Capturing the distinctive buzz of reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Try opening a window.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the risk of repeating myself, part IV: evading the tentacles of the dreaded Millicent-irritating squid

Happy St. George’s Day, everybody! Traditionally, the streets of Barcelona are filled with rose sellers and bookstalls on this day: the custom has long been to give one’s love a rose and a book to mark the occasion.

Why the book? It’s Miguel de Cervantes’ birthday. DON QUIXOTE was one of the first large-scale bestsellers.

In the spirit of celebration, I’d like to share few bits of happy news before I launch into today’s peroration on all things repetitive. First, in recognition of William Shakespeare’s birthday (you still have an hour or so to run out and buy him a present, West Coasters, if you forgot to pick one up when you bought Cervantes’), magnificent historical novelist, lyrical actress, and all-around Bard maven Nicole Galland has written a lovely article on the Huffington Post about why his work remains well worth every English-reading person’s while. Nicely done, Nicki!

(And just between ourselves, Amazon is running an amazing deal right now on her soon-to-be-released novel, I, IAGO: today, they’re offering a whopping 32% off the cover price. Just in case you happened to be looking for a birthday present for anyone.)

As if that weren’t enough to set the Author! Author! masses rejoicing, brilliant fiction stylist and cook extraordinaire (isn’t it fascinating how often the two go hand-in-hand?) Bharti Kirchner’s fifth novel and eighth book, TULIP SEASON has just come out as an e-book, with trade paper to follow soon. This one’s a mystery, and thus a bit of a departure for this well-established literary novelist. Having read a couple of incarnations of this story — oh, you thought that once a writer became a professional, she dropped out of her critique group? — I have to say, I love her voice in the new genre. And that’s saying something, as I consider the ending of her novel Pastries one of my favorite of the last decade of literary fiction releases.

Why? Well, Bharti’s extraordinary eye for nuanced detail and subtle character analysis really shines here. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s the publisher’s blurb:

A missing domestic-violence counselor. A wealthy and callous husband. A dangerous romance.

Kareena Sinha, an Indian-American domestic-violence counselor, disappears from her Seattle home. When the police dismiss suspicions that she herself was a victim of spousal abuse, her best friend, Mitra Basu, a young landscape designer, resolves to find her. Mitra’s search reveals glimpses of a secret life involving her friend and a Bollywood actor of ill repute. Following the trail, Mitra is lured back to India where she uncovers the actor’s ties to the Mumbai underworld and his financial difficulties –- leading her into a web of life-threatening intrigue where Mitra can’t be sure of Kareena’s safety or her own.

She had you at Bollywood actor of ill repute, didn’t she? It really is quite a ride.

Third, I decided this very morning that I am going to give in to the collective pleas of no fewer than seven apparently otherwise unrelated readers and run a series on the ins and outs of entering literary contests. Beginning later in this week (oh, you thought I had only one more post’s worth of things to say about structural and conceptual repetition?), I shall be talking at length and in my patented obsessive detail about how to select the contest most likely to recognize your particular writing gifts, how to read contest rules, how to follow them (not always the same thing), and most important of all to your entry’s success, what kinds of things judges seek and deplore in entries.

Having both won a major national writing competition and served often as a judge, I’m here to tell you: this stuff isn’t self-evident. Reading contest rules is an acquired skill.

Or so I surmise from the many, many questions I regularly receive on the subject; I have written about it at length before. As is so often the case, I had responded to the first two such requests this year with a cheerful suggestion that the question-askers check out my earlier posts on the subject, conveniently collected under the CONTESTS AND HOW TO ENTER THEM SUCCESSFULLY category heading on the archive list at right. By the fifth such question, I started to wonder if it wasn’t time to run an entire series about it again, rather then answering questions piecemeal. Then this very morning, when the seventh request rolled in, it occurred to me to check just how long it had been since I had tackled that Herculean task.

Let me put it this way: the last time I set aside a couple of months to blog about it, the economy was humming along just fine. So was the publishing industry: people were still buying new books in droves. . (One of the seldom-discussed aspects of the book world’s contraction: used book sales never declined; according to all of the data I have seen, they actually went up.) They were just the teensiest bit concerned about the rumored e-publishing phenomenon, but like every other fad, they were pretty confident that it would pass quickly.

It’s time, in short.

To make the timing seem even more apt, I’m going to resurrect my 2008 strategy of picking a specific contest to discuss. Why? Well, it’s always helpful to have a concrete example when talking theory — and, let’s face it, it’s more fun if we’re all working on a project together. This time around, I shall be taking a hard, close look at the entry guidelines for the Words and Music, November 28 to December 2. Dare I hope that I will see some of you accepting top honors there?

Okay, back to our business already in progress: craft. Specifically, that most pervasive of submission bugbears, word and phrase repetition?

Surprised that I have so much to say on the subject? Unfortunately, that’s a reflection of submission reality: just as every spring brings a fresh crop of tulips, similar to last years yet not the same, poor Millicent the agency screener’s inbox is continually refilled with manuscript that repeat themselves. And repeat themselves. And did I mention that they repeat themselves?

Not always as obviously as I just did, naturally — although you would be surprised how often even page 1 of a submission contains the same word or phrase three or four times. Why might that be the case? Quite a few, many, and/or a proportion of the writing public, the pushers of the pen, the haunters of the keyboard seem predisposed, have a tendency to, or just plain enjoy saying the same thing, speaking a similar concept, and stepping into the same river twice. Or thrice, three times, a trilogy. Or just plain throwing caution to the winds, grabbing their destinies with both hands, and jumping in that stream with both feet.

Are you thanking the Muses that most human characters possess only two feet, so the narration could not keep revisiting them until there seemed to be seventeen? I assure you, Millicent would be. She sees enough conceptual redundancy in one day of screening to compile her own dictionary of euphemisms.

And enough repetitive information to drive her to distraction. So does her aunt, our old friend Mehitabel the veteran contest judge. “Why are you telling me this again?” they wail in unison, rending their respective garments. “Are you afraid that I didn’t catch this particular plot point when it first appeared three pages ago? Or do you think I did read it, but I’m just a…”

Because my readership possesses such tender sensibilities, I shall spare you the word those of us who read for a living almost universally apply in these instances. Suffice it to say that it rhymes with squidiot.

As in, “What does this writer think I am, a squidiot?”

Alas for many an otherwise admirably-written manuscript or contest entry, the presumption of squidiocy is a common bugbear for new writers. It’s the squid that whispers in their ears, “Tell, don’t show,” and not just because squids are notorious shortcut-takers. Yes, it’s usually quite a bit quicker and easier to summarize action, dialogue, or emotional response with flat statements — Ambrose was sad. The pair discussed their marital difficulties. Melissa ran up fifteen flights of stairs, turned right, and sent the haunted portrait hurtling to the marble floor below. — rather than showing them through a series of specifics. But convenience is not the squid’s best lure for a rookie writer.

What is? Taunting her with the horrifying possibility that the reader might not draw the correct conclusion.

Has the squid just released a small battalion of you from its capacious arms, or are many of you shouting because you’ve had an insight? “But Anne!” the liberated masses shout. “That’s not what the classic writing advice show, don’t tell means, is it? I’ve always assumed that it referred to the proportion of action to contemplation in the text. Rather than having my protagonist sit around and analyze what’s going on, I’m supposed to stuff my scenes with conflict, right?”

That’s certainly good writing advice, former squid victims, but that’s about avoiding an equally common Millicent-irritant, the passive protagonist. By all means, consider excising scenes in which your protagonist ponders over coffee/tea/a beer/a meal/his cat/the steering wheel of his car what the reader has just seen happen. Ditto with the dialogue in which he explains it all to his best friend/partner on the police force/mother/George, the fellow that lives in his head, because, let’s face it, that’s recapping.

And, frankly, too much recapping can slow a novel’s pace to a crawl. Not to mention endangering Millicent and Mehitabel’s garments. “We just saw this happen!” they moan, shredding their hems. “What kind of a squidiot would I have to be to require a reminder that Hortense fell off a cliff in the previous chapter? In what kind of novel would that not be memorable?”

That’s a different problem than telling the reader what to think about it all, however. Show, don’t tell is what the pros bark at text that consists mostly of summary statements about relationships, activities, emotional states, etc. Instead of setting out a series of actions, revealing gestures, subtly suggestive dialogue, and so forth to demonstrate what is going on, trusting the reader to be intelligent and sensitive enough to draw the correct conclusions from that array of clues, the narrative simply states those conclusions. Or, as is astonishingly common in submissions, both shows the clues and tells the conclusions.

Not quite sure what each option would look like in practice? Okay, here’s a told interaction.

Blue to the bone, Miss M. walked across the room and sat on a tuffet. She was starving. “Where are my curds and whey?” she called crossly.

She was startled by the spider that dropped down beside her. He was polite, but he frightened her away.

Not devoid of interest, stylistically speaking, but hardly a subtle demonstration of human-arachnid relations. Here’s that same series events, shown rather than told.

Miss M. dragged her feet, listless, toward the kitchen, nearly deafened by the rumbling of her stomach. Halfway across the dusty floor, her legs crumbled beneath her. Thank goodness, a tuffet was handy.

“Where are my curds and whey?” she called. “Dag nab it, Goldilocks, you were supposed to have dinner ready an hour ago.”

A cold and slimy leg tapped her on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” a spider as big as a Volkswagen said, “but I believe that’s my seat.”

Palpating, she watched the venom form on its fang, threatening to drop into her eye. She wrenched herself off the tuffet and fled the room.

Makes for more engaging reading, does it not? That’s because the storyline is presented through specifics, not generalities. Yet the intended meaning comes across just the same; the reader is simply presumed to be free enough of pernicious squidiotic influences to be able to follow what’s going on without being told outright.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s allow the dreaded assumption of squidiocy to pervade the narrative. Here’s what might happen if the squid persuaded our example-writer that Millicent could not be relied upon to conclude that two plus two might render something in the neighborhood of four.

Miss M. dragged her feet because she was listless. She was headed toward the kitchen, nearly deafened by the rumbling of her stomach; she was hungry. That trip took her halfway across the dusty floor, where her legs gave out beneath her, as she was tired. Thank goodness, a tuffet was handy, so she sat on it.

“Where are my curds and whey?” she called crossly into the kitchen, where her fellow fable inhabitant was cooking. That’s what kitchens are for, in case you didn’t know. “Dag nab it, Goldilocks, you were supposed to have dinner ready an hour ago. I am hungry, so I would like to have it sooner.”

A cold and slimy leg tapped her on the shoulder. It belonged to a spider as big as a Volkswagen hanging over her, attached by a thin strand of web from the chandelier. “Excuse me,” it said, “but I believe that’s my seat.”

She reacted with horror. Palpating, her heart beating fast, she watched the venom form on its fang, threatening to drop into her eye, where it might poison and even kill her. Fearing for her life, she wrenched herself off the tuffet and fled the room to the kitchen, where her friend was. Goldy might save her; she had bear-fighting experience.

A trifle over-explained, isn’t it? Cue the garment-rending: “What does the writer of CHARACTERS FROM THE NURSERY IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR think I am? A — wait for it — squidiot?

No, Millicent and Mehitabel, the writer of that last example or any of the hundreds of thousands like it you have seen does not think you are a squidiot (although s/he may harbor that suspicion about the end reader). In all probability, s/he merely thought s/he was being thorough.

Or that the phrasing was so nice that it bore inclusion. Or because another part of the scene/chapter/book was running long, and the writer thought that s/he should bulk this part up for balance. Or — and this motivates writers more often than any of us care to admit — s/he just liked the way it sounded and/or looked on the page.

Unfortunately, writers often like the look of certain phrases a little too much — and not necessarily, as most professional readers presume, because they simply love the sight of their own words on the page so much that they cannot bear to cut a single one of them, or because they are so arrogant about their talent that they believe no one will care if they reuse text or concepts, as many contest judges reluctantly come to believe.

I think there is something else going on here, benign in intent but inadvertently harmful to the texts in question. I illustrate the phenomenon with a parable.

Around this time last year — the tulips had just begun blooming, as I recall, in slightly inaccurate salute to St. George — I was puzzled into wakefulness by my significant other’s waving a soy latté and a freshly-baked pretzel under my nose. A new German bakery had opened in our neighborhood, and he’s terrified that it will go out of business without our daily support. A reliable source for Black Forest cake and hot dogs baked into the middle of pretzel dough is not to be taken for granted, after all.

Now, I’m as fond of a good pretzel as the next person, but at 8 a.m., I must confess, my tastes run much more to sleep. If I must be awake, a cup of tea is more my cup of tea. Even if it were not, obtaining mustard-laden foodstuffs would not be my first order of business before, say, five p.m. Nor is rock salt my favorite pillow covering, given my druthers.

Rick, however, subscribes to the surprisingly pervasive school of thought that holds what a person has said she liked once, ever, will come as a pleasant surprise to receive at any randomly-selected moment for the rest of her life. He’s the type of person that will give an 87-year-old a teddy bear for her birthday, because she collected them when she was 50, still liked them at 69, and smiled wanly when he presented her with one while she was blowing out 86 candles. Never mind that every surface in her apartment is covered with the darned things: she liked getting one once, therefore she must enjoy the replication of the experience in perpetuity.

He’s presuming, in short, that she’s the kind of squidiot who enjoys books that explain basic concepts over and over to her. “Show me that generic dialogue one more time,” he must imagine her begging. “The part where everyone is so polite that the characters are indistinguishable from any other people on the planet.”

That being his view of humanity, I suppose I should not have been surprised that his response to my expressing surprise at the advent of a warm pretzel in my mouth was that I had apparently enjoyed a remarkably similar pretzel only two afternoons before. Which, of course, would render it even less likely that I would want another one now, but just try explaining that to a kindly soul in the clutches of a manipulative squid.

The pretzel was turning out to be pretty tasty, though, so rather than take the time to explain at length that piling on more of a good thing does not necessarily improve, well, anything, I decided it would be the better part of valor to thank him graciously and bear my unusual breakfast into a more appropriate environment for consuming something warm and squishy. As I fled, I marveled at how, once again, the muses had tumbled all over themselves to provide me with a delightfully apt metaphor for a craft issue you and I were already discussing.

Oh, wasn’t the parallel instantly self-evident? Allow me to recast it as a self-editing aphorism for the ages, then: what might read beautifully as a stand-alone sentence may not work as well within the context of a page of text. Varying word choice and sentence structure will usually provide the reader with a more pleasurable reading experience than a narrative’s insisting that if something looked good on the page once, it will necessarily look great if it’s repeated.

Resist all sea creatures that tell you otherwise. Millicent and Mehitabel will thank you for it.

Again, I’m sensing that for some reason best known to yourselves, a hefty proportion of my audience would like to see a concrete example of the phenomenon — nay, perhaps several — so you may recognize it in its natural habitat. It comes in a variety of stripes. There’s the version in which favorite phrasing and/or sentence structure is repeated close together, often for rhythmic effect:

What did she want? Mostly, she knew what she didn’t want. Snow White had had it with dwarves. She had had it with princes. Heck, she had even had it with being a princess.

All she wanted, all she ever had wanted, was to be wanted. What was wrong with wanting that?

Or, as Millicent and Mehitabel would see it:

What did she want? Mostly, she knew what she didn’t want. Snow White had had it with dwarves. She had had it with princes. Heck, she had even had it with being a princess.

All she wanted, all she ever had wanted, was to be wanted. What was wrong with wanting that?

Just a touch term-repetitious, is it not? Ditto with the sentence structure. Either can induce garment-rippage, I’m sorry to report.

“I get that the writer wanted to establish a rhythm here,” Millicent mutters, “but what kind of a squidiot would have a vocabulary this small? I certainly don’t, and I doubt the readers of a book like this will, either.”

Don’t believe that an isolated and obviously purposeful repetitive pattern would rise to the level of clothing endangerment? Okay, what if the manuscript in question also exhibited another ubiquitous stripe of repetition, tactic reuse? 37 pages after our last example, this gem accosted our Millie’s weary peepers.

Rapine was so tired of indecision, tired of equivocation, tired of not being able to make up her mind. She didn’t really know what she wanted out of life, but she had reached some conclusions about what she didn’t want. She wanted to be free of the tower. She wanted to be free of her Guardian Witch. But mostly, she wanted to be free of the crushing weight of all that hair.

All she wanted, all she had wanted since she was sixteen, was a sharp pair of scissors. What was wrong with a girl’s wanting a new hairstyle? It’s not as though her future depended upon sporting two-story locks.

Starting to get to you a little, or is the squid still murmuring in your ear that this is just an example of a unique voice demonstrating its uniqueness at two different points in the text? Sorry, Squidbo, but repeating the same words and structures over either the course of a paragraph or the course of a book is the opposite of original: it’s a style choice Millicent and Mehitabel see every day. Imagine, then, the state of their clothing after encountering this gem 153 pages later.

“How dare you accost me?” the first little pig said quavering under the remains of his straw house. “What you want of me that could not have been equally well accomplished by knocking politely?”

The rather large and certainly evil wolf scratched his furry head. “Oh, what do any of us want? To be wanted, I suppose.” He flopped down on the scattered straw. “Man, I’m depressed.”

Piggie rooted his way through the debris to sit by the wolf’s side. “I hear you, Wolfie, but had it ever occurred to you that we might all feel that way? That it might be the fairy tale condition? That it might even be perfectly normal not to know what you want?”

“Ah,” the wolf said, thoughtfully buttering the top of the pig’s head, “but we all know what we don’t want. We don’t want hate. We don’t want war. And as God as my witness, I don’t ever want to be hungry again.”

Is that pretzel starting to taste a little stale? Or would you like another one? No? How about now?

What’s that huffing and puffing I hear out there? Is someone trying to get into my house, or do a few of you want to make a collective observation? “Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you who have not reread your manuscripts recently object, gnawing your fingernails, “this last one isn’t very similar to the first two. Certainly not garment-rendingly similar. I’ll give you that the level of word, phrase, and sentence structure repetition is a bit extreme in the first two examples, but presumably, they didn’t bug M & M too much to read on. Aren’t you picking nits here?”

