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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or as its evil twin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora is an out-of-work diva.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has she gone nuts?” Tyrone whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Janie

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

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

– Janie

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

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

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

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello Santa.

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

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

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

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

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

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

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

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

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

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

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

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

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

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

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting possessive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So you’ve pitched or queried successfully — now what? Part XI: threats one can and cannot see coming, or, resisting the urge to call wolf

I had to laugh yesterday, campers: as so often happens here at Author! Author!, everyday life rushed to provide a perfect metaphor for something we had been discussing here on this very forum. Or, more accurately in this case, something about which I had been blogging extensively, while scores of aspiring writers read silently — and a tiny minority buttonholed me privately to try to discuss offline. Take a gander at what popped into my inbox:

I have parts of your blog and am thankful for your July 25, 2012 post regarding proper ms format. I just have a couple other questions that I didn’t see addressed in your post. If you could help me on this I would be greatly appreciated.

1. I have a finished memoir, just doing editing now from my printed copy. I am not sure how to deal with dialogue. I know obviously it is in quotes, me talking to someone or someone telling me something, but what I am not sure about is the format this dialogue should be in the ms itself. ie: is each speaking part on a separate line? or just within the paragraphs and continued on with the rest of the story afterwards?

2. And I know you mention this a little in your post, but I have a lot of areas in my ms where I mention where I thought something, or one of my other “characters” used to say something, etc. How do I format? You mention when a character has a thought to either put it in single quotes OR say I thought. But not sure if this pertains to my situation with my memoir. Also, do I do a separate line for these instances as well?

3. for my chapters, they are a little different than a normal book, each one is going to note the year, age, etc that that particular part of the story is referring to, is it ok to have the chapter title be 2 lines, and does it need to be in all caps?

Thanks so much for any help you can provide.

Why, since I receive artless little missives like this about once per week, did this one strike me as such an apt exemplar for our ongoing series on common post-pitching and post-querying faux pas? Well, several reasons. First, I was supposed to cover every aspect of professional manuscript formatting in a single post? Admittedly, the post in question did provide a visual overview of what standard format looks like, but in it, I urged readers new to the rules to consult the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right for fuller explanations. In addition, the aptly-named MANUSCRIPTS AND HOW TO FORMAT THEM PROPERLY category contains a heading for DIALOGUE FORMATTING, and there was this particularly handy post on dialogue formatting? Because third, and most to the point of this series, obviously, the proper place to ask this set of questions would have been — wait for it — in the comments section of my July 25th post, would it not?

Yet this puzzled writer, like so many others, saw fit to contact me privately about it. And that, frankly, would have mystified not only most bloggers, but anyone with significant experience with the publishing industry.

Let’s take the blog-related perplexity first. Even a couple of years ago, virtually no regular blog reader would have dreamt of asking questions anyplace but the comments. Oh, some of you might have chosen to inquire in the comments section of my most recent post — also a good option, by the way — in order to engender comment amongst regular readers, rather than tying your comments to the post in question, but logically, most readers understood that if they had a beef with a publicly-displayed post, the blog format featured a comments section for a reason.

And that reason was ease of discussion. The difference between a blog and a column, after all, lies largely in formatting — in a blog, readers have ready access to a forum in which to express their opinions, gratitude, and/or criticism of a post. While in the past, readers who wanted to chime would have had to sit down and write a letter to the editor of a publication, wait to see if the editor thought that letter worthy of publication, and then wait again to see if any other reader decided to write a letter in response to that letter, all a blog reader has to do to share his thoughts publicly is to — again, wait for it — click on COMMENTS and share his thoughts publicly.

Emphasis upon publicly: before the rise of hand-held devices, few readers would have considered it either acceptable or desirable to shatter the well-established wall between public and private by e-mailing a blogger to discuss the subject matter of a post. Not only does it defeat the purpose of a blog — which is, correct me if I am wrong, to discuss issues of mutual interest in a public forum — but in a blog devoted to helping the literally millions of aspiring writers deal with the thorny and often perplexing issues of manuscript submission, it’s inefficient.

