Synopsispalooza, Part XVIII: the story’s not just about that melancholy Dane, is it?

Ophelia's mad scene

All aglow with excitement, writers of multiple-protagonist novels? I sincerely hope so, because last time, we whiled away an autumn Sunday evening discussing an array of strategies for folding spindling mutilating gently compressing a work of literature told from several distinct points of view — or by several different narrators — into (gusty sigh) the 1-page synopsis that so many agency guidelines and contest rules seem to be requiring these days.

And what did the golden rule of not driving yourself crazy in a valiant attempt to squish 400 pages of narrative told from 8 perspectives into 1 page of readable text? Not those panicked 40-pages-boiled-down-to-a-sentence generalizations so popular with first-time synopsizers everywhere, but not even trying to replicate the narrative complexity of the book in a space that scanty. Instead, in a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-perspective book, tell the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

I suspect that conclusion did not altogether astonish those of you who had been following the rest of last weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza posts: as we saw in Saturday morning’s post on 1-, 3-, and 5-page novel synopses, Saturday evening’s dizzying array of memoir synopses, and Sunday morning’s multiple takes on a nonfiction synopsis, a 1- or 2-page synopsis has different goals than its longer counterparts.

Oh, the primary purpose of any query or submission synopsis, regardless of length, is to generate a great longing in our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to see all or part of the actual manuscript, of course, but in a 1-page synopsis, all a novelist really has space to pull off is to demonstrate the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it. Preferably entertainingly, and ideally, in a voice and tone similar to that of the book.

Or, to put it in the checklist format we’ve been embracing throughout Synopsispalooza, a 1-page synopsis should:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise(s),

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

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

Those expectations remain basically the same, regardless of how many protagonists or narrators any given manuscript might happen to be able to boast. It’s not as though a querier, submitter, or contest entrant can shout at Millicent or Mehitabel, “Wait — my manuscript has more narrators than all of those other queriers/submitters/competitors for a blue ribbon in your fine literary contest. It’s only fair to give me more space for my synopsis, since I have more to summarize. About ten times as much should be about right,” and expect her to waive any pre-set length restrictions.

Oh, s/he can shout it until s/he is blue in the face, if s/he wants to give Millicent and Mehitabel a good laugh. That one should have ‘em rolling in the aisles. But the instant they stop chuckling, either will say, “No, but seriously, where’s your 1-page synopsis?”

So just tell the story of your book, as any other novelist would. As we saw last time, a successful 1-page synopsis for a multiple-perspective novel need not — and should not — contain any discussion of the narrative choices at all. To revisit our favorite plotline:

1-page Hamlet

Yes, this 1-page synopsis would work equally well for a single-voiced telling of HAMLET as for one that followed Hamlet, his father, his mother, Ophelia, and Horatio around in the tight third person in alternating chapters, now that you mention it. Or even, since a novel synopsis should always be in the third person, no matter what the narrative voice of the book might be, a version where Ophelia and Hamlet narrate in the first person, Hamlet, Sr. and Gertrude’s perspectives are presented in the third person, and the reader is implicitly drafted into operating as both a castle guard and Greek chorus throughout versions told in the second person plural.

The possibilities are endless. A very flexible document, that 1-page synopsis.

Actually, since the synopsis is not the proper place to be discussing point of view choices, anyway, all of you multiple perspective-mongers could extend the same logic to a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis: tell the book’s story precisely as you would if the manuscript did not feature interestingly different point-of-view choices. Seriously, it could work, and very well, too.

Do those hundreds of pencils, pens, and wadded up pages of synopsis draft flying in my general direction mean that some of you don’t believe me? Okay, let’s try an experiment: take a gander at this 3-page synopsis of the same story — and, as always, if you find you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Hamlet-3-page-1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

All through? Excellent. Now let me ask you: how does the manuscript described in that synopsis tell the story? Is it written in the tight third person? A distant third person? Is it in the voice of an omniscient narrator, or the voice of one of the characters?

Come on, admit it: it’s possible that the book is told in the voices of several of the characters, isn’t it?

Again, that’s not entirely accidental, since a novel synopsis for any of those narrative choices would need to be written in the third person, rather than the voice(s) of the book, and eschew English Lit-class discussion of protagonists and antagonists, right? In fact, any 3-, 5-, or even 8-page novel synopsis could share essentially the same structure — and definitely shares the same goals.

All together now — a longer synopsis should:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise(s),

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

(4) show the central story arc(s) through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

(5) show how the plot’s primary conflict(s) is resolved.

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

#6 just put some wind back into some diversity of voice-lovers’ sails, didn’t it? “But Anne,” the full-sailed crow triumphantly, “aren’t you hoist with your own petard? How can I possibly demonstrate the voice of the book in my synopsis when my novel is written in 14 distinctly different voices? Obviously, I’m going to need to reserve some page space to explain that — because, equally obviously, I don’t want my beautifully differentiated array of perspectives to be mistaken for some manuscript told entirely from (ugh!) one point of view.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Millicent expects voice and perspective choices to be a pleasant surprise not revealed to her until she actually starts reading the manuscript. So no matter how cleverly constructed your 14 voices might be — and kudos if you’ve managed to make each distinct; after 2-3, multi-voiced narratives often begin to blur a trifle — the synopsis is not the right place to bring them up.

I feel your pain, though, former crowers: this approach probably sounds an awful lot like being told to ignore all of your protagonists but one. “Here we go again,” you’re probably muttering under your breath, “expecting my book to be just like everybody else’s: the story of an interesting person in an interesting situation. By definition, though, a GOOD multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations! How can I possibly choose?”

How about by not choosing to privilege one protagonist over the others? Even in a 3- or 5-page synopsis, your best bet is to tell the story of the book, not the various stories of the characters.

Hey, you did it for the 1-page synopsis, right?

Stop wincing; repeating that nifty trick for the higher dives of the longer synopses may not be as hard as you think. For a novel with multiple protagonists to work, it must have an underlying unitary story — necessarily, unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories. (Which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be queried and submitted as such.) Even if it is told from the point of view of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That commonality makes far more sense as focus of your synopsis than many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell the story in your book. Strip the story to its basic elements, and talk about that for 3-5 pages. To be absolutely blunt about it, at the synopsis stage, you’ll probably have an easier time pleasing Millicent with a simplified version of a complex storyline, anyway.

Why, you demand in horrified tones? Well, there’s a practical reason — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason.

Let’s take the most straightforward one first: from Millicent’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within those first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie. That’s even more likely to happen in a pitch — unless the pitcher makes it absolutely clear right off the bat how all of those names are all tied together, the pitch-hearer’s eyes will begin to glaze over.

How might that affect even a very careful synopsizer of a multiple-protagonist plot? As I mentioned earlier in Synopsispalooza, it’s actually fairly common for novel synopses to talk about several characters in some detail, leaving Millicent to guess which is the main character. As a matter of expedience, then, most experienced Millicents will simply assume that the first character mentioned by name in a synopsis is the protagonist.

Well might you gasp, writers of multiple points of view. If a synopsis for a multiple protagonist novel were written to be purely reflective of the order of events in the plot — the most popular means of structuring a fiction synopsis, always — and the person who happens first to take action on page 1 is not the primary plot-mover in the rest of the book, Millicent is likely to wonder where he’s gone. She’s also, unfortunately, prone to stop reading if the welter of names gets too confusing.

Yes, yes, I know: for writers of character-heavy prose, this may seem grossly unfair, but try to picture what’s going through Millicent’s head just before she makes the decision to move on to the next query or submission packet. She’s been reading packets for hours on end; if all of the named characters from all of those synopses suddenly rushed into her office, the floor would collapse. Then, with all of those proper names and premises swirling around in her head, her next synopsis begins like this:

Hamlet chronological synopsis

Come on, own up: all of those names had your head spinning by the middle of the second paragraph, didn’t they? Even the most open-minded professional reader would be likely to zone out at that point. There’s just too much to remember.

To those of you who are chortling at the notion that remembering twelve names in two paragraphs might strike anyone as being a heavy intellectual burden, I have a question for you: if you didn’t already know what the play was about, which of those 12 characters would you think was the most important to the story, based upon this account?

Not so easy when you’re on the other side of the submission packet, is it? The play’s not called FRANCISCO, GUARD OF ELSINORE, campers — but I think we can all begin to appreciate why a weary-eyed Millicent in her fifth hour of opening query packets might leap to that conclusion.

Still not convinced that a laundry list of plot points is not the best synopsis strategy for a complex narrative like yours? Including that much detail is an incredibly inefficient use of space. Lest you doubt: the full page above takes us only up to midway through Act I, Scene V; HAMLET has five acts.

At that rate of summation, how many pages would the synopsis have to be to contain the whole plot? 15? 20?

No wonder so many writers of multiple POV novels find themselves banging their foreheads against their computer monitors in frustration over requested synopses, shrieking, “5 pages? That’s impossible! I mean, if they allowed me 10, I might have a chance, but…” A completely understandable reaction, if the goal actually were to boil down the entire plot and narrative choices of a 500-page novel down to those 5 pages.

Fortunately, it’s not. While I sympathize heartily with the angst those head-bangers experience, the problem here isn’t really the length of the synopsis — it’s the writer’s insistence upon seeing the plot and the narrative structure as so inextricably interwoven that story cannot be broken out from it. Thus the frustration: the task of summarizing everything in the manuscript is, in fact, an impossible one.

First-time pitchers often set themselves the same mile-high hurdle, by the way. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake. And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 4.

Out of 27.

How does this happen? Thinking of the book as an integrated whole incapable of dissection, mostly — that, and not having much practice talking about their work with professionals, or even other writers. I’m perpetually astonished by how often first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before approaching an agent. Not having had the experience of observing just how quickly the average hearer’s eyes glaze over, they think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean ENTIRE. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that, in either a pitch or a synopsis. If you ramble on too long in either, the person on the receiving end may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

Word to the wise: keep it snappy, and emphasize the storyline.

If you are totally at a loss about how to begin to figure out what is essential, enlist the assistance of a sympathetic friend who has not yet read your manuscript. (No fudging on this point, or the exercise won’t work.) Ideally, you’ll want to choose someone with a fine memory and a good sense of humor, as the favor you are about to ask is likely to try her patience.

Find her a comfortable seat, hand her a pad of paper and a pen, and ask her to take notes on the story you are about to tell. Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes and start talking about your book.

If the time runs out before you have finished with the story, have her tear up her notes before your doubtless watering eyes. (Yes, it’s cruel, but nobody ever said trimming a complex plot was easy, right?) Then reset the timer and start again at the beginning of the book.

Once you have made it all the way through the plot in the allotted time, take a quick glance at her notes, your handy highlighters in hand. Mark every reference to perspective; do the same with any bottom-lining summary statements about characterization along the lines of Bertrand was a busy man. Hand the pad back to your long-suffering friend, grab your own notepad, and ask her to tell the story back to you, leaving out the highlighted parts. Make a note of every major plot point and scene she mentions — and no fair correcting her if she leaves out elements you consider essential.

After you have praised your helpful friend to the skies, promised to heap her with appropriate tokens of your undying gratitude, and sent her home for some well-deserved rest, take a long, hard look at your notes. If someone unfamiliar with the book heard just those bullet points, would he be able to follow the story? If not, what patches would be necessary before he could?

If your list of plot points does not yield an outline that you can use as a structure for a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis, don’t be downhearted — that wasn’t the point of the exercise. The goal here is to help you become comfortable of thinking of your manuscript as a story, not as a collection of words on paper.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? I freely admit it: this is not the kind of practical exercise I usually assign, but it’s essential for anyone tackling the daunting task of writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel to stop thinking of the book as a collection of disparate characters’ stories. There’s a communal story there somewhere. The more often you tell your story out loud beginning to end — and, I must say it, the more sensitive you become to the points at which your hearer begins to fidget with impatience because you’re going into too much detail — the more prepared you will be to sit down and write a synopsis that focuses upon that story, not the narrative tricks.

I know that it’s counterintuitive, but in a synopsis for a complex plot about complex characters, the fewer the narrative tricks, the better, generally speaking. Remember, yours is almost certainly not going to be the only synopsis that Millicent has read recently, and if she is even remotely backlogged, she will be skimming: drawing your plot in broad strokes is more likely to draw her in than super-intense blocks of minute twists.

One of the simplest ways to steer her in the right direction is to talk about only one or two characters in the opening paragraph, setting the stage, as it were, for the rest of the synopsis to be about those people. Clearly, this may not be a viable solution for a novel about, say, 7 or 8 people, unless there happens to be a scene near the opening of the book where they all appear.

In practice, the opposite is often the case: many, many multiple perspective manuscripts don’t bring all of the protagonists together until the final chapter or scene. Yet another reason that organizing the synopsis to be slavishly reflective of the book’s running order, including each and every plot point, may not be helpful at all. In fact, it might even be harmful to the story’s clarity.

But before any of you run rushing I hasten to add: that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to open your synopsis with, Once upon a time, there were 18 protagonists…, either. Or even, in the case of our last example: My version of the Hamlet legend is told from the points of view of five protagonists: Prince Hamlet, his father, his mother, his girlfriend, and his best friend.

Oh, I realize that stating the perspective rules up front might seem like the most straightforward way to minimize the probability of Millicent’s spending the first three pages of your 5-page synopsis waiting for Francisco and Bernardo to dominate the plot once more. I also, from years of teaching pitching and querying classes, am aware that to most writers of multiple-protagonist novels, the point of view choices are the very first thing mentioned when describing their books.

If the number of voices is not the most important fact for Millicent to grasp about the manuscript, this emphasis seems to imply, it’s certainly the most interesting. Actually, from the writer’s point of view, there’s an excellent reason to think of a multiple POV manuscript in this manner: the different perspectives are an integral part of the story being told.

From the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are indeed monumentally important. But from a marketing point of view — which is to say: the view of anybody who has worked at an agency or publishing house, ever — they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question.

Yes, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written — and yes, that would be a problem, if Millicent genuinely expected a 3- or 5-page synopsis to provide her the same experience as reading the book. Fortunately for the sanity of synopsizers everywhere, however, she knows the difference between a 450-page manuscript and a 5-page synopsis of it.

When I say that a good synopsis gives some indication of the voice and tone of the book, I’m not referring to the literal voices that make up a multi-narrator narrative. I’m talking about literary voice: the way of using words, the rhythm, the vocabulary choices, the sentence structures. In a smoothly integrated multi-voiced narrative, the authorial voice carries over into each and every protagonist’s narration, right?

What I’m suggesting, then, is that for the purposes of writing your longer synopsis, you should mentally separate the overall story from how you have chosen to tell it in the book; continuing to think of them as inextricably linked will render writing a compelling overview significantly more difficult. Instead, try creating an new character — an omniscient third-person narrator who stands outside the story, yet knows everything that’s going on.

Why, that’s you, isn’t it? Who better to tell the book’s story to Millicent in the synopsis?

What’s that you’re wailing, campers? That this advice would require you to come up with yet another narrative voice? Why is that problematic, when part of the point of shoving this synopsis into your query or submission packet is to show Millicent that you can write. If you can — and you can, can’t you? — telling the book’s story in your own voice as the novel’s creator, rather than from the POV of any individual character, should be, if not a walk in the park, at least a doable jog several times around the duck pond.

And, honestly, isn’t it a more interesting challenge than either trying to show each protagonist’s initial situation and conflict in succession in such a short amount of page space or just listing the book’s events in chronological order? It’s certainly more likely to show off your writing talents than the usual first-time synopsis-writer’s method of just summarizing everything in the book as bluntly as possible.

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as, “Well, a missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.”

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise. Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it make for a strong synopsis tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a paragraph on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on? We tried that yesterday, recall; it looked a little something like this:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

All of those perspectives are distracting from the story, are they not? Not only is the plethora of characters likely to confuse Millicent, but the structure here is repetitious: in granting each protagonist a separate set-up, the synopsis necessarily revisits the premise of the book over and over again. Is that really the best way to convince Millicent that here is a strong story by a writer worth reading?

Don’t let the innovative structure and perspective choices of your book become a liability in your synopsis; you want your storytelling skills to shine. Instead, highlight the major characters by ramping up the character development. And why not show off your good writing and trenchant insights through the inclusion of unexpected little details here and there that she won’t have seen before?

You’re expecting me to toss off a 5-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist version of HAMLET abounding in such details and character development, aren’t you? Well, I’m not going to do it — and not merely because this post is running awfully long, even by my standards. After all, those charming little touches, vivid images, and startling insights into the human condition are going to be different for each authorial voice, aren’t they? So I won’t encourage you to copy me; I’m sure your own literary voice is just itching to come out and play.

Next time, we shall once again be discussing synopsis length — and, if I know myself, probably a few more concrete examples as well. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XII: burning the candle at both ends. Or even in the middle.

candle-flames-at-lourdes

Hey, we’ve reached a milestone this evening, campers: this is my 1300th post here at Author! Author! Should any of you have been stunned by the bewildering array of categories on the archive list located on the bottom right-hand side of this page, there you have your answer.

I had planned something special to mark the occasion, but then, I keep waking up each morning, murmuring, “Yes, today is going to be my day for gloating about Mario Vargas Llosa’s finally winning the Nobel Prize in Literature on the blog,” because, really, the guy’s been on the short list for my entire adult life. Then, too, it’s honestly a very, very big deal for a comic novelist to grab the prize — offhand, I can’t think of a remotely funny winner since John Steinbeck, and his humor was not particularly consistent. But then I look over my plans for Synopsispalooza, weigh them against my ever-variable post-crash energy levels, and put it off another day. But rest assured, I shall indeed be talking about Vargas Llosa’s work here shortly.

In the meantime, brace yourselves, campers: today is going to be a long one, if my energy holds out. (Not a foregone conclusion, I’m afraid; this afternoon’s noble experiment in city walking has caused my knee to resemble a relief map of Madagascar.) I missed a few days of posting over the last week, and I honestly would like to try to wrap up Synopsispalooza this coming weekend, so we may get back to more close textual analysis.

At least until Authorbiopalooza. And Formatpalooza. There’s a lot on the agenda this fall.

