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!

There’s more to writing a memoir than sitting down and telling the truth?

Surprised not to see a post on formatting occupying this space, campers? You should be: for the past seven years, I have embraced the decline of the old year and the advent of the new as an opportunity to provide the members of the Author! Author! community with a solid explanation of something that new writers are simply expected to know how to do before they even consider approaching an agent. For some reason that defies human understanding, formatting a book manuscript or proposal as the pros do is implicitly regarded as piece of practical know-how the Literature Fairy bestows on talented writers at birth.

Perhaps my decades of experience as a writer and editor have skewed my sample, but in my experience, approximately no one is born with that knowledge. Innate literary talent has nothing to do with the learned skill of presenting one’s writing professionally, any more than having a naturally good ear for dialogue correlates with the ability to place a comma in the right place or wield a semicolon correctly.

Contrary to popular belief, quite a lot goes into writing a book other than inspiration, patience, and the willingness to sit in one place, typing your little heart out, for a year or two. So don’t panic, rookies: I shall be reviving my annual explanatory tradition next week.

For the next few days, though, I’d like to talk with those of you writing about reality — as memoir, as narrative nonfiction, as everyday life interpreted on the pages of a novel. It’s some of the most difficult writing to do well, yet strangely, we writers tend to discuss walking the truth tightrope far less amongst ourselves than the more fanciful aspects of craft.

Why? Well, fact-based fiction is considerably in less popular than it used to be, for one thing. While 30 or 40 years ago, someone who burned to write would have tended to churn out a slice-of-life piece the first time out — and, in all likelihood, seen it treated as a more serious literary production than a nonfiction piece covering precisely the same subject matter — new writers in recent years have been turning in greater numbers to genre fiction. It’s not that Millicent the agency screener no longer sees the vividly-rendered descriptions of living room slipcovers, meaningful glances, and tense non-verbal exchanges over WASPy Thanksgiving dinners of yesteryear cross her desk; it’s that realism in fiction has very largely been supplanted by fast-paced street fighting, a little light bondage, and sparkling vampires who, in defiance of tradition, wander about freely in daylight.

Nothing wrong with that, of course: publishing has always been a trend-oriented business. The explosion of YA, paranormal, and fantasy in recent years has brought incredible richness to all of those categories, partially through definitional expansion — YA in particular now regularly takes up subject matter that would have made even the most hardened high school librarian blush in the 1970s — and partially, let’s face it, through good writers rushing toward those readerships. Since the economic downturn began, even quite well-established mainstream and adult fiction authors have found themselves gravitating toward these categories — and if they haven’t of their own accords, their agents may well have suggested it. Trends, you see.

Memoir, too, has seen quite a sea change in recent years — and that has generated some immensely positive effects for memoir aficionados and writers alike. My personal favorite: like genre fiction, good memoir writing has very largely lost the stigma it once carried.

Does that sharp collective intake of breath indicate that those of you new to the joys and challenges of memoir were not aware that for many years, it was not considered high literary writing? While there have always been wonderfully-written memoirs, it used to be routine for fiction-lovers to sniff at them as literary efforts — and not only in private. It was an accepted species of snobbery. Blame Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Parker, and their ilk: for a good century or more, even the most beautifully-composed first-hand nonfiction account was generally dismissed in literary circles as a less serious endeavor — or at least one that deserved to be taken less seriously — than garden-variety slice-of-life fiction. Even, interestingly enough, if they covered essentially the same subject matter at a similar level of characterization.

Oh, you may laugh, but writers of promise (what ever happened to that lovely phrase?) were often actively discouraged from writing nonfiction accounts. “That’s journalism,” the literati would say. “You would have to approach your subject matter with absolute objectivity. If you wrote it as fiction, you could be as subjective as you liked! Not to mention using nicer language.”

Today, however, if a novelist snorts derisively at the very notion of telling some aspect of his life story in nonfiction form — or, to put it a bit more bluntly, by being up front about his being a character in his own book — readers and interviewers alike tend to respond in much the same way they would if he said that genre fiction contains no legitimate character development. They’d just assume that he doesn’t read very widely.

Because, let’s face it, there is great writing in every book category. Being a well-read person no longer means reading only certain types of books; the average reader’s tastes are now recognized as being fairly eclectic.

And hallelujah for that, I say. Pretending that consumers of literary fiction never cracked a graphic novel or fantasy was a strain on everybody, was it not? Although watching a literary snob swiftly shove the paperback he was avidly reading into a copy of PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT did constitute one of the great amusements of modern life, it’s one that I readily gave up in the service of an expansion of what counts as good writing.

The rehabilitation of the memoir also owes a debt to the narrative nonfiction revolution. Largely the brainchild of novelists, narrative nonfiction brought fiction techniques to real-world subject matter, presenting actual events accurately (ideally, verifiably so) while casting the storyline as a novel would, with a distinct narrative arc, intensive character development, and fleshed-out scenes. Like literary fiction, narrative nonfiction’s language not only conveys the facts; it evokes a mood. And, unlike objective journalism, narrative nonfiction voice often contains a distinct authorial point of view.

Admittedly, as is so often the case in the literary world, definitions of narrative (also known as creative or literary) nonfiction vary. There is a certain amount of debate, for instance, about how much factual research must go into narrative nonfiction: need it be sourced as exhaustively as a journalistic treatment of the same story? If the writer was not physically present for certain scenes, how much can she legitimately make up? How extensively can she embellish a scene? If the storyline includes dull or dramatically unsatisfying sections, may they ethically be glossed over?

A question that does not crop up much in the publishing world, however, but one often hears aspiring writers of the real asking at literary conferences: should a first-person narrative dealing primarily with events in the author’s own life should be categorized as narrative nonfiction or memoir? The confusion is understandable, of course — while a cookbook containing travelogue or extensive personal stories is fairly obviously a cookbook (the recipes are a dead giveaway), where the precise line falls between a personal essay (a distinct sub-category of narrative nonfiction) and memoir can be less clear-cut.

So why don’t the pros get thrown by the question? While a narrative nonfiction book and a memoir might well share a distinct story arc, a strong authorial voice and point of view, and pretty writing, narrative nonfiction tends to be more concept-oriented than memoir. While a personal essay might bring in scenes, events, and characters from the author’s life to speak to an overall philosophical, analytical, or even political point, a memoir would concentrate primarily upon telling the story.

Still confused, writers of the real? Let me put it another way: while the writer can be a character in both memoir and narrative nonfiction, a memoir is first and foremost that character’s tale. A narrative nonfiction treatment of the same set of events might well include the author’s activities, but it’s often as an observer of larger events. Think MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL or IN COLD BLOOD, or, better still, if you happen to be a Capote fan, HANDCARVED COFFINS: while the reader does learn quite a bit about the writer over the course of those narratives, the narrator is an observer of a larger play.

In a good memoir, however, the reader gets not only to see through the narrator’s eyes, but live through her flesh — not only for individual scenes tucked within a mostly descriptive narrative, but throughout the entire storyline. Indeed, a memoir can hardly be said to be successful on a writing level if the reader isn’t drawn into the action sufficiently to feel and think along with the protagonist.

Some eyebrows just hit some hairlines, I’m guessing. “But Anne,” sputter flabbergasted memoirists the English-speaking world over, “I hadn’t been thinking of myself as the protagonist of my story, as if I were writing a novel. I’m the narrator in a nonfiction book — naturally, I’m bound by the truth, but I’m telling the reader what happened, the way I would recount my adventures to a friend. Or to someone I met at a party. Or, ideally, to the agent of my dreams, shortly after she claps eyes on my query letter.”

That may well be your intent, memoirists, but to an editorial eye, those three audiences would call for three completely different levels of narrative intimacy. You would almost certainly include more personal details in regaling your friend with your adventures, would you not, than a total stranger at some dubious social gathering? And wouldn’t you be more inclined to make yourself look good as a character if you were trying to impress the hearer?

I get what you’re saying, though: aiming for a chatty, anecdotal-style voice is a fairly common memoir tactic. Common enough, unfortunately, that it can be a problematic narrative choice at submission time. I’ve said it before and shall no doubt say it again: just as real-life dialogue is often stultifying if transcribed directly to the printed page, the storytelling norms of everyday speech tend to be rather boring to read.

For starters, spoken sentence structure and word choice typically fall far below the standards of good memoir writing. Everyday speech also leans pretty heavily on stock phrases. New writers often don’t think about this, but using the same words, phrases, and kinds of sentences over and over again, as most of us routinely do when chatting with our friends, is rather tiring for the reader. Take, for instance, how I might legitimately describe something that happened to me recently should you be unfortunate enough to allow me to buttonholed you at a cocktail party whilst I was still miffed:

I’m starting to think my UPS man can’t read. Since getting to my front door from my studio means climbing down a couple of flights of stairs, I put a great big sign over my doorbell reading: PLEASE LEAVE PACKAGES ON RIGHT SIDE PORCH. Every time I have a package delivered, I put it in the address line. My side door has a sign reading: THANK YOU FOR DELIVERING PACKAGES HERE. Yet on each of the last three business days before Christmas, there he was, standing at my front door, ringing the doorbell over and over again, whistling, expecting me to climb down all of those stairs to give him a signature. No amount of shouting down from second-floor windows can make him budge.

Not precisely Dickens, is it? Or perhaps it is, if we consider the notoriously word-repetitious opening sentence of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted upon its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Funny, certainly, but equally certainly stuffed with sweeping generalizations and eye-distracting word, phrase, and structural repetition. Not to mention being one lulu of a run-on sentence. Poor old Charles would have a heck of a time getting this opening past Millicent today — and not only because anything that read remotely like this would now be immediately dismissed as derivative of Dickens. That’s the trouble with those much-vaunted experiments in which disgruntled writers submit the opening pages of something like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to agencies in an attempt to prove that good, solid writing no longer stands a chance, by the way: any Millicent who has been at it a while would recognize, if not the first few lines of P&P itself, then at least a manuscript attempting to copy Austen’s well-known satirical voice.

What was fresh in 1813 can hardly be called the cutting edge of literary style today. Had I mentioned that this has always been a trend-driven business?

My point, should we all care to veer back to it, is that while some stalwart soul with magnificent lungs might conceivably be able to utter Dickens’ epic opening sentence within a single breath to a crowd of hearers who would not necessarily wince at all of that textual repetition, it would be significantly harder for a reader to plow through a similar speech on the page. (As perhaps you recall from sophomore English class.) People in publishing would find it even more difficult: because most adult readers become bored and/or distracted by repetitious prose — if you don’t believe that, consider how annoying it’s been that I’ve kept using various forms of repetition throughout the last few paragraphs — agents and editors develop a sharp eye for it.

So, as it happens, do experienced Millicents. Now that Uncle Charles has been kind enough to irritate you into noticing repetition (there’s that darned word again!), let’s take a peek at how our favorite screener would read our earlier example of ordinary-voiced memoir writing:

I’m starting to think my UPS man can’t read. Since getting to my front door from my studio means climbing down a couple of flights of stairs, I put a great big sign over my doorbell reading: PLEASE LEAVE PACKAGES ON RIGHT SIDE PORCH. Every time I have a package delivered, I put it in the address line. My side door has a sign reading : THANK YOU FOR DELIVERING PACKAGES HERE. Yet on each of the last three business days before Christmas, there he was, standing at my front door, ringing the doorbell over and over again, whistling, expecting me to climb down all of those stairs to give him a signature. No amount of shouting down from second-floor windows can make him budge.

Awfully hard to follow what’s going on in the face of all of that visual noise, isn’t it? And that’s not even factoring in how high the generalization to detail ratio is here: as is so often the case with verbal storytelling, this paragraph is a festival of telling, not showing. That’s entirely appropriate for interpersonal communication, but not necessarily the best tactic for sharing a real-world story in print.

Why? Well, verbal anecdotes tend to be light on specifics, relying on swiftness of telling and sudden reversals to maintain momentum. As a result, they often don’t work well when translated directly to the page, which cries out for detail and fully fleshed-out interactions.

That often comes as a gigantic surprise to first-time memoirists — especially if they happen to be funny people. They expect, and with good reason, that the same story told in the same words will evoke the same reaction in any context. Yet as Millicent knows to her sorrow, many an anecdote that’s been slaying ‘em at parties for decades falls completely flat on the printed page.

A spoken anecdote’s success with hearers is frequently dependent upon the teller’s storytelling skills — a different set of skills than a writer wields, and requiring a significantly different sense of timing. That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, a reader with a personal relationship with a writer of memoir (or personal essay, for that matter) will often have a significantly more positive response to reading that memoir or essay than a stranger would. The writer’s kith and/or kin will be mentally hearing the prose on the page in the writer’s spoken voice.

That’s impossible, obviously, for readers who don’t already know the author — a group which for your garden-variety aspiring writer includes Millicent, the agent of his dreams, his future acquiring editor, and, if we’re being honest, virtually everybody who will ever buy his book. I wish more aspiring memoirists thought about that; I can’t even begin to count how often I’ve seen great personal stories not be able to fly as memoir, simply because the narratives relied upon the reader to imagine tone and delivery style that just didn’t show up on the page.

Celebrity memoirs, particularly those written by comedians, are notoriously susceptible to this pitfall: if the reader can imagine the text read in the celebrity’s voice, it’s funny, but otherwise, the prose just sits on the page, unremarkable, crying out for a dramatic reading. These literary efforts represent, I think, a fundamental pessimism about the possibilities of readership. Presumably, the celebrity, the acquiring editor, and any ghost who might happen to have contributed some text to the festivities (allegedly) all believe in their heart of hearts that absolutely no one who has not heard the author’s speaking voice often enough to be able to produce a spontaneous and reasonably accurate impression would ever consider picking up his book. Were I a celebrity with something to say, I might find that a trifle depressing.

While stand-up comics and their ilk can indeed sell books that suffer under this presumption, it’s not the best strategic move for writers trying to make a name for themselves. Millicent does not use a smile for her umbrella, typically; she’s seen too many attempts at humor die a miserable death on the submission page. Unless you are absolutely positive that something is funny — and would be funny to a complete stranger who had never heard you utter a syllable out loud — you might want to consider punching it up. If you’re not sure, track down some objective feedback.

And don’t try to wiggle out of it by saying that your witticisms left your kith and kin rolling in the aisles. “But my mother thought it was hilarious!” has literally never convinced an agent or editor — or anyone else, for that matter — that an anecdote was funny if it didn’t elicit a chuckle on a first read. If there’s any rule to which those who work with writers cling tenaciously, it’s that the person who gave a writer birth — or shares his bed, or has been her best friend since the second grade — is not the ideal first reader for a memoirist. They’re simply too likely to read something into the text that isn’t actually on the page.

That’s true to a lesser extent of any form of writing, of course, but for memoir, the response of someone who knows the writer is likely to deviate even more wildly from the average reader’s. Even if your chum/relative/guy unwise enough to say, “Oh, you write? I’d love to read something of yours sometime,” isn’t actually a character in your memoir, s/he will already have formed opinions about you as a person, right? That relieves the narrative of the burden of character development for you, at least for that particular reader. Ongoing relationships also, more often than not, cause too-close first readers to peruse the text with a too-indulgent eye — or a too-critical one.

And although your kith and kin are no doubt delightful people, charming to know in any other context, when they are reading your memoir, they will probably also fill in necessary logic, should your narrative have happened to omit it. Indeed, many first-time memoirists so firmly picture their kith and kin’s past reactions to their verbal anecdotes that they elect to leave out connective logic, description, and character development requisite for an impartial reader to follow what’s happening.

Much to Millicent’s chagrin, many of these well-meaning writers — who, after all, are quite sensibly, they think, relying upon their past storytelling experience in constructing their memoir voices — will believe that telling their tales in a conversational manner will be an asset to the story. You wouldn’t believe how many memoir submissions open something like this, as if the narrator were addressing a close friend:

You’re not going to believe this, but that crazy UPS man appeared on my doorstep again. You know, the one who believes that the only physical space in the universe where it’s possible for a human being to sign for a package is the front doorstep?

I could go on, but why? There’s nothing wrong with the phrasing here, but already, the anecdote is predicated on the assumption that the reader will be willing to accept this rushed, limited back-story as a legitimate means of setting up what’s about to happen. Instead of showing us precisely how and why the guy’s nutty — or giving us enough insight into the narrator’s character to be able to discern whether we should take her word for this casual diagnosis — the text just expects us to try to picture what’s already happened before the story began, even though we don’t have access to enough information to be able to guess.

But that’s not the usual narrative presumption in a verbal anecdote, is it? We seldom assume that total strangers will already know what’s been going on in our lives, but fortunately for speed in storytelling, we’re often in the comparatively easy narrative position of relating our anecdotes to people who have already heard about our earlier interactions with the same characters. In this case, if I were actually telling this story to a friend (let’s call her Antoinette) I would have already regaled with my earlier interactions with the UPS man (which were positively hair-raising, incidentally). She also might have seen first-hand that since I’ve been walking with a cane since a car crash, hobbling down a flight of stairs, much less two, might be a trifle dangerous.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that any of the three times I shared this anecdote as memoir text? Changes your mental image of what’s going on, doesn’t it? An objective first reader might have caught that, but Antoinette probably wouldn’t.