Why? Well, if a question is asked and answered in the comments, there’s a reasonable hope that someone else will benefit from the answer, right? If, by contrast, I invited (or even permitted) every single one of you to contact me offline to ask (forgive me for putting it this way, but it’s true) the same fifteen or twenty questions over and over again, I wouldn’t be a blogger — I would be a secret question-answering service.

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, my archive list (conveniently located on the lower right-hand side of this page) is so extensive and contains so many specific questions: since I have been at this for more than seven years, I have addressed a plethora of common concerns. Rather than reinventing the wheel, as the saying goes, for each curious reader, I have chosen in the spirit of public discussion to make those previous posts easy to find.

And just a few years ago, that would have been considered going above and beyond the obligations of a blogger. These days, however, the individual’s ability to whip out her iPhone, perform a 15-second search, and come up with at least a superficial answer to most common questions has, rather surprisingly to many of us that provide online content, has lead to a pervasive expectation that any question, regardless of complexity, should be answerable and should already have been directly answered somewhere online.

How else, after all, would one find it in a 15-second search?

Actually, I don’t have a problem with that: one of the advantages of living in the current age is ease of information access; I would not have made thousands of pages of professional insight available had I not wished to — are you tired yet of being told to wait for it? — make them available to millions of struggling writers.

That does not mean, however, that I don’t find it surprising when a reader who does not instantly find what he wants on my site — and, as in this instance, apparently does not check the archive list to see if I’ve ever dealt with the issue before — leaps to the twin conclusions that (a) I must have fallen down on the job by not having anticipated the specific question he had in mind and (b) I must therefore be willing to donate my time for a private tutorial on the subject.

Instead of, say, donating my time to the writing community at large by blogging about it in public, where not only one, but millions of aspiring writers had access to the answer.

I’m bringing this up not because I’m peevish — although you might be surprised at how often those of us that blog for aspiring writers talk among ourselves about the startling recent rise in offline demands like this. I’m aware that sometimes, readers may feel a bit awkward about posting questions on months-old posts. (To set your minds at ease on this point: my blogging program informs me whenever any reader comments on any post, no matter how old. People post questions on old posts all the time.)

Throughout this series, we have been discussing the sometimes broad, wide, and deep gap between what aspiring writers can consider acceptable in approaching agents and editors and what the pros do. And, frankly, agents and editors who blog are not the only ones who have been receiving missives like this lately. Which, to someone familiar with how the publishing industry works, is genuinely shocking.

It’s become astonishingly common for aspiring writers to send long, chatty questions to agents to whom they have pitched at conferences, for instance — or even those they have merely heard speak at one. You’d be amazed at how many queries read like demands to drop everything and pay attention to the sender. And just the other day, an aspiring writer e-mailed me triumphantly to announce that, contrary to what I have always strenuously recommended on this blog, he had picked up the phone, called the agent that represented TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, and not immediately been rejected.

In fact, the nice person on the other end of the phone line answered his question: yes, cold-calling an agent to pitch is completely unacceptable. Who knew?

If you’ll pardon my saying so, anyone who reads this blog regularly would have. So would anyone who had taken the time to check the aforementioned extensively indexed archive list at right. Yet, like the formatting enthusiast above, the cold-caller not only did not check what I have written publicly to see if I had addressed the issue — he went out of his way to e-mail me to tell me so.

Privately. Where no other aspiring writer could possibly learn anything from the communication.

I tremble to add this, but it’s also become amazingly common for successful queriers and pitchers — you know, the ones who did take the time to learn how agencies work, made a polite approach to an agent or editor, and garnered a request for the opening pages — to expect to hear back from the requesting pros within a week or two. Or even just a few days.

That’s an unreasonable set of expectations, from a professional perspective: it’s not as though these writers’ manuscripts are the only ones that the agent or editor has requested in the last few months, right? It’s only fair that the pros would read what’s already on their desks before they turned to a newly-arrived submission. And savvy submitters know that, because — feel free to chant it with me now, campers — an agent or editor’s request for manuscript pages does not constitute a promise to drop everything and read your work.

Aspiring writers often believe otherwise, of course, but until fairly recently, norms of social behavior and high long-distance telephone rates rendered follow-up calling blessedly uncommon. In years past, these justifiably anxious submitters might have been forced to stew in their own impatience until they received either a thin letter asking for the rest of the manuscript or the return of their pages in a postally-battered SASE.