So let’s get right back to our synopsis troubleshooting checklist. For those of you joining us mid-series, this checklist is intended less to help any aspiring writer who might happen to stumble upon it to create a jim-dandy synopsis from scratch, but to improve an already-existing draft. So haul out those highlighter pens, print up a copy of your synopsis, and we’ll dive right into the fray.

Lest those of you not currently in the throes of updating your synopsis should turn away at this point, I hasten to add: of course, the description already-existing draft could logically be applied to a synopsis that you polished off ten minutes ago as easily as one you’ve been using for the last year. And these questions would be quite useful even if you have only just begun thinking about your synopsis, too.

So wherever you are in the process, please feel free to jump right in. My goal here is to encourage you to regard synopsis-writing as an opportunity to encapsulate your writerly brilliance in capsule form, rather than treating it as a tedious bit of marketing trivia, yet another annoying hoop for the aspiring writer to jump through on the way to landing an agent.

Okay, so the darned thing is still probably going to be tedious and annoying to produce, but addressing these the following issues will help it show off your talent more effectively. Before I suggest anything new, however, let’s take a gander at the points we’ve hit so far:

(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

(2) If the reader had no information about my book other than the synopsis, would the story or argument make sense? Or is more specific information necessary to render the synopsis able to stand alone?

(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound like a good story? Does it hang together? Does this presentation make me eager to read it?

(4) Does the synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list all of the events in the book in the order they appear?

(5) Have I mentioned too many characters in the synopsis? Does each that I mention come across as individually memorable, or are some mentioned so quickly that they might start to blur together in the reader’s mind?

Is everyone happy with those? Or, if not precisely happy, because revising a synopsis can be a heck of a lot of work, at least comfortable with the underlying logic for suggesting such darned fool things?

I’m electing to take all of that silence out there in the ether as a resounding, “By jingo, yes!” from each and every one of you. (If by some strange fluke that’s not your personal reaction, by all means, chime in with a question in the comments; folks have been a trifle quiet of late.) Let’s move on.

(6) If this synopsis is for a novel, is it clear who the protagonist is — and that s/he is the most interesting person in the story?

Hey, don’t laugh — fiction synopses frequently imply the book is about every character, rather than following the growth of a single one. For a multiple-protagonist or multiple point of view novel, this kind of ambiguity is a bit hard to avoid, but for the vast majority of novels that focus on a particular individual, or at most two, it’s unnecessarily confusing to Millicent the agency screener if the synopsis doesn’t specify who the protagonist is.

Ditto, surprisingly, for memoir synopses — but of that, more follows anon.

And no, in answer to what some of my more literal-minded readers just thought very loudly indeed, you should NOT clarify this point in either a fiction or memoir synopsis by the ham-handed inclusion of such English class-type sentences as The protagonist is Mildred, and the antagonist is Brooke, any more than you should come right out and say, the theme of this book is… Industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a query, synopsis, or book proposal.

Why? Veteran synopsis-writers, take out your hymnals and sing along: a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk ABOUT the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.

I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”

Excellent question, lovers of many protagonists. Essentially, my suggestion for handling this particular dilemma in a synopsis would be the same as my advice for handling it in a pitch: in a query or synopsis, the perspective choices are not relevant; let the manuscript demonstrate those choices. In your synopsis or descriptive paragraph, tell the story of the book, not of a particular character or array of characters.

And before anybody points it out: yes, I’m aware that this approach might cause a conscientious writer to run afoul of Point #6 for a paragraph or two, but honestly, the multiple-protagonist format doesn’t leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room. Concentrate on making the whole sound like a terrific story — and the characters sound fascinating.

(7) Does my protagonist/do my protagonists come across as an interesting, unusual person(s) involved in an intriguing, unpredictable, and unusual situation?

You’d be surprised at how often novel synopses stress the averageness of their protagonists, the everydayness of their dilemmas, and seem to taunt Millicent with a lack of clear motivation or major plot twists. “How on earth,” she is wont to exclaim, “is this super-ordinary character/this very common situation going to maintain my interest for 350 pages, when s/he/it is already starting to bore me a little in this 5-page…zzzz.”

Trust me, you don’t want Millicent to have to take an extra a sip or two from one of her favorite too-hot lattes to make it through your synopsis. Contrary to popular opinion amongst enthusiasts of slice-of-life literature, if a story sounds mundane on the synopsis page, particularly at the query packet stage, most Millicents are not going to be eager to read the book.

Everyman may be a popular protagonist, but super-ordinariness has been the death knell for many a novel synopsis. Many aspiring writers deliberately go out of their respective ways in order to present their protagonists as completely ordinary, normal people leading lives so aggressively mainstream that George Gallop is inclined to sit up in his grave at the very mention of them and shout, “At last! People so average that we don’t need to perform broad-based polling anymore! We’ll just ask these folks!”

Before any of you get huffy at the prospect of soft-selling your aim of holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, listen: in the current market, no agent, no matter how talented, is going to be able to sell a novel to an editor by saying, “Oh, this book could be about anybody”. No matter how beautiful the writing may be, the agent of your dreams is eventually going to have to tell an editor what your book is about.

Besides, in industry-speak, ordinary is more or less synonymous with dull. Sorry to have to be the one to break that to you, but it’s true.

I’m guessing, though, that your protagonist actually isn’t dull. I also feel another set of questions coming on.

(8) Does the synopsis make it plain enough how not only that the protagonist isn’t dull, but how? If a reader had no other information than what’s on the memoir page, would he be aware s/he is different from every other potential protagonist out there? What quirks render her or him fascinating on the page? What about her/his situation is unique?

Actually, the questions above are dandy ones to ask about any fictional protagonist, not just those who grace the pages of literary fiction. What makes this character interesting and different from the protagonist of any other novel currently on the market — and how can you make those traits apparent on the synopsis page? Better still, how can you make those traits apparent through unusual phrasing, unexpected plot twists, and juicy details Millicent isn’t likely to have seen in the 9 of the last 14 synopses she read?

Pulling this off can be especially challenging for are fond of slice-of-life writing. The problem is, book-length slice-of-life fiction is usually pretty hard to sell — and nearly impossible to synopsize excitingly. Even the most character-driven of literary fiction needs to have a plot of some sort and a protagonist engaging enough (or appalling enough) to render the reader willing to follow him/her through the relevant high jinks, right?

Stop wailing, please, literary fiction writers: yours is a highly specialized market, and you shouldn’t be sending out synopses to agents who don’t represent your kind of book, anyway.

“Okay, Anne,” some of you literary fiction writers say, bravely wiping your eyes, “I realize that I’ve chosen to write in a book category that represents only about 3-4% of the fiction market; I know that I’m going to have to target my queries and submissions very carefully. But I have a wonderful slice-of-life novel here about Everyman and Everywoman’s universal struggles to deal with the everyday. How should I go about synopsizing it?”

In a way that may well strike you as running counter to your goal in writing such a book: instead of squandering valuable synopsis space on making the case that your protagonist is Everyman, concentrate on the ways that he isn’t just like the people you expect to be reading the book. Trust the manuscript to delight the reader with your trenchant insights into everyday life, to elicit the gasp of recognition; the synopsis is not the proper venue for demonstrating your capacity for gleaning such meaning from the mundane.

In a synopsis, your job is to make your protagonist sound interesting enough to justify having an entire book devoted to his escapades. To put it more prescriptively, emphasize what is different, fresh, and unusual about your protagonist and his/her dilemmas.

(9) In a memoir synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is? Does s/he come across as an interesting, unusual person involved in an interesting, unusual situation?

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? Yet you would have thought that the identity of a memoir’s protagonist would be awfully hard to hide for long, wouldn’t you?

In a manuscript, yes, but on the synopsis page, no. I’ve seen many a synopsis tell the overall story of a memoir well, but leave the reader guessing which member of the five-person family, thirty-person ball team, or twenty-member presidential cabinet is the central figure of the story and author.

How does this happen? All too often, memoirists simply follow general guidelines for synopsis-writing — it should be written in the third person, regardless of the narrative voice of the manuscript; it should be in the past tense, etc. — assuming, wrongly, that anything labeled synopsis should be more or less identical. But a memoir synopsis should always be written in the first person and the past tense, leaving no doubt whatsoever whose story is being told and by whom.

Memoir synopses scuttle themselves even more frequently by running afoul of that second criterion — the one about being an interesting character embroiled in an interesting situation — for the very simple reason that memoirists are prone to regard their stories as self-evidently interesting just because the events in them really happened. Or so I surmise from how often synopses, queries, and pitches include an insistent refrain of “But it’s a true story! It really happened!”

As any memoir-representing agent could tell you, real-life events are not always interesting on the page. In fact, s/he is very likely to tell you that s/he sees very dull-sounding memoir synopses all the time.

Why? Partially, the synopsis format: they tend to abound in generalizations and summaries of action, rather than intriguing details and sketched-out scenes. Verbal anecdotes often share these defects, sacrificing storytelling for brevity. The combined effect can be very flattening: just as an inherently exciting plot may be scuttled by an uninspired telling in a manuscript, an over-summarized account of even the most thrilling real-life event can sound pretty dull in a synopsis.

Thus, the memoirist has an additional goal in her synopsis: not only to present her life story as important and intriguing, but also to render it pellucidly clear precisely how her life has differed from other people’s. A memoir synopsis that doesn’t convey this information within the first paragraph or so — ideally, by showing, rather than telling — tends not to maintain Millicent’s interest thereafter.

If you find it hard to figure out what to emphasize, try thinking of yourself as a fictional character. What are the reasons a novel-reader would be delighted to follow you throughout a 500-page plotline? Emphasize those aspects of your character and story in the synopsis.

Having trouble casting yourself as the hero/ine of a novel, even temporarily? Here’s a good trick for making any protagonist come across as more complex on the synopsis page.

(10) In either a novel or a memoir synopsis, is it clear what the protagonist wants and what obstacles are standing in the way of her getting it? Is it apparent what is at stake for the protagonist if she attains this goal — and if she doesn’t?

Or, to twist these questions in a slightly different direction, does the synopsis present the book’s central conflict well? If ordinariness tends to raise Millicent’s uncannily sensitive am-I-about-to-be-bored? sensors, the prospect of conflict usually makes her ooh-this-is-interesting antennae twirl around in circles.

So when in doubt, ratchet up the conflict on the synopsis page — and make it clear that the protagonist is vitally interested in the outcome. Nothing flattens a reader’s perception of conflict like the impression that the outcome doesn’t matter very much to the characters.

Trust me on this one. In Millicent’s mind, conflict = interesting. She probably works for an agent who goes around spouting the old industry truism, a good manuscript has conflict on every single page.

Yes, yes, I know: that’s debatable. But if Millicent rejects your query packet or submission at the synopsis-reading stage, that’s a debate you’re never going to get to have with the agent of your dreams.

(11) In a nonfiction synopsis that isn’t for a memoir, is it clear what the book is about? Does the subject matter come across as interesting, and does the synopsis convey why this topic might be important enough to the reader to make him/her long to read an entire book about it?

Again, this is a stakes issue: remember, however passionately you may feel about your chosen topic, Millicent, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, and her Aunt Mehitabel will probably not already be conversant with it. It’s your job as the writer to get them jazzed about learning more.

Yes, even at the synopsis stage. Remember, the goal of the synopsis is to get Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel excited enough to want to read the manuscript.

One of the more reliable methods of achieving this laudable goal is not only to present your subject matter as fascinating, but also to demonstrate precisely why your readers will find it so. In other words, why does your subject matter, well, matter?

Not just matter in general, but to readers already buying books on similar topics. Which leads me to…

(12) Does my synopsis make the book sound just like other books currently on the market, or does it come across as original?

When agents specialize in a particular kind of book (virtually all of them do limit themselves to just a few types), you would expect them to receive many submissions within their areas of specialty, right? A Millicent at an agency that represents a lot of mysteries would probably not be reading synopses of SF books, NF books, romances, and westerns, mixed in with only a few mysteries. Instead, that Millie is probably reading 800 mystery synopses per week.

Translation: she sees a whole lot of plot repetition in any given pay period.

Unfortunately, most aspiring writers do not pause to consider that probability before blithely sending off their query or submission packets. That screener is inundated with plots in the genre…and your synopsis is the 658th she’s read that week…so what is likely to happen if your synopsis makes your book sound too much like the others?

Most likely, the application of Millicent’s favorite word: next!

”Wait just a cotton-picking second!” conference-goers everywhere protest. “I’ve heard agents and editors jabbering endlessly about how much they want to find books that are like this or that bestseller. They say they WANT books that are like others! So wouldn’t an original book stand LESS of a chance with these people?”

Yes, you are quite right, anonymous questioners: any number of agents and editors will tell you that they want writers to replicate what is on the bestseller lists right now. Actually, though, this isn’t typically what they mean in practical terms.

Since it would be completely impossible for a book acquired today to hit the shelves tomorrow, and extremely rare for it to come out in under a year — and that’s a year after an editor buys it, not a year from when an agent picks is up — what is selling right now is not what agents are seeking, precisely.

They are looking for what will be selling well, say, a couple of years hence. Which, common sense tells us, no one without highly-specialized psychic abilities can possibly predict with absolute accuracy.

So when agents and editors tell writers at a conference that they are looking for books that resemble the current bestseller list, they really mean that they want you to have anticipated two years ago what would be selling well now, have tracked them down then, and convinced them (somehow) that your book was representative of a trend to come, and thus had your book on the market right now, making them money hand over fist.

I’ll leave you to figure out by yourselves the statistical probability of that scenario’s ever happening in our collective lifetimes. Just make your book sound original, okay?

Some of you are pouting at that last bit, aren’t you? “But Anne,” inveterate bestseller-readers point out, “I’ve done my homework; I’ve gone to conferences. The same authors sell well year after year, so I’ve written a manuscript that’s more or less in the style of (fill in bestseller here), except mine is far, far better. Why wouldn’t that excite any market-minded agent?”

Your question made me smile, oh pouters: there was a good joke on the subject making the rounds of agents a couple of years back.

A writer of literary fiction reads THE DA VINCI CODE, doesn’t like it, and calls his agent in a huff. “It’s not very well written,” he complains. “Why, I could write a book that bad in a week.”

”Could you really?” The agent starts to pant with enthusiasm. “How soon could you get the manuscript to me?”

Given how fast publishing fads fade, I will make a prediction: the same agent who was yammering at conference crowds last month about producing book X will be equally insistent next months that writers should write nothing but book Y. You simply cannot keep up with people who are purely reactive.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth your time or energy to get mixed up in someone else’s success fantasy. The fact is, carbon copies of successful books tend not to have legs; the reading public has a great eye for originality.

What does sell quite well, and is a kind of description quite meaningful to agents, is the premise or elements of a popular work with original twists added. So at this point in literary history, you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.

Don’t believe me? Have you checked out the sales figures on PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES?

The fact is, a too-close imitation of a bestseller is always going to strike Millicent as rather derivative of the bestseller — and doubly so if the bestseller in question happens to be a classic. Which is why, I suspect, that much-vaunted recent experiment where someone cold-submitted (i.e., without querying first, and without going through an agency) a slightly modified version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to an array of major publishers, only to have it summarily rejected by all.

At the time of the experiment, there was much tut-tutting discussion of how this outcome was evidence that editors wouldn’t know great literature if it bit them, but my first thought was, how little would you have to know about the publishing industry to think that an unsolicited, unagented novel would NOT be rejected unread by the big publishers? Mightn’t this have actually been a test not of how literature fares, but what happens to submitters who do not follow the rules?

My second thought, though, was this: at this point in publishing history, wouldn’t even an excellent rehashing of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE seem old hat? How could the submitter possibly have presented it in a manner that seemed fresh?

After all, it’s been done, and done brilliantly — and re-done in many forms, up to and including PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY. I can easily imagine pretty much any English-speaking editor’s taking one look, roll her eyes, and say, “Oh, God, here’s somebody ripping off Jane Austen again.”

My point, in case you were starting to wonder, is that agents and editors tend to be pretty well-read people: a plot or argument needs to be pretty original in order to strike them as fresh. The synopsis is the ideal place to demonstrate how your book differs from the rest.

And what’s the easiest, most direct way of doing that, for either fiction or nonfiction? By including surprising and unique details, told in creative language.

Even if your tale is a twist on a well-known classic (which can certainly work: THE COLOR PURPLE is a great retelling of the Ugly Duckling, right?), you are usually better off emphasizing in the synopsis how your book deviates from the classic than showing the similarities. Here again, vivid details are your friends.

One big caveat, however: please bear in mind that Millicent (like Maury and Mehitabel) tends to make a strong distinction between original and weird, as well as between plausible and implausible. Which brings me to…

(13) If the book is fiction, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible?

I could sense some of the novelists out there rolling their eyes before I even finished typing that one. “Um, Anne?” a few of you scoffed. “What part of FICTION don’t you understand? By definition, fiction writers make things up.”

Quite true, oh scoffers, but for even the most outrageously fantastic storyline to hang together, it must be plausible — at least in the sense that the characters would actually do and say the things they do and say on the page. If the internal logic of the premise doesn’t seem to be applied consistently in the synopsis (or in the manuscript, for that matter), Millicent is likely to pass.

Yes, even if the synopsis in question happens to be for a novel where obeying the law of gravity is merely optional and every other character has a couple of extra arms, toes, or senses. If a plot doesn’t seem to be following its own rules, it’s hard for the reader to remain involved in the story.

Why? Well, when a reader is swept up in a drama (or a comedy, for that matter), she engages in behavior that Aristotle liked to call the willing suspension of disbelief. Basically, she enters into a tacit understanding with the author: the rules that govern the world of the book, no matter how wacky or impractical they may be for the reader’s world, are precisely what the narrative says they are. Most of the time, as long as the narrative abides by them, the reader will be willing to go along for the ride.

Note that as long as clause. If a narrative violates its own rules, the agreement is violated: in thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” the reader is knocked out of the story.

(Ditto, incidentally, when a first-person or tight third-person narrative suddenly switches, however momentarily, from the protagonist’s perspective to something that the protagonist could not possibly perceive. That’s usually an automatic-rejection offense for Millicent. But perspective-surfing is a subject for another blog post when I finally polish off this run of series on practicalities and get back to craft issues.)

Millicents are notoriously sensitive to being pulled out of a story by a plausibility problem. So are their bosses, the agents who employ them to reject as high a percentage of submissions as possible, and the editors to whom those bosses sell books.