That expectation of familiarity frequently haunts the anecdote-teller committing her tales to the page: the verbal anecdotalist can legitimately construct a tale under the assumption that the hearer will remember past accounts. Had Antoinette chatted with me on any day since midsummer, she might well have stood, glassy-eyed, while I treated her to a vivid account of how this sterling deliveryman raised my hair, as well as my hackles.

In essence, I am expecting Antoinette to follow a serial already in progress; woe to her if she had not paid attention to the earlier installments. She might have, but I can tell you now that Millicent hasn’t.

Yet you’d be astonished at how many memoir submissions toss poor Millie into the middle of an ongoing series of anecdotes. Perhaps not as obviously as Antoinette was, but honestly, would a screener not need to have pre-knowledge of the writer’s life to be able to make sense of a first paragraph like this?

I walked into my usual bar, ordered my usual drink, smiled at the lady who’s always sitting on that stool where the bar bends. So far, a completely ordinary day.

“I have no doubt of that,” Millicent sighs, “but since neither the reader nor I have any idea what your ordinary days are like, you’re leaving us in the dark here, narratively speaking. I suppose I could make the effort of conjuring up what the bar looked like, smelled like, and felt like underfoot, but that’s not the reader’s job, is it? Nor does my job description compel me to guess what you like to drink, the lady’s back-story, or even what time it is when you walked into the bar, so I can form no opinion about whether I should draw any conclusion whatsoever from your day’s including this activity. Next!”

Why, yes, that’s quite a bit of reaction to only two sentences of text, now that you mention it. But tell me truthfully: if you were Millicent, would you keep reading?

Yes, yes, I know: that’s an extremely difficult question for a memoirist to answer, and probably one that calls up an emotional response. Not only does it require an objective assessment of how the story’s being told here — an objective assessment which, by definition, no memoirist can possibly derive from her kith and kin, who will automatically bring their knowledge of you to the text — but it implies a critique of the events described, too, doesn’t it?

“How dare you?” the memoirist shouts. “Are you calling my story too boring to maintain anyone’s interest? Or are you saying that it’s badly written?”

Neither, necessarily. From Millicent’s perspective — which, lest we forget, will be shared by her boss, an acquiring editor, and the future readers of your book — the question of whether to read on past this paragraph has nothing to do with what’s actually going on in the scene. So far, all that’s happened is that the narrator has walked into a bar and ordered a drink: not a lot to judge there. The narrative style is plain, but perhaps that’s appropriate for the book’s subject matter and target audience.

“Wait a sec,” our beleaguered memoirist interrupts. “Target audience? What does that even mean for a memoir?”

Glad you asked. Most first-time memoirists don’t give any thought at all to who will want to read their books, much less who will be willing to shell out cash to read them. Or, if they do ponder it, the audience they have in mind consists largely of, you guessed it, the array of kith and kin who have already heard at least some of the memoir’s storyline in anecdotal form.

Now, I’m not saying that your Aunt Sadie, your best friend from work, and your significant other won’t be delighted enough to see you in print at last to rush out and buy your book. They probably will — especially if you’re clever enough to explain to them now that published authors get very few free copies; any you distribute to your loved ones gratis will not count toward your sales totals, and you may actually have to purchase them yourself. The sooner the fine folks who love you come to accept that the best way to support an author one happens to know personally is to buy their work, the happier you will be as a working writer.

But as your literary cheerleader and friend in the biz, is it wrong of me to hope that the people who already know you will not make up the entirety of the readership for your memoir? You want complete strangers to be enchanted with your prose, right? Presumably, if you didn’t want to reach readers outside your doubtless warm intimate circle, you would not be going to the effort and taking the considerable emotional risk of sending your work out to agents.

Especially because that risk is quite a bit higher when it’s your own story told as nonfiction, isn’t it, memoirists? I’m inclined to think, then, that you’re pretty committed to reaching some sympathetic strangers.

I applaud your bravery, but that means, in practice, that objective readers’ opinions of your memoir matter. Inevitably, like any book, your memoir will appeal to some readers and not others.

And before you get your mouth fully open to retort, let me stop you from asserting that anyone interested in good writing will like your book because it is a good story well written. I can tell you now that your future agent and editor will be amused, not convinced, by that argument.

Why? Well, from a publishing perspective, there is no such thing as a universally-appealing piece of writing. Some readers are drawn to one type of story, others another. That’s just a fact of pushing books. Even if you happen to have produced a memoir that both taps into an under-mined literary niche and catches the public imagination at just the right time (like, say, ANGELA’S ASHES), your future agent and editor will not think of it as just good writing about your life.

How will they think of it? As a memoir about a specific place and time, told in a specific voice — and as a book that will need to be sold to readers already in the habit of reading similar books.

“Similar books!” memoirists everywhere shout, insulted. “But my story’s unique! So is my narrative voice. How could any reader possibly form a sense of whether he will like it without reading it?”

Yes, yes, you’re a snowflake, but think about it: don’t you decide whether to pick up a book in a bookstore or search for it online without having read it? Don’t you as a reader gravitate toward certain types of narrative, particular varieties of story, a specific species of tone? Don’t you in fact do it all the time?

So does everybody else — including agents, editors, and anyone in a position to help you get your book published traditionally. No agent or editor, even those who handle nothing but memoir, will be attracted to every conceivable personal story that’s written well. Like every other individual reader currently milling about the earth’s crust, they have individual preferences.

And — brace yourselves; this next bit often comes as a shock to first-time memoirists — not all of those preferences concern writing style, or even having a compelling story to tell. Agents, editors, and memoir readers in general also tend to gravitate toward stories about specific types of experiences. From the publisher’s point of view — and thus an agent’s — memoirs are always about something other than the author’s life.

Mostly, I suspect, because to anyone familiar with the concept of a memoir, the statement “What’s the book about? Why, it’s about the author’s life!” is self-evident. It’s also self-evident to Millicent that not every interesting life translates easily into a page-turning memoir.

All of that can be difficult for writers fond of slice-of-life fiction to accept. “Isn’t the point of memoir,” they demand, and who could blame them? “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature? Good books about ordinary life are valuable. If a well-written story happens to be true, it’s automatically going to appeal to memoir readers, right?

Actually, no: thousands of memoirs come out every year, and by definition, all are about real events, yet only a few capture large readerships. Partially, that’s a matter of scarce marketing resources; it’s also often a matter of luck. Sometimes, it’s a function of the writing, but again, no publisher with her head screwed on straight would dream of promoting a memoir by saying, “Oh, it’s really well written. And had I mentioned that it was about the author’s life?”

Of course it is, but at the risk of repeating myself (oh, you thought I’d dropped my earlier point about textual repetition?), not every true story is equally appealing to every reader. Truth is a necessary attribute of memoir, not an optional extra. So are solid, clear writing and a dramatically-satisfying story arc.

If that last paragraph left you grumbling, well, you’re not alone. Most aspiring memoirists think of their books primarily as opportunities to share their life stories with a potentially admiring world. To them, the fact that they are telling their truth couldn’t possibly be more important: who in her right mind would put herself through the genuinely emotion-wracking process of reliving her ups and downs vividly enough to write about them well unless she felt her story burning inside her?

I’m entirely sympathetic to that yearning to shout the truth to the skies. However, as a memoirist myself — and as an author who has written a minor political celebrity’s memoir as well, a fascinating exercise in mind-melding — I know that there’s considerably more to constructing an emotionally and factually truthful memoir than simply telling the reader what happened. It’s not as though one can simply provide a list of events and expect the reader to extrapolate human feeling. A memoirist has to dig deep, be profoundly honest with himself — and then figure out what does and does not belong in the book.

Didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? As much as we memoirists like to claim the mantle of truth, not everything that occurs in even the most fascinating person’s life will be gripping on the page. Part of the art of memoir lies in selectivity — a good memoir tells the story of a particular part of a particular life, not everything that happened. That means, at both the book structuring and writing stages, you will need to weed out actual events that undoubtedly happened, ones that may in themselves be interesting, but do not advance the story arc of the book.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider that; it’s is an aspect of memoir-writing that often confuses those new to the game. Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth may work admirably on the witness stand, but the goal of a memoir is not simply to provide the reader with either a complete transcript or general summary of the author’s life. It’s to recount a specific set of connected events in a truthful, well-written, and entertaining manner, in a narrative voice likable enough that the reader will want to accompany the narrator on that absorbing journey.

That’s necessarily the case, because, let’s face it, the alternative would not be much fun for the reader. In fact, it could be a heck of a lot of work: in an indiscriminate, sprawling memoir, the reader must try to determine which of many protagonist-centered activities are important to the central storyline. Indeed, it’s not at all uncommon for a loosely-organized memoir manuscript not to have a clearly-defined central storyline at all, for the exceedingly simple reason that most new memoirists don’t think of their lives that way.

But if you, the narrator, don’t know what the core story arc of your memoir is, how can a reader possibly figure it out? And is it really the reader’s job?

So I ask you again: what is your memoir about?

While you’re pondering that gargantuan and quite possibly terrifying question, let me share my favorite analogy for creative selectivity in nonfiction: throwing a stone into an otherwise still pond. That will cause a series of concentric ripples, right, altering the surface of the pond over time? A well thought-out memoir will depict the pond, as well as the thrower and the flinging process, following those many small waves as they change everything in their path.

How might that translate into a story arc derived from a rich and diverse life story? Think of the pond and its environs as your day-to-day life prior to a defining moment or decision. In order to gain a clear sense of just how much throwing that stone disturbed the pond, the reader is going to need to experience it as you did: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feelings, what you loved and wanted, what you feared and avoided.

You could simply summarize all of that, I suppose, but wouldn’t the reader gain a stronger impression of what it was like to be you standing on the shore, weighing whether to toss that rock, if you conveyed your experiences via small, evocative details and fully fleshed-out scenes? With all of those sensations filtered through your psyche and perceptions, wouldn’t the reader get to know you pretty well as the protagonist of your own story?

Once you’ve established yourself as an interesting person in an interesting situation, and an intriguingly observant one at that, the reader is going to care about where and whether you cast that rock — or, in a story about being overwhelmed by larger events, about how you were flung bodily into the middle of that pond. How did your life change as a result? What did you do in response? What did you want to have happen, and what barriers did you face?

Starting to sound much more like a cohesive storyline, isn’t it? Much as in fiction, figuring out what is and isn’t central to the overall story you’re telling is not merely a matter of explaining what happened: it’s a matter of identifying the most important conflict the protagonist faces, what obstacles she must overcome, and showing the reader how that conflict played out.

That conflict, my friend, is what your memoir is about. It’s every bit as unique as you had originally thought; it’s merely structured in a manner that’s easier for a reader who doesn’t already know you to follow.

Does it make more sense now that “What is your memoir about?” would be the first thing Millicent, her boss, your acquiring editor, and the reader who will ultimately buy your book would want to know? At least, unless you have had the foresight to have established yourself as a celebrity, giving rise to a reasonable expectation that the very sight of your name on a book jacket will make your target reader gasp with incredulous pleasure and reach for the volume. Barring that kind of extremely helpful platform, it honestly does make sense that your future publisher will want to aim your book at readers most likely to respond positively to it.

Which is why, in the extremely likely event that those of you grumbling your way through writing a book proposal had been wondering, agents and editors expect memoirists, like all hopeful nonfiction writers, to give some serious advance thought to who is likely to buy the book and why. It’s also part of the reason memoirs — again, like other nonfiction — are typically sold in the U.S. not based upon a full manuscript, but merely upon a book proposal and a sample chapter. In all likelihood, your acquiring editor will want to have some input into the selection process, to help define your story arc in the manner most likely to capture the interest of readers already buying similar stories.

But let me guess: you’d been thinking of the proposal as just an annoying hoop through which you would have to leap in order to land an agent for your story, right? Believe it or not, the proposal’s requirements genuinely are intended to help nonfiction writers think about their books — and for memoirists to think of their life stories — not merely as writing about facts, but as gripping stories aimed at a specific readership predisposed to like ‘em.

I wouldn’t lie to you about that; I’m a memoirist, selectively drawing from the world as I find it to create a narrative true on a wide variety of levels. Keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part V: I’ve got three favorite cars that get most of my job done — no, wait, make that four

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZqI5b5wGA4

Sorry about the slower-than-expected follow-up post, campers: I honestly did intend to devote this week to structural repetition — because, as we all know, there’s nothing like a sexy topic for drawing in the readers. Our cat began acting strangely, however, so I have been spending an extraordinary amount of time at the vet’s office. Fortunately, I had a good book on me, my buddy Nicole Galland’s new release, I, IAGO, and lordy, is it a great read. I’m seriously tempted to leave my copy in the vet’s waiting room after I’ve finished, to provide a lush mental escape for the worried.

Seriously, how often has a book made you laugh out loud while waiting for blood test results? From the publisher’s blurb:

From earliest childhood, the precocious boy called Iago had inconvenient tendencies toward honesty — a “failing” that made him an embarrassment to his family and an outcast in the corrupted culture of glittering, Renaissance Venice. Embracing military life as an antidote to the frippery of Venetian society, he won the glowing love of the beautiful Emilia, and the regard of Venice’s revered General Othello. After years of abuse and rejection, Iago was poised to win everything he ever fought for — until a cascade of unexpected betrayals propel him on a catastrophic quest for righteous vengeance, contorting his moral compass until he has betrayed his closest friends and family and sealed his own fate as one of the most notorious villains of all time.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for any blurb containing the word frippery. One of my failings as a human being, I suppose.

One of my other failings as a human being, but a positive boon for my life as an editor, is a reading eye that leaps instantly to the anomaly on the page. Perhaps that’s not altogether surprising, as a have a doctorate in pattern recognition, but honestly, it does render casual reading a bit of a challenge. A slug line in the wrong place, for instance, will drive me mad, regardless of the quality of the writing lurking beneath it. So will adverbs beginning three out of five sentences in a paragraph: Clearly, there was something wrong here. Obviously, though, your garden-variety reader would not catch it. Bizarrely, any professional reader would.

Fortunately (God, there’s a fourth one!), however, in the publishing world, this sort of eye is not only an advantage — it’s pretty much a requirement for a good editor. Apart from accountancy and computer programming, you’d be hard-pressed to find a job better suited to the obsessive-compulsive. Thus, it follows as night the day, spring winter, and baby ducks their mother that those who cater to the tastes of editors would develop a similar seventh sense for patterns on a page.

Oh, you thought this wasn’t going to lead back to you and your manuscript? You and your manuscript keep me up nights. I worry so that your good writing might not get the fair reading it deserves at the hands of Millicent, the agency screener, if it exhibits too much word, phrase, and/or structural repetition.

Speaking of hands, a third of my audience’s just shot skyward. “Um, Anne?” the more eagle-eyed among you quaver. “I hate to pick nits here, but how precisely do Millicent’s hands read anything? Wouldn’t it be her eyes?”

That question brings a tear to my weary eye, campers. If you caught that logical gaffe, you’re starting to read like a professional. And if you also noticed that in the video above, we never actually get to see our hero’s eyeballs — a trifle disturbing, I think, in a cartoon devoted to developing reading and writing skills — you may be on your way to becoming a Millicent.

Although, admittedly some of us are born that way. I distinctly recall that the first time Conjunction Junction popped onto our small black-and-white TV screen, I tossed my wee braids and shouted, “Mother! How can he read with no eyes?” Fortunately, my mother had been editing for years, so she had been taken aback, too.

In case I’m being too subtle here: those of us that read for a living notice everything in a submission or contest entry. It’s our job, and if nature was kind enough to outfit us with specialized eyes and brains in order to be good at it, well, that has some ramifications for writers.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts without discussing those most perennially popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

This time, encouraged by positive reinforcement, legions of hands shoot into the air. Yes, newly-minted grammar mavens? “But Anne,” you point out, and rightly so, “then isn’t a conjunction! Why, then, would you include it in your discussion of conjunctions, when there are so many legitimate conjunctions — yet, for instance, or or — deserving of your august scrutiny?”

Quite right, hand-raisers: when used properly, then isn’t a conjunction, strictly speaking. We live, however, in a world overrun by scofflaws. Metaphors are mixed; semicolons are routinely misused. Jaywalkers abound — unwisely, given how many drivers do not come to a full stop at stop signs. Owners of outdoor-ranging cats discover that their pets have discarded their collars, complete with city-issued license, and do not replace the tags immediately, while owners of dogs occasionally take them off-leash even outside the parks designated for such activity.

We may deplore all of this, but we ignore it at our peril. At least, that hefty majority of aspiring writers whose submissions and literary contest entries positively scream, “The leash laws do not apply to my dog!” do so at their own risks — but does that mean that your Auntie Anne, friend of the struggling scribbler, should refuse on general principle to talk about those mutts?