It’s my job to pick nits, rereading-avoiders. The same might be said of Millicent and Mehitabel. Which is why I can assert with confidence: in a submission, that last passage might as well have been stamped in bright red ink: DITTO. Not only is the trope about knowing and not knowing one’s own desires conceptually redundant (and, let’s face it, not all that original in the first place), but the galloping three-part sentence structure gets a trifle dull to read. At minimum, it encourages the eye to skim.

Admittedly, though, that might not strike writers less eagle-eyed than your good selves. Let’s take a peek at another common species of structural repetition, to see what too-similar sentence structure too close together on a page can do to even a conscientious eye. (Yes, yes, I know: body parts seldom have their own independent motivations. The squid made me do it.)

This time, try our trick of backing up from the computer, then walking slowly toward the screen. As soon as the words come into focus, try reading the following as fast as you can.

“Oh, go away,” Beauty moaned, pulling a silken pillow over her head, “and take your pruning shears with you. Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep?”

“But I fought my way through the briars for you, and I climbed over a fence,” the prince protested. “A stone wall blocked my path, and a pit of snakes slowed me down. Brickbats the size of baseballs beat upon my head, and a dragon singed my toes. Can’t you even make the effort to roll over and look at me?”

Angrily, she complied. “Look, buddy, I don’t know what manners are like where you come from, but in these parts, it’s considered rude to barge into someone’s chamber and start slobbering all over them. Can’t you make any allowance for local mores?”

“But I swam the moat and scaled the castle wall! I toted that barge and lifted that bale. I got a little drunk and I landed in jail.” He clutched at his head. “No, that’s not right. Can’t you see I’m exhausted here?”

Beauty tossed a pillow at him. “Try taking a nap. That’s what I’m going to do.

Notice any visual patterns? All of those rhetorical questions beginning with can’t you, for instance — did your eye try to skip directly from one capital C to the next, without reading what came between? And what about the fact that almost every sentence the prince uttered (as opposed to his stab at rhetorical question-asking) was structured identically: I did X and I did Y? Didn’t all of those ands distract you?

Okay, maybe they didn’t; the squid may have been living with you a bit too long. (You know what Ben Franklin said about fish and houseguests, right? They both begin to stink after three days. And if you think that was a long way to go to make an analogy, well, you have a point, but you wouldn’t believe how often Millicent and Mehitabel encounter this kind of failed humor attempt. The squid is almost as fond of telling writers they are funny as it is of urging writers to explain the obvious.) You must admit, though, that so much structural repetition quickly became pretty boring to read.

And that goes double for concept repetition, even over the course of a fairly lengthy run of text. Or are you saying that you don’t wish I would stop harping on the squid?

The same holds true, believe it or not, with repetitive characterization, recycling the same descriptors or actions every time a particular character sets foot in a scene. Our squiddy friend often tries to convince aspiring writer’s that’s a good idea. Many’s the manuscript in which the hero’s sidekick utters something like, “Well, beats me!” every time the pair meets a challenge, or in which the heroine’s sister sneezes every time a window opens. That makes the character in question memorable, right?

Perhaps, but not necessarily in the way you might hope. As a tactic, this stripe of conceptual repetition seldom works on the page. Trust me, by this late date in literary history, any reasonably experienced Millie or Mehitabel will already have seen thousands of characters announce themselves through personal stock phrases and/or activity tics that this characterization will strike her as neither effective nor amusing.

So how will it strike them? As redundant. And, if the dialogue keeps throwing around a stock phrase, repetitive as well.

At the risk of seeming to beat a dead horse, cross the same river twice, and not learn anything from experience, may I add that the same principle applies to retreads of descriptions, reused metaphors and too-similar similes? I’m not just talking about rhapsodizing about every flower in a garden-centered romance as fragrant as a breath of spring or consistently referring to the protagonist’s nefarious boss’ face as frog-like. Although that is indeed annoying for the reader: if you’d like Millicent and Mehitabel to remain fully clothed, varying your descriptions is a good place to start.

No, I’m warning you against waxing poetic about the wolfish fierceness of Brent’s eye on page 147 if you have already treated the reader to observations on the almost lupine ferocity in his eyes on page 83 and its angry canine expressiveness on page 52. Especially when the reader was assured on page 10 that his eyes held an ferocious, almost feral expression reminiscent of a wolf, and the book opened with a lengthy description of an eye in close-up. A distinctly wolfy eye.

“Yes, yes,” Mehitabel sighs, glancing sorrowfully at her shredded blouse. What make those claw marks, some sort of werewolf? “We all get that you’re making a point here: the eye in question is darned wolf-like. I got that the first time you mentioned it. How much of a squidiot would I have to be still not to get it by the fifth time that parallel appears on the page?”

Good question, Hitty. Perhaps squidiocy knows no bounds.

Something else that knows no bounds: professional readers’ astonishment at how many submitters and contest entrants apparently don’t read their own writing closely enough to notice that the same points, phrasing, and metaphors crop up again and again. People who read for a living tend to have quite retentive memories, especially for text. It’s flatly flabbergasting to us that a good writer would not remember having come up with a spectacular phrase, description, or parallel.

But many good writers suffer from phrase amnesia, apparently. Or so the squid would lead us to believe.

If we can convince the big guy to squiggle out of the room for a moment, I’d like to talk to you seriously about the usual result of listening to his blandishments: rejection. Just as using the same (or very similar) phrasing in three paragraphs on page 1 will generally discourage Millicent from turning to page 2, repeating phrases, dialogue, sentence structures, or even imagery too often over a long stretch of text can also lead a manuscript to the same grisly fate.

And although I hate to be the one to break it to you, it sometimes does not take a great deal or very flagrant redundancy to send a submission skittering into the rejection pile. Remember, screeners have to cover a lot of manuscripts in a workday. Once a text has established a repetitive pattern, can you really blame Millie for deciding pretty quickly that the rest of the book will continue it?

Or, to drag one of our running analogies back into the narrative: if Millicent didn’t like the second pretzel of the day, she is likely to take it as given that she’s not going to like the 145th. She will seldom feel the need to gobble up pretzels 3-144 to confirm it.

Why? Because she’s not a squidiot. She can learn from experience — and remember what she has already read.

More on structural repetition follows on the morrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: tracing the patterns of a life, or, just because something really happened doesn’t mean a writer is excused from making it dramatically appealing on the page

One of the great liabilities of editing for a living — or one of the great advantages, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — is that over time, the dedicated editor becomes decreasingly able to read anything without scrawling corrections in the margins. I’m not merely talking about manuscripts, synopses, and queries here, mind you, but all typed words on a page. The New York Times, for instance, once the standard of American prose, now seldom passes under my long-lashed eyes without picking up some entirely justified marginalia. Nor do any of my alumni magazines go unscathed: I’m looking at you, Radcliffe Quarterly. I routinely take a corrective pen to menus, fliers, and wedding programs. Last November, I had to be restrained bodily from correcting a grievous misprint on my ballot for a county election; the correction apparently would have confused the counting machine.

More confusing than asking the citizenry to select a superior court joge? I think not.

While in some walks of life this level of nit-pickiness would prove somewhat problematic, for professional readers like agents, editors, and contest judges (or, in this county, joges), it’s a positive boon. So what if in some benighted professions, it is neither expected nor considered particularly sane to look one’s coworker in the eye and say, “I like the content of you’re saying, Ziggy, but the fact that you uttered the word exciting fourteen times over the course of a six-minute speech, insisted — wrongly — that impact is a verb, and failed to define a good third of your basic terms detracted from its effectiveness,” without finding oneself cordially disinvited from all future meetings? Someone has to defend the language. And by gum, if that means rending our garments and wailing to the heavens, “You’ve used this metaphor twice in 137 pages! And phrased it almost identically each time, you…you?torturer,” well, we’re up to the task.

Oh, you thought I was kidding about that last one? Half the good professional readers I know would not only have become impatient at the metaphor repetition — they would have assumed that the writer did it on purpose. As opposed to, say, not recognizing the insight of today as the insight of three months, eight days, and sixteen hours ago.

How could you? You know how much such things upset Millicent the agency screener.

All of which is to say: I tried — really, I did — to devote this weekend’s post to the delightful task of critiquing and presenting two more reader-generated query letters, missives devoted to the promotion of what sound like some very interesting memoirs. In pondering the all-too-often misunderstood mysteries of memoir voice, however, and how to present it effectively in a letter as short as a single page, I found my text-addled mind drifting back to a novel-cum-memoir I had read, I kid you not, in junior high school. A pivotal scene in it, I felt, would provide such a glorious illustration of a common memoir querier’s mistake that I just had to drop everything and track down the book.

That’s how little girls with braids grow up to be editors, in case you had been wondering. Sometimes, even other editors are surprised at how well I remember text. A few years ago, when my own memoir was lumbering its way through the publication process, my acquiring editor scrawled in my margins, “Oh, yeah, right — you remember a biography of the Wright Brothers that you read in the third grade? Prove it!” I was able not only to give him a chapter breakdown of the book, but tell him the publisher and correctly identify the typeface.

Do I need to follow up with the story of what happened when one of my students at the University of Washington turned in the same term paper another of my students had submitted a scant five semesters before? I thought not. But the undergraduate disciplinary board couldn’t believe I caught the repetition, either.

So I had good reason to believe that my recollection of a fictionalized memoir ostensibly by a childhood friend of Joan of Arc was reasonably accurate. A lighthearted burrow through the roughly two thousand volumes I carted up from California after my mother moved from my childhood home, so she would have to take only the remaining eight thousand with her (long story), and voil? ! The author of the otherwise charming book had tumbled into a multitude of ubiquitous first-time memoirists’ traps. Including, of course, the one that had jumped up and down in my mind after so many years.

You know, the kind of thing that Millicent thinks so many of you writers of the real do on purpose, just to annoy her. Echoing the all-too-common verbal habit of using and as a substitute for a period in your first-person narration, for instance, in a misguided attempt to make the narrative voice sound more like everyday speech. (It works, but let’s face it, quite a bit of everyday speech is so repetitious that it would be stultifying transcribed directly to the printed page.) Or telling an anecdote on the page as one might do out loud at a cocktail party, with practically every sentence a summary statement. (Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is such a pervasive piece of editorial feedback.) Or, most common of all, not doing much character development for anyone but the protagonist.

Speaking of showing, not telling, here’s the scene that popped to mind. To render the parallels to what Millicent sees on a daily basis more obvious, I’m presenting it here in standard format for book manuscripts. (And if it’s news to you that such a thing exists, or that it differs from what is proper for submitting short stories, articles, or academic pieces, may I suggest a quick foray into the posts under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right?) As always, my blogging program is a trifle hostile to page shots, so if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.



Come on, admit it — while you might have excused all of those ands if you had heard this told out loud, they’re a trifle eye-distracting on the page, are they not? Ditto with the word repetition — could this author possibly have crammed any more uses of to be, to get, or to see into these three pages? And don’t even get me started on concept repetition.

As a story on a page, it’s lacking quite a few elements. A sense of place, for one — is there a reason, the reader must wonder, not to give us some sense of what either the woods or the village were like? As so often happens in memoir, we’re just told that the action is happening here or there, with too little description to enable us to picture Joan and her young friends in a specific place. Nor are those friends fleshed out much, either in character or physically.

Heck, we don’t even get to see the frightening Benoist: instead, the memoirist merely tells us repeatedly that he and Joan were getting closer, without showing us what that might have looked like to a bystander. Like, say, the narrator.

Speaking of the narrator, do you get much of a sense of who he is as a person? How about what his relationship is to Joan? Are you even sure of their respective ages? Any idea what year it is? Heck, if you did not already know that the girl would grow up to be the patron saint of France — actually, one of four, but Joan of Arc is certainly the best known in this country — would anything but the children’s names tip you off about what part of the world these characters inhabit?

While I’m asking so many rhetorical questions in a row — another occupational hazard, I’m afraid — let me ask a more fundamental one: did you notice that while this passage is apparently about how the village’s children reacted to Joan, there’s practically no character development for her at all?

That’s at least marginally problematic, in a book entitled, wait for it, JOAN OF ARC. What, we are left to wonder, does she look like? Why doesn’t she stand up to her playmates (beyond, of course, the justification of being “so girlish and shrinking in all ways”) or, failing that, why doesn’t she simply walk away from the nasty little beasts? Most mysteriously, why can’t a kid brave enough to face down the village madman’s axe (or ax, depending upon where it falls in this passage; the error is in the hard copy in front of me), a rather interesting thing for a person to do, come up with more revealing answers to questions than a simple yes?

And would it be too much to ask the narrator to explain why the villagers left an axe lying anywhere near the madman’s cage in the first place? Might not the locals’ efforts be more productively expended making sure he can’t get out than chopping off his fingers?

More important to the story at large, if you did have more than an inkling of what the real-life Jeanne d’Arc achieved, wouldn’t you find it at least a trifle too pat that her playmates choose to picture her doing more or less what she grew up to do — and to laugh at her about it? If the girl had suggested this role herself, it might merely have been not-particularly-subtle foreshadowing, but honestly, can you think of any reason to include this at all except to make the reader feel cleverer than St. Joan’s playmates?

Millicent wouldn’t think of one. Neither would most professional readers; it’s our job to deplore this sort of narrative ham-handedness.

“Just how ill-informed would a reader have to be not to find that first bit clumsy?” we mutter into our much-beloved coffee mugs. “Isn’t it safe to assume that anyone who would pick up a book about Joan of Arc would know that she lead an army and was burned at the stake, even if that reader knew nothing else about her? And if your garden-variety reader knows that much, isn’t it an insult to his intelligence to drop a giant sign reading Hey, dummy, this is foreshadowing?”

Was that mighty gust of wind that just whipped the cosmos the sound of half of the memoirists out there huffing with annoyance, or was it the first-person novelists sighing gustily? Do you have some insight into this phenomenon that you would like to share? “But Anne,” both groups think loudly in unison, rather like the remarkably collective-minded children in the anecdote above, “this is how I was taught to write first-person narration: it’s supposed to sound exactly like a real person’s speech. So why shouldn’t St. Joan’s childhood buddy sound like anybody telling anecdotes out loud?”

A couple of reasons, actually. Yes, good first-person narration takes into account the narrator’s speech patterns. It also typically reflects the narrator’s social status and education, personal prejudices, and what s/he could conceivably know. And then there are those pesky individual quirks and, yes, the century in which s/he lived.

So I ask you, first-person writers: just how does the narrative voice in this passage indicate that this particular anecdote took place, according to the narrative, not too long after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415? As opposed to, say, the 1890s, when this account was first published?

Operating on the assumption that internal monologues have both always sounded pretty much like modern speech and don’t vary much from individual to individual is as common a mistake in first-person narratives as having all teenage characters sigh and roll their eyes is in YA submissions. Yes, some people do think and talk that way, but must everybody? Should Helen of Troy formulate her innermost thoughts in the same way as, say, Eleanor Roosevelt, Louisa May Alcott, or Confucius? (There’s a dinner party, eh?)

In case I’m being too subtle about it here: doesn’t it make for more interesting narration if your narrator’s speech bears at least some marks of time? And if she has some individual quirks of thought and expression?

Besides, if we are going to be true to the rules of first-person narration, shouldn’t we be objecting to how often our narrator here professes to read the other children’s minds — although, notably, not Joan’s? I don’t know about you, but I find that most of the time, my thoughts are located in my own head, not floating somewhere in the middle of a group of bystanders. So are we supposed to believe that our narrator in this instance is a mind-reader, or that the local children were too simple-minded to be able to form individual opinions about what is going on in front of them?

In fairness to the huffers and sighers above, however, it’s not beyond belief that they were taught to write first-person narration this way — in short stories in their high school English classes. In short bursts, run-on sentences do indeed come across as ordinary speech-like. In the professional examples of this type of narration that tend to turn up in class, it’s not all that unusual for the author’s voice and the first-person narrator’s voice to merge into colloquial harmony: Mark Twain tends to sound like Mark Twain, for instance, no matter whose perspective is dominating a particular story. That’s part of his branding as an author, right, a distinctive narrative voice?

As a strategy, adopting a chatty voice makes quite a bit of sense for narrative voice in memoir. The reader is going to have to like how the narrator/protagonist talks about her life well enough to want to follow the story for a few hundred pages, after all; we might as well get friendly. Yet in practice, the primary danger of relying on the repetitive phrasing, clich?s, and percussive and use to achieve realistic-sounding narrative cadence is precisely that it will put off the reader because as the pages pass, it can become, well, boring.

Think about it: even if a memoir were being told as a verbal anecdote, wouldn’t you rather listen to a storyteller with some individual flair for phrasing, instead of someone who just sounded like everyone else? No matter how inherently exciting a personal story is, a great telling can make it better reading. So can a narrative voice reflective of the time, place, and society in which that tale takes place.

But just try telling that to Mark Twain — who, as the sharper-eyed among you may already have noticed, wrote the scene above, in what he considered his best book. Although that retrospective assessment is a trifle hard to take seriously, in light of the fact that he published the book both under a pen and in serial form. Actually, he took it to even one more remove: he wrote a preface under a nom de plume, presenting himself as the translator of a memoir written by one of Joan’s contemporaries.

Why go to all that trouble? Because by all accounts, he felt that the poor sales of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER were largely attributable to his established audience’s expecting anything published under the name of Mark Twain to be a comedy.

Take that, purists who would like to believe that writing with an eye toward market concerns is a product of an increasingly cynical publishing industry over the last twenty or thirty years. Twain and his publisher worked out that tactic in the 1890s.

But I digress. As a reader, how well do you think his narrative choices worked here, either as fiction narration or as the memoir narration it originally professed to be? In your opinion as a writer, how do you feel about those slips into the first person plural — is the reader carried along with the we perspective as a narrative choice, as we were in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, or does it read like a perspective slip?