I just felt some of you go pale. “How sensitive?” those of you who have submitted recently enough that you haven’t yet heard back squeak in unison. “Is it one of those automatic-rejection reasons you mentioned up there in the parentheses when you thought nobody was looking? I’d really have to do it a lot to annoy her, right?”

Got the smelling salts handy? In a manuscript submission, a single instance is often an automatic rejection offense.

Yes, even in a synopsis.

Why? Well, any gaffe that breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief is, ultimately, a storytelling problem. So it really isn’t all that surprising that Millicent’s first inclination upon being knocked out of the story is to mutter, “Oh, this writer isn’t a very consistent storyteller.”

Okay, so this may be an unfairly broad conclusion to draw from a line or two in a synopsis — especially when, as we’ve discussed earlier in this series, many, many talented aspiring writers simply throw together their synopses at the last possible minute prior to sealing the submission or contest entry envelope. But lest we forget, Millicents are in the business of making snap judgments; otherwise, they couldn’t even begin to get through the hundreds of queries and submissions they see every week.

Aren’t you glad you had those smelling salts handy?

If you’re not absolutely certain that your synopsis is internally consistent enough to pass the plausibility test, have someone else (NOT someone who has read the manuscript, ideally) read it and tell the story back to you. Better yet, have someone else read it, tell the story to a third party, and have the third party try to reproduce it for you AND a fourth person.

Why such a mob? You may not catch the “Hey, wait a minute!” moments, but chances are that at least one of #2-4 will. Listen carefully to any follow-up questions your experimental victims may have; address them in the synopsis, so that Millicent will not be moved to ask them of the ambient air at the screening stage.

Pay particular attention to any spot in the synopsis that provokes an unexpected giggle. Few narrative gaffes provoke bad laughter — the giggles that spring from readers or audience at a spot where the writer did not intend for them to laugh — as readily as deviations from the internal logic of a story.

This isn’t a bad fix-it strategy for nonfiction, either, especially for memoir. Which brings me to…

(14) If my book is nonfiction, does it come across as both plausible and as though I’m a credible source?

Again, not self-evident. Too often, nonfiction writers in general and memoirists in particular assume that just because they are recounting true events, their narratives will be inherently plausible. Unfortunately, it’s just not true.

Just as a novel’s plausibility depends upon the narrative’s consistently following its story’s internal logic, a nonfiction account or argument needs to hang together, with no missing steps. In a manuscript, plausibility problems tend to arise from incomplete set-ups and telling stories out of chronological order.

Where nonfiction synopses usually fall down on the job is by providing insufficient background — prompting questions like, “Why did this happen?” Again, you will be much, much better off if you can solicit such questions from someone other than Millicent, so you may address them before she reads your synopsis.

My, that was a lot to absorb in a single post, wasn’t it? Lucky that I kept the laureate-pushing to a minimum, eh? Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XVII: selecting the elements that will grab Millicent’s attention, or was a lost dog honestly the most exciting news story of the day?

dog rescue story 2

Before I launch into this evening’s installment of our ongoing series on the ins and outs of querying, I have a question for all of you: would you be interested in my running a Synopsispalooza sometime soon? Followed, perhaps, by an Authorbiopalooza, a Marketingplanpalooza, and/or a Howtofindagentstoquerypalooza? Or my personal favorite, Howtogetgoodfeedbackwithoutoffendingyourmomandotherkithandkinwhowanttoread(deep breath)yourmanuscriptpalooza?

If enough readers are up for any or all of these, I’d be happy to oblige, although as always, I’m eager to get back to craft issues. Admittedly, there are already how-to posts for these important processes on the archive list, but I haven’t gone over any of them in a while. Market conditions change over time; so do literary tastes and trends. And as those of you who have been through a querying series with me in the past have no doubt noticed, I tend add quite a bit of new material every time I revisit a topic.

So no, in answer to what newer readers’ minds just shouted, the stuffed-to-the-gills nature of my Querypalooza posts is actually not all that unusual here at Author! Author! I’m all about thoroughness, and I get genuinely excited about this stuff.

Do think about the synopses, author bios, etc., and let me know. No great rush: after Querypalooza ends on Sunday (I think; it may spill over a trifle into next week, depending upon how example-happy I get this weekend), I shall be devoting a bit of time to the close textual analysis of the winning entries in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest contest that we began going over with the proverbial fine-toothed comb in early September. It will be a good segue out of these intensely marketing-oriented ten days, marrying considerations of craft with yet more consideration of how to catch Millicent the agency screener’s elusive attention in a positive manner.

Or, to put it in practical terms: if you are at all interested in learning how a pro reads a first page — you know, the single page an agency is most likely to allow queriers to attach to their queries, as well as the first thing Millie will see in your submission — make sure to tune in.

But first, a little more on the theme of catch Millicent’s elusive attention in a positive manner.. Last spring, during a spirited discussion of Point-of-View Nazis and their narrative-limiting ways, reader AM made a great suggestion:

Now what we need is your take on writing a query letter for a multiple POV novel. Or maybe I just need to find an attractive combination of money and chocolate bribe to get your input on mine. Hmm.

Now that’s a polite way to grab someone’s attention. If I can wade my way through this roomful of bundled dollar bills and baskets of truffles, I’ll get right onto AM’s perfectly reasonable request.

Just kidding. I don’t like chocolate all that much.

And while we’re on the subject of blandishment: no matter how much you want to grab Millicent’s attention, never, ever, EVER include a bribe of any sort in a query or submission packet. It will not garner positive attention for your book project; in fact, it is virtually always an instant-rejection offense.

Yes, even if it’s merely a photograph or two of the gorgeous scenery you have written about in your travel memoir or that business card you had made up for your last foray to a writers’ conference. Agencies have to be extremely defensive about this one: due to how fast rumors about the latest querying trick spread around the Internet, if even a single Millicent accepted a single box of fudge from an aspiring cookbook writer, half the agencies in the country would find themselves up to the top of their cubicles in bribery-aimed cookies, helium balloons, and fruit baskets. Not to mention something most agents have a horror story about already, videotapes of aspiring authors giving speeches about their books.

So what is the best plan for stuffing that query packet to get your work noticed positively? Checking the website and/or agency guide listing for each and every agent you plan to query, making sure that you are sending precisely what they expect queriers to send — no more, no less — topping it with a professional, well-crafted query letter, and mailing it off with a SASE. Or going through exactly those steps for an e-mailed query.

Given that most agencies with websites are pretty explicit about what they do and don’t want aspiring writers to send them, you would expect that query packets that conform to their various standards — because, lest we forget, every agency is looking for something slightly different — but actually, every Millicent I have ever asked about it (and believe me, I ask as many as I can) complains about how often her agency receives query packets with extras.

Or — sacre bleu! — with elements missing.

The only message such query packets are actually sending to the Millicents who open them is hey, look: here’s a writer who can’t follow straightforward directions! Or possibly, depending upon the clarity of the agency’s guidelines, wow, here’s a writer who doesn’t read very well. (More common than any of us would like to think, alas.) Or, the most likely of all, oh, no, here’s another writer who didn’t bother to do his homework; we went to all the trouble of telling potential queriers what we wanted, yet this guy just assumed that every agency was identical.

All sentiments our Millie is prone to sum up tersely elegantly as: “Next!”

So what, out of all of the possibilities a writer’s active imagination could conceive and all of the suggestions for querying techniques flying around out there in the ether, is the bare minimum that MUST be in a query packet? So let’s recap the basic elements that any agent would expect to see:

*1. The book’s title

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms

3. A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project.

6. A SASE, if querying by mail.

That’s it, right? If you don’t include all of those, your query letter cannot succeed. Two other highly advisable, but not strictly speaking required, elements include:

7. A BRIEF marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. (Optional for fiction, but I would strongly recommend either including it or replacing it with #8.)

8. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book. (Also optional for fiction, and can be replaced with #7; it’s niftier, however, if you can manage to include both, even for novels.)

Is everyone comfortable wrangling all of those elements? (Now is the time to speak up, if not.) When all of these elements are pulled together into a smoothly-worded piece of correspondence, it reads like this:

mars query

Now that we’re thinking in terms of constituent parts vs. whole, we can see that what AM is asking about is not the entire query letter — she couldn’t be, since elements 1, 2, and 5-7 are not concerned with plot or narrative, right? #3 could be, but only if the agent had a track record of representing multiple-narrator books. (In that case, Since you so ably represented STORY IN FIFTEEN VOICES, I hope you will be interested in my multiple-narrator novel… would be perfectly acceptable.)

You look so cute with your eyes bugged out like a cartoon character’s. “What do you mean, Anne?” flabbergasted would-be queriers everywhere exclaim. “How is it possible that something as important as the narrative structure of the book could affect only a single paragraph of the query? Isn’t the voice choice the single most important thing to know about a multiple-narrator story — or a first-personal narrative, for that matter? Or, if it’s not the most important, isn’t it at least the most interesting?”

From a professional point of view, the answer to those last two questions is very short: no. And the answer to the second, the one about why the narrative choice shouldn’t spill over to the rest of the query is also pretty brief: because how a writer has chosen to tell the story in the book is not a required element in the query.

You don’t see it on the list above, do you?

Unless an agency’s guidelines specifically ask for it, leave it out, or as we’ve already discussed, you’ll run the risk of producing a query that reads more like a book report than, well, a query. Remember, the query is not expected to provide analysis or review of the manuscript it is pushing: it’s supposed to tell Millicent the story.

Let’s face it: telling her how many protagonists there are, or whether the narrative talks about their experiences in the first or third person, actually doesn’t give her much of an indication of what the book is about, right? So is it really the best use of scant querying space?

In case you’re waffling on that last question, here’s a peek at what the result might be if a writer’s answer were yes. (If you are having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing +.)

book report-style query

Quick: what is this book about? What is the event that all of these narrators observed, and what about it is compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest through 187 changes of perspective?

Beats me. So how can it be an effective query letter? Especially when — and give yourself some extra Brownie points if you caught this — Expansive made the classic Millicent-baiting mistake of referring to his work by the redundant phrase literary fiction novel. (All novels are fiction, right?) Besides, everyone knows that ol’ Pointy is a woman, and thus should be addressed as Ms. McGettoitson.

Equally damning, all of that analysis of structures and themes is going to read like a book report to Millicent. (That’s even the industry’s term for this kind of query, pitch, or synopsis: high school book report.) In a query, you’ve got one or at most two paragraphs to convince Millicent that this is a story she should read. Talking about a novel’s structure is almost never the best means of doing that.

So how would I advise Expansive to go about revising this query? Well, for starters, I would encourage him not to name so many characters in his descriptive paragraph (pop quiz: without looking, how many can you name? That’s the maximum he should keep), concentrating on the overall story of the novel, rather than enumerating as many perspectives as he can in that short a space. Second, I would urge him to make that first paragraph a touch less off-puttingly pretentious in its phrasing.

Third, I would advise him to throw out the second paragraph altogether. Period.

And every multiple-perspective lover’s hand shoots into the air. “But Anne, the first thing almost any aspiring writer will say if asked to describe his multiple-perspective novel, or even first-person narrative, is something like, ‘Well, there are eight points of view.’ Are you seriously suggesting that he should suppress that information in his query?”

Personally, I would let it be a pleasant surprise at manuscript-perusal time. Few professional readers would consider the narrative voice choice the most important thing to know about a book, after all. As anyone who has ever read fiction manuscripts for a living would be only too glad to tell you, there are excellent multiple-perspective novels; there are lousy ones, and there are a million different gradations in between.

Ditto with every other perspective choice. At query time, it’s just not a significant issue; it doesn’t give Millicent much of a hint about why her boss might conceivably be interested in this book. It’s not as though agents are very much given to strolling into the office first thing in the morning, yawning, and saying wistfully, “You know what I’d really like to read today? A first-person narrative. Yep, that would really hit the spot. Got any of those on hand, Millie?”

Not going to happen. If the narrative choice works on the page, great, but the only way Millicent can possibly tell if it does is to — wait for it — read the manuscript. Which, by definition, she’s not going to be doing at the querying stage.

So why not let your exciting perspective choices be a pleasant surprise at submission time? Concentrate instead in the query on getting her to ask to see the manuscript.

Which leads us right back to AM’s query-editing problem, doesn’t it? She’s in luck: the only part of a query letter that could possibly require a multiple-protagonist novel to be handled differently from a single-protagonist one would be #4, that pesky descriptive paragraph where the aspiring writer attempts to give some indication of what the book is about.

Paragraph #4 on our must-have list, in other words.

There’s a reason that lovers of multiple-protagonist stories find constructing the descriptive paragraph frustrating, and a darned good one. Let’s face it: that’s not a lot of space to talk about a perfectly straightforward boy-meets-girl story, let alone one following five protagonists, seventeen subplots, and fourteen generations of bunnies on an epic trek across four continents.

So I’ve got a radical suggestion: don’t try.

I’m quite serious about this. Instead of attempting to force a super-complicated plot into the space of a scant paragraph, just show enough of the premise to intrigue Millicent into asking to see the manuscript.

Which is, after all, the actual goal of any query, right? Right? Hello?

If you didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, you’re not alone. Many writer new to the game assume, wrongly, that if only their query is good enough, an agent is going to say yes on the spot to representing the book. Since that literally never happens — no agent in his right mind would agree to represent a manuscript or book proposal she hasn’t read, unless it was written by someone who is already a celebrity in another field of endeavor — the assumption that it should renders the hard process of coming up with that descriptive paragraph even harder. The sooner an aspiring writer can jettison it, the better.

Is that dangerous notion out of your system? Excellent. Embrace this far more workable principle instead: the point of the descriptive paragraph in the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book; it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it. Thus, your job is not to summarize the plot, but to present it in a fascinating manner.

Again, this is a tall order, even for a novel focusing on a single protagonist. Within the space of a paragraph, it’s genuinely difficult to make someone sound like an interesting character in an interesting situation. Generally speaking, your best bet is to focus on what’s most unusual about the protagonist and/or the situation.

Don’t believe me? Okay, if you read as many queries as Millicent, which would intrigue you more:

an accountant confronted with an ethical dilemma , or

a goose-loving accountant forced to decide between betraying his parfait-scarfing boss and being kidnapped by a mob of crazed azalea gardeners?

One’s generic; one’s fresh. And the second one is far, far less likely to make Millicent roll her bloodshot eyes and mutter, “Oh, God, not another accountant-in-a-dilemma story. Just once, I’d like to see one of ‘em do the wrong thing.”

Okay, okay: so that’s a pretty jaded response. Also, the second presentation’s details are a little weird. But it caught your attention, didn’t it?

Those of you writing about multiple protagonists are scratching your pretty little heads right about now, aren’t you? “But Anne,” these sterling souls inquire politely, because they know that’s the best way to get me to answer. “That sounds like great advice, but how does that apply to my novel? All seven of my protagonists are interesting people in interesting situations, but there just isn’t room in a 1-page query letter to introduce them all that way. Help!”

Superlative question, head-scratchers. In theory, a good multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

That can make a great read, but it definitely presents a space-usage problem in a query letter. Take, for example, what the descriptive paragraph of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden would look like if Uncle John were (a) querying it today, (b) not already famous by the time he wrote it, and (c) he didn’t already know that the manuscript’s first 10 pages being almost exclusively concerned with the soil conditions of the Salinas Valley would probably lose Millicent pretty quickly:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War.

Allow me to pause there for a moment: the story’s grabbed you already, hasn’t he? See what I mean about the hook value of unusual details?

But let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Millicent hasn’t already e-mailed him and asked to see the manuscript without reading the rest of the letter. (Hey, she’s busy; she already knows she wants to read it.) See how the energy fades as the description piles on more and more protagonists:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, insensate rage overcomes Charles anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. Sent off to the Indian Wars against his will, Adam loathes killing the innocent; Charles, deserted at home, farms and longs for his brother’s return. Meanwhile, wee sociopath Cathy Ames blithely leads young men to their doom in her home town. After a young teacher kills himself for her sake, her parents attempt to curb her — such a pity that they underestimate Cathy’s familiarity with kerosene. Out in California, Samuel, a family patriarch who bears a suspicious resemblance to the author, proves himself incapable of making money, but is the most respected advice-giver in the whole Salinas Valley. Samuel is the first to notice that Lee, Adam and Cathy’s hired hand, loses his pidgin accent as soon as anyone speaks to him intelligently. After Cathy unwillingly gives birth to twins Cal and Aron, she flees to Faye’s house of ill repute. Trusting Faye comes to love Cathy — now calling herself Kate — like a daughter, unaware of how the young woman has historically treated her relatives. The Sheriff of Monterey County worries about Kate and Adam, but can do little as she builds her business. As the Trask boys grow, secure in Lee’s love and Adam’s depressed indifference, three of Samuel’s children have their own individual adventures. Abra, a beautiful young girl visiting the Trasks with her parents, is charmed by eleven-year-old Aron’s beauty, but repelled by Cal’s rudeness.

That’s not the plot, mind you — that’s just a basic list of the protagonists and their initial conflicts. And I haven’t gotten to the part where the James Dean film version of the book began. Even starting 2/3rds of the way into the book, to make the story fit within the film’s running time, it completely got rid of Lee and transformed Abra into a love-crazed simp.

That’s a pity, because it honestly is a marvelous book — one that any serious novelist interested in handling multiple protagonists might want to read, incidentally. Steinbeck was incredibly skilled at weaving perspectives together into a solid, real-feeling world.

Clearly, though, no matter how wonderful the novel, focusing upon all of the protagonists isn’t going to work in the query letter. What other alternatives would Uncle John have?

What many writers would choose to do in Uncle John’s place would be simply to select one protagonist and present that character as if he were the only protagonist. This can work wonders, in terms of simplifying the story for querying purposes. Take a gander:

Adam Trask has a problem — and not just that his father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, his brother Charles is overcome with insensate rage anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. When a mysterious battered beauty arrives bleeding on their doorstep, Adam abruptly decides to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But is his lovely new wife a craftier version of Charles, only too eager to wreck his hard-won paradise?

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Here, Adam’s an interesting character from an interesting family, faced with interesting conflicts.