No, I haven’t the heart. Call me a softie, but enough writers are using it these days as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in The Little Red Hen kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — treat it as such for the purposes of our ongoing discussion of repetitive sentence structures and their predictably negative effect on Millicent’s bloodshot peepers.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth Roosevelts were presidents Dorothy Parker was still speaking to Ernest Hemingway editors like Maxwell Perkins called the shots in the publishing world, it was considered hugely improper to begin any sentence with and, but, or then. Amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a folklorist of great repute) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I wrote him in elementary school, a conjunction, by definition, connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “a conjunction may not begin a sentence, and a crayon is not an appropriate writing implement for correspondence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. I thought until I hit puberty that writing in the first person was a narrative cop-out, embraced by only those authors who could not handle suspense in any other way. (A fairly common editorial opinion well into the early 1980s, incidentally.) Toward the end of his long, colorful, and occasionally scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions.

And really, who could blame him?

Hey, I couldn’t resist. But why shouldn’t we slavishly adhere to his precepts? Well, time and the language have been marching merrily onward, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers, journalists, and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

That thunder you just heard was Uncle Alex stomping his feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get all of us to cut it out, already, but there can be perfectly legitimate stylistic reasons to open a sentence with a conjunction. They can, for instance, be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph. Like so:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station. But would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be. And if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Arbogast stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

As Uncle Alex would undoubtedly have been the first (and last, and middle) to tell you, classic English grammar has an elegant means of preventing those conjunctions from hanging out at the beginnings of those sentences: by eliminating the periods and replacing them with commas. The result would look a little something like this:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why — or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

To old-fashioned eyes, this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner, grammatically and visually. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a substantial difference in the rhythm.

Why? A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Ghislaine’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could legitimately be regarded as subtle narrative indicators of protagonist stress — a bit of authorial frippery, rather than a mistake. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are.

Like, say, most of us who read manuscripts for a living. We diagram sentences in our sleep.

Before we leave that last set of examples, did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first? No? Okay, let me whip out my machete pen and remove a couple of classic Millicent-irritants. Rather than merely noticing that this third version reads better, I shall challenge your revision skills by asking you to try to figure out why it reads better.

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Right now, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

How did you do? Lift a nice, shiny gold star from the reward cabinet if you immediately cried, “Why, word repetition is word repetition, Anne — which is why you removed the second Arbogast in the paragraph.” Stack another star on top of the first if you added, “Anyway is often how speakers inform hearers that they’ve digressed from their point. Is there a reason the narrative should go out of its way to inform readers that it has digressed?” And award yourself three more stars if you have gotten in touch with your inner Millicent sufficiently to have mused, “You know, to find out why — or not is conceptually unnecessary. Would the paragraph lose any actual meaning if I cut or not?”

I hear those of you who did not shout any of those observations muttering under your collective breath, and you’re quite right: this is incredibly nit -picky stuff. Both good writing and professional presentation are made up of lots and lots of nit-picky stuff. Your point?

While you’re trying to come up with a sufficiently scathing comeback for that one, let’s tie the anyway revelation — perhaps best summed up as that what’s considered acceptable in everyday speech may not work so well in a narrative voice on paper, even if it happens to be in the first person — back to our ongoing discussion of and and but. Since conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, the former can be a boon to dialogue. Or to first-person narration, as it creates the illusion of echoing actual speech. That does not mean, however, that peppering third-person narrative prose with it will necessarily produce a flowing effect. Generally speaking, this structure works best in dialogue.

Not sure why? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

“And I tell you, Spencer, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. And that’s final.”

“But Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger. And particularly when running (generally while identified only as she through wooded glens at the openings of novels. Yet you are astonishingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingenue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. And, naturally, you are entirely unarmed at all times. Lest some particularly timid reader find you even remotely threatening for even an instant. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Or what? Or you’re going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“Or else, that’s all.”

“Fine. Then give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist. But don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

with the same dialogue after the conjunctions have been tucked into the middle of the sentences:

“I tell you, Spencer, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. That’s final.”

“Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger, particularly when running (generally while identified only as she through wooded glens at the openings of novels, yet surprisingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingenue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. Naturally, you are entirely unarmed, lest some particularly timid reader find you even remotely threatening for even an instant. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Is there some penalty attached to my refusal? Are you going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“You must, that’s all.”

“Fine. Give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist, but don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

The difference is subtle, I’ll admit but to a professional reader, it would be quite evident: the second version sounds more formal. Partially, this is a function of the verbal gymnastics required to avoid the colloquial Or what? Or else.

And, let’s face it, Spencer’s lengthy speech as presented in the second version would be darned hard to say within the space of one breath. Go ahead and try it; I’ll wait.

But these are not the only ways aspiring writers utilize sentence-beginning conjunctions in narrative prose, are they? As anyone who has ever been trapped in a conversation with a non-stop talker can tell you, beginning sentences with conjunctions gives an impression of consecutiveness of logic or storyline. (As was the case with the first sentence of this paragraph, as it happens.) Even when no such link actually exists, the conjunctions give the hearer the impression that there is no polite place to interrupt, to turn the soliloquy-in-progress into a dialogue.

We all encounter this phenomenon so often in everyday life that giving a concrete example seems a tad, well, repetitive. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, though, try this experiment the next time you’re at a boring cocktail party. (They’re coming back, I hear.)

(1) Walk up to another guest, preferably a stranger or someone you do not like very much. (It will soon become apparent why that last trait is desirable.)

(2) Launch into a lengthy anecdote, preferably one devoid of point, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout your speech.

(3) Time how long it takes a reasonably courteous person to get a word in edgewise.

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes at a stretch. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me. But then, I’m a professional; you might not want to attempt that high dive your first time out.

The difficulty inherent to interrupting a non-stop speaker, in case you happen to be writing a book about such things, why university professors, panhandlers, and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence. Run-on sentences discourage reply.

Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then. Perhaps for this reason, aspiring writers just love to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: it can create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative.

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent!”

Those buts don’t leave much doubt about the source of the disagreement, do they? Those capital Bs are like a beacon to Millicent’ eye. While that can work just fine in dialogue, it’s visually distracting in narration.

But I couldn’t pay the rent, not today, not tomorrow, not even next week. But I must pay the rent! I knew that, both ethically and practically. But that did not mean I had the means to do it. I mean, where was I going to get the rent? I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that a handsome stranger would appear on my dastardly landlord’s doorstep and announce, “I’ll pay the rent.” But that seemed more likely than my coming up with the dosh myself.

Pop quiz: did the word repetition bug you as much as all of those capital Bs? I should hope so, by this late point in the series.

I know, I know: the writer may well have repeated those words deliberately, to make a point. (Indeed, I have it on fairly good authority that the writer in this instance believed it would have some comic value.) Do be aware, though, that this is a strategy is not a particularly unusual one. Virtually any Millicent will see it in at least one submission per day.

Why? Well, as we have discussed, many aspiring writers just like that repetitive rhythm — but it’s also one of the most popular means of establishing that chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice I mentioned above. Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. A fairly common way to open a manuscript:

And I thought it could never happen to me. I had always thought it was just a cartoon cliché. But here it was, happening: me pinned to the ground, struggling. While a mustache-twirling villain tied me to the railroad tracks. The railroad tracks, no less, as if anyone took trains anymore. And with my luck, I’d end up lying here for days before a locomotive happened by.

“That will teach you,” my captor gloated, “not to pay the rent.”

And had I mentioned that aspiring writers just love to overload their manuscripts with conjunctions? And that they use the device a lot? Or that by the time Millicent picks up your submission, she’s probably already read hundreds of conjunctions that day?

Since false consecutiveness is stylistically ubiquitous, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency. Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially there? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the style throughout the entire manuscript. That presumption enables them to stop reading the instant they decide that the writing is weak.

Was that sudden blinding flash an indication that light bulbs just went off over a thousand heads? That’s right: this often-unwarranted assumption, renders rejection on page 1 not only logically possible, but reasonable. It certainly underlies the average Millicent’s practice of not reading past any problems that might turn up on page 1 of a submission: once you’ve seen a modicum of this author’s writing, she reasons, you’ve seen enough.

Feel free to pause here to punch the nearest pillow, sofa cushion, or other relatively soft object seventeen or eighteen times. Again, I’m happy to wait.

Got all of that frustration out of your system? Excellent. Let’s shift our energies to what a writer can control in this situation. Narrative structure and voice are not merely matters of style; to a market-savvy writer — they are also matters of strategy.

And, frankly, the oh-so-common practice of conjunction overuse is not particularly good strategy at any point in a submission or contest entry. If you lean too hard on any single narrative tool in your writer’s kit in those early pages, Millicent and her ilk are not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways by page 25, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

Do I hear some moaning out there that’s not attributable to any of my late relatives’ editorial rantings? “But Anne!” these disembodied voices moan, bravely beginning their protest with a conjunction, thereby risking a thunderbolt flung by Uncle Alex and whatever minor deities he may have managed to befriend in his time in the choir eternal; he always did throw great parties. “Not every book’s best writing falls on its first page, or even within its first chapter. Many, many writers take a chapter or two to warm up to their topics. So doesn’t this practice give an unfair advantage to those writers who do front-load their work?”

In a word, yes. Next question?

In fact, I would highly recommend front-loading your submission or contest entry with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed. Again, we could waste a lot of energy complaining about the necessity for this (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), but I would rather we concentrate instead upon heading the problem off at the proverbial pass.

Ready to exercise some authorial autonomy? Excellent. Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

(1) Print out at least the first 5 pages of your submission. If you want to be very thorough, print the entire first chapter, as well a random page from each subsequent chapter.

And before anybody asks: no, reading through those pages on your computer’s screen is not an adequate substitute, for our purposes. Nor is simply doing a Word search for conjunctions. The goal here is not to come up with a simple accounting of how often you are using these words, but to spot patterns in how and where you are habitually including them.

(2) Pick a pen color for and, another for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets as well), and a third for then. If you are prone to equivocation, you might want to designate a fourth for or.

Why these words and no others? Well, these particular ones tend to get a real workout in the average manuscript: when writers are trying to cover material rapidly, for instance, and, but, and then often appear many times per page. Or per paragraph.

Or even per sentence. Yes, really.

(3) Mark every single time each of those words appears on your pages.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but every instance. Don’t fudge — the experiment will not be nearly so useful.

(4) After you have finished inking, go back and re-examine every use of then, asking yourself: could I revise that sentence to cut the word entirely? If it begins a sentence, is that the most effective opening?

(5) If you were even tempted to skip Step 4, does then appear more than once within those first 5 pages? More than once on page 1?

At the risk of seeming draconian, you should seriously consider excising every single use of then in those opening pages — and at least toy with getting rid of most thereafter. Sound drastic? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: some professional readers’ visceral negative reaction to repetitive use of then borders on the physically painful.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text — and with good reason. In written English, pretty much any event that is described after any other event is assumed to have happened later than the first described, unless the text specifies otherwise. For instance:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, then slid them onto the plate, and then served them.

Ostensibly, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence, right? Perhaps not, but given the average reader’s belief that time is linear, it is logically identical to:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

Technically, then is entirely unnecessary here. In not entirely unrelated news, then is almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

“Pardon my asking,” Millicent says, wondering why I have a latté at my elbow and she doesn’t, “but why is do submissions so often include it repeatedly, as if it were stylish? Or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice? It’s seldom necessary, and it’s hardly original.”

That would be hard for anyone who has read more than a handful of manuscripts or contest entries to dispute, Millie. To professional eyes, the percussive use of then is logically redundant, at best. At worst, it’s a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events and so crammed them all into a list.

Is this really the reaction you want to elicit to your narrative voice within the first few pages of your book?

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to omit temporal thens altogether in your writing unless the event described after them is a genuine surprise or occurred so abruptly that it would have been so to onlookers. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate — then flung their steaming runniness into Anselmo’s astonished face, scarring him for life.

Now that’s a then that signals a change in sentence direction, isn’t it? Reserving the device for this use will render your thens substantially more powerful.

(6) Turn your attention now to the buts, howevers, and yets on your marked-up pages. Each time they appear, ask yourself: is the clause that immediately follows the word ACTUALLY a shift in meaning from what has come immediately before it? If not, consider excising the words altogether.

I hear more squawking from the non-celestial peanut gallery. “But Anne,” they cry, bravely persisting in their long-term habit of opening every protest hurled my way with a conjunction, “you can’t seriously mean that! Don’t you mean that I should carefully rewrite the sentence, substituting another word that means precisely the same as but, however, or yet? The whole point of my introducing however and yet was to give my but a periodic rest!”

Good question, but-resters, but I did mean what I said. But, however and yet logically imply contradiction to what has already been stated. Yet many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions, a way to make the sentence before seem to flow naturally — that is, in a way that sounds like conversation — into the next.

What I’m suggesting here is not that you remove every legitimate negation, but rather that you should remove the negative conjunctions that are misused. Let’s take a gander at what a savvy reviser might spare.

Bartholomew wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Josette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, his epi pen, bottle of antihistamines, and seventeen homeopathic remedies were in the pocket of his fetching dressing gown, so he need not panic. Yet now that he began to search for it, his personal first-aid kit seemed to have vanished from its usual resting-place.

“Cat got your tongue?” Josette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

I would vote for keeping all of buts, howevers, and yets in this passage. Each is serving its proper function: they are introducing new facts that are genuinely opposed to those that came just before the conjunction.

That is not always the case, alas. Take a look at a version of the same scene where none of these words is ushering in a twist related to the last information before it:

Bartholomew settled his fetching dressing gown around him irritably, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Josette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, he could not breathe. Yet his asthma seemed to be kicking in full force.

“Cat got your tongue?” Josette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

See the difference? By including conjunctions that imply an opposition is to follow, but not delivering upon it, the transitional buts, howevers, and yets ring false.

Yes, this level of textual analysis is a heck of a lot of work, now that you mention it. Strategically, it’s worth it, though: this device is so popular amongst aspiring writers that the transitional but has become, you guessed it, a common screeners’ pet peeve.

Harrumphs all round from my interlocutors, earth-bound and otherwise. “No big surprise there,” they huff. “To hear you tell it, it doesn’t take much for a writerly preference to graduate to industry pet peeve.”

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover that out of any 100 submissions, a good 92 will all share this narrative device. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked conjunctions.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. Honestly, those of us that write for the American market have no excuse. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

“So why on earth,” Millicent wonders, rejoining us after a coffee run, “do these submissions keep leaning so heavily on to be, to have, to think, to walk, to see, to say, and to take? If it happened in, say, one submission out of fifty, I could cope with it, but every other one?”

Good question, Millie. Varying word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics.

I wish more first-time submitters knew that, but usually, US writers have been taught just the opposite: throughout their school years, teachers kept quoting either Mark Twain or Somerset Maugham’s (depending upon how old the teachers were, and what examples their teachers had used) overworked axioms about never using a complex word when a simple word would do.

The reason that your teachers told you this is not that simple, straightforward words are inherently better than polysyllabic ones, but because they were trying to prevent you from making the opposite mistake: a narrative that sounds as if it has swallowed a thesaurus whole, dragging in pretentious or obsolete words inappropriate to the book category or target market.

For most manuscripts, this is still pretty good advice. To see why, we have only to glance at a genre- and character-inappropriate vocabulary shoved into the mouth of a protagonist — particularly common in memoir and autobiographical fiction, incidentally, in which the writer wishes to indicate, however subtly, that Our Hero is much, much smarter than everybody else in the story. To pile the pet peeves even higher, let’s make it a child that talks like an adult.

“Hey,” Mom shouted. “Did someone take the pie?”

“In the entirety of my five and a half years’ subsistence, situated upon this terrestrial sphere,” Babette murmured, “I have seldom been so incensed. Nay, apoplectic. That you, Mater, would indict me of having pilfered, purloined, and/or absconded with your irreplaceable peach pie, in lieu of interrogating my shifty-eyed sibling, flabbergasts me. I mandate an instantaneous act of contrition.”

“Yeah, you and what army?” Benjy sneered, kicking his high chair.

“Now, now,” Mom said. “Stop squabbling, children.”

Even if young Babette’s speaking like an 18th-century clergyman were somehow in character, it’s distracting that the text suddenly breaks out in SAT words. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for Millie, but there are few book categories in which the vocabulary level displayed above would be audience-appropriate.

Remember, the standard vocabulary expectation for adult fiction is a 10th-grade reading level; in many genres, it’s even lower. Doing a bit of reading in your chosen category can help you figure out where to pitch your word choices — and how broad a vocabulary Millicent is likely to expect in your manuscript.

Why is this a good idea? Not only is the gratuitous induction of polysyllabic terminology into a tome formulated for a less erudite audience not liable to galvanize a professional reader into spontaneous cries of “Huzzah!” (see how silly it looks on the page?) — it can also stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, knocking the reader out of the story.

The much-hyped 2007 movie JUNO contained such an excellent example of this that you might want to consider renting it just to see this phenomenon in action. After spending fully two-thirds of the film establishing the protagonist’s father as a Working Man with a Heart of Gold, living in a house that apparently contains no books, repeatedly telling better-heeled folk that he’s just a plain man, and who never once mentions to his pregnant 16-year-old daughter that her condition might conceivably (so to speak) affect any future college plans she might have, he says to his daughter, “You look morose.”

At which, naturally, half of my fellow theatergoers laughed, believing this line to be a joke. Morose didn’t seem to be a word that this particular character would ever use — or that his otherwise estimable daughter could spell. Yet from context, it wasn’t intended humorously: evidently, the screenwriter simply liked the word.

