Synopsispalooza, Part XIV: to be or not to be — 1, 3, or 5 pages

olivier hamlet

Welcome to this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza offerings. For those of you who missed yesterday evening’s teaser, I shall be posting twice per day this weekend (at roughly 10:30 am and 7:30 pm Pacific time) in order to cram as many practical examples of solid synopses of various lengths in front of my readers’ astonished eyes.

Why go to such great lengths? Well, perhaps I’m mistaken, but my bet is that most of you have never seen a professional synopsis before, other than the few fleeting glimpses I’ve given you throughout Synopsispalooza. So while I’ve given you formatting examples, a few 1-pagers, counterexamples, and a whole lot of guidelines, some of you may still be having difficulty picturing the target at which you are shooting.

Amazing how often that’s the case with the pieces of paper commonly tucked into a query or submission packet, isn’t it? The overwhelming majority of queriers have never seen a successful query; a hefty proportion of synopsizers have never clapped eyes upon a professionally-written synopsis; herds and herds of submitters have never been within half a mile of a manuscript in standard format, and a vast multitude of newly-signed writers have absolutely no idea even how to begin to organize an author bio on the page.

And some people wonder why I keep blogging on the basics. I’m not a big fan of guess what color I’m thinking submission standards.

Since my brief for this weekend is to generate a small library of practical examples, contrary to my usual practice, I’m not going to dissect each synopsis immediately after they appear. Instead, I’m going to leave them to you to analyze. In the comments, if you like, or in the privacy of your own head.

I can already feel some of you beginning to panic, but fear not — you already have the tools to analyze these yourself. We’ve just spent 13 posts going over what does and doesn’t work well in a synopsis, right? I’m confident that you are more than capable of figuring out why the various elements in these examples render them effective.

My goal here today is to give you a sense of the scope of storytelling appropriate to three commonly-requested lengths of synopsis. Because deny it as some of you might, I still harbor the sneaking suspicion that there are a whole lot of aspiring writers out there who are mistakenly trying to cram the level of detail appropriate to a 5-page synopsis into a 3- or 1-page synopsis.

That way lies madness, of the O, that this too too solid text would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a shorter synopsis! variety. Trust me, unless you actively long to be complaining that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter
, you don’t want to venture down that primrose path.

Besides, the ever-popular cram-it-all-in strategy isn’t likely to produce a successful shorter synopsis. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, the goal of a 1-page synopsis is not the same as a longer one. No one who requests a single-page synopsis seriously expects to see the entire plot summarized in it, as is routinely expected in a 5-page synopsis.

What might those different expectations yield on the synopsis page? Glad you asked; read on.

A quick caveat or two before you do: these are not intended to be the only possible synopses for this particular story; they’re quick-and-dirty stabs at it in a couple of hours while icing my knee. (I overdid this week; I’m reclining on pillows as I write this.) So kindly spare me quibbles about how I could have improved these or made them conform more closely to the text. I already know that once or twice, I presented some of the events out of chronological order, for ease of storytelling.

But guess what? If Millicent the agency screener asks to read your entire manuscript based upon your synopsis, she is not going to call you up to yell at you because they did not match up precisely. Nor will her boss, the agent of your dreams, or a contest judge. In fact, there is literally no point along the road to publication, except perhaps in a writing class, that anyone with the authority to yell at you is at all likely to perform a compare-and-contrast between your synopsis and your manuscript, checking for discrepancies.

Again, absolute literal accuracy is not expected in a synopsis; the pros are aware that plotlines will change slightly with subsequent revisions. What’s important here is presenting the story arc well — and that it comes across as a good story.

I am anticipating that many of you will know the story well enough to catch minor chronological rearrangement, by the way; this is a far more useful exercise if the story being presented is one with which you’re familiar. Besides, I wanted to stick with something in the public domain.

With those broad hints, and the assistance of that moody pick of Sir Larry above, most of you have probably tumbled to it already: you’re about to read several synopses of HAMLET.

Why HAMLET, and not, say, ROMEO AND JULIET, which is a bit better-known in this country? Partially, I chose it because in many ways, it’s the ultimate literary fiction storyline: it’s about a passive guy who sits around thinking about all of the negative things going on in his life and planning that someday he’ll do something about them.

Okay, so that’s a stereotype about literary fiction, but it’s a cliché for a reason. As any Millicent working in a LF-representing agency would happily tell you, far too many would-be LF writers mistakenly believe that the less that happens in a manuscript, the more literary it is.

That’s a misconception: what differentiates LF from other fiction is usually the vocabulary and sentence structure choices; LF assumes a college-educated readership (whereas most mainstream fiction is pitched at about a 10th-grade reading level), and often engages in experimental storytelling practices. Let’s face it, the kinds of sentences that Toni Morrison can make sing most emphatically would not work in other book categories. But I digress.

The other reason to choose HAMLET is that while most of you have probably seen it at least once, I’m betting that very few of you have ever seen it performed live in its entirety. Even the most text-hugging of theatre companies usually cuts an hour or so out of the play. (The major exception: Kenneth Branaugh’s film version does in fact contain every word. You’ll feel as though you’ve spent a month watching it, but there is a lovely Hamlet-Horatio scene that I’ve never seen performed in any other version.)

So I’m synopsizing a story that pretty much everybody has seen or heard synopsized, at least a little. That should prove helpful in understanding what I have chosen to include and exclude in each version.

To head off whining at the pass: yes, the lettering here is rather small and a bit fuzzy at the edges; that’s the nature of the format. To get a clearer view, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly, to enlarge the image.

But before anybody out there gets the bright idea to steal any of this and turn it in as a term paper, this is copyrighted material, buddy. So you wouldn’t just be cheating; you’d be breaking the law.

So there. I didn’t go to all of this trouble so some con artist could avoid reading a classic. (Hey, I said that writing synopses was easy for a pro, not that it was even remotely enjoyable.)

Caveats completed; time to leap into the fray. Here, for your perusing pleasure, is a 5-page synopsis of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

Hamlet 5 page 1

Hamlet-5-page-2

Hamlet-5-page-3

Hamlet-5-page-41

Hamlet-5-page-5

Pop quiz: I’ve deliberately made a really, really common mistake here, to show you all just how easy it is not to notice when tossing together a synopsis in a hurry. Did anyone catch it?

If you immediately raised your hand and shouted, “You misspelled Yorick’s name!” give yourself a gold star. You wouldn’t believe how often writers misspell the names of their own characters in synopses — or forget that between the time they originally wrote the synopsis for that contest that sounded so promising and when an agent asked for the first 50 pages and a 5-page synopsis, the protagonist’s best friend’s name had changed from Monica to Yvette, because Monica might strike a skimming reader as too similar to Mordred, the villain’s name.

And what’s the cure for that type of gaffe, everyone? Sing out loudly, please: read your synopsis IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before you send it anywhere, anytime. And do it every single time you are asked to send it out; things change.

The 5-page synopsis was the industry standard for many years, and probably still the one you will be asked to produce after you have signed with an agent. In these decadent days of wildly different submission guidelines across agencies and contests, however, aspiring writers are asked to produce something shorter.

As I believe I have mentioned about 1700 times on the blog at this point, read the guidelines several times over before you submit or enter so much as a syllable. If the requester doesn’t specify how long the synopsis should be, then the length is up to you.

Just keep it under 5 pages. Longer than that, and you’ll just look as though you don’t have any idea how long it should be. If you go less than 5, fill the pages in their entirety (or close to it), so the length will seem intentional.

Tell the entire story in a 3- or 4-page synopsis. If you already have a 5-page version handy, you can often get there by simply lightening the level of detail. Like so:

Hamlet-3-page-1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

For a 1- or 2-page synopsis, the goal is different. While it is perfectly acceptable to depict the entire story arc, introducing the major characters, central conflict, and what’s at stake will do very nicely.

Which is to say: don’t even try to cut down a 5-page synopsis into a 1-page; it will only irritate you to the hair-yanking stage. Instead, start fresh:

1-page Hamlet

As you may see, I actually have covered the entire plot here, if a bit lightly. I’ve introduced the major characters and their main conflicts — and no more. I didn’t waste a paragraph describing the castle; I didn’t feel compelled to show what the characters looked like; I avoided incorporating clichés about procrastination. Yet I’ve demonstrated that this story is interesting and holds together.

In other words, I did the writer’s job: I wrote a 1-page overview of the plot. Ta da!

Or rather, I wrote a 1-page synopsis geared toward convincing a literary or mainstream fiction-representing agent to ask to see the manuscript. If I were trying to market HAMLET as, say, a paranormal thriller, I would present it differently.