Admit it: even those of you who know better have been tempted to nag, right? That’s natural, but it’s also problematic, given the current state of technology: today, the ease of e-mail permits, if not downright encourages, gun-jumping. Many an excitable submitter has been known to stand it as long as she can, then shoot off an ill-advised message in the wee hours, demanding to know what on earth could possibly be taking so long.

And because many agents are darned nice people, she might actually receive a soothing, I’ll-get-to-it-soon reply. But fair warning, gun-jumpers: this is a response that a submitter is likely to get only once, if at all. Which is unfortunate, as many aspiring writers apparently find the ability to generate those soothing replies rather addictive. Or so I surmise, for I hear all time about — and from; had I mentioned that boundaries regarding e-mailing online advice-givers have become rather porous? — submitters who just can’t stand to wait another month. Or week. Or day.

In case I’m being too subtle here: whatever you do during what can be an extended wait to hear back about your manuscript, repress the urge to demand constant status updates. Trust me, it will not get your submission read faster — in fact, it might get your manuscript rejected on the spot.

Being pushy is not — how shall I put this? — likely to make you any friends at the agency. It’s considered quite rude for a writer to try to rush a decision, in fact. (Interesting, considering that writers often have only a week or two to decide whether to accept a publishing offer, and most agents will expect a yes or no on a representation offer right away.) It’s also not a good way to convince an agent that you’ll be a dream client: why would anyone at an agency believe that a writer that e-mails four times in a two-month period to try to find out if the agent has decided whether to represent a manuscript won’t do precisely the same thing if and when that agent is circulating that manuscript to publishing houses — a process that often takes months, if not years?

Oh, should I have warned you that one was coming? Crunching a dry cracker should help with the nausea.

I bring this up advisedly, because the often vast differential between writers’ expectations and publishing realities can, and increasingly frequently does, lead inexperienced pitchers, queriers, and submitters to believe, wrongly, that directly and forcefully contacting an agent or editor is not only acceptable, but appropriate. And as those of you who attend writers’ conferences or read agents’ blogs are probably already aware, people who handle manuscripts for a living tend not to be all that fond of being hounded, nagged, or otherwise blamed for — were you already waiting for it — not dropping everything to pay attention to any particular aspiring writer.

Fortunately, the genuinely rude are relatively rare; as those of us that work with aspiring writers like to say, 99.99% of the pros’ perennial complaints about how pushy writers are actually refer not to the ten thousand who approach respectfully, but the one who does not.

And that one, in my experience, tends to be brand-new to the game — and harboring the astoundingly popular misconception that a really good manuscript from a first-time writer is uncommon enough that the pros will want to be disturbed at work to hear about it. Or, now that e-mail makes disturbing total strangers so darned convenient, rousted in the dead of night to read a pitch.

Or — you saw this coming, right? — to answer a question from a writer they’ve never met, one who evidently doesn’t realize that there are literally millions of aspiring writers who want to get published every bit as much as she does. From a professional perspective, then, this type of approach is simply queue-jumping: rather than doing what pretty much every successful author has had to do, learn how the publishing industry actually works and abide by its quite strict rules of conduct, the dead-of-night e-mailer or spur-of-the-moment caller believes, wrongly, that those rules don’t apply to him.

He has talent, so how could they? And had he mentioned how much he wants to get his manuscript published?

Which, admittedly, is not a new thing for first-time writers to think — I can’t think of a time in modern publishing history when agents and editors did not complain of constantly receiving pay attention to me now! missives — but the technology that enables them to act upon these beliefs is. What’s interesting about the rise of e-mailed pushiness, I think, is not that there are so many impatient aspiring writers, or that a hefty swathe of them should have come to believe that it’s the pros’ job to drop everything to hear pitches or answer questions but how often these attempts appear to be the sender’s first attempt to track down the information.

How can we tell? Well, let’s take another peek at the undoubtedly well-intentioned questions my dead-of-night e-mailer sent me.

