adequately convey what was humorous in that real-life incident, it’s going to fall flat on the page.

“But why?” you gasp, poised to sacrifice a goat to Thalia.

Because all too often, the writer assumes fleshing out the funny is not necessary: in that verbal anecdote that’s been slaying ‘em for years, the hearers already knew enough about the teller (and, often, the situation) to be able to fill in any narrative gaps.

That’s an extremely dangerous assumption in a contest entry or submission. Let’s face it, neither Mehitabel nor Millicent is much given to filling in the humorous blanks to the hefty percentage of jokes whose appeal is best described by the common expression well, I guess you had to be there.

But the reader — both the one that needs to fall in love with your work before it can get published and the one that you hope will want to buy it after it’s published — wasn’t there, by definition. And even if s/he was, it’s not the reader’s job to try to figure out why humor on the page is funny; it’s the writer’s job to set up the amusing bits so well that the joke does not need to be explained.

It just makes the reader — any reader — smile. Yet another reason that it’s a great idea to seek out impartial feedback: the success of the line that made your mother choke with mirth and fall out of her chair may well depend upon the reader’s knowing about something that’s not currently showing up on the page.

You can’t know for certain if the only people you’ve been showing your writing share your life, after all. Since the point of publishing a book is, presumably, to reach people who did not, say, give birth to you, sit in the cubicle next to yours, or trundle down an aisle with you whilst one or both of you were wearing white, it honestly doesn’t make sense to think of your kith and kin as your target readers.

But that’s precisely who aspiring writers usually do envision as readers, isn’t it? Or so the pros surmise from the exceedingly high percentage of first-time memoirists and autobiographical novelists that murmur early and often, “But what will they think of me after I publish this?”

I can set your mind at rest on that, actually: if you’re writing about real events, at least a few of the people that were there will think your book’s depiction is wildly inaccurate. Heck, even some people who previously knew about those events only through your verbal anecdotes may regard your written version as coming from out of left field. That’s the nature of memory, as well as individuality; since everyone experiences events differently, everyone remembers them differently.

That’s why we say you had to be there, right?

Forgetting that the human experience is subjective, and thus requires fleshing out on the page, is frequently an issue when writing the real, but it seems to trip writers up especially often when they are trying to convey real-life humor. It’s just so easy to presume that the reader can picture every aspect of a remembered event; the writer does, right? That presumption is often the reason that the anecdote that’s been sending coworkers rolling in the proverbial aisles, causing tears of glee to burst from relatives’ eye sockets, and prompting best friends to say at parties, “Oh, Antoinetta, please tell that one about the parrot and the fisherman!” for years tends actually to be less likely to elicit a chuckle from someone that reads for a living than fresher material.

Why? Because in scenes written entirely from imagination, the writer knows for certain that he cannot rely upon the reader’s outside knowledge. The narrative is less inclined to rely upon elements that you had to be there to know.

Thalia is a demanding mistress, you see: she has a great affection for specifics. In ancient Greek, ?????? translates roughly as abundant festivity or blooming. So I like to think of comedy writing as being about expansion — of a funny premise, an amusing situation, or an oddball character.

Where I think most contest entries — and manuscripts — go wrong is in a tendency to contract a funny scenes, rather than expanding them. Due, perhaps, to that tired old truism about brevity’s being the soul of wit. Like all sweeping generalizations, this is not always true.

There’s plenty of hilarious lengthy humor out there, after all. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either a great lover of writing aphorisms, unfamiliar with the breadth of witty writing in the English language, or just plain too impatient to read anything longer than the back of a cereal box.

So there.

That being said, allow me to add hastily that when I suggest expanding funny scenes, I’m not talking about pacing — as anybody who has watched a TV comedy that doesn’t quite work can tell you, funny that drags can rapidly become tedious. But that shouldn’t mean rushing through the comic elements — or cutting away from a hilarious moment and back to stern narrative the nanosecond after a good quip.

You don’t want that funny line to look like a fluke to Mehitabel and Millicent, do you?

Physical comedy often gets rushed on the page, unfortunately, sometimes so much so that it’s hard for the reader to follow what’s going on. That’s particularly likely to happen in a narrative containing a lot of run-on sentences, I’ve noticed: I guess that writers fond of them just like flinging events onto the page as quickly as humanly possible.

But as Gandhi said, there’s more to life than increasing its speed. To which I would add: there’s more to writing comedy than a rapid telling.

I sense some aphorism-huggers shaking their heads. You want proof that a too-speedy telling can flatten the funny. Fair enough. Here’s a slapstick moment, conveyed with the breathless pacing and overstuffed sentences Mehitabel and Millicent see so much.