How differently, you ask? Take a gander. Just to keep things interesting, this time, I’ll do it as a 2-page synopsis:

Hamlet ghost page 1

Hamlet ghost page 2

Reads like quite a different story, does it not? Yet all that was required to pull that off was a slight tone shift, a tighter focus on the grislier aspects of the story, and an increased emphasis on the ghost’s role in the plot, and voilà! Paranormal thriller!

That was rather fun, actually. Want to see the same story as a YA paranormal? Here you go:

YA Hamlet page 1

YA Hamlet page 2

The moral, should you care to know it: although most first-time novelists feel utterly controlled by the length restrictions of a requested synopsis, ultimately, the writer is the one who decides how to present the story. Only you get to choose what elements to include, the tone in which you describe them, and the phrasing that lets Millicent know what kind of book this is.

Makes you feel a bit more powerful, doesn’t it?

Tune in this evening for more empowering examples. Enjoy the control, campers, and keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Trouble Comes, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Juniper Ekman

Juniper Ekman

After our in-depth discussion of the differences between adult fiction and YA narrative voices last time, I’m delighted to be able to bring you today a marvelous example of a fresh YA voice: 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence in YA winner Juniper Ekman. Like the three other A!A!AEE winners whose work you have already seen, Juniper took top honors in her category. Thus, she is also the Grand Prize winner in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest in Category I. (And what an evocative author photo, eh?)

If Juniper’s name seems familiar to those of you who have been hanging around here at Author! Author! for a while, pat yourselves on the back for your retentive memories: she also won November’s Words to Write By contest. If you recall (hey, I know you’re up for it), that contest asked entrants to submit the quotes that most inspired them as writers, along with a brief explanation why. Here is what Juniper sent in:

“I am a writer. I have books to write. What am I doing building a museum?” ~ Orhan Pamuk, possibly from a New York Times interview on the creation of his new museum

This is a quote I post to each page of my calendar, the quote I have taped to my phone. This is the quote I write in permanent marker on my palm so I can hold it up every time I answer yes to the wrong question:

“Do you have a few hours to make fifteen puppets for the holiday puppet show?”

“I know you’re already working five jobs, but would you mind coming in for an extra shift on Thursday? We forgot to hire somebody to replace the last employee we fired.”

Or when I find myself distracted by my hobbies, my friends, my feller, my life. All the things that make life worth living but prevent me from living on.

What am I doing?

No.

I am a writer.

I have books to write.

You tell ‘em, Juniper. I, for one, am quite in favor of your taking the time to write — and I suspect that in the years to come, many, many young readers are going to be pretty psyched that you did it, too.

What makes me (and the current contest’s judges) think so, you ask? Well, for starters, look how many young readers will identify with her book’s core issue:

Trouble Comes is a contemporary YA novel about finding home wherever your heart lets you, making peace with a life you didn’t ask for, and troubling yourself to care about the world’s troubles. It concerns itself with bowling tournaments, small town secrets, unexpected heroes, and unpleasant people who nevertheless matter.

That first sentence actually isn’t a bad definition for YA aimed at the older part of its market, is it? What teenager has not muttered at least once recently, I SO didn’t ask for this life!

The longer book description, thank goodness, delivers on this rather hefty promise — which a great many don’t, by the way. It’s far from uncommon for an agency screener to be taken with the descriptive paragraph in a query, only to turn to the synopsis tucked into the submission packet to discover a plot or argument that doesn’t seem to match the query.

Juniper’s, however, does fit well with both her brief description and the narrative voice of the book. So you may judge for yourself, here is the longer description.

Trouble Comes description

While I’m praising this page, I should mention the not insignificant achievement that the characters, situation, and narrative voice were engaging enough to make me discount one of my personal pet peeves as a professional reader: character and place names that are a trifle too on the nose. They don’t but every pro, but they’re a bit 18th-century for my taste. Back when defining characters by a ruling passion was fashionable, you could get away with a schoolmaster character named Mr. Thwackum in adult fiction, but now, it’s considered more stylish not to give the whole candy store away up front.

Besides, who wants literally-minded readers to mutter over one’s book, “Oh, come on — Mr. and Mrs. Struggle realized prior to their daughter’s christening that her future life would be trying enough that they should name her Constance?”

Admittedly, names that are direct reflections of the personalities of people and places have enjoyed a long history in YA, as any Roald Dahl fan could testify. Villains are especially likely to be called something like Dastard Lee. These days, however they’re usually confined to works intended for younger readers, rather than the devourers of the kind of meaty, complex characters and situations that appear on page 1 of TROUBLE COMES.

I find too-apt naming especially trying if several characters in a single story are tacitly waving signs declaring This is what I am like! No need to read closely for character development! I might, for instance, have overlooked a town called Last Chance (a remarkable coincidence to which, you will note, the book description specifically calls attention) if the character we’re told is constantly — ahem — sharing her no doubt considerable charms with a variety of Mr. Right Nows to refresh herself as she proceeds along the road to Mr. Goodbar had not been called Mona.

If that didn’t elicit a chuckle, try reading that last sentence out loud. A 13-year-old reader might not catch the implication (although most of the 13-year-old writers I know would), but Millicent definitely will. So might some young readers’ parents — and that could conceivably be a marketing problem, especially for public school libraries.

And while I’m quibbling, I would also like to point out that Journey Jones scans a bit too like actor January Jones’ name — not an insignificant consideration, since that similarity may well cause some readers to picture the protagonist looking like the actor.

Hey, it’s my job to worry about things like this. I only jump all over manuscripts I genuinely like, recall.

Besides, the narrative voice and genuine grabber of an opening don’t need the adrenaline boost of names that let the reader in on the joke. Juniper’s narrative voice captivated the judges, not merely because the writing was so good, but because it was so nicely attuned to her target audience.

This is how YA writing is done, folks. See for yourself — and, as usual, my apologies if the individual letters a trifle blurry on your browser; try holding down COMMAND and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Juniper Ekman's entry

Pretty impressive, eh? In fact, like Jennifer Sinclair Johnson’s Grand Prize-winning entry in Category II: Adult Fiction this page displayed such a strong, assured authorial voice so well suited to its target audience that it actually presented me with a blogging problem: other than the accolade itself, the primary benefit for winning this contest was supposed to be a heaping helping of my patented extensive feedback. But how much feedback could I possibly give on pages as clean as Juniper and Jennifer’s?

You’re all familiar with what the term clean means in a publishing context, right? A clean manuscript is one clean (or relatively so) of typos, grammatical errors, logical holes, missing words, formatting problems, and all of the other hard-to-catch but annoying-to-professional-readers minute points that separate polished prose from, well, the other kind.

Juniper’s first page is so much cleaner than 95% what our old pal Millicent the agency screener sees in an average day that she might be tempted to overlook the few minute details that should be corrected here. (Seriously, your future agent is going to be jumping up and down about your revision eye, Juniper: it’s rarer in talented writers than one might perhaps hope.)

Half of you did a double-take midway through that last paragraph, didn’t you? (Is that the mathematical equivalent to every one of you doing a single-take?) “A few minute details? But this page looks cosmetically perfect to me!”

Ah, but you don’t stare at professionally-formatted manuscripts all day, as an agent or editor routinely does — or the motley collection of nearly-correctly and flatly incorrectly-formatted submissions that find their way to Millicent’s desk. Try to look at a page from the perspective of someone who sees nothing else for hours, days, weeks on end.

Trust me, those tiny gaffes actually would start to jump off the page at you. In fact, you might well begin to find them a trifle annoying. Perhaps — dare I say it? — disproportionately so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take a long, hard look at Juniper’s first page above. Really concentrate on burning that image into your mind.

Got it firmly imprinted upon your brainpan? Good. Now take a gander at the same page with some minutiae cleaned up:

Juniper's entry formatted

It’s more visually pleasing this way, isn’t it? Pop quiz: what did I change?

Would you believe that it was as many four different things? I moved the slug line to the left margin (it was indented), standardized the spacing after periods (one was off in line 1, and yes, Millicent would have noticed it), added a comma in line 3 (that Millie would have corrected automatically while reading), and removed an instance incorrect capitalization in line -2.

That’s it. And yet the second version looks significantly more polished, does it not? Even just shifting the slug line makes it seem better put-together.

As I have been known to tell the many, many aspiring writers who like to argue with me at conferences about whether minute formatting details actually make a difference at submission time (they do, invariably) and/or if it is Millicent’s job to look past presentation problems in trying to evaluate a manuscript (it is, explicitly), once a professional reader has been at it a while, she develops an almost visceral sense of whether the page in front of her is put together correctly or not.