1. I have a finished memoir, just doing editing now from my printed copy. I am not sure how to deal with dialogue. I know obviously it is in quotes, me talking to someone or someone telling me something, but what I am not sure about is the format this dialogue should be in the ms itself. ie: is each speaking part on a separate line? or just within the paragraphs and continued on with the rest of the story afterwards?

2. And I know you mention this a little in your post, but I have a lot of areas in my ms where I mention where I thought something, or one of my other “characters” used to say something, etc. How do I format? You mention when a character has a thought to either put it in single quotes OR say I thought. But not sure if this pertains to my situation with my memoir. Also, do I do a separate line for these instances as well?

3. for my chapters, they are a little different than a normal book, each one is going to note the year, age, etc that that particular part of the story is referring to, is it ok to have the chapter title be 2 lines, and does it need to be in all caps?

From a professional perspective, these are rather revealing questions. First, my nocturnal e-mailer must be brand-new to submitting memoir, at least to US-based agencies: not only does she refer to the characters in her memoir as “characters,” as if characters existed only in fiction, but in this country, the overwhelming majority of memoir is not sold on a finished manuscript, but upon a book proposal. While some agencies do ask first-time memoirists to see a full manuscript first, that’s because it’s often emotionally very difficult to complete a memoir; the human psyche, after all, does not make a huge distinction between reliving an experience vividly enough to write about it well and living through it directly. The pros want to make sure someone new to the game is already dealing with that.

Then, too, questions (1) and (2) might have been answered by opening not only virtually any published memoir, but most published books. My guess here, then, is that what the sender was actually asking here is not a question about dialogue formatting per se. I think she really wanted to know is whether there is a special dialogue format for memoirs, or perhaps for first-person narratives in general.

The answer to that one is short, sweet, and could easily have been answered in the comments on that post: no. Dialogue is dialogue, period.

The question about thought would also raise eyebrows for another couple of reasons: in a first-person narrative, the narrator’s thought is generally presented as just part of the narrative; if everything in the book is from the memoirist’s perspective, it’s hardly necessary to keep informing the reader of the fact. And in a first-person narrative, of course, it’s impossible to cite the thought of any character other than the narrator, right? If the narrative is quoting somebody else’s speech, that’s dialogue, not thought.

And, while we’re being technical, would I be too editorial-minded of me to point out that I have literally never advised any aspiring writer formatting a work for the U.S. market to use single quotation marks for thought? Or, indeed, for anything purpose other than designating a quote within a quote, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s incorrect in American English?

Before we go into the horrifying possibility that my e-mailer contacted me about some other writing guru’s advice, let’s once again go over this often-misunderstood piece of punctuation. Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, single quotation marks (‘) do not carry a special meaning in American English, nor is using them instead of italics to emphasize a word or phrase proper. Nor is the decision to use single quotation marks (‘) or the American standard double (“) a stylistic one, ever. So how may a single quotation mark be used in American English? In only one manner: when a character quotes something someone else has said. In that instance, the overall quote falls within doubled quotation marks, and with the single quotes designating what the speaker is saying someone else has said. As in:

“Well, then Antonio saw me and yelled, ‘Hey, get out of here,’ and I ran away,” Ellen explained. “But not before I shouted over my shoulder, ‘Watch out for the rampaging tiger behind you!’”

My point about the two — and only two — means of correctly formatting thought in a text has absolutely nothing to do with this. As, indeed, one might surmise from the fact that in the post in question, I specifically said not to place thought within quotation marks, as Jane Austen did; it’s exceedingly old-fashioned, and it obviates the point of quotation marks, which is to indicate to the reader that something was uttered out loud.

Or, to put it another way, thought is not dialogue. Easy to remember, isn’t it?

What I did say, as it happens, is that it drives Millicent the agency screener — and, indeed, any classically-trained professional reader — completely nuts when she sees thought designated redundantly on the page. It’s always proper to designate thought with — five, six, seven, eight — the phrase I thought, of course. However, in some book categories (not all; check recent releases in yours), it is also considered acceptable to use italics to show what is being thought, as opposed to said. Thus, both of these would be correct in standard format:

I’ll never come here again, Hermione thought, slamming the door behind her.

I’ll never come here again. Hermione slammed the door behind her.