Moving back to my earlier point, do you feel that the mostly distinctly modern narrative voice, coupled with the almost entirely uncritical view of Joan, was the best way to tell this tale? Critics in Twain’s time did not think so — they believed (and I must say I agreed with them back in junior high school) that a protagonist who never does anything wrong is a trifle on the dull side, as far as the reader is concerned. Twain’s Joan never sets a wee foot wrong; even in her earliest youth, he tells us, she raised her voice in anger only once, and even then it was to voice a patriotic thought.

A taciturnity unusual in a rabble-rouser, you must admit. Also an unusual characteristic for someone who challenged social norms enough for anyone to want to burn her at the stake: Twain’s narrator presents her as a quiet, universally beloved little girl. Butter, as folks used to say, would not melt in her mouth. No matter how outside-the-box her observations or actions are shown to be (or, as we saw above, summarized to be), in this narrative, nothing she did or said from birth to the age of fourteen so much as ruffled the composure of the inhabitants of a querulous small village in wartime. Surprising, to say the least, in a young lady who by her own account had been engaging in frequent heart-to-heart chats with a couple of your more illustrious virgin martyrs since the age of twelve.

Perhaps the querulous small village where I spent my formative years was atypical, but I’m inclined to think that had I gone around snatching murder weapons from local lunatics or holding confabs with ancient Roman maidens, the Old Lady Mafia might have had a thing or two to say about it. I’m also inclined to think that their observations would not have been entirely favorable, regardless of how winsome and girlish I might have been while disarming the maniac in question. It doesn’t strike me as the type of endeavor best undertaken in a party dress.

I’m not saying that Twain is necessarily factually incorrect about all this; naturally, his best guess is as good as ours on a lot of these points. The lady lived rather a long time ago, so the issue here is less historical accuracy than dramatic plausibility. Still, just because something really happened does not mean it will necessarily come across as plausible on the page; as agents like to say, it all depends on the writing.

As an editor, I think it was the writer’s job to make me believe his take on this. Presuming you agree with me — speak now or forever hold your peace — I ask you: was this narrative choice the best fit for the story?

Literary taste is, of course, to a very great extent individual, so only you can answer that question to your own satisfaction. Am I correct in presuming, however, that you are at least a tiny bit curious about how an editor currently holding down the literary fort in the U.S. publishing world might respond to this particular set of narrative choices? Glad you asked.



What am I hoping you will take from this, you ask, eyes wide with horror? Not merely that being a brilliant writer does not necessarily preclude turning out a clunker of a first draft from time to time — although that’s not a bad thing for aspiring writers to bear in mind. The popular conception of true literary talent’s consisting of perfect creative phrasing dripping from the fingertips directly onto the page, with no further polishing necessary, does not match up particularly well with reality. As any experienced editor could tell you, most of the books people regard as productions of pure inspiration have actually been worked, reworked, and run past half a dozen critical readers.

Remember that, please, the next time you’re struggling with a scene that just doesn’t seem to want to hit the page gracefully — or with much specificity. In moments like that, it can be very tempting to embrace the tack Twain did above, to write up the scene in summary form as quickly as possible, with few vivid details, just to get the darned thing committed to paper.

What makes me think that this was written quickly? Editorial instinct, mostly: I find it hard to believe that a humorist as gifted at reading out loud as I know Twain to have been would have killed the comedy — or bored the reader — with this much word repetition unless he was writing on a deadline. Had he taken the time to revisit this scene and iron out its wrinkles, I don’t think there would have been quite so many references to eyes — and I don’t think that he would have had his narrator faint at the climax of the scene.

Certainly saved the author the trouble of having to figure out how the girl convinced the wild man to give up the axe, though, didn’t it? Trust me on this one: experienced editors — and Millicents — see this type of narrative shortcut often enough to recognize it for what it is.

So what should a savvy writer do when faced with this sort of first-draft dilemma? Go ahead: give in to temptation; there is value in getting a full scene on paper. Just make sure to set aside time later in the writing process to return to that scene and flesh it out. Unless you would prefer to have your future editor bark at you, “This is lazy writing, Ambrose. Didn’t anybody ever tell you to show, don’t tell?”

Just in case nobody has yet snarled that in the general direction of your manuscript: show, don’t tell. Immerse your reader in sufficient details for her to be able to feel as though she is part of the scene, rather than leaving her to fill in the specifics for herself.

Oh, you don’t think that’s what Twain is doing here? Okay, rise from your chair, grab the nearest willing partner, and try to act out this interaction between young Joan and Benoist, based solely upon the choreography the narrator above chose to provide us:

She stood up and faced the man, and remained so. As we reached the wood that borders the grassy clearing and jumped into its shelter, two or three of us glanced back to see if Benoist was gaining on us, and this is what we saw — Joan standing, and the maniac gliding stealthily toward her with his axe lifted. The sight was sickening. We stood where we were, trembling and not able to move. I did not want to see murder done, and yet I could not take my eyes away. Now I saw Joan step forward to meet the man, though I believed my eyes must be deceiving me. Then I saw him stop. He threatened her with his ax, as if to warn her not to come further, but went steadily on, until she was right in front of him — right under his axe. Then she stopped, and seemed to begin to talk with him. It made me sick, yes, giddy, and everything swam around me, and I could not see anything for a time — whether long or brief I do not know. When this passed and I looked again, Joan was walking by the man’s side toward the village, holding him by his hand. The axe was in her other hand.

Not much practical guidance for the actors there, eh? Other than all of that seeing, the actual movements mentioned here are pretty routine: one party standing still, the other moving toward her. The mover threatens, but we are not told how. Admittedly, a lifted axe doesn’t have to move much to seem threatening, but see how pretty much all of the sense of danger is conveyed via the narrator’s dread, rather than through showing the reader vivid, terrifying specifics? And how virtually all of that dread is summarized, rather than shown in any detail?

That lack of specificity distances the reader from what should have been a thrilling scene: by leaving the reader to fill in the details, the narrator abdicates his proper role here. Yes, he grounds us in his experience by telling us repeatedly that he is seeing this or that, and that these sights made him feel sick (and ultimately pass out), but great heavens, man, if you’re going to narrate a story like this, isn’t it your job to at least ask a bystander what happened, so you could share that information with the reader?

Don’t tell me that once you’ve seen one axe-wielding madman, you’ve seen ‘em all. As both a reader and an editor, I want to know what this particular madman looked, sounded, moved, smelled, and felt like. I want to know precisely what our heroine did that gave Benoist pause; I want to be shown how he crept up on her stealthily while apparently walking straight into her line of vision. And gosh darn it, I want to know how an axe of 1415 differed from one I might buy at the corner hardware store today.

Without those details, and phrased in fairly ordinary terms, this is indeed like everyday speech, despite the inherently exciting subject matter. Substitute a memo-wielding boss for the axe-bearing madman, and this could have been an anecdote overheard in a coffee house after work.

Distancing the reader from the action in this manner is an unfortunately common tactic in memoirs and first-person fictional narratives alike. Instead of showing the reader what happened through a fully realized scene, the narrator simply summarizes; rather than demonstrating relationship dynamics through dialogue or action, the narrator just sums up what was said. And by describing subsequent actions in the same words or in hackneyed terms (I believed my eyes must be deceiving me? Really, Mark?), the action may move forward, but the reader’s understanding of what’s going on does not.

Joan stood; Benoist glided. Then Joan stood while Benoist glided. Then she stopped — odd as the narrative had not shown her going forward. Then the narrator conveniently blacks out so we cannot see what is going on. Then the problem is solved. The end.

Seldom is this the most interesting way to convey a story, in my experience. Like having characters answer yes-or-no questions with yes or no, as opposed to more detailed (and thus more character-revealing) responses, the summary route closes off story possibilities. And by definition, repeated phrasing adds nothing new to the scene.

Neither, incidentally, do all of those thens: in a story in which events are being presented in chronological order, the occurrences in Sentence 1 are presumed to have happened before those in Sentence 2, which in turn came before what’s described in Sentence 3. Thens, then, as we have seen them used in that last example, are logically redundant; most editors would advise you to reserve them for moments when what happens next is genuinely unexpected.

Joan stood; Benoist glided toward her with an axe. Then the Wright Brothers and their sister, Katherine, swooped through an opening in the forest canopy in a motorized glider to snatch the weapon away.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last twist coming, did you?

Remember, there’s more to telling a story than simply listing its events in chronological order — or racing from its beginning to its end. You want the journey to be both memorable and enjoyable for the reader, do you not? And if the narrative can manage either to surprise the reader with an unanticipated turn of events, delight her with astonishing imagery, or intrigue her with beautiful phrasing — ideally, all three — all the better.

Before I release you to ponder the challenges of expanding a first-person narrative from the anecdotal level into a completely inhabited scene, I want to talk about another common faux pas: the further distancing effect of the narrative’s reminding us repeatedly that the narrator is seeing this or that. Obviously — at least from a professional reader’s perspective — if an action or object is depicted in a first-person narrative, the narrator perceived it; otherwise, she could not legitimately bring it up, right? So when Twain’s narrator tells us repeatedly that he saw Joan do this or Benoist do that, it’s logically redundant.

Of course, he saw it: he was standing right there. Why bother to remind the reader of that self-evident fact? Or, to put it as a garment-rending professional reader might, does the author think the reader is too brain-dead to remember who the narrator is and that he is present?

Oh, you don’t want the pros to take every word you commit to the page that seriously?

Again: if it’s on the page and the writer appears to possess even the slightest vestige of talent, Millicent is going to assume that it’s there on purpose. She’s also going to assume, with good reason, that if a writer has set up rules for how the story is to be told — in this case, from the point of view of a childhood friend of Joan’s, and only from his perspective — the narrative will follow those rules consistently.

This, too, trips up quite a lot of memoirists and other first-person narrator-wranglers. Once a narrative is committed to a single perspective, it cannot report anything outside of it without shattering the illusion of a limited point of view. Thus, when the narrator slips into the first person plural, informing us that we saw this or thought that, it’s jarring to the reader’s sensibilities.

And when, like Twain’s narrator, he professes to know what we all are thinking…well, let’s just say that maybe Joan isn’t the only one who needs to be worrying about going on trial for dabbling in the supernatural. Unless the narrative establishes some means by which a first-person narrator could possibly have reliable insight into other characters’ thoughts and feelings, he should really stick to his own. If his thoughts and feelings are somehow different from every Tom, Dick, and Benoist’s who might be hanging around in the same place at the same time, great; if he can manage to express them in language evocative, memorable, and tailored to his individual worldview, even better.

Which is not a bad definition of memoir voice, if you think about it: a narrator with a strong personality and specific worldview recounting situations of significance to an overall dramatic story arc in language and from a perspective unique to the teller. If every sentence of your memoir — and, to bring this back to our series-in-progress, every sentence of your query’s book description — does not rise to that level, you might want to think about revising it. Millicent will thank you. So will your readers.

So Mark, darling, as much as I admire your writing in general and short stories in particular, if I were your editor — oh, you thought that editors don’t hope this type of activity would be the first, best use of a time machine? — I would insist that you sat down and revised these three pages. Actually, I would do it because I admire your writing: your narrative voice, even in this rather serious book, is better than what we’re seeing here.

And that axe you keep telling us you’re seeing, narrator? That’s your editor, chopping away all of that phrasing and conceptual redundancy. Trust your reader’s intelligence a bit more, please.

I know, I know: this is a heck of a lot to absorb for a single post. Fear not; I shall be revisiting many of these issues after I polish off the last of the reader-volunteered queries. For that limited purpose — that is, for your edification prior to my next post — just bear in mind that not only does Millicent expect a memoir to have a well-defined voice and story arc; she presumes that by the time that memoirist sends her boss a query, the projected voice and story will be so clear in the writer’s mind that both can be adequately (nay, compellingly) conveyed in a paragraph or two.

Piece o’ cake, right? Well, no, but we can give it the old college try.

Just don’t turn in a term paper I’ve clapped eyes upon before, okay? Keep up the good work!

Premises, premises

I honestly hadn’t intended to take the last few days off from blogging, but I assure you, I have a dandy excuse. To give you a hint, I invite you to contemplate the riddle of the Sphinx: what animal walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three at night?

On to the day’s business — or rather, the business of last week. Scouring my to-blog-about list for amusing and thought-provoking topics to while away the time before the advent of Queryfest, my annual foray into all things query-related, I came across a terrific question from reader Kelly:

I have a question about plot clichés, if you have the chance to address it. Obviously, the ‘it was all a dream’ won’t fly. What other common plot twists do those of you who see so many manuscripts just groan about? Thanks and feel better soon.

That bit at the end will tell you just how long even very good questions sometimes linger in my hey, that would make a great post pile: kind Kelly was wafting me positive energies immediately after my car crash last year. There’s been some recent progress in that area, by the way: after 14 months, I’m finally walking without a cane.

Can tap-dancing be far behind?

So if I’m honest about it, responding to Kelly’s question is really the business of last year. That seems oddly appropriate, given one of the publishing world’s most common complaints about writers: a fondness for procrastination.

Oh, don’t grimace; everyone procrastinates a little. It’s healthy not to be too rigid. Besides, one of the most important lessons any writer of book-length work has to learn is that a full-length manuscript is not the kind of thing that even the most gifted crafter of prose can polish off in a day, a week, or a month.

Oh, some writers (including yours truly) can indeed draft new text very quickly, but that’s not the issue. Writing a book requires consistent, patient application, not merely short, intense bursts of endeavor. So does revising a manuscript. Yet since most of us do our best work if we can devote some unbroken time to it, it can be very tempting to put off diving in — or diving back in — until we can devote a whole day, week, or month to it, isn’t it?

And that temptation, boys and girls, is why most serious writers have woken up on at least one fine spring morning, sat bolt upright in bed, and shouted, “Wait — how much time has passed since I swore that I was going to finish that revision? Or start it?”

Or exclaimed, “Hey, wasn’t my New Year’s resolution to send out ten queries per week? Have I sent out even one this month?”

Or moaned, “Oh, my God — the agent of my dreams requested pages six months ago, and I’m still revising. Should I take another run at Chapter 152, or should I pop the whole shebang in the mail as is? What if she doesn’t want it anymore?”

I’m not bringing this up to depress all of you who swore that Labor Day (or the Fourth of July, or Valentine’s day, or St. Swithin’s day) was going to be the moment you sprung into action, honest. Nor am I passing judgment on the many, many aspiring writers whose lives swamped their good intentions. I’m not even changing the subject so that I may put off answering Kelly’s excellent question for a few more minutes.

I’m bringing it up, if you must know, because writers who procrastinate so often create characters that procrastinate. Seriously, it’s one of Millicent the agency screener’s most frequent complaints about how novelists and memoirists plot books: characters irk her by sitting around and thinking too much.

Or, to mix things up a little, by sitting around and talking through the problems with their best friends, coworkers, mothers, fathers, or, depending upon book category, the people they are about to try to murder. Especially, as is often the case in novel submissions, when these little chats over coffee, in bars, over lunch, over a telephone, or in hastily-improvised torture chambers consist largely of the protagonist recapping conflict that reader has already seen.

How, from an editorial standpoint, could that not seem redundant? “Criminy, move on,” Millicent scolds the text in front of her. “The point of novel narration is not to convey every single thing that happened in the book’s world, but to tell a story in a lively and entertaining manner!”

Because I love you people, I shall spare you what she hisses at memoir submissions in which the narrator agonizes for fifty or sixty pages on end about whether to confront someone who clearly needs some confrontation — only to decide not to do it after all. In fiction and nonfiction alike, her preference nearly always leans toward the active protagonist given to making things happen, rather than a passive one to whom things happen.

Half of you clutched your chests at some point over the last four paragraphs, didn’t you? Relax; I’m not about to suggest the all-too-often-heard advice on this point: telling writers never to show their protagonists thinking is akin to asserting that no character, however devoted to the color pink, may ever be depicted wearing it. Intelligent characters frequently think, and one-size-fits-all writing rules are almost invariably wrong a great deal of the time.

What I am suggesting, heart-clutchers, is merely that Millicent, like most professional readers, has from long experience developed a finely-tuned sense of how much rumination is too much, as well as when it starts to feel repetitious. To eyes trained to spot textual and conceptual redundancy, even a single repeated thought pattern can jump off the page. Small wonder, then, that showing the complexity of a problem by depicting the protagonist revisiting the same set of doubts over and over again is a notorious professional readers’ pet peeve.

Frequently, their impatience is justified: while deeply-felt internal conflict can be quite interesting on the page, most protagonists in first-person and tight third-person narratives don’t think about problems differently each time. Instead, the writer seeks to have the page mirror the way people mull over problems in real life: with redundant logic, facing the same fears and rehashing the same options on Monday as on Friday.

Or the following Friday. Or two years from Friday.

“God, I wish that this writer had never seen a production of Hamlet,” Millicent has been known to murmur over the fourth slow-moving protagonist of the day. “Would it be too much to ask the narrative to get out of this character’s head long enough for her to do something? It wouldn’t even have to advance the plot — I’d settle for her taking up lion-taming or developing a sudden passion for spelunking. Anything, so she gets out of her chair and moves around the world!”

“But Anne!” I hear some of you chest-clutchers point out, and with good reason, “people honestly do fall into thought loops when they’re worried about something, especially if they lean toward the compulsive in general. I’m sorry if it bores Millicent, but I’m trying to represent reality here: the human psyche is not always bent upon producing entertainingly diverse thought patterns.”

Perhaps it isn’t, but you should be. It’s a writer’s job not just to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, but to create a result that will be a pleasure to read. Redundant thoughts, like redundant action, have a nasty habit of discouraging readers from continuing to turn pages. Obsessive characters can be very interesting, but as the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing: it’s very, very easy for realistic depictions of recurrent thought or even feeling to become positively soporific on the printed page.

Not as easily spotted a cliché as it was a dark and stormy night or you may be wondering why I called you all here, admittedly, but the rumination-obsessed protagonist is actually more common in submissions these days than either of these well-worn tropes. None of these are as ubiquitous as teenagers who roll their eyes, of course, or people under 50 who say whatever and like, but all are equal-opportunity Millicent-annoyers.

