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!

Pet peeves on parade, part IX: how can I possibly get from here to the door without a guide?

Last time, I brought up in passing the dreaded Walking Across the Room (WATR) problem, a scene or paragraph in which a character does something, but the narrative gets so bogged down in detail that the important action gets watered down — and the reader gets bored. Instead of narrowing down the steps to complete a project to only what’s necessary for the reader to understand what’s going on, a WATR text mentions everything that happens.

If you were one of the many, many readers who responded to that last statement by muttering, “Well, not everything that happens — surely, few writers go down to the molecular level when describing relatively straightforward actions,” allow me to introduce you to Millicent, the intrepid soul charged with screening each and every query and submission all the writers in the English-speaking world are aiming at the agent of your dreams. She would be only too happy to tell you that she regularly sees descriptions that range from the itty-bitty:

The boss had only just begun lecturing the staff, but almost without noticing, Zelda found herself itching all over. Not just on the top layer of her epidermis, the stuff that separated her from the rest of the microbe-infested world, but right down to the dermis holding her together. Indeed, even her hypodermis felt like it was crawling with minuscule bugs. She pictured the very nuclei of her cells needing to be scratched.

to the grandiose:

After the magma cooled to form the valley, life slowly began to emerge from the primordial ooze. First small, cold-blooded creatures barely able to wrest themselves from the slimy waters that gave them birth, then warm-blooded animals that hid in terror from the giant lizards stomping outside their burrows. Gradually, ponderous dinosaur immensity gave way to grazing placidity and hunting ferocity. Late in the game, man came, in packs and tribes, and eventually, in covered wagons.

Close to where the first settlers had carved out sustenance from the unforgiving ground, Arnie made a latte for his seventeenth customer for the day. Ten minutes into his shift, and the café was already packed.

Mostly, though, our poor Millicent is overwhelmed by the obvious, descriptions so loaded down with the self-evident and the unnecessary that she begins to wonder how aspiring writers believe readers make their way through the world. Surely, if readers actually needed directions this specific, we’d all be in trouble.

Liza did a double-take. Was that her long-lost Uncle Max on the other side of the fairway, about to hand over his ticket, push open the small gate, and walk up the angled walkway to the Tilt-a-Whirl? She would have see for herself, but he was so far away, and the crowd so large! Summoning her resolve, she set off in the direction of the carnival ride, walking firmly, but stepping aside to let others pass as necessary.

When she bumped into people in her haste, she stopped and apologized to them. She veered around children waving cotton candy, lest she get it on her favorite tank top. That would be all she needed, meeting her mother’s favorite brother with a great big stain on her shirt!

Suddenly self-conscious, she paused in front of the funhouse to take a peek at her hair and make-up in the mirrors. They distorted her form and face so much that she could not tell if her stockings were straight. Sighing, she resumed her quest, but not before rummaging around in her capacious purse for a comb with which to set her hair to rights and lipstick to redo her lips.

I’m going to stop Liza’s trek to ask you something: do you still care whether she catches up to her uncle? Indeed, has the narrative’s constant digression into unimportant matters convinced you that Liza doesn’t particularly care if she catches up with him?

And while I’m asking questions, what would one do with lipstick other than apply it to one’s lips? Doesn’t the writer believe that the reader is smart enough to spot the word lipstick and draw the correct conclusion?

“Specifically,” Millicent asks with some asperity, “does this writer think I’m not smart enough to make that simple a connection?”

Oh, she might not hiss this question through gritted teeth upon encountering such over-explanation in her first few manuscripts on a typical Tuesday morning. If she hadn’t been too overwhelmed with the post-weekend avalanche of queries the day before, she might well be feeling benevolent as she sips her first latte. When she encounters the same phenomenon in her 37th manuscript of the day, however, she will probably be feeling less charitable — and by the end of a long day’s screening, she might be so sick of submissions that seem to be talking down to her that her ire is raised by sentences that indulge in relatively minor over-explanation, such as When the light changed, he walked across the street.

Even that slight provocation could make all of those lattes boil within her system. “How else would a pedestrian cross the street?” she growls the page. “And don’t tell me when a character does something as expected as crossing with the light — tell me when he doesn’t! Better yet, yank him out of that tedious street and have him do something exciting that reveals character and/or moves the plot along!”

If you take nothing else away from this series, please let it be a firm resolve not to resent Millicent for this response. Yes, it’s a trifle unfair that the last manuscript (or contest entry) to make a common error on that day would be judged more harshly than, say, the third one that did it, but it’s certainly not hard to understand why. There’s just no getting around the fact that professional readers — i.e., agents, editors, contest judges, agency screeners, editorial assistants, writing teachers — tend to read manuscript pages not individually, like most readers do, but in clumps.

One after another. All the livelong day.

That’s necessarily going to affect how they read your manuscript — or any other writer’s, for that matter. Think about it: if you had already spotted the same easily-fixable error 50 times today (or, heaven help you, within the last hour), yet were powerless to prevent the author of submission #51 from making precisely the same rejection-worthy mistake, wouldn’t it make you just a mite testy?

Welcome to Millicent’s world. Help yourself to a latte.

And do try to develop some empathy for her, if only to make yourself a better self-editor. If you’re at all serious about landing an agent, you should want to get a peek into her world, because she’s typically the first line of defense at an agency, the hurdle any submission must clear before a manuscript can get anywhere near the agent who requested it. In that world, the submission that falls prey to the same pitfall as the one before it is far, far more likely to get rejected on page 1 than the submission that makes a more original mistake.

Why, you cry out in horror — or, depending upon how innovative your gaffes happen to be, cry out in relief? Feel free to chant along with me now, long-term readers — from a professional reader’s point of view, ubiquitous writing problems are not merely barriers to reading enjoyment; they are boring as well.

Did the mere thought of your submission’s boring Millicent for so much as a second make you cringe? Good — you’re in the right frame of mind to consider trimming your pages of some extraneous explanation and detail.

It will require concentration, because these manuscript problems are frequently invisible to the writer who produced them. Yet they are glaringly visible to a professional reader, for precisely the same reason that formatting problems are instantly recognizable to a contest judge: after you’ve see the same phenomenon crop up in 75 of the last 200 manuscripts you’ve read, your eye just gets sensitized to it.

Let’s begin with that most eminently cut-able category of sentences, statements of the obvious. You know, the kind that draws a conclusion or states a fact that any reader of average intelligence might have been safely relied upon to have figured out for him or herself.

Caught me in the act, didn’t you? Yes, the second sentence of the previous paragraph is an example of what I’m talking about; I was trying to test your editing eye.

Here I go, testing it again. See how many self-evident statements you can catch in the following novel opening. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the individual words in the example, try holding down the Command key while hitting + to enlarge the image.

obvious example 1

How did you do? Is not night usually dark? Where else would the moon rise except on the horizon? What else could one possibly shrug other than shoulders — or, indeed, nod with, other than a head? Is there a funny bone located somewhere in the body other than the arm. Have I spent my life blind to all of those toes that aren’t on feet?

Seeing a pattern? Or are you merely beginning to hear Millicent’s irritated mutterings in your mind?

If you immediately added mentally, “That would be the mind in your head,” then yes, I would say that you are beginning to think like our Millie. That’s going to make you a much, much better self-editor.

Why? Well, once you are attuned to the possibility of this reader reaction, this sort of statement should send your fingers flying for the DELETE key. In fact, let’s go ahead and state this as a revision axiom:

Any statement in a submission that might prompt Millicent to mutter, “Well, duh!” is a likely rejection-trigger. Therefore, all such statements are prime candidates for cutting.

I heard a few jaws hitting the floor during the first sentence of that guideline, so allow me to elaborate: and yes, even a single “Well, duh!” moment might result in rejection, even if the rest of the submission is clean, perfectly formatted, and relatively well-written to boot. Read on to find out why.

I mention that, obviously, because I fear that some of you might not have understood that in a written argument, discussion of a premise often follows hard upon it, often in the paragraphs just below. Or maybe I just thought that not all of you would recognize the difference between a paragraph break and the end of a blog. I still have a lot to say on the subject — which is, presumably, why there are more words on the page. I’ve put them there in the hope that you will read them.

Rather insulting to the intelligence, isn’t it? That’s how your garden-variety Millicent feels when a sentence in a submission assumes she won’t catch on to something self-evident.

“Jeez,” she murmurs indignantly, “just how dim-witted does this writer think I am? Next!”

I feel you losing empathy for her, but remember: when someone is reading in order to catch mistakes — as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do when faced with mountains of submissions — one is inclined to get a mite testy. Liability of the trade.

In fact, to maintain the level of focus necessary edit a manuscript really well, it is often desirable to keep oneself in a constant state of irritable reactivity. Keeps the old editing eye sharp.

Those would be the eyes in the head, in case anyone was wondering. Located just south of the eyebrows, possibly somewhere in the vicinity of the ears. I’ve heard rumors that eyes have been spotted on the face.

To a professional reader in such a state hyper-vigilance, the appearance of a self-evident proposition on a page is like the proverbial red flag to a bull: the reaction is often disproportionate to the offense. Even — and I tremble to inform you of this, but it’s true — if the self-evidence infraction is very, very minor.

As luck would have it, we have already discussed some of the more common species of self-evidence, have we not? To refresh your memory, here is a small sampling of some of the things professional readers have been known to howl at the pages in front of them, regardless of the eardrums belonging to the inhabitants of adjacent cubicles:

In response to the seemingly innocuous line, He shrugged his shoulders: “What else could he possibly have shrugged? His kneecaps?” (Insert violent scratching sounds here, leaving only the words, He shrugged still standing in the text.)

In response to the ostensibly innocent statement, She blinked her eyes: “The last time I checked, eyes are the only part of the body that CAN blink!” (Scratch, scratch, scratch.)

In response to the bland sentence, The queen waved her hand at the crowd: “Waving ASSUMES hand movement! Why is God punishing me like this?” (Scratch, maul, stab pen through paper repeatedly.)

And that’s just how the poor souls react to all of those logically self-evident statements on a sentence level. The assertions of the obvious on a larger scale send them screaming into their therapists’ offices, moaning that all of the writers of the world have leagued together in a conspiracy to bore them to death.

As is so often the case, the world of film provides some gorgeous examples of larger-scale obviousness. Take, for instance, the phenomenon film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the Seeing-Eye Man: after the crisis in an action film has ended, the male lead embraces the female lead and says, “It’s over,” as though the female might not have noticed something as minor as Godzilla’s disappearance, or the cessation of that hail of bullets/lava/space locusts that has been following them around for the last reel, or the pile of bad guys dead at their feet. In response to this helpful statement, she nods gratefully.

Or the cringing actor who glances at the sky immediately after the best rendition of a thunderclap ever heard on film and asks fearfully, “Is there a storm coming?”

Or — if we’re thinking like Millicent — the protagonist whose first response to the sight of flames (vividly rendered in the narrative, of course) is to shout, “Fire!” What’s he going to do next, suggest to the firefighters that they might perhaps want to apply something flame-retardant to the immediate environment?

Trust me: the firefighters already know to do that. And Millicent is quite capable of contemplating a paragraph’s worth of smoke, embers, and licking flames and concluding there’s a fire without the protagonist wasting page space to tell her so.

Taken one at a time, naturally, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding triggers – but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages of a submission or contest entry, they can be genuine deal-breakers.

Oh, you want to see what that level of Millicent-goading might look like on the submission page, do you? I aim to please. Let’s take a gander at a WATR problem in its natural habitat — and to render it easier to spot in the wild, this one literally concerns walking across a room.

obvious example2

See why a writer might have trouble identifying the WATR problem in her own manuscript? Here, the account is a completely accurate and believable description of the process. As narrative in a novel, however, it would be quite dull for the reader, because getting that blasted door answered apparently requires the reader to slog through so many not-very-interesting events. Yet that requirement is purely in the writer’s mind: any reasonably intelligent reader could be trusted to understand that in order to answer the door, she would need to put down the book, rise from the chair, and so forth.

Or, to put it another way, is there any particular reason that the entire process could not be summed up as She got up and answered the door, so all of the reclaimed page space could be devoted to more interesting activity?

If we really wanted to get daring with those editing shears, all the revising writer would have to do is allow the narrative simply to jump from one state of being to the next, trusting the reader to be able to interpolate the connective logic. The result might look a little something like this:

When the ringing became continuous, Jessamyn gave up on peaceful reading. She pushed aside Mom’s to-do list tacked to the front door and peered through the peephole. Funny, there didn’t seem to be anyone there, yet still, the doorbell shrilled. She had only pushed it halfway open when she heard herself scream.

Quite a saving of page space, is it not? Yet do you think Millicent’s going to be scratching her head, wondering how Jessamyn got from the study to the hallway? Or that she will be flummoxed by how our heroine managed to open the door without the text lingering on the turning of the knob?

Of course not. Stick to the interesting stuff.

WATR problems are not, alas, exclusively the province of scenes involving locomotion — many a process has been over-described by dint of including too much procedural information in the narrative. Take another gander at the first version of Jessamyn’s story: every detail is presented as equally important. So how is the reader to supposed to know what is and isn’t important to the scene?

Seem like an odd question? It should: it’s not the reader’s job to guess what’s crucial to a scene and what merely decorative. Nor is it Millicent’s.

So whose job is it? Here’s a good way to find out: place your hands on the armrests of your chair, raise yourself to a standing position, walk across your studio, find the nearest mirror — if necessary, turning on a nearby light source — and gaze into it.

Why, look, it’s you. Who could have seen that coming?

There’s another, more literary reason to fight the urge to WATR. What WATR anxiety — the fear of leaving out a necessary step in a complex process — offers the reader is less a narrative description of a process than a list of every step involved in it. As we saw last time, a list is generally the least interesting way of depicting anything.

So why would you want Millicent to see anything but your best writing?

Where should a reviser start looking for WATR problems? In my experience, they are particularly likely to occur when writers are describing processes with which they are very familiar, but readers may not be. In this case, the preparation of a peach pie:

Obvious example 3

As a purely factual account, that’s admirable, right? Should every single pastry cookbook on the face of the earth suddenly be carried off in a whirlwind, you would want this description on hand in order to reconstruct the recipes of yore. Humanity is saved!

As narrative text in a novel, however, it’s not the most effective storytelling tactic. All of those details swamp the story — and since they appear on page 1, the story doesn’t really have a chance to begin. Basically, this narrative voice says to the reader, “Look, I’m not sure what’s important here, so I’m going to give you every detail. You get to decide for yourself what’s worth remembering and what’s not.”

Besides, didn’t your attention begin to wander after just a few sentences? It just goes to show you: even if you get all of the details right, this level of description is not very likely to retain a reader’s interest for long.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it: “Next!”

Do I hear some murmuring from those of you who actually read all the way through the example? “But Anne,” you protest, desperately rubbing your eyes (in your head) to drive the sleepiness away, “the level of detail was not what bugged me most about that pie-making extravaganza. What about all of the ands? What about all of the run-on sentences and word repetition? Wouldn’t those things bother Millicent more?”

I’m glad that you were sharp-eyed enough to notice those problems, eye-rubbers, but honestly, asking whether the repetition is more likely to annoy a professional reader than the sheer stultifying detail is sort of like asking whether Joan of Arc disliked the burning or the suffocating part of her execution more.

Either is going to kill you, right? Mightn’t it then be prudent to avoid both?

In a revised manuscript, at least. In first drafts, the impulse to blurt out all of these details can be caused by a fear of not getting the entire story down on paper fast enough, a common qualm of the chronically-rushed: in her haste to get the whole thing on the page right away, the author just tosses everything she can think of into the pile on the assumption that she can come back later and sort it out. It can also arise from a trust issue, or rather a distrust issue: spurred by the author’s lack of faith in either her own judgment as a determiner of importance, her profound suspicion that the reader is going to be critical of her if she leaves anything out, or both.

Regardless of the root cause, WATR is bad news for the narrative voice. Even if the reader happens to like lists and adore detail, that level of quivering anxiety about making substantive choices resonates in every line, providing distraction from the story. Taken to an extreme, it can even knock the reader out of the story.

Although WATR problems are quite popular in manuscript submissions, they are not the only page-level red flag resulting from a lack of faith in the reader’s ability to fill in the necessary logic. Millicent is frequently treated to descriptions of shifting technique during car-based scenes (“Oh, how I wish this protagonist drove an automatic!” she moans. “Next!”), blow-by-blow accounts of industrial processes (“Wow, half a page on the smelting of iron for steel. Don’t see that every day — wait, I saw a page and a half on the intricacies of salmon canning last week. Next!”), and even detailed narration of computer use (“Gee, this character hit both the space bar and the return key? Stop — my doctor told me to avoid extreme excitement. Next!”)

And that’s not even counting all of the times narratives have meticulously explained to her that gravity made something fall, the sun’s rays produced warmth or burning, or that someone standing in line had to wait until the people standing in front of him were served. Why, the next thing you’ll be telling her is that one has to push a chair back from a table before one can rise from it, descending a staircase requires putting one’s foot on a series of steps in sequence, or getting at the clothes in a closet requires first opening its door.

Trust me, Millicent is already aware of all of these phenomena. You’re better off cutting all such statements in your manuscript– and yes, it’s worth an extra read-through to search out every last one.