Makes sense, right? Since Hermione thought and the italics are intended to convey precisely the same thing to the reader, this formulation would be redundant:

I’ll never come here again, Hermione thought, slamming the door behind her.

Everybody clear on that? Excellent. Now let’s return to the question that’s probably been burning in my mind far more than in yours: did my e-mail correspondent mix my advice up with somebody else’s — and is that what she actually meant when she mentioned that I have parts of your blog? Did some well-meaning but organizationally challenged third party copy excerpts of my formatting run-downs without my permission (a copyright violation, by the way), throw them into a bowl with bits of other online advice, stir, and hand it to our question-asking friend?

Or — and this seems to happen quite often to writers who glean most of their writing guidelines online — has simply read so many different and probably mutually contradictory sources that she has concluded that I was advising something quite far removed from what I actually recommended?

Either way, no wonder she was confused. Again, I could simply refer her to the extensive explanations and many visual aids under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category, but I honestly would like to figure out what happened here. Here’s the example I used in the post she cites, a page in standard format, with all of its constituent parts labeled:

And here is her question:

3. for my chapters, they are a little different than a normal book, each one is going to note the year, age, etc that that particular part of the story is referring to, is it ok to have the chapter title be 2 lines, and does it need to be in all caps?

See the problem? The example shows a two-line chapter heading — and nothing on this page is in all-caps formatting. Nor do any of the other examples I include in that post feature all-caps formatting; conscientiously, I went back and checked, although to the best of my recollection, I have never advised its use for a title.

Why would I? It wouldn’t be proper in standard format. We must reluctantly conclude, then, that my late-night correspondent was in fact asking about somebody else’s advice.

Again, I’m bringing this up not to be peevish, or even to call her out for disturbing my night with a question she fairly clearly should have been aiming at someone else; mixing up online writing advice is much more common than any of us who habitually give such advice might hope. That’s to be expected, given how much self-described expert advice is floating around out there and how many aspiring writers engage in 15-second searches of it. What is surprising is that, being confused, she approached me offline with her questions about it.

Now, we could easily get all Freudian about motivation here — is it possible that she contacted me privately because she was aware that she wasn’t entirely sure of the source of her confusion, and if so, have I completely defeated that purpose by discussing it in public? — but this is a practical blog: I am far more concerned about writers’ actions than their intentions. This e-mail caused me to worry, then, not only about how my correspondent and all of the many, many aspiring writers like her are acquiring and processing formatting and submission information, but what they might do with it.

Specifically, about whether anything about this missive would be likely to get this obviously well-meaning writer in trouble if she sent something similar to an agent. And the answer is yes.

Half of you just rolled your eyes, didn’t you? “Please don’t tell me again to ‘wait for it,’ Anne,” the more experienced submitters among you scoff, “although, naturally, I relish the opportunity to demonstrate that I am adept at using quotes within quotes. You’ve already made the point — and quite forcefully, too — that as charming and addictive as those 15-second searches can be, they might not always be the best means of finding reliable information upon subjects as inherently complex as successful writing, manuscript formatting, querying, and/or submission. You’ve also already explained, albeit indirectly, that just because it’s possible to discover a publishing professional’s e-mail address online doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good idea to use it in the dark of night. Or any other time, for that matter. But I can’t help but feel that few of us who have read through this post are likely to succumb to that temptation anytime soon — and that those of us who have been submitting for a good, long while already know better. So what may I, a reader that would never even consider snatching up a phone and calling an agent I have never met or sending repeated, nagging e-mails to one that has my submission, learn here?”

Well, a couple of things — but you’re right that most of this post has been aimed at those that are new to the biz. Frankly, the question of whether it’s okay to approach an agent or editor informally — or to cold-call them at all — is just not one that would occur to someone who has been hanging around publishing for long. Since agents and editors do not pick up new writers that way, to us, it’s a self-evidently self-defeating tactic.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, there’s a reason that e-mails like this are seldom answered at all. In a world with rapidly-dissolving boundaries, the sub-world of books remains a place where manners count. Thank goodness.