Nothing wrong with that, of course — but as I may have mentioned earlier in this series, authorial affection is not always sufficient justification to include a pet word or phrase. If a word is not book-category appropriate, think seriously about finding a substitute. That’s not compromising your artistic vision; that’s gearing your voice to your audience.

It’s also a necessary step towards individualizing your authorial voice. Just as a matter of practicality, if Millicent has already seen several conjunction-heavy narratives within the last hour, it’s going to be significantly more difficult to impress her with the originality of a manuscript that’s embraced a similar narrative strategy.

Speaking of developing a sensitivity to repetition across manuscripts, as well as within them, did anyone happen to catch the too-close similarity of Yvette, Josette, and Babette in today’s examples? “What’s going on?” Millicent shouts immediately after burning her lip on her too-hot latte. “A plague of -ettes? Did a bestseller from a year ago feature a heroine with an -ette name, and are the writers of these passages copying that?”

Well caught, Millicent: writers often harbor affection for similar names. But just as a skimming reader is likely to mix up those whose names begin with the same first letter — a real pity, as Joan, Jane, Joanne have virtually nothing in common otherwise — names with similar characteristics, or even ones that sound similar, may cause unnecessary confusion. Or don’t you believe that, Jon, Von, Van, and Alan?

Wow, we’ve covered a lot of ground today, have we not? But don’t toss out those marked-up pages, please: we shall be talking more about overused conjunctions in the days to come. Next time, it’s on to the ands.

Keep up the good work!

“Wait, haven’t I read that someplace before?” — Millicent

old-fashioned writing desk in Victoria

Please join me in a moment of silence, campers. Today, I received one of the saddest pieces of news a person can hear from a writer friend: an extremely talented author of my acquaintance reported that her hard disk had crashed, doubtless from overwork. Not a syllable could be salvaged.

In response to those of you who just gasped audibly: yes, she was almost finished writing her next novel. She had circulated only the first four chapters to her critique group, so physical copies of that much still exist. Beyond that, however…

On a not entirely unrelated note, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Is it recently enough that you could reconstitute your most recent revisions or new text from your unassisted memory?

If the answer to that second question is no, feel free to stop reading right now and make a back-up. At minimum, e-mail them to yourself, for heaven’s sake. I’m perfectly happy to wait, if it means that we can all sleep better tonight, confident that hours, days, weeks, and/or months of your writing time won’t just vanish in the proverbial puff of smoke.

Or ozone, as the case may be. As undoubtedly conducive to creative expression as computers are, the permanence of the results can be illusory. At times like this, I occasionally find myself longing for my father’s good old Olivetti typewriter, or even a simple Edwardian writing desk, like the one above. (Note, please, the requisite photo of a loved one and apparently equally requisite liquor tray.)

True, one had to hit the Olivetti’s keys so hard that when my parents first plopped me down in front of it at age ten to compose the term paper that everyone else in my class was writing by hand, I couldn’t actually force the q, z, p, or ? keys to hit the ribbon with sufficient force to create any impression upon paper. It took me so many hours to write the definitive history paper on the Bonus March that my mother seized the opportunity first to sketch my profile — she had never managed to convince me to sit still long enough before — then to sculpt my head in clay. Considering that my parents insisted that I write it in standard format for book manuscripts, I should probably count myself lucky that she didn’t also have time to cast the sculpture in bronze.

Yes, it was a touch on the tedious side to be forced to retype an entire page in order to rework a single sentence. On the bright side, though, to lose a year’s worth of one’s writing, an author actually had to misplace it physically.

(Were you distracted from the pithiness of that last bon mot by a mental image of a 5th grader using two hands to wrestle the z key into submission? That memory haunts me, too. My mother, however, asks me to inform you that she had faithfully typed my newspaper articles prior to that term paper, and that a little pro of my caliber shouldn’t have graduated from elementary school without learning to touch-type, anyway. And to be fair, she didn’t actually make me try it blindfolded until after I’d turned in the paper.)

Writing on a computer boasts at least one monumental advantage over the all hard copy, all the time method, however: it’s possible, and indeed easy, to check whether that wry observation that just occurred to you also struck you as the last word in style back when you were composing Chapter 3. And Chapter 7. And possibly Chapter 16.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that you had repeated yourself? Trust me, Millicent the agency screener will.

Since aspiring writers so seldom catch their own phrasing reuse, I’m going to spend the next couple of days talking about that ever-popular birthmark of Frankenstein manuscripts everywhere, the sentence — or paragraph, or footnote, or scene — that turns up more than once in a manuscript. Or more than once in a chapter. Or — are you sitting down? — more than once in a page.

Already, I sense some of you rolling your eyes. “Yeah, right, Anne,” writers of 384-page texts huff, “I’m so uncreative, so myopic, so prone to writing only one paragraph per session that I would repeat entire sentences within just a few pages, yet Millicent remembers phrasing so well that she will catch me if I recycle a description from page 73 on page 312.”

Actually, she might — and I hate to be the one to break it to you, but otherwise quite good manuscripts reuse pet phrases all the time. You’ve probably noticed the tendency in the later works of well-established authors, in fact; as television comedy has led us all to expect, revisiting the same premises, jokes, and yes, even descriptions can elicit chortles of delighted recognition from an audience already familiar with one’s work. Heck, Oscar Wilde used to trot out the same laugh lines in play after play after play; he was monumentally good at branding.

For the overwhelming majority of writers, though, self-plagiarism does not constitute a promotional strategy so much as a simple lapse in memory. In the course of writing an entire book, it should perhaps not come as a surprise if the creative brain revisits a favorite turn of phrase, a trenchant observation on the human condition, of striking bit of imagery that strikes a writer as particularly, well, striking.

Hey, if it sounded good in the writer’s mind the first time, what’s to stop it from sounding good the second? Or the fourth? Or the forty-seventh?

Perfectly innocent and understandable, right? Well, perhaps not so much to our old pal Millicent — or her cousin Maury, the editorial assistant, or their aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. To someone who reads manuscripts for a living, such inadvertent redundancy can take on a more sinister aspect: to an uncharitable reader, even a single repetition of a pet phrase can smack of authorial laziness. Or as an aftereffect of that perennial bugbear, insufficient authorial re-reading.

Or, sacre bleu! a first indicator that what she holds in her ink-stained hands is a Frankenstein manuscript.

We’ve all seen Frankenstein manuscripts, right, even if we have not had the misfortune to write one? Many of us have at least a partial monster lurking in a bottom desk drawer or haunting our hard disks, books written over such a long period, in so many moods, at so many different levels of technical skill, and — come on, admit it — under the influence of so many and such varied favorite authors that it would take a small army of literary detectives years of close textual analysis to discern even an embryonic similarity between the authorial voices on pp. 10, 143, and 412.

In a first draft of a first novel, that’s virtually inevitable, right? Contrary to popular opinion amongst those who have never actually sat down in front of the ol’ Olivetti and cranked out a book, few writers are born with completely polished voices; it can take a great deal of trial and error to figure out how to sound original on the page. Then, too, it takes a good, long while to write a book, particularly the first time around: as Millicent would be the first to tell you, it’s not all that uncommon for the manuscript to betray significantly greater technical skill at its end than at its beginning. Or for the first chapter or two to read a great deal more like the end of the book than like the middle, because the writer went back and revised those opening pages after polishing off the draft.

Why is Millicent an expert on the two most common stripes of Frankenstein manuscript? Care to estimate how many first-time novelists and memoirists start querying and submitting their work practically the instant they polish off the first draft? Or the second?

Trust me, those of us who read for a living learn to catch the early warning signs. When Millicent sees a sentence, image, or observation from page 1 turn up on page 26, Frankenstein manuscript warning bells start chiming wildly in her head. From that point on, her already sharp critical sensors turn downright predatory, eager to swoop down upon more tell-tale signs that this is one of those texts whose author either kept changing his mind about the style he wished to embrace — or tone, or target audience, or book category — or just kept revising it so often that the narrative reads like a patchwork of different prose styles.

That does not mean, however, that self-plagiarism does not turn up quite frequently in non-Frankenstein manuscripts. How can an experienced reviser tell the difference? While the Frankenstein manuscript varies substantially as pages pass, the self-plagiarized text merely becomes redundant: passing scenery always described the same manner, for instance, or a clever line of dialogue repeated in Chapters 2, 5, and 24.

Nonfiction writing in general, and academic writing in particular, is notoriously prone to redundancy. So are book proposals. Again, that’s quite understandable. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of footnoting everything in the least questionable, it’s pretty easy to reuse a footnote, for instance, or to come to rely upon stock definitions instead of writing fresh ones every time.

Or, in a memoir, to tell the same anecdote more than once. As, indeed, people who like to talk about themselves tend to do in conversation. (Did I ever tell you about the time my mother wanted me to learn touch-typing as a fifth grader?)

Or, in any kind of writing, for a particular way of describing something to sound good. Many a writer simply finds a certain turn of phrase appealing and forgets that he’s used it before. Or just doesn’t notice, despite the fact that great way to catch this sort of redundancy is — wait for it — to read your manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

Oh, had I suggested that excellent pre-submission strategy before? Had I in fact mentioned it about once per week throughout Queryfest? How silly of me not to notice.

You may laugh, but actually, it’s quite easy for even a fairly conscientious reviser to miss instances of self-plagiarism on the page, especially if — and most revisers do this — she is reading through the manuscript over several days or even weeks. After all, you have to be gifted with an unusually strong memory for phraseology to stop short in the middle of Chapter 15 and shout, “Hey, I’ve seen that image before, and it was on page 36, paragraph four!”

I don’t mean to frighten you (or do I?), but professional readers frequently have astonishingly accurate memories for text. Millicent might not be able to tell you precisely where she’s seen that Ch. 15 image before, but she will almost certainly have the dim impression that it has appeared earlier in the manuscript. I can positively guarantee you, though, that if the first instance of its use pops up on p. 36, and the second on p. 42, she will most assuredly spot the second as redundant.

She should: professional readers are trained for that.

For a self-editing writer, it can be harder to catch — and harder still to remember if you actually used that sentence elsewhere, or merely thought about it. As inveterate commenter and long-time FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) Dave so rightly pointed out the last time we discussed this phenomenon, most good writers spend quite a bit of time mulling over any given scene in a book, not to mention revising it later on; it’s not uncommon, therefore, to have a positive welter of mental associations about the evolution of the aforementioned pp. 36 and 42. Add to that the fact that a reader’s eye will tend to pass over smoothly-written text pretty quickly, especially if it’s a scene he’s read before, and reading through one’s own manuscript by definition entails re-reading, and can we really be surprised when repeated phrasing passes unnoticed under the reviser’s gaze?

Even when the repeated phraseology or image does jump out at the rereading reviser (try saying that four times fast!), it won’t necessarily be for a negative reason. It’s not unheard-of for writers to prefer repeating bits of their own work: those turns of phrase are his favorites for a reason, presumably. They linger in his ears pleasingly when he reads them out loud; they strike him as some of his best writing on the page. If pressed, he might admit to wanting to see one of them chiseled on his gravestone.

Yes, those of you who have been jumping up and down with your hands raised for the last couple of paragraphs? “I know what this writer should do!” survivors of English 101 burble excitedly. “It was for precisely this kind of writer’s benefit that Dorothy Parker started urging all of us to kill your darlings. If he loves those phrases so much, they should be the first axed, right?”

Aspiring writers and the English composition teachers who love them just love this piece of revision advice, eager burblers, but if you want to hear anyone who reads for a living choke on the coffee that’s never far from her elbow (hey, you try staying awake uncaffeinated through the fiftieth YA paranormal novel you’ve seen this week), feel free to trot out this most misunderstood piece of writing advice. We’ve too often seen the slash-and-burn effects of this canonical advice in action. Indeed, going through one’s own manuscript, relentlessly slaughtering any writing that strikes one as excellent is a pretty good prescription for creating a Frankenstein manuscript, not healing one.

And it’s not even what Aunt Dorothy was advising writers to do. She wasn’t talking about ruthlessly excising every piece of writing you like and leaving the stuff you like less, people: she was suggesting that you consider taking a critical look at even your favorite sentences and paragraphs. All too often, inexperienced self-editors will simply skip over their pet bits.

That being said, kill your darlings (selectively!) is excellent advice for habitual self-plagiarists. Perhaps a writer need not sacrifice the first of the litter, but the second through seventeenth should definitely go.

That’s especially good strategy if the phrasing repetition was deliberate in the first place. If a line was clever once, many a darling-coddling writer thinks, the reader will find it so the second time — and the fifth, and the forty-seventh. Deliberate redundancy is particularly common with humor: since situation comedies tend to rely upon repetition of catch phrases, many aspiring writers believe that the mere fact of repetition will render a line funny.

On the page, it seldom works. Sorry to be the one to break it to you sitcom lovers, but it quickly becomes tedious on the stage and screen as well.

Don’t believe me? Consider this: as those of us who live in caucus states know to our perennial (or at least quadrennial) sorrow, nowhere is the practice of self-plagiarism more prevalent than in the garden-variety political speech. Not only from speech to speech — oh, you thought your favorite candidate gave a speech only once, then threw it away? She has fourteen more campaign stops today! — but throughout a political season. Heck, as anyone who has listened closely to two consecutive State of the Union addresses can tell you, they often contain the same phrases from year to year No matter how fiercely THE WEST WING tried to promote the notion of presidential speechwriters as ultra-creative writers, if you look at speeches given by the same politician over time, chances are that you’ll find self-plagiarism of epidemic proportions.

There’s a good narrative reason for that, of course: the repetition of an idea makes it memorable. The ideas — and usually even the actual phrases — of the beginning of a political speech invariably recur throughout, to drive the point home.

Doubt that? Okay, answer this: do you think people would remember that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream if he had said it only once in his famous March on Washington speech?

On paper, phrase repetition is often problematic, but in and of itself, repetition does not necessarily equal self-plagiarism. On paper, repetition can seem very cool to the writer, as a means of creating a galloping rhythm. On paper, phrase repetition can be used for emphasis (as I have just done in this very paragraph, much to Millicent’s chagrin).

We all know how phrase repetition can create a sense of momentum in writing, don’t we? Take, for instance, the ending of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from HENRY V:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Now that’s a political speech, caucus-goers: great spoken out loud, but Millicent-enragingly repetitious in print.

Did that last observation catch you by surprise? Yes, this particular speech happened to fall from an exceedingly talented pen, but unfortunately, a lot of poor writers favor this rhythmic device, too. Because it is ubiquitous, it tends to be a rather risky trick to try to pull off in a short piece, such as a synopsis, or in the first few pages of a manuscript submitted for a contest or as part of a query packet.

Please tell me that you aren’t even considering repetitive phrasing in your query. Or that the first line of your synopsis is the first line of your novel. Please. Please. Please?

Why is it dangerous? Well, to professional eyes, trained to search for the repetition of a single verb within a paragraph as evidence of boring writing, we few, we happy few will not necessarily jump off the page for the beauty of its rhythm. In an ultra-quick reading (as virtually all professional readings are, lest we forget), it may be mistaken for an incomplete edit: you meant to change we few to we happy few,” but you forgot to delete the words you did not want, Bill.

A pop quiz to see if you’ve been paying attention: why would a savvy submitter not want to convey the impression of an incomplete editing job? That’s right: because that’s the birthmark of the dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, the fish that Millicent is only too happy to throw back into the sea.

Remember, too, that it may not take many instances of repetition for Millicent to draw this conclusion. The writer may not realize that she has reused a particularly spectacular image from Ch. 1 in Ch. 3, but believe me, if there is repetition, professional readers will catch it.

And no, I don’t care how many times I have to repeat that point. It’s vital for your happiness as a writer to understand that the pros are trained to catch redundancy. Editors in particular are notorious for remembering entire pages verbatim.

It’s a specialized brain function, sharpened by use. When I was teaching at the University of Washington, I was known for noticing when term papers resubmitted in subsequent quarters, even though I read literally hundreds of papers per term. I would even frequently remember who wrote the original. As you may well imagine, I quickly acquired a reputation amongst the fraternities and sororities who kept files of A term papers for their members to, ahem, borrow.

Which is why, in case those of you who have had the good fortune/petrifying experience of receiving professional feedback, paraphrasing what you’ve said earlier in the manuscript tends to be significantly less frowned-upon in editorial circles than outright literal repetition. While very similar passages may earn you an ill-humored rebuke from Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel, generalized repetition usually will not knock you out of consideration if the recurring bits occur far apart, such as at the beginning and end of a book.

In a shorter piece, however — such as, say, those first 50 pages of your novel that nice agent asked you to send for consideration, or the 15 pages plus synopsis — it certainly can cost you. Repetition sticks in the professional reader’s craw, nagging at her psyche like a pebble in a shoe. It’s in your best interest to do it as little as possible.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there grumbling. “You told us just a few minutes ago that Oscar Wilde repeated the same quips in one play after another. It became his trademark, in fact. So why should I be punished for using a single particularly sterling line 150 pages apart in my novel?”

You have a point, of course, grumblers. The next time you trot out this argument, you might bolster it by mentioning that Aaron Sorkin reused not only lines and speeches from SPORTS NIGHTin THE WEST WING, but entire plot lines and basic characters.