As a bonus, the description even tells Millie how he intends to overcome those conflicts and move toward what he wants. (And did you like how I worked in the word dream? Millicent loves seeing that word in a descriptive paragraph. Other faves: passion, desire, longing, want, love, happiness.)

It does not, however, give a particularly complete sense of the book, does it? Partially, that’s a function of focusing on the premise — as is often the case, restricting the description to merely the set-up means that the query letter virtually ignores two-thirds of the book. (And not the two-thirds ignored by the movie version.)

That’s not a bad strategy for a query, by the way. Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story; leave Millicent curious to hear more.

But is concentrating upon only one of several protagonists the only way to produce a query for a complex multi-protagonist novel? Not by a long shot. Here’s an even better suggestion: introduce the story of the book in the descriptive paragraph, not the stories of the various characters.

Why, that’s the advice I gave Expansive, wasn’t it? Allow me to elaborate.

For a novel with multiple protagonists to draw the reader along from storyline to storyline, it must necessarily have an underlying unitary narrative. (Unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories — which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be queried as such.) Even if it is told from the point of views of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your descriptive paragraph, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and describe that in Paragraph 4.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than other omissions geared toward brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable query space with telling an agent that your book was written in the past tense, would you? Or in third person?
The point of the query is not to talk about the novel, as you would if you were reviewing it or analyzing it for a class; you’re there to interest Millie in the story.

So tell the story. Let your narrative choices be a fringe benefit discovered at manuscript-reading time, Expansive.

Before anyone steps up onto that nearby soapbox to inform me huffily that in a good novel, the writing is the story — a statement with which I happen to agree, by the way — let me give you another example of why concentrating on the narrative structure seldom sells a story well. I’m certain the wandering spirit of Uncle John will forgive me if I use his story again as an example:

EAST OF EDEN is a multiple-protagonist novel covering three generations of the Trask family, as well as three generations of the author’s own family history. Told from the competing and sometimes factually inconsistent points of view of both fathers and sons, as well as the lover, wife, mother, and madam who alternately rules and destroys their dreams, this sweeping epic tells three different versions of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel — and the bystanders who see the tragedy reenacted again and again. Through the eyes of Lee and Samuel, the less-privileged characters supporting Adam and his sons, the reader gains a clear if limited picture of the casual racism, conflicting cultural values, and philosophies of the period.

That’s analysis, not description. It might get you an A on an American Literature exam, but the publishing industry just doesn’t talk about novels in academic terms. Tell Millicent a compelling story instead.

Has a high wind risen on the horizon, or have some of you been indulging in gusty sighs for the past few paragraphs? “Okay, Anne,” Expansive and his ilk concede reluctantly, “I plan to use the descriptive paragraph to show off my skills as a storyteller, rather than getting bogged down in a general discussion of the structure. But I write character-driven fiction — my story is my characters!”

Pardon me for doubting you, oh sighers, but in a well-told narrative, that’s almost never true. Even memoirs are seldom solely about their protagonists and nothing else. Protagonists live within contexts; they face obstacles to pursuing their goals; they encounter conflict. If they don’t, it’s hard to envision much of a dramatic arc.

Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant — again, almost unheard-of — concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it? The interactions between the protagonists? Their hopes and dreams? The way that plain white wall changes in the light over 400 pages of the protagonists’ staring at it and nothing else?

That something can be the focus of your descriptive paragraph. Why? Because just as any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it, Millicent’s going to have to be able to tell her boss what kind of novel she thinks the agency should consider representing.

Wait, what’s that you say? You’d like to see just how I’d follow this last piece of advice for Uncle John’s notoriously plot-heavy 600-page novel?

I was afraid you’d ask that. Frankly, if I were querying EAST OF EDEN to most agencies, I’d probably use the Adam-centric descriptive paragraph above; it’s a pretty good teaser for the first part of the novel. However, if I were approaching an agent who specialized in lengthy, character-driven epics written in a literary voice, I might try a more theme-oriented approach. For this book, I’d concentrate on the great big conflicts, opening with a wacky, memorable detail:

Invalided half an hour into his Civil War service, Cyrus Trask builds a career on lying about his many battles. He raises his sons, Adam and Charles, as miniature soldiers, but by the time they come of age, volatile Charles is too violent for even the Indian Wars. Forced to shoot at innocents against his will, meek Adam vows to use the rest of his life to create, not destroy. When mysterious beauty Cathy arrives at the Trask farm, nearly beaten to death, Adam abruptly decides to abandon his family to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But crafty Cathy longs to escape his hard-won paradise and carve out a safe haven for herself as madam, even if she must murder those who stand in her way. Left to raise his twin sons with only the help of Lee, his quietly scholarly housekeeper, can Adam avoid passing his legacy of violence down to yet another generation?

The answer to that question is, as any American literature major could tell you, is no. But there’s no need to tip Millicent off before she requests to read the manuscript, is there?

More practical examples follow next time, of course — 10 am PST, according to our schedule, although I reserve the right to hit the snooze button a couple of times tomorrow morning. Enjoy your evenings, campers, and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part III: the light at the end of the passage, or, but wait, I WANTED it to read that way!

light along castle walls

Over the long holiday weekend (originally dedicated, in case those of you reading this from abroad had been wondering, to remembering the fallen on both sides of the Civil War), I introduced you to the Frankenstein manuscript. This alarming entity that is presented as a book written by a single author, but reads as though it had been written by several, so different are the voices, perspectives, and even word choices throughout. To professional readers — e.g., agents, editors, contest judges, and our old pal Millicent, the agency screener — this kind of patched-together manuscript is indicative of a not-yet-fully-developed authorial voice.

And why is that, boys and girls? Chant it with me now: because a fully-developed voice is consistent throughout the entire narrative.

Everyone with me so far? Except, perhaps, those of you who have had your hands in the air since I started this series?

“But Anne,” the patient many protest, and with good reason, “were we or were we not talking as recently as five weeks ago about multiple-perspective novels? I could see how a third-person novel could maintain an even tone and voice while dealing with different perspectives, but stylistically, I kind of like it when the writing is different when different perspectives are being portrayed. Also, wouldn’t it actually be a very bad idea indeed for a multiple first-person novel to have the same voice throughout?”

Excellent points both, multiple perspective-lovers. An argument, and an exceptionally strong one, could be made for structuring a multiple-perspective third-person narrative so the text ran slower when a more dim-witted character dominated, quicker when a more impatient one prevailed, and so on. An even better argument could be made for giving each first-person narrator a distinctively individual voice. Acting upon either argument well would require a lot of writerly pondering and meticulous craft.

Acting on either would also require an even greater editorial attention than to a manuscript with narrated by a single voice throughout, however. Why? Well, if a writer is going to wow readers by switching between compelling multiple voices, he must (a) develop equally compelling multiple voices, so the reader won’t tire of one or another, (b) render those voices different enough that the reader can easily tell the difference between a scene written in one voice and a scene in a second, and (c) make absolutely sure via rigorous re-reading and revision that there’s no blurring of those voices.

In short, every voice in the book would need to be separately consistent.

But craft wasn’t all that concerned you hand-raisers, was it? “That’s right, Anne,” they instantly reply. “I was thinking more of how Millicent would respond to my multiple-perspective novel’s switches in voice — particularly the one between the first scene (pp. 1-3 of my current manuscript) and the second (pp. 4-17). Isn’t she likely to, you know, assume that my book doesn’t have a consistent voice?”

The short answer: yes — if you do not make it clear in the text whose perspective is whose.

The long and infinitely more disturbing answer: unfortunately for those who like to experiment with multiple voices, voice-meandering Frankenstein manuscripts are common enough that tend to become profoundly suspicious of any manuscript that changes style or voice abruptly — at least, if those manuscripts were produced by first-time authors. With the super-quick readings that manuscripts generally receive in the pre-acquisition stage (and always get in the first round of contest judging), the Frankenstein manuscript and the manuscript genuinely setting out to do interesting things with perspective are easily confused.

Before anyone cries out upon the inherent unfairness of this, allow me to do it for you: there are many, many fine examples of good books where authors have adopted a Frankenstein format self-consciously, in order to make a point. It’s especially common in literary fiction.

For instance, if you are even vaguely interested in experiments in narrative voice, you should rush out and read Margaret Atwood’s ALIAS GRACE. In this novel-cum-historical account-cum narrative nonfiction book, Atwood tells the story of a murder, alternating between a tight first-person point of view (POV, for the rest of this post, to spare my back a bit of typing time), straightforward third-person narrative, contemporary poems about the case, letters from the parties involved, newspaper clippings and even direct quotes from the murderess’ confession.

It is an enjoyable read, but for writers, it is also a rich resource on how to mix battling narrative styles and structures well; as one might expect from a stylist as gifted as she, Atwood constructs her patchwork narrative so skillfully that the reader never has to wonder for more than an instant why (or how) the perspective has just changed.

Which is, in case you had been wondering, one of the primary reasons Millicents usually object to narrative shifts: in multiple POV manuscript submissions, it’s not always clear when the perspective switches from one character to another. It’s especially confusing if the different viewpoints — or worse, various narrators in a multiple first-person narrative — are written in too-similar voices.

Is everyone clear on the distinction I’m making here? A Frankenstein manuscript often displays unintentionally displays a multiplicity of voices, tones, vocabulary levels, etc. A well-written multiple POV novel, by contrast, presents each point of view and/or first-person narrative voice as distinctly different, so the reader doesn’t have any trouble following who is in the driver’s seat when, plot-wise.

Or, to put it another way, the Frankenstein manuscript is evidence of a lack of authorial control, consistency, and often, proofreading; a good multiple POV narrative is beautiful evidence of a sure authorial touch, a strong sense of character, and great attention to detail.

That does not, however, mean that the latter would necessarily find favor with Millicent, it is just a hard fact of submission that it’s a whole lot easier for an established author to impress professional readers with a multiple POV novel — or, indeed, any sort of experimental writing — than someone trying to break into the biz. I admire Margaret Atwood tremendously as novelist, poet, and essayist; I have spent years crossing my fingers as she hovered around the short list for the Nobel Prize. However, I suspect that even she would have had terribly difficult time marketing ALIAS GRACE if it were her first novel, at least in the current market, due to its arguably Frankenstein structure.

Ditto for the inimitable Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, one of my favorite novels of all time, and also a must-read for any writer considering playing funny tricks with narrative voice. Vargas Llosa is something of a structural prankster, folding, spindling, and mutilating the ordinary rules of storytelling in order to keep the reader off-balance.

The result, I must admit, might confuse a reader who wasn’t already in love with his writing from other books. One might be tempted, upon encountering the third or fourth startlingly radical shift in tone, vocabulary, and apparently intended audience, to conclude that this is just a Frankenstein manuscript by a writer who couldn’t make up his mind what the book is about.

Personally, I admire Vargas Llosa’s dash; when he was running for president of Peru (yes, really), he published an erotic novel, IN PRAISE OF THE STEPMOTHER, about…well, you can probably guess.

He lost the election, incidentally — and he, too, has been rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel Prize for an awfully long time. But if he were trying to market AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER right now as a first novel…

You know the tune by now, don’t you?

The rather sticky moral: once you’ve gained international acclaim as a prose stylist, you have a lot more leeway to mess with the conventional rules of writing. So please don’t kid yourself that just because your favorite author got away with an experiment, you can necessarily do so as well.

Heck, Alice Walker made up entirely new punctuation rules for THE COLOR PURPLE, and that won the Pulitzer Prize. And as I mentioned last time, in SEEING, José Saramago treated us to an entire narrative devoid of punctuation that I, for one, consider necessary to clear communication, and he won the Nobel Prize.

But that doesn’t mean you should try either of these things at home. It’s just too likely that Millicent will take one look at your fascinating experiment and exclaim, “Here’s another one who doesn’t know how to use a semicolon!” or “Criminy, what makes this guy think I’m going to read more than two sentences of a book without any periods?”

Sad, but true. In your first book, in the current market, you probably cannot get away with breaking more than one or two of the rules — and even those need to be immistakably marked, so agents, editors, and contest judges know that you broke them for a reason, rather than out of ignorance.

Trust me, no one on the Pulitzer committee seriously believed that Alice Walker did not know how to use a semicolon properly.

“Wait a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you exclaiming. “I take some liberties with narrative style, but it becomes pellucidly clear over the course of the book why I’m doing it. By the end, my tactics seem downright clever to the reader — or so my spouse/mother/best friend since the age of 2/beloved cocker spaniel tell me. Do you mean to say that if my narrative strategy is not clear in the first 50 pages, or whatever short excerpt the agent, editor, or contest has asked to see, my innovative experiment in English prose might just get thrown into the reject pile because it will be mistaken for bad writing?”

The short answer is yes. Next question?

Before you fret and fume too much about how the intense pre-screening of the current agency system prevents genuinely bold experiments in writing from reaching the desks of publishers at the major houses, take a moment to consider the Frankenstein manuscript from the point of view of the agent, editor, or judge who finds it on her desk one busy morning.

It’s not a pretty sight, I assure you; stitched-together corpses seldom are.

As a freelance editor, the first thing the sight of a Frankenstein manuscript says to me is that it’s going to be unusually time-consuming to edit — and thus probably quite a bit more expensive, in terms of both money and revision time, for the writer. At minimum, I’m going to need to sit down with the writer, have a major discussion about what she wants the book be, and help guide the work toward more internal stylistic consistency. Basically, the process will entail identifying and compiling a list of all of the battling styles, making the author come up with a justification for using each, and having the justifications duke it out until one (or, rarely, two) is declared the winner by the author.

It takes time, and it’s generally worth the effort. But had I mentioned that freelance editors are generally paid by the hour?

When a screener at an agency or an editor at a publishing house receives a Frankenstein manuscript, however — and yes, some manuscripts are so internally scattered that the problem becomes apparent in just the first chapter or first 50 pages — she is unlikely to have the time to figure out which voice and/or style is going to end up dominating the book. Even if Millicent absolutely loves one of the styles or voices, her hectic schedule does not allow time for equivocation.

She must that she select one of two options, and quickly: either she commits her boss agent (or, in the editor’s case, himself) to nursing the author through precisely the kind of boxing match I described above, or s/he can simply reject the work and move on to the next submission, in the hope of finding a writer whose book will not need as much tender loving care.

With literally hundreds of new submissions coming in each week, which option do you think Millicent will select more often?

When a contest judge receives a Frankenstein manuscript, the choice is even quicker and more draconian. Mehitabel the judge knows that there’s no question of being able to work with the author to smooth out the presentation; in the vast majority of literary contests, the judge won’t even know who the author is.

Plop! There it goes, into the no-prize-this-year file. Better luck — and first readers — next year.

The moral, I devoutly hope, is obvious: if you are attempting to play with unconventional notions of structure or style, make sure that it is magnificently clear in the manuscript exactly what you are doing. Don’t leave it to the reader to guess what you’re up to, because, as I’ve shown above, professional readers just don’t have the time to figure it out.

How might one pull this off, you ask? Consider making your deviations from standard structure and narrative rules bold, rather than slipping them in here and there — and, at the submission stage, at least toy with devoting the entirety of the first chapter to a single voice. Experimenting with several styles within a short number of pages is decidedly risky — and perversely, the less daringly experimental you are, the riskier it is, because tentative attempts look to professional eyes like unfinished work.

Or, as critics of modern art used to like to snipe early and often: what’s the difference between a canvas painted by a 5-year-old and a canvas by a serious artist in the style of a 5-year-old? Intention, my dears, and craft.

To borrow E.F. Benson’s wonderful example, let’s say you were planning to paint a picture of a house down the street. The house has a crooked chimney. The novice painter would paint it exactly as is, unskillfully, and viewers of the finished painting would wonder forever after if the chimney had really looked like that, or if the novice just couldn’t paint straight lines. An intermediate painter would paint the chimney as straight, to rule out that conclusion.

But an expert painter would add 10 degrees to the angle of the chimney, so there would be no doubt in the observer’s mind that he had painted it that way intentionally.

The more deliciously complex and groundbreaking your chosen style is, the more clearly you should announce it. Unless, of course, you want to wait until you’re on the short list for the Nobel Prize before you start getting wacky.

I haven’t dissuaded many of you intrepid literary experimenters from trying, though, have I? “But I don’t want to exaggerate my stylistic choices,” some of you argue, and who could blame you? “I’m a big fan of subtlety, as it happens. So how can I revise my work in order to avoid running afoul of Millicent?

Well, your first step should be to steel yourself for a certain amount of rejection. When the pieced-together nature of a book is intentional, and its similarity to the standard Frankenstein tome will render it very, very easy for agents and editors to dismiss. If you are given to experimenting with multiple points of view, for instance, or changes in voice, or structural alterations in mid-story, you need to be very, very aware that professional readers may well be mistaking your conscious choices for symptoms of Frankenstein array of incompletely-realized narrative ideas.

Many years ago, I met Stan, a promising writer, at a writers’ conference. Stan described his novel impeccably: a coming-of-age story about a boy so engrossed in the messages of the TV shows and movies he saw in the late 1950s that he incorporated these styles into how he viewed his life. The result, Stan told me, was intended to be a picaresque account growing up from the kid’s perspective, real-life stories told as cowboys and Indians, spy thriller, spaceman adventure, etc.

Well, to be frank, I wasn’t all that enthused by his description; it didn’t seem like a particularly fresh book concept. But being well aware that I am not the best audience for works about prepubescent boys, I gave him a patient hearing. (Why am I not ideally suited for such stories, you ask? As someone who spent her formative years sitting through sensitive European films where an earthy older woman’s charms gently coax some suspiciously attractive and precocious young boy toward manhood, I become leery every time a young protagonist goes anywhere within five miles of the town bad girl, his best friend’s older sister’s window, or anybody’s mother but his own. But that’s just a fluke of my upbringing.

From a marketing perspective, I think that at this point in literary history, such stories are a hard sell to experienced readers, unless they are AWFULLY well told. There are countless films about 8-to-12 year-old boys learning important life lessons the hard way; if the age is so darned important, why aren’t there as many films from the perspectives of girls in that age group? (An important exception to this: Kasi Lemmons’ excellent film EVE’S BAYOU tells such a story from a young girl’s perspective amazingly well.) I think that if you choose to tackle such a well-documented age group in a work intended for adult readers — particularly if you want to stick to the well-worn ground of white, middle- or upper-middle class boys in suburbia or in small towns with swimming holes — you really have to come up with something startling to rise above the sheer volume of competition.)