Translation: don’t expect the little stuff to escape her notice. Or not to affect her evaluation of your work.

True, the miniscule alterations I made above didn’t actually change the writing in this fine opening page, but yes, Millicent — and her boss the agent, as well as the editor to whom the manuscript will eventually be pitched — would prefer the second version. Universally.

So it’s well worth the effort to scrub one’s submissions to this incredibly high presentation standard. Minor gaffes actually are distracting to professional readers — you want your writing to shine without any smudges on it.

Before you blow me away with your collective sigh of resignation, permit me to add: this level of nit-pickery is excellent practice for later in your writing career. Remember, once you have landed an agent, perfectly clean manuscripts will be the minimum expectation, not the icing on the writing cake.

But yes, I’ll admit it: I was a trifle relieved when I noticed the first of those itsy-bitsy flaws on this otherwise spic-and-span page. It’s genuinely a pleasure for an editor to be able to suggest the changes that would elevate a great first page to a perfectly-presented one.

Okay, enough about possible fixes. Let’s talk about what makes this first page so very good from a submission perspective: the narrative voice.

Specifically, that it comes across as both original and as distinctively YA.

That last bit prompted a chuckle or two out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” doubting Thomases and Thomasinas everywhere point out, and who could blame them? “In what conceivable context would a reader not already know before beginning to read this that it’s from a YA book? Presumably, Juniper would be sending this to a YA-representing agency, where it would be read by a YA-trained Millicent working for a YA-representing agent, who would then in turn be offering it to YA-handling editors. YA-reviewing critics would pass judgment upon it, and readers would find it in the YA section of a bookstore. Even here, you presented it as YA. Am I missing something here?”

Perhaps one thing, oh doubters, but it’s a significant one: if Millicent — or her boss, or the acquiring editor — murmurs over even a single sentence of page 1, “Oh, this doesn’t read like YA,” the rest of that pretty series of events you mentioned will not happen.

Voice and vocabulary-appropriateness for the target audience is always important, but never more so than in a YA submission. Even if Millicent likes the writing qua writing, if the vocabulary is pitched even slightly too high or the tone is too adult, it may well end up in the reject pile. And don’t even get me started on how much more difficult it is for manuscripts with substantial amounts of profanity or — ahem — too-specific discussion of the protagonist’s anatomy and the various ways might be co-mingling with other characters’ corporeal beings.

If you doubt that, you might want to hie yourself down to your local junior high school or public library with a YA section. Buy the librarian a nice cup of tea and get her to tell you about the last 17 times a parent came storming into the stacks, demanding to know how a book like this made it into her child’s hands.

You’d be astonished how often the objection is to a single sentence. Or even a word, particularly if it is of the Anglo-Saxon variety.

Juniper’s first page is, I am pleased to report, happily free of triggers for this sort of parent — which is a good trick, given Mona’s apparent — ahem — frequency of physical generosity. A lot of aspiring writers would have taken a cue from films and TV shows aimed at teenagers and peppered the dialogue with profanity.

This opening scene doesn’t need it for authenticity, though. And don’t you just love the tension inherent in the exchange at the bottom of the page?

Remember how I mentioned last time that one of the species characteristics, as is were, of YA was the preponderance of ands, especially in first-person narratives? Juniper embraces that norm here. She does it so well, in fact, and in such a likable, believable YA voice that I suspect that when you first scanned her page 1, the ands did not strike you as especially abundant.

Yet they were, at least by adult fiction standards: as we discussed some months back, since professional readers are trained to spot repetitions and inconsistencies, Millicent’s eye tends to be drawn to them. Take a peek, for instance, at where Millicent charged with screening adult fiction manuscripts would find herself focusing:

Juniper's entry ands

Notice how the percussive and use is almost as distracting to the adult-oriented reader’s eye as the formatting and grammatical anomalies. There’s a reason for that: young readers are used to instructional texts, where sentence structures and vocabulary choices are deliberately repetitive, but adult readers are not. So younger readers’ eyes will tolerate quite a bit more word repetition than older readers’ will.

But with YA-reading glasses firmly in place, this is not only an engaging voice, but an unusually clean page of manuscript. Let Millicent do her darnedest, there’s not a lot to critique here — a trifle unfortunate for illustrative purposes here, but a tremendous plus in a submission.

Remember how I mentioned during Querypalooza that Millicent and her ilk are looking to fall in love with a submission? Take a peek at her reaction when she does.

Juniper's edit

Okay, so it was really my reaction — and a composite of the judges’ — but still, it’s rather startling to see that much praise on a professionally commented-upon manuscript page, isn’t it?

I could, of course, dwell upon a couple of content revisions I would like to see Juniper make — what did that corpse look like when Journey first spotted it, for instance, and how was her second glimpse different? How did the sight of it make her feel, not just in her head, but in her body? — but I think I’ll leave that discussion to Juniper, the agent lucky enough to sign her, and the editor destined to fall in love with this narrative voice.

For now, I shall limit myself to saying well done, Juniper! To you and all of you conscientious, talented writers out there, keep up the good work!

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

Cole Casperson author photo

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

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

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

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

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

Cole's entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not immediately obvious, is it?

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

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

INDOMITVS blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blurb edit

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

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

Cole edit

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

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

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

CASPERSON / INDOMITVS / 1

Rather than this:

CASPERSON/INDOMITVS/1

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

Casperson/INDOMITVS/1

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

CHAPTER 1

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

Chapter 1

Or, if you prefer:

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A thrown acorn clattered off a branch near his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part IV: don’t go casting your novel’s characters QUITE yet

royal-tenenbaumsposter

Hello, campers —

Here, as promised, is a re-run of an earlier post on a topic we were all blithely discussing in the happy days before those two cars decided to adhere themselves to mine so abruptly. While I would have preferred to embellish it with a practical exercise or two, designed to send you running toward your respective manuscripts, highlighting pens in hand, I suspect that as it stands, it will provide abundant fodder for discussion.

Before I let you get on with it, I can’t resist adding both a well-deserved plug and a bit of scolding for the movie shown in poster form above (and used as an example below). Novelists and memoirists — perhaps especially memoirists — interested in learning the difficult art of giving the slight spin to realistic dialogue to make it witty would do well to invest an hour or two in watching THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. The screenplay’s lovely, full of the kind of banter writers love but filmgoers don’t always appreciate; it’s really a film best seen by oneself, to appreciate the dialogue fully.

That being said, it contains perhaps the single least excusable character-naming joke I have ever heard: the mother of the family, an urban archeologist, is called Etheline. Leaving aside the fact that this would be a rather surprising name for wealthy New Yorkers to have chosen for their daughter in the 1940s or 50s — it would have made far more sense in Dallas, right? — part of the plot of the movie concerns Etheline’s relationship with her long-gone-but-still-not-divorced husband and the man she may or may not marry.

Thus, one could say that Etheline is polyandrous, the possessor of more than one husband. Rendering her — and remember, this is the screenwriters’ joke, not mine — poly-Etheline.

Or, as manufacturers of plastic prefer to spell it, polyethylene. Call her the Original Inflatable Mother.

The moral, if you’re quite finished squirming over that bad pun: as funny as an oddball name may seem to the author, if it seems out of step with a character’s ostensible background, it can be a distraction from the story. (Yes, even in a comedy.) So even if you were already reader-savvy enough to axe your first idea of christening a waiter character Trey, you might also want to think twice before you allow a manuscript out the door with a name that’s too reminiscent of something else.

Unless, of course, you are a fan of plastic mothers. Enjoy the post!

So far in this series, I have bent our overall focus upon effective interview scenes — i.e., dialogue wherein one character, usually the protagonist, elicits information from another — toward one of my pet peeves, Hollywood narration. For those of you who missed the last couple of posts (hey, I’m aware that some of you are on vacation, cajoling children not to blow their fingers off with firecrackers, creating Jell-O molds, and similar Independence Day-related pursuits), Hollywood narration occurs when one character tells another something that both already know perfectly well, purely for the sake of conveying those facts to the reader.

How common, you ask? Well, if you’ve ever watched a movie or a television show starring a character who did not suffer from amnesia, you’ve almost certainly encountered some; it’s one of the standard ways that screenplays introduce background information. Because we’ve all heard so much Hollywood narration, many aspiring writers think it’s perfectly okay, if not downright clever, to fill in backstory in this manner.

The result: our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, spends day after over-caffeinated day leafing through hundreds and thousands of pages of Hollywood dialogue. Embracing it as a narrative tactic, then, is not the best means of convincing her that your writing is fresh and original.