Harriet grabbed her usual wobbly table at the coffee house, shoving her laptop, backpack, an extra-grande (whatever that meant) mocha, a dog-eared novel, and her lunch onto the too-small surface because she was in too much of a rush to get online and answer the e-mail that Bertrand must have sent her by now. Of course, he hadn’t, but she quickly became engrossed in reading the fifteen other e-mails cluttering up her inbox because it was Monday, when everyone came dragging into the office, then remembered an hour later the million things that they hadn’t done last week and rushed to blame their procrastination on somebody else, which she hated. When a handsome stranger brushed by to claim his latte from the counter next to her, he knocked over her drink. She jumped up to try to yank her possessions out of the way, but she was too late, everything was soaked. She only managed to save her laptop, backing up so hard that she shoved her chair into the lady sitting behind her, causing a domino effect of café patrons slamming into each other. And now it was time to get back to work, and she hadn’t eaten even a bite of her lunch.

Awfully darned hasty, isn’t it? There are some funny elements here, but they get a bit lost in the welter of frenetic activity. And cramming all of it into a single paragraph doesn’t really do the scene any favors, either, does it?

So we can’t really blame Mehitabel for wanting to shout, “Whoa! Slow down and show us what’s happening!”

Glad to oblige. Here’s that scene again, shown at a more reasonable pace.

The lunchtime crowd of caffeine-seekers had, as usual, avoided the three-legged table. Harriet always brought her own shim to shove under the short leg. By the time she had coaxed the tabletop into something close to horizontality, Alex had shouted twice that her extra-grande (whatever that meant) mocha must be getting cold.

As usual, the cup seared her hand. She carried it with her fingertips until she could balance it atop the tenuous pyramid she had constructed: laptop atop a dog-eared paperback novel supported by her backpack, with her bagged lunch teetering on the last few inches of table. Food could wait until she powered up her computer and answered the e-mail that Bertrand must have sent her by now.

Of course, he hadn’t. What a jerk. Irritably, she gnawed on a mushy apple, scrolling through pointless e-mails from her coworkers. Typical Monday: everyone came dragging into the office, then remembered an hour later the million things that they hadn’t done last week and rushed to blame their procrastination on somebody else.

“George!” Alex screamed. “Do you want your latte or not?”

Suitably chastened, a handsome hipster lunged toward the counter. Sympathetic to his embarrassment, Harriet pretended to be engrossed in what was in fact the single most boring e-mail ever constructed by human hand. The hipster’s mailbag swung through her peripheral vision, and abruptly, she was covered with coffee.

Automatically, she yanked her computer away from the spreading lake soaking her possessions. Leaping to her feet, she sent her chair sliding backward into the cramped couple at the next table. They scrambled to save their drinks, but their sandwiches flew onto the floor. The woman reached to retrieve the plates, unfortunately at the same moment that a good Samaritan at a neighboring table dove for them as well. Their heads smacked together with a sickening thud.

“Oh, God,” the hipster said, battering Harriet with fistfuls of paper napkins. “I’m so sorry.”

She wished she had time to enjoy his mauling. She had to get back to work, and she hadn’t eaten even a bite of her lunch. Typical Monday.

Much clearer what actually happened now, isn’t it? Do I hear a cheer for showing, not telling?

I sense some disgruntlement in the peanut gallery. “But Anne,” brevity-lovers moan, “that’s a lot longer! The contest I’m entering has a short page limit — if I expand my scenes like this, I won’t be able to enter as much of my manuscript as I had planned! And what if Millicent’s boss asked me for the first 50 pages of my manuscript. I want to get as much of the story under her nose as possible!”

Ah, these are both common concerns. Would it astonish you hear that they simply wouldn’t make any sense to Mehitabel or Millicent?

Why? Well, Millicent’s is perfectly aware that if submission request specifies a page limit, there’s going to be more manuscript beyond what the writer has sent. So will Mehitabel, if she’s judging a book category that calls for the opening pages and synopsis. That means, in practice, that a writer would be better off making those opening pages sing than trying to cram as much plot into them as possible.

If you’re genuinely concerned about length, there’s another option here, but I hesitate to suggest it: if the story overall is not humorous and it would take too much page space to render a comic bit unquestionably funny, consider taking it out altogether. Humor is a great way to establish your narrative voice as unique, but as I mentioned earlier in this series, it can be a risky contest entry strategy. Ditto with submissions. Funny that fails tends to be disproportionately punished.

Why, you ask? Comic elements in an otherwise serious manuscript can come across as, well, flukes. They don’t fit comfortably into the overall narrative; the individual laugh lines may be genuinely funny, but if there aren’t chuckle moments and fleeting smirk instants throughout as well, the funny bit can sometimes jar the reader out of the story.