So as I say, I was leery, but we exchanged manuscripts, despite my trepidations. And lo and behold, long before 50 pages had past, his intrepid wee protagonist had grabbed his fishing pole and skipped his way toward the edge of town, where the local voodoo priestess/cajoler of young boys into manhood lived.

Imagine my surprise.

Yet the fact that I’d seen the plot, conservatively speaking, 2700 times before was not what put me off the book. No, the problem was the fact that each stylistic switch came as a complete and utter surprise — even to yours truly, who knew the premise of the book going in. Each episode was indeed presented in the style of some well-worn visual media style. Quite well, as a matter of fact.

However, since the writing style changed radically every ten pages or so, pretty much any reader was guaranteed to fall into one she disliked occasionally. And since there was no overarching framework to make this junior Walter Mitty’s account of himself hang together, it read like a collection of short stories, unrelated articles of clothing hanging side-by-side on a clothesline, rather than as a cohesive book.

It read, in short, like a Frankenstein manuscript.

Because I liked Stan and thought he was a pretty good writer on the sentence level, I wanted to help him out, so I worked up nerve to make a bold suggestion. “What if you set up very plainly in the first chapter that your protagonist sees life through a directorial lens?” (Sort of like Fellini’s 8 1/2, I added to myself, as a cinematic footnote from my childhood.) “That way, the reader would be in on the conceit right from the beginning, and could enjoy each switch as play, rather than leaving the reader to guess after the style has changed 6 or 7 times that you have a larger purpose here.”

To put it mildly, Stan did not cotton to this advice; it sounded, he said, just like the feedback he had gotten from the agents and editors at the conference, or indeed, every agent he had queried. (Again, imagine my surprise.) Obviously, he said huffily, we all just didn’t like the fact that he was experimenting with narrative structure, doing something new and exciting and fresh.

We were, in his considered opinion, sticks in the proverbial mud.

Well, we may have been, but we also evidently all knew a Frankenstein manuscript when we saw one, for the exceedingly simple reason that any professional reader sees so very, very many in any given year. So from that perspective, Stan’s trouble was not that he was trying to do something original; it was that his manuscript had an extremely common consistency problem.

Yet Stan was absolutely convinced that what was being critiqued was his artistic vision, rather than his presentation of it, so while he was perpetually revising to sharpen the differences between the segments, he never seemed to get around to sitting down with the entire manuscript to see if his critics might have had a point about the overall manuscript. Predictably, he continued to have trouble placing his book, because, to professional eyes, such a manuscript means only one thing: the investment of a tremendous amount of editorial time and energy to make the work publishable.

My friend with ambitions to rewrite HUCK FINN had constructed his creature self-consciously, but far more often, writers are not even aware that the style shifts are visible. Particularly in first novels, as I mentioned last time, the stylistic changes are often the inevitable result of the writer’s craft having improved over the years spent writing the book, or simple inexperience in carrying a late-added theme all the way through a story.

In the most extreme cases, the shifts are so pronounced that the Frankenstein book can actually read as a sort of unintentional anthology. I’m not talking about multiple-perspective pieces — although if I have not yet sufficiently hammered into your brainpan that it is very easy for a book relying upon several storytelling voices to end up as a Frankenstein work, without a cohesive narrative thread tying it all together, I can only advise scrolling back up to the beginning of this post and re-reading it from the beginning.

No, in a good multiple-perspective novel, each voice and/or POV is sharp, distinct, differentiated to the extent that a reader familiar with each could open the book at any page and know within a paragraph who is speaking. Our old pal, THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, for instance, juggles multiple perspectives and voices beautifully, so that although the reader is treated to the overarching story in bits and pieces, the whole blends into seemingly organic coherence.

In a Frankenstein manuscript, no such organic coherence exists, even if the overall plot makes linear sense. The reader is jerked from writing style to writing style, as if the same story were being told on all available networks, but an indecisive child held the remote control, so the style of telling leaps from soap opera to broad comedy to PBS documentary.

It’s tiring to read, and often, hard to follow — and almost invariably conducive to the reader’s getting pulled out of the story from time to time. It also says pretty clearly to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living that the author has not yet performed a thorough, beginning-to-end edit on the book. And this is a serious problem for the editor, as it is her job to strengthen the dominant style and muffle the rest, so the whole can stand as a unified piece of prose.

It is also a serious problem for the author, since it’s difficult to sell a piece that meanders stylistically. Just ask Stan.

Next time, I shall talk about practical measures to keep your manuscript from falling accidentally into the Frankenstein realm, but before I sign off for the day, I should mention one more confluence of writing events that may result in a Frankenstein manuscript: when the writer doesn’t realize until several revisions in how she wants the book’s voice to sound.

Stop laughing. This happens to talented new writers all the time.

A few years back, an editing client of mine called me in the dead of night (a practice I discourage, as a rule) burbling with excitement because she had just made a major breakthrough with her book. This surprised me a little, I must admit: she had, to put it mildly, not been particularly receptive to feedback; I have it on good authority that she once took a match to a marked-up page of text, just so she would not have to look at my suggestions about comma use again.

One day, after months upon months and chapters upon chapters of experimenting with different styles — writing which she had never before perceived to be experimentation, but finished draft — she suddenly stumbled upon precisely the tone and perspective that worked for the book, an engaging voice she could maintain consistently throughout the entire story. As happens sometimes, what had been a mess of words just suddenly congealed into something sharp and analytical and true.

It was beautiful. So beautiful, she was overjoyed to report, she was quite confident that I would have nothing whatsoever to write in the margins this time around.

She was wrong about that, of course; when one does not listen to one’s editor about proper comma usage, one attracts marginalia.

Which just goes to show you that even a beautifully-written manuscript can usually stand at least a bit more improvement — a fact that tends to fill first-draft enthusiasts with dismay. “But it’s done!” they cry, whipping out their cigarette lighters to singe feedback off the edges of their pages. “I’m the author — I get to be the one who decides when it’s finished!”

That’s not true, actually, at least if one wants to get a manuscript published. As far as folks in the industry are concerned, a manuscript is never finished until it is printed and sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble — and for nonfiction, sometimes not even then. As a direct result, writers under contract are frequently expected to revise their books long after the point that they consider the darned things complete. It’s not even uncommon for them to have to make requested revisions that they firmly believe will harm the book.

So put those lighters away, first-drafters: to the pros, unwillingness to revise is simply a mark of inexperience. And rightly so, because — who knows? — that next revision may abruptly reveal a book far more beautiful than you ever dreamed.

Hold that positive thought until next time, please, when I shall be delving back into practicalities. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VIII: taming the many-headed beast, or, what do you mean, you want me to sum up a 12-protagonist novel in a single page?

gargoyles at Mirapoix2

The very title of today’s post made most of you cringe, didn’t it? I can’t say I’m surprised. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. Although they require great care and effort in construction, they’re not documents that one’s fans are ever likely to see, after all: they are used purely to market one’s books to agents, editors, and, frequently, contest judges.

In short, anyone who might be inclined to judge your manuscript without reading it. Hard to imagine why any writer would resent that, eh?

But our feelings about synopses run even deeper than disliking their potential substitution value, don’t they? As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces. That, too, is understandable: obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to 1, 3, or 5 pages.

Does all of that bated breath out there indicate that those of you who have been following this series on juggling protagonists are hoping that I’ll tell you that you don’t even have to try?

Sorry, my dears: not this time. If one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time.

The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. Distract your mind from trying to visualize it by looking at the pretty picture of gargoyles above, please. (Oh, you thought I included all of these photos just to separate the posts?)

The bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles.

Sound familiar? It should: it’s also the basic goal of the query letter descriptive paragraph and any length of pitch. Unlike a query or pitch, however, the synopsis needs to show the entire story arc, not just the premise of the book.

If you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect may seem quite daunting. If you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done.

Once again, the key lies in telling the story of the book, not the protagonists. Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option.

Before I elaborate upon that horrifying thought, I should set a few ground rules. Since I’ve gone over the ropes of short-short synopsis-writing in some depth in this forum (for a few dos and don’ts for writing a 1-page synopsis, please see the HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS category on the archive list at right. Or if you dug up this post in the archives in the midst of a frantic last-minute search, try starting here), I don’t propose to start from scratch here.

What I would like to do instead is talk about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. (Is it more helpful or terrifying to think of it that way, do you think?) Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in our protagonist-juggling series? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

In a single-page synopsis, the goal is to tell what the book is about. So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere protest, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. To answer it, write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the book. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript. Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story briefly may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most aspiring writers to try. Do bear in mind, though, that opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — in chronological order, for instance, if your narrative jumps around in time, or by leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book. Just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags, trying to regularize your breathing again: believe me, this suggestion is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically, though: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of a synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may strain your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13′s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts. “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that showing off that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of the synopsis?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this series. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

Again you ask why? Veteran synopsis-writers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk about the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.

I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short. Which brings me back to another suggestion from a few days ago.

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more strategy in the writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. And there’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which isn’t for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel, but bear with me here; it’s what I have on hand):

pride-and-prejudice-synop

with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complex plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the second example exhibits in spades but the first avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Speaking of distractions, I’m going to sign off for the night before I provide you with any more. Next time, I shall be discussing strategies for folding your many protagonists into 3- and 5-page synopses. Don’t be afraid to do some trimming, and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VII: describing your book well is a matter of focus

leaves in bird feeder

Sorry about the odd timing of my posts this week, campers — a nasty, lingering migraine leapt through my studio’s window and gobbled up a couple of days. I emerged only long enough yesterday to announce the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, then crawl back into the dark cave under my blankets.

Just in case my brain-befogged state rendered the rules less than perfectly clear, what YA author Phoebe Kitanidis and I are inviting the Author! Author! community to do is submit the actual first page of your manuscripts, in precisely the format you would send to an agent who requested pages. Phoebe and I will critique the lucky winners’ first pages in a future blog post.

In other words: if you’d like to know what Millicent the agency screener would say about your first page before you send it to her, this contest would be a great opportunity.

Let’s get back to business. In my last post in this series, we discussed . Regardless of whether you chose to emphasize only one of the characters’ storylines or tell the story of the novel, not of each protagonist, I encouraged you to emphasize the most original parts of your story.

That’s not a bad rule of thumb for writing a query for any manuscript, by the way, regardless of your voice choices within it. Since agents tend to specialize in just a few book categories, Millicent sees a whole lot of queries promoting rather similar-sounding stories — or so they start to seem to her, after she’s read 20,000 of them. The more unexpected details you can work into that descriptive paragraph, then, the more likely your query is to cause her to exclaim, “Hey, I want to read this manuscript — it sounds fresh.”

I also suggested that attempting to summarize the entire plot of a 400-page manuscript in a scant paragraph is a Herculean task for even a single-protagonist novel; trying to pull it off for a seven-protagonist novel is akin to the labors of Sisyphus. For those of you not up on your Greek mythology, he’s the guy the gods condemned to roll a giant rock up a steep hill, only to have it keep rolling back down again, for all eternity.

Which I’m guessing sounds like a lighthearted romp in the park to those of you who have spent months trying to concoct an effective query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel.

Instead of continuing to push that boulder up the hill, why not borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book, and leave some of the story to Millicent’s imagination? After all, as we’ve discussed, all a successful query or pitch really has to do is show Millie an interesting protagonist(s) in an interesting situation(s), right?

Or, to put it in terms that would be easier to describe in a hurry, a good query or pitch introduces the player(s), their goal(s), and the barrier(s) to achieving them. Like every page of a strong manuscript, the descriptive paragraph should contain conflict.

You wouldn’t want Millicent to dismiss your query as offering her a book about a passive protagonist, would you?

As I’ve been typing those last few paragraphs, I could hear the trees outside my window buffeted by some pretty massive gusty collective sighs. I understand: many, if not most, of you multiple-perspective lovers feel — and with good reason — that how you have chosen to tell your characters’ stories is as integral to your book as the stories themselves. Necessarily, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written.

But that doesn’t mean that this information is going to be helpful to your query or pitch, in practical terms.

Remember, neither the descriptive paragraph in a query or a two-minute pitch is intended to be a substitute for reading the manuscript in question. Their sole purpose is to get Millicent or the agent to whom you are pitching to ask to read it.

So it honestly is not in your interest to give away too much of the story, or even to talk too much about all of the nifty narrative tricks you’ve worked into the text. Let all that come as a pleasant surprise. Instead, try regarding your descriptive paragraph or pitch as an opportunity to demonstrate how well you can tell a story — and a fresh one at that.

Part of it, anyway.

How does one decide which part? You’re the one who understands your storyline well enough to divide it up into multiple perspectives — you tell me.

The cedar tree in my yard is still bending with the force of those sighs, I notice. “Okay,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can sort of see why I might need to lighten my storyline a bit in order to query or pitch it, if we want to reduce the discussion to mere marketing terms. But I still don’t understand why simplifying my extraordinarily complex plot would help my query or pitch. From where I’m standing, its complexity is its main selling point. Wouldn’t narrowing the focus of my description just make it sound, well, simple?”

Well, there’s are a couple of practical reasons narrowing the focus usually helps — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason. Let’s take the most straightforward one first.

From a query-reader or pitch-hearer’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within the first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie, unless the description makes it absolutely clear how they are all tied together. Typically, therefore, Millicent will assume that the first mentioned by name is the protagonist.

So if you started to describe a multiple protagonist novel on pure plot — “Melissa is dealing with trying to run a one-room schoolhouse in Morocco, while Harold is coping with the perils of window-washing in Manhattan, and Yvonne is braving the Arctic tundra…” — even the most open-minded agent or editor is likely to zone out on everybody but Melissa. There’s just too much to remember.

And if remembering three names in the course of a two-minute pitch doesn’t strike you as a heavy intellectual burden, please see my earlier post on pitch fatigue. Even the most hardened Millicent is likely to start to experience plot blurring after a few hours of screening.

It’s easy to forget that yours is almost certainly not the only query or pitch that agent has seen or heard within the last 24 hours, isn’t it, even if you’re not trying to explain a book that has several protagonists? Often, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels will make an even more serious mistake than overloading their elevator speeches with names — they will frequently begin by saying, “Okay, so there are 18 protagonists…”

Whoa there, Sparky. Did anyone ask about your perspective choices? So why present them as the most important single fact about your novel?

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise.

Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it be a better idea to walk into a pitch meeting and tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a minute on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on?

In a word, no. Because — you guessed it — it’s too likely to confuse the hearer.

Hey, do you think that same logic might apply to any complicated-plotted book? Care to estimate the probability that a pitch-fatigued listener or bleary-eyed Millicent will lose track of a grimly literal chronological account of the plot midway through the second sentence?

If you just went pale, would-be pitchers and queriers, your answer was probably correct. Let’s get back to Barbara Kingsolver.

Even though the second descriptive paragraph above for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE does not do it justice, if I were pitching or querying the book (and thank goodness I’m not; it would be difficult), I would probably use it above, with a slight addition at the end:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution. The reader sees the story from the very different points of view of the five daughters, one of whom has a mental condition that lifts her perceptions into a completely different realm.

Not ideal, perhaps, but it gets the point across.

But most pitchers of multiple POV novels are not nearly so restrained, alas. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake.

And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 5. Out of 27.

I can’t even begin to estimate how often I experienced this phenomenon in my pitching classes, when I was running the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, and even when I just happen to be passing by the pitch appointment waiting area at your average conference. All too often, first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before — a BAD idea, by the way — and think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean entire. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that. If you go on too long, even the most patient agent may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

This outcome is at least 27 times more likely if the book being pitched happens to be a memoir or autobiographical novel, incidentally. Bad idea. Because most memoir submissions are episodic, rather than featuring a strong, unitary story arc, a rambling pitching style is likely to send off all kinds of warning flares in a pitch-hearer’s mind. And trust me, “Well, it’s based on something that actually happened to me…” no longer seems like a fresh concept the 783rd time an agent or editor hears it.

So how well do you think it’s going to work if you open the descriptive paragraph of your query that way?

Word to the wise: keep your description snappy, emphasize the storyline, and convince the hearer that your book is well worth reading before you even consider explaining why you decided to write it in the first place.

Yes, in answer to that indignant gasp, both memoirists and writers of autobiographical fiction work that last bit into their pitches and queries all the time. Do not emulate their example; it may be unpleasant to face, but few in the publishing industry are likely to care about why you wrote a book until after they’ve already decided that it’s marketable. (Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but publishing is a business, after all.)

Which brings me to the second reason that it’s better to tell the story of the book, rather than the story of each of the major characters: perspective choices are a writing issue, not a storyline issue per se. And while you will want to talk about some non-story issues in your pitch — the target audience, the selling points, etc. — most of the meat of the pitch is about the story (or, in the case of nonfiction, the argument) itself. And in the descriptive paragraph of the query letter, it’s the only meat.

In other words, the agent or editor will learn HOW you tell the story from reading your manuscript; during the querying/pitching phase, all they need to hear is the story.

Or to put it in more practical terms: hands up, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels who have seen an agent or editor’s eyes glaze over just after hearing the words, “Well, I have these three protagonists…”

It’s an understandable thing to say, of course, because from the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are monumentally important. But from the marketing perspective, they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question, come to think of it.

There’s another very good reason not to overload your query or pitch with too much in-depth discussion of how the story is told, rather than what the story is. Writers very, very frequently forget this, but the author is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book before it get published.

Let’s face it: the main reason writers query or pitch a manuscript is to render pitching it someone else’s responsibility, isn’t it?

Think about it. A writer has chosen the multiple point of view narrative style because it fits the story she is telling, presumably, not the other way around, right? That’s the writer’s job, figuring out the most effective means of telling the tale. That doesn’t change the fact that in order for an agent to sell the book to an editor, or the editor to take the book to committee, he’s going to have to be able to summarize the story.

That’s right — precisely the task all of you would-be pitchers out there have been resenting throughout this entire post. And inveterate queriers have been resenting for years.

What does this mean in practical terms? If the story comes across as too complex to be able to boil down into terms that the agent or editor will be able to use to convince others that this book is great, your query or pitch may raise some red flags for Millicent. So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view.