The problem is, it’s not always a tactic. Precisely because this kind of dialogue flies at all of us from the screen every day, it’s easy to mistake for the patterns of actual speech — until, of course, a writer sits down with it and says, “All right, what is this character’s motivation for telling his long-lost aunt about his graffiti spree in 1943? Wouldn’t she already know that his father, her brother, was a wayward youth?”

Which, in case you were wondering, is the single best way to weed out Hollywood narration from a manuscript: reading every line of dialogue OUT LOUD to see if it’s plausible. Ideally, a writer would also — wait for it — perform this reading IN HARD COPY and on the manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY before submitting it to an agent, editor, or contest, but as I mentioned, it’s a holiday weekend, so I shan’t be holding you to ordinary weekday standards.

Why out loud? Well, in part, to see if speeches can be said within a single breath; in real life, dialogue tends to be. If you find yourself gasping for breath mid-paragraph, you might want to re-examine that speech to see if it rings true. Also, reading dialogue out loud is the easiest way to catch if more than one character is speaking in the same cadence — which, contrary to what the dramatic works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin may have lead you to believe, is not how people speak on the street.

Or in offices. Or in the White House. Individual people have been known to have individual speech patterns.

There’s one other excellent reason to hear your own voice speaking the lines you have written for your characters: in this celebrity-permeated culture, many, many writers mentally cast actors they’ve seen on television or in movies as at least the major characters in their novels.

C’mon, admit it: practically every aspiring writer does it. In some ways, it’s a healthy instinct: by trying to imagine how a specific actor might sound saying a specific set of words, and how another specific actor might respond, a writer is less likely to allow the two characters speak in the same rhythms.

Unless, of course, the writer happens to cast multiple actors best associated for portraying the characters of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet.

This practice has an unintended consequence, however: due to the pernicious ubiquity of Hollywood narration in screenplays, we’re all used to actors glibly telling one another things that their characters already know. As a result, imagining established actors speaking your dialogue may well make passages of Hollywood narration sound just fine in the mind.

It can be genuinely hard to catch on the page. Especially difficult: ferreting out what filmmakers call bad laughter, a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy, but arise from the narrative anyway. A bad laugh can be sparked by many things, typically arises when the reader (or audience member; it’s originally a moviemaker’s term) is knocked out of the story by a glaring narrative problem: an obvious anachronism in a historical piece, for instance, or a too-hackneyed stereotype, continuity problem, or unbelievable plot twist.

Or, lest we forget, a line of dialogue that no real person placed in a similar position to the character speaking it would actually say.

It’s the kind of chuckle an audience member, reader, or — heaven forfend! — Millicent gives when an unintentionally out-of-place line of dialogue or event shatters the willing suspension of disbelief, yanking the observer out of the story and back into real life.

You know, the place where one uses one’s critical faculties to evaluate probability, rather than the desire to be entertained.

Hollywood narration is notorious for provoking bad laughter, because by this late date in storytelling history, the talkative villain, the super-informative coworker, and the married couple who congratulate themselves on their collective history have appeared so often that even if what they’re saying isn’t a cliché, the convention of having them say it is.

Take it from a familiar narrator-disguised-as-onlooker: “But wait! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!” Sheer repetition has made that one sound like plausible speech, hasn’t it?

To resurrect one of my all-time favorite examples of Hollywood narration’s power to jar a reader or audience member into a shout of bad laughter, last year, I was dragged kicking and screaming to a midnight showing of a Korean horror film, Epitaph, in which a good 10 out of the first 20 minutes of the film consisted of characters telling one another things they already knew. Most of the other ten consisted of silent shots of sheets blowing symbolically in the wind — in a ghost story; get it? — and characters standing frozen in front of doors and windows that they SHOULD NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

I pass along this hard-earned nugget of wisdom to those of you who may not have a chance to catch the flick: should you ever find yourself in a haunted hospital in Korea, don’t touch anything with a latch and/or a doorknob. Especially if you happen to be standing in front of the body storage wall in the morgue. And don’t under any circumstances have truck with your dead mother; it will only end in tears.

Trust me on this one.

Now, I would be the first to admit that horror is not really my mug of java — I spent fully a quarter of the film with my eyes closed and ears blocked, which I suppose is actually a rather high recommendation for those fond of the genre — so I did not see every syllable of the subtitles. But the fact is, my film-going companions and I were not the only ones giggling audibly during the extensive backstory-by-dialogue marathons. An actual sample, as nearly as I can reproduce it:

Grown daughter: Dad, are you lonesome?

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (chuckling ruefully) No, of course not.

Grown daughter: You’re too hard on yourself, Dad. Stepmother had a heart condition long before you married her.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: But we were married for less than a year!

Grown daughter: You can’t blame yourself. Mother died in having me, and Stepmother had been sick for a long time. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (clearly weighed down by Ominous Guilt) Both marriages lasted less than a year.

I’m sure that you can see the narrative problem — can you imagine a more blatant telling, rather than showing, presentation? — but the laughter from the audience was a dead giveaway that this dialogue wasn’t realistic. Bad laughter is a sure sign that the audience has been pulled out of the story.

Too addled with a surfeit of Hollywood narration to sleep — and, frankly, not overly eager to dream about a maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead mother standing by her small, terrified daughter’s hospital bed in a ward where there were NO OTHER PATIENTS — I ran home, buried myself under the covers, and reached for the nearest book to sooth my mind and distract my thoughts from the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead woman who was clearly lurking nearby.

As luck would have it, the volume in question was a set of Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers; I had used it as an example on this very blog not long before. Yet no sooner had I opened it when my eye fell upon this sterling opening to a story promisingly entitled THE MYSTERIOUS KEY AND WHAT IT OPENED. Because I love you people, I have excised the scant narration of the original, so you may see the dialogue shine forth in untrammeled splendor:

“This is the third time I’ve found you poring over that old rhyme. What is the charm, Richard? Not its poetry, I fancy.”

“My love, that book is a history of our family for centuries, and that old prophecy has never yet been fulfilled…I am the last Trevlyn, and as the time draws near when my child shall be born, I naturally think of the future, and hope he will enjoy his heritage in peace.”

“God grant it!” softly echoed Lady Trevlyn, adding, with a look askance at the old book, “I read that history once, and fancied it must be a romance, such dreadful things are recorded in it. Is it all true, Richard?”

“Yes, dear. I wish it was not. Ours has been a wild, unhappy race till the last generation or two. The stormy nature came in with the old Sir Ralph, the fierce Norman knight, who killed his only sun in a fit of wrath, by a glow with his steel gauntlet, because the boy’s strong will would not yield to his.”

“Yes, I remember, and his daughter Clotilde held the castle during a siege, and married her cousin, Count Hugo. ‘Tis a warlike race, and I like it in spite of the mad deeds.”

“Married her cousin! That has been the bane of our family in times past. Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiots and lunatics began to appear. My father was the first who broke the law among us, and I followed his example: choosing the freshest, sturdiest flower I could find to transplant into our exhausted soil.”

“I hope it will do you honor by blossoming bravely. I never forget that you took me from a very humble home, and have made me the happiest wife in England.”

“And I never forget that you, a girl of eighteen, consented to leave your hills and come to cheer the long-deserted house of an old man like me,” her husband returned fondly.

“Nay, don’t call yourself old, Richard; you are only forty-five, the boldest, handsomest man in Warwickshire. But lately you look worried; what is it? Tell me, and let me advise or comfort you.”

“It is nothing, Alice, except my natural anxiety for you…”

By this point in the text, tangling with the maniacally-laughing, operatic dead harpy was beginning to look significantly better to me. Clearly, the universe was nudging me to set forth again like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to warn writers to alter their sinful ways before it was too late.

But if I had the resources to commission Gregory Peck and Kate Winslet to read those very lines to you, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that they wouldn’t have struck you as so clearly contrived. It’s their job to make speeches seem plausible, after all, and they have, bless their respective hearts and muses, given us all abundant reason to expect them to be very, very good at it.

So are theirs really the best voices to employ in your head to read your dialogue back to you?

Just in case anyone out there didn’t spot the logic problem above: generally speaking, in real life, people do not recite their basic background information to kith and kin that they see on a daily basis. Unless someone is having serious memory problems (see earlier quip about amnesiac characters), it is culturally accepted that when a person repeats his own anecdotes, people around him will stop him before he finishes.

Because, among other things, it’s BORING.

Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions. Not to mention listing one another’s physical and mental attributes, informing each other of their respective ages and marital histories, listing the articles of furniture in the room, placing themselves on a map of the world, and all of the other descriptive delights we saw above.