I know: it’s kind of counter-intuitive. But true.

You might also consider cutting comic bits that you’re not positive will work on strangers. Unless you are lucky or brave enough to be a stand-up comic, a teacher, a prison guard, or have another job that allows you to test material on a live audience unlikely to run screaming from the room, you honestly cannot tell for sure if the bits that seemed hilarious to you in the privacy of your studio would be funny to anyone else.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s a bad idea for your first test of whether a joke or comic situation works to be submitting it to a contest, any more than it should be when you submit it to the agency of your dreams. The stakes are just too high, and it’s just too easy to imagine theoretical readers laughing at the funny parts.

Not that I’d know anything about that, writing a blog.

“But Anne,” some of you complain, and who could blame you? “I love my comic bits, but the contest deadline is imminent. I don’t have time to track down impartial first readers. Is there a faster method to test-drive my funny parts?”

Until you’re sure that your narrative voice is consistently diverting, it can be very helpful to read it out loud to somebody. See where the chuckles come, if ever. If an expected chuckle does not come, flag the passage and rework it, pronto. (I’ve been known to ask, when a line elicits only a fleeting smile, which of the following three possibilities is funniest.)

Reading out loud is also one of the few ways to weed out the phenomenon I mentioned last time, what movie people call bad laughs, the unintentional blunders that make readers guffaw AT a book, not with it.

Fair warning: any given listener will be able to respond spontaneously only once to a particular scene. So after you have reworked the problematic parts, you’re going to need to track down another victim listener.

Thalia is nudging me to point out that living with a comedy writer is no picnic. Yes, ma’am.

This strategy only works, of course, if you are philosophically open to the possibility that the sentence that you thought was the best one-liner penned in North America since Robert Benchley died is simply not funny, and thus should be cut. Admittedly, this kind of perspective is not always easy to maintain: it requires you to be humble. Your favorite line may very well go; it’s no accident that the oft-quoted editing advice, “Kill your darlings,” came from the great wit Dorothy Parker.

Yes, that’s right: she was talking about laugh lines. That’s not how your high school English teacher introduced you to the aphorism, was it? God, I hate sweeping generalizations about writing; they’re so often applied indiscriminately.

It is pretty good advice about comedy, though. Be ruthless: if it isn’t funny on paper, it should go — yes, no matter how much it makes you laugh. Or your best friend, or your spouse, or everyone around the water cooler at work. (Do offices even have water coolers anymore?)

As any good comedy writer can tell you, in the long run, actually doesn’t matter if the author laughs herself silly over any given joke: the reaction that matters is the audience’s. And no, the fact that your spouse/mother/best friend laughed heartily does not necessarily mean a line is genuinely funny. It may mean merely that these people love you and want you to be happy.

A little hard to resent that kind of devotion, isn’t it?

Lacking an audience, it is still possible to work your way into Thalia’s good graces by editing out the only marginally comical in your manuscript. As a contest judge and editor, I can tell you with certainty that aspiring comedians’ less successful efforts seem to rush to array themselves into easily-identifiable groups.

Next time, I’ll give you a guided tour of ‘em, so you may recognize them if — Thalia forefend! — they should rear their less-than-funny heads in your contest entries. In the meantime, polish up those laugh lines, burnish those chuckle-inducing moments, and keep up the good work!

The joys of originality in humor, or, why your contest entry should not resemble the love child of Jane Austen and Owen Wilson. Or Flip Wilson, for that matter.

/janepict.jpg

Yes, I’m posting late again — and yes, my tardiness is due in part to the delightful rigors of fine-tuning the rules for the latest installment of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, a writing contest I shall be announcing this coming weekend. Not to pat myself on the back, but I flatter myself that this year’s iteration will please a broader swathe of writers seeking Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy than ever before.

Hint: the judges are going to be rewarding showing, not telling. But perhaps I have already said too much.

Back to the topic at hand. The prim miss sporting the clavicle-concealing garment above is, of course, Jane Austen, and she has come to preside over today’s topic, how to write comedy that ages well.

What’s that you say, potential literary contest entrants? That since writing contests tend to be annual events, any humor contained in your entry would have to seem fresh for only a few months, at most?

I can see why you might think so, but actually, Mehitabel the contest judge is usually as wary of jokes topical enough to have a short shelf life as Millicent the agency screener could possibly be. Why? Well, literary contest organizers hope that the works they reward with prizes, finalist ribbons, and other ECQLC will ultimately go on to be published. In a contest that accepts book-length unpublished writing, all of the Mehitabels will be quite aware that this year’s winners would at best be hitting the shelves a couple of years hence.