Tell you what: after you make it big, I give you permission to establish a trademark phrase and use it as often as you like. Until you do — as I sincerely hope you will — all I can do is tell you that phrasing repetition tends to annoy agents, editors, and contest judges.

Seriously, I will repeat it all night. Don’t tempt me.

“But Anne,” I hear the well-read among you protest, and with good reason, “many of the classic novelists I studied in my English 101 class used phrasing repetition to create invocatory rhythms. They also repeated dialogue, because, as you like to point out early and often, real-life dialogue is hugely redundant. If it’s good enough for those long-ago greats, why isn’t it good enough for me — or for Millicent?”

One reason leaps to mind: you’re not writing on a typewriter, are you? You’re probably composing your book in a word processing program. Not only can you spell- and grammar-check with an ease that would have made the late, great Ms. Parker gasp with envy — with the touch of a button or two, you can search your own writing to see if you have used a phrase before.

You think Millicent is unaware of that capacity?

You are perfectly right, though, close readers: all writers of book-length works have repeated themselves at one time or another. If a simile struck us as the height of cleverness last week, chances are good that we will like it next week as well. Each time we use it, it may seem fresh to us. These little forays into self-indulgence are so common, in fact, that literary critics have a name for them: tropes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious troper in his short stories. My least favorite: a thwarted heroine’s sobbing out (usually with her face hidden by her smartly-bobbed hair), “I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?” immediately before she does something self-immolatingly stupid to remove herself from the possibility of marrying the story’s protagonist occurs at least four times throughout his collected works.

It may well pop up more; I merely stopped counting after four. That was, not entirely coincidentally, when I threw the book across the room.

Why Uncle Scott found that particular line so very attractive in a pretty woman’s mouth remains a mystery eternal — it’s hard to believe he ever actually heard a sane female utter it, even in jest. But he did, evidently, and now it’s stuck to his name for all eternity.

Learn from his unhappy fate, I beg of you: no matter how marvelous a line of text is, use it only once.

This will require careful reading to enforce. Your garden-variety self-plagiarism is less obvious to the untrained eye than ol’ Scott’s outright dialogue reuse. Spread out over an entire text — or, as it often appears in the case of successful authors of series, once per book — it may be fairly innocuous, the kind of thing that might only bug someone who read manuscripts for a living.

Like, say, Millicent or yours truly. Do not underestimate, for your own sake, our memories. Unbound manuscripts do not typically survive intact being flung across the room.

E.F. Benson, author of two delightful series, the Lucia books and the Dodo books, was evidently extraordinarily fond of using Arctic analogies for one person suddenly grown cold to another. To gather but a small nosegay of examples:

“It was as if an iceberg had spoken,”

“It was as if the North Pole had spoken,”

“icebergs passing in the North Sea” must speak to one another as two characters had, and

“Mapp turned to ice.”

See the problem? As a Benson enthusiast, I was able to come up with four of them without even pulling any of his books off the shelf These repetitions, deliberate or not, stick with the reader, just as surely as repeated phrases stick with the audience of a political speech.

That doesn’t mean it is a bad analogy, of course, if not a startlingly original one. Like any other literary device, however, time it’s used, it becomes less effective.

Yet again, we see an awfully good reason to read your entire book (or requested chapters, or contest submission) out loud before you submit it — and not just as a cursory mumble-through, either. Believe it or not, just as dialogue that seemed fine on the page can suddenly seem stilted when spoken aloud, phrases, sentences, and images that your eye might not catch as repetitious are often quite obvious to the ear.

Another good reason to read aloud: to make sure that each of your major characters speaks in a different cadence. It’s substantially easier for the reader to follow who is speaking when that way.

Don’t stand there and tell me that all of Aaron Sorkin’s and David Mamet’s characters speak in identical cadences, as though they all shared one vast collective mind. To my sensitive antennae, nothing is more potentially migraine-inducing than an evening of the percussive prose of Mamet. (Unless it’s a chamber concert of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest hits.)

As if the prospect of annoying your humble correspondent were not sufficient incentive to eschew identical dialogue patterns for every character, remember what I said back in Queryfest about the dangers of those new to the biz assuming that what the already-established have done, they may get away with as well?

Uh-huh. In a first manuscript, it would be considered poor craft to have every character in the book sound the same. Not to mention poor character development. While I’m on the subject, keep an ear out in your read-through for lines of dialogue that cannot be said aloud in a single breath without passing out — they tend to pull professional readers out of the story.

Why, you shout breathlessly? Well, in real life, listeners tend to interrupt speakers when the latter pause for — wait for it — breath. Cramming too many syllables into an uninterrupted speech usually doesn’t ring true on the page. Allow your characters to breathe occasionally, and your dialogue will seem more realistic.

I’d give you a concrete example, but I meant to post a short blog today, and here I have gone long again. Which begs the question: I’m so beautiful — why can’t I be happy?

There, now at least one real, live human female has said it; don’t say I never did anything for you, Uncle Scott. Keep up the good work!

Bringing those unbelievable stories to life on the page, or, well-mannered camel seeks wiser man

It’s Christmas Day, campers, but my tree has gone dark: the electricity has been out for the last two hours. The local authorities claim that gigantic boom we all heard around noon resulted from a frantic windstorm’s having taken out a transformer. A less literary-minded analyst might take this story at face value. You can’t fool me, though. This is obviously Phase I of the Grinch’s most recent plan to steal Christmas.

Either that, or the Great Celestial Plotmaster(s) have been reading a lot of classic mystery lately. The day has all the hallmarks of the genre: while stoplight at the top of the hill’s being on the blink (or, rather, uncharacteristically not being on the blink) is admittedly the kind of thoughtfully-selected, pragmatic detail that makes a fictional world spring to life on the page, my brunch guests’ finding themselves plunged into darkness — or as close to darkness as a deep gray Seattle afternoon will permit — must hardly have come as a surprise to those familiar with the genre. I’ll bet you saw it coming the proverbial mile away. What’s next, a cat leaping out of nowhere to startle us at a suspenseful moment?

I mean, really: all of the characters are gathered in one place, and the lights go out? Even the Agatha Christie-impaired around the table immediately began making nervous jokes about which one of us was about to meet a grisly fate.

That’s why, in case any of you have been wondering since last spring’s foray into editorial pet peeves and how to avoid them, I tend to urge savvy revisers not only to scan their manuscripts for places where summary statements (such as All the lights went out could be productively replaced with character- or situation-revealing details (In the middle of the soup course, the chandelier suddenly gave up on emitting light. Even the stoplight at the corner had ceased blinking annoyingly in Montel’s peripheral vision. The butler fumbled in the sideboard for matches.), but for opportunities to surprise and delight the reader with unexpected specifics (In the middle of the soup course — a clear, sherry-laced leek broth with a jaunty dollop of crème fraîche floating gaily on top — the dusty chandelier suddenly gave up on its losing battle to shed light on the table. Even the stoplight at the corner had ceased blinking annoyingly in Montel’s peripheral vision. Startled, he knocked his shrimp fork onto a passing cat.).

My, but that was a long sentence. Somewhere in the literary stratosphere, the late Henry James must be chortling over his holiday goose, muttering to Edith Wharton, “They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

“Too few semicolons for my taste,” Edith replies. “And watch your elbow: if you knock the figgy pudding over, you are sure to set the tablecloth on fire.”

My point, should any of you by some remote chance have lost sight of it in the midst of all that frenetic activity, is that while every type of book — and certainly every genre of fiction — has its own conventions, tropes, and characterization expectations, word for word, a writer is going to get substantially more expressive mileage out of a creative telling deal than one that any inveterate reader of that book category could guess. Or even, if it’s a common enough element, add subconsciously to the scene if it does not appear on the page.

Oh, when you read that second description of the lights going out, you didn’t murmur, “I bet the butler did it,” before your eyes passed the parenthesis at the end of the example?

Yes, Millicent the agency screener is encouraged — indeed, is often explicitly trained — to be on the look-out for manuscripts that read like, well, books in their chosen categories, and yes, each book category, particularly each genre fiction category, has its own recognized and recognizable plot twists, plot lines, stock characters, and, yes, types of details. Because agents specialize in particular types of book, as well as certain types of voices — a fact well worth bearing in mind when selecting which agents to query — it does tend to be to a writer’s advantage at submission time if the manuscript fulfills category-specific expectations. (That’s as true in a query’s descriptive paragraph as in a submission’s first few pages, by the way: if the text doesn’t sound as though it would fit comfortably within the manuscript’s chosen book category, it will usually be rejected.)

Let’s face it, though, the line between making your text read like it belongs shelved with others like it and like a cliché fest can sometimes be pretty thin. Many an aspiring writer believes, mistakenly, that producing a pale replica of a famous author’s writing is a better way to win friends and influence people at an agency than to come up with something more original. Or, even more mistakenly, does not become familiar enough with what’s currently being published in that book category to be aware what conventions would now strike someone who deals with those manuscripts for a living as passé.

To put it another way: when was the last time you read a mystery in which the butler actually did it?

The result, unfortunately, is that our poor Millicent tends to see the same types of specific — as well as the same plot twists, character types, and even phrasing — over and over and over again. When you consider the sheer volume of stories within the same category any agent successful in selling such books receives in any given year, that’s hardly astonishing.

The trouble is, most submitters remain woefully in the dark (and not because the lights went out) about how such elements are likely to be received at an agency. Good writing in a particular book category is good writing, right?

Sheer repetition has made Millicent believe otherwise, alas — but honestly, it’s hard to blame her for feeling that way. What might strike Writer A as requisite for that genre is frequently precisely what Writer B considers an homage to a classic and what Writer C will decide to drop in as a humorous riff on a cliché. And that’s not even counting what Writers D-F will honestly believe is original, but is actually a subconscious lifting of material or phrasing from an admired book.

“Oh, come on,” Millicent mutters, scalding her lip on that too-hot latte she forgot in her annoyance she had set aside to cool. “Does this writer honestly think that someone who reads as much as I do can possibly read an opening line like Yesterday, I fantasized that I returned to Ottawa without Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA springing to mind? Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again is arguably the most famous first line in the genre!”

Wondering why I am bringing all of this up in the midst of a series on querying? Well, several reasons. First, I wasn’t going to post today at all, but as my guests went home when the soup got cold, I had a bit of extra time on my hands. I also had a charged-up laptop, as it happens, so clearly, this is kismet.

Especially as I had a holiday-themed anecdote I had been itching to recycle, anyway. I could have worked it into a series of queries, but hey, it’s a holiday — I thought everyone might enjoy a little break from our two solid months of query consideration. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that those of you devoted enough to your writing to be checking in at Author! Author! today might be more seriously interested in a discussion of craft than your garden-variety casual Internet browser.

Either that, or you might be trying to avoid your nearest and dearest. I’m happy to help you do that, too.

So gather close to the Yule log, campers, and let me spin my tale. As you read, try to think like Millicent: does the narrative contain enough specifics to provide all of the characterization needed? Does it occasionally stumble into the realm of cliché? While you’re at it, why not embrace the chance to embrace the Author! Author! tradition of trying to figure out what editorial tweaks could improve the story?

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer have been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — plasters the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

They also, somewhat less emphatically, erect a sign informing dog-owners that crèche livestock are not, to put it mildly, best friends with man’s best friend. Since dogs cannot, unfortunately, read and many leash-tugging owners apparently do not, poor Curly frequently thrusts himself between some yapping visitor and his hoofed friends. Nearby, nursery personnel visibly restrain themselves from shouting, “Hey, can’t you read?”

On the whole, though, human behavior seemed to leave the trio unfazed. Scores of children flung hay at them, bellowing, “Hey, Reindeer!” — or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before or were confused by the ambient barking. The trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

One small pink-clad screamer simply would not leave the animals alone, however. She kicked at the metal fencing, screaming words I was a surprised a kindergartener would be able to use correctly in a sentence, or, indeed, incorporate into her everyday vocabulary without getting expelled. When she picked up a rock, I wandered over to the fence to distract her with a hastily-constructed fairy tale about our barnyard friends. And camels.

Almost immediately, a bulbous man in shorts and a t-shirt materialized by my side. Despite ambient cold that left our breath visible, his exposed arms and legs were not even goose-bumped. “Come over here,” he barked at the little girl, dragging her along the fence until they were directly in front of Curly.

Was he going to make her apologize to the camel? Curly did not seem to be expecting it, but perhaps his furry friends would appreciate the gesture.

Releasing the quivering child, the man — whose clothing, I noticed, was emblazoned with advertisements for a local band and Nike, respectively, not the nursery — reached up and over the chain-link fence, snapping his fingers. Placidly, Curly dipped his head, extending his hyper-mobile lips toward the hand.

Curious to hear what happened next, aren’t you? That’s a good indicator that a scene is paced well. See how selecting those details carefully, as well as not over-burdening the text with explanations, can increase suspense while simultaneously moving the plot along?

So why, I ask you, would our old pal Millicent, have stopped reading part-way through paragraph #3? Because, I assure you, most would have: one of her most notorious pet peeves has reared its ugly head here.

If you pointed out that the narration switched tenses between the second and third paragraphs, congratulations! Paragraphs Nos. 1 and 2 are in the present tense; paragraph #3 is in the past.

Submissions and contest entries do that all the time; so do, believe it or not, descriptive paragraphs in query letters. Sometimes, they even switch back to the original tense later in the text, or vacillate from sentence to sentence.

Already, I can spot some raised hands out there. “But Anne,” adherents of variable tenses point out, and with some reason, “Paragraphs #1 and #2 describe ongoing conditions, while paragraph #3 on focuses upon one-time events. Doesn’t that mean that the tense choices here are appropriate, or at least defensible?”

Good question, lovers of the present tense. Professional readers — agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, etc. — are trained to spot redundancies in a manuscript. They’re also taught to leap upon inconsistencies.

In other words, Millicent is likely to assume that the change of tense is not the result of well thought-out authorial choice, but simply a mistake that did not get caught in the proofreading process — or, if this were a descriptive paragraph in a query, the after-effects of an incomplete merger of two different versions, one in the present tense and one in the past.

Why might that make her stop reading altogether? Like other commonly-made errors, the tense inconsistency may well jar her out of the flow of the story. Next!

You habitual tense-switchers are not particularly happy with that answer, are you? “Okay, so she’s detail-oriented, but this isn’t a writing mistake; this is a stylistic choice. So why would Millicent be annoyed by it?”

On its face, your logic is pretty sound, tense-switchers: it would indeed be possible, within the context of a civil conversation between author and reader, to justify the tense choices in the example above. A writer might ostensibly win an argument with, say, a writing teacher, critique group, or even an editor about keeping the switch in the text. But that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to submit pages with tense inconsistencies to Millicent — or to her aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter.

Why, you ask? Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: because the writer is seldom present when an agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge encounters his manuscript for the first time. Successful manuscripts, queries, synopses, and contest entries are thus those that do not require additional verbal explanation.

So even if the writer is technically correct, if a tense switch seems unjustified to Millicent — if it appears to be, say, an incomplete revision between a manuscript originally in the present tense and a subsequent draft in the past, or vice-versa — that’s usually the ball game. So why risk it? Especially when, as in this case, making the tense consistent does not detract at all from either the meaning or the voice of the section. Lookee:

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer had been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — plastered the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

They also, somewhat less emphatically, erected a sign informing dog-owners that crèche livestock are not, to put it mildly, best friends with man’s best friend. Since dogs cannot, unfortunately, read and many leash-tugging owners apparently would not, poor Curly frequently thrust himself between some yapping visitor and his hoofed friends. Nearby, nursery personnel visibly restrained themselves from shouting, “Hey, can’t you read?”

On the whole, though, human behavior seemed to leave the trio unfazed. Scores of children flung hay at them, bellowing, “Hey, Reindeer!” — or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before or were confused by the ambient barking. The trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

That’s as painless a revision as you’re ever likely to encounter, folks, by see how big a difference it makes to the text? All it requires is a good proofreading eye and a willingness to view the story from Millicent’s perspective, not the writer’s. (The latter, after all, is already familiar with the storyline.) And need I even add that this variety of inconsistency is easiest to catch if one reads one’s submission or contest entry IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD?

I thought not. Let’s move on with the story, to see if we can catch any other Millicent-displeasers.

Delicately, politely, as if he were extracting an egg from beneath a mother hen, Curly took the man’s fingers into his gargantuan mouth. The hand did not budge. The camel paused meditatively for a few seconds, tasting, then sucked the hand into his mouth up to the elbow, dragging the man up to his tiptoes.

Instinctively, I took a step toward the child. If the object lesson about the dangers of violating animals’ personal space was about to go horribly awry, the least I could do was shield her from seeing the bloody denouement.

The man waved me back with his free hand. “See, Tanya?” he told the saucer-eyed girl. “They like people. If you treat them nicely, they’ll treat you nicely.”

“That’s right, sweetie,” a stringy-haired woman called from the nearby wreath display. “Be nice to the animals, and they’ll never hurt you.”

“You just have to learn what they like.” A helpful bystander kicked a tall crate toward the man’s feet, so he could follow his arm skyward. “Camels love sucking on things.”