So yes, you’re going to find examples in print occasionally; as we may see from Aunt Louisa’s example, authors have been using characters as mouthpieces for background for an awfully long time. Dickens was one of the all-time worst violators of the show, don’t tell rule, after all. Since the rise of television and movies — and going back even farther, radio plays — certain types of Hollywood narration have abounded in manuscripts.

See dialogue above, lifted from the Korean horror movie. Or any of the films of Stephen Spielberg — but of that notorious Hollywood narrator, more below.

There’s another way in which movies and TV have warped the cultural understanding of storytelling, and thus prompted many aspiring writers to incorporate Hollywood Narration in their manuscripts, to Millicent’s teeth-gnashing chagrin. As I pointed out yesterday, openings of novels are more likely to contain Hollywood narration than any other point in a book, because of the writer’s perceived imperative to provide all necessary backstory — and usually physical description of the main characters and environment as well — the nanosecond that the story begins.

Here again, we see the influence of film upon writing norms: since film is a visual medium, we audience members have grown accustomed to learning precisely what a character looks like within seconds of his first appearance. We’ve all grown accustomed to this storytelling convention, right? Yet in a manuscript, there’s seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.

Listen: TV and movies are technically constrained media; they rely upon only the senses of sight and sound to tell their stories. While a novelist can use scents, tastes, or physical sensations to evoke memories and reactions in her characters as well, a screenwriter can only use visual and auditory cues. A radio writer is even more limited, because ALL of the information has to be conveyed through sound.

So writers for film, TV, and radio have a pretty good excuse for utilizing Hollywood narration, right? Whatever they cannot show, they must perforce have a character (or a voice-over) tell.

Generally speaking — fasten your seatbelts; this is going to be a pretty sweeping generalization, and I don’t want any of you to be washed overboard by it — a screenplay that can tell its story through sight and sound with little or no unobtrusive Hollywood narration is going to speak to the viewer better than, to put it bluntly, characters launching upon long lectures about what happened when.

Unfortunately for the current state of literature, I gather that not all movie producers share my view on the subject. How many times, for instance, have you spent the first twenty minutes of a film either listening to voice-over narration setting up the premise (do I hear a cheer for the otherwise excellent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where an unseen but undoubtedly huge and Godlike Alec Baldwin told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals?

Again, in film, it’s an accepted convention; movies have trained their audiences to continue to suspend their disbelief in the face of, among other things, giant-voiced Alec Baldwins in the Sky. It’s shorthand, a quick way to skip over action that might not be all that interesting to see played out. Here’s a very common opening gambit:

Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “So, are you just moving into the building?”

Hunky hero (leaning against the nearest doorjamb, which happens to be beautifully lit, as doorjambs so frequently are): “Yeah, I just drove in from Tulsa today. This is my first time living in the big city. When my girlfriend left me, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”

Pretty neighbor (stepping into his good lighting as much as possible): “Well, I’m a New York native. Maybe I could show you around town.”

Hunky hero: “Well, since you’re the first kind face I’ve seen here, let me take you to dinner. I haven’t eaten anything but truck stop food in days.”

Now, this economical (if trite) little exchange conveyed a heck of a lot of information, didn’t it? It established that both Hunky and Pretty live in the same building in New York, that he is from the Midwest and she from the aforementioned big city (setting up an automatic source of conflict in ideas of how life should be lived, if they should get romantically involved), that he has a car (not a foregone conclusion in NYC), that they are attracted to each other, and that he, at least, is romantically available.

What will happen? Oh, WHAT will happen?

When the scene is actually filmed, call me nutty, but I suspect that this chunk of dialogue will be accompanied by visual clues to establish that these two people are rather attractive as well; their clothing, hairstyles, and accents will give hints as to their respective professions, upbringings, socioeconomic status, and educational attainments.

Writers of books, having been steeped for so many years in the TV/movie/radio culture, sometimes come to believe that such terse conveyance of information is nifty — especially the part where the audience learns everything relevant about the couple within the first couple of minutes of the story. They wish to emulate it, and where restraint is used, delivering information through dialogue is a legitimate technique.

The problem is, on film, it often isn’t used with restraint — and writers of books have caught that, too. It drives the Millicents of the worlds nuts, because she, I assure you, will not automatically cast Johnny Depp as your protagonist — or voiceover artist — in her mind. She will respond not as a filmgoer, but as a reader.

Oh, wait, I’m talking about Hollywood narration again, amn’t I? Funny how I keep getting goaded into that. Keep up the good work!

Naming names, part III: hey, I don’t make the rules

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Happy Canada Day, neighbors to the north! Way to combine those provinces and keep them together!

At the risk of sounding trite, my most memorable Canadian experience actually was Mountie-related. I was leaving an exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts in a museum in Victoria, I thought the sudden transition to bright sunlight had done something terrible to my eyes: everywhere I looked, I saw blaring red. Every square foot of public space was filled with Mounties in uniform — scarlet jacket, shiny black boots, the works — chatting with friends and relatives. Hundreds, at least, a veritable red sea.

The sight was, I need hardly say, staggering. I felt as though I had accidentally stumbled into a recruitment poster.

Back to business. In the roughly 24 hours since I wrote my last post on name selection, I have sensed a certain amount of reader bewilderment. (Never mind how I know that. Blogging imbues one with super-sharp sensory perceptions.) At least a few hands, I suspect, are still raised from Wednesday. Not too surprising, I suppose, since I have been writing all week about how to avoid confusing readers.

For the last couple of posts, I have waxed long on the Cast of Thousands phenomenon, manuscripts that name every character, no matter how minor, down to the dogs and the goat tethered in the back yard in Chapter 3. “Who,” the befuddled reader cries helpfully, “are Ernest, James, and Algernon, and what are their respective relationships to Delilah, the character I have been caring about for the last hundred pages? Have they been mentioned earlier in the book, and I have simply forgotten them, or is this their first appearance?

Don’t dismiss this cri de coeur as the just punishment of an inattentive reader, my friends — from a reader’s perspective, manuscripts afflicted with COT can get overwhelming pretty fast. Especially, as we have discussed, if the COT members have similar names, either beginning with the same capital letter (to which the skimming eye is automatically drawn, right?), ones that replicate letter patterns and sounds, or — and we have not yet talked about this much — are too like the other proper names in the book.

Still in doubt about the eye-distracting effect of all of those capitals? I wouldn’t want you to have to take my word for something like that — cast your gaze over this sterling piece of prose.

Names first letters

See the problem? No? Okay, get up from your desk chair, take two giant steps backward, and look at it again. Notice where your eye is drawn first?

Even when the names don’t look anything alike, introducing too many of them in one fell swoop can prove equally frustrating to the reader. Again, take a gander:

Names in abundance

An avalanche of characters on page 1, in particular, before the narrative has established a context in which they might be understood, tends to have a character-blurring effect.

“Who are all these people?” the reader muses. “And why are they all dressed in the quite striking uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police?”

Either variety of confusion, it pains me to say, causes readers to cast otherwise well-written books aside, it pains me to report. If that’s not a strong enough reason for a writer self-editing a Frankenstein manuscript to say, “Hmm, perhaps I should devote a few hours of my precious revision time to weeding out some of the extras lurking in the corners of my story,” here’s another: our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, tends to become impatient when characters pile up.

As, indeed, do editorial assistants, contest judges, and other professional readers; just because it’s their job does not mean that they possess a magical ability to absorb 23 names in a single page without mixing them up. “How,” the hapless peruser of a COT-riddled manuscript wonders, “am I supposed to keep all of these characters straight? Is this writer planning to market this book with a program, or perhaps dress the background characters in numbered jerseys, so the reader can possibly tell the individual members of this mob apart?”

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

Ooh, the notion of the pros not putting in the necessary effort to keep track of all of your characters ruffles a few writerly feathers, doesn’t it? “Wait just a minute” I hear some of you murmuring indignantly. “An ordinary reader may not have options if s/he forgets who is who, but Millicent does. If she finds she’s forgotten who a character is, she has a perfectly easy way to find out — her boss asked that I send a synopsis along with my submission. All she has to do is flip to the back of the packet. Or are you saying that if I have a lot of characters in my opening scenes, I should place my synopsis first in the packet?”

To take the last question first, no — at least, not unless an agency specifies in its submission guidelines that it prefers to see submissions packaged that order. Why is it in your interest to pay attention to such minor niceties? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: a submitter should always send a requesting agent PRECISELY what s/he asked to see.

No more, no less. Yes, even if she asked for the first 50 pages and your chapter ends a paragraph into page 51. No fudging.