That’s a prudent move, incidentally, even if you feel morally positive that your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often. Remember, you have no control over whose submission a screener will read immediately prior to yours. Even if your submission contains only one self-evident proposition over the course of the first 50 pages, if it appears on page 2 and Millicent has just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that she will kindly overlook your single instance amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you? Excellent; you’re getting the hang of just how closely professional readers read.

“What do you mean?” writers of the obvious protest indignantly. “I’m merely providing straightforward explanation. Who could possibly object to being told that a character lifted his beer glass before drinking from it? How else is he going to drink from it?”

How else, indeed? Maybe we ought to add that he lifted the glass with his hand, just in case there’s a reader out there who might be confused.

In fairness to the beer-describer, the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin, especially when describing a common experience or everyday object. I’ve been using only very bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear in a text:

The hand of the round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second, marking passing time as it moved. Jake ate his cobbler with a fork, alternating bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry with swigs of coffee from his mug. As he ate, farmers came into the diner to eat lunch, exhausted from riding the plows that tore up the earth in neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. The waitress gave bills to each of them when they had finished eating, but still, Jake’s wait went on and on.

Now, to an ordinary reader, rather than a detail-oriented professional one, there isn’t much wrong with this paragraph, is there? It conveys a rather nice sense of place and mood, in fact. But see how much of it could be trimmed simply by removing embroideries upon the obvious:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. As he ate, farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. Even after they had finished eating and left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

The reduction of an 91-word paragraph to an equally effective 59-word one may not seem like a major achievement, but in a manuscript that’s running long, every word counts. The shorter version will make the Millicents of the world, if not happy, at least pleased to see a submission that assumes that she is intelligent enough to know that, generally speaking, people consume cobbler with the assistance of cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

Who knew?

Heck, a brave self-editor might even go out on a limb and trust Millicent to know the purpose of plowing and to understand the concept of an ongoing action, trimming the paragraph even further:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. Farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows. Even after they had left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

That’s a cool 47 words. Miss any of the ones I excised, other than perhaps that nice bit about the seedlings?

Self-evidence is one of those areas where it honestly is far easier for a reader other than the writer to catch the problem, though, so if you can line up other eyes to scan your submission before it ends up on our friend Millicent’s desk, it’s in your interest to do so. In fact, given how much obviousness tends to bug Millicent, it will behoove you to make a point of asking your first readers to look for it specifically.

How might one go about that? Hand ‘em the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask ‘em to make a great big X in the margin every time the narrative takes the time to explain that rain is wet, of all things, that a character’s watch was strapped to his wrist, of all places, or that another character applied lipstick to — wait for it — her lips.

It’s late now, so I am now going to post this blog on my website on my laptop computer, which is sitting on a lap desk on top of — you’ll never see this coming — my lap. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. If the room is too dark, I might switch the switch on my lamp to turn it on. After I am done, I might elect to reverse the process to turn it off.

Heavens, I lead an exciting life. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part V: feeling a trifle hemmed in by those length restrictions, are we?

centurians in bondage

For the last few posts, I’ve been concentrating upon that bane of writers everywhere, the 1-page synopsis. A 1-page synopsis should be a quick, pithy introduction to the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the book. Or, to cast it in terms that those of you who followed my recent Querypalooza series should find very familiar, an extended version of the descriptive paragraph in a query letter.

So hey, all of you queriers who have been clutching your temples and moaning about the incredible difficulty of describing your 400-page manuscript in a single, pithy paragraph: I’ve got some good news. There are agencies out there who will give you a whole page to do it!

Does that deafening collective groan mean that you’re not grateful for triple or even quadruple the page space in which to describe your book? Is there no pleasing you people?

Okay, okay — so it may not be a piece o’ proverbial cake to introduce the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the boo within a single page in standard format, but by this point in the series, I hope the prospect at least seems preferable to, say, confronting an angry cobra or trying to reason with pack of wolves. Constructing an eye-catching 1-page synopsis is more of a weeding-the-back-yard level of annoyance, really: a necessarily-but-tedious chore.

Seriously, successfully producing a 1-page synopsis is largely a matter of strategy, not creativity, and not even necessarily talent. As long as you don’t fall down the rabbit hole of one of the most common short synopsis-writing mistakes — trying to replicate each twist and turn of the plot/argument; generalizing so much that the book sounds generic; writing book jacket promotional copy rather than introducing the story — it’s simply a matter of telling Millicent what your book is ABOUT.

Preferably in a tone and at a vocabulary level at least vaguely reminiscent of the manuscript. Is that really so much — or so little, depending upon how you chose to look at it — to ask?

By contrast, the 5-page synopsis – which, until fairly recently, was far and away the most common requested length, as it still is for those already signed with agents and/or working with editors at publishing houses — should tell the STORY of your book (or state its argument) in as much vivid, eye-catching detail as you may reasonably cram into so few pages. Preferably by describing actual scenes, rather than simply summarizing general plot trends, in language that is both reflective of the manuscript’s and is enjoyable to read.

Why concentrate upon how you tell the story here, you ask, rather than merely cramming the entire plot onto a few scant pages? Why, to cause the agent, editor, or contest judge reading it exclaim spontaneously, “Wow — this sounds like one terrific book; this writer is a magnificent storyteller,” obviously.

Again, piece of cake to pull off in just a few pages, right?

Well, no, but don’t avert your eyes, please, if you are not yet at the querying stage — as with the author bio, I strongly recommend getting your synopsis ready well before you anticipate needing it. As I MAY have mentioned before, even if you do not intend to approach an agent whose website or agency guide listing asks for a synopsis to be tucked into your query packet, you will be substantially happier if you walk into any marketing situation with your synopsis already polished, all ready to send out to the first agent or editor who asks for it, rather than running around in a fearful dither after the request, trying to pull your submission packet together.

Even if you think that both of the reasons I have just given are, to put it politely, intended to help lesser mortals not anywhere near as talented than your good self, whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for the very last moments before you stuff a submission or entry into an envelope. That route virtually guarantees uncaught mistakes, even for the most gifted of writers and savviest of self-promoters.

In fact, you take nothing else away from Synopsispalooza, please remember this: writing a synopsis well is hard, even for the most seasoned of pros; be sure to budget adequate time for it. Forcing yourself to do it at the last minute may allow you to meet the technical requirement, but it is not conducive to producing a synopsis that will do what you want it to do and sound like you want it to sound.

If the task feels overwhelming — which would certainly be understandable — remind yourself that even though it may feel as though you effectively need to reproduce the entire book in condensed format, you actually don’t. Even a comparatively long synopsis shouldn’t depict every twist and turn of the plot.

Yes, even if the agency or contest of your desires asks for an 8- or 10-page synopsis. Trust me, people who work with manuscripts for a living are fully aware that cutting down a 370-page book to the length of a standard college term paper is not only impossible, but undesirable. So don’t even try.

What should you aim for instead? Glad you asked: in a 3-8 page synopsis, just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic summary of the primary plot, rather than all of the subplots. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

Sound vaguely familiar? It should; it’s an extension of our list of goals for the 1-page synopsis. Let’s revisit those, shall we?

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Now let’s add in the loftier additional goals of the slightly longer synopsis:

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes. (For nonfiction that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point.)

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

I sense some squirming from the summary-resistant out there. “But Anne,” some of you protest, “am I missing something here? You’ve just told us not to try to summarize the entire book — yet what you’re suggesting here sounds a heck of a lot like sitting down and doing just that!”

Actually, I’m not doing any such thing, summary-resisters. The distinction lies in the details: I’m advising you to winnow the story down to its most essential elements, rather than trying to list everything that happens.

Yes, of course, there’s a difference. What an appallingly cynical thought.

If you’re having serious difficulty separating the essential from the merely really, really important or decorative in your storyline, you may be staring too closely at it. Try to think of your story as a reader would — if a prospective reader asked you what your book was about and you had only a couple of minutes to answer, what would you say?

And no, I’m not talking about that ubiquitous writerly response that begins with a gigantic sigh and includes a fifteen-minute digression on what scenes in the novel are based on real life. I’m talking about how you would describe it if you were trying to sound like a professional writer trying to get published — or, if it helps to think of it this way, like an agent describing a terrific new client’s work to an editor.

You wouldn’t waste the editor’s time rhapsodizing about the quality of the writing or what a major bestseller it was destined to be, would you? No, that would be a waste of energy: pretty much every agent thinks his own clients’ work is well-written and marketable. Instead, you would relate the story or argument in the terms most likely to appeal to readers who already buy similar books.

If you absolutely can’t get that account down to 5 minutes or so, try giving the 20-minute version to a good listener who hasn’t read a syllable of your manuscript, then asking her to tell the plot of the book back to you. The elements she remembers to include are probably — wait for it — the most memorable.

Or, if you don’t want to go out on a limb by recruiting others to help you, sit down all by your lonesome, picture your favorite English teacher standing over you, set the actual happenings of the novel aside for a moment, and write a brief summary of the book’s themes.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes; most authors are delighted to analyze their own books. Pretend that your book has just been assigned in a college English class — what would you expect the students to be able to say about it on the final?

No, the result will almost certainly not be a professional synopsis; this is an exercise intended to help you identify the essential of your storyline. It will also help you separate the plot or argument’s essentials from the secondary issues.

Why is that a necessary step? Well, lest we forget, a synopsis is a writing sample. It would hardly show off your scintillating literary voice or world-class storytelling acumen to provide Millicent with a simple laundry list of events, would it?

Please at least shake your head, if you cannot provide me with a ringing, “No, by jingo!” If you can’t even muster that, take a gander at how such a list might read:

SUZIE MILQUETOAST (34) arrives at work one day to find her desk occupied by a 300-pound gorilla (MR. BUBBLES, 10). She goes and asks her supervisor, VERLANDA MCFUNNYNAME (47) what is going on. Verlanda isn’t sure, but she calls Human Resources, to find out if Suzie has been replaced. She has not, but who is going to ask a 300-pound gorilla to give up his seat to a lady? Next, Verlanda asks her boss, JAMES SPADER (52), what to do, and he advises calling the local zoo to see if any primates might by any chance have escaped. Well, that seems like a good idea, but the zoo’s number seems to have been disconnected, so Suzie and Verlanda traipse to Highlander Park, only to discover…

Well, you get the picture: it reads as though the writer had no idea what to leave out. Not entirely coincidentally, it reads like a transcript of what most aspiring writers do when asked, “So what’s your book about?”

How does a seasoned author answer that question? As though she’s just been asked to give a pitch:

GORILLAS IN OUR MIDST is a humorous novel about how rumors get out of hand — and how power structures tend to cater to our fears, not our desires. It’s aimed at the 58 million office workers in the US, because who understands how frustrating it can be to get a bureaucracy to move than someone who actually works within one? See how this grabs you: Suzie Milquetoast arrives at work one day to find a 300-pound gorilla sitting at her desk. Is the zoo missing an inmate, or did HR make another hideously inappropriate hire?

A full synopsis? Of course not — but you have to admit, it’s a pretty good elevator pitch. It also wouldn’t be a bad centerpiece for a query letter, would it?

Which means, by the way, that it could easily be fleshed out with juicy, interesting, unique details lifted from the book itself. Add a couple of paragraphs’ worth, and you’ve got yourself a 1-page synopsis. Add more of the story arc, including the ending, toss in a few scene descriptions, stir, and voilà! You’ve got yourself a 3-page synopsis.

And how might you turn that into a recipe for a 5-page synopsis? Get a bigger bowl and add more ingredients, naturally.

But in order to select your ingredients effectively, you’re going to have to figure out what is essential to include and what merely optional. A few quiz questions, to get you started:

(a) Who is the protagonist, and why is s/he interesting? (You’d be astonished at how few novel synopses give any clear indication of the latter.)

To put it another way, what about this character in this situation is fresh? What about this story will a Millicent who screens submissions in this book category not have seen within the last week?

(b) What does my protagonist want more than anything else? What or who is standing in the way of her/his getting it?

(c) Why is getting it so important to her/him? What will happen if s/he doesn’t get it?

(d) How does the protagonist grow and change throughout pursuing this goal? What are the most important turning points in her/his development?

(e) How does the protagonist go about achieving this goal?

See? Piece of proverbial…hey, wait just a minute! Why, those questions sound a mite familiar, don’t they?

Again, they should: they’re the underlying issues of goals 1-3 and 5-6, above. If you answer them in roughly the same voice as the book, you will have met goal #4, as well — and, almost without noticing it, you will have the basic material for a dandy synopsis.

I told you: piece of cake.

Don’t, I implore you, make the extremely common mistake of leaving out point #6 — the one that specifies that you should include the story’s ending in the synopsis. Too many aspiring writers omit this in a misguided endeavor to goad Millicent and her ilk into a frenzy of wonder about what is going to happen next.

“But I want to make them want to read the book!” such strategists invariably claim. “I don’t want to give away the ending. Leaving the synopsis on a cliffhanger will make them ask to see it right away. Besides, how do I know that someone won’t steal my plot and write it as their own?”

To professional eyes, leaving out the ending is a rookie mistake, at least in a synopsis longer than a page. In fact, it’s frowned-upon enough that some Millicents have been known to reject projects on this basis alone.

Half of you who currently have synopses out circulating just went pale, didn’t you?

Perhaps I should have broken it to you a bit more gently. Here goes: from a professional point of view, part of the goal of an extended synopsis is to demonstrate to someone who presumably hasn’t sat down and read your entire book that you can in fact plot out an entire novel plausibly. Agents and editors regard it as the writer’s job to demonstrate this in an extended synopsis, not theirs to guess how the plot might conceivably come to a halt.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (at least before I’ve helped you all to a slice of cake), but a talented sentence-writer’s possessing the skills, finesse, and tenacity to follow a story to its logical conclusions is not a foregone conclusion. In practice, the assumption tends to run in the opposite direction: if the synopsis leaves out the how the plot resolves, Millicent and her cousin Maury (the editorial assistant at a major publishing house) will tend to leap to one of four conclusions, none of which are good for a submitter. They are left to surmise that:

a) the synopsis’ writer isn’t aware of the purpose of an extended synopsis, having confused it with back jacket copy, and thus is a fish that should be thrown back into the sea until it grows up a little.

In other words, next!

b) the synopsis’ author is a tireless self-promoter and/or inveterate tease, determined not to cough up the goods until there is actual money on the table. Since this is simply not how the publishing industry works, the fish analogy above may reasonably be applied here as well.

Again, next!

c) the synopsis’ author is one of the many, many writers exceptionally talented at coming up with stupendous premises, but less adept at fleshing them out. S/he evidently hopes to conceal this weakness from Millicent and Maury until after they have already fallen in love with the beauty of her/his prose and plotting in the early part of the book, in an attempt to cajole their respective bosses into editing the heck out of the novel before it could possibly be ready to market.

The wily fiend! Next!

d) or, less charitably, the synopsis’ author hasn’t yet written the ending, and thus is wasting their respective boss’ time by submitting an incomplete novel.

All together now: next!

Include some indication of how the plot resolves. Millicent, Maury, and their Aunt Mehitabel (the veteran contest judge) will thank you for it. They might even give you a piece of that delicious cake I keep mentioning.

Does that monumental gusty sigh I just heard out there in the ether mean that I have convinced you on that point? “All right, Anne,” synopsizers everywhere murmur with resignation, “I’ll give away the goods. But I have a lingering question about #4 on your list above, the one about writing the synopsis in roughly the same voice and in the same tone as the novel it summarizes. I get that a comic novel’s synopsis should contain a few chuckles; an ultra-serious one shouldn’t. A steamy romance’s synopsis should be at least a little bit sexy, a thriller’s a trifle scary, and so forth. But I keep getting so wrapped up in the necessity of swift summarization that my synopsis ends up sounding nothing like the book! How should I remedy this — by pretending I’m the protagonist and writing it from his point of view?”

Um, no. Nor should you even consider writing it in the first person, unless you happen to have written a memoir.

Nor is there any need to get obsessed with making sure the tone is absolutely identical to the book’s — in the same ballpark will do. You just want to show that you are familiar with the type of writing expected in the type of book you’ve written and can produce it consistently, even in a relatively dry document.

Piece of — oh, never mind.

There’s a practical reason for demonstrating this skill at the querying and submission stages: it’s a minor selling point for a new writer. Increasingly, authors are expected to promote their own books; it’s not at all uncommon these days for a publishing house to ask the author of a soon-to-be-released book to write a magazine or online article in the book’s voice, for promotional purposes, for instance. Or a blog, like yours truly.

Yes, I know; you want to concentrate on your writing, not its promotion. The muses love you for that impulse. But would you rather that I lied to you about the realities of being a working author?

I thought not. Let’s move on.

What you should also not do — but, alas, all too many aspiring writers attempt — is to replicate the voice of the book by lifting actual sentences from the novel itself, cramming them indiscriminately into the synopsis. I know that you want to show off your best writing, but trust me, you’re going to want to make up some new verbiage here.

Why, you ask? Hint: people who go into the manuscript-reading business tend to have pretty good memories.

Trust me, they recall what they’ve read. When I was teaching at a university, I was notorious for spotting verbiage lifted from papers I’d graded in previous terms; the fraternities that maintained A paper files actively told their members to avoid my classes.