So I ask you: how well do you remember the pop culture events of two years ago? I thought not. Neither will Mehitabel.

Some of you have gone quite pale. Were you not aware that it typically takes quite some time for even the best-conceived manuscript to move through the traditional publication process? Even if you signed a book contract tomorrow, you might well not hold the bound book in your hand for a year or two. Sometimes more. And that’s not counting the time your agent might spend shopping the manuscript around to editors — or the time you might invest in landing an agent.

So for any cultural reference gracing your book not to seem dated to the reader of the future, it’s going to need to have at least a five-year expiration date. And if that doesn’t strike you as a trifle intimidating, may I remind you that back in 2007, iPhones were a brand-new phenomenon?

Oh, you don’t remember where you were when the last HARRY POTTER book was released? That’s okay; neither do Mehitabel or Millicent. So why would you expect them to recall, say, who the Secretary General of the U.N. was on January 3 of that year?

Oh, you may laugh (or, if you don’t follow the news, you may be wondering who the Secretary General is now), but you would be amazed at how often Millicent and Mehitabel encounter topical humor in submissions and contest entries. Or how often it’s the topical humor of a couple of years ago.

Don’t believe me? I recently read a scene in which approximately 95% of the hilarity was dependent upon the reader’s being able to recall the individual steps of the Macarena.

Well might you avert your eyes. Or roll them, if you happen to be too young to remember (shudder) a major political party’s candidate doing the Macarena on television. (I’d link to the video, but apparently, it’s so embarrassing that it’s been removed from YouTube.)

“Okay, Anne,” you say, trying desperately to believe that because it was so popular at the time, you could not possibly have looked ridiculous doing the Macarena (but knowing in your heart that was not the case), “I take your point. Before I send off a contest entry or manuscript submission, I should cast my eye over it to check for outdated or soon-to-be-outdated cultural references. But now I’m deeply curious: what makes you think that waving an admittedly rather comely line drawing of a 200-year-old author under my nose will help me remember to do that?”

An excellent question, former Macarena-doers. If you are familiar with Jane Austen’s work only through film adaptations, you might not be in the habit of thinking of her as a comedy writer, but for my money, she’s one of the most talented who ever scrawled English prose on a page. Her timing is impeccable — and, remarkably, her humor has not become less amusing with the passage of time.

Her books remain, as the British used to say, as fresh as paint.

Which is interesting, because the first novel she sold, NORTHANGER ABBEY (published posthumously in 1818, even though Aunt Jane had signed a publication contract more than a decade earlier; yet another reason that she should be the patron saint of modern novelists), was in fact very topical in its day. Quite a lot of its humor relies upon the reader’s familiarity with the most popular novels of the day.

Quick: what were the blockbusters of 1803, when she sold the manuscript for ten pounds? Or of 1798, when she evidently began writing it?

Here’s a hint: in the text, she very self-consciously identifies herself in as the literary descendant of one of the great early comic novelists, Fanny Burney. In fact, the title of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813) is a direct homage to Burney, a massively popular author a generation older than Austen. PRIDE and PREJUDICE — in all caps, no less — is are identified in Burney’s CECILIA (1782) as the main villains of the plot:

The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr. Lyster, “has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. Your uncle, the Dean, began it, by his arbitrary will, as if an ordinance of his own could arrest the course of nature! And as if he had the power to keep alive, by the loan of a name, a family in the male branch already extinct. Your father, Mr. Mortimer, continued it with the same self-partiality, preferring the wretched gratification of tickling his ear with a favourite sound, to the solid happiness of his son with a rich and deserving wife. Yet this, however, remember: if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination: for all I could say to Mr. Delvile, either of reasoning or entreaty — and I said all I could suggest, and I suggested all a man need wish to hear — was totally thrown away, till I pointed out to him his own disgrace, in having a daughter-in-law immured in these mean lodgings!…Such, my good young friends, is the MORAL of your calamities.”

I like to bring this up, not only because Burney was a fine comic writer in her own right (EVELINA is, after some rather pompous opening platitudes, arguably the funniest epistolary novel ever written), but also because most of us grew up in English classes that presented female writers as aberrations in an otherwise male-dominated field — or even acted as though Austen were the first worth reading. As a matter of historical fact, there have been prominent female novelists practically since the novel was invented. In the 19th century, it was considered predominantly a women’s art form. Aunt Jane not only grew up reading other women’s writing, but she tells us point-blank that she learned some of her craft from the best.

Which I strongly suspect would come as a surprise to my ninth-grade English teacher, if not yours.