Now the rest of you are clutching your chests, but at this late date, most adult readers, even non-professional ones, have seen enough compulsive thought patterns on the page to recognize it within a line or two. At most, it will take them a couple of paragraphs to catch on. How, then, is the writer to maintain interest and tension throughout pages and pages of it?

Honestly, a little obsessive-compulsion goes a long way on the page. Millicent’s seeing less of it these days than when the TV show MONK rendered OCD such a popular character quirk; if a hit TV show or movie contains a noteworthy character trait or plot twist, it’s a safe bet that agencies will be receiving hundreds of iterations of it over the next 2-5 years. The Millies of the early 1980s could have wallpapered both North and South Korea entirely in manuscripts that resembled M*A*S*H, for instance; for the last decade, it’s been rare that a police procedural submission does not include a scene reminiscent of LAW AND ORDER or CSI. And frankly, our time on earth is too precious to waste time toting up how many SF and fantasy submissions fairly reeked of the influence of STAR WARS and STAR TREK.

It’s not that some of the borrowed characters and quirks are not inherently entertaining; in a good writer’s hands, they certainly can be. There’s also something to be said for adhering to the conventions of one’s chosen book category: in a Western, readers expect a confrontation between the fellows in the white hats and the black, just as readers of women’s fiction expect their protagonists to grow and change over the course of the story.

By definition, though, what none of these elements can ever be is fresh.

Which goes right to the heart of Kelly’s question, does it not? While the list of premises, plot twists, and character traits that might set Millicent’s teeth on edge changes perpetually — what might have riled her Aunt Mehitabel when she was just starting out as a reader in the mid-1970s is substantially different from what might occur often enough to get on Millie’s nerves today, or her younger sister Margie five years from now — the basic principle remains the same: even if the writing is good, if she’s seen it before, it’s not going to seem fresh or surprising on the page.

Remember, Millicent is not only charged with the task of sifting through submissions to find great writing and original voices; she’s also looking for unique takes on reality and plots that she hasn’t seen before. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), at submission time, not seeming like a rehash of the most recent bestseller or blockbuster film is a significant asset.

I know, I know: it’s not all that uncommon for agency submission guidelines to sound as though their Millicents are eagerly awaiting a carbon-copy of whatever is hitting the top of the bestseller lists today. Indeed, sometimes they are looking for copycats. Even with monumental bestsellers like the TWILIGHT series or BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, though, it usually doesn’t take too long before Millie and her boss are saying, “Oh, no, another knock-off? I want the next great bestseller, not what was hot two years ago.”

Don’t believe me? How hard do you think it would be to sell BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY as a fresh manuscript today? It would simply seem derivative.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, those oft-repeated experiments in which some bright soul submits the first 50 pages of some classic like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813) to an array of present-day agents and/or publishing houses, in an attempt to test whether their Millicents would know great literature if it fell in their laps, invariably fall flat. Of course, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE would get rejected today; as a new manuscript, it would seem completely lifted from Jane Austen. To a reader familiar with English novels of the period, even the title would seem unoriginal: the phrase PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (in all caps, no less) is repeated no fewer than three times in Fanny Burney’s novel of a generation before, CECELIA, OR, MEMOIRS OF AN HEIRESS (1782).

Besides, have you seen how much time Austen’s protagonists spend thinking?

I know that this might come as a shock to the many, many writers raised on 19th-century literature, but what seemed fresh on the page in 1813 is unlikely to strike Millicent as original or even market-appropriate today. Ditto for 1913, 1943, 1983, or 2003. In fact, what would have wowed ‘em at the agency in any of those years is likely to seem positively dated now, even if the cultural references did not.

Remember, too, that Millie lives in the same media-heavy culture you do: while she might not watch enough T.V. to know what a Snooki is, to catch an Arrested Development reference, or to be able to pick any of the current crop of presidential contenders out of a police line-up, it’s unlikely that she would be lucky enough to have missed any public discussion of these phenomena. If you loved the Saw movies enough to borrow some elements of them for your horror manuscript, chances are that a Millicent working in a horror-representing agency will be harboring some affection for those movies, too.

Which is not to say that a plot similar to the Saw movies might not have done very well, had it hit Millicent’s desk right after the first film in the series came out. Many a writer who has been toiling away quietly for years on a manuscript has suddenly seen it become sought-after as soon as a similar book, movie, or TV show hits the big time. Agents and editors do often clamor for something similar to what’s hot at the moment. Since it takes so long to write a book, however, it’s generally the writers that were already working on a book, not because it was cool, but because they liked the subject matter, who are in the best position to take advantage of such a trend. Or writers who can produce a manuscript with similar appeal within a year or two. After that, imitation is likely to make the book seem dated.

Not sure what a dated manuscript is, or why it might be hard to sell? Okay, let me ask you: if you picked up a book stuffed to the gills with references to Ross Perot, would you (a) embrace it as a book about contemporary politics, (b) assume that it had been published sometime in the mid-1990s, and turn to another book for insights on the current political scene or (c) wonder who in the heck Ross Perot was?

If you said (b), you’re beginning to think like Millicent: the 1992 election was a long time ago. If you said (a), I’m guessing you do not follow politics very closely. And if you said (c), well, ask your parents, but don’t be surprised if they remember his ears more than his politics.

Even if a manuscript avoids the specific pop references that tend to age so poorly on the page — nothing seems more tired than yesterday’s catchphrases, right? — borrowing the plot twists and premises of yesteryear can make a book seem dated. One of the surprisingly immortal premises: neighborhoods where none of the mothers work outside the home, or even consider it. While it’s not beyond belief that such communities still exist, it’s far enough from the mainstream American experience these days that it would require fairly extensive textual explanation.

Embracing writing fads of years past also tends to make a manuscript seem dated. When STAR WARS embraced the Jungian heroic journey structure, it generated a lot of buzz — and for the next two decades, the viewing public was inundated with movies with that same structure. Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, advocating that structure for novels became extremely popular, resulting in manuscript after manuscript with essentially the same story arc falling on Millicent’s desk with clockwork regularity. Because Millicent’s boss was screening manuscripts back then, Millie’s been trained to regard that structure as old-fashioned.

Not to mention predictable. And speaking of repetitive premises, does it bother anyone but me that the mortality rate for mothers in the STAR WARS movies is close to 100%?

Seriously, it doesn’t pay to underestimate just how predictable adhering to a well-worn plot device can render a manuscript, especially to someone who reads as much as Millicent. People drawn to work in publishing tend to be both plot-retentive and detail-oriented: I was surely not the only future editor who walked out of the original STAR WARS saying to her big brother, “You know what would make more sense than that ending? If Leah was Luke’s sister? I mean, honestly — why begin their names with the same first letter, something screenwriters usually take wincing pains to avoid, unless we’re supposed to guess that there’s a familial relationship?”

Okay, so this was probably not how most elementary schoolers reacted to the film, but I read a great deal. Not only science fiction, but fables — and the heroic journey story arc was supposed to surprise me? Nice try, Mr. Lucas.

An original plot twist or premise should surprise the reader — and that’s legitimately hard to do. It’s also often difficult for an isolated writer to spot just how much his plot, premise, or characters might resemble what Millicent is receiving from other writers. Even if the writer can successfully weed out conceptions of dramatic fitness culled from stories floating around the zeitgeist — from movies, television, books, even major news stories — that might be turning up in other submissions, rooting out or even noticing stereotypes (what? The guy with tape on his glasses is a computer expert? Who saw that coming?), stock plot twists (the murderer isn’t the first person the police arrest? Alert the media!), overused premises (the police partners who made the arrest are experiencing some romantic tension? The school bully targeting the gay teen is himself fighting urges in that direction? The guy bent on revenge is actuated by the trauma of having seen his wife and small child murdered out of the reader’s sight and before the story began?) and hackneyed phrasing (“I’m sorry for your loss,” anyone?) can often require an outside eye.

Why? Often, such well-worn story elements are so familiar to the writer, as well as to her nearest and dearest, that they don’t seem like clichés. They just seem like the constituent parts of a story. Therein lies the essential paradox of trafficking in the already-done: that plot twist that feels dramatically right may well come across that way because you’ve seen it before.

And so has Millicent. Remember, clichés don’t irritate agents, editors, and contest judges the first time these fine folks spot them on the manuscript page, typically, or even because the pesky things are repeated over the course of a particular submission or contest entry. What chafes their sensibilities is seeing the same phrases, characters, plot twists, and even premises over and over across hundreds of manuscripts.

Hey, if you’ve seen one completely selfless mother, a lady completely devoid of any personal preferences unrelated to her children, you might not actually have seen ‘em all. After screening the forty-seventh synopsis featuring a selfless mother within a week, however, it might well start to feel that way.

That’s a pretty good test of whether a manuscript might have strayed into over-nibbled pastures, by the way: if the synopsis — or, sacre bleu, the descriptive paragraph in the query letter — makes reference to a well-established stereotype, it’s well worth looking into how to make the characters less, well, predictable.

And now two-thirds of you chest-clutchers are mopping your weary brows. Honestly, this is beginning to read like a word problem on the math section of the S.A.T.

By definition, stereotypes and clichés are predictable: they are the shorthand a culture uses for archetypes. The mean tenth-grade girl, for instance, or the dumb jock. The absent-minded professor who can’t find the glasses perched on top of his head. The sociopathic lawyer who cares only about winning cases, not justice. The tough drill sergeant/teacher/physical therapist who seems like a bully at first, but turns out to be concealing a heart of gold.

Hey, what happened to all the floozies harboring hearts of gold? When did they fall out of the collective mind? Sometime during the Reagan administration? Or was it a decade earlier, when librarians and schoolteachers lost the right to yank the pencils from their collective hair, remove the eyeglasses that they apparently don’t require in order to see, and have the nearest male exclaim, “Why, Miss Jones — you’re beautiful!”

Now, poor Miss Jones would to be an expert in particle physics, save the world in the third act of the story, and look as though she had never eaten a cookie in order to engender that reaction. It’s enough to make an educated woman bob her hair.

Naturally, what constitutes a cliché evolves over time, just as what seems dated in a plot does, but as far as characterization goes, one factor remains the same: a stereotype telegraphs to the reader what kind of behavior, motivations, and actions to expect from a character. A pop quiz for long-time readers of this blog: why might that present a problem in a manuscript submission?

For precisely the same reason that a savvy submitter should avoid every other form of predictability, especially in the opening pages of a manuscript or contest entry:: because being able to see what’s going to happen in advance tends to bore Millicent. If a professional reader can tell instantly from a story’s first description of a character precisely how he is going to act and how he is likely to speak, where’s the suspense?

The same holds true for too-common premises, by the way. Those two coworkers of opposite sexes squabbling? They’ll be in love within fifty pages. That child the woman who swore she never wanted children inadvertently acquires, by accident, theft, or some inconsiderate relative’s leaving him on her doorstep. It will completely transform her life. The completely irresponsible man who discovers he’s had an unknown child for decades? He’s going to be integral to that kid’s life, and vice versa. That wish the protagonist makes on page 2, even though the text explicitly tells us that she never wishes on passing stars? It’s going to come true.

In spades. It’s written on the sand.

Oh, you thought that Millie wouldn’t catch on that teenage Billy was going to wreck his new motorcycle by the second time his parents are shown to be worried about it? I hate to burst anyone’s plotting bubble, but at this juncture in literary history, most professional readers would have said, “Oh, he’s doing to crash it,” halfway through the scene where he bought the bike.

She’s also going to foresee that the character a bystander identifies as having had a hard childhood is going to be the mysterious murderer decimating the summer camp/isolated hotel/submarine’s crew, the grandmother/grandfather/elderly neighbor giving the youthful protagonist with nowhere else to turn sterling (if predictable) advice is going to have some sort of a health scare by three-quarters of the way through the book, and that the otherwise clear-thinking lady who wisely retreated to someplace her violent ex-husband/evil boss/corrupt Congressman isn’t will be startled when he shows up.

Quite possibly standing behind her while she is gazing soulfully into a mirror. A cat will have startled her first, however. That fellow also not going to be dead the first time she, her knight in shining armor, or the few remaining members of that light-hearted weekend canoeing party think they have dispatched him.

Hey, the monster always returns is a cliché for a reason.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but reading manuscripts for a living often results in a serious decrease in the ability to be astonished by plot twist at all. Avert your eyes if you have never seen The Sixth Sense, but I had twice suggested to my date that the psychologist was a ghost before the end of the first therapy scene. I kept asking, “But if he’s alive, why isn’t he talking to the kid’s mother? And why doesn’t she have any interests or concerns unrelated to her child?”

To anyone who has been reading manuscripts for a living for more than a week or two, there’s another problem with stock characters. Millicent tends to associate them with rather lazy writing — and certainly with lax research. I’m not just talking about the astonishingly common phenomenon of novels saddling their protagonists with professions with which their writers are clearly unfamiliar (if I had a nickel for every tax specialist character who takes an annual month-long holiday on April 16th because the writer who created her isn’t aware of how many people file their taxes late, I would be able to afford a month-long holiday right now) or the equally common fish-out-of-water stories in which the writer seems as out of his depth in the new environment as his protagonist (my personal pet peeve: protagonists who inherit wineries, then proceed to run them with a whole lot of heart — and learning valuable life lessons — while clearly learning virtually nothing about the actual practicalities of making wine).

I’m talking about characters, usually secondary ones, that are different in some fundamental way from the protagonist. You wouldn’t believe how often subtly-drawn primary characters share page space with downright cartoonish villains or minor characters.

When writers just guess at the probable life details and reactions of characters unlike themselves, they tend to end up writing in generalities, not plausible, reality-based specifics. A common result: characters whose beauty and brains are inversely proportional, whose behavior and/or speech can be predicted as soon as the narrative drops a hint about their race/gender/sexual orientation/national origin/job/whatever, and/or who act exactly as though some great celestial casting director called up the nearest muse and said, “Hello, Euterpe? Got anything in a bimbo cheerleader? Great — send me twelve.”

Seen once on the page, one-note characters are kind of annoying. When those cheerleaders come cartwheeling across a good 40% of YA set in high schools, even a hint of waved pom-pom can get downright annoying.

Even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions. What tends to get caught by the broom of a sweeping generalization is not Millicent’s imagination, but the submission. If it seems too stereotypical, it’s often swept all the way into the rejection pile.

Why, you ask? Because by definition, a characterization that we’ve all seen a hundred times before, if not a thousand, is not fresh. Nor do stereotypes tend to be all that subtle. And that’s a problem in Millicent’s eyes, because in a new writer, what she’s looking to see — feel free to chant it with me now — originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent.

When a writer speaks in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where her authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive — or, frankly, all that memorable.

“But Anne,” writers of reality-based fiction and nonfiction alike protest, “sometimes, stereotypes have a kernel of truth to them, just as clichéd truisms are frequently, well, true. Isn’t it possible that Millicent sees certain character types over and over again because they pop up in real life so often, and writers are simply reflecting that? Should she not, in short, get over it?”

Ah, editors hear that one all the time from those writing the real, either in memoir form or in the ever-popular reality-thinly-disguised-as-fiction manuscript. In fact, it’s an argument heard in general conversation with some fair frequency: many, many people, including writers, genuinely believe various stereotypes to be true; therein lies the power of a cliché. The very pervasiveness of certain hackneyed icons in the cultural lexicon — the policeman enraged at the system, the intellectually brilliant woman with no social skills, the father-to-be who faints in the delivery room, that same father helpless if he is left alone with the child in question, to name but four — render them very tempting to incorporate in a manuscript as shortcuts, especially when trying to tell a story in an expeditious manner.

Oh, you don’t regard stereotypes as shortcuts? Okay, which would require more narrative description and character development, the high school cheerleader without a brain in her head, or the one who burns to become a nuclear physicist? At this point in dramatic history, all a pressed-for-time writer really has to do is use the word cheerleader to evoke the former for a reader, right?

Unless, of course, a submission that uses this shortcut happens to fall upon the desk of a Millicent who not only was a high school cheerleader, but also was the captain of the chess team. At Dartmouth. To her, a manuscript that relies upon the usual stereotype isn’t going to look as though it’s appealing to universal understandings of human interaction; it’s going to come across as a sweeping generalization.

Can you really blame her fingers for itching to reach for the broom?

“But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “Isn’t this all going a little far afield from Kelly’s original question? Wasn’t she really asking for a list of overused plot twists and premises a savvy aspiring writer should avoid?”

Possibly, but that’s precisely the conundrum of freshness. What would have struck Millicent as fresh a year ago, when Kelly first brought this up, is not what would seem so to her now. Freshness is an ever-moving target, difficult for an aspiring writer — who, after all, usually takes at least a year or two to fashion a premise into a full manuscript — to hit predictably. Since nobody can legitimately claim to know what will be selling well a couple of years from now, committing to a premise is always going to be something of a risky proposition.

All a writer can do is strive to make her plot and characterization as original as her voice — and, ideally, as surprising. The best means of figuring out what will come as a pleasant surprise to her is to read widely in your chosen book category. What kinds of plot twists are used, and which overused? What’s been done to death, and what’s new and exciting? What’s considered characteristic and expected in your type of book these days, and what’s considered out of bounds?

Once you have come up with provisional answers to those questions, ask yourself another: how can I make my book’s premise, characterization, and plot even better than what’s already on the literary market?

Speaking of conundrums, have you solved the riddle of the Sphinx yet? It’s the humble human being: as babies, we crawl; in our prime, we walk on two legs; in old age, we use canes.

Actually, people tend to use walkers now, but who are we to question the wisdom of the Sphinx? All I know — and this is so far from a standard premise that I can’t recall a bestselling novel of the last twenty years that has dealt with this subject in any significant depth — is that after one has been hobbling around on three legs, it’s astonishingly tiring to wander around on just two. And that, my friends, is the explanation for my recent blogging silence: I’ve been taking a long change-of-season nap.

All the better to launch into Queryfest next time, my dears. Keep up the good work!

Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXII, and Structural Repetition, part IX: who is that handsome devil in the mirror, and why shouldn’t I consider him the sole arbiter of clarity?