Similarly, a really on-the-ball Millicent might recognize a sentence she read a year ago — and certainly one that she scanned ten minutes ago in a synopsis if it turns up on page 1 of the attached manuscript.

See the problem? No? What if I tell you that in a submission packet, the chapters containing the lifted verbiage and the synopsis are often read back-to-back?

Ditto with query packets. And good 30% of contest entries make this mistake, reproducing in the synopsis entire sentences or even entire paragraphs from the chapters included in the entry. Invariably, the practice ends up costing the entry originality points.

Do I see some raised hands from those of you who habitually recall what you’ve read? “But Anne,” some of you point out huffily, and who could blame you? “Didn’t you tell us just yesterday that it was a grave error to assume that Millicent, Maury , and/or Mehitabel will necessarily read both our synopses and the rest of our submissions?”

Excellent point, sharp-eyed readers: the operative word here is necessarily. While it’s never safe to assume that EVERYONE who reads your synopsis will also read your opening chapter, it’s also not a very good idea to assume that NO ONE will. Shooting for a happy medium — including enough overlap that someone who read only one of them could follow the plot without indulging in phrase redundancy — tends to work best here.

Should you be tempted to repeat yourself, I implore you to counter that impulse by asking this question with all possible speed: “Is there a vibrantly interesting detail that I could insert here instead?”

To over-writers, it may seem a trifle odd to suggest adding detail to a piece of writing as short as 5 pages, but actually, most synopses suffer from overgrowths of generalization and an insufficiency of specifics. So once you have a solid draft, read it over and ask yourself: is what I have here honestly a reader-friendly telling of my story or a convincing presentation of my argument (don’t worry, NF writers: I’ll deal with your concerns at length in a separate post), or is it merely a presentation of the premise of the book and a cursory overview of its major themes?

For most synopses, it is the latter.

Do I hear some questions amid the general wailing and gnashing of teeth out there? “But Anne,” a couple of voices cry from the wilderness, “How can I tell the difference between a necessary summary statement and a generalization?”

Again, excellent question. The short answer: it’s hard. Here’s a useful litmus test.

(1) Print up a hard copy of the synopsis, find yourself a highlighting pen, and mark every summary statement about character, every time you have wrapped up a scene or plot twist description with a sentence along the lines of and in the process, Sheila learns an important lesson about herself.

(2) Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines.

(3) Ask yourself for each: would a briefly-described scene SHOW the conclusion stated there better than just TELLING the reader about it? Is there a telling character detail or an interesting plot nuance that might supplement these general statements, making them more interesting to read?

I heard that gasp of recognition out there — yes, campers, the all-pervasive directive to SHOW, DON’T TELL should be applied to synopses as well. Generally speaking, the fewer generalities you can use in a synopsis, the better.

I’ll let those of you into brevity for brevity’s sake in on a little secret: given a choice, specifics are almost always more interesting to a reader than vague generalities. Think about it from Millicent’s perspective — to someone who reads 100 synopses per week, wouldn’t general statements about lessons learned and hearts broken start to sound rather similar after awhile?

But a genuinely quirky detail in a particular synopsis — wouldn’t that stand out in your mind? And if that unique grabber appeared on page 1 of the synopsis, or even in the first couple of paragraphs, wouldn’t you pay more attention to the rest of the summary?

Uh-huh. So would Millicent.

It’s very easy to forget in the heat of pulling together a synopsis that agency screeners are readers, too, not just decision-makers. They like to be entertained, so the more entertaining you can make your synopsis, the more likely Millicent is to be wowed by it. So are Maury and Mehitabel.

Isn’t it fortunate that you’re a writer with the skills to pull that off?

If your synopsis has the opposite problem and runs long (like, I must admit, today’s post), you can also employ the method I described above, but with an editorial twist:

(1) Sit down and read your synopsis over with a highlighter gripped tightly in your warm little hand. On your first pass through, mark any sentence that does not deal with the primary plot or argument of the book.

(2) Go back through and read the UNMARKED sentences in sequence, ignoring the highlighted ones.

(3) Ask yourself honestly: does the shorter version give an accurate impression of the book?

(4) If so — take a deep breath here, please; some writers will find the rest of this question upsetting – do the marked sentences really need to be there at all?

If you’ve strenuously applied the steps above and your synopsis still runs too long, try this trick of the pros: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1.

Sounds wacky, I know, but the vast majority of synopses spend to long on it. Here’s a startling statistic: in the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction.

So why not be original and trim that part down to just a few sentences and moving on to the rest of the plot?

This is an especially good strategy if you’re constructing a synopsis to accompany requested pages or even unrequested pages that an agency’s website or agency guide listing says to tuck into your query packet, or contest entry. Think about it: if you’re sending Chapter 1 or the first 50 pages, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your submission or query packet (its usual location), the reader will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book before stumbling upon the synopsis.

So I ask you: since space is at a premium on the synopsis page, how is it in your interest to be repetitious?

Allow me show you how this might play out in practice. Let’s continue this series’ tradition of pretending that you are Jane Austen, pitching SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to an agent at a conference. (Which I suspect would be a pretty tough sell in the current market, actually.) Let’s further assume that you gave a solid, professional pitch, and the agent is charmed by the story. (Because, no doubt, you were very clever indeed, and did enough solid research before you signed up for your agent appointment to have a pretty fair certainty that this particular agent is habitually charmed by this sort of story.) The agent asks to see a synopsis and the first 50 pages.

See? Advance research really does pay off, Jane.

Naturally, you dance home in a terrible rush to get those pages in the mail. As luck would have it, you already have a partially-written synopsis on your computer. (Our Jane’s very into 21st-century technology.) In it, the first 50 pages’ worth of action look something like this:

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 50 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, at least in my well-worn little paperback addition. However, all of the plot shown above would be in the materials the agent requested, right? Do you really need to spend 2 of your allotted 5 pages on this small a section of the plot, even if it is the set-up for what happens later on?

Of course not. Being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline this portion of your submission synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:

And then go on with the rest of the story, of course.

See what space-saving wonders may be wrought by cutting down on the premise-establishing facts? The second synopsis is less than half the length of the first, yet still shows enough detail to show the agent how the submitted 50 pp. feeds into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!

While all of you novelists are hard at work, trying to perform a similar miracle upon your synopses, next time, I shall be tackling the specialized problems of the nonfiction synopsis. Yes, that’s right: we’re going to have our cake and eat it, too.

Don’t just ignore that 300-pound gorilla; work with him. And, of course, keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: INDOMITVS, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Cole Casperson

Cole Casperson author photo

Have everyone’s brains unscrambled after the intensive query-and-submission fest that was Querypalooza? Please enjoy the down time, because next week (Saturday, September 25, to be precise) we shall be hurling ourselves head-first (literally) into Synopsispalooza, a celebration of all things…well, I’m sure you can extrapolate.

In the meantime, I have a real treat in store for you: close Millicent-the-agency-screener-eye-views of some genuinely wonderful reader first pages. That’s right, gang: it’s time once again for yours truly to whip out her multicolored editing pens.

I’m genuinely excited to introduce you to today’s writer, 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Cole Casperson, pictured above. Like the three other A!A!AEE winners this year, Cole also won the Grand Prize in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest last June. To render that dual win even more impressive, the first page of INDOMITVS garnered a distinction that no other entry did: the judges agreed that it was a contender for top honors in two categories: Adult Fiction (the category in which it was actually entered) and YA.

How is that possible? Well, for the reason that the judges were unanimous in their eagerness to see me evaluate this entry in a blog post: the voice and plot would have worked for either.

Don’t keep parroting, “How is that possible?” I’m about to let you see for yourself — and please, if the type is too small or too fuzzy on your screen, do yourself a favor and enlarge the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + a couple of times. You’re going to want to say in future that you were among the first to read this promising new voice.

Cole's entry

Compelling, isn’t it? By the bottom of the page, it’s easy to care about these characters; we already are inhabiting their lifeworld.

That’s not easy to do in that few lines, obviously. So what’s the secret? All of those gorgeous specific details, combined with that lovely narrative rhythm: when farmers could step away from their crops and line up in angry rows of bronze…surveying the noisy rotting tree-stump…the drone of the fat midsummer bees reached out and enveloped him in a sphere of frenzied harmony.

That’s some nice writing, eh? Especially coming hard on the heels of a genuinely terrific first line that both flings the reader directly into our hero’s mindset and sets the time period: Marcus Furius would kill a man in six days.

Cole’s brief description in his contest entry also makes the book sound like a heck of a lot of fun:

No novel has focused on a nascent Rome’s most exciting period: the Early Republic. Rome had to start somewhere, and I write about the man responsible, Camillus. In a market where Anakin Skywalker is a kid and Batman Begins, why not explore the prequel to Caesar, Spartacus, Cleopatra, etc?

About half of the judges drew in their breath sharply at that surely exaggerated first sentence: there have most assuredly been novels set in that time period before, a few of them recent releases. And that could be very problematic at query time, because if Millicent happened to work at an agency that had represented such a novel within the last decade (or even if she had read one during that period), she would be likely to mutter under her breath, “Well, this one didn’t do his market research,” and reject the query.

So why, given how negatively Millicents as a group tend to respond to all-or-nothing statements in descriptive paragraphs, did I, alone amongst the judges, cry, “Hooray!” when I spotted this description amongst the winning contest entries?

Quite simply, I knew it would make a terrific example. Those of you who followed my recent Querypalooza series might already have guessed why: queriers and pitchers make this sort of black-and-white claim all the time.

In fact, nearly every entrant in this particular contest included one or more overstatement in her book description — not all that astonishing, given how often such statements turn up in queries. Mistakenly, many queriers seem to believe that the use of superlatives will make their claims to originality, writing quality, and/or marketability stronger and more convincing. But like any other claim made in a query letter, Millicent is unlikely to believe it unless the querier provides some evidence. It is always better to show her that your book is original, well-written, and/or marketable than just to assert it.

To be fair, this description may not have been written for inclusion in a query letter: the contest rules did specify that the descriptive paragraph should explain what is original about the manuscript in question. What, we asked, will this book add to its chosen book category?

Cole’s description satisfies that brief rather well. But I ask you: based on this first page alone, what is the book category, and who is the target audience?

Not immediately obvious, is it?

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, the judges were split about placing this in the Adult Fiction or YA category: the voice, the vocabulary, and the story so far could in fact place it in either, right? Yet being judges, they were in a position to do what a perplexed Millicent scanning a writing sample in a query packet might not necessarily do — ask the writer to produce, as all of the winners and placers were asked to do, a page-length book description.

Take a gander at INDOMITVS’ longer description. Fair warning: I shall be asking you to consider the question of book category again afterward.

INDOMITVS blurb

If you said, “Why, this sounds like historical fiction,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Cole did indeed enter this first page and the description above as historical fiction.

If I know the quick eyes of my hardcore readership, however, a forest of hands was already in the air by the end of the first sentence. “But Anne,” those of you who have followed past discussions of both standard format and Millicent’s pet peeves point out, “wouldn’t some Millicents — or, indeed, many contest judges — not have read this description in its entirety? It’s not in standard format, as I understood that everything that went into a query packet should be, and I thought that it was fairly normal for professional readers simply to skip over openings in italics. So wouldn’t today’s winner be much more likely to make friends and influence people in agencies if he made these relatively small cosmetic changes?”

Why, yes, clever and incisive long-time readers, he almost certainly would. However, it’s a pretty good back jacket blurb, isn’t it? For the purposes of this contest, that’s perfectly okay, italics and all. (It would also make quite a good verbal pitch as is, come to think of it.)

Which is not to say that it couldn’t be improved — or would fly as a 1-page synopsis in a query or submission packet. One of the things I love about this particular contest: in awarding the prizes, I have a genuine opportunity not only to give my readers fine examples of how to do a first page right, but also to help our winners make — wait for it — their great first pages even better.

In that spirit, I’m going to go ahead and give some tips on improving this description, just in case our winner should ever like to tuck it into a query envelope. I also suspect that this feedback might be helpful to anyone out there querying an agency that expects a 1-page synopsis to be tucked into the query packet.

Okay: let’s start with expectations: everything, but everything, that an aspiring writer sends to an agency is a writing sample, and should be treated accordingly. Proofread closely, under the assumption that Millicent will probably turn green at even a single typo; adhere to the strictest standards of grammar and style, on the same principle; use standard format in promotional materials (as opposed to the query letter itself), assuming that Millicent is used to seeing writing samples formatted that way. (And if you weren’t aware that manuscripts and books are not supposed to look alike, run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right before you even consider mailing any pages at all to an agency.)

Would something as simple as a typo or a non-doubled dash in a synopsis be enough to trigger rejection? Not always, but remember, a querier or submitter can have absolutely no idea what has just happened immediately before Millicent opens his packet. For all you know, Millie’s boss might just have finished a tirade on how e-mail and social media have caused the general standards of spelling and grammar to decline, or just yelled at a client for a formatting gaffe.

Yes, both happen. Make sure your materials — all of them — are impeccable.

Then, too, as we saw throughout the summer and in the post on our last winning entry, professional readers are HARSH. Even more so on writing they like than writing they don’t, typically: close scrutiny is the compliment the pros pay writing that they consider publishable; no writer in her right mind would actually want her book to go to press with lingering typos or logic problems, right?

So in not pulling their punches, they honestly believe they are being helpful. Spotting a manuscript’s weaknesses is often a matter of experience, pure and simple. Agents and editors don’t read like everyone else, and neither do good freelance editors. Our eyes are trained to jump on problems like…well, insert any predator-prey analogy you like here.

The point is, we’re fast, and our aim is deadly. And when Millicent grows up, she wants to be just like us.

I am reminded of M.F.K. Fisher’s wonderful anecdote about being solicited by her neighbors to write a preface for a charity cookbook — you know, one of those collections of recipes that were so popular as fundraisers in the 1970s, in which well-to-do local matron share the secrets behind their potluck-famous pineapple upside-down cakes and tuna surprise. The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came knocking on Fisher’s door in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause, so she donated her expertise.

Well (the story goes), Fisher genuinely wanted to help them, so she very kindly took the draft book from them and had a good, hard, professional look through the patched-together manuscript. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies.

All of the things, in short, that professional readers would automatically flag in a manuscript.

When she paused for breath, she noticed that the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas from a professional point of view, she had been paying them the huge (and possibly undeserved) compliment of taking their project seriously.

Yes, yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. But as I have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ‘em.

The fact is, from a professional perspective, whitewashing an editorial opinion about a manuscript is a waste of everyone’s time. In a freelance editor’s feedback, it would border on unethical.

For those of you who think that this mindset sounds like a pretty fine reason to steer clear of anyone who might be tempted or empowered to pay this particular stripe of compliment, let me hasten to add: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; in the long run, you will be much, much happier if you start developing it as part of your tool kit before you start working with an agent or editor.

Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already have it up your sleeve. This is precisely why your dream agent should not be the first human being other than your spouse, best friend, or mother to set eyes on your manuscript.

All of which is to say: I am cruel here only to be kind. Here is how Millicent would see the book description above.

blurb edit

Startling, isn’t it? At the risk of repeating myself: every syllable an aspiring writer allows to pass under Millicent’s scrutiny is a writing sample. It’s in your best interest to assume an uncharitable reader, rather than — as most queriers and submitters assume — one that will be predisposed to overlook small faux pass in a manuscript that shows real promise.

As this one most assuredly does, by the way. But that doesn’t mean that even a Millicent who fell in love with the strong narrative voice, the interesting and unexpected protagonist, and/or the unusual story would not respond to that first page we all admired so much like this:

Cole edit

And yes, in response to what a good two-thirds of you just thought: this is how a professional reader reacts to a first page she likes. I didn’t spend all summer yammering about first page troubleshooting just because I happen to like book openings, after all.

The good news is that not only are all of the problems here easily fixable; they are easily fixable in under an hour. Certainly a worthwhile investment in improving an opening as compelling as this one’s agent-seeking chances, eh?

Let’s begin with the formatting problems, starting at the very top of the page. Those of us who read manuscripts for a living have been complaining for the last year and a half or so that all of a sudden, we’ve been seeing slug lines — that author-identifying bit at the top of each and every page of a professionally-formatted manuscript — with extra spaces in them, a relative rarity before. Abruptly, aspiring writers were showing up with this:

CASPERSON / INDOMITVS / 1

Rather than this:

CASPERSON/INDOMITVS/1

Or, even more properly — and effectively, given this particular title — this:

Casperson/INDOMITVS/1

The extra spaces on either side of the dashes may look cool to aspiring writers, but to anyone who stares at professionally-formatted manuscripts day in and day out, they will just look wrong. Ditto with the all-caps chapter title seen here:

CHAPTER 1

To writer, this capitalization choice may seem like purely a matter of personal style, but to Millicent, it’s a matter of formatting. In a manuscript, chapter designations are in title case:

Chapter 1

Or, if you prefer:

Chapter One

Several other issues might have been less obvious to the eye unaccustomed to the rigors of standard format, but to a professional reader, they would leap off the page. First, the page is not consistent about having two spaces or one after a period. As we’ve discussed in the past, there is actually some debate amongst agents on this subject, so ALWAYS check agency guidelines before you submit: two spaces is the standard format default, but if an agent has a strong preference for one, for heaven’s sake, give it to her.