But then, my ninth-grade English teacher was so suggestible that she once caught a cold because she believed that I had placed a hex upon her. Yes, really: she was famous for misplacing her chalk — not infrequently by depositing it upon the shelf just below the blackboard designed for its reception — so her students were forced to endure many, many repetitions of — wait for it — “Who took my chalk?” There are only so many times a humor-minded person can hear a rhetorical question without providing an answer. As I recall, “I used it to stuff a voodoo doll,” was neither my first nor my best riposte, but it was the one that got me sent to the principal’s office.

His response was much funnier: “I know there’s no voodoo doll. Tell her you destroyed it, anyway. Otherwise, she’ll be sneezing for the rest of the year.”

See, that’s a joke that’s likely to age pretty well, at least for the next decade or so: although not all readers (or, brace yourself, all currently-employed Millicents) may remember chalkboards, the voodoo doll and the clueless teacher are likely to be around for a good, long while. If I’d mentioned that I was wearing an English Beat t-shirt at the time, the story would have seemed more dated, wouldn’t it?

While we’re engaging in multi-temporal analysis, why is Austen so much more popular today than Burney, other than those often-humorless film adaptations? Partially, of course, it’s due to the heavy-handed moralizing: hot in the late 1700s, but as dated as last year’s catchphrase today.

Don’t believe me? Do you really want me to force you to shout, “Hey, Macarena!”

Also, Burney’s social satire is very specifically aimed at social problems that no longer trouble English-speaking readers all that much: the trials of an 18th-century maiden raised in retirement, then forced into high society without being aware of its rules, for instance, or the trials of an orphaned heiress in a country where a young woman did not have legal control over her own property would have resonated far more with readers when her books were originally published than now.

Whereas pretty much everyone can identify with an Austen heroine who is in love with someone who doesn’t seem to love her, whilst simultaneously being pursued by someone she can’t stand. Heck, even my ninth-grade English teacher was able to identify with that.

If you want more current evidence of just how badly topical comedy tends to age, look no further than a sketch comedy show like Saturday Night Live or its many imitators. Its satires on current events are seldom amusing even a few months after the show originally airs.

Are you wondering why I am bringing this up within the context of a series on contest entries? For one very simple and seldom-mentioned reason: many contests’ rating forms specifically ask the judge to assess whether the entry is likely to seem dated quickly.

Actually, older agents and editors tend to worry about this, too, out of sheer experience: you don’t have to be in the biz for very long to see how frequently books that appeal to the hip trend of the moment have very short shelf lives. These books become stale all the faster from their perspective, since they know — as we all do now, right? — that a book often takes a year or two to sell to a publisher –and then it’s typically at least another year before that book is available to the public.

So it really isn’t all that unreasonable for a contest judge to want to give higher marks to a book that will still not have readers scratching their heads in a few years, is it? In fact, I think it’s worth stating as an aphorism that what is humor today probably will not be in a decade, and one generation’s humor will not be another’s.

Or, to put it another way: hands up, anyone that still owns a pet rock.

Here’s a radical piece of self-editing advice for would-be comic writers of both fiction and memoir: go through your manuscript and highlight any jokes that you have borrowed from TV, movies, radio shows, other books, or the zeitgeist. Keep a sharp eye out, too, for recycling comic premises from any of the above.

Then go back and examine each in turn: would a reader find it funny five years from now? Or have found it funny five years ago? If not, it probably does not belong in a submission — and it definitely does not belong in a contest entry.

This is especially true of catchphrases or references to characters from movies or sitcoms, which go stale with a rapidity that would make your average loaf of French bread turn pale with dread and contemplate its own mortality. Take a gander, for instance, at these zingers out of context:

From 1968: The devil made me do it!

From 1977: Excu-u-use me!

From 1985: You look mahvelous!

From 2000: I don’t know karate, but I do know cah-razy.

From 2004: Make it work.

Now, most media-following adults in the U.S. probably have some association with at least one of these, right? So much so that I would bet that if you close your eyes and conjure up vivid images of Flip Wilson, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Owen Wilson, and Tim Gunn respectively, saying these lines, these old chestnuts might still elicit the odd chuckle. (Or perhaps some puzzled consideration about why female comedians are so seldom associated with popular catchphrases.)

Go ahead and chuckle your head off, if you are given to atavistic clinging to the popular culture of your past, but please, I implore you, do not make the (unfortunately common) mistake of reusing these kinds of once-popular catchphrases in a contest entry. Leaving aside the ethical problem of these jokes having been written by someone other than you and the fact that such bits seldom funny out of context, including them will almost certainly date your book — and thus potentially cost your entry some serious points.