Before I launch into what we all devoutly hope will be my next-to-last post on structural repetition (for the nonce, at least), a recommendation for all of you who write YA: because it’s always a good idea to familiarize oneself with the roots of one’s chosen book category, I would highly recommend that you take a gander at this quite interesting interview with YA grande dame Beverly Cleary. Actually, any writer planning to be a legend in her own time might want to take a peek at it. It’s both fascinating and falls into an interview trap that’s become surprisingly common of late — when asked what books she reads in her own category, Cleary, said that she doesn’t read any. Not too long ago, Philip Roth told a reporter essentially the same thing: readers should continue to pick up his novels, but he no longer reads fiction.

“I wised up,” he said.

I have to say, this strikes me as a trifle tone-deaf, given the difficulties the literary market has been facing of late. If writers don’t read (and buy) books in their own categories, who will? And how is a writer to know how his type of book — and his type of reader — is growing and changing unless he keeps an eye on what’s come out recently?

To be fair, it used to be considered rather chic for authors to pretend that they never thought about their readerships’ tastes while constructing what turned out to be bestsellers. No, art was art and commerce was commerce, and ne’er the twain shall meet: the only thing on the author’s mind, we were given to understand, was the inspiration descending from on high and his own fine sense of what would work on the page literary.

This, like the still-pervasive interview implication that what ends up on the page is first draft, is not a reflection of the realities of authorial life; it’s spin. And it’s unfortunate spin, because statements like these give aspiring writers everywhere the false impression that being a successful author has nothing to do with pleasing one’s readership, or even bothering to learn anything about their tastes. No, this argument goes, a truly gifted writer never seeks to please anyone on the page but himself.

It sounds tempting at first blush, doesn’t it? Art for art’s sake has always appealed to artists. But as a reader — as the overwhelming majority of good writers are, bless your hearts — doesn’t it strike you as a trifle insulting to be told what to like? Especially if the person telling you to like his work one moment is telling you the next moment that he doesn’t read anyone else’s work, and thus cannot provide a well-informed comparative assessment?

I leave the answers to those salient questions to further debate between you and your muse. For our purposes today, let’s take away three things. First, interview styles are as subject to change over time as writing styles; what sounded cool in 1963 may produce a significantly different impression now. It’s not a bad idea, then, for a first-time author to invest some time in reading and listening to recent author interviews, to see what works now and what seems like an idea whose time has passed.

Second, while established authors can sometimes afford to be cavalier about how their writing will strike their readers (although I suspect that you’d be hard-pressed to find a publishing house that would be thrilled about one of its authors doing so in public), those seeking to break into the biz cannot. It’s just not smart marketing to avoid thinking about who your target reader is, why your book will appeal to him or her, and how your book will satisfy an already-existing group of book-buyers’ literary tastes and/or interests in a manner that nothing else on the market currently does.

Obviously, in order to answer those questions, a writer is going to have to learn something about who is reading books like hers already and why. Sensing a pattern here?

Third, and most important for revision purposes, it’s vital to recognize that what the writer takes away from any given scene or paragraph might not be what a reader takes away – or what a reader who does not know the writer personally would glean from it. If the action on the page is confusing to a reader — especially if that reader happens to be an agent, editor, or contest judge — it’s the writer’s responsibility to clarify the writing, not the reader’s to figure out what is going on. Especially if that would mean going back and re-reading the sentences in question; Millicent simply doesn’t have time to do that.

I feel an editing axiom coming on: if a reader finds a passage unclear, it does not matter that the writer can explain glibly what’s going on; the reader can judge only what’s actually on the page.

This is especially important precept to bear in mind if you are editing for humor. All too often, aspiring humorists proceed upon the assumptions that

(a) anything that makes them laugh is inherently funny,

(b) anything that makes their kith and kin laugh is funny,

(c) any anecdote they have ever told out loud and elicited a chuckle is funny, and/or

(d) any reader will find writing based on assumptions (a)-(c) funny.

All of these are palpably untrue, as Millicent the agency screener would be only too happy to tell you, and she should know: humor that doesn’t quite work on the page shows up in submissions so often that it has become one of her pet peeves. It’s also untrue that

(e) having a character laugh at something either he or another character has just said will render it funny to a reader.

That’s likely to come as a surprise to all of those submitters who tried to convince Millicent that their protagonist was the next Hawkeye Pierce by depicting bystanders roaring with laughter at his antics and quips. This exceedingly pervasive professional readers’ pet peeve tends to run a little something like this:

Bored with the lesson, Chuck glanced out the window, searching for amusement. He leap to his feet. “Look, Miss McStraightlacedson! A tiger’s escaped from the zoo!”

Half the class ran to the window while he leaned back in his chair, grinning while his classmates searched for a beast that existed only in his imagination. His friends leaned forward on their desks, cracking up at how gullible the others were.

The teacher alone had not budged. “Back to your seats, everyone. I’m afraid Mr. Hilariouskid has been putting us on again.”

Several boys slapped him on the back as they regained their seats. “That was a good one, Chuckles!” Mopey Wanabefunny cried.

A professional reader’s response to this subtle giggle-prompting tactic is seldom laughter, I’m sorry to report, but eye-rolling. Most often, accompanied by, “Next!”

In other words, it might make Millicent laugh, but not for the right reasons.

While we’re talking about editing for humor, did you catch the other problem with this passage? Hint: the writer probably thought this made this scene’s hilarity clearer, but from the reader’s perspective, it watered down the joke.

If you immediately leapt out of your chair, yelling, “I know the answer, Miss McStraightlacedson! The narrative over-sold the joke,” allow me to hand you the Milton Berle Award; feel free to hang onto it for a while. While the old writing truism that brevity is the soul of wit is not always accurate (as anyone who has ever enjoyed a shaggy dog story can attest), explaining to the reader after the fact why something is humorous almost always renders it less amusing.

As we discussed earlier in this series, this kind of overkill also has another side effect: to a professional reader like Millicent, it indicates some doubt in the writer’s mind that the situation itself is funny enough to prompt laughter without the explanation, which in itself raises a question about its humor value. Basically, it’s a sign that the writer doesn’t trust the reader to get it.

In my experience, though, most of the writers who fall into this trap do so not because they are thinking poorly of their audience’s reading comprehension skills, but because they are not thinking of the reader at all. Something strikes the writer as amusing — so it must be so to the reader, right?

Frequently, no. If it isn’t, the text’s going on to tell the reader why something that hasn’t been shown to be funny should make her laugh is not going to help.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is that scene again, with the laughter prompts excised, as well as the explanation; while I’m at it, I’m going to change the too-obvious character names as well. Judge for yourself whether the humor doesn’t stand up better.

Bored with the lesson, Charles glanced out the window. He leap to his feet. “Look, Miss Bates! A tiger’s escaped from the zoo!”

Half the class ran to the window. Only a pellucidly blue sky and well-kept lawns greeted them.

The teacher alone had not budged. “Back to your seats, everyone. And you, Mr. Spencer, will report for detention after…Mr. Spencer? Where are you?”

Even the kids who hadn’t rushed to see the tiger screamed. All that remained of Charles was a red-stained tennis shoe occupying his chair.

While his classmates wept and Miss Bates dashed to the principal’s office, Charles walked whistling down the path to the river. Fishing was a much better use of a sunny day than learning about how Hannibal crossed the Alps.

Come on, admit it — you weren’t expecting one new plot twist, were you, much less two? The unexpected is often funny on the page. So much so that if I were editing this piece, I might recommend that the last paragraph be beefed up with another surprise.

While his classmates wept and Miss Bates dashed to the principal’s office, Charles walked whistling down the path to the river. Fishing was a much better use of a sunny day than learning about how Hannibal crossed the Alps. As he slipped through the hedge and off school grounds, he heard a low growl behind him, the faint sound of padded feet.

Whether the pursuer turns out to be a tiger or Miss Bates teaching him a lesson, you must admit, the revised version is quite a bit more amusing than the original. In the second, the writer trusts the reader to be able to follow what’s going on AND to have a sense of the absurd.

Should the writer have explained that Charles reddened his shoe with the ketchup packets he always kept concealed in his desk? Possibly, but not necessarily. If the reader already knew from an earlier scene that the boy believed in being prepared in case any stray hot dogs might find their way to his desk, smuggled from the lunchroom (oh, that rapscallion!), the joke would fly just fine without it. Ditto if we’d already seen him brandishing a red Magic Marker or dabbing a cut with iodine.

There is, in short, no single, hard-and-fast editing rule dictating the right amount of set-up for humor. It all depends on the situation — and the target audience.

Why bring any of this up while either author interviews or revision are on our collective mind? Simple: not taking your reader’s likely response into account renders pulling off either well quite a bit more difficult. A writer who thinks only of his own reaction to what’s on the page tends to overlook clarity problems, logical leaps, redundancy, and anything else that didn’t strike him as important when he composed the passage.

He also is inclined not to consider the reader’s enjoyment — and that’s a real drawback, as far as Millicent is concerned. As we’ve seen in this series on structural repetition, it’s not nearly as much fun to read prose that’s repetitive in sentence structure or vocabulary as writing that’s more varied.

Because writing is a solitary art — yes, even after one lands an agent and sells one’s book to an editor — it’s astonishingly easy to lose sight of the end reader, particularly in the revision stage. When we writers are up on our high horses, we tend to talk about our artistic visions and the importance of being true to our voices, but while we’re being down-to-earth about it, we have to admit that if we can’t (or won’t) take the time to make those visions and voices accessible to the reader AND at least somewhat pleasant to read, we aren’t completing our mission successfully.

Does that mean dumbing down complex concepts or compromising original voices? No, not if revision is performed intelligently. It does mean, however, that the writer of a Frankenstein manuscript owes it to any complex concept that might be lingering with in it, as well as to her own narrative voice, to try to read the text as a reader might.

An author reading I attended last year provided a glorious pragmatic illustration of the necessity for a good reviser (or good writer, for that matter) to consider not only his own point of view when deciding whether a passage of text was clear, but also a reader’s. As is lamentably often the case at such readings, the author read excerpts from her book in a monotone, without once lifting her eyes from the page to connect with her audience.

The result, unsurprisingly, was that her gorgeous prose fell flat. The characters blurred together; the dramatic arc of the scene was lost; the quite amusing punch line failed to invoke even a single smile in an audience member. A great and preventable pity, because the scene she chose to read was well-written, beautifully paced, and contained some genuinely astonishing plot twists.

As if the muses had gone out of their way to demonstrate to this author just how much she was underselling her own excellent prose stylings, the venue had booked a second author to read at the same event, one whose obviously well-rehearsed, excitingly voiced reading, punctuated by frequent merry glances up at her fans, kept the crowd enthralled. Guess which author sold more books?

Now, I have nothing but sympathy for the shy; I happen to enjoy public speaking, but I know that it positively terrifies many. Reading one’s own work in public is hard, so I would STRENUOUSLY recommend that any and all of you who intend to see your work in print some day start practicing reading it in front of others as soon as humanly possible. Reading well out loud is something that few of us manage the very first time we try, after all.

Like so many other skills required of a professional writer, giving good public readings is a learned skill, one that requires practice to perfect. It also requires — you saw this coming, didn’t you? — the writer to take the time to consider what that passage of perfect prose might sound like to someone who, unlike herself, might not have read it before.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: a writer’s ability to step outside his own head and consider what’s actually on the page, rather than what he thinks is on the page, is crucial to good revision.

Case in point: the question we have been discussing over the last couple of posts, the delicate balance between referring to characters by name often enough for clarity, but not so much that all of those capital letters distract the reader’s eye and prompt Millicent to grope for the form-letter rejection stack. This is a problem that’s not likely to trouble the sleep of a writer who doesn’t think much about what her readers might be taking away from any particular page of his story, right?

In fact, the very question might strike him as just a little bit stupid. “Why, I should have thought that was obvious,” he would huff.

If the writing on that page is clear, his intended meaning may well be obvious. If not, his submission could well end up confusing Millicent — or, still worse, expecting her to fill in gaps in logic, background scenery, character motivation…

You know, all of those thrilling, character- and plot-revealing details that we talk about so much here at Author! Author! as the hallmark of expressive prose. Millicent’s on the lookout for style, recall, not just a gripping story. If she — or any reader, for that matter — has to devote even a few seconds of her scant time with your submission to sorting out confusing logistics, unclear character motivations, or just plain trying to figure out what’s going on, that’s a few less seconds she is spending noticing how likable your protagonist is and how gracefully you describe cloud patterns.

I couldn’t help but notice that not all of you immediately shouted, “Right, by Jove!” Does it strike you as a trifle hostile to literature that our Millie tends to concentrate far more on a submission’s faults than its beauties? Okay, let’s step into in her practical two-inch heels for a moment, and consider the strengths and weaknesses of the kinds of manuscripts we’ve been discussing.

Got your Millicent cap firmly pulled down around your ears? Excellent. Picture four manuscripts before you, each written by a talented writer eager for a break. Which one will you decide to show to your boss, the bigwig agent, and which three will you reject?

Your choices are (1) a narrative that assumes you will put in extra effort to sort out what is going on in certain confusing passages, like so:

He woke up with her hair in his mouth. She rolled sideways. Trees swayed outside the unfamiliar window, giving him no clue of his whereabouts. Ow — his knee! He pulled on his boots.

(2) A submission that just summarizes the story, leaving you to fill in most of the details, rather than providing interesting and surprising specifics from which you might derive your own impression of what’s going on, thus:

Bart woke up dazed, disoriented, under what seemed to be a pouf of somebody else’s hair. There was a girl next to him; for the life of him, he could not remember her name, nor did the trees swaying outside the window give him any clue about where he was. His knee hurt, as if something had smashed against it recently. He had to get out of there. He crept out of bed, pulled on his boots, and left.

(3) the most extreme form of Frankenstein manuscript, one so rife with spelling, grammar, perspective, and consistency problems that even its author appears not to have taken the time to read it all the way through:

But, I wake up with her hair in his mouth. She rolled sideways, pearing at the unshaven face near to her foot. No help there so quite as a mouse, I syruptitiously looked at the trees outside the window, but they didn’t tell me where I had managed to get myself to. Something had cracked against his knee. Where had those darned boots gotten to, and who was this girl anyway?

(That one was genuinely hard for me to write, by the way; I kept having to undo my instinctive corrections.)

(4) A manuscript where the writer has taken the reader’s perspective into account sufficiently to clarify all of the relevant issues of the page, skillfully using a plethora of vivid details to convey to the reader a complex reality and consistent enough in tone that you can discern, however faintly, an individual authorial voice:

Bart woke up gasping for breath. Was he being smothered under a fuzzy scarlet blanket, or had his bangs grown down to his mouth, choking him with a lamb-like pouf of curly hair? Wait — his hair hadn’t been curly since he had been the spelling champion of Mrs. Chellini’s third-grade class. His dim memories of her classroom seemed like Technicolor spectaculars, compared to his recollection of last night.

He yanked a particularly wavy red lock from the corner of his mouth, following it gingerly — better not move too much, head — across the rough Navaho blanket to its source. The mascara-streaked face wasn’t familiar, but the Hooters t-shirt was. Tammy, maybe? Tina? And was that blood on his bare knee? No wonder it hurt: that gash would need stitches.

Tell me, Millicent-for-a-day: which would you choose to pass on to your boss, and which would you reject?

There’s nothing wrong with expecting your reader to draw conclusions from what you say on the page, but as some well-meaning English teacher may have pointed out to you once or twice in the past, style often lies in the essential difference between showing and telling. If the writer chooses to beguile the reader with enough details about a situation that he walks away from the scene with the mental image the author intended, that’s showing. If, on the other hand, the writer elects to tell her tale in generalities, or to spell all of the necessary conclusions for the reader instead of allowing the reader to draw them for himself, that’s telling.

Of course, to write a complex tale, you’re probably going to have to do both. Let’s face it, telling can be quite useful from time to time, particularly in a fast-paced action scene or a chunk of narrative that needs to cover a hefty chunk of passing time. More often than not, however, writers use summary statements as a kind of shorthand writers to get past activities that are necessary to the plot, but just don’t interest them that much.

Which brings me, conveniently enough, to one of the most commonly over-used verbs in manuscript submissions — and, not entirely coincidentally, to one of Millicent’s lesser-known pet peeves. Contest judges complain vociferously about it, too, so I could not in good conscience polish off our discussion of textual redundancy without talking about it. Not that I mind: this particular phenomenon is a favorite bugbear of mine as well, because its astonishingly pervasive use tends, in my experience, to flatten description and characterization.

Have I piqued your curiosity sufficiently yet? Too bad — you’re going to have to wait until tomorrow’s post to find out what this classic Millicent-annoyer is. I know what I’m talking about here, and that’s enough for now.

See how frustrating it is when the writer considers only what she needs to get out of the words on the page, rather than her readers’ desire to know what’s going on? And have I given you strong enough evidence of the point I made yesterday, that false suspense — withholding information from the reader purely for the sake of building suspense — is darned annoying?

My work is done here for the day, clearly. Tune in next time for a few last concrete examples of Millicent-irritants before Pitchingpalooza begins on Wednesday. In the meantime, remember your readers, and keep up the good work!

As individual as a snowflake — but my, don’t those snowflakes start to look alike when they start to pile up (or, as we like to call this post around here, Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXI, and Structural Repetition, part VIII)

My, that’s a mighty cool image for a midsummer day, is it not? After catching the tail end of a national weather report, I thought some of you fine people could use some visual air conditioning.

And what a refreshing breeze was caused by all of those hands suddenly shooting into the air. “But Anne,” those of you who have been following this series on self-editing and rigorously applying its principles, “air conditioning is felt viscerally, and visual images are seen by the eyes! Is this not, therefore, a mixed metaphor — and aren’t mixed metaphors one of the many, many things that get our old pal Millicent the agency screener’s goat?”

Quite right, sharp-eyed revisers, and well caught. Our Millie has indeed been known to gnash her teeth over analogies that are not quite analogous, as well as sensual organs that pick up sensations beyond their traditional ken. Hearts that skip a pulse, rather than a beat, eyes that observe inflections in tone, facial expressions that convey emotions of such complexity that Marcel Proust would consider their fullness over-examined on the page — all have done their part over the years in depleting Millicent’s goat herd.