Whichever you choose, though, be consistent. Professional readers are specifically trained to catch inconsistencies.

Another problem that would have caught Millicent’s eye is the run-on sentence in line -6:

“Gods, Marcus, hurry up, even the horse is bored.”

There is no real narrative benefit to running two sentences together here, which renders this rule-break a risk without a clear pay-off. While run-on sentences have become much more acceptable in dialogue in recent years than in the Thou Shalt Not decades of the 20th century, they are still grammatically incorrect. It should read:

“Gods, Marcus, hurry up. Even the horse is bored.”

Another often-overlooked rule — or, indeed, one of which many aspiring writers do not seem even to be aware — is the single-sentence narrative paragraph. Here, we see it in line -7:

A thrown acorn clattered off a branch near his head.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that sentence per se. (Although a Point-of-View Nazi might be tempted to ask how precisely, given that the narrative appears to be in the tight third person for the rest of the page, the protagonist could possibly have told the difference between an acorn that was thrown and one that simply fell on him. One suspects that the trajectory might have provided the necessary clue, but the narrative does not discuss it.) Standing alone in its own paragraph, however, it would jar a professional fiction reader: outside of dialogue, a proper narrative paragraph consists of at least TWO sentences.

I specified a fiction-reading pro, because these days, pretty much all U.S. newspaper and magazine writing abounds in single-sentence paragraphs. And, of course, the entire opus of Joan Didion, who popularized the single-line paragraph. Yet more evidence that aspiring writers are held to a significantly higher literary standard than famous ones — and that the AP style embraced by newspapers is not identical to the expectations for book manuscripts.

As Cole is obviously aware, there’s quite a bit of fiction out there right now that breaks this rule. However, the generally-accepted rule of thumb is that the rule should be broken ONLY for emphasis. Like, for instance, when the information divulged in that single line is in some way a surprise. For example, while this would be technically correct:

Jean-Paul scratched his head, perplexed. Now that he had removed the hinges, the door should have been possible to open, but it would not budge. Had it been barricaded from the other side? Before he had even finished formulating the question, the wood splintered, and a hefty green hand reached through the aperture to grasp him by the throat.

A writer might conceivably want to underscore the twist by setting the final sentence off by itself:

Jean-Paul scratched his head, perplexed. Now that he had removed the hinges, the door should have been possible to open, but it would not budge. Had it been barricaded from the other side?

Before he had even finished formulating the question, the wood splintered, and a hefty green hand reached through the aperture to grasp him by the throat.

Reads surprisingly differently, doesn’t it? Yet like any narrative device, the single-sentence paragraph loses its power if used too often. Reserve the single-sentence sentence for when the information is genuinely startling, to set it off from the rest of the text.

As I said, though, all of these problems are easily and practically instantly fixable, the type of things that could have been caught right away by a talented proofreader. There is one danger, however, that a non-professional reader would have been extremely unlikely to catch.

Unfortunately, it is also something that could result in instant (and, I think, entirely undeserved) rejection at many agencies. Care to guess what might press Millicent’s buttons?

No? Let me give you a hint: it is integrally related to the judges’ primary concern about this first page.

If you have been jumping up and down for the last two paragraphs, waving your arms and screaming, “I know, Anne! Millicent is likely to cast her eyes over this page, say, ‘Wait, this is YA; my boss doesn’t represent that. Next!’” take 14 gold stars out of petty cash. This is, believe it or not, the single most likely reason that this first page might be rejected.

Yes, really. If a story opens with a pre-voting age protagonist, many a Millicent at an adult fiction-representing agency has been known to leap to the conclusion that the writer has miscategorized a YA book or (and this is, alas, the more likely surmise if this page comes in a query packet) that the writer just didn’t bother to check whether the agency represents YA or not. Since no query or submission is easier to reject than one in a category Millicent’s boss does not sell, either of these situations would be no-brainer rejections.

Oh, I can tell from here that a lot of you hate that. “But Anne,” writers of stories that begin in the protagonist’s youth and follow him through time protest, “that isn’t fair. If Millicent is confused about the book category, why wouldn’t she just go back and check the query letter or synopsis? Heck, in a submission, she could just check the title page; the book category would be in the upper right-hand corner.”

Good question, linear time-lovers, but I suspect that you won’t like the answer much: because she has a lot of first pages to read today, and her job is to reject 98% of them.

So how can a savvy writer protect her manuscript from this ugly fate? Well, I’m afraid my solution is pretty cynical: even if the book follows the protagonist throughout a lifetime, consider opening the submission version of the manuscript with a scene from her adult life, then jump backward in time.

Hey, you can always cut that opening scene prior to publication, right? Your goal here is to get past Millicent.

A less cynical approach, and one that might work better for Cole’s page, would be to rid the page of any elements other than the protagonist’s age that could be giving off a YA vibe. In this first page, there are several. The use of the historical future in the first sentence, for instance: while historians and other nonfiction writers are fond of this tense (so dramatic!), in fiction, it’s most closely associated with fairy tales (unbeknownst to Hansel and Gretel, that gingerbread house was to be their downfall). In most adult fiction, even if the overall plot is not told in chronological order, the action in an individual scene usually is.

Or, to pony up an old favorite from last summer, the percussive use of and:

Such a thing was not a rarity amongst the Italiots, particularly in the summer months, when farmers could step away from their crops AND line up in angry rows of bronze. This summer had proved to be no exception, AND a single killing would not normally raise eyebrows. But Marcus lived far from the Etruscan border, AND he was only ten years old.

Or, still more YA-like, its repetitive use within a single sentence, to echo a common pattern in childish speech:

Spurius was a year older AND much bigger AND quick with his fists.

While a 10-year-old might legitimately think like this, here, in a narrative that otherwise has an adult tone –heck, it even sports a semicolon in line 6 — it seems to convey an expectation about the audience, as well as information about the protagonist. This structure — technically a run-on — is far more common in YA than in most adult fiction categories. It’s also much more frequently used in first-person narratives (particularly YA first-person narratives), in order to give a (false) impression of a chatty, conversational tone.

The final element that might lead Millicent — and did lead half of the judges — to conclude that the story to follow was YA lies in the name choices. You must admit in any ahistorical novel, featuring a protagonist who apparently has the last name Furius would constitute a bit of a character development give-away: you’d hardly be surprised if this guy turned out to be a trifle on the impatient side, would you?

True, we know from the blurb that this book is about someone who really lived, so his name would not be easy to change. What is completely under the writer’s control, however, is what the character is called in the narrative — and certainly what he is called in the first line of the book. Remember, readers’ first impressions are formed very quickly.

But Marcus’ name isn’t really the part that screams YA here. His brother, a winning tyke apparently named Spurius Furius, does.

Actually, in real life, the guy’s name was Spurius Camillus — our protagonist was, as we know from the book description, Marcus Furius Camillus — but that’s not the point. It would be hard to make a name like this to work on page 1, unless the voice was clearly comedic beginning in the first paragraph.

And don’t suggest that a reader has an obligation to read the back jacket blurb before starting page 1. Even in a published novel, that would be a dangerous presumption; at the query and submission stages, an assumption that Millicent would already know historical characters’ actual names could be fatal.

How so? Well, go back and re-read page 1: is there anything there to indicate that Furius isn’t the boys’ last name? And since a reader of adult fiction must be presumed to be familiar with the term spurious, why wouldn’t Millicent leap to the conclusion that the brother’s name was a joke intended to fly slightly over young readers’ heads, an inducement to beef up their vocabularies, especially in a manuscript where the protagonist is (at least at first) ten years old?

So how should Cole rectify this problem, given that he can’t exactly rechristen people who lived over 2,000 years ago? At the risk of seeming cynical…well, you know what I was about to suggest. Or — and this was what a good half of the judges thought he should do — he could turn the book into YA.

Those are calls that only he can make, of course. Everybody here at Author! Author! is awfully darned excited to see what he decides; the judges were unanimous that they want to be told well in advance when this book is going to be available for sale, so they may pre-order it.

If the rest of you take nothing away from this post, let it be this: even a wonderful first page can almost always be improved. A grabber of a hook, nicely-written sentences, engaging characters, a sense of place — all of these Cole’s opener has in spades. But as a professional reader, that only renders me more excited to read the revised version to come.

Congratulations, Cole — this really does sound like one heck of a book. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XXI: Millicent holds these truths to be self-evident. Trust me.

signingdec

Ah, another evening, another installment in our gargantuan self-editing series. I have to say, I’ve been having a good time with it — usually, I spend this time of year talking at length about how to construct a winning conference pitch, followed by another couple of weeks devoted to concocting a professional-looking query letter. We’ve been having so much good, productive fun working on revision issues lately, however, that I haven’t wanted to break up the party.

So a summer of craft it is. Onward and upward!

I’m still very much at your service if you are interested in pulling together a pitch, query letter, or synopsis, of course — as always, feel free to ask questions. If you’re in the market for in step-by-step instructions, hie yourself to the quite detailed archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page, where you will find categories helpfully labeled HOW TO WRITE A PITCH, HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD QUERY LETTER, HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD SYNOPSIS, and HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A QUERY PACKET. After your have pitched or queried successfully, you might want to avail yourself of the posts in the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT and HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET categories.

Or, if you should happen to be perusing these categories in a panic the night before or just after a writers’ conference, searching frantically for the absolute basics, try the HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE, HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER IN A HURRY, and HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS IN A HURRY.

In short, please don’t assume that because I’m spending the summer reveling in manuscript problems — because, let’s face it, insofar as anyone can actually revel in manuscript problems, I do — I’m not still interested in helping members of the Author! Author! community with practical marketing. If you don’t find answers to your questions in the archives, please, I implore you, speak up.

Everyone clear on that? Good. Now let’s plunge back into the full enjoyment of revision.

What’s that you say? Enjoy doesn’t precisely capture the emotion current swelling your breast at the prospect of another discussion of manuscript megaproblems? Well, may I at least assume that everyone’s been learning a little something each time?

I sincerely hope that the learning curve has been sharp for many of you, because honestly, I do not think we writers talk amongst ourselves nearly enough about these issues. The art of self-revision is so difficult to teach that many writing gurus eschew it altogether –- and not merely because there is no magical formula dictating, say, how often it’s okay to repeat a word on the page or how many summary statements a chapter can contain before our buddy, Millicent the agency screener, rends her garments and cries, “Enough with the generalizations, already! Show, don’t tell!”

Although experience leads me to believe that the answer is not all that many.

If you take nothing else away from this series, please let it be a firm resolve not to resent Millicent for this response. As we discussed last time, there’s just no getting around the fact that professional readers — i.e., agents, editors, contest judges, agency screeners, editorial assistants, writing teachers — tend to read manuscript pages not individually, like most readers do, but in clumps.

One after another. All the livelong day.

Which, of course, is necessarily going to affect how they read your manuscript — or any other writer’s, for that matter. Think about it: if you saw the same easily-fixable error 25 times a day (or an hour), yet were powerless to prevent the author of submission #26 from making precisely the same rejection-worthy mistake, wouldn’t it make you just a mite testy?

Welcome to Millicent’s world. Help yourself to a latte.

If you’re at all serious about landing an agent, you should want to get a peek into her world, because she’s typically the first line of defense at an agency, the hurdle any submission must clear before a manuscript can get anywhere near the agent who requested it. In that world, the submission that falls prey to the same pitfall as the one before it is far, far more likely to get rejected on page 1 than the submission that makes a more original mistake.

Why, you cry out in horror — or, depending upon how innovative your gaffes happen to be, cry out in relief? Because — feel free to chant along with me now, long-term readers — from a professional reader’s point of view, common writing problems are not merely barriers to reading enjoyment; they are boring as well.

Did the mere thought of your submission’s boring Millicent for so much as a second make you cringe? At this point in our Frankenstein manuscript series, it should.

In not entirely unrelated news, today, I shall be acquainting you with a manuscript problem frequently invisible to the writer who produced it, yet glaringly visible to a professional reader, for precisely the same reason that formatting problems are instantly recognizable to a contest judge: after you’ve see the same phenomenon crop up in 75 of the last 200 manuscripts you’ve read, your eye just gets sensitized to it.

I’m talking, of course, about yet another eminently cut-able category of sentences, statements of the obvious. You know, the kind that draws a conclusion or states a fact that any reader of average intelligence might have been safely relied upon to have figured out for him or herself.

I heard some of you out there chuckle ––you caught me in the act, didn’t you? Yes, the second sentence of the previous paragraph IS an example of what I’m talking about; I was trying to test your editing eye.

Here I go, testing it again. See how many self-evident statements you can catch in this sterling opening. (Sorry about the slight fuzziness of the page here. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the individual words in the example, try holding down the Command key while hitting +.)

obvious example 1

Do correct me if I am wrong, but is not night usually dark? Where else would the moon rise except on the horizon? What else could one possibly shrug other than shoulders — or, indeed, nod with other than a head? Is there a funny bone located somewhere in the body other than the arm, or toes not on the foot?

Seeing a pattern? Are you also seeing abundant invitation for revision, I hope?

Ideally, this sort of statement should send your fingers flying for the DELETE key. Why do I want you to develop a sensitivity to this kind of statement on the page? Well, let me put it this way: any sentence in a submission that prompts Millicent to mutter, “Well, duh!” is a likely rejection-trigger.

Yes, all by itself, even if the rest of the submission is pretty darned clean, perfectly formatted, and well-written to boot. Read on to find out why.

I mention that, obviously, because I fear that some of you might not have understood that in a written argument, discussion of a premise often follows hard upon it, often in the paragraphs just below. Or maybe I just thought that not all of you would recognize the difference between a paragraph break and the end of a blog. I still have a lot to say on the subject.

Rather insulting to the intelligence, isn’t it? That’s how your garden-variety Millicent feels when a sentence in a submission assumes she won’t catch on to something self-evident.

“Jeez,” she murmurs indignantly, “just how dim-witted does this writer think I am? Next!”

Lest that seem like an over-reaction to what in fact was an innocent line of text, allow me to remind you: when you’re reading in order to catch mistakes — as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do when faced with mountains of submissions — you’re inclined to get a mite testy. Liability of the trade.

In fact, to maintain the level of focus necessary edit a manuscript really well, it is often desirable to keep oneself in a constant state of irritable reactivity. Keeps the old editing eye sharp.

Those would be the eyes in the head, in case anyone was wondering. Located just south of the eyebrows.

To a professional reader in such a state, the appearance of a self-evident proposition on a page is like the proverbial red flag to a bull: the reaction is often disproportionate to the offense. Even — and I tremble to inform you of this, but it’s true — if the self-evidence infraction is very, very minor.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is a small sampling of some of the things professional readers have been known to howl at the pages in front of them, regardless of the eardrums belonging to the inhabitants of adjacent cubicles:

In response to the seemingly innocuous line, He shrugged his shoulders: “What else could he possibly have shrugged? His kneecaps?” (Insert violent scratching sounds here, leaving only the words, He shrugged still standing in the text.)

In response to the ostensibly innocent statement, She blinked her eyes: “The last time I checked, eyes are the only part of the body that CAN blink!” (Scratch, scratch, scratch.)

In response to the bland sentence, The queen waved her hand at the crowd: “Waving ASSUMES hand movement! Why is God punishing me like this?” (Scratch, maul, stab pen through paper repeatedly.)

And that’s just how the poor souls react to all of those logically self-evident statements on a sentence level. The assertions of the obvious on a larger scale send them screaming into their therapists’ offices, moaning that all of the writers of the world have leagued together in a conspiracy to bore them to death.

As is so often the case, the world of film provides some gorgeous examples of larger-scale obviousness. Take, for instance, the phenomenon film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the Seeing-Eye Man: after the crisis in an action film has ended, the male lead embraces the female lead and says, “It’s over,” as though the female might not have noticed something as minor as Godzilla’s disappearance or the cessation of gunfire or the bad guys dead at their feet. In response to this helpful statement, she nods gratefully.

Or the cringing actor who glances at the sky immediately after the best rendition of a thunderclap ever heard on film: “Is there a storm coming?”

Taken one at a time, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding events – but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages of a submission or contest entry, they can be genuine deal-breakers.

Oh, you want to see what that level of Millicent-goading might look like on the submission page, do you? I aim to please. Here’s a little number that I like to call the Walking Across the Room (WATR) problem:

obvious example2

This account is a completely accurate and believable description of the process, right? As narrative in a novel, however, it would also be quite dull for the reader, right because it requires the retailing of so many not-very-interesting events in order to get that door answered. Any reasonably intelligent reader could be trusted to understand that in order to answer the door, she would need to put down the book, rise from the chair, and so forth.

Or, to put it in the terms we’ve been using over the past few days: is there any particular reason that the entire process could not be summed up as She got up and answered the door, so all of the reclaimed page space could be devoted to more interesting activity? Or, if we really wanted to get daring with those editing shears, why not have the narrative simply jump from one state of being to the next, trusting the reader to be able to interpolate the connective logic:

When the ringing became continuous, Jessamyn gave up on peaceful reading. She pushed aside Mom’s to-do list tacked to the front door and peered through the peephole. Funny, there didn’t seem to be anyone there, yet still, the doorbell shrilled. She had only pushed it halfway open when she heard herself scream.