And please trust a frequent literary contest judge (hey, I don’t spend all of my scant leisure time wandering around Canadian museums) when she tells you that rule applies to stated length restrictions in contest rules, too. Part of what you are demonstrating by your submission or entry is that you can follow directions, after all. Professional readers tend to harbor great affection for writers who pay attention to the details of requests; it’s so rare. Writers who start printing out pages after reading only the first line of a request for materials seem to be the norm, unfortunately, not the exception.

That giant tsunami-like rush of air you just heard was every agent, editor, and denizen of every publisher’s marketing department sighing in unison. They honestly do have a reason to be cranky on this point.

But enough of their pain — I’m sensing more conceptually-based disturbances of the ether out there, especially from those of you just on the cusp of stuffing synopses into submission envelopes. “But Anne,” the more literal-minded ether-rockers cry en masse, “I just read a blog by an anonymous agent/heard an agent say at a conference/happened to be eavesdropping in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from the dais at any writers’ conference, and this guy said he didn’t care about exact page count in requested materials; he just wanted the first three chapters. So aren’t you, you know, wrong about the importance of sticking to 50 pages?”

Actually, literal rockers, you’ve provided evidence in support of my point, not against it. Remember, no matter how much aspiring writers would like for there to be an absolutely uniform set of expectations for submissions — and a well-publicized one, at that — individual differences do exist. So once again, long-time readers, please take out your hymnals and sing along: if your submission-requester says he wants to see something specific in your submission packet, for heaven’s sake, give it to him.

Ditto with contest rules, incidentally. General submission or entry guidelines only kick in when the requester doesn’t ask for something different — which is to say, the vast majority of the time. (As always, if you’re unfamiliar with how professional manuscripts differ from printed books or other commonly-scene formats, I implore you to check out the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right. Actually, I would strongly recommend any reader new to this blog to take a gander at those categories first.)

Which is to say: if the agent you overheard wants four chapters, you should send four chapters. If she asks you to give your pitch in mime while juggling seventeen oranges, you should consider doing that, too, because she’s the one who is going to be deciding whether she wants to represent you or not.

That being the case, is your first professional contact with her truly the best time to say (at least implicitly), “Look, I know what you said you wanted to see, and that request was based upon your far greater knowledge of both how the publishing industry works and how you like to read, but I’m just going to assume that I’m right and you’re wrong. Got a problem with that?”

I can tell you now: she will. So will her Millicent and any contest judge you might see fit to treat in a similar fashion.

That being said, don’t revere such requests so highly that you fall into the extremely common trap of generalizing any such quirky individual preferences into industry-wide expectations. Writers brand-new to the biz make this mistake all the time, learning only through hard experience that such extrapolations seldom pay off. Just because one agent, small publisher, and/or contest has a wacky preference doesn’t mean that any other agent, small publisher, and/or contest will share it.

Or, to express it in mathematical terms, 1 agent’s preference ? every agents’ preference.

Bear that in mind, please, the next time you find yourself confronted with the latest panicky iterations of “Oh, my God, I heard an agent speak last week, and submission standards have completely changed!” that trouble the literary world in the wake of every conference season.

Whenever you encounter any hyper-specific submission guidelines that deviate sharply from the rules of standard manuscript format that an agency might post on its website or an agent might specify at a conference — like, say, specifying that submissions may only be in Helvetica or that they should be bound, both usually no-nos — should be treated as applicable to THAT REQUESTER ALONE, rather than to every authors’ representative currently walking the earth.

Everyone clear on that? Good.

Back to the original question, and thence to my argument already in progress: why wouldn’t a professional reader who got a large character list mixed up simply fish out the synopsis for reference? And if helping a busy Millicent keep the characters straight is a legitimate purpose for a synopsis, shouldn’t it come first in the packet?

In a word, no. If you put the synopsis at the front of your packet, Millicent is just going to toss it aside and go straight to the first page of your manuscript. If dear Millie reads all the way through your submission and likes what she sees, THEN she will read the synopsis.

Maybe.

You’re hoping that I’m kidding, aren’t you? Bizarre but true, that synopsis you slaved to make short enough is not always considered at the submission stage. Reading the synopsis is often not necessary to determining whether to ask to see the rest of the book — and why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis of a manuscript she has just finished reading in its entirety?

Seriously — ask at the next writers’ conference you attend. There’s a certain logic to this, at least for fiction. After all, if a book made it to the submission stage, presumably, the novel’s premise was deemed acceptable by the query screener or the agent to whom the writer pitched it. The only reason to read the synopsis at the submission stage, then, would be to find out what happens after the last page of the submission.

Try not to waste any energy being annoyed about this. If Ernest, James, and Algernon appearance in Ch. 2 was brief enough, chances are that they wouldn’t have shown up in the synopsis, anyway.

While I’m apparently free-associating about any and all topics related to character names, and since this contest entry season, this seems like a dandy time to talk about character name choice that could get a writer into a whole lot of trouble. Yes, Virginia, I’m talking about that pesky but oh-so-common literary contest rule that forbids entrants from mentioning their own names anywhere in a submission.

Kind of inconvenient for memoirists and other writers of the real, isn’t it? In practice, this ubiquitous rule means that entrants in memoir and personal essay categories, not to mention those many fiction writers who like to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction by making themselves characters in their own narratives, have to select new monikers for themselves.

Stop laughing, oh writers of thinly-veiled autobiographies passing as fiction. For a writer who has embraced the unique difficulties of thinking of herself as a character in a book, renaming himself can be a genuine chore. Novelists attached to their characters’ names should be sympathetic to that: if it’s trying to track down and change every mention of Monique to Madge when she’s your creation, imagine the emotional difficulties involved when Monique has to rechristen herself.

That’s not to say that the no-name rule itself is objectionable. However annoying renaming may be to contest-entering writers of the real, it exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Admittedly, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at all.

Which is why I am about to turn very hard-line: if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this rule applies to not only your entire name, but either your first or your last appearing alone as well.

That may seem like rather redundant advice — every contest entrant everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests he enters, right? — but this is the single most common way memoir entries get themselves disqualified. For a memoir entry, you should never just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in; check the rules very carefully and apply them to your pages first.

You could, of course, sidestep the issue entirely by not entering a piece of writing in which dear self is a character — which is, again, a trifle difficult for memoirists and other habitual writers of the real. The second-best way that I’ve found is to christen oneself anew with the name that you wish your parents had had the wit and wisdom to give you in the first place.

Come on — none of us had the name we wanted in junior high school. Pick the one you believe would have made your life lovely and do a search-and-replace.

Obviously, you’re going to want to make a duplicate document of the chapter or essay you’re planning on entering in the contest before you perform this bit of minor surgery — as I said, it’s never a good idea just to print up the requisite number of pages from your already-existing manuscript and send off to a contest. (Your slug line in your submitting-to-agents version will have your name in it, for one thing.) Perhaps less obviously, you’re going to need to perform the search-and-replace function for both your first and last name, as well as any nicknames you might have incorporated into the manuscript.

Even when you’ve gone to all the trouble of using a pseudonym, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying that since the contest forbids the author to mention his own name, you will be using “Bobby” (not your real name) throughout.

Why take that extra precaution, you ask? Because it’s practically impossible not refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Since judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

And don’t think being coy about it will help you evade their scrutiny, either. Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story.

I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who eagerly contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. (As those who happened to be hanging around Harvard at the time would no doubt be quick to point out, I use the term humor loosely here: the magazine was seldom actually funny to those who were not in the writers’ clique, but bear with me.) Danny had every reason to try to get his articles published: the magazine had long ago spawned an extremely profitable off-campus humor magazine, so a successful Lampoon piece could be a stepping-stone to a career as a comedy writer.

Despite or perhaps because of these articles’ worth as resume-candy, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on. So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song.

His favorite way of doing this was to insert an imaginary conversation with himself into the text, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!” (Because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straight away: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name. See me practicing what I’ve been preaching?)

Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, however, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because I suspect that there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-breakers out there, but because I have seen so many contest entrants apparently doing inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, à la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.” And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified.

Yes, Virginia (if that’s even your real name), even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

So a word to the wise: innocent naming mistakes can knock your entry out of competition. It would behoove you, then, to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, quite rightly pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”

Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and take a look at where these slips most commonly occur.

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Even if Biddy has had the foresight to rename herself Libby McPherson-Seine and do a search-and-replace accordingly, she should double-check her entry especially carefully in the following places:

(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”

(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”

(3) When another character refers to the narrator by an abbreviation that a search-and-replace might not catch. “I’m talking to you, Bid,” is substantially less likely to get changed automatically than, “I’m talking to you, Biddy.”