She doesn’t have awfully many goats left, people. Choose your words with care.

In an effort to help her conserve a few cloven-footed beasts, I went on at some length last time about the yawn-inducing effect of mentioning characters’ names too often within a short stretch of text. As I tried to show in what was probably an excess of examples, the repetitive force of all those capital letters can be somewhat hypnotic. More seriously, they can be distracting from the story the book is telling.

And that, my friends, is bad news for any submission. It’s worth a novelist’s while, then, to massage the text a little to try to reduce the frequency of those monikers. It’s also worth the memoirist’s while, and the creative nonfictionist’s. Heck, if we going to be honest about it, it would behoove pretty much any writer who presents characters in a format other than a list.

Especially someone who has already performed one (three, five, a hundred and seventeen) revisions on a manuscript. Why? Well, think about it: the more worked-over a manuscript is, the more likely names are to have changed over the course of the revision process, right?

Oh, you thought Millicent wouldn’t notice if your protagonist’s sister was Emily for the first third of the book and Evie thereafter? I can hear her pet goats saying, “Meh!” at the very notion.

Even if this is your first attempt at editing your manuscript, it’s in your best interest to keep an eye on the percussive repetition of those proper nouns, particularly if the names in question begin with the same first letters or sound similar. As we saw last time, repeated first letters in different names can cause the reading eye to leap to unwarranted assumptions, or even — brace yourself, similar name-lovers — cause the reader to mix up the relevant characters.

While you’re already well-braced, I might as well continue with the bad news: character blurring is particularly likely to occur in the opening pages of a manuscript, where many characters are often introduced quite close together.

Resist the temptation, please, to blame the skimming eye, rather than authorial choices, for this species of confusion. It’s hard to blame Millicent for getting confused when eight characters are tossed at her within half a page — especially when that half a page happens to be on page 1, when she cannot reasonably be expected to know which of this cast of thousands is the protagonist.

Oh, you think it’s easy to keep track? Okay, skim over the following sterling piece of literature as rapidly as you can. As always, if you’re having a bit of trouble making out the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

similar name page 1

Be honest, now: right now, based on that rapid reading alone — no fair referring back to the page — could you draw Cheryl’s family tree? Not as easy for a skimmer to keep track of everyone as one might have at first supposed, is it?

The good news (yes, there is some) is that this problem is at least partially avoidable with a little advance planning on the writer’s part. Since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Beryl, Bunnie, and Benny. Adopting the old screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter will help alleviate reader confusion.

Repetitive capital letters are not the only avoidable bugbears in naming, however. Swift readers will also frequently mix up names with similar sequences of letters, such as Cheryl, Meryl, and Beryl. Or Jenny and Benny. Or even Bunnie and Billie.

Starting to get the picture, or rather the pattern? Millicent is. And her goat is getting antsy.

Believe it or not, even names that merely sound similar can be hard to tell apart on the page. Why? Well, many readers (not usually the speediest text-absorbers, admittedly, but still, potential enjoyers of your prose) will pronounce names in their minds, at least the first time those monikers appear on the page. So while it may seem unnecessary to worry about anyone’s confusing Cheryl and Sherrill in the same manner that they might mix up Cheryl and Meryl, or Meryl and Beryl, it’s actually not beyond belief.

Try saying that last sentence out loud three times fast, and you’ll see why.

Again, advance planning (or most writers’ preferred method, after-the-fact tedious alteration) is your friend here: name your people so they don’t sound so much alike. Millicent will thank you — and, speaking as someone who survived editing a manuscript whose characters were Maureen, Marlene, Doreen, Arleen, and Darlene, I will thank you, too.

There’s another species of naming conducive to character-blurring, one that seldom involves any capital letters at all: avoiding proper nouns altogether. Such narratives have a nickname amongst editors: he said/she said texts.

Or, as I like to call them, he said/he said/he said.

Don’t laugh: name-eschewing is a more common practice than you might think, and not only in mid-book chapters, where the relevant characters are already established. In fact, leaving identification entirely to pronouns is a fairly popular type of book opening, intended (one assumes) to hook the reader by making him guess who the mysterious he (or, more often, she) of the opening paragraphs could possibly be.

Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, given its ubiquity, this type of opening turns up on practically every Millicent’s pet peeve list. Judge for yourself why it might be a goat-getter:

pronoun-only text

Well, are you hooked? Or, to put it in the terms that a professional reader would, are you eager to turn to page 2? If so, how much of the appeal lay in the inherent excitement of the situation and how it was presented — and how much in the fact that the narrative didn’t bother to tell you who any of these people were or much of anything about them?

“Meh,” says the goat. “I could take this story or leave it, at this point.”

I’m with you, Flossie. For the false suspense device to work, the reader has to find being kept in the dark titillating — and overwhelmingly, Millicents do not. When presented with an opening like this, they are all too prone to start asking practical questions along the lines of Who is this broad?, What on earth is going on here?, and Why is this writer withholding relevant information from me? Is this lady’s name a state secret?

Trust me on this one: in a submission (or contest entry, for that matter), it’s the writer’s job to show what’s going on, not the reader’s job to guess. Letting the reader know who is who is more than good Millicent-pleasing; it’s generally considered better writing than false suspense.

Or any other tactic that’s like to result in reader confusion, really. Millicent’s usual response to being confused by what’s in front of her on the page is generally quite dramatic: a cry of “Next!”

Oh, those hands are in the air again. Yes? “Um, Anne?” those of you joining us mid-series inquire meekly. “I have to admit, I rather like this kind of opening. I can see that it’s suspenseful, but what’s false about it? I’ve seen it in plenty of published books. And if there’s only one character in a scene — or only one whose name the protagonist knows, as in that last example — what’s so confusing about not telling the reader who she is?”

Valid questions all, meek inquirers. Yes, this opening is exciting, and yes, there was a time when this strategy was considered pretty nifty, particularly in fantasy circles. But really, hasn’t it been done to death by now?

The rather hackneyed nature of the tactic is not its primary drawback, however: the problem is that the suspense arises not solely from the considerable inherent stress of the situation upon the protagonist, but from the fact that the reader knows neither who she is nor why she is being pursued. (And why is she wearing a party dress in the woods?) Obviously, though, the narrator, the woman, and the author do know the answers to these questions — so the only possible reason not to share this information with the reader is to prompt the reader to be curious about it.

Hey, you — put Millicent’s goat right back where you found it. It’s not her fault (or the goat’s, for that matter) that the author didn’t have enough faith in the action of his opening scene to let it speak for itself. No, he thought had to introduce a narrative device (and a rather tired one at that) in order to interest the reader in his heroine’s plight.

Frankly, this opening doesn’t need it. Take a gander at the same page 1 with the withheld evidence added in:

“Come on, admit it,” the goat says. “It’s every bit as suspenseful, isn’t it?”

Good point, surprisingly articulate barnyard animal. For many readers, it may even be more suspenseful — having a bit of background to this chase enables us to empathize with Alice’s plight more fully.

Let’s go ahead and establish an axiom: unless there is a very, very good reason for denying the reader information as basic as a character’s name — particularly if, as in that last example, it’s the protagonist in a tight third-person narrative where the narrative voice evidently knows everything there is to know about that character — go ahead and call your characters by name the first time they appear in a scene (or the book), rather than referring to them constantly by only a generic he or she.

Believe me, Millicent doesn’t like to guess — and she has a point in this instance. Too little name-calling can be as harmful to the reader’s experience as too much. Even if the reader should in theory already know who is who, even a relatively mild policy of principled name avoidance can often lead to confusion, especially in action scenes.

Take, for example, the following little number — and to make it a fair test, I shall valiantly resist the temptation to give all of the combatants similar names.

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, he pushed back, sending him tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” he cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Now, I’m guessing that most of you were able to follow what was happening, even without drawing a diagram of the domino effect. (Although that would have been fun to see, wouldn’t it?) All a reader would really have to do is read slowly and carefully, perhaps going back and re-reading as necessary to answer any lingering questions.

It is indeed possible, then, for the reader to emerge at the end of this passage unconfused. But is it a good idea for a writer to expect the reader to put in the work?

I can answer that one for you: not if that reader is Millicent — or, indeed, any professional reader. Because clarity is, after all, the absolute minimum requirement of publishable writing, the pros typically regard an unclear passage as a poorly-written one, period. Or if not precisely poorly-written, then at least lazily revised.

At best, it’s an abdication of authorial responsibility: the gap between what the writer meant the reader to take away from the text and what’s actually on the page needs to be bridged by someone. The writer who submits the text at this stage is tacitly conveying the belief that it’s the reader’s job to fill in the necessary details; Millicent, by contrast, will be quite sure that it’s the writer’s job — and that the writer called in sick that day.

Here, Flossie. Where has she gone?

Millicent is also quite sure — and this comes as a nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters — that it’s not her job to go back and re-read a sentence because she found it confusing the first time around. So positive is she on this point that if such a sentence (or paragraph, or page) appears on page 1 of a submission, as we saw in the example above, she will often simply stop reading altogether.

Chant it with me now, campers: “Next!”

Does that low, despairing moan mean that some of you remain confused about when to name and when not to name? “But Anne, aren’t you presenting us with a Catch-22? I’m afraid that once I start adding all of the proper nouns necessary for clarity to my manuscript, I shall almost instantly run afoul of our bugbear from last time, too-frequent name repetition. Help! And why is this goat following me?”

Fear not, low moaners: you are not alone. Fortunately for all, the last time I brought this up, perplexed reader Elizabeth was brave enough to speak up:

Reading about repetition in manuscripts has me quaking in my boots. I understand that poor Millicent doesn’t want to read the same 15 words strung in a different order for 300 pages, but I was also under the impression that it was better to use a character’s name over a pronoun nine times out of ten, for clarity.

Obviously, it depends on how many times I replace the pronoun with the character name, as well as if Jason is the only “he” in the room, then there is less of a chance for confusion (unless there is also a transsexual in the room as well). One shouldn’t change every “he” to “Jason” just to be clear, or vice versa.

Now that I fully recognize the evils of repetition, I want to do my part and squelch it in my manuscript. I am just in agony over what to do about character names versus pronouns now that you mention that repeating the character’s name over and over is tiresome.

Elizabeth speaks for many here: I frequently meet aspiring writers who tell me that their early writing teachers insisted (wrongly, as it happens) that the only conceivable way to avoid confusing a reader by in a scene with more than one he or she is to avoid using pronouns altogether. The result, as she points out, can be name repetition of the most annoying variety.

Let’s see why. To revisit our earlier pronoun-problem example:

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, Herman pushed Paul back, sending Paul tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” Ed cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Oh, dear: that won’t do at all, will it? Unless a writer wants to stock up on Goat Chow, this seems like a strategic mistake.

It does serve, however, to illustrate an important reason to approach writing advice with caution: all too often, writing guidelines that aren’t applicable to every situation are presented as inviolable rules. Certainly, many, many aspiring writers are prone to take them as such. Matters of style are, unfortunately, often discussed as if they were matters of fact. As a result, accepting sweeping generalizations like the one Elizabeth cites above may actually be harmful to your writing.

Yes, you read that correctly. So here is my advice: never — and I do mean NEVER — accept a writing rule as universal unless you are absolutely satisfied that it will work in every single applicable instance. If you are not positive that you understand why a writing axiom or piece of feedback will improve your manuscript, do not apply it to your pages.

What should you do instead? Ask questions, plenty of them, and don’t accept, “Well, everybody knows it should be this way,” as an answer. Plenty of stylistic preferences have been foisted upon fledgling writers over the years as laws inviolable, and it actually not all that uncommon for writing teachers not to make — how shall I put this? — as strong a distinction between what is indispensably necessary for good writing and what is simply one possible fix for a common problem.

Take the 9/10th truism Elizabeth mentioned, for instance: it’s not uncommon generic writing advice, but it’s not particularly helpful, is it? I suspect that the real intention behind it is for multiplayer scenes — and, as is true of many pieces of specific writing advice that get passed on as if they were hard-and-fast rules, probably was first scrawled in the margins of a scene with a large cast, most of whom were merely described as he or she. Somehow, through the dim mists of time, what may well have started out as a relatively minor revision suggestion (you might want to think about giving that lady in the forest a name, Gerald), transmogrified into an imperative (thou shalt not use pronouns!).

But that imperative does not exist: there’s plenty of good writing that uses pronouns in abundance. Great writing, even, as even the most cursory flip through the volumes at any well-stocked bookstore or library will rapidly demonstrate. I’ve seen it, and I’m sure you have, too.

Heck, even the goat’s seen it.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering for the past ten paragraphs, I specified that I often hear the proper-name-at-all-costs rule from aspiring writers; professional writers know better. They know that there are many, many means of achieving clarity in writing about people without treating pronouns as if they were infected with some dreadful communicable disease.

Seriously, professional readers see practically pronoun-free first pages more than you might think — although nowhere near as often as the type of proper name-withholding opening we saw above. The trick, as is so often the case for good revision, is to approach each potential name vs. pronoun conundrum on an individual basis, rather than seeking to force every imaginable use of either into a one-size-fits-all rule.

Don’t be afraid to apply your common sense. As Aristotle liked to point out, moderation is the key.

Okay, so he was talking about something else, but obviously, where there are several characters of the same gender, referring to each by name, at least occasionally, could reduce confusion quite a bit. (And before anybody asks, the rule of thumb for transgendered characters is pretty straightforward in American literature, though: use the pronoun the character would use to refer to him- or herself at the time, regardless of the stage of physical transition. While Marci is introducing herself as Marci, rather than Marc, use she; when he would introduce himself as Marc, use he. It’s only polite to call people what they wish to be called, after all, and it will save the narrative from having to indulge in pointlessly confusing back-and-forth shifts.)

Once the reader knows who the players in a scene are, a clever writer can easily structure the narrative so pronoun use isn’t confusing at all. Remember, moderation is your friend, and clarity is your goal.

Let me guess: you want to see those principles in action, don’t you? Okay, let’s revisit a proper name-heavy example from last time, one that might easily have been composed by a writer who believed pronouns were to be eschewed because they have cooties. Behold the predictable result.

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

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Meh,” the goat observes, shaking its horned head, “that’s quite a lot of proper names for such a short scene, isn’t it?”

Far more than Millicent would deem necessary, certainly — which is to say, far, far more than are necessary for clarity, yet more than enough to feel repetitious on the page. Yet simply replacing all of the names with she (or, in John’s case, he) would leave the reader wondering what was going on. Lookee:

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

“Why ever not?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

She sighed. “Those were the days, eh?”

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

Fortunately, those two options aren’t the only tools we have up our writerly sleeves, are they? Let’s try a combination of minimizing the proper nouns by incorporating a little light pronoun use and reworking the dialogue a little:

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

“Why ever not?”

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

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

“Of course it’s about him. How many husbands do you think I have?”

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

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

“Those were the days, eh?”

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

Experience even momentary confusion about who was who, or who was saying what when? The goat and I think not. All it took was a touch of creativity, a spot of flexibility, and a willingness to read the scene from the reader’s perspective, rather than the writer’s.

After all, clarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As the writer, it’s your job to keep that pupil happy by making your narrative a pleasure to read.

Oh, come back, Flossie — Millicent doesn’t like bad puns, either. Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part V, in which we have apparently all died and gone to Concrete Example Heaven

On and off for the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about that graveyard of literary tension and promoter of telling rather than showing, the Short Road Home. The SRH haunts novel and memoir submissions in a variety of disguises. Oh, it’s a versatile narrative trick, easily applied to a broad range of manuscript environments; it is as proficient at strangling burgeoning character development as it is at draining the tension out of a scene.

Most often, of course, it manifests as a scene or plot that resolves conflict practically the nanosecond it appears — astonishingly often without any effort whatsoever on the part of the protagonist. Indeed, conflict-avoidance is so popular amongst fictional characters that protagonists tend to favor resisting the status quo even in their minds.

Oh, you may laugh, but you’d be surprised how often those of us who read for a living will watch, stunned, as a protagonist briefly considers perhaps maybe eventually doing or saying something — only to be interrupted by another character rushing in to prevent even the thought of discord from developing into something that might be interesting for the reader to watch. The swiftness with which these tension-averse white knights dispatch nascent conflict is sometimes downright eerie, begging the question: is this character a participant in this story, or is he reading it?

You’d like a concrete example, wouldn’t you? We aim to please.

If only I had the courage to speak up, Tyrone thought, seething. I’ve put up with my repressive boss’ arbitrary pronouncements for years. Maybe today is the day I should stop being a doormat. Maybe today is the day I shall start speaking up for myself. Maybe today is…

“Oh, and before we end the meeting,” Artie said, smoothing his notes, “I’ve been sensing some disgruntlement in the face of our recent reorganization. Perhaps I’ve been a trifle, well, if not insensitive, then at least myopic. I’d like to hear your concerns, though.” He turned to Tyrone. “I’ve always valued your opinion, Ty. How do you think we could improve our beloved department?”

Beaming, Tyrone wrestled a binder stuffed with suggestions from his backpack. “I thought you’d never ask!”

Ah, but the reader wishes you hadn’t asked, Artie. Characters who read one another’s minds are notorious tension-deflaters.

They are also prone to cutting off plot possibilities before they have a chance to do more than poke their wary heads above ground. Had Artie not magically deduced his employees’ irritation from some clue that the narrative has not elected to share with the reader — if, in other words, the conflict were shown by any means other than Tyrone’s thoughts telling us about them — maybe then Tyrone would have had to take the longer, more arduous road of addressing the problem by — wait for it — addressing the problem. As in out loud, in a manner that might have provoked an interesting, true-to-life scene.

We met another favorite guise of the Short Road Homes in my last post: telling a story out of chronological order, drowning any possible suspense about the outcome of a conflict by revealing it at the beginning of the scene, rather than the end. Even if foreshadowing is vague, it can sap the reader’s impetus to wonder what is going to happen next — a pity, really, as its purpose is ostensibly to raise suspense.