Think Millicent’s going to be scratching her head, wondering how Jessamyn got from the study to the hallway? Or that she will be flummoxed by how our heroine managed to open the door without the text mentioning the turning of the knob?

Of course not. Stick to the interesting stuff.

WATR problems are not, alas, exclusively the province of scenes involving locomotion — many a process has been over-described by dint of including too much procedural information in the narrative. Instead of narrowing down the steps necessary to complete a project to only the most important, or presenting the full array in such a manner that the most vital and interesting steps, a WATR text mentions everything, up to and sometimes including the kitchen sink.

What WATR anxiety — the fear of leaving out a necessary step in a complex process — offers the reader is less a narrative description of a process than a list of every step involved in it, an impression considerably exacerbated by all of those ands. Every detail here is presented as equally important, but the reader is left with no doubt that the account is complete.

WATR problems are particularly likely to occur when writers are describing processes with which they are very familiar, but readers may not be. In this case, the preparation of a peach pie:

Obvious example 3

As a purely factual account, that’s admirable, right? Should every single pastry cookbook on the face of the earth suddenly be carried off in a whirlwind, you would want this description on hand in order to reconstruct the recipes of yore.

As narrative text in a novel, however, it’s not the most effective storytelling tactic. All of those details, while undoubtedly accurate, swamp the story. Basically, this narrative voice says to the reader, “Look, I’m not sure what’s important here, so I’m going to give you every detail. You get to decide for yourself what’s worth remembering and what’s not.”

Not sure why that’s a serious problem? Be honest now: didn’t your attention begin to wander after just a few sentences? It just goes to show you: even if you get all of the details right, this level of description is not very likely to retain a reader’s interest for long.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it: “Next!”

Do I hear some murmuring from those of you who actually read all the way through the example? “But Anne,” you cry, desperately rubbing your eyes to drive the sleepiness away, “the level of detail was not what bugged me most about that pie-making fiesta. What about all of the ands? What about all of the run-on sentences and word repetition? Wouldn’t those things bother Millicent more?”

I’m glad that you were sharp-eyed enough to notice those problems, eye-rubbers, but honestly, asking whether the repetition is more likely to annoy a professional reader than the sheer stultifying detail is sort of like asking whether Joan of Arc disliked the burning or the suffocating part of her execution more.

Either is going to kill you, right? Mightn’t it then be prudent to avoid both?

In first drafts, the impulse to blurt out all of these details can be caused by a fear of not getting the entire story down on paper fast enough, a common qualm of the chronically-rushed: in her haste to get the whole thing on the page right away, the author just tosses everything she can think of into the pile on the assumption that she can come back later and sort it out. It can also arise from a trust issue, or rather a distrust issue: it’s spurred by the author’s lack of faith in either her own judgment as a determiner of importance, her profound suspicion that the reader is going to be critical of her if she leaves anything out, or both.

Regardless of the root cause, WATR is bad news for the narrative voice. Even if the reader happens to like lists and adore detail, that level of quivering anxiety about making substantive choices resonates in every line, providing distraction from the story. Taken to an extreme, it can even knock the reader out of the story.

Although WATR problems are quite popular in manuscript submissions, they are not the only page-level red flag resulting from a lack of faith in the reader’s ability to fill in the necessary logic. Millicent is frequently treated to descriptions of shifting technique during car-based scenes (“Oh, how I wish this protagonist drove an automatic!” she moans), blow-by-blow accounts of industrial processes (“Wow, half a page on the smelting of iron for steel. Don’t see that every day — wait, I saw a page and a half on the intricacies of salmon canning last week.”), and even detailed narration of computer use (“Gee, this character hit both the space bar and the return key? Stop, my doctor told me to avoid extreme excitement.”)

And that’s not even counting all of the times narratives have meticulously explained to her that gravity made something fall, the sun’s rays produced warmth or burning, or that someone standing in line had to wait until the people standing in front of him were served. Why, the next thing you’ll be telling her is that one has to push a chair back from a table before one can rise from it, descending a staircase requires putting one’s foot on a series of steps in sequence, or getting at the clothes in a closet requires first opening its door.

Trust me, Millicent is already aware of all of these phenomena. You’re better off cutting ALL such statements in your manuscript– and yes, it’s worth an extra read-through to search out every last one.

That’s a prudent move, incidentally, even if you are absolutely positive hat your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often. Remember, you have no control over whose submission a screener will read immediately prior to yours. Even if your submission contains only one self-evident proposition over the course of the first 50 pages, if it appears on page 2 and Millicent has just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that she will kindly overlook your single instance amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you? Excellent; you’re getting the hang of just how closely professional readers read.

The trouble is, they’re hard to catch. Self-evident statements virtually always appear to the writer to be simple explanation. Innocuous, or even necessary. “What do you mean?” the writer of the obvious protests indignantly. “Who could possibly object to being told that a character lifted his beer glass before drinking from it? How else is he going to drink from it?”

How else, indeed?

Provide too much information about a common experience or everyday object, and the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin. I’ve been using only very bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear in a text:

The hand of the round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second, marking passing time as it moved. Jake ate his cobbler with a fork, alternating bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry with swigs of coffee from his mug. As he ate, farmers came into the diner to eat lunch, exhausted from riding the plows that tore up the earth in neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. The waitress gave bills to each of them when they had finished eating, but still, Jake’s wait went on and on.

Now, to an ordinary reader, rather than a detail-oriented professional one, there isn’t much wrong with this paragraph, is there? It conveys a rather nice sense of place and mood, in fact. But see how much of it could be trimmed simply by removing embroideries upon the obvious:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. As he ate, farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. Even after they had finished eating and left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

The reduction of an 91-word paragraph to an equally effective 59-word one may not seem like a major achievement, but in a manuscript that’s running long, every cut counts. The shorter version will make the Millicents of the world, if not happy, at least pleased to see a submission that assumes that she is intelligent enough to know that, generally speaking, people consume cobbler with the assistance of cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

Who knew?

Heck, a brave self-editor might even go out on a limb and trust Millicent to know the purpose of plowing and to understand the concept of an ongoing action, trimming the paragraph even further:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. Farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows. Even after they had left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

That’s a cool 47 words. Miss any of the ones I excised, other than perhaps that nice bit about the seedlings?

Fair warning: self-evidence is one of those areas where it honestly is far easier for a reader other than the writer to catch the problem, though, so if you can line up other eyes to scan your submission before it ends up on our friend Millicent’s desk, it’s in your interest to do so.

In fact, given how much obviousness tends to bug Millicent, it will behoove you to make a point of asking your first readers to look specifically for instances of self-evidence. Hand ‘em the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask ‘em to make a great big X in the margin every time the narrative takes the time to explain that rain is wet, of all things, that a character’s watch was strapped to his wrist, of all places, or that another character applied lipstick to — wait for it — her lips.

I am now going to post this blog on my website on my laptop computer, which is sitting on a lap desk on top of — you’ll never see this coming — my lap. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. If the room is too dark, I might switch the switch on my lamp to turn it on. After I am done, I might elect to reverse the process to turn it off.

You never can tell; I’m wacky that way. Keep up the good work!

Naming names, part II: wait, wait, don’t tell me — the protagonist is the guy with the torch, right?

Spartacus crowd scene

Last time, as some of you may recall, I broached the tender subject of character names. I did so with some trepidation, naturally: writers, especially those in the throes of completing their first novels, are often very protective of their Muse-given right to name characters precisely as they see fit. Never mind that a skimming reader is extremely likely to confuse characters with names that look alike — or sound alike; Oliver, Olivia, and their cat Vetiver are going to their literary graves with those monikers, thank you very much, as are Justin, Jason, and Augustine.

Don’t tense up, similar name-lovers: I shan’t be trying to convince you that Clarence and Terence might not be the best conceivable names for the protagonist and antagonist of an adult novel. (Although I would love to see their adventures in a picture book.) I’ve given you enough concrete examples, both in my last post and in the depths of the Frankenstein manuscript series, for you to make up your own mind about whether Becky and Betsy are in fact the most reader-friendly names you could give your protagonist’s identical twin love interests. You’re intelligent people; it’s your choice.

Whatever you decide, however, and perhaps even before you decide, may I proffer a minor suggestion? Prior to making any changes to the names in your manuscript, read through it (preferably IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course) and create a list of characters, along with notations of where they appear throughout the text.

Why did I duck under the nearest table immediately after having brought up that possibility, you ask? Well, the last time I suggested that if one’s novel is thick with named characters, it might be a good idea to make a list of who appears when, so the savvy reviser can see where to cull and who may be combined with whom, cries of “Madness! Madness!” filled the land.

“Are you crazed, Anne?” angry mobs of revisers cried, waving their pitchforks menacingly. “I barely have time to write as it is — are you seriously suggesting that I devote hours and hours to noting on which pages every character in the book might be found?”

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. Stop dipping those torches in pitch long enough to hear why.

In the first place, should you decide down the line that you do indeed want to change one or more characters’ names, that list will be positively invaluable. From past experience, I can tell you that if a writer does not have such a list in hand when she decides to change her protagonist’s name from Georgine to Georgette, she’s almost certainly going to miss a Georgine or two.

Leading, of course, to the classic irate editor’s comment: “Who is Georgine? And is it really a good idea to have two characters with names as close Georgine and Georgette? The scan too similarly; readers are likely to mix them up.”

Hey, the hypothetical editor said it; I didn’t. Go wave your torches angrily elsewhere.

The second reason a savvy reviser might want to produce a character list is that, frankly, most aspiring writers harbor rather fuzzy notions of how many named characters populate their books. If you have been adding scenes — and, let’s face it, most self-editors do; thus the Frankenstein nature of much-revised manuscripts — you might easily have ended up with 25 more characters than you intended in Chapter 1.

See where I’m going with this?

Character multiplication is usually inadvertent, after all. I’ve read manuscripts where the minor characters not only could easily have staged their own production of WAR & PEACE without double-casting any extras; occasionally, I see texts whose citizenry could have formed its own representative government.

Yet without exception, the authors of such heavily-populated tomes say the same thing: “Oh, there aren’t that many. A reader who was paying attention would have no problem keeping them straight.”

If you’ll pardon my saying so, that’s not the kind of statement a writer should be making if she doesn’t know for sure how many characters are strolling across the pages of the most current draft of her manuscript. If you actually list each and every character, you may be astonished at just how many of them there are.

Don’t shrug — seriously, since most writers do not keep running tallies of the characters in their books, it’s not all that hard to end up with 50 or 100 named characters without realizing it Especially if they are introduced many at a time, without much character development for any given one, it isn’t precisely reasonable to expect the reader to keep track of them all, is it?

The third reason — oh, I have not yet begun to run out of arguments yet — is that such a list will help you see not only where you might want to begin culling the herd of bodies in the background, but also enable you to see who could potentially be consolidated with whom — and who absolutely could not. If you keep track of how often and where a particular character appears, you will be able to tell when a character who appeared once on page 15 carrying a load of firewood turns up again on page 310 entering the diner…and thus could not possibly be across town on page 312, assisting a gang of thugs in smothering the mayor.

Think of it as trying to cast a production of Spartacus with a very small troupe of actors: you probably won’t be able to foist many more duties upon the leads, but the bit players could certainly play multiple roles, right?

Fourth, knowing who the players are and in what scenes they appear can also alert you to patterns in where characters tend to pile up in your work in general. If you’re the kind of writer who, for instance, leans toward naming every single soul attending any given party, from the canapé-servers right down to the couple necking in the corner, you will want to be aware of that predilection before you write your next party scene, won’t you?

Won’t you? (Please lie to me, if not. My back is still hurting enough that I am composing this in bed; I could use some cheerful thoughts wafted my way.)

If, on the other hand, you tend to emphasize your protagonist’s loneliness by having other characters engage in banter around him, seeing that pattern manifest on a list may lead you to question whether it needs to happen quite so often in the book to make your point — or with quite so many different characters providing contrast. Or cause you to question whether a reader might conclude that your protagonist is either an unemployed mime or not an actor in his own story.

Constructing a character list can, in short, alert you to both point overkill and the dreaded Passive Protagonist Syndrome. Just between us, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, would be overjoyed if you were to ferret out both of those tendencies before she saw you submission, rather than after.

Wait — does all of that shifting in chairs, rolling of eyes, and martyred sighing indicate that that not all of you are completely convinced that taking the time to tote up your characters is worth your while? Do you think that it might be a grand idea for some benighted aspiring writers, but you have too clear a conception of your manuscript to render it useful to you?

Okay, those of you with complete command of your manuscripts, let me ask you: how many characters are there on page 37? More to the point for submission purposes, how many appear on page 1?

Did those questions catch some of you by surprise? No wonder: so far, in discussing how to keep your characters from blurring together in the minds of swiftly-scanning agents and editors, I’ve concentrated on the scene and paragraph levels. Now, I’m raising the discussion to the book level.

Let’s assume for the moment that you’ve refined your opening scene (and chapter) so that characters are introduced in discrete, memorable groupings, as I advised in the my last post. Let’s also say for the sake of argument that you’ve minimized the possibility of name confusion by christening your characters as differently as possible — Selma and Thelma are now Selma and Marie. All that being done, you may now sleep soundly at night, secure in the knowledge that each of your characters is distinctly memorable, right?

Not necessarily. You might still have too many named characters in the book.

And yes, in answer to what some of you just screamed, you should care about that. If you have a cast of thousands, it’s going to be much, much harder for any reader — let alone a professional one like our friend Millicent, the agency screener — to care about individual characters. When attention is spread thin, affection starts to waver. Still worse, when a reader has to keep track of 77 different names, it can become a trifle difficult for him to tell which characters he’s supposed to be following.

It would, I suppose, be handy if the Great Gods of Literature (or even someone like yours truly) laid down the law about how many is too many, decreeing that four is the maximum for this kind of scene and eight for that. As I mentioned last time, though as far as I am aware, there is no strict standard for recognizing character overpopulation.

What works best varies from book to book. The only widely-used criterion I know is whether the reader starts to have trouble telling them apart — which, lest anyone forget, if bound to happen faster if the names are too similar. Characters whose names sound similar or begin with the same letter are prime candidates for blurrage. (Yes, I know – it isn’t a word. But it should be.)

A good test of whether your novel is overstaffed: hand a hard copy of it to a reader who does not know you very well (and thus has no incentive to lie to keep you happy), and ask him to stop reading when the number of characters becomes bewildering. Have him mark where he threw in the towel by folding that page in half.

Ideally, you will get the manuscript back with every page pristine, naturally, but if that folded page falls within your first fifty pages — i.e., in the part of the book that an agent would be likely to ask to see first — you should consider making some major cast cuts. If the folded page falls within the first chapter, I would suggest going back and reading my last few posts, because in all likelihood, there are too many characters up front.

If you are too shy to recruit help, you can do a version of this test on your own, by sitting down with your manuscript and a highlighting pen and marking every proper name. Even better, you could go for broke and make an actual list of characters.

Wait — where have I heard that excellent advice before? There must be an echo in here.

The easiest way to generate such a list is by using the FIND function in your word processing program and noting each page number. I like to keep the results in a spreadsheet, so I can sort it by character name, chapter, page number, and what the character is doing at the time. (Yes, that US an insanely meticulous thing to do, but then, I’m an editor by trade. My clients pay me good money to read their work with a magnifying glass.)

Why keep track of the extra data? To make it clearer which groups of minor characters could be consolidated into just one or two. If, for instance, my spreadsheet tells me that five different characters shoe horses throughout the book, and if the story does not involve a trip on horseback of several thousand miles between smithies, I would be tempted to make all five the same character.

Noting where each character appears — in addition to making it SUBSTANTIALLY simpler to go back and find those four extraneous blacksmiths and put them to death, literarily speaking — also makes it apparent which named characters appear in only a single scene. In my experience, character-heavy books tend to feature a LOT of one-off cameos; generating a list will help you go through all of the one-timers to check who is actually necessary to keep.

And if the idea of doing away with these folks makes you sad, remember: Characters are notoriously recyclable. If you become a career writer, this is not the only book you will ever write. You may well find that Blacksmith Bob of today can be very happily recast as Soda Jerk Bob tomorrow.

I sense some of you shifting uncomfortably in your chairs again. “But Anne,” some of you protest, glancing at your watches, “I realize that what you’re suggesting is something I could conceivably be doing while I am sitting down and reading my manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before I even consider submitting it — and in an ideal world, I would follow your advice to the letter. But frankly, I can barely find time to write, query, and/or submit as it is. You wouldn’t happen to know any short cuts for ferreting out extraneous characters, would you?”

As a matter of fact, I do, but I’m hesitant to roll ‘em out, lest that discourage any of you from going over your manuscripts with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. I can’t even begin to tote up how many writers, aspiring and established both, I’ve heard wail, “Oh, if only I’d caught that simple, easily-corrected error before I sent out my manuscript! Now that terrific agent/dreamy editor/stern contest judge will think I’m a bonehead!”

Bu if you will all promise not to use the tricks as a substitute for reading your IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before sealing that submission envelope, I’ll go ahead and talk about them now.