I do have an ulterior motive for devoting a post within this particular series to the all-too-common problem of writers assuming that any publishing pro that’s nice to them, or even seems from afar to be approachable, is going to be willing to give private advice. In the first place, one does not have to work in publishing very long to be aware that there are literally millions of aspiring writers out there — as queriers and submitters so often lament, sheer volume prevents most agencies from having the time to respond individually to each. Heck, it’s become downright common for agencies not to tell a submitter at all if they’ve rejected a manuscript.

Yes, even if they requested the whole thing. From the writer’s perspective, one of the side effects of the astronomical increase of submission spurred by the wide use of personal computers has been that her submission’s getting rejected and simply having gotten lost, either in the mail or at a paper-laden agency, looks remarkably similar. I’m afraid that there’s little that aspiring writers can do about that, other than to send a single, well-mannered e-mail a few months after the manuscript has arrived at the agency, politely double-checking that it did in fact arrive in one piece.

If that e-mail does not elicit a reply, the only sensible course is to assume that it’s been rejected and move on. Again, as tempting as it may be to presume that having been asked to send pages has given a writer some rights, repeated or nagging e-mails are unlikely to help your case.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Ready for one that might be even harder to choke down?

Brace yourself, please: greater experience submitting — or even attending writers’ conferences, which tends to accelerate a writer’s learning curve about how the industry works — will not necessarily help an aspiring writer avoid the problems of over-familiarity or less-than-reasonable expectations. And that’s unfortunate, because just as the pros assume that any writer serious about getting published will take the time to learn how professional book manuscripts are put together — a presumption so pervasive that few agencies even list the strictures of standard format on their websites, speaking of things that might not pop up in a 15-second search — agents and editors tend to believe that any new writer accomplished enough to write beautiful prose will have learned along the way how submission works.

Find that hard to believe? When’s the last time you heard an agent say at even a very good literary conference, “Look, we have mountains of requested materials to read. If we asked for it, we are interested, but the idea that we would be ready to make an offer of representation on a manuscript we received a week ago is pretty laughable. Unless, of course, the book was written by a celebrity, there’s a clear pop culture demand for a book on that particular subject AND the writer happens to be an expert, or the writer’s just done awfully well in a prestigious writing contest. Or if I happen to be stuck on an airplane with nothing else to read, and you’re my college roommate’s ne’er-do-well younger brother. Otherwise, be prepared to wait.”

That’s all likely to be true, but it would be an extremely unwise speech to give at a writer’s conference, wouldn’t it? The attendees might well rush the stage, perhaps after first snatching up any torches and pitchforks that happened to be handy.

Because good writers so often send off their manuscripts without any clear notion of how long it might be before they are likely to see them again — if, indeed, they will see those pages again at all — and because successful pitchers in particular are prone to tumbling into the trap of believing that a nice conversation with an agent or editor at a conference implies both the beginning of a friendship and an implicit promise to toss aside whether happens to be on the pro’s desk to read their submissions the instant they arrive, I’m going to share one more case study before I sign off for the day. To be candid, the writer in this situation is someone of whom you have probably heard; he’s now a pretty well-established author. He finally gave in to my two years of blandishments to allow me to use his story here on the blog only if I changed enough details to render him unrecognizable.

So don’t even try. Just keep his fame in the back of your mind as you read his tale of woe and uproar, to remind you that no matter how talented a writer might happen to be, it’s easy to get sucked into unreasonable expectations. Not to mention unreasonable hopes.

And his story, too, begins with an e-mail I received in the dead of night. I had known Teddy — not his real name, naturally; nice try, guessers — for years before he got his first break; it’s actually not all that uncommon for writers that end up getting published to have met on the writers’ conference circuit. (Yet another reason that it’s a good idea to attend them: no one, but no one, will understand your joy at finally landing an agent or selling your first book than a fellow writer who has been rooting for you since you shared the last bagel on a conference breakfast buffet.) Yet this was the first time he had ever e-mailed me in a panic.

Bear with me here, because I have something to confess. Remember those agents you suggested I query if my pitches didn’t work out? Well, I have not yet contacted them because Respected P. Editorvich from Arewe, Literate, & How had asked me to send my book directly to him. Dream agency, dream connection, right?