Mentally, I began taking notes, in preparation for my inevitable testimony in a court of law. “I think she’s got the point. Maybe it’s time to back off now?”

Okay, what’s the problem this time? Hint: it’s even harder to catch than the last.

No? What about all of that redundancy in the dialogue?

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” several exclaim, “that’s how people talk in real life! You’re not gearing up to tell us that Millicent finds realistic dialogue annoying, are you?”

Um, sort of. At least the parts of real-life speech that are redundant. Or not germane to what’s going on. Or just plain boring.

Which is to say, as any close listener to everyday speech would happily tell you, most of it.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send my entire readers on free writing retreats.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “isn’t that pretty self-evident? Just as absolutely faithful recreations of real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing an additional nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers are also apt to forget that real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as we sometimes expect. Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge.

Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it. To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Sarah.” Pausing in mid-gossip, Theresa picked up the overturned plastic cup before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the dining hall checker’s desk.

Dina the checker glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Theresa stammered awkwardly.

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Dina grew large in her seat, like a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missy.”

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

“I’ll save you a seat,” Sarah offered, embarrassed.

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Theresa obediently gave up her place in the block-long lunch line in order to take the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the dining hall. How quickly a good mood could evaporate!

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character, if not from Christmas Past, at least ripped from the writer’s actual experience? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina never showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she never appeared again?

Actually, that was a set of trick questions. The answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response. Fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary.

That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question — something that Millicent, by definition, would not walk into the scene possessing. Nor would any other reader who was neither there when the incident occurred nor had heard the author complain vociferously about it.

In other words, what we have here is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon. Because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well. But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion.

Or any other, for that matter. It’s just an anecdote. Yet most self-editing writers, especially those who happen to be writing memoir, wouldn’t notice this narrative lack. Any guesses why?

If you immediately shouted that it was due to the fact that his memory of Dina the real person is so strong, help yourself to four peppermint cookies from the holiday table. In the writer’s mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange is that Theresa is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. If I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, however, it’s incumbent upon me to do quite a bit more character development. Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read.

Of course, we want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf tells us, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too — and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in on the page.

This is especially true when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar, theatre-goers:

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

B: (nursing the thumb the elephant trod upon in the last scene) “Yeah.”

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

A good third of the dialogue Millicent sees runs approximately like this, I tremble to report. Understand now why she might become just a tad touchy at the sight of dialogue that provides neither character development nor moves the plot along?

As a general rule of thumb — sore or otherwise — I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, or, often, um. Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are pretty reliable flares, indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays ON point.

My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known author of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words.

“Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Hard to argue with that, eh? Yet, like most writers receiving critical feedback, I fought it at first. Since the dialogue in my advisor’s published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to write as I do? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it. If it isn’t either inherently interesting, plot-advancing, or character-revealing, does it really need to be there?

One more insight, then I’ll let you get back to your relatives: you’ve been having just a little trouble paying attention to my arguments, haven’t you? I’m betting that some substantial part of your mind has been distracted, wondering what happened to the arm in the camel’s mouth.

That, my friends, is how Millicent — and most other readers, professional and non-pro alike — feels when an interesting one- or two-paragraph teaser, the kind that aspiring writers so love placing within italics at the beginning of their manuscripts, gives way to an apparently or only tangentially unrelated second scene. Yes, we see it in published books all the time, but in a submission, it’s a risky strategy.

“Hey!” Millicent cries, spitting out her mouthful of scalding latte, “what happened to that darn interesting plot I’d gotten absorbed in? What’s this writer trying to do, hook me with something exciting, then drop me into a comparatively mundane storyline?”

Let’s be honest, folks: that’s precisely what most writers who use this trick are trying to do. Professional readers are wise to it by now.

Remember, part of being a good storyteller involves knowing when to relieve the suspense — and frankly, in the case of my camel story, Alfred Hitchcock himself would have chosen to do so by now. Ahem:

“Give me a boost,” the man asked calmly, but his eyes were beaming panic over his daughter’s head. Curly’s lips were exploring the first few inches of his t-shirt sleeve.

Since his arm appeared to be on the verge of being ripped off at the shoulder, the crate-kicker and I hastily complied. With his uneaten hand, he began tickling the camel’s lips, rubbing the gums as if he were a mammalian dentist. Curly face elongated, as though he were going to sneeze. A loud pop, a slurp, and the man’s arm returned to the land of the living.

He strutted his way down from the crate. “See?” he told the girl. “If you know what you’re doing, they won’t hurt you.”

“Yes, Daddy,” she whispered, staring aghast at his friction-reddened arm, manifestly resolving never to have anything whatsoever to do with an animal larger than herself again.

The moral, if I may venture one: just because something seems like a good idea at first blush doesn’t mean that it’s worth stubbornly adhering to it. One of the keys to successful self-editing is flexibility.

That, and keeping any parts of your body involved in typing out of animals’ mouths. Happy holidays, everybody, and 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!

But enough about you — what about me?

Today, I had planned to launch headlong into my annual foray into how to construct a graceful and effective query letter, campers, but frankly, didn’t we devote an awful lot of the summer to discussing how to pitch? After so many weeks on end of dealing with practicalities, I feel that the artist in each of us deserves a little holiday.

So let’s refresh ourselves by talking craft for a while. Queryfest will be every bit as useful next week.

Memoir-writing and writing about reality as fiction has been much on my mind of late, and not merely because my memoir remains in publishing limbo. (Yes, still. Let’s just be grateful that not every memoirist’s extended family has the wherewithal to make credible $2 million dollar lawsuit threats.) While we writers talk endlessly amongst ourselves about craft and structure for fiction, it’s actually quite rare to stumble into a knot of literary conference attendees avidly discussing how to make a personal anecdote spring to life on the page.

Why is that, when it is so very hard to write memoir well? All too often, the prevailing wisdom dictates that all a writer needs to produce a successful memoir is an exciting life, an ability to write clearly, and, if at all possible, celebrity in another field, so the writing will matter even less. The writer’s platform and the inherent interest of the story, we’re told, are all that matter in a memoir. Anything beyond that, presumably, is gravy.

As to structure, that’s held to be self-evident. In the immortal words of Lewis Carroll,

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

As a memoirist and an editor who works regularly with same, I must disagree. While a chronological structure can work, not all human events start out scintillating; depending upon the story, another structure might work better.

Then, too, a memoir cannot really be deemed a success unless readers find it entertaining, enlightening, or at the very least, interesting. That’s not merely a matter of story. Any long-form writing, be it fiction or nonfiction, will benefit from a strong narrative structure, a consistent, likable narrative voice, a plausible and engaging story arc, believable, well-drawn characters, a protagonist the reader would be happy to follow for a few hundred pages…

In short, many of the elements one might find in a well-constructed novel. But that’s not all that a good reality-based story requires, is it? After all, few readers will want to read a story, whether it is presented as memoir or as fiction, simply because it really happened. It needs to feel real on the page — and it needs to be enjoyable to read.

What makes me think that this might be news to many writers of memoir and reality-based fiction, you ask? For my sins, I have served quite frequently as a contest judge, assessing both memoir and novel entries, and I’m here to tell you, they look more similar on the page than one might think.

How so? They tend to share a few characteristics: a one-sided approach to scenes, as if the protagonist’s perspective were the only possible one; an apparent assumption that the reader will automatically side with the protagonist, regardless of what is going on, and bolstering both, a propensity for relating conflictual exchanges as though they were verbal anecdotes, light on detail but strong on emotion. Or, to boil all of these down to a single trait, these narratives tend to be disproportionately weighted toward a single point of view.

And memoirists’ hands fly heavenward all over the world. “But Anne,” they point out, and who could blame them? “My memoir is my story. Why wouldn’t it be biased toward my perspective?”

It should, of course — but in the interests of representing one’s own point of view, memoirists and writers of the real often render the narrative so one-sided that the situation neither seems plausible nor fairly presented. It just reads like a diatribe in scene form, a piece of prose whose primary point is not storytelling, but getting back at someone.

About half of you have started to blush, have you not? I’m not surprised; in both memoir and reality-based fiction, the scene where the reader is evidently expected to take the protagonist’s side, not because the antagonist is shown to be particularly awful, but because the narrative presents the antagonist without any sympathy — or, usually, any redeeming characteristics — is a notorious pet peeve of our old pal, Millicent the agency screener. And not just as a generality, either. When Millicents, their boss agents, and the editors to whom they cater gather to share mutual complaints in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, the annoying coworker stereotype often crops up in conversation.

As in, “You think you’re tired of conceptual repetition? I’ve read fourteen submissions this week alone with omitable annoying coworker scenes.”

It’s perhaps not altogether astonishing that memoirs would be rife with interactions between the protagonist/narrator and the people who happen to rile her, told in a breathlessly outraged tone, but aspiring writers of fact-based fiction are often stunned to discover that they were not the first to think of inserting actual conflicts into fictional stories. They shouldn’t be: there’s a pretty good reason that such scenes are ubiquitous in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Care to guess?

If you immediately cried out, “By gum, Anne, every writer currently crawling the crust of the earth has in fact had to work with someone less than pleasant at one time or another,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Given how often aspiring writers resent their day jobs — and, by extension, the people with whom they must interact there — that such unsavory souls would end up populating the pages of submissions follows as night the day.

If these charming souls appeared in novel and memoir submissions in vividly-drawn, fully fleshed-out glory, that actually might not be a problem. 99% of the time, however, the annoying co-worker is presented in exactly the same way as any other stereotype: without detail, under the apparent writerly assumption that what rankles the author will necessarily irk the reader.

Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case — it can take a lot of page space for a character to start to irritate a reader. So instead of having the character to demonstrate annoying traits and allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions, many a narrative will convey that a particular character is grating by telling the reader directly (“Georgette was grating”), providing the conclusion indirectly (through the subtle use of such phrases as, “Georgette had a grating voice that cut through my concentration like nails on a chalkboard”), or through the protagonist’s thoughts (“God, Georgette is grating!”)

Pardon my asking, but as a reader, I need to know: what about Georgette was so darned irritating? For that matter, what about her voice made it grating? It’s the writer’s job to show me, not tell me, right?

I cannot even begin to count the number of memoirs and novels I have edited that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why.

Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, the response is identical: “But it really happened that way!”

No surprise there. These scenes are pretty easy for professionals to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true.

The author is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader. Ultimately, this is a point-of-view problem — the author is just too close to the material to be able to tell that the scene doesn’t read the way she anticipated.

Did I just see some antennae springing up out there? “Hey, wait a minute. Mightn’t an author’s maintaining objective distance from the material — in this case, the annoying co-worker — have helped nip this particular problem in the bud long before the manuscript landed on Millicent’s desk?”

Why, yes, now that you mention it, it would. Let’s look at the benefits of some objective distance in action.

Many writers assume, wrongly, that if someone is irritating in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned, from the reader’s perspective. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. I have read scenes where the case against the villain is so marked that most readers would decide that the hero is the impossible one, not the villain.

This character assassination has clearly not gone as planned. A little more objective distance might have made it go better. Who was it that said, revenge is a dish best served cold?

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

My most vivid personal experience of this species of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. And at the risk of having this story backfire on me, I’m going to tell you about it as nonfiction.

Call it a memoir excerpt. To prevent confusion, I’m going to offset the narrative from the discussion.

A few years before I began blogging, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a fragrant month-long stay in a cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day to a sojourn in a medieval village in southwestern France to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills.

A word to the wise: it pays to do your homework before you apply.

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for the month of March was a writer, sculptor, photographer, or painter. While world-class painters and sculptors were imported up ice-covered rural roads every few days to critique and encourage those newer to their respective arts, the National Book Award winner scheduled to give feedback to the writers didn’t bother to show up for the first week of her residency. Amenities like kilns, darkrooms, and ladders to facilitate the construction of 20-foot woven cardboard cocoons seemed to appear whenever the visual artists so much as blinked. The writers, a tiny minority, had been shoved into a dank, dark cellar with cinder block walls; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and compared them to the caves to which they had been assigned.

See what I just did there? I skewed the narrative so you would resent the visual artists.

But was that necessary? Objectively speaking, they were not the villains in this situation; they, like me, were visitors to the retreat. Besides, since the overwhelming majority of the Author! Author! community is made up of writers, couldn’t I simply have assumed that my readers would identify with the cave residents pretty much automatically?

Or, better yet, couldn’t I have included a vivid detail or two that would have nudged the reader in that direction without the narration’s appearing to be presenting a myopic account?

What kind of detail, you ask? Let’s try this one on for size.

Due to the musty dampness of the writers’ cellar, I elected to write in my assigned bedroom, in order to catch the occasional ray of sunlight. Sure, there were certain drawbacks — the desk had been designed for a hulking brute twice my size, while the desk chair had apparently been filched from a nearby kindergarten — but at least the heat worked. Too well, in fact: an hour and a half into my first afternoon of writing, a sleepy hornet emerged from the gaping hole around the charming antique light fixture and aimed straight for my head.

It was not the best moment to learn that the windows had been sealed for the winter. You know writers: we can’t be trusted not to let all of the heat out. Unlike, say, painters, whose windows might safely open onto vast vistas of forested hillside.

As the afternoon sun warmed the room, hornet after hornet emerged from its long winter’s nap. After the eighth had expressed its displeasure at my having had the temerity to have turned on either the light or the heat, I shook the bees off my jacket, wrapped my head and shoulders in several scarves, and plunged into a blizzard. By the time I reached the administration building, I was chilled to the bone.

Perhaps naïvely, I had assumed that the hornet’s nest in my room would come as a surprise to the retreat’s administrators. The writer who’d had the room the previous November — the local authorities had deemed it inadequately heated for winter residence — had complained about the bees, too. The painter-in-residence charged with rooting them out had simply not gotten around to it.

And didn’t for three days. He was too busy with a canvas that just couldn’t wait to be handed down to posterity. The administrators encouraged me to regard sleeping on a couch next to the dining hall as my contribution to the world’s supply of art. I had to wait until after dark in order to retrieve my laptop.

That engaged your sympathies more robustly, didn’t it? It’s still my experience and my perspective, told in my voice — but I’ve allowed you to draw the conclusion. That’s simply better storytelling.

Don’t see it? Okay, contrast the fleshed-out account above with the following series of summary statements.

Sharing meals in a dining hall was a bit high school-like, conducive to tensions about who would get to sit at the Living Legend in Residence’s table, squabbles between the writers and the painters about whether one should wait until after lunch to start drinking, or break out the bottles at breakfast (most of the writers were on the first-mentioned side, most of the painters on the latter), and the usual bickerings and flirtations, serious and otherwise, endemic to any group of people forced to spend time together whether or not they have a great deal in common.

An environment ripe, in other words, for people to start to find their co-residents annoying.

Aren’t you already longing for me to show you how specifically they were annoying, rather than merely telling you that they were? Let’s exacerbate the problem in the manner so many writers of the real do, creating the illusion of narrative distance by switching the text almost entirely into the passive voice.

Of course, such problems are endemic to large artists’ colonies. One classic means of dealing with the inevitable annoying co-resident problem is to bring a buddy or three along on a retreat; that way, if the writer in the next cubicle becomes too irritating, one has some back-up when one goes to demand that she stop snapping her gum every 27 seconds, for Pete’s sake. I am of the school of thought that retreating entails leaving the trappings and the personnel of my quotidian life behind, but there’s no denying that at a retreat of any size, there can be real value in having someone to whom to vent about that darned gum-popper. (Who taught her to blow bubbles? A horse?)

Doubtless for this reason, several artists had brought their significant others to the hornet-ridden New England village. Or, to be more accurate, these pairs had applied together: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise. Although every fiber of my being longs to use their real names, I shall not.

Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.

And let’s see how this telling, not showing thing I’ve got going works for character development, shall we?

Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic, social, or his personal favorite, explicitly sexual. The dining hall’s Lothario, one constantly spotted him flirting with…hmm, let’s see how best to represent how he directed his attentions…everything with skin.

Amusing, but wouldn’t some details have brought his predilections more clearly before the reader’s eyes? Let’s try showing some of his work.

His eyes flickered over the female residents so persistently that I wondered if he was looking for a model. On day three, when he invited me to his palatial sculpture studio, I realized that he might have been seeking a lady to encase in plaster of Paris: practically every flat surface held representations of breasts, legs, pudenda, and breasts. He practically backed me into a backside. Murmuring some hasty excuse about needing to get back to my hornets, I slipped away from his grasping hands and dashed out into the pelting snow.

Still don’t see why that was better? Okay, let’s revert to generalities.

Being possessed of skin myself, I naturally came in for my fair share of Hansel’s attentions. (How’s that for a colorless summary of the proceeding story?) Generally speaking, though, I tend to reserve serious romantic intentions for…again, how to put this…people capable of talking about something other than themselves. Oh, and perhaps I’m shallow, but I harbor an absurd prejudice in favor of the attractive.

This is precisely the type of paragraph that will absolutely slay ‘em in a verbal anecdote, or even in a blog, but often falls flat on the page. Yes, it’s amusing; yes, people actually do speak this way, so it’s a plausible a first-person narrative voice. But it’s vague. It’s character development, in the sense that it purports to tell the reader something about the narrator, but the reader just has to take the narrative’s word for it. Is that really the best way to convince the reader what a protagonist is like?