My favorite technique is one that occurs more or less automatically to professional readers at about the 10,000th scene mark: becoming aware what kinds of scenes tend to invite minor character lurkage en masse. Including, but not limited to…

1. Any scene featuring a congregation.
If hell is other people, as Sartre suggests, then wedding and funeral scenes in novels almost invariably reek of brimstone. These events are notorious amongst professional readers for introducing entire churchfuls of extraneous characters.

Even when all of the masses are not named individually (although you’d be astonished how often a dozen or so are), it doesn’t take many lines of physical description or multi-party banter to convey the impression that a small, intimate wedding has a guest list to rival that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s nuptials.

Allow me to suggest: if behinds are in pews, it might be a good place to start trimming.

2. Any scene that takes place where strangers tend to gather.
Pay close attention to scenes set in coffee shops, bars, class reunions, Ellis Island, airplanes/-ports, trains, buses, workplaces, and party scenes in general. All of these venues seem to attract single-appearance characters as surely as a red carpet attracts celebrity gawkers.

Was that massive sucking noise I just heard a collective gasp of indignation? “But Anne,” cast-of-thousands-mongers cry, “you’re asking me to disembowel the collective identity of modern urban life! How can I describe the complexity of the human environment without enumerating the individuals who are part of it?”

Describe away — and if you’re into enumerating, I’m not going to stop you, although your agent and/or editor may well. All I’m suggesting here is that you not insist on introducing each of the bystanders to the hapless reader as if she were the mother of the bride in a receiving line.

Not every minor character deserves to be identified, does he? Not only does pointing everyone out tend to get a mite tedious and slow the pace of the narrative to the proverbial crawl, to a professional reader, a group scene where everyone is named down to the last poodle and great-grandfather reads as though it were simply an account of something that actually happened to the author. When the guest lists are long and specific, the jaded reader will think, “Great — when do we get back to the fiction?”

Or the memoir, or the historical account, as the case may be. Which brings me to:

3. Any group scene depicting an actual event — or based upon one.
Of course, suspecting scenes ripped from real life is not always fair, but when writers lift scenes from real life into their novels, they do tend to include direct one-to-one correlations between the actual people and the fictional ones. Often, but not always, they do this just in case the people in question should ever pick up the book.

“Oh,” they say, pointing at the page. “That’s me — I’m the one brandishing the flaming torch.”

The names may change, but if Aunt Bessie, Aunt Cassie, and odd Cousin George appear in the text so fleetingly that they don’t make an impression upon the reader, that’s a pretty good tip-off to someone who reads a lot of manuscripts that the author is blessed with two aunts and a cousin who might reasonably be expected to buy the book when it is published. While this practice tends to delight the kith and kin mentioned (and create grudges in those not mentioned — another good reason to eschew the temptation), it’s not harmless. Both professional and casual readers alike are likely to find it problematic.

Why? Well, such references can be very amusing for readers familiar with the fine folks mentioned in the book, as well as their kith and kin. Generally speaking, though, unless a minor character plays an actual role in the plot — as in contributing some action or information that moves the story along — he will not be memorable to readers who do not already know the correlates in question.

You indignant gaspers are getting restive again, aren’t you? “Yes, yes,” you mutter impatiently, and who could blame you? “It’s not the most efficient means of storytelling; I already know that. But I fully intend to rectify that by making Aunt Bessie the gas station attendant in Chapter 47, Aunt Cassie the librarian in Chapter 12, and Cousin George Massey the second corpse who rises from the dead on the honeymoon. Happy now?”

Not necessarily. Even if the characters in a crowd scene do appear elsewhere in the book, it can still be pretty tedious for the reader if the narrative engages in a full roll-call. Or even a partial one.

Come closer, and I shall divulge a cherished secret of the editing trade to you: lists tend not to make for very interesting reading. (And yes, you do have my permission to quote me — with attribution, of course — the next time your boss insists that you sit through yet another PowerPoint presentation.)

Mentioning characters just for the sake of mentioning them is seldom very interesting to the reader, at least when the characters in question are not integral to the action. Bystanders are not, by and large, memorable to the average reader. Especially in the opening of a book — where, all too frequently, it’s not clear which of the cast of thousands in a scene is the one (or dozen) that the reader is supposed to remember.

If, indeed, it’s important to the plot to remember any individuals among them at all. Even in a memoir, it often isn’t, from a pure storytelling perspective.

I know, I know: you’re not going to be able to convince anyone who participated in the real-life events that s/he was not integral to the action. But just as not every detail within a physical space is either necessary to mention in order for a reader to be able to picture a place or interesting if you do, not every character in a real-world situation belongs in the written account of it.

Aspiring writers tend to forget that, as Millicent would be only too happy to tell you — not just that everyone who appears in our mental image of a crowd scene (or in our recollections or photographs of it, if we’re writing memoir) is going to be integral to the action, in storytelling terms, but that every new character name is something else for the reader to remember. That saps energy that would be better utilized getting involved in the story itself.

Or, to put it another way, every time a reader, professional or otherwise, mutters, “Wait, who’s Gerald?” s/he has been pulled out of the story. A top-flight storyteller — which all of us want to be, right? — tries to eliminate such jarring moments entirely from her readers’ experience.

One way to minimize such exclamations is to bear in mind that just-mentioned-in-passing characters are rarely memorable from a reader’s perspective. Every editor in the biz has at one time or another been confronted by an author angrily waving a manuscript in her face and shouting, “What do you mean, where did this character come from? Alice was the third bridesmaid at Ben’s wedding in Chapter Two, for heaven’s sake!”

Invariably, the irate author is factually correct on points like these. The character will indeed have been mentioned by name in passing, as in:

The bridesmaids, Greta, Elaine, and Alice, were dressed in an eye-searing chartreuse that left Ben wondering just what these old friends had done to his bride back in junior high school to make her hate them so much.

200 pages later, out of those three never-again-mentioned bridesmaids, the author expects the reader to remember Alice — and apparently only Alice. At the risk of seeming impertinent, why should he?

Unless he happens to be blessed with an unusually retentive memory, he won’t — and even Millicents, who often do have such excellent memories, tend to resent being expected to use them to keep 157 characters straight. At the submission stage, unless a character is central enough to what’s going on in a scene to warrant development, you might want to consider whisking her out of Millicent’s sight, at least for the time being.

“For the time being?” I hear some ambitious character-generators out there piping hopefully. “Does that mean I can bring Aunt Cassie back after I’ve landed an agent and/or editor for this book?”

Sure — just because you take a few (or a few hundred) characters out of your submission draft of a novel doesn’t mean that you can’t reinsert them later in the publication process. There is no law that says that an author can’t offer a stripped-down, swiftly-moving version of her novel to agents and editors — and then, after the ink is dry on the relevant contracts, say to your editor, “You know, I’ve always thought that there should be more bridesmaids in Chapter 2. Like, say, fifteen. How would you feel about Alice’s being one of them?”

Remember, no manuscript is set in stone until it’s actually in print between covers; no matter how often or how well you polish yours before submission, expect to be asked for revisions. Especially these days, when it’s not at all uncommon at the large U.S. publishing houses for the editor who acquires a book not still to be on the job — or at any rate, in the same job — by the time that book comes up in the print queue. I don’t want to horrify anyone, but within the last couple of months, I’ve talked to authors who are on their fourth and fifth editors.

Think each of those editors has shared exactly the same vision of the book, or wants the same changes? And what’s the probability that at least one of them will hate the name Georgette, and want you to change it to, say, Georgine?

Now more than ever, it behooves writers to keep their creative options open. The better-organized you are, the happier you will be at last-minute revision time. Go ahead and keep copies of every major revision of your manuscript, so you can revisit the Alice and Georgine/ette issues again down the road. Hang on to that character list, too; someday, possibly between revisions 6 and 7 after you’ve signed with the agent of your dreams, it may come in awfully handy.

Now that I’ve frightened all of you into wide-eyed insomnia, I’m talking my aching back off to bed. Cast your stories carefully, my friends, and keep up the good work!

A brief digression on names, featuring some lighthearted admonitions on being careful how you label people

Helen Burns' shame

Since I have been hammering so hard on the perils of word, phrase, and concept repetition in my recent Frankenstein manuscript series, I thought it might be nice to take a break for a couple of days, if only to stop the more conscientious revisers among you from waking up in the dead of night, screaming, “No! Please! I shall cut the number of eye-distracting conjunctions in my manuscript by half! Just take away the thumbscrews!” After those few days had passed without revision-related screaming abating much, I decided that I was going to take a few baby steps away from the much-stared-at manuscript page and talk about a related topic near and dear to most novelists’ hearts: character naming.

Then, after I have lulled you into a nice, complacent creative reverie, I shall leap right back into the burning issues of revision. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Before I launch into the meat of today’s post, however, I’d like to note the passing of someone I have never met personally, but has been gracing Author! Author! at least once per year as the wry star of one of my all-time favorite anecdotes. Those of you who have been hanging out here at A! A! for a while may remember the late gentleman (may he rest in perpetual peace) who taught us that it’s never, ever safe to assume that one’s audience will share one’s prejudices.

Once upon a time, a professor at Harvard Law School took a sabbatical and joined the faculty at a Washington, D.C.-area law school for a year. After he had been installed in his new office for a week, he realized that he was a bit lonely: he had been tenured for so long that he no longer remembered what it had been like to be the new guy in the faculty lounge.

So, one day, determined to make friends, he walked into that room full of strangers, sat down next to the least intimidating-looking law professor, and introduced himself. They chatted a bit, but the Harvard professor was pretty rusty at small talk. When conversation floundered, he cast his mind back to the last time he had been the new guy, way back in the early 1980s, and resuscitated a tried-and-true question: “So, what does your wife do?”

Much to his astonishment, his new friend broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, as if the professor had just said the funniest thing in the world. He laughed so hard that other faculty members turned around to stare.

The Harvard professor didn’t know whether to be piqued or amused at this response. “I’m sorry — doesn’t she work?”

This question abruptly ended the other man’s laughter. “Oh, she does,” he replied dryly, fixing our hero with a glance of singular disdain. “You might possibly have heard of her work, in fact. She’s on the Supreme Court.”

The Harvard professor had, of course, been talking for the last half an hour to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband, Martin. The latter, a fellow of infinite jest, apparently dined out on that story for years.

May you spend eternity telling that one at the dinner parties of the afterlife, Martin. And may all of us down here remember that when speaking to strangers, it behooves you to watch what you say — and especially how you label people — because you do not necessarily know what their backgrounds or beliefs are.

Why is that lesson an important one for aspiring writers to embrace, you ask? Well, all too often, especially in nonfiction, aspiring writers assume that what is funny — or shocking, or ordinary — to them will automatically strike our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, in precisely the same way, resulting in more guffaws and huffs of displeasure over submissions and contest entries than anyone would care to admit. To avoid subjecting your writing to this dreadful fate, bear in mind: no matter how deeply our own kith and kin might share our personal, political, social, etc. views of the world, we can never be sure that the agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge to whom we submit our writing will share that worldview.

There endeth today’s parable. Let’s get back to work.

We writers, as I mentioned before the impulse to eulogize sidetracked me, tend to take great pride in our characters’ names. Even when we have simply borrowed our local postmaster’s name for a minor character, combined a freshman roommate’s first name with our least-favorite high school teacher for another, and lifted a period name for a protagonist from an old census list, we are not only pleased with ourselves — we will tell anyone who will listen just how we came up with a name as nifty as Thisbe Holt.

Don’t believe that impulse to be universal? Okay, try this little experiment: walk into any author reading, anywhere in the world, and ask the novelist signing books how he ever thought of those incredibly evocative character names in his novel.

I can tell you now that there is not an author on earth who will laugh and say, “Evocative? What’s evocative about Mary Smith?” Instead, you will be treated to a bright, toothy smile and an intensely detailed ten-minute description of just where and when the author dreamed up those names.

It’s true; it’s written on the sand in words of flame. Oh, and congratulations for having made that author’s day.

There are, of course, many, many excellent sources of apt character names — for an amazingly rich source of inspiration and guidance on the subject, run, don’t walk to Askhari Johnson Hodari’s guest post on naming — but I am not going to talk about any of them today. (Which is requiring some restraint on my part, as I went all the way from nursery school through high school graduation with a classmate named Glee Burrow, a name I have been longing for decades to immortalize.) Nor, as all of you weary-eyed revisionists will no doubt be delighted to hear, am I going to repeat my caution about over-using character names in a text.

No, today, I shall be talking about naming your characters in such a way that your readers are likely to remember them — and be able to tell them apart in a book with a whole lot of characters. That may not sound especially difficult (how likely is even a reader slow on the uptake to confuse a fisherman named Paul and a jeweler named Ermintrude, right?), but in a manuscript where fifteen characters are introduced within the first two pages, the task can be a lulu.

Especially, as I mentioned last week, if too many of the names begin with the same letter, encouraging the eye to skip wildly between capitals. Take a gander:

Too many names example

Quite a large cast to reveal in the first moments of the first scene, isn’t it? Let’s face it, no matter how beautifully-drawn and exquisitely differentiated any subsequent character development for Jeremy, Jason, Jennifer, and Jemima might be, a skimming reader — like, say, Millicent (whose name means, appropriately enough, strong in work) — is likely to get ‘em confused on page 1.

I’m sensing some resistance from those of you writing about irresistible triplets named John, Jeffrey, and Jacobim. “But those are my characters’ names,” you protest, and who could blame you? “The names are integral to the characters! I can’t change them now! Besides, the example above wouldn’t really confuse any reader who was paying attention.”

Oh, you can complain all you like that since the narrative explained quite clearly who Bertrand, Benjamin, and Bertha were, as well as the interrelationships between Armand, Aspasia, Antoinette, Annabelle, and Angelica, not to mention the monarchy’s likely effect on the character whom we are left to guess is probably the protagonist, but if you pepper your page 1 with so many names that a reasonably intelligent reader might legitimately become confused, those clear explanations might not matter enough to encourage her to keep reading.

Especially if the her in question is a Millicent who has fifty submissions to read before lunchtime. Remember, agency screeners read fast; if they aren’t sure what’s going on and who the book is about by the middle of page 1, they generally stop reading a submission. As in forever.

What can a humble writer do to avoid walking into that dreadful fate? Actually, you already know: as I mentioned earlier in the Frankenstein manuscript series, a skimming reader is extremely likely to confuse characters with names that look or sound alike, so it’s best to give them monikers that not even the fastest reader could mistake for one another. Now we can build upon that excellent rule of thumb with what we learned from the example above: readers are also prone to confuse identities if a narrative introduces too many characters too quickly — or without making it pellucidly clear which in an opening crowd scene are the ones he reader will be expected to remember.

That last bit is equally true for fiction or nonfiction, so don’t doze off, memoirists and historians: it’s as important for your manuscript as for a novel for Millicent to know who and what your book is about before she loses interest. If the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rushes into view on page 1, the reader is going to have no idea which of those 360 singers is the protagonist unless the narrative spotlights him, so to speak.

Make sure she doesn’t need a program to tell who is who in your opening pages. Yes, even if that means banishing the entire alto and tenor sections to a scene later in the book.

Ditto with a synopsis: if it’s not clear who the protagonist is, consider ousting some of the character names. And please, whatever you do, don’t blow off this advice if your opening page or synopsis introduces only a handful of characters; what may seem like a reasonably intimate crowd to you, who have read the page 475 times, may well seem like a mob to a skimmer who is reading page 1 for the first time.

Allow me to add hastily, before any rules-lawyer out there begins demanding a maximum number of names that can appear on page 1: no such standard exists. Clarity is the goal here, and good storytelling. A lot depends upon what else is going on in the scene.

You don’t want Millicent to be so busy concentrating on names that she misses the absolutely crucial yet subtly-phrased aside from your protagonist on line 16, do you?

The same holds true for a synopsis, by the way. If your plot is crammed with action, you might want to limit how many character and place names you toss at Millicent per paragraph, so she can zero in on the essential conflicts.

To show you just how hard it is to keep characters straight in an action-packed storyline, let me trot out another of my all-time favorite examples: the plot of the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini, first performed in 1625. On the remote chance that some of the details of the plot may have slipped your minds, here’s a quick synopsis of just a few of the twists and turns that might leave an audience member drop-jawed:

The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.

A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid.

As is my wont, I’m going to pause at this point to vent a bit: this type of persuasion in an interview scene — where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone tells him he’s wrong — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book is positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

As protagonist, he has an entire book (or opera, as the case may be) to play with — couldn’t he argue back just a little? Usually, the result is a more interesting scene. Why? Long-time readers of this blog, take out your hymnals and sing out together now: because conflict is almost invariably more interesting in a scene than agreement.

Okay, I’ve cleared that out of my system for now. But if you are worried about the efficacy of your manuscript’s interview scenes, I would strongly advise taking a gander at the posts under the INTERVIEW SCENES THAT WORK category on the archive list located at the bottom right-hand side of this page.

I think I’ve distracted you enough. Time for a pop quiz: quick, without re-scanning the paragraphs where I glossed over the opera’s plot, try to name as many of its characters as you can.

How did you do? I originally mentioned six, but don’t be hard on yourself if you only came up with one or two. Most readers would have experienced some difficulty keeping all of those sketchily-defined characters straight.