Does the fact that a branch just flew off my cedar tree indicate that my arguments have not quelled all of the righteous indignation, out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “all I want to do is to present my manuscript honestly in my query or pitch. If I ignore 90% of the story, isn’t that misleading?”

Not really, considering that you’re presenting your book in a context that absolutely precludes telling the entire story — and everyone involved understands those limitations. Trust me, once Millicent and her boss fall in love with your manuscript, neither is ever going to say to you, “Hey, the descriptive paragraph in your query letter led me to expect a simpler, less delightfully complex narrative! Begone with you, lying scum!”

Brevity is simply the nature of the beast. If you accept that the point of the query or pitch is not to distill the essence of the book, but to convince someone in a position to help you get it published to ask to read it, all you’re doing is delaying Millicent’s delighted discovery of just how complex your narrative is.

Preserve some of the mystery the first time out. A query or pitch is not a synopsis, after all.

Before your gasps do my cedar any more damage, let me add hastily: next time (probably this weekend, headaches permitting), I shall be giving you some tips on how to construct a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. So regularize your breathing, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VI: but how do I TALK about my book without making it sound like it goes on endlessly?

radiator in Victoria

Before I begin today, a brief word to the silly people who keep posting parts of readers’ old comments as fresh comments, in an attempt to imbed links on this site: first, you’re assuming that I won’t remember the real comments from the first time they posted; I do. Second, if you’re trying to trick me into letting ‘em by, you might want to avoid using comments I posted myself.

Seriously, this has happened 50 times over the last couple of days. So if you see your own comment showing up twice, let me know that one got through my shielding.

But enough about stupid marketing tactics for today. Let’s talk about some smart ones. During our recent discussion of Point-of-View Nazis and their narrative-limiting ways, reader AM made a great suggestion:

Now what we need is your take on writing a query letter for a multiple POV novel. Or maybe I just need to find an attractive combination of money and chocolate bribe to get your input on mine. Hmm.

See, spam marketers? There is a polite way to get my attention. Now if I can make my way through this roomful of bundled dollar bills and baskets of truffles, I’ll get right to AM’s perfectly reasonable request.

Just kidding. I don’t like chocolate all that much.

What AM is talking about, of course, is not the entire query letter, but that pesky paragraph where the aspiring writer attempts to give some indication of what the book is about. You know, the second paragraph of a standard query letter, or the third paragraph of this one:

mars query

There’s a reason that lovers of multiple-protagonist stories find constructing that paragraph frustrating, and a darned good one. Let’s face it: that’s not a lot of space to talk about a perfectly straightforward boy-meets-girl story, let alone one following five protagonists, seventeen subplots, and fourteen generations of bunnies on an epic trek across four continents.

So I’ve got a radical suggestion: don’t try.

I’m quite serious about this. Instead of attempting to force a super-complicated plot into the space of a scant paragraph, just show enough of the premise to intrigue Millicent the agency screener into asking to see the manuscript.

Which is, after all, the actual goal of any query letter or pitch, right? I said: right?

If you didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, you’re not alone. Most queriers and pitchers new to the game assume, wrongly, that if only their query or pitch is good enough, an agent is going to say yes on the spot. Since that literally never happens — no agent in his right mind would agree to represent a manuscript or book proposal he hasn’t read, unless it was written by someone who is already a celebrity in another field of endeavor — and the assumption renders the hard process of coming up with that descriptive paragraph even harder, the sooner an aspiring writer can jettison it, the better.

Is that dangerous notion out of your system? Excellent. Embrace this much more workable principle instead: the point of the descriptive paragraph in the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book; it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it. Thus, your job is not to summarize the plot, but to present it in a fascinating manner.

Again, this is a tall order, even for a novel focusing on a single protagonist. Within the space of a paragraph, it’s genuinely difficult to make someone sound like an interesting character in an interesting situation. Generally speaking, your best bet is to focus on what’s most unusual about the protagonist and/or the situation.

Don’t believe me? Okay, if you read as many queries as Millicent, which would intrigue you more:
an accountant confronted with an ethical dilemma , or

a goose-loving accountant forced to decide between betraying his parfait-scarfing boss and being kidnapped by a mob of crazed azalea gardeners?

One’s generic; one’s fresh. Or, to put it querying terms, the second one is far, far less likely to make Millicent roll her bloodshot eyes and mutter, “Oh, God, not another accountant in a dilemma story. Just once, I’d like to see one of ‘em do the wrong thing.”

Okay, okay: so that’s a pretty jaded response. And the second presentation’s details are a little weird. But it caught your attention, didn’t it?

Those of you writing about multiple protagonists are scratching your pretty little heads right about now, aren’t you? “But Anne,” these sterling souls inquire politely, because they know that’s the best way to get me to answer. (I’m looking at YOU, prose-stealing spammers!) “That sounds like great advice, but how does that apply to my novel? All seven of my protagonists are interesting people in interesting situations, but there just isn’t room in a 1-page query letter to introduce them all that way. Help!”

Superlative question, head-scratchers. In theory, a good multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

That can make a great read, but it definitely presents a space-usage problem in a query letter. Take, for example, what the descriptive paragraph of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden would look like if Uncle John were (a) querying it today, (b) not already famous by the time he wrote it, and (c) he didn’t already know that the manuscript’s first 10 pages being almost exclusively concerned with the soil conditions of the Salinas Valley would probably lose Millicent pretty quickly:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War.

Allow me to pause there for a moment: the story’s grabbed you already, hasn’t he? See what I mean about the hook value of unusual details?

But let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Millicent hasn’t already e-mailed him and asked to see the manuscript without reading the rest of the letter. (Hey, she’s busy; she already knows she wants to see it.) See how the energy fades as the description piles on more and more protagonists:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, insensate rage overcomes Charles anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. Sent off to the Indian Wars against his will, Adam loathes killing the innocent; Charles, deserted at home, farms and longs for his brother’s return. Meanwhile, wee sociopath Cathy Ames blithely leads young men to their doom in her home town. After a young teacher kills himself for her sake, her parents attempt to curb her — such a pity that they underestimate Cathy’s familiarity with kerosene. Out in California, Samuel, a family patriarch who bears a suspicious resemblance to the author, proves himself incapable of making money, but is the most respected advice-giver in the whole Salinas Valley. Samuel is the first to notice that Lee, Adam and Cathy’s hired hand, loses his pidgin accent as soon as anyone speaks to him intelligently. After Cathy unwillingly gives birth to twins Cal and Aron, she flees to Faye’s house of ill repute. Trusting Faye comes to love Cathy — now calling herself Kate — like a daughter, unaware of how the young woman has historically treated her relatives. The Sheriff of Monterey County worries about Kate and Adam, but can do little as she builds her business. As the Trask boys grow, secure in Lee’s love and Adam’s depressed indifference, three of Samuel’s children have their own individual adventures. Abra, a beautiful young girl visiting the Trasks with her parents, is charmed by eleven-year-old Aron’s beauty, but repelled by Cal’s rudeness.

That’s not the plot, mind you — that’s just a basic list of the protagonists and their initial conflicts. And I haven’t gotten to the part where the James Dean film version of the book began. Even starting 2/3rds of the way into the book, to make the story fit within the film’s running time, it completely got rid of Lee and transformed Abra into a love-crazed simp.

That’s a pity, because it honestly is a marvelous book — one that any serious novelist interested in handling multiple protagonists might want to read, incidentally. Steinbeck was incredibly skilled at weaving perspectives together into a solid, real-feeling world.

Clearly, though, no matter how wonderful the novel, focusing upon all of the protagonists isn’t going to work in the query letter. What other alternatives would Uncle John have?

What many writers would choose to do in Uncle John’s place would be simply to select one protagonist and present that character as if he were the only protagonist. This can work wonders, in terms of simplifying the story for querying purposes. Take a gander:

Adam Trask has a problem — and not just that his father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, his brother Charles is overcome with insensate rage anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. When a mysterious battered beauty arrives bleeding on their doorstep, Adam abruptly decides to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But is his lovely new wife a craftier version of Charles, only too eager to wreck his hard-won paradise?

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Here, Adam’s an interesting character from an interesting family, faced with interesting conflicts. As a bonus, the description even tells Millie how he intends to overcome those conflicts and move toward what he wants. (And did you like how I worked in the word dream? Millicent loves seeing that word in a descriptive paragraph. Other faves: passion, desire, longing, want, love, happiness.)

It does not, however, give a particularly complete sense of the book, does it? Partially, that’s a function of focusing on the premise — as is often the case, restricting the description to merely the set-up means that the query letter virtually ignores two-thirds of the book. (And not the two-thirds ignored by the movie version.)

That’s not a bad strategy for a query or pitch, by the way. Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story; leave Millicent curious to hear more.

But is concentrating upon only one of several protagonists the only way to produce a query for a complex multi-protagonist novel? Not by a long shot. Here’s an even better suggestion: introduce the story of the book in the descriptive paragraph, not the stories of the various characters.

Does that sound like an oxymoron? Allow me to explain.

For a novel with multiple protagonists to draw the reader along from storyline to storyline, it must necessarily have an underlying unitary narrative. (Unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories — which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be pitched as such.) Even if it is told from the point of views of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your descriptive paragraph, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and pitch that.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than other omissions geared toward brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable query space with telling an agent that your book was written in the past tense, would you? Or in third person? Or that you’ve chosen to tell the story from seven different perspectives.

In case the answer isn’t obvious: no, you shouldn’t. You’re not there to talk about the novel, as you would if you were reviewing it or analyzing it for a class; you’re there to interest Millie in the story.

So tell the story. Let your narrative choices be a happy surprise at manuscript-reading time.

Yes, yes, I know: when you describe your novel to another writer, the first thing you say is, “Well, it’s got three protagonists…” but that’s going to sound like a book report to Millicent. (That’s even the industry’s term for this kind of query, pitch, or synopsis: high school book report.) In a query, you’ve got one or at most two paragraphs to convince Millicent that this is a story she should read.

Talking about a novel’s structure is almost never the best means of doing that. At the querying stage, how a writer chooses to tell a story is far less relevant than the story itself.

Before anyone steps up onto that nearby soapbox to inform me huffily that in a good novel, the writing is the story — a statement with which I happen to agree, by the way — let me show you why concentrating on the narrative structure seldom sells a story well. I’m certain the wandering spirit of Uncle John will forgive me if I use his story again as an example:

EAST OF EDEN is a multiple-protagonist novel covering three generations of the Trask family, as well as three generations of the author’s own family history. Told from the competing and sometimes factually inconsistent points of view of both fathers and sons, as well as the lover, wife, mother, and madam who alternately rules and destroys their dreams, this sweeping epic tells three different versions of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel — and the bystanders who see the tragedy reenacted again and again. Through the eyes of Lee and Samuel, the less-privileged characters supporting Adam and his sons, the reader gains a clear if limited picture of the casual racism, conflicting cultural values, and philosophies of the period.

That’s analysis, not description. It might get you an A on an American Literature exam, but the publishing industry just doesn’t talk about novels in academic terms.

At the risk of repeating myself: tell Millicent a compelling story. Let the narrative choices reveal themselves when the agent reads your manuscript — long after your query has been received and answered.

Has a high wind risen on the horizon, or have some of you been indulging in gusty sighs for the past few paragraphs? “Okay, Anne,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can see that I should plan to use the descriptive paragraph to show off my skills as a storyteller, rather than getting bogged down in a general discussion of the structure. But I write character-driven fiction — my story is my characters!”

Pardon me for doubting you, oh sighers, but in a well-told narrative, that’s almost never true. Even memoirs are seldom solely about their protagonists and nothing else. Protagonists live within contexts; they face obstacles to pursuing their goals; they encounter conflict. If they don’t, it’s hard to envision much of a dramatic arc.

Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant — again, almost unheard-of — concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it? The interactions between the protagonists? Their hopes and dreams? The way that plain white wall changes in the light over 400 pages of the protagonists’ staring at it and nothing else?

That something can be the focus of your descriptive paragraph. Why? Because just as any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it, Millicent’s going to have to be able to tell her boss what kind of novel she thinks the agency should consider representing.

Well, that should give you quite a bit of food for thought between now and my next post…wait, what’s that you say? You’d like to see just how I’d follow this last piece of advice for Uncle John’s notoriously plot-heavy 600-page novel?

I was afraid you’d ask that. Frankly, if I were querying EAST OF EDEN to most agencies, I’d probably use the Adam-centric descriptive paragraph above; it’s a pretty good teaser for the first part of the novel. However, if I were approaching an agent who specialized in lengthy, character-driven epics written in a literary voice, I might try a more theme-oriented approach. For this book, I’d concentrate on the great big conflicts, opening with a wacky, memorable detail:

Invalided half an hour into his Civil War service, Cyrus Trask builds a career on lying about his many battles. He raises his sons, Adam and Charles, as miniature soldiers, but by the time they come of age, volatile Charles is too violent for even the Indian Wars. Forced to shoot at innocents against his will, meek Adam vows to use the rest of his life to create, not destroy. When mysterious beauty Cathy arrives at the Trask farm, nearly beaten to death, Adam abruptly decides to abandon his family to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But crafty Cathy longs to escape his hard-won paradise and carve out a safe haven for herself as madam, even if she must murder those who stand in her way. Left to raise his twin sons with only the help of Lee, his quietly scholarly housekeeper, can Adam avoid passing his legacy of violence down to yet another generation?

The answer to that question is, as any American literature major could tell you, is no. But there’s no need to tip Millicent off before she requests to read the manuscript, is there?

Ponder all of this until next time, please, when I’ll be talking about how to pitch a multiple-protagonist novel. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part V, in which I run afoul of a whole lot of writing truisms

Attwood book covershaun-attwood-author-photo

Before I launch into today’s post proper, I’m delighted to announce some delightful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: blogger Shaun Attwood’s memoir, Hard Time: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail will be coming out from Random House UK this coming August! It’s already available for pre-sale from the publisher and (at a slight discount, I notice) from Amazon UK.

Congratulations, Shaun!

I’m looking forward to both the book’s British release and its advent over here. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Attwood book coverUsing a golf pencil sharpened on a cell wall, Shaun Attwood wrote one of the first prison blogs, Jon’s Jail Journal, excerpts of which were published in The Guardian and attracted international media attention. ??Brought up in England, Shaun took his business degree to Phoenix, Arizona, where he became an award-winning stockbroker and then a millionaire day trader during the dot-com bubble.

But Shaun also led a double life. An early fan of the rave scene in Manchester, he formed an organization that threw raves and distributed Class A drugs. Before being convicted of money laundering and drug dealing, he served 26 months in the infamous jail system run by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. ??Hard Time is the harrowing yet often darkly humorous account of the time Shaun spent submerged in a nightmarish world of gang violence, insect infested cells and food unfit for animals. His remarkable story provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of prison life.

As if this weren’t already a pretty darned intriguing story (and it is, believe me), today’s news renders it even more relevant to those of us on this side of the pond: this afternoon, Arizona’s governor signed into a law a bill requiring police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to produce proof of residency status on the spot. Not only will violators of this law be entrusted to Arizona’s county jails prior to facing trial — many of them will undoubtedly be incarcerated in the very jail Shaun depicts so vividly.

Curious for a sneak peek? Take a gander at Shaun’s guest blog from last year. I found it bone-chilling — and trust me, my marrow is not easily refrigerated.

It just goes to show you: no matter how grim the predictions we keep hearing from the publishing industry, a good story by a good writer can still get picked up. Please keep the good news rolling in, everybody — I love announcing happy news.

On that cheerful note, let’s get back to work. Today, I would like to discuss another classic bugbear of the multiple-protagonist novel: uneven handling.

You know what I’m talking about, right? The narrative is written from multiple perspectives, yet instead of hearing from each of them in either an orderly manner (say, by having Protagonist A’s perspective dominate Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7…while Protagonist B’s story is followed in Chapters 2, 4, 6, etc.) or in a balanced way (where roughly half the book is devoted to A, and half to B), some perspectives pop up a bit more often than others.

Or a LOT more than others. As in when one or more of them simply falls out of the narrative structure in the second half of the book.

The example that springs to mind is William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY, where the decline of a grand old Mississippi family is told through the perspectives of three of its members and one of its servants, each in its own section. While undoubtedly a masterpiece (of the depress-you-into-a-stupor variety), it’s hard for even the most casual reader not to notice that the fourth perspective is somewhat slighted.

How slighted, you ask? After a multitude of chapters from each of the men’s perspectives, here’s Dilsey’s, in its entirety: They endured.

Now, the authorial choice to limit this perspective so sharply may well have been, as so many of our high school English teachers haughtily informed us, a brilliant piece of understatement and trenchant social criticism, but structurally, we are left wondering: did Faulkner believe this character wouldn’t have said anything about the issues of the book if asked?

Or did he just not care very much what she thought?

Was that gasp I just heard out there in the ether the outraged umbrage of the entire American literature class — or the terrified recognition of writers who have just realized that a reader might derive the unintended conclusion about certain authorial choices?

Say, a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener?

If your reaction fell into the latter category, pat yourself on the back: your writerly instincts are coming along nicely. If a character is important enough to warrant her own perspective, most readers are going to read something into the choice to limit that perspective to, say, four paragraphs where the dominant perspective gets fourteen chapters.

That’s putting it nicely, of course. Millicent might be prompted to wonder why the minimized perspective is included at all: is it only there because this character sees something that the other characters do not? Would a more graceful narrative structure have provided greater balance amongst the protagonists — or fewer of them?

Such doubts could lead to the kind of follow-up question none of us wants asked about our work until after it’s been declared a masterpiece for a generation and being assigned in high school English classes: was including this perspective the best way to tell this story, or merely the most convenient?

What? That wasn’t a question that would have been asked in your high school English class? Heavens, what are the future writers of the world being taught?

It’s worth giving some serious thought to the balance between the perspectives in your novel. Not that you should be literal about it — after all, few readers are going to be counting lines devoted to each characters to test for proportion — but to be aware of any messages about relative importance these characters’ relative weights might be sending.

If one protagonist’s perspective dominates the narrative, for instance, consider the possibility that readers will conclude that her story is the real plot of the book, while characters we hear from less are bit players. Or at the very least, that readers will assume that the character the narrative follows the most often is the one they’re supposed to care about the most. This logic also works stood on its head: If a particular perspective turns up only a few times in the course of the book, is it really necessary, or could you tell the story without it?