All too soon, our happy mood vanished, ruining the rest of the day. If I’d known what was going to happen next, I would have grabbed the oars and rowed like mad for the shore.

“Where’s the sun gone?” Barbara asked suddenly.

Meg’s hat blew off before she could reply. “The sky looks mighty ominous. I’d always thought that the clouds spelled DOOM was just an expression.”

I pointed a shaking finger over the side. “Are those sharks?”

Even minor chronology-surfing can lead to confusion. Since — chant it with me now, long-term readers — unless the narrative specifically states otherwise, events are presumed to occur in the order they appear on the page, what may appear to the writer as just a little creative sentence restructuring may genuinely muddy the reader’s conception what’s going on.

How? By inverting cause and effect temporally. Compare, for instance, this inadvertently time-traveling piece of prose:

Horrified, James jumped backward as Fred took a swing at him. He narrowly avoided being grabbed by George’s flailing hands. Wincing at the pain, he managed to spot and catch Bob’s crowbar before it connected with the side of his head.

With this more straightforward narration, in which cause precedes effect and our hero does not react before he perceives a threat:

Abruptly, Fred took a swing at him. Horrified, James jumped backward, practically into George’s flailing hands. As he veered under the large man’s arm, he spotted Bob wielding a crowbar. He managed to catch it just before it connected with the side of his head. His palm exploded with pain.

Much clearer, is it not? It’s also less of a Short Road Home: the reader is not told up front that something that has not yet occurred on the page will cause our hero to wince with pain.

Sometimes, though, a writer’s effort to make a series of actions clear can also send the narrative sliding down the Short Road Home. The pros like to call this over-explaining, for reasons I hope the next example will render obvious.

Darlene took a deep breath, so she could speak at length. This was taking a surprising amount of explanation. “It’s over, honey.”

Morgan’s eyes filled with tears. Confusion suffused his soul as he struggled to plumb her meaning. “But I don’t understand!”

He honestly didn’t. His perplexity continued even after Darlene’s quiet, “How is that possible, after the last hour and a half of conversation?” He just couldn’t wrap his mind around what she was trying to say. Was there a subtext here? Was it a subtle joke? Why was she telling him this now? Had there been a series of clues he had not caught, and if so, would she merely get angrier if he asked her for an itemized list?

He reached for his notebook, so he could consult his notes from the previous hour. “You’ll have to explain this to me again. What is it you’re trying to say?”

A tad redundant, is it not? Again, over-explanation is typically a show, don’t tell problem: by swamping the character-revealing and plot-resolving action with a welter of extraneous explanation, not only is the pacing slowed, but the central point of the scene (in this case, Morgan’s refusal to accept a painful rejection) gets a bit lost. So while all of that repetitive bottom-lining of his emotional state may have seemed to the author like necessary clarification, naming those emotions rather than showing them renders the scene less effective.

Too-heavy explanations are also, as we discussed in this series, rather insulting to Millicent’s intelligence. I’ve wrested a bit of comedy from Morgan’s cluelessness in order to make this scene more fun to read, so the distrust of the reader’s ability to draw quite obvious conclusions about a fairly straightforward situation may not have leapt out at you. It’s not as though this scene deals with unfamiliar concepts, however; for most readers, confusion — and, by extension, denial — don’t really require much introduction.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here’s that same scene again, allowing the characters’ actions and feelings to speak for themselves.

Darlene took a deep breath. “It’s over, honey.”

Morgan’s eyes filled with tears. “But I don’t understand!”

Her grip tightened on the back of the chair so much that her knuckles grew white, but she held her voice quiet. “How is that possible, after the last hour and a half of conversation?”

Every inch of his intestines quivering, we reached for his notebook, so he could consult his notes from the previous hour. There had to be a way to talk her out of this, but how?

“I just want to make sure I get your reasoning.” He measured the time between his words with care: long enough to buy him some time, not long enough to make her want to leap into his mouth with pliers to drag the reluctant syllables out. “You know, so I can explain your departure to our friends.”

Axing all of that extraneous explanation certainly bought some room for character development, didn’t it? That would come as a surprise to most Short Road Home-wielders, I suspect: the urge to summarize tends to be a side effect of the impulse to speed things up. Or, as is often the case in these decadent days of relatively low word counts — can you imagine, say, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, if it had to be cut down to under 100,000 words before it could be marketed? — of a clawing, terrified need to slash fifty pages from an over-long manuscript.

Besides, as we have just seen, summarizing emotional turmoil, that oh-so-common manifestation of the Short Road Home, just isn’t as effective on the page as demonstrating it through specific feelings, actions, and thoughts. Not merely labeling the emotion in question. mind you — Jack was sad is not, after all, a particularly evocative description — but by showing it in detail and trusting the reader to draw the correct conclusion about Jack’s emotional state.

He roved listlessly around the living room, straightening a grinning china dwarf here, making sure a magazine’s edge was exactly parallel to the edge of a table there. Calla might not be alive to notice anymore, but that was no reason to relax her standards. Someday, a guest might stop by, as they did in the old days.

You wouldn’t want to convey the impression that Millicent is intellectually incapable of extrapolating as self-evident a conclusion as Jack was sad from that little gem, would you?

The SRH’s almost magical ability to minimize the emotional impact of a moment is not limited to tragedy, either; as we saw in the Pet Peeves on Parade series, over-explanation’s ability to declare a joke dead on arrival is legendary. Less discussed amongst writers but equally pernicious, skating too quickly past the comic constituent parts of a potentially funny scene can also be fatal to humor.

Just as suspense is more effective if the reader has time to absorb the ambient threat and imagine a negative outcome before something bad happens — Alfred Hitchcock was apparently fond of saying that the best way to render a scene that will end with an explosion was not to show the participants running around in terror of the imminent bang, but to let the audience a bomb was concealed under a table, then let them squirm while a couple of characters who have no idea they’re dining atop a bomb chat about something else entirely — a funny build-up tends to have more impact if the reader has a chance to appreciate a series of amusing details.

Premises in particular are susceptible to death by Short Road Home. Take a gander:

Surely, nobody would care if she took just one apricot from that beautiful pile. Gerri reached out, grabbed a small one near the bottom — and then the entire pyramid disintegrated, sending fruit flying everywhere.

Now, this might have been funny, had it been fleshed out a bit more. Indeed, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult for a comedy-minded reader to picture what probably happened here in hilarious detail, based upon this scant description. But it’s not the reader’s job to contribute material to a book’s humorous scenes; it’s the writer’s job to write them so that they are funny.

Surprisingly often, simply drawing out the suspense will make a SRH scene funnier. Let’s apply the Hitchcock principle to poor Gerri’s plight.

The largest pile of fruit she had ever seen loomed before her, five feet high if it was an inch and nearly as broad at the base. Each perfectly ripe apricot selflessly offered a flawless furry cheek to the public, an arc of delicious roundness identical to its neighbor. She leaned forward to examine it more closely, convinced that the fruit must be fake.

A slap of immistakable sweetness assured her nose that her brain was dead wrong. She had to force herself not to plunge her face into the wall of fruit.

She circled the display, running her fingers as close to the base as she dared. The Great Pyramid of Giza could hardly have been arranged with greater care, but Gerri felt this was an even greater human achievement: presumably, the ancient wonder had taken years; judging by the heady aroma, this must have been the work of a single breathless hour. She could not even begin to imagine the bravery it must have taken to place that last crowning apricot, the cherry on the top of the world’s most precariously-constructed sundae.

Her mouth was watering; clearly, it had been a mistake to swoop in for a sniff. A reasonable adult would simply have accepted that the pyramid was what the sign next to it said it was — the Arabella County 4-H Club’s summer project, an attempt to beat a three-decade-old youth timed fruit-piling record — and moved on. A reasonable adult, however, would not have been forcibly deprived of stone fruit for the last two years by a husband who wouldn’t have known a vegetable had it leapt into his mouth of its own accord, screaming, “Eat me, Harold!”

She slipped around back, where theft would be least likely to be noticed and selected her prey. A smallish one, with a dent in it so minuscule that Sherlock Holmes might have missed it. Millimeter by millimeter, she edged it out of its space in the middle of the tenth row.

She slipped it into her pocket, cool and damp, just before a fresh group of State Fair-goers stampeded into the room. “Isn’t it magnificent, Ma?” a little girl with pigtails gushed.

Palpitating but proud, Gerri wove her way through the crowd. “Oh, excuse me,” she told a gawker. “I didn’t mean to step on your shoe.”

He waved away her concern a little too hard; Gerri had to duck to avoid his elbow. Her elbow knocked into something soft and prickly.

The Zucchini Through the Ages display went crashing to the ground, its hand-lettered signage squashing thirty squash into pulp in an instant. Small zucchini rolled under bystanders’ feet, sending strangers careening into one another. The first-place entry, a monster of eighteen pounds, flew straight into the stomach of a passing Girl Scout, forcing a stream of fairground goodies out of her astonished mouth. In the ensuing stampede, every single entry in the legume category was trampled beyond recognition.

Only the apricot mountain was spared. “I knew they must have glued it together,” Gerri muttered, slipping form the tent.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that comedy also benefits from a healthy dose of surprise?

No, but seriously, folks, after a lifetime of reading and a couple of decades of reading professionally, it’s my considered opinion that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers don’t have a clear idea just how much the average reader enjoys savoring conflict — or how much more trivial an easily-solved problem appears on the page than one with which the protagonist must struggle for pages or chapters on end. Just as an Idiot Plot that is resolved the instant someone thinks to ask Aunt Joyce her ring size is less than dramatically satisfying, a plot resolved by a Short Road Home tends to leave readers feeling a trifle underfed.

They came for a full meal, you know, with many succulent courses. How could they not be disappointed when a narrative merely gives them a glimpse of a nicely-fried brook trout, then whisks it away untasted? Or when the waiter spends the whole meal boasting of the spectacular dessert, then brings out a single dry cookie for the entire table to share?

And that’s non-professional readers’ reaction; the pros are even more ravenous for luscious, richly-depicted narrative tension. Just because Millicent spends her days grazing upon query letters and munching on synopses doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be thrilled to have a feast come submission-reading time.

Please say you’ve grasped the concept, because this metaphor is beginning to whimper under its explanatory load.

An excellent place to start sniffing around for instances of the Short Road Home: when a narrative begins to stray close to stereotype territory. Why? Well, stereotypes thrive upon generalization, so when they rear their ugly heads, they tend to nudge the narrative toward summary statements, conclusions, and the like. Grounding a scene or argument in the specific has the opposite tendency.

Straying toward the general is particularly likely too occur in memoirs and novels where writer is working overtime to make a character likeable — or always right. A character that is never wrong is, among other things, predictable; when predictability has pulled up a chair and seated itself in a scene, tension tends to take a flying leap out the nearest window.

Too theoretical? Okay, let’s take a peek at the offspring one of the more common marriages of stereotype and Short Road Home: the troubled child of the protagonist, particularly if it’s a teenager.

At the very mention, Millicent has already started cringing in her cubicle in New York, I assure you. The TCoP crosses her desk so frequently in adult fiction and memoir that she can scarcely see a character in the 13-19 age range without instinctively flinching and crying out, “Don’t tell me — she’s going to be sullen.”

You’re quite right, Millicent — 99% of the time, she will be. And rebellious. Not to mention disrespectful, sighing, and eye-rolling.

Yes, troubled kids and teenagers across the land have been known to do these things from time to time — but remember what I said a few paragraphs back about predictability? When Millicent encounters the rare non-stereotypical teenager in a submission, it’s a red-letter day.

Do I sense some shifting in chairs out there? “Yeah, yeah,” I hear a few seasoned self-editors piping, “I already know to avoid stereotypes, because Millicent sees them so often and because the whole point of writing a book is to show my view of the world, not a bunch of clichés. What does this have to do with the Short Road Home?”

In practice, quite a bit: it’s very, very common for a narrative featuring a TCoP to expend considerable (and usually disproportionate) time explaining the kid’s behavior — and, often, justifying how the protagonist responds to it. Unfortunately, this rush to interpret not infrequently begins as early as the first scene in which the TCoP is introduced.

What might this look like on the first page of a manuscript, you ask? A little something like this — and see if you can catch the subtle narrative bias that often colors this stripe of the Short Road Home:

When hard-working Tom Carver opened his front door, arriving home late from work at the stuffed animal plant yet again, his daughter, Malia, was once again refusing to speak to him. Glaring at him silently with all of the dastardly sneer her fifteen-year-old face could muster, she played with her spiky, three-toned hair until the third time he had considerately asked her how her school’s field trip to the State Fair had gone.

“Like you care!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes dramatically. She rushed from the room. Small chunks of what appeared to be zucchini flew from her hair onto the beautifully-swept floor.

The now-familiar sound of her slammed bedroom door ringing in his ears, he wandered into the kitchen to kiss his adored wife on her long-suffering cheek. “Criminy, I’m tired of that, Alice. Someday, all of that slamming is going to bring the house tumbling down on our heads. I’ll bet she hasn’t done even one of her very reasonable load of daily chores, either. Why did good people like us end up with such a rotten kid? I try to be a good father.”

Alice shook her head good-humoredly as she dried her wet hands on a dishtowel, slipped an apple pie in the oven, settled the home-make brownies more comfortably on their plate, and adjusted the schedule book in which she juggled her forty-seven different weekly volunteer commitments. “Well, Tom, she’s not a bad kid; she just acts like one. Malia’s felt abandoned since her mother, your ex-wife, stopped taking her bipolar medication and ran off with that bullfighter three months ago, totally ignoring the custody schedule we invested so many lawyers’ bills in setting up. She doesn’t have any safe outlet for her anger, so she is focusing it on you, the parent she barely knew until you gained the full custody you’d been seeking for years because you loved her so much. All you can do is be patient and consistent, earning her trust over time.”

Tom helped himself to a large scoop of the dinner he had known would be waiting for him. “You’re always right, Alice. I’m so lucky to have you.”

Well, I’m glad that’s settled. No need to read the rest of the novel, is there?

That’s a shame, because this story contains elements of a good character-driven novel. There’s a wealth of raw material here: a new custody situation; a teenager dealing with her mother’s madness and affection for matadors; a father suddenly thrust into being the primary caretaker for a child who had been living with his unstable ex; a stepmother torn between her loyalty to her husband and her resentment about abruptly being asked to parent a child in trouble full-time.

But when instant therapy sends us veering down the Short Road Home, all of that juicy conflict just becomes another case study, rather than gas to fuel the rest of the book. The result: what might have been an interesting scene that either showed the conflict (instead of telling the reader about it), provided interesting character development, or moved the plot along.

In other words, it becomes a scene that the writer should consider cutting.

Effectively, the narrative’s eagerness to demonstrate the protagonist’s (or other wise adult’s) complete understanding of the situation stops the story cold while the analysis is going on. Not for a second is the reader permitted to speculate whether Malia’s father or stepmother had done something to provoke her response; we hardly have time even to consider whether Tom’s apparently habitual lateness is legitimate ground for resentment.

Again, that’s a pity. If only Tom had said, “You know, instead of avoiding conflict, I’m going to maximize it, to make things more interesting for the reader,” and gone to knock on Malia’s door instead of strolling into the kitchen for coffee and soporific analysis, we might have had all the narrative tension we could eat.

Heck, had the narrative just gone ahead and shown Tom and Alice being patient and consistent, earning Malia’s trust over the next 200 pages, the reader MIGHT have figured out, I think, that being patient and consistent is a good way to deal with a troubled teenager. But no: the subtle Short Road Home demands that the reader be told what to conclude early and often.

Whenever you notice one of your characters rationalizing in order to sidestep a conflict, ask yourself: am I cheating my readers of an interesting scene here? And if you find you have a Jiminy Cricket character, for heaven’s sake, write a second version of every important scene, a draft where he doesn’t show up and explain everything in a trice, and see if it isn’t more dynamic. Do this even if your book’s Jiminy Cricket is the protagonist’s therapist.

Especially if it’s the therapist. Millicent sees a lot of those.

If you are writing a book where the protagonist spends a significant amount of time in therapy, make sure that you are balancing two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking scenes with scenes of realization outside the office. And make sure to do some solid character development for the therapist as well, to keep these scenes tense and vibrant.

If you are in doubt about how to structure this, take a gander at Judith Guest’s excellent ORDINARY PEOPLE, where most of the protagonist-in-therapy’s breakthroughs occur outside of the analyst’s office. The therapist appears from time to time, punctuating young Conrad’s progress toward rebuilding his life after a particularly grisly suicide attempt with pithy questions, not sum-it-all-up answers.

Hey, here’s a radical thought for revising a Short Road Home scene: what if you tinkered with it so your protagonist learns his lessons primarily through direct personal experience — or through learning about someone else’s direct personal experience told in vivid, tension-filled flashbacks?

Sound familiar? It should: it’s a pretty solid prescription for a narrative that shows, rather than tells.

Which, at the risk of wearing out some pretty time-honored writing advice, you should strive to do as often as possible — at least in your first book, where you really need to wow the pros. After you make it big, I give you permission to construct a plot entirely about a couple of characters sitting around talking, motionless.

But for heaven’s sake, leave that pyramid of apricots alone; it’s not as solid as it appears to be. Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part IV: Tommy! Watch out for that bear lurking at the end of this post! Tommy!

I can’t quite decide whether I am profoundly sorry or oddly pleased that I’ve been digressing from our series-within-a-series on the Short Road Home, my pet name for a storyline that introduces a conflict only to resolve it immediately, sometimes before the reader has a chance to register that the problem raised is at all serious. Yes, too-swift fixes make it harder for the reader to root for the protagonist — or, when faced with a truly galloping case of SRH, to perceive any build-up of narrative tension at all — but since authorial distrust in readers’ attention spans often underlie these apparently self-solving problems, perhaps jumping around between topics has been appropriate.

Those of us who read for a living, however, may be trusted to have attention spans longer than a third grader hopped up on a quart of cola and half a dozen brownies. Oh, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, may be conditioned to reject most manuscript submissions on page 1, but once she gets into a story, she, like any other reader, wants to see it played out in a satisfying manner.