Heck, seeing them introduced en masse like that, I would have trouble remembering who was who, and I’ve seen the opera!

Introducing too many characters too fast for any of them to make a strong impression upon the reader is extremely common in the opening few pages of novel submissions. No wonder, then, that in manuscripts where there are so many people lurching around that it reads like a zombie convention in downtown Manhattan, Millicent cannot tell for several paragraphs, or even several pages, which one is the protagonist.

As with so many of the manuscript traits that we’ve seen raise red flags, part of the reason Millicent tends to be touchy about openings with casts of thousands is that she sees so darned many of them. I think TV and movies are to blame for how common first-page crowd scenes have become in recent years: filmic storytelling techniques are primarily visual, so many writers want to provide a snapshot-like view of the opening of the book.

Many, many, many writers. More than enough to cast the necessary extras for a zombie scene in downtown Manhattan hundreds of thousands of times over.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s in your strategic interest to limit the number of characters introduced within the first couple of pages of your submission. And no, as much as any literal-minded reader out there might prefer that I provide a chart specifying how many is too many, broken down by genre, length of work, and mood of Millicent, every writer is going to have to use her own best judgment to figure out how many zombies should be lurching altos should be singing characters should appear on page 1.

But you didn’t think I would leave all of you to make that determination without any guidelines did you? Here are a couple of tests I like to apply when in doubt about just how big the opening scene’s cast should be.

1. Does the text make the relative importance of the protagonist plain?
If you are not sure — and the author is often not the best person to answer this particular question — try applying a modification of the quiz I asked you to take above:

(a) Hand the first page of your book to a non-writer. (NOT a relative, lover, or someone with whom you interact on a daily basis, please; these folks’ desire to see you happy may well skew the results of the test.)

(b) Ask her to read through it as quickly as possible.

(c) As soon as she’s finished, ask her to put down the paper. Talk about something else for a couple of minutes.

(d) Have her tell you who the main character is and what the book is about. If she starts talking about characters other than your protagonist, you have too many; if she can’t tell you anything about the plot, consider opening with a different scene, one that more accurately represents the crux of the book.

Why did I specify a non-writer, you ask? Writers tend to be unusually good at absorbing character names; the average reader is not. And your garden-variety agency screener scans far too rapidly, and reads far too many submissions in a given day, to retain the name of any character who has not either been the subject of extensive description — which can be problematic in itself — or a mover or shaker in the plot.

Perhaps not even then. Our buddy Millicent has a lot on her mind — like that too-hot latte that just burned her full pink lip. (You’d think, after how long I have been writing about her, that she would have learned by now to let it cool, wouldn’t you? But that’s an agency screener for you: speed is of the essence.)

2. Does the text portray each named character as memorable?
Again, you may want to seek outside assistance for this one. This test is also useful to see how well your storytelling skills are coming across,

(a) Hand the entire first scene to that non-writer and ask her to read it as quickly as possible, to reproduce Millicent’s likely rate of scanning.

(b) Take away the pages and talk with her about something else entirely for ten minutes.

(c) In minute eleven, ask her to tell you the story of that first scene with as much specificity as possible. Note which names she can and cannot remember. If she’s like 99% of skimmers, she will probably remember only the two primary ones.

(d) After thanking her profusely, sit down with your list of passed-over names and the manuscript: do all of these folks really HAVE to make an appearance in the opening scene?

If the answer is no, you have a few fairly attractive options for getting rid of them. Could some of them be consolidated into a single character, for instance, to reduce the barrage of names the reader will have to remember?

Or could any of them be in the scene, but not mentioned specifically until later in the book, where the protagonist encounters that character again? (A simple statement along the lines of, “Hey, Clarence, weren’t you one of the thugs who beat me to a pulp last month?” is usually sufficient for later identification, I find.)

Or are these characters mentioned here for purely photographic reasons? In other words, is their being there integral to the action of the scene, or are the extraneous many named or described simply because they are in the area, and an outside observer glancing at the center of action would have seen them lurking?

In a screenplay, you would have to mention their presence, of course — but in a crowd scene in a novel, describing the mob as monolithic can have a greater impact. For instance, which sounds scarier to you, Mr. Big threatening Our Hero while surrounded by his henchmen, Mannie, Moe, and Ambrose — or surrounded by an undifferentiated wall of well-armed baddies?

Personally, I would rather take my chances with Ambrose and Co. than with the faceless line of thugs, wouldn’t you? My imagination can conjure a much scarier array of henchmen than the named three. (Mannie has a knife; I just know it!)

I know, I know: when you create a novel, you create the world in which your characters live, and that world is peopled. But in the interest of grabbing Millicent’s often mercurial attention, would a smaller cast of characters, at least at the outset, render your book more compelling?

You could also opt to introduce your characters gradually, rather than dumping them all upon the reader in a group scene. More gradual revelation will allow the reader to tell the players apart, thus rendering the ones you reveal early on more memorable. It is worth giving some thought to how much those first few players in your story stick in the mind, anyway, particularly if your opening is — wait for it — an interview scene.

Why? Well, since the primary point of an interview scene is to convey necessary information to the reader, and the main thrust of an interview scene that opens a book is almost invariably to introduce background and premise, character development tends to fall by the wayside. Or, if it doesn’t in the text, it often does in the reader’s mind.

Think about it: if the reader is being given a great deal of background in a chunk, interspersed with relatively minor details about the tellers of that history, which is the reader more likely to remember?

Yes, yes, I know: in a perfect world, it would be enough to mention these things once in manuscript, and readers would remember them forever — or at any rate, for the next few chapters. But in practice, particularly with the rapid once-over a professional reader is likely to give a manuscript, names often start to blur together.

Don’t believe me? Okay, who was with Jeremy, and what were the names of the princesses he was trying to save?

The ubiquitous advice to screenwriters not to feature more than one character whose name begins with the same sound is basically very good, you know — if your story has a Cindy, you’re better off not also depicting a Sydney, for instance, or a Cilla. I once edited an otherwise excellent book where 8 of the 11 children of the family being depicted all had names that ended in –een: Colleen, Maureen, Doreen, Marleen, Laurene, Arleen, and Coreen, if memory serves. I eventually had to draw extensive diagrams on scratch paper, just to keep track of who was allied with whom on any given page.

Doubtless, there are families where such naming patterns are normal, but it made it darned hard to remember whose storyline was whose.

Again, I know: character names are vital to the writer’s relationship with them. However, trust me on this one — no agent is going to care that Sydney is your favorite name in the world, if she keeps confusing him with your protagonist Cindy; no editor is going to want to listen to your protestations that Chelsea and Charity are not in enough scenes together to confuse anyone of normal intelligence.

Argue about names AFTER a publishing house buys your book. Opt for clarity at the submission stage.

And never, under any circumstances, christen your characters with names beginning with the same first letters as other proper nouns prominent in your text. When the same letter is used repeatedly, swift reading can become a tad confusing. Slide your eyes over this morsel:

Tanya had rented her in-line skates from Tucker last time she came to Taormina, but Tammy was so insistent that they frequent Trevor’s establishment on Trent Road this time that Tanya could not resist her blandishments. If only Tommy had joined them on this vacation, instead of fly to Toronto with Tina and the Tiny Tot Orchestra; he would have known how to handle Tammy.

See how perplexing all of those Ts are to the eye? (Not to mention extraordinarily difficult to read out loud; you may not be giving public readings at this point in your career, but you should be thinking ahead.) If the facts here were important to the plot, the reader would have to go back and re-read this passage, something that agency screeners are notoriously reluctant to do.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: time, time, time.

As I MAY have mentioned above (and, not to put too fine a point on it, have been mentioning periodically in this forum for the past five years), the denizens of agencies and publishing houses read much, much faster than your friendly neighborhood bookstore browser. Not out of any hatred of the written word, but out of sheer self-defense.

In a way, it’s perfectly understandable: tell me, if you had a hundred 50-page submissions on your desk, were anticipating another hundred within the next couple of days, AND had other work to do (including opening those 800+ queries that came this week), how much time would YOU devote to each?

It’s just a fact: no matter how good your writing is, agencies are generally awash in queries and up to their ears in still-to-be-read submissions. As one of those submitters, you really do not have very long to wow ‘em. Rather than letting this prospect make you fear that your work is going to get lost in the crowd, let it be empowering: the vast majority of the time, it’s the small errors early on, not the big ones in the middle, that get submissions rejected.

That’s a hard pill to swallow, I know. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: many, if not most, aspiring writers have an unrealistic idea of what happens to those packets of requested materials they send. Naturally, we would all like for our work to be read promptly, carefully, and in its entirety by a thoughtful, intelligent professional reader well versed in the conventions of our particular genres.

And that does happen — occasionally. But significantly more often, packets sit around in agents’ and editors’ offices for weeks on end, and/or are read hurriedly, and/or are discarded after only a few pages. Frequently after only one, or even after only a few paragraphs.

Why should you find that encouraging? Because you can fix the little problems in your opening pages with relative ease, and let your good ideas and fine writing shine through.

So if I’ve seem to be harping upon small matters here lately, believe me, it’s not just to make your life harder by suggesting new and different ways for you to revise your manuscript. I’m just trying to help you minimize the technical problems — and thus maximize the probability that your fine writing will have a chance to speak for itself.

More thoughts on character names follow — along, no doubt, with more tirades about those pesky interview scenes. Diversify your character names, everyone, and keep up the good work!

P.S.: Don’t borrow Glee’s name, please, at least not in its entirety; I have big plans for it.

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

tile roof in Spain 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tile roof in Spain 3

tile roof in spain 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Repeat Steps 10-11 for each protagonist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so forth. Have some fun with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Partials, part III: “Wait — what do you mean, they wanted 50 CONSECUTIVE pages?” and other cris de coeur of submitters and contest entrants

neighbor's tulip tree

No, I shan’t be writing about tulip trees today — I just wanted to share my favorite of my latest batch of yard-in-bloom photos, for the benefit of those of you in stormier climes. While I was setting up this shot, I did invest a few moments’ thought to how I could possibly work these outrageous blooms into this post as a metaphor.

That’s the problem with metaphors: they actually have to relate to something.

In non-floral news, I’m feeling especially virtuous this evening: my excuse for running outside with my camera on this beautiful day (other than searching for images to divert you fine people, of course) was that I finally finished incorporating my first readers’ EXTENSIVE feedback into my recently-completed novel. Yes, even writers who edit for a living solicit opinion, technical and otherwise, from readers before showing their work to their agents.

The smart ones do, anyway; professional critique is so cut-and-dried that emotionally, it just doesn’t make sense to have an agent be the first soul on earth to read your work. (Hear that, aspiring writers planning to submit before showing those pages to anyone local?) Not to mention the practical pluses of good feedback — contrary to popular opinion amongst the shy, even the most battle-hardened pro can benefit from objective critique.

Emphasis upon objective, of course. Long-time readers, whip out your hymnals and sing along, please: no matter how extensively your kith and kin happen to read in your book category, by definition, people who love you cannot give you completely objective feedback on your writing. Even if your significant other is a published author, your best friend a Pulitzer Prize recipient, and your father the chief librarian of an archive devoted exclusively to your type of book, it is in your — and your manuscript’s — best interest to hear the unvarnished opinions of people who do not love you.

Trust me on this one. The sterling soul who gave birth to me has been editing great writers for fifty years, and even she doesn’t clap eyes upon my manuscripts until I’ve incorporated the first round of feedback. (Not that she hasn’t asked.)

I’m bringing this up at the end of our mini-series on partials not merely to celebrate polishing off that always rather taxing job — if any writer actually enjoys working critique into a manuscript, line by line, I’ve never met her — but also to remind those of you planning to rush those requested materials off to the post office that it’s an excellent idea to have another set of eyes scan those pages first.

Ditto with contest entries and residency applications; it’s just too easy to miss a crucial typo yourself. Particularly if you’re really in a hurry to meet a deadline — and what entrant or applicant isn’t? — and neglect to read your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Oh, as if I would let an opportunity to slip that golden piece of editorial advice into yet another post. Why repeat it so often? Because I can already feel some of you gearing up to blow it off, that’s why?

Specifically, those of you who huffed impatiently at that last paragraph. “But Anne,” those of you who pride yourself on your attention to detail point out, “I must have read those pages 75 times while I was revising them. I’ve read them so many times that two-thirds of my brain cells think they’re already published. What could I possibly learn by reading them again, much less IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Quite a lot, actually. Like, for instance, if when you changed your protagonist’s sister’s name from Mona to Maura, you changed every reference. Or if every line of the requested synopsis printed out legibly. Or — brace yourselves; this may be a hard one for some of you – if the minor changes you made in the course of the 71rst read are consistent with the ones from read 72.

Shall I rephrase that, to drive home the point a little harder? Okay, how’s this: had you re-read every syllable of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample tucked into a residency application between the time you made those final few changes and when you popped your last submission into the mail? Or since you popped your last submission into the mail?

Wow, the crowd’s gone so quiet all of a sudden.

And for those of you who were not suddenly flung into retrospective panic about what kind of typo or printing snafu you might have inadvertently passed under Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s weary eyes, you needn’t take my word for how often writers realize only after something’s out the door that it wasn’t quite right. Many members of the Author! Author! community have already shared their horror stories on the subject; it makes for some enlightening reading.

Feel free to add stories of your own on that list; sharing them honestly will help other aspiring writers. But do not, I beg you, set yourself up for a spectacularly instructive anecdote by failing to read the very latest version of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

While I’m hovering over you like a mother hen, here’s a post-submission regret I hope I can wipe from the face of the earth forever: including a business-size (#10) envelope as the SASE for a partial or a contest that returns materials, rather than an envelope (and appropriate postage) large enough to send back everything in the submission or entry packet.

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne!” half of those with submissions currently languishing at agencies across the U.S. cry. “I thought the point of the SASE — that stands for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, right? — was so the agent who requested the partial could mail me a letter, asking me to send the rest of the manuscript — or, heaven forfend, a rejection letter!”

Well, the agent (or, more likely, the agent’s Millicent-in-residence) usually does include at least a form-letter rejection in a homeward-bound SASE, but that’s not the SASE’s primary purpose, from the agency’s point of view. Its primary use is to get all of those pages out of its office and back to the aspiring writers who sent them.

That’s not just because if they didn’t, the average agency’s halls would be so filled with rejected pages by the end of the first month that Millicent wouldn’t be able to fight her way to the coffeemaker through the chest-high stacks of pages. (She would have had to give up her traditional lattes by the end of the first week, since she couldn’t find the front door during her lunch break.) They also return the pages because it’s in the writer’s copyright interest to know precisely where his pages are at any given time — and if that seems paranoid to you, you might want to take a gander at the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the archive list at right.

If, on the other hand, the idea of a submission’s tumbling into unscrupulous hands doesn’t strike you as particularly outrageous, but the logic behind the writer’s providing the postage to convey her own rejection to her does, I would recommend a quick read through the posts under the SASE GUIDELINES category.

And for those of you reading this post in a tearing hurry because you’re frantically trying to get a partial out the door and into the mail, or whose fingers are itching to hit the SEND key for electronic submissions, let me just go ahead and state it as a boldfaced aphorism: with any submission, always include a SASE sufficiently large for the agent to send the entire submission back to you, with enough stamps attached to get it there safely.

Yes, I said stamps. Attaching metered postage to a SASE is another fairly common mistake in submitting a partial. Generally speaking, agencies will not use a stamp-free SASE. (If you’re interested in the rather convoluted logic behind that one, I would refer you again to the SASE GUIDELINES category. Otherwise, moving swiftly on…)

A third common mistake submitters of partials often make comes not when they are packing up the partial, but later, after the agent has approved the partial and asked to see the entire manuscript. That’s the agency parlance for the request, anyway; in writer-speak, it’s usually called asking to see the rest of the book.

Therein lies the root of the mistake: the semantic difference is crucial here. All too often, successful partial submitters think that a request for the entire manuscript equals a request for only the part of the manuscript the agent has not yet seen.

The agent asked to see the rest of the book, right?

Actually, she didn’t — what asking to see the rest of the book means in agent-speak is that the agent is expecting the ENTIRE manuscript to show up in her office, neatly boxed and accompanied by a return mailing label and enough postage to get the whole shebang back to the sender, if it’s rejected. (If that last bit came as any sort of a surprise to you, I would strongly urge you to peruse the posts under the MAILING REQUESTED MATERIALS category at right before you comply with any request for your manuscript.)

Starting to see a pattern here?

I do — and have for years: when aspiring writers just assume that they know what a request for materials entails, submissions often go awry; when they take the time to do their homework, irritating Millicent by such mistakes is 99.999% avoidable. (Hey, there’s no accounting for how moody she might get when she burns her lip on that too-hot latte for the fiftieth time this year.) Much of the time, the difference isn’t even the result of conscious step-skipping: first-time submitters frequently don’t know that there are rules to be followed.

Want to know what half the Millicents currently screening would say in response to that last sentence? It’s illuminating about the harshness of professional evaluation: “So I’m supposed to make allowances because these writers didn’t do their homework, effectively penalizing all of those conscientious writers out there who take the time to learn the ropes? I’ll bet that most of these mistaken submitters didn’t even bother to check if my agency’s website has submission guidelines.”