Do be aware of the possibility that you might be favoring a character or two unconsciously, especially if the story you’re telling is reality-based. Evenness of handling is genuinely difficult when writing from multiple perspectives; it’s only human to like some characters better than others, and give them the lion’s share of one’s writing time.

However, leaning too heavily toward one protagonist raises an inevitable question in agents’ and editors’ minds: if Character A is interesting enough to dominate half of the book, and the Characters B-D deserve only a chapter or two each, why isn’t the whole book told from A’s perspective?

Where this is the case, it might be worth considering — brace yourself, POVNs — whether the novel actually does work best told from multiple perspectives. Perhaps it would work best as a single-perspective narrative. Or maybe it’s a complex enough set of characters and events that it would benefit from the continuity of a single, overarching narrative voice throughout.

Yes, I am talking about omniscient narration, now that you mention it: anyone got a problem with that, other than the POVN shaking his fist in the corner? I don’t care that some people consider it old-fashioned — sometimes, it honestly is the best choice for a particular storyline.

I know, I know — just a couple of days ago, I was waxing eloquent upon the advantages of incorporating character perspective into the narrative, but omniscience has its benefits, too. Most notably, never having to worry about the question, “Wait, how did this narrator know about that?”

To clarify: there is nothing technically wrong with a third-person novel that narrates every character’s perspective in essentially the same voice, observing the fictional world in a similar way: it just requires vigilance to maintain. Which is why writers are so often told that it is too difficult to pull off, and (the logic continues) they might as well not try.

But successfully implementing any narrative choice calls for sticking to its rules, doesn’t it? There are plenty of good books out there that rely heavily and consistently upon a single narrative voice to tie a disparate group of perspectives together. Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22, for instance, relies upon an essentially unchanging voice as the protagonist du chapter is portrayed in the tight third-person.

Seriously, the focus flits around with a firefly’s attention span — it keeps coming back to Yossarian, the dominant protagonist, but the reader is treated to chapters inside the heads of practically an entire squadron. The book has been known to send POVNs into years of therapy, but it works, because the overarching narrative voice and tone never waver.

To make it a dive from an even higher board, Heller keeps making the narrative jump around in time, so you have to read the whole darned book in order to figure out what’s been going on. It’s a brilliant book, a groundbreaker, a genuine masterpiece.

Do I think Joseph Heller would have a hard time selling it today? Heavens, yes. (He was aware of it, too: there’s a famous writers’ conference circuit story about the upstart reporter who had the nerve to ask Mssr. Heller toward the end of his long and distinguished career why he had never again written a book as good as CATCH-22. Heller’s reported reply: “Who has?”)

There are a number of reasons CATCH-22 would be difficult to market now — not the least of which being that now, the manuscript would seem a bit derivative of both SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and M*A*S*H. (I realized after I typed this that this joke would have been significantly funnier if I had already mentioned that CATCH-22 was released in 1961, M*A*S*H in 1968, and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE in 1969. It just goes to show you: explaining a joke after the fact doesn’t make it funnier.)

Heller’s perspective shifts would probably strike today’s Millicents as too abrupt and hard to follow, and Maury (that’s Millie’s editorial assistant cousin, for those of you tuning in late) would almost certainly either advise Heller to tell the story in chronological order or market the book as fantasy.

Look: there are plenty of writing advisors out there who will tell you the omniscient perspective is dead. Poppycock. A swift stroll down the aisles of almost any bookstore with a good fiction section will demonstrate that simply isn’t true.

What is true is that it’s hard to pull off well — and that agents and editors, like everyone else in the writing community, have heard over and over again that omniscience is old-fashioned. That sometimes renders omniscience a pain to query or submit, but again, taking a serious look at the kind of narrative choices showing up on bookshelves your chosen category in recent years is the best barometer of that.

Let me repeat that, just in case anyone missed it: regardless of what anyone tells you, checking what is selling now is the only really good way to find out what can be sold now — and even that’s not going to tell you what agents are going to be looking to pick up six months hence.

The market’s simply too mercurial to make permanent predictions of the sweeping variety. Remember that, please, the next time you hear a speaker at a writers’ conference insisting that nobody publishes that kind of book anymore. A year before COLD MOUNTAIN came out, you couldn’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who would tell you with absolute authority that no one was buying historical fiction anymore; they would have laughed if you had pitched one. A year later, you couldn’t have gone to an agents’ panel at any conference in the country without hearing half of them insist that they were there primarily to find good new historical fiction.

Ditto with chick lit and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, memoirs about poor childhoods and ANGELA’S ASHES, novels about Catholic conspiracies and THE DA VINCI CODE…well, you get the picture. Nothing’s hot until it’s hot. There’s a big, big difference between onerous and impossible — and an even bigger difference between generalities and reality.

So the next time someone tells you that nobody is buying the kind of book you’re currently writing, don’t waste your energy arguing: toss your anorak over your shoulders, run to the bookstore, and see what is selling in your book category right now.

Bear in mind, though, that just because a writing choice is popular right now does not necessarily mean it is a shoo-in to sell. If you do go tiptoeing through the stacks in the dead of night, you will undoubtedly find volumes and volumes of tight third person; it was the primary narrative choice in most fiction categories for quite a bit of the last decade. But that means — regular readers, get ready to sing out the answer — that screener Millicent and her ilk still see its most common pitfalls on an hourly basis.

Some of you are still nervous about your daring narrative choices, aren’t you? “But Anne!” a few innovative souls offer timidly. “I’m afraid to venture back into the bookstores. The last time I tried, I couldn’t find anything released recently in my chosen book category that’s structured like my book — and it’s not the first time that’s happened. If I decide to write a single-perspective novel in the first person, the publishing world goes wild for tight third-person narratives. If I get really excited about multiple perspectives in the third person, every new release I see features a plethora of chapters, each from a different first-person perspective. I can’t win!”

I sympathize with your frustration, oh experimenters — honestly, I do — but the phenomenon you describe is largely a function of the bestseller phenomenon I described above. Once a surprise blockbuster hits the big time, half the agents in the country will be eager to make lightning strike twice; they go out trawling for books similar to the blockbuster.

That’s only natural, right? And it’s definitely great news for aspiring writers who got the idea to write that kind of book three or four years earlier: suddenly, agents are eager for it, as are editors, at least for a little while. So eager, in fact, that while the trend is at its height, some of them will complain at writers’ conferences, on their blogs, on their Twitter accounts, etc., that they aren’t seeing enough of this type of manuscript.

What’s wrong with writers today, anyway? they wonder, often quite vocally. Don’t they ever read the bestseller lists?

Aspiring writers are no fools: after they hear this lament several times over, a hefty percentage of them will decide to leap onto the bandwagon, even if they would not have considered writing that kind of book before. It’s not even uncommon for a writer to abandon a work in progress or stop querying a recently-completed project because — chant it with me now, readers — nobody is publishing my kind of book anymore.

Thus it follows as inevitably as night follows the day that a year or two after the surprise bestseller made such a splash, Millicent is up to her caffeine-addled eyeballs with manuscripts like it: similar narrative choices, similar characters, even suspiciously similar plotlines. As she probably will be for the next five or six years.

Don’t underestimate how welcome a well-written submission that doesn’t fall into that mode could be at that moment. If all Millie’s seen for the past three weeks is straightforward first-person narratives, your multiple-perspective third-person gem may be a positive relief.

So how’s a habitually off-trend aspiring writer to handle all of this conflicting and ever-changing input? Simple: give some serious thought to your perspective choices, then stick to your guns, regardless of fashion. Someday, your choice may be the new standard.

Next time, by special request, I’ll be talking about how to construct a query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel. And if you’re very nice indeed, I may follow that up with a discussion of how a savvy writer pulls together a synopsis for this type of book.

Hey, once I launch into a topic, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part IV: setting the world in motion

sunshine moving in trees2

No, the photo above isn’t a representation of what a stand of trees might look like through allergy-blurred eyes — although the lilac tree in my back yard has apparently decided that this is the year to make its shot at shattering all previous records for pollen production. It’s a shot of blinding sunlight coming through trees, taken while I was ineffectually exclaiming, “Wait! Slow down! That would be a beautiful shot!”

Sometimes, all you get is a momentary glimpse of what’s going on around you. Blink, and it’s gone.

That’s a darned hard experience to replicate on the page, isn’t it? Particularly in an action scene shown simultaneously from several different perspectives: as tempting as it may be to include blow-by-blow accounts from every relevant point of view, once the reader knows a punch was thrown, an instant replay from another perspective may strike him as redundant — or even confusing.

How often did Sluggo swing? Was the fist that just went by Protagonist #2’s cheekbone the same one that Protagonist #3 just mentioned sending in his general direction, or did it belong to Protagonist #4? And pardon my asking, but did it just take 3/4 of a page of text to show three punches?

Revisers sit in front of action scenes like this, grinding their teeth in frustration. “How on earth,” they cry as soon as they can force their molars apart, “can I clarify what’s going on here without slowing the scene down to a crawl? Perhaps neither Anne nor Millicent the agency screener would notice if I switched the scene to a bystander’s perspective, so I don’t need to deal with the fighters’ points of view until the battle has died down.”

Nice try, teeth-grinders, but trust me, Millicent knows all about that evasive maneuver. And I know you’re far too serious about craft to take the tawdry easy way out of a narrative conundrum.

And to those of you jumping up and down, screaming, “Wait — tell me about the easy way! I long to embrace the tawdry short cut!”, I’m not listening.

I can sympathize, however, with a certain amount of shock at being flung with barely a preamble straight into the heart of our knotty problem du jour. For the sake of those ground-down molars, I’ll back up and ease into it a trifle more gently.

Last time, we discussed means of allowing tight third-person narrative to reflect individual quirks in depicting a particular scene. Rather than the protagonist’s presence or participation alone casting her primary shadow across the scene, I suggested infusing the text with her worldview, unique powers of observation, and other characteristics. This works marvelously as a method of differentiating between multiple protagonists’ sections of a novel, whether it is written in the third or first person.

Actually, it’s kind of a nifty trick in a single-protagonist novel, too, and definitely in a biography or memoir. Whenever the world is being shown from a specific point of view, I think it’s interesting when the narrative reflects the unique observational style of the teller.

Differentiation can get tricky, though, in a book with scads of protagonists. With two or three, the variations in observation can be fairly subtle, but if you try it with twelve, the reader is likely to lose track of whether Penelope’s frequent sneezes are the result of a canary-in-a-coal-mine sensitivity to mold due to that summer she spent on an archeological dig in a swamp, or if that was Tim’s excuse, and Penelope was the one who abhorred grass ever since that terrible day on the football field.

Or maybe it’s just hay fever season. There’s a limit to how many subtleties the reader can reasonably be expected to remember — and we writers tend to forget that.

“What do you mean, Tina’s fatal wool allergy came out of left field in Chapter 26?” we exclaim indignantly when our manuscripts are critiqued. “She cleared her throat twice next to Eliot’s sweater in Chapter 3!”

I hate to admit it, but personal quirks and background dissimilarities can be overdone; a protagonist with 137 pet peeves is probably going to annoy a reader more than one with 13. But now that I’ve gotten you into the habit of looking at your various protagonists’ sections of the text with an eye to varying them, let’s talk about means of increasing individuality in a protagonist’s section of narrative without taxing the reader’s memory banks.

What if, for instance, the vocabulary were quite different in Protagonist A’s sections of the text and Protagonist B’s?

This is a characterization trick lifted from dialogue, of course: no one expects a character with a Ph.D. to speak in the same manner as a character who did not graduate from high school, right? If there are polysyllabic words to be uttered, they’re going to be spilling out of the professor’s mouth.

Indeed — as my fellow Ph.D.s complain amongst themselves early and often — professor characters are often depicted as emitting lecture-quality logic every waking second. Frankly, we real-life professors find this expectation exhausting to contemplate. Even Socrates took some time off from asking annoying questions from time to time.

And look where that got him.

Did you catch the narrative trick I just pulled? I underscored my narrative credibility as a professor by dropping in a philosophy joke. Not a bad investment of just a couple of lines of text, and certainly more interesting for most readers than if I had inserted a five-page essay on the Socratic method.

Or if I had simply started spouting a whole lot of technical terms specific to my former academic field, for that matter. While every profession has its jargon, it doesn’t necessarily render a narrator or speaker more credible to overuse it on the page. What over-reliance upon any field’s jargon is far more likely to produce is in readers is boredom.

Oh, you like it when a mushroom specialist corners you at a party and starts talking spores non-stop? Unless you share her passion for fungi, you’re probably going to be looking to change the subject pretty darned soon.

Because I have lecturing experience, I recognize that the forest of hands waving in the air means that at least some of you have questions about that last observation. (I’m a professional, though; the layperson shouldn’t attempt leaping to that sort of lofty conclusion at home.) Yes, hand-raisers?

“I would be reluctant to include a joke like the one you used above,” they point out, rubbing circulation back into their arms, “even if it conveys something significant about that narrator’s background. The build-up and joke assume that the reader is aware that Socrates went around asking his fellow 5th century BC Athenians probing philosophical questions, eventually irritating them enough that they condemned him to death. Not every reader would know that. But as you may see from the length of this very paragraph, devoting text to explaining the joke would not only slow down the scene already in progress — or even bring it to a screeching halt. So I ask you: is this really effective character development?”

In a word: yes. Moving on…

Just kidding. Actually, the answer depends upon the intended readership for the book: just as it’s safer to assume that 15-year-old readers will recognize current teenage jargon than 50-year-olds (and that the 15-year-olds will find it embarrassing when the 50-year-olds try to sound hip by using it), it’s more reasonable to expect literary fiction readers to catch more historical and literary references than, say, the target audience for terse Westerns. By the same token, a Western writer could get away with presuming that her target readership knew a heck of a lot more about horses than the average reader of literary fiction.

The same holds true for vocabulary choices, of course: since every book category has a pretty well-established reading level, sticking to the one an agent or editor would expect to see in your kind of book just makes good marketing sense. (If you’re not familiar with the expected reading level for your chosen book category, run, don’t walk to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and spend a couple of hours leafing through books like yours, to see what kind of vocabulary they use.) Within those parameters, though, a writer has quite a bit of wiggle room for showing well-read narrators sounding well-read on the page.

In other words: go ahead and let your various protagonists’ speech patterns color the narrative in sections written from their respective perspectives. Just don’t get so carried away with professional jargon that a reader from another field can’t understand what he’s saying — or gives up trying.

This logic is surprisingly infrequently extended to third-person narrative from multiple perspectives. (One sees it applied to first-person narratives more frequently, but then, many first-person narratives are crafted to resemble speech.) But think about it: why wouldn’t a well-read fifth grader’s fine vocabulary extend into her thoughts?

A couple of words of warning about applying this technique to multiple-perspective novel: first, try not to overdo it. If the differences are too extreme, you run the risk of the characters with the smaller vocabularies coming across as a tad dim-witted. Bear in mind that smart people aren’t necessarily well-educated or widely read, after all, and — dare I say it? — not all well-educated people are necessarily smart.

Trust me on this one. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in faculty meetings.

Second, it is very easy to overuse professional jargon. (Wait, where have I heard that before?) Sprinkle it about, by all means, but do be aware that doctors who use the Latin names for common body parts three times a paragraph, emergency room nurses who add, “STAT!” to half their sentences, and lawyers who pepper their conversations and thoughts with whereases and heretofores are a notorious agency screener’s pet peeve.

I just mention. Just because something happens in real life does not necessarily mean it will work in print — or in a submission. Treat the use of jargon associated with particular jobs like any other stereotype: there’s always more to an individual than the obvious.

My next suggestion for individualizing your protagonists’ perspectives is even more fundamental: what if the narrative changed rhythm when the perspective altered?

I’m not talking about anything radical, such as Protagonist A’s sections utilizing exclusively short, declaratory sentences while Protagonist B’s abound in run-ons. (Which I’ve seen in quite a few manuscripts, by the way.) But could the habitual coffee-drinker’s musings pass by the reader like a highly caffeinated freight train, while the obsessively orderly person’s flights of fancy always get cut off short of running amok?

Has some intriguing possibilities, doesn’t it?

The conceivable variations are practically endless — and again, are as useful for constructing dialogue as for narrative. An 80-year-old man with a lung condition would probably speak in shorter bursts than a 25-year-old jogger; differences in lung capacity alone would dictate that, right? Where the speech goes, the thought can surely follow: when the body’s having trouble breathing, wouldn’t you expect that to disrupt, say, lengthy stretches of otherwise uninterrupted thought?

Actually, I would urge you to give some thought into working bodily rhythms into your writing in general; in tight third-person narrative, it’s not done much. There are few novels out there that take situational variations in breathing and heart rate into account at all, even in dialogue during heavy action scenes.

People tend not to have a whole lot of extra breath to talk in the middle of hand-to-hand combat, something screenwriters would do well to remember. Similarly, we might expect a protagonist’s thoughts would tend to run shorter in a moment of imminent crisis than in a moment of calm.

Switching to short, choppy sentences convey a subtle impression of panting breath and elevated heart rate, incidentally, especially if such sentences appear in tandem only in such scenes. Trick o’ the trade.

Just as the best means of catching rhythmic patterns is to read text out loud, the best means of determining what is a realistic bodily response is to act a scene out. Within reason, of course: obviously, if you’re writing about a killer, I’m certainly not advising that you test-drive the mayhem. However, if your protagonist has been carrying a 50-pound suitcase without wheels for 20 pages, your sense of the probable effects upon his body will definitely be heightened if you carry around a heavy suitcase for 10 or 15 minutes.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to test the plausibility of everyday events in your books in general; unverified timing is frequently implausible on the page. You’d be amazed at how many books contain speeches that could not be said within a single breath, for instance, and what a high percentage of exchanges ostensibly between floors in elevators would require three consecutive trips to the top of the Empire State Building to complete.

Admittedly, a writer does occasionally risk astonishing bystanders by this kind of vigorous fact-checking. I once spent a humid Chicago afternoon frightening small children in a park trying to figure out the various body parts that might get bruised if one got jumped from behind while sitting on a park bench. It’s astonishing what one’s friends will do for free pizza, and the scene was better for it.