(4) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult shouts some version of: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character other than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So keep our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:

(5) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”

(6) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.

Remember, as I pointed out above, self-references to either your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH her first AND last names in her entry before she printed it up, would she not?

Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy (or whatever you’re calling yourself these days), and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified.

I’m funny that way, at least since I was partially blinded by a Mountie convention. Keep up the good work!

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

Spartacus crowd scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See where I’m going with this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen Burns' shame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too many names example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XIV: lookee, lookee! Or, could you possibly stand yet another post on redundancy?

new world map detail

I’ve got show-and-tell on my mind today, campers, and not only because this lengthy series on Frankenstein manuscripts — works that have been written and rewritten so often and/or over such a long period of time that they read like the stitched-together remnants of several authors’ voices — has been quite heavy on practical examples of late. No, I’ve been thinking about concept illustration because the author reading I attended yesterday was provided such a glorious pragmatic illustration of a point I brought up last time, the necessity for a good reviser (or good writer, for that matter) to consider not only his own point of view when deciding whether a passage of text was clear, but also a reader’s.

To recap for the benefit for those of you who missed it: I suggested, albeit gently, that if the action on the page is confusing to a reader — say, our old nemesis, Millicent the agency screener — it’s the writer’s responsibility to clarify the writing, not the reader’s to figure out what is going on. Especially if that would mean going back and re-reading the sentences in question; Millicent simply doesn’t have time to do that.

So what is her usual response to prose that leaves her guessing? Chant it with me, those of you who have been following this series faithfully: “Next!”

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

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

Why, you may be wondering, was I pondering this necessity at an author reading? For the same reason that I often find myself musing about how easy it is for a writer to get stuck thinking about his text from only a writerly perspective: as is lamentably often the case at such readings, the author read excerpts from her book in a monotone, without once lifting her eyes from the page to connect with her audience.

A great pity, because actually, the scene she chose to read was well-written, beautifully paced, and contained some genuinely surprising plot twists. As if the Muses had gone out of their way to demonstrate to this author just how much she was underselling her own excellent prose stylings, the venue had booked a second author to read at the same event, one whose obviously well-rehearsed, excitingly voiced reading, punctuated by frequent merry glances up at her fans, kept the crowd enthralled.

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

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

Sounds familiar, right? It should: a writer’s ability to step outside his own head and consider what’s actually on the page, rather than what he thinks is on the page, is crucial to good revision.

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

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

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

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

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

Got your Millicent cap firmly pulled down around your ears? Excellent. Picture four manuscripts before you, each written by a talented writer eager for a break. Which one will you decide to show to your boss, the bigwig agent, and which three will you reject? Your choices are (1) a narrative that assumes you will put in extra effort to sort out what is going on in certain confusing passages, like so:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s nothing wrong with expecting your reader to draw conclusions from what you say on the page, but much of the time, style lies in the essential difference between showing and telling. If the writer chooses to beguile the reader with enough details about a situation that he walks away from the scene with the mental image the author intended, that’s showing. If, on the other hand, the writer elects to tell her tale in generalities, or to spell all of the necessary conclusions for the reader instead of allowing the reader to draw them for himself, that’s telling.

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

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

Have I piqued your curiosity sufficiently yet? And have I given you strong enough evidence that withholding information from the reader purely for the sake of building suspense is darned annoying?

Actually, one forward-thinking reader was apparently thinking about it before I even started building up the false suspense, for she brought it up in the comments just the other day. Quoth Elizabeth — not the same one with the excellent pronoun question from last time, as it happens, but another frequent bringer-up of thought-provoking points:

I did buts and thens and I’m working on ands right now.

I had a lot of “looked” in there, too, I noticed, after my first revision. That’s a very hard word to avoid.

Elizabeth is quite right that looked is ubiquitous. Aspiring writers rely upon it, and upon vision-related verb phrases in general, quite heavily, and not always because most human beings glean most of their information about the world around them through their eyes.

Often, characters — particularly protagonists — will look things as a means of introducing those things into the narrative. This is particularly common in first-person or tight third-person narratives, as a means of reminding the reader from whose perspective she’s seeing. As in:

I looked at the beautiful blue sky and the hopeful buds on the green trees; they made me sad.

That’s one way to alert the reader to the existence of the buds on the trees and the beauty of the sky — which is, we are told explicitly, blue, as opposed to all of those other colors beautiful skies are always sporting — but it’s not the only narrative possibility, and usually not the most imaginative one. Think about it: what’s more interesting, the fact that the trees are budding hopefully, or the fact that our narrator saw the buds?

Even if the image hitting the narrator’s cornea actually were the most important part of this particular sentence, in most storylines, the point of the protagonist’s looking at things is not the action itself, but to alert the reader that the objects being seen exist. Unless this device is used — wait for it — very sparingly, though most readers will tire pretty quickly of being told over and over again that the protagonist is seeing or noticing everything around her. To them, it’s self-evident: the object is present in the environment, so naturally, the protagonist sees it. So?

Millicent’s reaction, as usual, is quite a bit less forgiving. “Stop telling me over and over that the protagonist is seeing things!” she will mutter, reaching for her third latte of the afternoon. “You don’t need to keep reminding me of the narrative perspective!”

So what’s a reviser to do with this type of Millicent-annoying look? Cut ‘em without mercy. With a little careful planning, it’s almost always possible simply to have stimuli external to the protagonist just show up, without reminding the reader that the players in the scene have seen them or having the protagonist acknowledge their existence.

Once a reviser accepts that principle, it’s usually quite a bit easier to winnow out most of those looks. Fringe benefit: because this approach encourages the things in question to be more active, the result is often a more vibrant narrative. Lookee:

The sun shone in a cloudless sky, sending a caressing warmth to encourage the hopeful buds on the green trees. Their very exuberance made me sad.

Another extremely common use of looked is as a substitute for other reactions or emotions. Frequently, characters look at one another instead of evincing a more revealing response to something that has just happened.

All of a sudden, the wind chime over Vanessa’s left shoulder began ringing violently; Gerry’s chair seemed to be slipping sideways beneath him. They looked at each other.

“What’s happening?” Imogene cried.

Doesn’t add all that much to the scene, does it? That’s because from the reader’s perspective, the mere fact that Vanessa and Gerry chose that moment to look at each other isn’t all that illuminating. Described this flatly, it’s such a generic act that mentioning it doesn’t either advance the plot or reveal character. As you are revising a passage like this, ask yourself: how did they look at each other? Why did they look at each other?

Or, better still: is there something that one or both of them could do or say here that would do a better job of advancing the plot and/or revealing what these people are thinking or feeling in this particular moment?

Be on the lookout, so to speak, for versions of she looked away, a sentence widely used as shorthand for a character’s conscious attempt to avoid conveying emotion to another character. While flesh-and-blood people do actually look away from one another from time to time, and for that very reason, this phrasing, too, can start to feel pretty redundant if characters do it very often.

Besides, looking away is also not usually the most interesting reaction a character can have to a stressful situation. Frequently, this action is a drama-killer, a means of allowing a character to avoid a direct confrontation. That may be desirable in real life, but since Millicent likes to see conflict on every single page of a novel or memoir, do you really want to squander a golden opportunity for injecting more of it into your story?

In short, you’re going to want to take a close look at all of those looks, evaluating on a case-by-case basis. Each time it appears, ask yourself: is this an effective way to convey the meaning I want to the reader, or is this just shorthand? Would the plot or characterization would benefit from a different kind of sentence?

What you should NOT do, however, is simply do a search for the word and cut every use indiscriminately. You’re going to want to exercise your judgment — always bearing in mind, of course, that the reader cannot read your mind, and thus may not interpret shorthand in quite the way you intended. You can’t blame her for that: since all she knows about the story you are telling is what the narrative shows and tells her, if you don’t fill in the details, she has to rely upon her imagination.

Don’t believe that little old look could do quite so much damage all on its own? Oh, but it is used in so many context to mean so many things. To sharpen your eye to the sneaky little verbs many tricks, let’s take a gander at few frolicking in their natural habitat.

He looked at me passionately. “But I want you to marry me, Mary!”

Quickly, I looked down at the fringe decorating my skirt. “I think you should go, George.

“Go?” He gave me a look of disbelief. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

I looked up. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

Taken individually, each of these uses of look is perfectly legitimate, right? But the problem here isn’t just the word repetition — it’s that looking is acting as a stand-in for a whole lot of potentially interesting human interaction.

Don’t look away — we already know what do in this situation, right? When confronted with characters merely looking in response to stimuli, we ask: could they have more character-revealing (or situation-revealing) responses?