Yes, even if your book’s target audience is of precisely the right age to harbor fond memories of when those catchphrases were popular. To be absolutely blunt, catchphrases from your heyday will necessarily carry a very different resonance for a judge 20 years older than you are. Or 20 years younger.

Remember, you cannot be sure that the Mehitabel to whom your entry will be assigned will be of the generation you have in mind. People tend to have very strong associations with particular periods in their lives, and for all you know, the reference you choose to use may be the very one most favored in 1978 by your dream agent’s hideously unkind ex, the one who lied in court during the divorce proceedings and hid assets so cleverly that their daughter’s college fund had to be used to pay those unexpected medical bills of Mother’s. Then the car broke down, and all of those checks bounced, and the orthodontist tried to repossess Angelica’s braces…

See what happened? One little pop culture reference, and POW! You’ve lost your judge’s attention entirely.

So even if you are using pop culture references to establish a particular period, do it with care. Be sparing. Even if your teenage son quoted SHANGHAI NOON endlessly for six solid months while the entire family cringed in a Y2K fallout shelter, do be aware that your reader might not have the associations you do with those jokes. There are a myriad of associational possibilities — and almost none of them will make your writing more memorable or seem fresher.

Originality tends to age better than borrowed amusement, anyway. But that’s a topic for tomorrow’s post.

For now, if you aspire to perfecting your comic voice, it might behoove you to take a good, hard look at the careers of Mssrs. Martin, Crystal, and Wilson, all of whom started out as comedy writers, writing material for themselves and others. All became progressively less funny (in my humble opinion, at least) as soon as they started performing comic material written by other people. Ditto for one of the great comedy writers of all time, Mae West; she first came to prominence as a playwright, not a sex symbol.

An accident? I think not. They became less funny because their individual comic voices had gotten lost, replaced by the catchphrases of the moment.

Oh, the people who were writing for them have tried to recapture their quite distinct original voices, but the copy is never as vivid as the original, is it? Why any of them stopped writing their own material is a mystery to me — particularly Mssr. Wilson, who is arguably one of the most talented comedy writers of his (which also happens to be my) generation.

If you doubt this, rent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, please. Not many writers could have pulled off a graphic suicide attempt scene (evidently written years before later events rendered it sadly ironic, I should add, and penned with a writing partner) in the middle of a genuinely funny comedy about misused potential. It’s brilliant, so much so that it’s kept me interested for years in his writing, wondering how he is going to surprise me next. I suspect that it will still seem pretty brilliant when everyone of my generation is old and gray and full of sleep.

Why? Because it isn’t like anything else. And because, like Aunt Jane’s socially frustrated heroines’ woes, it’s not a situation that’s going to be outdated in a decade. It’s a situation with which people are likely to be able to identify for some time to come.

One of the advantages to using humor in your submissions is to demonstrate the originality of your voice — not Jane Austen’s, not Owen Wilson’s, not Steve Martin’s, and certainly not that anonymous person who originated that joke your best friend from college just forwarded to you.

If your individual voice is not inherently humorous, whatever you do, don’t try to force it to be by importing humor from other sources. Lifting material from elsewhere, even if it is genuinely funny, is not the best means of establishing that YOU are funny — or that yours is a book well worth reading. Or, for our purposes today, deserving of a bright blue ribbon — today, tomorrow, and for the next three hundred years.

Make your Aunt Jane happy: be yourself. And if you want to make me happy — I ask so little — keep up the good work!

Speaking of self-editing advice that applies equally well to literary contest entries and submissions to agencies: har de har har har?

Okay, I’ll admit it: the first part of that title is a tad cumbersome. I got tired of typing COUNTDOWN TO A CONTEST, PART {fill in Roman numeral here}. The contest deadline to which I was counting down has passed (how do people feel their entry process went, by the way?), and besides, much of what I’m discussing in this part of the series would apply — stop me if you have heard this before — equally well to refining contest entries and submissions to agencies.

I know, I know. Some day, I’m going to have to come up with more descriptive titles for my posts.

Let’s get back to courting the comic muse. Or, more accurately, to our discussion of how aspiring writers often think they are courting her, without actually winning her favor. Or so we must surmise, from the fact that such a high proportion of attempted humor leaves both Mehitabel, everybody’s favorite fictional veteran contest judge, and her niece Millicent, intrepid screener of manuscripts at a theoretical agency, with distinctly untickled funny bones. Further evidence might be gleaned from the startling frequency with which entries and submissions elicit spontaneous, uninhibited laughter with lines the writer did not think would pass anywhere near those aforementioned funny bones.