An artists’ retreat tends to be a small community, however; one usually ends up faking friendliness with an annoying co-resident or two. Since there was no getting away from the guy — believe me, I tried — I listened to him with some amusement whenever we happened to sit at the same table. I was, after all, the only other artist in residence who had read any Henry Miller. We had coffee a couple of times when there was nobody else in the town’s only coffee shop. And then I went back to my room, battled away the wildlife, and wrote for 50 hours a week.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon over the salad bar. Apparently, she thought I was after her man.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they derived pleasure from manufacturing jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I do have standards” to an angry wife, is there? So I simply started sitting at a different table in the dining hall.

A little junior high schoolish? Yes, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable — and frankly, who needed the drama? I was there to write.

Let’s pause here to consider: what do you, the reader, actually know about Gretel at this point? Are your feelings about her based upon what you have actually seen her do or my conclusions about her motivations? And are the facts even clear: was I the only resident of whom Gretel was jealous, or did she fume over the salad bar with anyone possessing two X chromosomes?

Wouldn’t it have worked better had I just shown her slapping peanut butter violently onto some white bread while I tried to make pleasant conversation with her, or depicted her veering away from me with her cracked metal tray? In short, wouldn’t it have made more sense to show this as a scene, rather than telling it as an anecdote?

Often, this fix is expressed rather confusingly: writers are told to insert some narrative distance into such scenes. I’m not a big fan of this language, for the simple reason that most memoirists and writers of the real new to editor-speak tend to interpret it as a call to make the narrative appear objective by, you guessed it, retreating into the passive voice. Let’s take a gander at this strategy in action.

Another phenomenon that often characterizes a mixed residency — i.e., one where different types of artists cohabitate — is a requirement to share one’s work-in-progress. At this particular retreat, painters and sculptors had to fling their studios open to public scrutiny once a week. Each writer had to do at least one public reading in the course of the month.

Feels like you’ve been shoved back from the story, doesn’t it? That’s how verbal anecdotes tend to read on the page: as rather vague summaries. When they are in the passive voice as well, the narrator can come across as the passive puppet of circumstances, rather than as the primary actor of the piece, the person who makes things happen.

Let’s borrow a tool from the novelist’s kit and make the protagonist active, shall we?

Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. By the end of the second week, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I had flirted with her mostly unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the retreat, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. (You have to do your own laundry at every artists’ retreat on earth; don’t harbor any fantasies about that.) My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a sandwich near the couple to spark a fit of jealous pique, but that was it.

Aha, so Gretel had singled me out. Was there a good narrative reason not to make that plain earlier? It almost certainly would have been funnier — and made both my reactions and my conclusions as narrator make more sense to the reader.

At the end of the third week of our residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and National Book Award winner who had finally deigned dropped by (in exchange for a hefty honorarium) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected to read highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

Wow, I’ve left you to fill in a lot of details here, have I not? How could you possibly, when the narrative so far has given you only a very sketchy view of time, place, and character?

Four writers were scheduled to read that night. The first two shared beautifully varnished work, safe stuff, clearly written long before they’d arrived at the retreat. Then Gretel stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me venomously, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

See how I worked in the false suspense there? Rather than showing precisely what her venomous glance was like — impossible for you to picture, right, since I have yet to tell you what she looks like? — I embraced the ever-popular storytelling shortcut of having the protagonist’s reaction to an event or person take the place of showing what was actually going on. Think that was the best strategy for this story?

Let’s try another tack. How about getting a little closer to what’s happening in that crowded room, so the reader may feel more like she is there? Or at least more like she’s standing in the narrator’s shoes?

Gretel settled a much-abused spiral notebook onto the podium and began to read a lengthy interior monologue in stentorian tones. Her eyes never left the paper, and with good reason: the plotless account depicted Hansel and Gretel — both mentioned by name on page 1, incidentally — having sex in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the interaction, in terms neither titillating nor instructive. It was simply a straightforward account of a mechanical act, structured within a literal countdown to the final climax: “Ten…nine…eight…”

It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launching that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

I cringed for her — honestly, I did. I’d read some of Gretel’s other work: she was a better writer than this. So what point was she trying to make by reading this…how shall I put it?…a literarily uninteresting piece whose primary point seemed to be to inform the uncomfortable audience that she and her husband had consummated their marriage?

See how I used my response to develop the narrator’s character? Memoirists and writers of the real too often forget that the narrator is the protagonist of the story they are telling, and thus needs to be fleshed out as a character. If I’d attacked that last paragraph with a big more descriptive vim, I might have worked in some interesting insights into both Gretel and Hansel’s characters — how did her account jibe with his sculptural depictions of the act, for instance?

Oh, you thought that all of those body parts were languishing around his studio solo? Alas, no; I’ve seen less accurate models in biology classes. Again, wouldn’t it have been more effective storytelling to have shown that — or even made that last comment — while the protagonist was in the studio?

That would also have been the natural time to work in that Hansel’s sculptures did not…again, how to put this tactfully?…appear to have been based upon his wife’s womanly attributes. Artistically, he favored curves; she was so angular that she could have cut vegetables on her hip bones.

Lingering too long in the narrator’s head can be distracting from the action, though. Throughout the next paragraph, I invite you to consider: as a reader, would you have preferred to see the action more directly, or entirely through the narrator’s perspective?

Maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece: the painters in the back row, the ones who had been drinking since breakfast, waved their bottles, hooting and hollering. They seemed not to notice that although the monologue was from a female perspective, there were no references whatsoever to the narrator’s physical sensations, only what Hansel was doing. The part of Gretel might have been quite adequately played by a robot.

Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants seem to be counting the seconds until the act is over, it’s not the best romantic coupling imaginable. Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. “Three…two…one.” No one applauded but Hansel.

In first-person pieces, the narration will often switch abruptly from inside the protagonist’s head to an ostensibly objective set of descriptions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You be the judge: how well do you think the next paragraph carries the story forward from the last?

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again, it was written in the first person, again with herself and her husband identified by name, again an interior monologue. However, this had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first few paragraphs. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character entered the scene, sat down at a table, picked up a sandwich — and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade that included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, {expletive deleted}!” and “Are those real?”

Need I even mention that her physical description of the object of these jabs would have enabled anyone within the sound of her voice to pick me out of a police line-up?

Wouldn’t it have been both more interesting and better character development to have shown the opening of Gretel’s second piece, rather than leaving it to the reader’s imagination? Ponder how that choice might have affected your perception of whether this scene is funny or tragic, please, as the narrative belatedly tells what it should have shown in the previous section.

She read it extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. From a literary standpoint, though, the piece fell flat: the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. While that might have been interesting as a dramatic device, Gretel hadn’t done enough character development for either “Jan”– cleverly disguised name, eh?– for the reader either to sympathize with the former or find the latter threatening in any way.

There was no ending to the story. She just stopped, worn out from passion. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

The first comment from the audience was, “Why did the narrator hate Jan so much? What had she done to the narrator?”

Had I been telling this anecdote verbally — and believe me, I have — this spate of summary statements and analysis of what the reader has not been shown might well work beautifully. Memoirists tend to be fond of paragraphs like this, commenting upon the action as if the reader had also been there. It makes abundant sense, from the writer’s perspective: after all, I was actually there, right?

But talking about events creates a very different impression on the page than writing about them vividly enough that the reader can picture the action and characters for herself. If I had shown you the story Gretel was reading, at least in part, you could have judged this character based on her own words — much more powerful than the narrator’s simply telling you what you should think about her.

A professional reader like Millicent — or, heck, like me — might well raise another objection to that last section: since the narration is so skewed to the protagonist’s side, some readers may feel that this account lacks credibility. Could Gretel actually have been as vitriolic (or unstrategic) as I’ve depicted her here?

Actually, she was, every bit — but does that matter, if the narrative can’t make her seem plausible on the page? The fact that Gretel existed and that she chose to act in this extraordinary manner is not sufficient justification for the reader to finish this story. It also has to work as a story, and that’s going to require some serious character development for not only the narrator, but the other characters as well.

You’d be astonished at how often memoir submissions do not treat either as characters. Frequently, Millicent sees memoirs — and slice-of-life fiction, for that matter — that are simply commentary upon what was going on around the protagonist. Yet a memoir isn’t a transcript of events, interesting to the reader simply because they happened to the narrator; it’s one person’s story, skillfully pruned to leave out the dull parts. If the reader doesn’t get to know that narrator, though, or come to experience the other characters as real, the memoir is likely to fall flat.

Why? Because it will read like a series of anecdotes, rather than like a book.

Fictionalizers of real life tend to have an easier time thinking of their protagonists as protagonists, I notice, but as any Millicent could tell you, they often give away the narrative’s bias by clearly siding with one character over another. Or by depicting one character as all sweetness and light and the other as all evil. A popular secondary strategy: describing other characters’ reactions to the antagonist as universally in line with the protagonist’s, as though any onlooker would have had exactly the same response.

I was very nice to Gretel afterward; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible, congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. (“Three…two…one.”) Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around.

True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly belly flopped, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I went out of my way to be courteous to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, I was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Is there anything more stinging than someone you hate feeling sorry for you?

At last, we come full circle, back to my original point in sharing this anecdote in the first place: if your answer was any flavor of yes, you might want to consider waiting until you’ve developed some objective distance from your annoying co-worker before committing her to print. Think at least twice about what you’re putting on the page, particularly for work you are submitting to contests, agencies, or small presses.

Or, heaven forbid, reading to a group of people you want to like you. Or your narrator.

If you’re still angry, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective — at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate — consider giving it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

It’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before promotion becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer — and, let’s face it, a lot of us do — please seriously consider joining a writing group. To be blunt about it, finding good first readers you can trust can save you from looking like an irate junior high schooler on a rampage.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human — which renders me a more interesting protagonist in a memoir, right? As a memoirist, I have to assume that my readers too intelligent to believe that I was 100% perfect in this trying situation (I must admit, I did make an unkind joke or two in private), or that Gretel was 100% nasty (in actuality, she was rather nice to people her husband did not appear to be obsessed with sculpting), I suspect that most readers would also wonder whether Hansel actually stood by passively while his wife seethed with jealousy (he didn’t: he egged her on, in what appeared to me to be characteristic of their relationship). Were I planning to use this dynamic in a memoir, it would be in the story’s best interest to develop those less-neat elements into a more plausibly complete account.

If I hoped to fold this frankly pretty darned annoying incident into a novel, the imperative to flesh these people out into fully-rounded characters would be even stronger. Showing their foibles through action and dialogue, rather than just telling the reader what conclusions to draw, is not only better storytelling — it’s less intrusive narration.

Would I feel as vindicated? Perhaps not. Enough time has passed, however, that I now see this story as fundamentally sad: instead of befriending a more experienced writer who could have conceivably helped her on the long, twisty road to publication, Gretel allowed the troubled dynamic of her marriage to become the central focus of a bunch of not-particularly-sympathetic strangers. She, too, was in that dank basement, while her husband created his fantasies of women who did not resemble her in comparative comfort. If he hadn’t chosen me to as the prod with which to keep poking her insecurities, I’m sure he would have found somebody else.

So who is the actual villain of this piece? You decide; that’s the reader’s job, after all.

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!

The Short Road Home, Part II: establishing and preserving narrative intensity, or, why not let those characters roll around on the tiger skin for a while?

Quite the author photo, is it not? That’s the jacket picture for the first edition of Elinor Glyn‘s 1927 bestseller, IT, incidentally — and in response to what those of you familiar with silent film just thought, yes, Madame Glyn was in fact the person who coined the phrase the It Girl for Clara Bow. She also discovered Rudolf Valentino, bullied early Hollywood set dressers out of depicting the stately homes of England with suits of armor in every corner, and convinced the reading public that kissing a lady on the inside of the wrist was far, far sexier than smooching the back of her hand.

She was crucial in establishing many of the long-standing conventions of the romance genre, in short. No great prose stylist, she nevertheless managed to establish her own particular brand of smoldering, setting the standard for passion-on-the-page for decades.

Getting the word out about a writer to that extent was no mean achievement, back in the long-ago days before the Internet — and she pulled it off before telephones were common in private homes. Yet by the time IT was published, Madame Glyn had been THE name in potboiler romance for a decade. Her breakthrough novel, Three Weeks, was considered so scandalous when it came out that it inspired a popular song:

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err with her
On some other fur?

Catchy, no? Even today, most authors would have happily cut off a toe or two in exchange for that kind of free publicity.

Why bring up Madame Glyn in the middle of a discussion of narrative shortcuts and too-quick resolutions of major plot conflicts? Ah, I could tell you up front, but if I have learned anything from studying her work, it’s to draw out the mystery.

To our muttons, then, Last time, I broached the monumental twin subjects of tension and conflict in novels and memoirs. While lack of either is a frequent rejection trigger, there are as many individual underlying causes for flabby tension and minimal conflict as there are manuscripts — or, indeed, as there are pages in individual manuscripts. But that’s not going to stop me from talking about how to attack some of the more common culprits.

Yesterday, I introduced the Short Road Home, the all-too-common narrative practice of resolving a conflict practically as soon as it is introduced — or the first time the protagonist really puts his mind to it. Whether it’s stamping out a fallen match before the reader’s had a chance to see it be even the vaguest threat to the drapes or a protagonist so distracted by subplots that she doesn’t get a chance to devote serious thought to the book’s central problem until Chapter 32 in a 33-chapter novel, professional and non-professional readers alike tend to find cutting to the chase dramatically unsatisfying.

Surprisingly, the intention underlying most Short Roads Home is less often a matter of a writer’s trying to pick up a story’s pace than an attempt to skip over a series of events the writer just doesn’t find very interesting. Oh, the provoking event may be interesting, as may the eventual resolution; it’s all of the action needed to get the reader from Point A to Point B that tends to get omitted. SRH solutions may be very attractive to writers not eager to deal with scenes necessary to resolve a conflict and/or the solution’s messy and page-consuming results.

“What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s fallen into the well?”

It’s so much easier, the logic runs, just to summarize what happened, telling rather than showing the reader what is going on. SRH solutions are, in a word, shortcuts — and in the vast majority of manuscripts, shortcuts that both minimize conflict and reduce tension.

The good news is that the Short Road Home is exceptionally easy to spot in a manuscript, once a writer knows to be looking for it. While a bit time-consuming to fix — often, SRH are small shortcuts, rather than extensive plot detours, so it may require some pretty close reading to spot ‘em — the benefits in added character development tend to be substantial.

Okay, so good news is relative. I never promised you that revision would be a breeze, did I?

Not all too-quick resolutions of a major problem in the plot fall under the SRH rubric, however. Last time, for the sake of discussion, I brewed it for you in its full-bodied version. Today, I am going to deal with the subtle flavor, scenes where character development or conflict is curtailed by too-quick narrative analysis. Like the full-bodied version, this mega-problem is not limited to works of fiction, but runs rampant through narrative nonfiction and memoir as well.

The subtle flavor of the Short Road Home is easy for the author to overlook, particularly in a first novel or memoir. Writers new to the craft tend to be so pleased when they develop the skill to pin down an emotional moment with precision that they go wild with it for a little while. First-person and tight third-person narratives are particularly susceptible to over-analysis: since these point of view choices allow the reader to see the protagonist’s every thought and feeling, it’s pretty easy to get carried away.

The result, alas, is often text in which the conclusions drawn from even the least significant event positively swamp the event itself. In the face of such apparent narrative overreaction, the poor reader is left to guess what is significant and what is merely a passing annoyance.

The border guard eyed him with suspicion. “Your passport, sir?”

Why on earth had the man asked that? Gregory wondered. Was the contraband bulging under his winter coat? Was it too odd that he was wearing a winter coat at all in July?

But what could he do but comply? “Of course. Would you mind holding my monumentally heavy valise while I dig it out?”

The guard accepted the load. “What have you got in here, sir? Gold bars?”

What did the man mean by that? Could he possibly know just by hoisting the bag what was within? Or did the clank give the gold bars away?

As Gregory pulled the necessary papers from his inside coat pocket, a matchbook from the Kit Kat Klub tumbled to the tiled floor. He was too fearful of dropping anything else to pick it up. He lamented the inconvenience. What if he needed to light someone’s cigar on the boat? What if the generator went out, and he was forced to light a candle? Where would he get a candle in that contingency, and did the power go out on steamers very often?

“Here, you are, sir.” The guard returned his passport with a curt smile. “Enjoy your trip.”

Just what did that sinister little smile portend? Gregory wondered uncomfortably. Had he actually gotten away with smuggling, or was the guard merely toying with him?

Exhausting, isn’t it? The instant a solidly conflictual moment peeps its poor little head above ground, narrative eager beavers stop the plot cold to devote themselves to analyzing it, sometimes for pages on end. If a nuance tries to escape unpinned-down, perhaps in order to grace a later scene, the narrative leaps upon it like a vicious wildcat, worrying it to bits.

Frequently, this analysis takes the form of what could be an interestingly subtle conversational conflict’s being presented purely in the form of the protagonist’s mulling over the provocation without responding overtly at all — creating a scene in which all of the conflict takes place in a character’s mind. As we saw above, rhetorical questions are just dandy for achieving this effect.