I sent him the manuscript last September. I gritted my teeth until May of this year, then I e-mailed him. He said that he loved what he had read thus far, but had misplaced the book during a move! Okay, it happens. I resubmitted, telling him that I wanted my book in his hands.

That was five weeks ago. Last week, I sent him an e-mail asking about the book, but I haven’t heard back from him. At this point, I don’t know how to handle the situation. I’m a newbie in the confusing world of publication.

Do you mind if I ask for your advice? When Respected initially asked to see the book, he had told me I didn’t need an agent at that point. In my shoes, would you wait to hear from him or would you seek representation? Let the agent make the next move?

Finally, do you still think those agents are the best for my book? You keep a much closer eye on acquisitions than I do.

Okay, what did Teddy do wrong here? Or are those of you new to submitting reeling too much from the notion of not hearing back from September to May of the following year — or, indeed, for five weeks?

Or do all of those huffing sounds mean that some of you have taken umbrage at the very question of wrongdoing? “But Teddy did nothing wrong here!” some of you cry, demonstrating admirable loyalty to a fellow writer whom you have probably never met. “All he did was do what Respected asked!”

True enough, but he also did something Respected didn’t ask him to do — and something that placed himself at a genuine disadvantage. Any guesses?

Award yourself a gold star for the day if you immediately leapt to your feet and shouted, “He gave the editor an unrequested exclusive!” Unless Respected had already offered to acquire the manuscript (extraordinarily unlikely, considering that he had not yet read it) or stated point-blank that he would not look at it unless Teddy promised not to seek representation (which would have been ethically questionable), Teddy was under no obligation not to seek out an agent while Arewe, Literate, & How was considering the manuscript. He would certainly have been in a better position when the manuscript got lost if he had: while it’s always a trifle dicey for a writer to prod an editor politely to try to speed up reading times, it’s an integral part of an agent’s job. Everyone expects it, and rightly so.

Oh, dear, more huffing? Has my site been invaded by the Big, Bad Wolf? “But Anne, Respected said that he didn’t need an agent, under the circumstances! And Teddy waited a whole eight months before contacting the editor — far, far longer than I could have stood the suspense. So now, not only do I not think he did anything wrong; I think he’s a saint.”

Actually, his saintliness in this situation harmed him, too: he would have been well within his rights to send that polite follow-up e-mail within 6 months, if not 4. And while I’m sure that every aspiring writer currently treading the earth’s surface can sympathize with Teddy’s not wanting to put in the energy, effort, and emotional strain of querying agents while his dream publisher was mulling over the book, is he really better off now because he waited? Or merely going into the querying process more frustrated?

I get the appeal, of course: if Respected had snapped up the book right away, he probably would have referred Teddy to a good agent. But there was no guarantee of that — or, indeed, of Arewe, Literate, & How’s picking up the book. So, again, what did Teddy gain by holding off on seeking out an agent he might eventually have to find, anyway?

By the dark night Teddy sent me this e-mail, however, all of this was water under the bridge, spilled milk, and in all other ways beyond his power to change, short of constructing a time machine and returning to the day before the conference at which he met Respected. As he asked me at the time, what should he do now?

The short answer is no, I would not advise waiting until he hear from the editor. I would advise him to do now what he should have done the previous September: queried widely. Then, as now, his position with Arewe, Literate, & How’s could only have been strengthened by landing an agent.

Why? Well, a couple of reasons. As is common for major American publishers, ALH does have a policy against considering work by unrepresented authors. However, like some others, they do occasionally set that rule aside if they believe that they can pick up a book at a conference cheaper than they would be able to if an agent was involved. So it might well have made a great deal of sense to Respected to try to get in on the ground floor of Teddy’s book, so to speak, by trying to nab him before he signed with someone that would try to drive up the price.

Which is, incidentally, a good agent’s job, too. It’s expected — and the fact that Respected knew that there was not an agent involved might well have affected the timeline here. If Teddy had submitted his work through an agent, that agent could legitimately have been calling or e-mailing Respected every couple of weeks, to follow up. But since the editor was dealing with Teddy directly, he could rely upon aspiring writers’ well-founded fear of being pushy.