Ooh, nicely executed spit take, everybody. “Wha–?” would-be humorists across the English-speaking world cry, their eyes bugging out of their heads like cartoon characters (oh, you thought you were the first writer to use that simile?). “How can something intended to be unfunny provoke that response? I can understand a joke’s falling flat, but I hate the idea that Mehitabel and/or Millicent might be chuckling over my Great American Tragedy.”

Good question, eye-buggers. But didn’t the previous question answer it?

If the previous paragraph did not make you giggle, well, you are either delightfully innocent (and thus might want to avert your eyes from the next paragraph, in order to remain so), not a very detail-oriented reader (as Mehitabel and Millicent invariably are), or, perish the thought, the joke I just made was not very funny. Given the exceptionally high probability that all three are true, allow me to compound the mistake of having cracked not particularly wise by explaining why it should have been funny, as well as illustrative of my ongoing point. To render the narrative error even more representative of what M & M tend to see on the page, allow me to explain my failed joke as pedantically as possible.

You see, the would-be humorists asked how a piece of writing could provoke laughter if its author did think it was funny. I then said it was a good question — something I’m pointing out because I don’t have sufficient faith in the reader to believe s/he can remember what s/he has just read — but then turned that compliment on its head by addressing the imaginary questioners with a double entendre. That, for those of you new to the term, is when the comic value of a phrase arises from its meaning one thing literally, but also being subject to a sexualized interpretation. In this instance, eye-buggers could refer to those whose eyes protrude unusually far between their lashes, but it also — and herein lies the yuck factor — could imply that those same imaginary questioners are in the habit of performing a physically improbable sex act upon eyeballs in general. Get it? Get it? Compounding the humor: the sentence that followed raised the possibility that the phrasing in the previous sentence might have been unintentional — and thus likely to spark unintended laughter at the entry or submission stage. Har de har har har!

Hands up, those of you who thought my bad joke was funnier before I explained it. Keep those hands up if you found yourself wishing by a couple of lines into the subsequent explanation that I’d just accept that the joke hadn’t worked and move on.

Welcome to Mehitabel and Millicent’s world. They’re constantly treated to unfunny, marginally funny, and might-have-been-funny-after-a-couple-of-rewrites humor attempts. They are also, for their sins, frequently forced to read painful attempts to render an unamusing quip funny in retrospect. Over-explanation is one popular means — and, as we have just seen, it seldom works. Equally common:

Or having a character laugh in order to alert the reader that what’s just appeared on the page was intended to be humorous:

As the head bagger stomped away, Herman pictured a large brown bag descending upon him, scooping him up. Now trapped at the bottom, Ambrose would be helpless as a giant hand flung boxes of cereal and canned goods upon him, perhaps topped by a carton of eggs. He laughed at the mental image.

This, I am sorry to tell you, would cause Mehitabel to roll her bloodshot eyes. “Thanks prompting me to laugh,” she snorts, “because I couldn’t possibly have told that you meant this to be funny otherwise. I see you have also helpfully let me in on the secret that pictured referred to a mental image. Otherwise, I might have thought that the narrative had suddenly shifted from gritty slice-of-life fiction into magical realism.”

Let that be a lesson, would-be humorists: if a bit isn’t funny on the page, having a character find it amusing won’t make it more so. Also, as Mehitabel has just so kindly demonstrated for us, since readers cannot hear tone, sarcasm often does not come across well on the page. From which we may derive a subsidiary lesson: just because something generates a laugh when you say it out loud does not mean it will necessarily be similarly guffaw-inducing on the page.

Why did I put that in bold, you ask? Millicent and Mehitabel requested it; they’re tired of reading manuscripts out loud to try to figure out what on earth Herman thought was so darned funny.

Then, too, professional readers as a group tend not to like being told how to react to writing, period. Mehitabel has every right to feel irritated at being told that she should find what she has just read humorous. Self-review tends not to play well on the page, even if it is very subtle.

Oh, you don’t think what Herman’s creator did was self-review? M & M would regard it that way. They would also see the following fruitless authorial effort as reaction-solicitation. Any guesses why?

“The bookstore is closed for the night,” Gemma snapped, gesturing to the CLOSED sign on the door. “What are you two still doing here?”

“Oh, we’re just browsing,” Angelina said airily.

Bonnie laughed. “Yeah, we’re looking for a first edition of Martin Chuzzlewit.”

Gemma looked puzzled. “Why would you need to be wearing ski masks for that?”

If you leapt to your feet, crying, “Bonnie’s laughter is intended to order Mehitabel to laugh, too,” you deserve a gold start for the day. It doesn’t render Angelina’s joke any funnier, does it? Since M & M do not, as a rule, enjoy being told how to evaluate the writing in front of them, they would have been more likely to find the quip amusing if it had appeared like so. While we’re at it, let’s excise those other professional reader-irkers, concept redundancy and having a character vaguely point to something in order to let the reader know it’s there.