Oh, what the heck. Let’s see speculation run wild again.

“No more cake for me,” Moira said with a sigh. “I’m stuffed.”

“Oh, have some more, Moira,” Cheyenne wheedled. “You could use to pack on a few pounds.”

Moira’s hand froze in mid-air, crumb-bedusted dessert plate trembling aloft. What did Cheyenne mean by that? Was he just being polite — or was this a backhanded way of reminding her that she was supposed to be on a perpetual diet, with the Miss America pageant only three months away? Or was he afraid that if the guests didn’t consume every last morsel, he would revert to his habits from before, from those torrid days at the emergency reduction boot camp where they’d met, and snort up all of the remaining calories like a Hoover?

She had to smile at the thought: he had been adorable chubby. But that’s not the kind of person who should be seen on a beauty queen’s arm.

She decided to change the subject, as well as her conversational partner. “So, Barbara, how are you enjoying wombat farming?”

See what the narrative has done here? The long internal monologue provides both backstory and character development, but it has also deprived the reader of what could have been a meaningful exchange between Moira and Cheyenne. Instead of allowing the reader to derive impressions of their attitudes toward each other through action and dialogue, the narrative simply summarizes the facts the reader needs to know. To depress the tension of the scene even further, once the logical possibilities for Cheyenne’s motivation have been disposed of in this silent, non-confrontational manner, the scene proceeds as if no conflict had ever reared its ugly head.

Why is this a problem? Well, when a text over-explains situations and motivations, the reader does not have to do any thinking; it’s like a murder mystery where the murderer is identified and we are told how he will be caught on page one. Where’s the suspense? Why keep turning pages?

I see you scowling, but honestly, given how many manuscripts she has to read in a day, this is a completely understandable reaction. Most aspiring writers tend to forget this — or never knew it in the first place — but professional readers do not, as a rule, devour an entire chapter, or even an entire page, before making up their minds about whether they think the submission is marketable. They read line by line, extrapolating patterns.

How might this affect a submission in practice? Let’s assume that Millicent has the first 50 pages of the manuscript containing that last example. If it appears on page 1, she is likely to stop there, because a subtle Short Road Home has already appeared. Because this is her first contact with the writer’s work, she left to speculate whether this is a writing habit, or a one-time fluke. Depending upon which way she decides, she may choose to take a chance that it is a one-time gaffe and keep reading — or, and this is by far the more popular choice, she may pass with thanks.

If the SRH doesn’t appear until page 43, however, she might well continue. She already has some reason to believe that SRHs are not this writer’s go-to solution for conflict. Generally speaking, though, the sooner a writing problem occurs in a manuscript, the more likely she is to diagnose it as inherent to the writer in question’s style, and score the piece accordingly. Even if the overall writing style is strong, a reliance on the SRH is likely to get the writer labeled as promising, but needing a more experience in moving the plot along.

Or, to put it in the parlance of the business, “Next!”

Subtle Short Roads Home often trigger the feedback, “Show — don’t tell!” But frankly, I think that admonition does not give the writer enough guidance. There are a lot of ways that a writer could be telling the reader what is going on; a subtle SRH is only one of many, and I don’t think it’s fair to leave an aspiring writer to guess which rule she has transgressed.

But then, as I believe I have pointed out before, I don’t rule the universe. If I did, though, every writer who was told “Show — don’t tell!” would also receive specific feedback on where and how his manuscript has slipped onto the primrose path of the Short Road Home. In addition, I would provide them with three weeks of paid holiday every six months just for writing (child care provided gratis, of course), a pet monkey, a freezer full of ice cream, and a leather-bound set of the complete writings of Madame de Staël.

Because, frankly, subtle Short Roads Home bug me. I feel that they should be stopped in our lifetime, by federal statute, if necessary.

The way a subtle Short Road Home halts the flow of a wonderful story reminds me of the fate of the migratory birds that used to visit my house when I was a child. Each spring, lovely, swooping swallows would return to their permanent nests, firmly affixed under the eaves of my house, invariably arriving four days after their much-publicized return to Mission San Juan Capistrano, much farther south. For me, it was an annual festival, watching the happy birds frolic over the vineyard, evidently delighted to be home.

Then, one dark year, the nasty little boy who lived half a mile from us took a great big stick and knocked their nests down. The swallows never returned again. Little Georgie had disrupted their narrative, you see.

A subtle SRH disrupts an ongoing narrative, too, smashing imaginative possibilities to the ground with a single blow. Once an overly-enthusiastic analysis has laid the underlying emotional rubric of a relationship completely bare, the rhythm of a story generally has a hard time recovering momentum.

When a text over-analyzes, how can the reader draw any conclusions? That’s not a bad definition of telling, rather than showing, come to think of it: showing the reader what is going on and allowing her to draw her own conclusions tends to produce a richer reading experience than simply stating the facts.

Readers of good writing don’t want to be passive; they want to get emotionally involved with the characters, so they can inhabit, for a time, the world of the book. They want to care about the characters. to keep turning page after page, to find out what happens to them.

Essentially, subtle Short Roads Home are about not trusting the reader to draw the right conclusions about a scene, a character, or a plot twist. They’re about being afraid that the reader might stop liking a character who has ugly thoughts, or who seems not to be handling a situation well. They’re about, I think, a writer’s being afraid that he may not have presented his story well enough to prove the point of his book.

And, sometimes, they’re just about following the lead of television and movies, which show us over and over emotions analyzed to the nth degree. We’ve gotten accustomed to being told immediately why any given character has acted in a particular manner. The various LAW & ORDER franchises excel at this, particularly L&O SVU: in practically every episode, one of the police officers will, in the interests of drama and character development, lose an apparently tenuous grasp on his or her emotions/underlying hostility/grasp of constitutional law and police procedure and let loose upon a suspect.

Or a witness. Or a coworker. The point is, they yell at somebody.

Then, practically the nanosecond after the heat of emotion has passed, another member of the squad will turn up to explain why the character blew up. Helpfully, they often direct this explanation to the person who has just finished bellowing. Whew — just when the audience member thought s/he might have to draw a conclusion based upon what s/he had seen occur.

Or — and this one’s my personal favorite — one of the police officers (or forensic pathologist, or administrator, or someone else entitled by billing to a series of close-ups of an anguished face) does or says something well-intentioned at the beginning of the episode that triggers (however indirectly) someone else to do something stupid. An actual example: “If I hadn’t bought my nephew that computer, he would never have met that online predator!”

Hard to argue with that one, isn’t it? It’s also hard to imagine the next line of dialogue’s not being a cliché, because an assertion like this isn’t precisely conducive to any response but, “Oh, Mrs. Miniver, you mustn’t blame yourself.”

But I digress. With both of these structures, the character in question exhibits his remorse, naturally, by repeating this sentiment at crucial points throughout the episode, looking tortured. Then he bends some pesky police regulation/federal statute/commandment because (and in the interests of brevity, I’m going to cut to the essentials of the argument here) the ends of catching that creep justify the means.

Cue recap of feeling guilty — often punctuated by a co-worker’s patient explanation that capturing the creep du jour didn’t REALLY change the underlying emotional situation, raise the dead, get the nephew un-molested, etc. — and leave those emotional threads hanging for next week’s episode. Wash, rise, repeat.

What identifies this series of events as a Short Road Home is not so much that the villain is pretty much always caught and convicted, but that complex human emotions that talented actors would surely be delighted to play are simply summarized in the plot. Or, to put it as an editor might, the turmoil is told, rather than shown.

To be fair, TV and movie scripts are technically limited to the sensations of sight and sound: they cannot tell their stories any other way. A novelist or memoirist, on the other hand, can draw upon the full range of sensations — and show thoughts. A book writer who restricts himself to using only the tools of TV and movies is like a pianist who insists upon playing only the black keys.

Live a little. You have a lot of ways to show character development and motivation; use them.

Don’t see how this might apply to your revision? Okay, consider your manuscript for a moment: does it contain scenes where, instead of interaction between characters showing the reader what the conflicts are and how the protagonist works through them, the protagonist instead:

(a) sits around (often while driving in a car) and thinks through the problem to its logical conclusion, ruling out possible actions instead of testing them through doing? A species example, so you may recognize it in the wild: Should I go to my boss and confess? No, he’ll never understand. Maybe I should just return the money quietly, hoping no one will notice. But whom am I kidding? Or perhaps I should…

(b) sits around drinking coffee/tea/another beverage with her friends while they come up with analysis and solution? As in: “What do you think, Angela and Trieste? Should I try to save my relationship with Bertie, who might be an axe murderer, or should I leave him? Compare and contrast the possibilities, please, while I score us some more of this luscious chocolate cake.”

Or — and this one often surprises writers when I bring it up:

(c) sits around with her therapist/his significant other, dissecting the problem and coming up with a solution? As in: “Oh, stop kicking yourself, George. You’ve done the best you can for your daughter. It’s not your fault that her mother died in that hideous lacrosse accident when she was only six, and has hated netting ever since.” “I know you’re right, Martha, but by Jove! I can’t help feeling responsible.”

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, sit down right away and read your book straight through, beginning to end. Afterward, ask yourself: would the plot have suffered tremendously if those scenes were omitted entirely? Are there other ways you could convey the same points, through action rather than thought or discussion?

Just a suggestion. (“And just what does she mean by that?” Gregory worried, gnawing his fingernails down to the elbow.)

Speaking of elbows, do I see a few waving in the air? “But Anne,” lovers of the classics protest, “Some of my favorite 19th-century novels spend chapters on end wallowing in the type of intensive introspection you describe. Since good writing is good writing, regardless of the era in which it was produced, Millicent couldn’t possibly regard this orientation as slow pacing.”

Actually, she is fully capable of doing so — in fact, she’s trained to do it. Readers today expect more action on even the literary fiction page than they did back in the days when the next train through town might not show up for a week. That’s why, incidentally, novels (or memoirs) published more than 20 years ago would not be the best role model choices for pacing a book a writer planned to submit today.

Yes, even if the book in question is a recognized classic. I love JANE EYRE as much as the next person, but there’s a reason that all of the film adaptations have simply omitted the huge section of text dealing with the heroine’s conflict over whether to become a missionary or not. As interesting and character-revealing as it is, it’s not as dramatic as the rest of the story.

Do all of those averted eyes mean that some of you don’t want to believe that reading tastes have changed since the Civil War? Believe me, I understand the impulse: it’s tempting, isn’t it, to blame agents for this, since over that particular period they have become the weeders-out of what editors at the major US publishing houses see? (In case you didn’t know, all of the major American publishers currently have policies specifically forbidding considering unagented work; the much-vaunted slush pile no longer exists.) But the fact that pacing standards have sped to near-breakneck rates in recent years really isn’t the agents’ fault: it’s genuinely difficult for them to sell more moderately-paced books. Ditto with long ones.

Why? The price of paper has risen astronomically in recent years, as has the cost of binding. This, in case you are curious, is the primary reason that Millicent tends to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to a first novel much over 100,000 words (400 pages in standard format; if what I just said sounded like Urdu to you, run, don’t walk to check out the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT and WORD COUNT categories on the archive list at right). At 120,000 words — around 500 pages — the cost of binding shoots up.

Bad news for all of us who grew up wanting to emulate John Irving’s pacing, certainly. Or John Steinbeck’s. Or, if we’re honest about it, the protagonist introspection levels of pretty much any meganovelist who wrote prior to the Second World War.

For reasons of history, then, as well as practicality, Millicent starts to tense up when a submission’s tension begins to wilt. But that doesn’t mean that it’s in a writer’s interest to skim over interesting conflict too quickly with a Short Road Home.

I’ve gleaned a lulu of an example from our cover girl of the day’s best-known novel, IT. The impoverished society-girl heroine, Ava Cleveland, is desperate for money to maintain her lifestyle in the face of her brother’s bordering-on-criminal gambling debts. When the following scene begins, she’s just told her friends that she is spending a season in the country to hide the fact that she is going to be asking her admirer, John Gaunt, to give her a — gasp! — job:

So she shut up the Park Avenue flat and dodged her creditors and disappeared to “Virginia” — which happened on the map to be her old nurse’s abode in an ancient house in the old-fashioned poorer quarter of Brooklyn. Close, if she had known it, to one of John Gaunt’s hospitals for children.

Something made her restless, even from the first day of her arrival — so at last she looked at John Gaunt’s card again — and rang Hanover 09410 — once more.

Admit it: you’re already a trifle bored, aren’t you? That’s probably because you’re so used to the current standards of writing that even this much summary strikes you as skirting the edge of show-don’t-tell comfort. Don’t feel bad, if that was your reaction. Actually, Millicent probably wouldn’t have made it beyond the first sentence of this excerpt — and for a reason that is very common in present-day submissions.

Any idea why? Hint: go back and take a gander at that first sentence.

Quite a few ands in it, aren’t there? And technically, quotation marks should not be used to indicate so-called; italics would have been the preferred choice here.

But let’s be charitable: this was published 1927, when submission standards were a considerably more lax. Moving on:

Miss Shrimper answered and was as insulting as she could be, when she heard a refined female voice…No, Mr. Gaunt could not come to the phone — he never came to the phone! The idea!

Ava’s voice sharpened. “Be good enough to tell him that the lady he met at Mrs. Meriton’s is speaking.”

It is doubtful that even this would have succeeded, had not John Gaunt himself chanced to come out from his inner shrine and seen Miss Shrimper’s acid face — something told him instantly that it was Ava trying to get through to him.

John Gaunt turned to re-enter his private room. “Put her through,” was all he said.

And as she did so, Miss Shrimper’s eyes filled with apprehensive tears.

Did you catch the Short Road Home? The narrative had gotten a legitimate conflict going between Ava and Miss Shrimper (albeit through having chosen to summarize the latter’s indignation rather than showing it through dialogue and tone) — when along comes stupid old John (called by both names each time he appears, please note, a rookie narrative mistake) to intuit what’s going on by some mysterious, doubtless magical means.

Presto! Conflict killed.

Not content with abruptly cutting off the hostility between the two women, Glyn went on to minimize Ava’s difficulties in asking for what she wants — another perennially popular version of the Short Road Home. To top it off, her characters take refuge in that most boring of dialogue forms, the ultra-polite. See for yourself.

“Good morning, Miss Cleveland.” His voice was deep, and Ava, at the other end, quivered strangely. “What can I do for you?”

“I want to — work.”

“You had better come and see me tomorrow at eleven, then — I am altering some posts in my office. You may wish to give the name of Miss Clover, perhaps?” The tones were cold as steel and entirely businesslike.

Ava experienced a chill — but “Miss Clover!” That was an idea! “Very well, she answered, and put down the phone.

John Gaunt lay back in his chair and smiled.

“How surprised she will be,” he said to himself. Then he went out and had his rather long hair trimmed slightly so that its thick, deep waves lay close against his Napoleonic head. His nails, which Ava had thought too brilliantly polished, were given a still brighter luster too. Then he went to his Club and was sphinx-like and almost surly with one or two business friends he met.

I could have stopped earlier, but who was I to deny you that Napoleonic head? Hard to imagine that less than a century ago, that description would have been considered inherently attractive, isn’t it?

I could run through a laundry list of all the reasons Millicent might give for not making it all the way through this excerpt — the repeated two-part name, the telling rather than showing, the paragraph containing only a single sentence, the mysterious capitalization of club, the burning question of how exactly may one be sphinx-like without either posing riddles or having a cat’s head — but that’s not what I want you to focus upon here. Instead, concentrate on just how effectively the use of the Short Road Home in this last bit smothered all of the following:

(a) the tension that the narrative seems to be assuring the reader exists, yet doesn’t actually show;

(b) the sense that Ava was having to overcome any scruples in going to work, since she just blurted out the request with no preamble or hesitation, beyond the moment indicated by the dash;

(c) any indication that Ava was going to have to beg for the job, since John Gaunt agrees instantly, and

(d) any anticipation the reader might have felt prior to this scene about difficulties Ava might encounter at her first job, since John Gaunt has very kindly handed her a simple alternative to having to be honest about who she is — and in case we were in any doubt about this suggestion’s utility, Ava considerately just tells the reader that it’s a good idea.

A pretty efficient page’s work — and that’s not even counting the significant achievement of impressing the reader with Ava’s apparent inability to hold still for more than a paragraph without quivering for reasons she doesn’t understand. (Nor do we, as it happens.) By handling potentially conflict-ridden material in this manner, Madame Glyn effectively killed the tension of what should have been a harrowing scene.

That’s unfortunate, because this super-quick resolution is not even representative of the rest of the book. Oh, Madame Glyn does favor the Short Road Home from time to time — but given the exchange above, would you be expecting Ava to try to sell herself to John in order to save her brother? Or John to use the solicitation of same as a complex ruse to propose marriage? Or for businesslike John to express his burgeoning feelings to Ava through (I kid you not) the delicate art of interior decoration?

The moral: just because a storyline is full of conflict doesn’t necessarily mean that the book will be a page-turner. How a writer chooses to present that conflict is crucial.

Frankly, Millicent would be a less cynical woman if more aspiring writers realized this. Beware of inexplicable quavering, everybody, and keep up the good work!