That seems to be news to an awful lot of submitters, however. You’d be amazed at how often not small, potentially character-revealing conflicts are resolved practically as soon as they appear on the page, but major ones. In book openings, it’s not even all that uncommon to use one of these near-momentary crises as a clumsy means of introducing necessary backstory, as the following sterling piece of dialogue illustrates.

“It’s gone!” Marvin scrabbled around frantically in the dry grass next to his sleeping back, careless of the rattlesnake producing marimba rhythms on its tail a scant yard away. “My beloved late great-great-grandfather’s pocket watch!”

Antoinette gasped. “Not the one traditionally passed from dying father to eldest son for a century and a half, and entrusted to you by your father on his deathbed not four weeks ago?”

“The same.” A silver disk flew through the air at his head, glinting in the firelight. “Why, here it is! Where did it come from?”

The sleeping bag on the far side of the fire jackknifed. Jesse’s red face peered out of the opening. “You dropped it three hours ago. I was waiting for you to notice.”

Marvin flung his arms around Antoinette. “My legacy is safe!”

“What kind of idiot brings an heirloom mountain climbing?” Jesse muttered, trying to regain a comfortable position.

Yes, this is Hollywood narration — all three characters are already aware of the significance of the watch, so the only conceivable motivation for Antoinette and Marvin to explain it to each other is so the reader can hear what they say, right? — but you must admit, it is a darned efficient means of shoehorning the watch’s importance to Marvin into the story. It might not even come across as heavy-handed, if the reader had time to absorb the loss, understand its significance through Marvin’s reaction, and gain a sense of what might happen if the watch were never found.

But here, the darned thing reappears practically the instant Antoinette finishes filling the reader in about it, killing any possible suspense before it’s had time to build. Does that strike you as a narrative strategy likely to entrance a professional reader? Or is it likely to seem like the Short Road Home to anyone with an attention span longer than a drunken gnat’s?

Leaving aside for the moment the burning question of whether a gnat could be trained to hold its liquor, let’s consider how much more annoying this narrative strategy would be if (a) it were used frequently throughout the story, (b) it were in fact the primary tactic for introducing conflict into the story, and/or (c) the conflict in question were one that had been hyped throughout the book as central to the protagonist’s personal journey.

Yes, you did read that last bit correctly, campers. You would be stunned at how frequently Millicent sees a manuscript’s central conflict diverted to the Short Road Home. Often in the last chapter — or on the next-to-last page.

“Oh, Marv,” Antoinette moaned, cradling his bloody head, “you are so close to learning the truth about your family. Before you die, let’s look at that watch one more time.”

With effort, he fished it out of his pocket. The last rays of the sun illuminated its broad face. “Wait — I’ve never noticed that notch before. Maybe it has a false back.”

After the third time he dropped the watch, she put her deft fingers to work for him. “Why, you’re right. There’s been a piece of paper hidden back here all the time.”

She spread the paper two inches from his eyes. With difficulty, he made out the words. “Dear descendent: you will have heard all your life about a family curse. There really isn’t one; I just made it up to scare off competition from my gold mine. Please find attached the true map to your inheritance. Love, Marvin Bellamy the First.”

Suddenly, Marvin felt life once again suffusing his limbs. “Why, that’s the answer I’ve been seeking since we began this long, strange trek!”

Antoinette struggled to contain her annoyance. “And to think, if you’d only given that watch more than a passing glance after your father gave it to you, we wouldn’t have had to spend fifteen months hiking these mountains barefoot.”

“Oh, stop your moaning.” He sprang to his feet. “Your shoes didn’t wear out until month three. Let’s go find the gold mine — it’s only a few hundred yards away.”

“Um, excuse me?” Millicent asks politely. “Is there a reason that I had to read the 312 pages prior to this one? The entire plot has just been sewn up in seven paragraphs.”

Ah, but you should be grateful, Millie: at least this protagonist had to do something in order to send us careening down the Short Road Home. Granted, it wasn’t much; he simply had to manhandle his main prop a little to find his long-sought truth. As you know from experience, many a passive protagonist simply has another character hand the key to the plot to him on a silver platter.

The shadowy figure was closer now, bending over him. If this was Death, he certainly wore nice cologne.

Wait — he knew that scent. Hurriedly, Marvin wiped the dust from his eyes, but he still didn’t believe what they told him. “Dad? I thought you were…”

“Dead?” Marvin the Fifth chuckled ruefully. “No, not quite, son. That was merely the necessary push to aim you toward your legacy. Still got that watch?”

Marvin dug it out of his pocket. Snatching it, the old man cracked it in half.

“My inheritance!” Marvin screamed, horrified.

“Oh, it’s just a cheap knock-off.” Dad poked around in the shards. “But it contained this key to a safe-deposit box located twenty-two feet from this very spot. Come on, kid, let’s go claim your real inheritance. On the way, I’ll tell you all about your great-great grandfather’s plan for making his descendents rich.”

“Do I have to walk?” Marvin whined. “I’m tired from all of that mountain-climbing.”

“Hello?” Antoinette shouted after the pair. “Remember me? The lady who has been carrying your backpack for the last 100 pages?”

Come on, admit it: Marvin, Jr. is not the only one who seems a trifle lazy here. This writer appears to have dropped a deus ex machina into this plot, having a new character waltz into the story at the last minute to explain away all of the remaining mystery, rather than engaging in the hard, meticulous work of setting up sufficient clues throughout the story for the protagonist to be able to solve it himself.

Like other forms of the Short Road Home, the external explainer is a tension-killer. It could have been worse, though: ol’ Dad could have popped up periodically throughout the story, making it clear to all and sundry that he could have filled Marvin in at any time, if so chose he. What a pity that Marvin was just too darned lazy — or dim-witted, or determined that this story would take 324 pages to tell — to ask the obvious question.

Oh, you laugh, but narrators effectively tease the reader in this manner all the time in both novel and memoir submissions, through the use of the historical future tense. The openings of chapters are particularly fertile ground for this sort of suspense-killing narration. Often mistaken for subtle foreshadowing, transitional statements like I was happy — but my illusions were about to be shattered forever. actually minimize the tension to come.

How? Well, before the conflict even begins, the reader already knows the outcome: the narrator’s illusions will be shattered. She may not yet know the details, but you can hardly expect her to begin reading the next scene hoping for the best, can you?

Section-opening paragraphs that tell the reader how the scene how it’s going to end before the scene begins are alarmingly ubiquitous. Sometimes, such foreshadowing is subtle:

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my days of wine and roses were soon to come to an end — and in a way that I could never have anticipated in a thousand years of constant guessing. How was I to know that every child only has so many circuses in him before he snaps?

When my great-uncle Cornelius came down to breakfast waving the circus tickets that Saturday in May, I couldn’t have been happier…

Sometimes, though, foreshadowing is so detailed that it more or less operates as a synopsis of the scene to follow:

My hard-won sense of independence was not to last long, however. All too soon, the police would march back into my life again, using my innocuous string of 127 unpaid parking tickets (hey, everyone is forgetful from time to time, right?) as an excuse to grab me off the street, throw me in the back of a paddy wagon, and drag me off to three nights’ worth of trying to sleep in a cell so crowded that the Black Hole of Calcutta would have seemed positively roomy by contrast.

It all began as I was minding my own business, driving to work on an ordinary Tuesday…

In both cases, the narrative is telling, not showing — and, even more troubling to writing rule-mongers, telling the story out of chronological order. The latter is generally a risky choice, because, let’s face it, unless you’re writing a book that features time travel, most readers will expect events to unfold in chronological order — or if not, for flashbacks to be well-marked enough that the reader never needs to ask, “Wait, when is this happening?”

For the sake of clarity, beginning a scene at the beginning and proceeding to the end without extensive temporal detours is the established norm. That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, the frequent use of and then tends to annoy your garden-variety Millicent: unless a narrative specifically indicates otherwise, actions are assumed to have occurred in the order they appear on the page. I lost my footing and plunged into the water. And then the bear ate me, therefore, does not convey any more information to the reader than I lost my footing and plunged into the water. The bear ate me.

I hear some of you giggling. “Oh, come on, Anne,” lovers of conversational-style narration and/or run-on sentences protest. “I can see that and then might have been logically unnecessary here, but what’s the big deal about adding a couple of extra words?”

If they appear only once or twice in the course of a manuscript, they might not be a big deal. Given the extreme popularity of chatty-voiced narration, however, and the common conception that first-person narration peppered with conversational conjunctions is a valid reflection of everyday speech, Millicent sees an awful lot of and thens in a work day. Often, more than once on a single page. Or within a single paragraph.

You might want to give it a rest. I’m just saying.

Back to the benefits of telling a story in chronological order, rather than skipping around in time. Showing events in the order they occurred renders maintaining narrative tension easier, particularly in first-person narration: the reader may be safely left in the dark about surprising developments until they’re sprung upon the narrator, right?

Let’s face it, though, if the reader already knows what is going to happen before a scene begins, the temptation to skim or even skip the recap can be considerable. Particularly, say, if the reader in question happens to be a Millicent trying to get through a hundred submissions in an afternoon. Maybe she should run out and grab a latte to perk herself up a little…

All of which is to say: if you were looking for a good place to start trimming a manuscript, running a quick scan for the historical future tense might be a dandy place to start. Often, such opening paragraphs may be cut wholesale with little loss to the overall story. Ditto with premature analysis.

Oh, wait: I’m foreshadowing — and to render it even more confusing, I’m doing it by jumping backwards in time. The last time I addressed this topic, a reader wrote in to ask:

I’m assuming that it’s still okay to occasionally employ the historical future (foreshadowing) comments, as long as we don’t prematurely spill the beans…or choke on them…in our rush to analyze, yes?

That’s an interesting question. So much so that I strongly suspect that if this reader had asked it at a literary conference, agents and editors would glance at one another sheepishly, not wanting to generalize away the possibility that a writer in the audience could wow ‘em with foreshadowing, and then fall back on that time-worn industry truism, it all depends upon the writing.

Which would be precisely true, yet not really answer the question. But did you notice how gratuitous that and then was?

To address it head-on, let’s take another gander at our last two examples. In a novel or a memoir, a writer could probably get away with using the first, provided that the story that followed was presented in an entertaining and active manner.

Yes, Example #1 does provide analysis of action that has not yet happened, from the reader’s point of view — and doesn’t it make a difference to think of a foreshadowing paragraph that way, campers, instead of as a transition between one scene and other? — but it does not, as our questioner puts it, spill the beans. The reader knows that something traumatic is going to happen, and where, but not enough about either the event or the outcome to spoil the tension of the upcoming scene.

In Example #2, by contrast, not only does the narrative announce to the reader the specifics of what is about to occur — told, not shown, so the reader cannot readily picture the scene, so revisiting it seems dramatically necessary — but shoves the reader toward an interpretation of the events to come. After such a preamble, we expect to be outraged.

Which, too, is dangerous strategy in a submission: such an introduction raises the bar for the scene that follows pretty high, doesn’t it? If a text promises Millicent thrills and doesn’t deliver them, she’s not going to be happy. Or impressed. Frankly, though, if she’s already in a touchy mood — how many times must the woman burn her lip on a latte before she learns to let it cool before she takes a sip? — the mere sight of the historical future might set Millicent’s teeth on edge, causing her to read the scene that follows with a jaundiced eye.

Why, you ask? The insidious long-term result of repetition — because writers, unlike pretty much everybody else currently roaming the planet, just LOVE foreshadowing. The historical future makes most of us giggle like schoolgirls tickled by 5000 feathers.

As with any device that writers as a group overuse, it’s really, really easy to annoy Millicent with the historical future. Especially if she happens to work at an agency that handles a lot of memoir, where it’s unusual to see a submission that doesn’t use the device several times within the first 50 pages alone.

Heck, it’s not all that uncommon to see it used more than once within the first five. By the end of any given week of screening, poor Millie has seen enough variations on but little did I know that my entire world was about to crumble to generate some serious doubt in her mind about whether there’s something about writing memoir that causes an author to become unstuck in the space-time continuum on a habitual basis.

Which, in a way, we do. Since memoirs by definition are the story of one’s past, really getting into the writing process can often feel a bit like time-travel. After all, how else is a memoirist going to recall all of those wonderfully evocative telling details that enlivened the day a bear ate her brother?

Tell me honestly: as a reader, would you rather see that bear jump out of the underbrush and devour bratty little Tommy twice — once before the scene begins, and once at its culmination — or only once?

Or, to put it another way, would you prefer to know that Tommy is going to be a carnivore’s dinner, so you may brace yourself for it? Or would you like it better if the scene appeared to be entirely about the narrator and Tommy bickering until the moment when the bear appears — and then have it devour him?

If you’re like most readers — and virtually all professional ones — nine times out of ten, you would pick the latter. And for good reason: genuine suspense arises organically from conflict between the characters as the story chugs along. A surprise that you’ve known was coming for two pages is obviously going to startle you less than one that appears out of nowhere.

Foreshadowing is the opposite tactic: it tells the reader what to expect, dampening the surprise. It’s hard to do without spoiling future fun. All too often, what the writer considers a subtle hint informs the reader that a shock is to come in such explicit terms that when the shock actually occurs, the reader yawns and says, “So?”

That’s a pretty high price to pay for a transitional sentence or two that sounds cool, isn’t it?

Not all foreshadowing utilizes the historical future tense, of course, but it’s not a bad idea to get into the habit of revisiting any point in the manuscript where the story deviates from chronological order for so much as a sentence. Or even — and revising writers almost universally miss this when scanning their own works — for half a sentence.

Why? Well, from a reader’s perspective, even that brief a Short Road Home can substantially reduce a scene’s tension. Take, for example, this fairly common species of scene-introducing prose:

On the day my brother Jacques shocked us all by running away from home, I woke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow him on his uncertain road, leaving the rest of my body behind.

Assuming that the reader had gleaned no previous inkling that Jacques might be contemplating going AWOL, what does the narrative gain from opening with the scene’s big shocker? Yes, announcing it this way might well evoke a certain curiosity about why Frère Jacques departed, perhaps, but why not let the reader experience the surprise along with the family?

Taking the latter tack would not even necessarily entail losing the dramatic effect of foreshadowing. Take a look at the same scene opener without the spoiler at the beginning of the first sentence:

I awoke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow an uncertain road behind the Pied Piper, leaving the rest of my body behind. If this was what summer vacation felt like, give me six more weeks of school.

Mom burst into the room with such violence that I cringed instinctively, anticipating the obviously unhinged door’s flying across the room at me. “Have you seen Jacques? He’s not in his room.”

More dramatic, isn’t it? Starting off with a description of a normal day and letting the events unfold naturally is a more sophisticated form of foreshadowing than just blurting out the twist up front.

Not to mention closer to the way people tend to experience surprises in real life– as a manifestation of the unexpected.

That may seem self-evident, but as Millicent would have been the first to tell you had not I beaten her to the punch, few manuscript submissions contain twists that actually surprise professional readers. Partially, as we discussed earlier in this series, this is the fault of the pervasiveness of the Idiot Plot in TV and film, of course, but it also seems that many aspiring writers confuse an eventuality that would come out of the blue from the point of view of the character experiencing it with a twist that would stun a reader.

Again, it all depends upon the writing. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?) At the risk of espousing a radical new form of manuscript critique, I’m a big fan of allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions — and of trusting her to gasp when the story throws her an unanticipated curve ball. After all, it’s not as though she has the attention span of a gnat, drunken or otherwise.

Unfortunately, many aspiring writers apparently don’t trust the reader to catch subtle foreshadowing; they would rather hangs up a great big sign that says, HEY, YOU — GET READY TO BE ASTONISHED. That in and of itself renders whatever happens next less astonishing than if it came out of the proverbial clear blue sky.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” some of you inveterate foreshadowers call out, “what you say about real-life surprises isn’t always true. Plenty of people experience premonitions.”

That’s quite true, disgruntled mutterers: many folks do feel genuine advance foreboding from time to time. Others cultivate chronic worry, and still others apply their reasoning skills to the available data in order to come up with a prediction about what is likely to occur.

Do such people exist in real life? Absolutely. Should one or more of them be tromping around your manuscript, bellowing their premonitions at the tops of their gifted lungs? Perhaps occasionally, as necessary and appropriate, if — and only if — their presence doesn’t relieve the reader of the opportunity to speculate on her own.

In fact, a great way to increase plot tension in a story featuring a psychic character is to show him being wrong occasionally. Mixes things up a bit for the reader. But — correct me if I’m wrong — in real life, most of us don’t hear giant voices from the sky telling anyone who might happen to be following our personal story arcs what is going to happen to us twenty minutes hence.

To those of you who do habitually hear such a voice: you might want to consult a reputable psychiatrist, because the rest of us don’t lead externally-narrated lives. There’s an excellent chance that six-foot rabbit who has been giving you orders is lying to you, honey.

If we were all subject to omniscient third-person narration at the most startling moments of our lives, Tommy wouldn’t have let that bear get the drop on him, would he? Unfortunately for his future prospects, as handy as it would have been had a talking vulture been available to warn him about the nearby hungry beast, that doesn’t happen much in real life.

But that doesn’t mean that if you do find that your life starts being narrated on the spot by a talking vulture, you shouldn’t seek some professional help.

Speaking of professional help: from a professional reader’s point of view, heavy-handed foreshadowing on the page is rather like having a tone-deaf deity bellow driving instructions from a low-hanging cloud bank. Yes, that constant nagging might well cause Millicent to avoid driving into that rock five miles down the road — but, time-strapped as she is, I’m betting that the warning is more likely to convince her to stop driving on that road altogether, rather than hanging on for the now-predictable ride.

Okay, so that wasn’t one of my better metaphors; darn that pesky vulture for distracting me. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

“Tremendously,” she whimpered.

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

“What do you mean, rebalance…”

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

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

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

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

“Tremendously,” she whimpered.

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

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

“What does that mean?” Georgette asked.

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

“Indubitably,” Dr. Wheel agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cross-pressured?” Bella asked.

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

Exogenous who? “Meaning?”

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

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

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

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