It’s possible to predict certain reactions without engaging in amateur dramatics, of course. If your protagonist has just chased a mugger for two and half city blocks, or dashed up a flight of stairs because she’s afraid of being late for her first day of work, or flung herself down a manhole to escape the marauding living dead who want to eat her brain, it’s reasonable to expect that her heart will be pounding and her breath drawing short.

No need to recruit the local zombies to ascertain that.

Oh, dear, there are all of those raised hands again. You want to raise a practical difficulty? “I’m open to incorporating any or all of these techniques, Anne, but while we’re talking about action scenes, I want to raise a different sort of practical difficulty. How does one depict an action scene between two people of the same sex without repeating each of their names constantly?”

Wow, that is practical. To make sure everyone knows what the hand-raisers are talking about, let’s take a gander at the combatants in this action-packed paragraph:

Herb pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at Trevor. Trevor ducked, avoiding the blow. Herb, having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, lost his balance. Trevor leaped onto his back the instant Herb hit the ground, pounding Herb’s head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” Trevor howled, grinding Herb’s nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

“Never!” Herb shouted, flinging Trevor off him.

That’s a whole lot of proper noun repetition, isn’t it? Yet the names could not plausibly be replaced with pronouns without causing abundant confusion:

He pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at him. He ducked, avoiding the blow. Having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, he lost his balance. He leaped onto his back the instant he hit the ground, pounding his head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” he howled, grinding his nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

“Never!” he shouted, flinging him off him.

Faced with this difficulty, many revisers will leap to compensate. Descriptors could be used to take the place of some of the hims, naturally, but the result is still a bit cumbersome:

Herb pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at Trevor. The smaller man ducked, avoiding the blow. The mustachioed aggressor, having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, lost his balance. The diminutive and swarthy one leaped onto his perplexed left-handed assailant’s back the instant he hit the ground, pounding his brother’s head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” he howled, grinding his lifelong best friend and canasta partner’s nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

Feels a touch over-explained, doesn’t it? Complex perspective can be very helpful reducing this sort of verbosity.

And you’d thought that I wasn’t going to tie it back to the earlier part of the blog, hadn’t you? Au contraire.

The more deeply the reader is embroiled Herb’s perspective, the more sense it makes to show action and reaction not as external to him, but as part of his rich and varied experience of life.

Okay, so maybe that was overstating it just a tad. But just look at how easily this method clears things up:

His truncheon seemed an extension of his frustration: carrying his entire substantial body weight behind it, it flashed toward Trevor’s face. The wily bastard ducked, avoiding the blow, just as he had dodged every responsibility in their collective lives.

Flailing for balance, Herb felt fists on his back before he hit the ground. What kind of brother pounds your head into wet pavement?

When you’re dealing in enriched perspective, an action scene is never just about the action in it. It becomes another opportunity for character development, for revealed observation, and — dare I say it? — clarifying perspective.

That’s my perspective on it, anyway. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part III: a few ways to make Millicent’s day, or, the living are nice, too.

Mother Goose's grave

Why open one of my normally quite friendly posts with such a grim image, you ask? A couple of reasons: first, according to several official-looking placards scattered about the Boston graveyard where I took this photo, this stone marks the final resting place of Mother Goose, of fairy tale fame. What writer wouldn’t be glad to have readers remember her name more than three hundred years after her last book came out?

Second, I begin today with a horror tale. A few years back — right around the last time I ran an entire series on constructing multiple-perspective narratives, if memory serves — I sat through a movie that seemed calculated specifically to appall the editors in the audience, a crowd-pleasing independent horror film called CRIME FICTION. Even presented within a film festival that positively gloried in depictions of violent death, the kind where protagonists shooting their girlfriends were the norm, this was a standout. (Okay, so one of the films killed the girlfriend off with an overdose of ecstasy, and she did get to come back as a zombie, but honestly, after the sixth dead paramour in a row, who is making fine distinctions?)

In CRIME FICTION, the protagonist killed his girlfriend (of course), but her gory death wasn’t what made me cover my eyes and scream. Nor did the premise — an unsuccessful writer of spy novels becomes jealous when his doomed-because-she’s-in-the-picture girlfriend’s beautifully-written memoir gets a great review from the NYT Review of Books — chill my blood too sharply. Naturally, violence was going to be in the offing, given the focus of the festival.

I didn’t freak out at these developments primarily because I had been queasy since one of the first scenes in the movie. In it, the protagonist sat down to write, and…oh, it’s almost too horrible to describe.

Okay, deep breath: I can convey this. He already has a published book out, but when the audience sees his freshly-written first page, IT’S NOT IN STANDARD FORMAT.

Oh, the humanity! I could barely keep my eyes on the screen. The 3/4-inch top margin! The uncentered chapter title! The too few skipped lines before the text began! And — avert your eyes, if you have a sensitive stomach — the paragraphs were not indented!

After that level of debauchery, frankly, I was barely surprised when he shoved his girlfriend out a window. Clearly, the man had no regard for the norms of civilized society. But then, later in the movie, another, more successful author’s first manuscript page fills the screen, and guess what? It isn’t in standard format, either!

I spent the rest of the film peeking through my fingers, hyperventilating. Would the paper-generated terror never end? Could the second writer’s killing spree be far behind?

Even after several years of seeing manuscript-free movies where positively no one’s girlfriend gets slaughtered, those two scenes of improperly-formatted pages still make me cringe; think of all the poor souls lead astray by such careless imagery choices! (If that last thought does not make you instantly picture Millicent the agency screener shouting, “Next!” I STRONGLY recommend that you review the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at right before sending off your next submission.)

What does any of this have to do with crafting a multiple-perspective narrative, you ask? Glad you brought it up.

Last time, we discussed structural means a savvy writer can use to help alert the reader to perspective shifts in multiple-protagonist manuscripts. Separating points of view by chapter, section breaks, or even paragraph breaks can go a long way toward preventing reader confusion.

Which should be a primary narrative goal in a multi-protagonist novel, right? Unfortunately, sometimes structural signals are not practicable, or even a good choice.

Take, for instance, a scene where two or more of protagonists interact. Often, as I mentioned a few days ago, it works beautifully to pick the more active character’s perspective and stick to it. But what about the case where the primary interest of the scene is the difference in Protagonist A and Protagonist B’s views on what is going on?

A thorny problem, you must admit. Let’s take a look at the same scene, told first from a single perspective, then in a narrative that shows both points of view.

But what if the cooling system fails again? Delphine thought. It would take more than a hastily-snatched hairpin to mend the reactor next time. “How can you eat at a time like this?”

Charles smiled. “The pie is excellent. Won’t you have some, my dearest?”

Would he be this obtuse after they married? I do seemed unlikely to be the universal solvent of thick-headedness.

She took a miniscule sip of cool water, to calm herself. Someone here needed to act like an adult, and if the President of the United States weren’t up to the task, by God, his future First Lady would have to be. She rose from the table. “You finish dessert. I’m going to have a chat with that shady-looking engineer.”

“See you at dinner, my pet.”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this exchange, right? It’s a tad tell-y (as opposed to show-y), but it demonstrates both perfectly good reasons for Delphine’s annoyance and Charles’ lack of response to it. So far, so good.

Yet if the reader has been following the latter’s perspective for half the book, it might make sense to add a counter-current to the scene by including his perspective as well. Take a gander:

But what if the cooling system fails again? Delphine thought. It would take more than a hastily-snatched hairpin to mend the reactor next time. “How can you eat at a time like this?”

Charles smiled automatically, remembering too late the blackberry seeds that must be embedded between his widely-spaced teeth. He hid his mouth behind his napkin, remembering the vicious look she had cast him at the state dinner with the Prince of Wales. The offender had been strawberry mousse that time. “The pie is excellent. Won’t you have some, my dearest?”

Would he be this obtuse after they married? She took a miniscule sip of cool water, to calm herself. Someone here needed to act like an adult, and if the President of the United States weren’t up to the task, by God, his future First Lady would have to be. She rose from the table. “You finish desert. I’m going to have a chat with that shady-looking engineer.”

She was beautiful when she was worrying about core meltdown. “See you at dinner, my pet.”

Yes, I have brought a structural device into play here (alternating perspective by paragraph), but I have included a stylistic one as well: making the tones of the respective protagonists’ thoughts distinctive enough that the reader can easily tell who is thinking at any given point. A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) still won’t like it, but at least it’s clear which perspective prevails when.

There are a number of ways to render perspectives distinct from one another. Content, as we have seen here, is the most obvious, but worldview and tone form a close second and third. One sees this type of differentiation in novels about families all the time. If Sister A is an introvert, Sister B is bound to be loud and bouncy; if Brother C is a bookworm, Brother D’s usually good at sports. Given these different orientations, all of these protagonists are likely to see the world around them in disparate ways, so the reader would simply understand by a few chapters into the book that the quiet observations are most likely Sister A’s and the rampant baseball analogies Brother D’s.

Pop quiz for those of you currently engaged in self-editing: does your manuscript reflect that expectation?

To put it another way, if you picked a narrative paragraph at random from your manuscript and it did not contain the protagonist’s name, would a reasonably careful reader of the book so far be able to guess whose perspective it contained? Or is the primary difference between Protagonist A’s chapter and Protagonist B’s that they are participating in different events?

Care to guess how often Millicent sees the latter? Uh-huh.

Do make sure, even if your protagonists’ perspectives are broken up by formal breaks — by chapter, section, scene, or even paragraphs — that their perspectives vary enough to be plausible as separate people’s perceptions. Trust me, Millicent has seen thousands of multiple-perspective novels where the thought patterns of Protagonist A and Protagonist B are so similar that they might as well be the same character.

“Why,” she wonders, sliding the latest into the reject pile, “did the writer bother to go to the significant trouble of establishing multiple perspectives if they were all going to have the same voice?”

You have a point there, Millie. There’s a reason for this phenomenon, of course: all of the characters in the book are the product of the same mind, and so even though the structure of the book may dictate that Chapter 3 should reflect a different mindset than Chapter 4, they’re frequently written in identical voices.

And that, dear friends, can lead to precisely the kind of point of view confusion that makes the POVNs feel justified in dismissing the entire multiple-protagonist ilk of novels. So here is your first homework assignment for the day:

1. Think about how your protagonists differ — especially any differences that could potentially affect not only recorded thought, but descriptive passages in their various chapters or paragraphs.

Do keep in mind as you ponder that the great pitfall of relying upon broadly-drawn characteristics to differentiate perspectives is the ease of falling into stereotypes — and I’m not just talking about genre tropes like dead girlfriend stories. What are the chances, for instance, that Brother D, the sports enthusiast, is going to be an insensitive boor, captain of both the school’s football team and the crowd who goes around shoving kids like Brother C into lockers? And what are the chances that the agency screener — who has, after all, read a hundred submissions in this genre already this week — will be able to guess that the jock is a jerk the instant he appears on the page?

To put it in terms the entire festival audience can understand, if Millicent were screening movies for film festivals, she would probably be exclaiming by two minutes into each, “Oh, terrific: another dead girlfriend. Next!”

The horror, the horror. But I’m not going to cover my eyes again: you’re not going to spring either a stereotype or a deviation from standard format on me, are you? Good; let’s move on.

2. Make a list of your protagonists and their major characteristics, likes, dislikes, areas of sensitivity, and so forth.

No, you may not skip this step or do it in your mind, but thanks for asking. Get it all down on paper, so you may refer back to it mid-edit.

3. Review the lists, circling any characteristic that might conceivably cause a particular character to misperceive or embellish upon what’s going on around him. Pay particular attention to any condition that might affect the workings of his eyes, ears, nose, tongue, sense of touch, sense of humor…well, you get the picture.

4. Read through your manuscript, searching for a place where perspective is not entirely clear. Whip out your list: would incorporating any of the circled characteristics in that section make plain whose perspective is dominating it?

5. Repeat Step 4 as often as needed to individualize every murky scene.

This is a terrific technique for keeping perspective shifts snappy, of course, but is also is a marvelous means of increasing character development for your various leading characters. The more protagonists you have, the more helpful this exercise is, potentially.

It’s a great way to get you brainstorming about ways that your protagonists’ respective sections of the narrative could reflect their different mindsets, worldviews, prejudices, charms — in short, subtle means of making it clear to the reader which chapter (or subsection, or paragraph) is focused upon which character. Rather than relying solely upon different events and brazen markers like names and job titles to signal the reader when perspective had changed, try a closer marriage between language and character.

Before anyone starts barking at me, “For heaven’s sake, Anne, if I’d wanted to write a multiple first-person narrative, I would have!” hear me out. There are quite a few excellent reasons to consider differentiating a tight third-person narrative by character being followed at any given moment.

First, and probably most important for character-driven novels, many protagonists equaling only superficial development for each is a classic downfall for multiple-protagonist novels in both the third and first persons. By incorporating worldview and personal quirks into the narrative itself — showing Natalie’s vision blurring as a result of her allergies to the roses Bevis insists upon bringing every time he visits, rather than just telling the reader that Natalie’s allergic to them — a writer can open up many more possibilities for interesting character development.

Second, it doesn’t pay to underestimate the marketing value of making your protagonists’ sections unique, if only for the sake of freshness. Narrative that never varies its tone, vocabulary, type of observation, etc. as it moves from perspective to perspective is actually the norm for multiple-protagonist novel submissions. Thoughtful variety, on the other hand, is so exceptional as to be practically unique.

And what have we learned about what usually happens to manuscripts that exhibit common weaknesses? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: they tend to get rejected rather more quickly than those that exhibit less ubiquitous failings, because the more an agent or editor sees a particular writing problem, the faster she can categorize it.

Think about it: which do you think is easier for the average doctor to diagnose, the flu that everyone in town has or the bubonic plague?

Uh-huh. Let’s talk about ways to stave off that flu that’s going around.

To do so, let’s revisit a rhetorical question from our earlier list: if you read a randomly-selected mid-book section aloud, is it apparent within a paragraph whose point of view it is? If so, how can you tell?

Because Harry is the subject of every sentence? (A popular choice.)

Because other characters keep saying, “Hi, Harry,” to him? (Reminiscent of the old Bob Newhart show; still quite common.)

Because the protagonist is going over the company books at 3 a.m., and Harry is a forensic accountant? (A close third.)

All valid — but let me suggest a more interesting possibility. What if Harry noticed things about ordinary situations that none of the other protagonists would — and those kinds of details only appeared in the parts of the narrative focused upon him?

I’m not talking about heavy-handed introduction of backstory, here, just little tweaks to descriptive passages. Obsessively detail-oriented accountants are kind of hackneyed, but what if Harry put himself through college and graduate school as a car mechanic? Wouldn’t he naturally observe passing traffic differently from, say, co-protagonist Maurice, who spent his teenage years tending his mad great-aunt’s collection of prize orchids? And wouldn’t Cecily’s abusive college boyfriend have left her with a sixth sense for when someone near her might be about to flip out?

Harry might, for instance, automatically diagnose a slipping fan belt from the sound of an anonymous car darting through an intersection as he is arguing with his boss. The squeaky belt would not be the primary focus of the scene, naturally, but it would lend a Harry-specific tone to the moment, wouldn’t it?

Maurice would never catch on to that — but then, he would probably be able to tell a co-worker almost without thinking about it which florist operating within the five blocks from the subway stop to the office habitually displayed the freshest flowers, or why the receptionist’s African violet produced only leaves, but no flowers. Harry wouldn’t have a clue, and Cecily might have developed a violent aversion to roses, because her hideous ex used to cover her dorm bed with them after he socked her.

The possibilities really are endless — and a fabulous way to increase the quotient of sensual details in a book’s descriptive passages, which in turn will make your writing stand out from the crowd. Remember, the vast majority of the descriptions our gal Millicent sees in a given week of screening are visual- or sound-based. Blame the fact that the average person now gets upwards of 85% of her information about the world around her visually (computers, anyone?), or snipe at my favorite bugbears, TV and movies, which can tell stories only through sight and sound, by definition.

However you explain it, Millie’s kind of starved for input from the other senses. She is, after all, typically trapped in a miniscule cubicle, reading under stultifying fluorescent light. A truly original description of a sea breeze might just make her day.

Too few submitting writers use this sad fact to their advantage. Harry’s nose would pick up a malfunctioning catalytic converter half a block away; Maurice would be far more likely to begin nibbling upon a dandelion in the park than someone who did not know that they were edible.

The more protagonists there are, the better this technique works, generally speaking. Protagonist Emily’s years of making gnocchi with her grandmother would certainly heighten her fingertips’ awareness of the texture of wallpaper as she leaned against it, crying because Harry has just been mean to her, and co-protagonist Cecily would be tasting some salt on her lips as she ran out onto the beach, to get away from that weird guy munching dandelions. Infusing the narrative in Harry’s section with his type of observations, and Cecily with hers, will lend both Millicent-tempting depths to the text and render their respective perspectives unique.

Not a bad payoff for the addition of a few details here and there, considering that their inclusion will also develop character in subtle ways, too. Particularly if you — hint, hint — start to regard how a character responds physically to the world around her as a means of revealing herself to the reader, rather than relying exclusively upon showing her thoughts, words and deeds.

A word to the wise about sensual detail: when the sense of smell does make a cameo appearance in a manuscript, the results are usually described only vaguely (The air in the cell stank.), or as if the aroma were invariable to the substance described (The room smelled like cheese).

What kind? Cheddar? Gouda? That nose-assailing goat cheese that nearly gets the protagonist thrown out of boarding school in HEIDI GROWS UP?

Most of the time, the reader is simply left to imagine; the protagonist simply wrinkles her nose and moves on. This is a real missed sensory opportunity, I think. Scents in manuscripts are almost always awful, terrible (as in garbage or a burning building), or intoxicating, gorgeous (as in flowers or perfume), with no further descriptors.

But why shouldn’t that awful garbage be redolent with the aromas of cast-off cheese, warm bananas, and bleach, and that terrible burning building reek of charcoal, soggy linens, and sharp chemicals? Why shouldn’t the flowers intoxicate with the bee-seducing odors of raspberry and honey, and the perfume bite the back of the protagonist’s throat with a whiff of pepper and magnolia essence?

Millicent would thank you if they did, I’m sure, if only as an alternative to the pervasive office odor of stale coffee and cast-off paper. Make her day with a few perspective-defining, character-developing details. Oh, and keep up the good work!