Because Teddy was one of the conscientious ones that worries about treading on professional toes, he knew better than to ask for updates too early and too often. Indeed, he erred on the side of caution: following up in 4-6 months, and then very politely, is what’s considered acceptable for a writer dealing with an editor directly.

Given this set of ambient expectations, then, it was not all that surprising that Respected did not respond to Teddy’s second e-mail; he had jumped the gun. It’s not as though the submission clock doesn’t start afresh with a requested resubmission, and five weeks is not a particularly long time, in publishing circles.

Especially for an unagented manuscript. Let’s face it, Teddy had already made it fairly plain that he’s not planning to introduce an agent into this situation: when he sent the second submission, told Respected that he would already agree to any terms ALH might want to set for publication. (How an editor would hear “I want my book in your hands,” in all probability.) Respected could also surmise from it that Teddy had not submitted it to other editors, either, so he has no reason to fear that another publishing house will buy it out from under him. Why, then, should he hurry?

See why placing all of your eggs in this one basket might not have been in Teddy’s best interest? Even though he did legitimately misinterpret Respected statement about not needing an agent — elicited, I later found out, in response to Teddy’s asking in the pitch meeting whether he would need to find an agent before sending the pages Respected requested — there is no such thing as a tacit request for an exclusive read.

Chant it with me now, campers: if an agent or editor wants to be the only one reading something, she will make a writer promise that will be the case.

But aspiring writers often walk away from pitch meetings with the opposite impression, don’t they? They believe, and with some reason, that if an editor is enthusiastic about a manuscript, she has made a provisional commitment to publishing it. And, let’s face it, it would be a lot easier on the writer if that were the case.. But a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference.

I know, I know: it doesn’t feel that way, but as Teddy’s case shows, what the writer feels a post-pitch conversation might have meant over and above what was actually said is not binding on anyone. He took a gamble that Respected would like the book enough that he could bypass the usual steps by which manuscripts get published. Even if everything had worked out perfectly, though, he would still have needed to get an agent eventually — it would have merely meant that he would have been doing so with a book contract in hand.

And then his agent would have spent the next two years telling Teddy that he should have brought to her before you signed it. Because that, too, is her job.

I can sense some cringing those of you terrified of offending the prose (bless your hearts), but honestly, Teddy would have not run any more risk of affronting Respected by pursuing representation five weeks into the second submission than if he’d floated fifty queries before he submitted at all. In fact, he needn’t even have told the editor he was doing it.

Why should he? The worst that could have happened if both Respected and an agent fell in love with it simultaneously is that Teddy would have told the agent that he wanted to go with ALH. His new agent would have been thrilled to be spared the work of pitching the manuscript to at least one likely prospect, and Respected would have had someone calling all the time to speed up him reading process — and to tell him if another editor was also reading it.

My advice to Teddy, then, was that he should query 5 or 10 agents right away (I cranked out a few more recommendations), and keep that many queries in circulation until he attracted a firm offer from somebody. I also cautioned him, though, not to contact Respected again until either he had some concrete news to report — that Teddy had landed an agent, that another editor was reading the book — or until Respected has had the new version for 4-6 months.

That’s not at all an unusual turn-around time these days, after all. And then, I would simply e-mail to ask if he is still interested.

Politely. Once. If Respected does not respond at that point, Teddy should move on.

Regardless of what happened next, however, under NO circumstances would it have ever been in Teddy’s best interest to contact Respected and say any version of, “Hey, what gives? You have not has not done as I expected!” Respected already knows how he has handled the manuscript; no good can come from reminding him.

So what, you may be wondering, was the overall moral here? Respect professional limits. Be polite. Resist the urge to hit SEND.

And no matter how many times you have queried or submitted, don’t assume that the pro asking to see your pages is saying anything more than that she wants to see your pages. If you’re in doubt whether you are being asked to submit exclusively, chances are that you’re not.

But, as always, if you’re not sure about what an agent or editor requesting your manuscript wants you to do, ask. Once. Politely. And in the proper forum. But do bear in mind that once you cry wolf, you can’t take it back.

Wow, this was a long one, even by my standards, wasn’t it? Well, when I disillusion people, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep posting those good questions in the comments, everyone, and keep up the good work!

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

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

Ready, set — speculate!

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

Or, as I put it last time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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