To which Mehitabel would add: “And virtually every contest on earth includes very specific submission guidelines in its rules, yet I’m continually astonished by how few entrants seem to read them. I’ll seldom actually disqualify an entry because it violates a presentation rule, but how can I justify penalizing all of those nice entrants who did follow the rules by allowing a violator to proceed to the finalist round of judging?”

Okay, so maybe they wouldn’t be quite that forthcoming. Or prolix. If I’m going to be completely honest, I would have to admit that this is what either of them is most likely to say when such a submission crossed their line of vision: “Next!”

Please, do your homework about the recipient’s stated preferences before you submit any requested materials. Not every agency is kind enough to writers to post specific guidelines, but if you happen to be dealing with one that has, you absolutely must follow them, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

It’s not pretty. Neither is Mehitabel’s, or the as-yet-to-be-named individual screening applications for that writers’ retreat you would give your eyeteeth to attend.

I’m taking christening suggestions for the application screener, by the way. I’d originally dubbed her Petunia, but that doesn’t exactly inspire awe and fear, does it?

Another major mistake that dogs contest entries involves confusing a partial with a writing sample. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, chant it with me now, followers of this series:

A partial is the first X number of pages of a manuscript assumed already to be complete, numbered consecutively and stopping at the bottom of the exact page the requester specified as the maximum. A writing sample is a selection of a book’s best writing, regardless of where it falls in the book.

In a pitching situation — the place an agent-seeking writer is most likely to be asked to produce a writing sample — 5 pages is usually the maximum length. However, a lengthy writing sample might include more than one scene, and those scenes might not run consecutively.

Everybody clear on all that? Now would be a marvelous time to ask a question, if not — I want to make absolutely, positively sure that every single member of the Author! Author! community not only understands these two separate concepts to be separate concepts, but can explain the difference to any confused fellow writers he might encounter.

Are you wondering why am I being so very adamant about this one? A deep and abiding dislike for seeing good writers waste their time and money: being unaware of this distinction trips up a simply phenomenal number of contest entrants every year.

How, you ask? Sadly, they misinterpret the rules’ call for X number of pages from, say, a novel, as permission to send X number of pages from anywhere in the novel. Sometimes, these hapless souls take the misunderstanding one step further, sending in a few pages from Chapter 1, a few from Ch. 8, perhaps a couple of paragraphs from Ch. 17…in short, they submit a bouquet of writing samples.

Understandable mistake, right? And extremely common, particularly in entries for contests that simply ask entrants to send a specified number of pages of a novel, without mentioning that those pages should be consecutive — oh, and if the entrant might by some odd chance want to win the contest, those pages had better begin on page 1 of Chapter 1 of the book.

Shall I take that gigantic collective gasp of indignation as an indication that some of you past contest entrants wish you had heard one or more of those tidbits before you entered?

Again, let’s state it as an aphorism, for the benefit of last-minute skimmers: unless a literary contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, assume that the entry should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. Part of what entrants in any prose contest are being judged upon is the ability to construct a strong narrative and story arc.

In answer to the question that most of you are probably screaming mentally, I have no idea why so few contests’ rules don’t just state this point-blank. It’s not as though it’s a rare problem — every contest judge I’ve ever met tells a sad story about the well-written entry that knocked itself out of finalist consideration via this error. And I’ve judged in a heck of a lot of literary contests, so I’ve met a whole lot of judges over the years.

I could spend a few more minutes of my life shaking my head over this, but over the years, my neck has gotten sore. I’m going to take the warning as heard — it was, wasn’t it? — and move on.

Writers asked to submit partials occasionally fall into the writing sample trap as well, but frankly, it’s less common. Perhaps writers marketing books harbor an inherent desire to have their stories read from beginning to end, just as a reader would encounter their work in a published book. Perhaps, too, agents’ requests for materials tend to be for much heftier portions of a manuscript than many contest entries would tolerate: 50 or 100 pages for a partial is fairly normal, but many contests for even book-length works call for as few as 10, 20, or 30 pages, sometimes including a synopsis.

But just to head any problems off at the pass, as well as to illustrate why a nonconsecutive partial made up of even superlative writing would not be a good marketing packet for any manuscript, from an agency perspective, let’s close out this short series by going over the expectations for a partial one more time. Come on; it’ll be fun.

When an agent or editor requests a partial, she’s not asking for a writing sample consisting of 50 or 100 pages of the writer’s favorite parts of the book, a sort of greatest hits compilation — if that’s what she wants, she (or her submission guidelines; check) will tell you so point-blank. She is unlikely to prefer a writing sample as a submission, however, because part of what her Millicent is looking for in submissions is storytelling acumen.

Think about it: in an unconnected series of scenes gleaned from across your manuscript, how good a case could you make for your talent at arranging plot believably? How well could you possibly show off your book’s structure, or character development, or even ability to hold a reader’s interest, compared to the same story as you present it in your manuscript, beginning on page 1?

If you have any doubt whatsoever about the answer to that last question, run, don’t walk, to an objective first reader to help you figure out whether the current running order of events tells your story effectively. (Didn’t think I’d be able to work in another plug for feedback from an independent-minded first reader, did you?)

What an agent or editor does expect to see in a partial, then, is the opening of the manuscript as you plan to market it to, well, agents and editors: it’s precisely the same as the full manuscript, except it doesn’t include the pages after, say, page 50.

And if Millicent loves that partial and asks for the rest of the book, what will you do? Send the entire manuscript, right? Right?

I couldn’t resist tossing in the pop quiz, to see if you’d been paying attention. I wouldn’t want any of you to end the post still confused about any of this. (And if you are: please, I implore you, leave a question in the comments.)

And remember, read any submission guidelines very thoroughly before you invest your heart, hopes, energy, and/or precious time in preparing a partial packet or contest entry. This is no time to be skimming; make a list and check it twice, like Santa Claus.

Yes, even if the request consisted of a grand total of three lines of text in an e-mail. In fact, I always advise my editing clients to read the guidelines once — then, on the second read, make a checklist of everything you are being asked to do. Wait a day before going back to triple-check that the list is accurate.

Then, and only then, put together the submission or entry, checking off each item as you place it in the envelope. Re-read the original guidelines or letter before you even think of sealing the envelope. If you’re not much of a detail person, you might also want to hand your list to at least one person who happens to love you, ask him/her/that ungainly mob to check it against the guidelines or contest rules, then to verify that what’s in your envelope is in fact what you have been asked to send.

You didn’t think I was going to leave the kith and kin I’d disqualified from giving you objective feedback from helping you altogether, did you? Everyone has a task here at Author! Author!

That’s what how a supportive community works, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!

Thoughts about Self-Publishing, by guest blogger James Brush

James Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard cover

Hello there, campers –

It seems like only yesterday that we were talking about the pros and cons of self-publishing in the rapidly-changing literary market…oh, wait: it was just yesterday. Because we raced over the topic so very quickly, I am more than delighted to bring you an insider’s look at the subject, generously provided by poet, blogger, and self-published first novelist James Brush.

And let me tell you, this post’s a lulu. I’m tickled to death to be bringing it to you — and to introduce the Author! Author! community to the multiply-talented James.

But first, a few words about how and why I periodically bring you this kind of behind-the-scenes-of-publishing account. As those of you who have been following this month’s Getting a Book Published Basics series are, I hope, already aware, I am deeply committed to making this blog as genuinely, practically helpful to writers at every step of their careers as humanly possible. To that end, I occasionally ask beg blandish published authors into coming here to Author! Author! and sharing their first-hand experience in the literary trenches. Their wit, wisdom, and, at times, deep-dyed cynicism is collected under the GUEST BLOGS AND INTERVIEWS category on the archive list at right.

Because I love you people, I am very, very selective in offering space here. Only authors kind and community-spirited enough to want to teach aspiring writers the ropes need apply.

So why, out of the dozens of successful self-published authors I know, was James the one I asked to be here now? Well, several reasons, actually. First, he’s not only written and self-published a darned good book; he’s written and self-published a darned good first novel.

As literary risk-taking goes, that’s a triple back-flip from the highest dive — and he’s pulled it off. Here’s the back jacket blurb:

James Brush postcard cover Paul Reynolds, a photographer who creates fake photos for tabloid magazines, wakes up with no idea where he is or how he got there. He can’t even recall his name. A strange man lurks nearby, breathing heavily and slowly flipping through a book. Paul hears the man’s breath, but he cannot see him. He realizes with mounting panic that his eyes no longer function.

He remembers racing down a desolate West Texas highway. He remembers a cop who pulled him over for speeding. He remembers a shotgun-brandishing cook chasing him out of a diner. And he remembers a life abandoned, but he cannot put together the jigsaw puzzle that brought him where he is: blind, wanted by the law, and in the company of this invisible stranger.

In the backcountry town of Armbister, Texas, where temperatures hover around a hellish 110 degrees, Paul’s memory, intangible as a heat mirage, lies just beyond his reach, and God may be a coyote.

Intriguing, eh? Not to mention being an awfully good elevator pitch. (Not sure why? Okay, let me ask you: did it immediately introduce you to an interesting protagonist in an intriguing situation? Did it contain unusual details instead of generalities? And if you’d heard 150 pitches in a day, wouldn’t you remember the one where God was a coyote? That’s a good pitch.)

I also thought James might be a good fit for this series because, like so many novelists, he found that A Place Without a Postcard did not fit neatly into a single book category. Something tells me that more than a few of you out there could identify with that maddening dilemma.

Since learning how to narrow down a complex book into the appropriate marketing category is an essential skill for any professional writer, here’s a pop quiz — given the description below and the pitch above, what category would you have picked for it?

A Place Without a Postcard is an unusual story about a man who gets lost. That’s about as simple as it can be put. It’s about more than that, though. It’s about friendship, redemption, belief, and self-discovery.

It is part science fiction and part murder mystery and part myth. It takes place in West Texas. Not so much the western part of Texas, but the mythical West Texas where one might run into a coyote named Mercury or a man who dreams of invisibility.

Stumped? Well, would it help or hinder you to know that the writing is quite literary? As one reviewer noted,

His descriptions of this landscape alone are well worth the read… In fact, this book is filled with sense-based ways of looking at ordinary things and, in so doing, Brush has created a unique story, full of mystery, suspense, and outright terror. He is quite good, however, in first creating a thread in the plot and then resolving it soon or later. I recommend this book to readers who enjoy mystery stories, as well as a good old-fashioned story of the human spirit triumphing over adversity.

Tell me: what did you pick? Literary or science fiction? Paranormal or Western mystery? Thriller or regional interest?

If you flung your hands over your eyes and shouted, “Stop! Stop! How on earth could I possibly answer this without having read at least a few pages of the book?” congratulations: that is precisely what a seasoned book category-chooser would say. (And should you be interested in doing so before I reveal James’ answer, you can check out the first few pages at the book’s Amazon page.)

So how was A Place Without a Postcard categorized? James made a simple, elegant, and most market-savvy decision: it’s simply categorized as Fiction (a.k.a. General Fiction, Fiction — Other, or Adult Fiction). That’s is both an accurate descriptor of the book and gave him the most marketing leeway. (For more insight into how and why he made that choice, check out this interview; as always, if you’re looking for direction in narrowing down your own book’s category, see the posts under the BOOK CATEGORY section of the archive list at right.)

Finally, I asked James to come here and talk to you because he is a smart author with a lot of experience promoting that most difficult of book types, a novel with regional appeal. He’s thought a lot about this, made good choices, and successfully survived what can be for many self-published authors a very intimidating experience.

Peruse very carefully what he has to say. And if you’ve ever wanted to ask questions about self-publishing, this would be an excellent time to do it.

Please join me in welcoming today’s very helpful guest blogger, James Brush. Take it away, James!

james-brush author photo

In 2003, I self-published my first novel, A Place Without a Postcard, using iUniverse. Self-publishing was a good experience for me and I learned a lot. In the interest of sharing some of what I learned, Anne invited me to write a guest post in which I thought I’d answer the questions I’m most frequently asked.

Are rescued racing greyhounds really such great pets?
Yes, they really are, but we’re talking about writing and self-publishing.

Oh, sorry. Should I self-publish my book?
That depends. The conventional wisdom is that nonfiction writers do better self-publishing than fiction writers. There isn’t a strong market for poetry, so many poets self-publish.
If you’ve got a fiction book, and you want readers, then you need to think about how you’re going to get people interested in your book.

These days, even authors published by the big houses are expected to do more and more of the promotional work themselves, but they have more tools at their disposal. Whether you self-publish or go the traditional route, your sales will depend largely on the work you are willing to do to market your book. More so for the self-published author.

Since your sales will likely depend on your effort, the writer who does self-publish and is willing and savvy enough to promote himself effectively and relentlessly stands to sell a lot of books and maybe even make some good money. But there is still one thing stacked against you: bookstores.

The big bookstore chains will rarely stock a self-published book. You may be able to convince your local Barnes & Noble or Borders to sell a few of your books on consignment, but to get your book in stores, you need to approach those indie booksellers who might be interested in quirky titles by local authors. That’s where I found the most luck.

Having said that, the big box stores will order your book for a customer who wants it, and it is likely to be available through that store’s website as well.

What you’ve got going for you, however, is the internet. In the years since I published A Place Without a Postcard, e-books have become viable. The internet has grown and blogs and social networking have gone mainstream. All of these things give writers, self-published or otherwise, even more ways to reach readers and promote themselves and their books.

The question then becomes, how hard do you want to work to find readers? As a self-published author, that will be entirely on you.

Ok, I’m going to do it. What should I do before I self-publish?
Don’t jump into it. Never publish your first, second or even third, fourth or fifth draft.

I had the advantage of working out the plot and dialog in grad school, where I received awesome and painfully honest critiques. Make sure your book is read by as many people–hopefully a few of them writers who will tell you the truth about your work–as you can find.

Have it edited. As an English teacher, I trust myself to do a solid proofread, but I’ll still miss a lot in my own work. You need to have someone else edit it.

Read the entire thing, out loud to yourself from a hard copy. I’ve seen Anne give this same advice here at Author! Author!, and she is absolutely correct. Do it. Much will be revealed.

In addition to making your manuscript the best you can possibly make it, you should develop a marketing plan of some kind prior to publishing, which brings us to…

What would you have done differently?
I would have spent more time thinking through marketing before I published.

When I published Postcard in 2003, blogs were not on my radar. The internet was something for tech savvy people. No one read e-books. Those were my perceptions, anyway.

I built my website, Coyote Mercury, in 2003, after publishing Postcard. In 2005, I rebuilt the site with a blog and fell in love with blogging. I also began building a larger audience for my writing. Now, most of the sales of my book come from people who have found my blog and enjoyed my writing there.

I suspect that a self-published author (or likely any author) will sell more books if she already has a readership, even a small one, prior to publication.

If I were self-publishing for the first time today, I would start a blog, maintain it, write regularly and build a readership before publishing the book. Maybe a year or two before publishing. Remember when I said don’t jump into it? Building a website and blogging are fun diversions for you while your manuscript cools before the next round of revisions. You might also be able to find an audience who will be as excited as you are the day your book hits the market.

I would also look around at other self-publishing options. I was happy with my experience with iUniverse, but there are more companies out there with different approaches and different ways of doing things. I would research those options.

Lulu intrigues me because they will allow you to publish your book in such a way that your own publishing company becomes the publisher of record. I like that and that would appeal to me if I were doing this again.

Do you plan to self-publish again?
I always intended A Place Without a Postcard to be something I would do on my own. It’s been a very rewarding experience, and I have no regrets.

I have a second novel now, A Short Time to Be There, that I’m shopping around to agents. I intend to do the traditional route for this book for a variety of reasons. I don’t have the same DIY desire for this book, though I know that when it is published, I will still have to do much of the marketing work myself and apply much of what I learned from A Place Without a Postcard.

I do write poetry, which I publish on my blog, and I’ve had some luck getting my poems published in various e-zines and journals. At some point, I will have a complete collection of poetry, and I may publish that myself.

Anything else?
I’ll say it again: make sure you’ve gotten other people to read and critique your work. Pay them if you must in dollars, chickens or eighteen-year-old Scotch because if you’re self-publishing, you’re going to have to accept the fact that some people consider all self-published books to be failures. This is simply not true, but you have a duty to make sure that you aren’t providing the world one more reason to categorically reject all self-published works.

Ultimately, you need to believe in your book, maybe even more so than when you submit to agents and editors. When you do that, you are looking for someone else to believe in your work and help you make it even better. You won’t have that when you self-publish. You’ll be on your own and you have to know down to your core that your book is good enough for you to look a stranger in the eye and tell him that your book is worth his time.

Mine is, but it took almost ten years to get it there.

Finally, the most important advice I know for anyone seeking to publish anything by any means:

Be patient and keep writing.

james-brush author photo James Brush is a writer and teacher living in Austin, TX with his wife, cat and two greyhounds. He teaches English in a juvenile correctional facility, and was once a James Michener Fellow at the Texas Center for Writers. He published his first novel, A Place Without a Postcard, in 2003. His writing has been published by qarrtsiluni, Thirteen Myna Birds, ouroboros review, Bolts of Silk, a handful of stones, The Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing and Good Gosh Almighty! He can be found online at Coyote Mercury.