Gemma fixed the closer one with her flashlight. “The bookstore is closed for the night. What are you two still doing here?”

“Oh, we’re just browsing,” Angelina said airily, smiling through her ski mask.

Bonnie aimed her rifle just to the right of Gemma’s head. “Yeah, we’re looking for a first edition of Martin Chuzzlewit.”

“Oh, why didn’t you say so right away?” Gemma felt under the cash register for her favorite throwing knife. “We’re always happy to move some Dickens.”

Better, isn’t it? It’s funnier because the narrative trusts the reader’s intelligence more. As opposed to, say, the ubiquitous practice of just telling the reader point-blank that something is funny:

Barbara flung her banana peel on the ground. Her snarky coworker did not see it, trod upon it, and slipped. It was hilarious.

In case I’m being too subtle here: very, very few contest entries are genuinely funny. Oh, many of them try to be, and some attempts at amusing actually would be chuckle-worthy if spoken out loud, but humor is a capricious mistress. In order to work on the page, how a writer chooses to frame the funny is every bit as important as the joke itself.

Yes, really. You may have written the best one-liner since Richard Pryor accidentally set himself on fire, but if it’s not set up correctly, it’s going to fall flat. And that, my friends, is going to come as a huge disappointment to a humor-loving Mehitabel or Millicent.

Why, you ask? A funny entry, or even a funny joke in an otherwise serious entry, feels like a gift to your garden-variety professional reader. A deliberately-provoked laugh from a judge can result in the reward of many presentation points, and often additional points in the voice category as well.

Notice that I specified a deliberately-provoked laugh. An unintentional laugh, what moviemakers call a bad laugh because it springs forth from the audience when the filmmakers do not want it to occur, will cost a contest entry points. And it should: a bad laugh can knock the reader right out of the scene.

We’ve all burst into bad laughter at movies, right? My personal favorite cropped up in the most recent remake of LITTLE WOMEN. It’s quite a good trick, too: provoking a bad laugh in a scene that’s not only arguably one of the best-known in children’s literature, as well as one in which the filmmakers remained very faithful to the original text, can’t have been easy.

I’m about to show you the moment in question, but first, let’s take a gander at how Louisa May Alcott presented it to her readers. The March girls have just learned that their father, a chaplain in a Civil War regiment, is dangerously ill. Their mother, not unnaturally, wishes to travel across many states to nurse him back to health, but the trip will be very expensive. Everybody’s favorite little woman, Jo the tomboy, is frantic to help. After having disappeared for most of the day, she returns home with a wad of cash, and her family, equally unnaturally, wants to know whence it came.

…she came walking in with a very queer expression of countenance, for there was a mixture of fun and fear, satisfaction and regret, in it, which puzzled the family as much as did the roll of bills she laid before her mother, saying, with a choke in her voice, “That’s my contribution toward making father comfortable and bringing him home!”

“My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven’t done anything rash?”

“No, it’s mine honestly; I didn’t beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it, and I don’t think you’ll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.”

As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

“Your hair! Your beautiful hair!” “Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.” “My dear girl, there was no need of this.” “She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!”

As everyone exclaimed, and Beth hugged the cropped head tenderly, Jo assumed an indifferent air, which did not deceive anyone a particle, and said, rumpling up the brown bush, and trying to look as if she liked it, “It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth.”

Now, Mehitabel and Millicent might well quibble over whether expression of countenance is redundant (technically, it is) or the unidentified speakers, or the unfortunate choice to demonstrate simultaneous speech by tossing aside the one speaker per dialogue paragraph rule. I also cherish the hope that you are all shaking your heads over Aunt Louisa’s regrettable affection for run-on sentences.

But there’s nothing to provoke a bad laugh here, right? It’s a sweet, evocative YA moment: the teenage heroine can’t stand to feel helpless, so she chooses to make a personal sacrifice in order to help her family. That’s a good plot twist. And if Amy (we assume) telling her that she’s now ugly hurt her feelings — “Your one beauty!” is a remarkably nasty thing to say, but she has a point: Jo’s effectively rendered herself unmarriageable for the next year or two — that’s good relationship development. And if she cries about it later that night, that’s good character development.

Here’s that moment again, as it appeared in the film. Note how the focus of the scene has shifted, doubtless as a reflection of the fact that cutting one’s hair was not nearly as shocking to moviegoers in 1994 as it would have been to readers in 1868. My apologies about the commercial at the beginning; it was the only version I could find.