The possibilities are endless, of course — which is precisely why I’m a big fan of this particular revision strategy; it can open a simple scene up in some fascinating ways. For instance:

He kissed my hand passionately. “But I want you to marry me, Mary!”

I abruptly became absorbed in studying the fringe decorating my skirt. “I think you should go, George.

“Go?” His tone implied that I’d just asked him to leap off a fifty-foot cliff. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

So much for sparing his feelings. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

Is everyone comfortable with the prospect of tackling all of those looks in context, retaining some, and coming up with interesting and creative substitutes for others? Good. Now that you’ve started thinking about revising with your reader’s reaction in mind, let’s go back and apply the principles we’ve been discussing to the problem of proper noun repetition in a manuscript.

Oh, did you think we were through with that? Not a chance — over the past few posts, we have established a method for dealing with word repetition, right? Now that we have added the last tool, placing ourselves behind the reader’s spectacles in order to figure out whether the over-used word in question is serving the narrative well, to our writer’s tool belt, aren’t you just dying to trot out the whole set of wrenches?

I’m going to take that look you’re all giving me as a yes.

Suppose for a moment that in mid-revision, you have suddenly become overwhelmed with doubt: have you been over-using proper names? Rather than panic in the face of such a dreadful possibility, you know precisely what to do: first, ascertain just how many of the darned things there are in your manuscript, so you may see just how serious the problem is — and where to begin to attack it.

So you, wise soul, print up a hard copy of your manuscript, pull out your trusty highlighter pens, and mark every time a character’s name appears, dedicating one color to each character. After highlighting up a storm for a chapter or two, you go back and flip through the pages. If a single color appears more than a couple of times on a page, you know that you might want to see where you could trim.

This test, which can be used to diagnose any suspected repetitive pattern in a manuscript, will reveal the most about Millicent’s probable reaction if you begin marking on page 1, of course, rather than at some random point in Chapter 12. If you can only find time to do a few pages, though, you might not want to start marking on page 1. A good, quick check on your name-usage habits is to highlight a two-person dialogue between major characters from the middle of the manuscript.

Why a two-character scene, you ask? See if this pattern seems at all familiar:

”I’ve never seen that giant centipede before,” Tyrone lied. “It just crawled into the house, Mom.”

Angela placed her fists upon her ample hips. “I suppose it opened the back door by itself?”

“It certainly has enough legs to do it,” Tyrone said, examining it. “Or it could have crawled through the keyhole.”

“Next you’ll be telling me that the cat is the one who has been opening the kitchen cabinets,” Angela retorted.

“I’ve seen her do it!” Tyrone insisted.

Angela placed her hand upon his head. “Tyrone, I hate to break it to you, but cats don’t have opposable thumbs. Neither do centipedes. So unless you’re harboring a chimpanzee I don’t know about, I’m going to assume that human hands did all these things.”

The boy cast a nervous glance at his closet door; did Mom know about Archie? “If you say so.”

Did you catch the problems here? If you immediately said, “By gum, a skimming reader’s eye might mix up Angela and Archie, since they both start with the letter A,” give yourself a gold star for being able to remember that far back in this series. Take another star out of petty cash if you also murmured, “This writer is identifying speakers far, far more often than necessary. I wonder if the same pattern persists throughout the manuscript?”

In this excerpt, the pattern is clear, right? In case those baleful looks you’re giving me mean no, let me ask a follow-up question: how do we know that this scene doesn’t really require this many tag lines?

After the first set of exchanges, there really isn’t any doubt about who is speaking when, is there? So why does the reader need to be reminded so frequently who is who, when the speeches are alternating in a predictable rhythm?

The over-use of tag lines is quite pervasive in submissions, and for good reason: like over-abundant proper names, aspiring writers often believe that they reduce confusion. But to professional eyes, the author of the example above has apparently invented unnecessary opportunities for repeating her characters’ names.

Be on the lookout, too, for frequent use of relational terms as substitutes for names: her mother, my brother, her boss. Often, writers who lean heavily upon name usage will pepper their manuscripts with these, too — and again, physically marking them in the text is generally the best way to figure out if there’s too much pepper in your manuscript.

Okay, so that was a bad joke, but it was intended to soften a hard reality: until repetitions of these phrases are actually highlighted in a text, it’s well-nigh impossible for most aspiring writers to understand fully why this particular type of repetition drives the pros mad. Relationship repetition may seem merely descriptive or innocuous to a casual reader, but it leaves professional readers apoplectic; they read it as the writer’s insecurity about the reader’s caring enough – or not being smart enough — to remember how these people are related.

Speaking of over-reactions: “Criminy,” Millicent has been known to mutter. “Is there a REASON you feel the need to tell me three times per page that Roger is Yvette’s son?” Do you think I have no memory at all?”

Sound at all familiar?

In this instance, I think Millicent has some justification for feeling that the writer is talking down to the reader. Unless you are writing a story that will be published in serial form, as so many of Dickens’ works were, it’s not necessary, and can be downright annoying, to keep referring to a character by her relationship to the protagonist.

Especially when, as often happens, the reader is presented with the relationship from several different perspectives. As in:

Brenda looked up at her mother. “Are you sure he’s dead? Couldn’t it be another false alarm?”

Mona cradled her husband’s blue-tinted face in her wrinkled but bejeweled hands. “You’re thinking of my last husband, Martin, the swimmer. Bert’s not capable of holding his breath this long.”

“I didn’t say he was faking it.” Brenda lifted her stepfather’s lifeless arm, dropped it. “I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between comatose and dead.”

“Fine.” Mona kicked her purse at her daughter. “Root through there until you find my compact, and hold the mirror under his nose. If he’s alive, it’ll fog up.”

“For heaven’s sake!” Millicent will be crying by this point in the manuscript, startling fellow screeners in adjacent cubicles. “If Mona is the mother, OF COURSE Brenda is the daughter! What do you think, I’m an idiot?”

Generally speaking, the formal relationship between two characters, particularly if one of those characters is the protagonist, needs to be mentioned to the reader only once in a chapter, at most. If it’s a significant relationship, it may well need to be brought up only once in the book, unless there honestly are issues of mistaken identity involved.

Otherwise, try giving the reminders a bit of a rest.

While you have your marking pens out, it’s not a bad idea to check your submission pages for other instances of phrase repetition as well. I’m not talking about pet phrases here — come on, admit it: every writer has a few phrases and words he likes enough to reuse with some frequency — but overworked nouns and descriptive phrases. Those have a nasty habit of offending the professional eye, too.

You’d be astonished at how much the repetition of even a single verb in two consecutive sentences, for instance, can make a manuscript seem less interesting. Especially — and this is almost impossible to catch when editing on screen, but genuinely irksome to see on a printed page — if the same word or phrase begins or ends two or more sentences in a row.

If you are clever and professional-minded enough to scan your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD (gee, where have I heard THAT advice before?), it will immediately become clear why: it reads as though the point of the paragraph is to get through the information within it as quickly as possible, rather than to write about it as beautifully as possible.

In a race run amongst the stylish, my friends, even a couple of lines that fall down on the job can cost you a head start. You’re in this to express yourself marvelously: try to be consistent about it, but use your best judgment on a case-by-case basis.

That’s such a pretty thought that I am going to sign off here for the day. Keep your reader in mind as you revise, campers — and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XIII: as different as grains of sand on a…wow, quite a few of those grains are awfully similar, aren’t they?

sand on a beach

Last time, I went on at some length about the yawn-inducing effect of over-use of major characters’ names in a narrative. As I tried to show, the repetitive force of all those capitals can be somewhat hypnotic, or at any rate distracting from the story itself. It’s worth a novelist’s while, then, to work with the text a little to try to reduce their frequency.

It’s also worth the memoirist’s while, and the creative nonfictionist’s — or, if we going to be honest about it, any writer who has already performed one (three, five, a hundred and seventeen) revisions on a manuscript. Think about it: the more worked-over a Frankenstein manuscript is, the more likely names are to have changed, right?

Even in a never-before-revised manuscript, though, it’s likely to behoove pretty much any writer who presents characters in a format other than a list to keep an eye on the percussive repetition of those proper nouns, particularly if the names in question begin with the same first letters or sound similar. As we saw last time, the reading eye can leap to unwarranted assumptions, or even — brace yourself, similar name-lovers — cause the reader to mix up the relevant characters.

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

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

Oh, you think it should be easy to keep track? Okay, skim over this sterling piece of literature as rapidly as you can:

similar name page 1

Quick, sit down and draw a family tree for Cheryl from memory. No fair referring back to page 1. Not as easy for a skimmer to keep track of everyone as one might have at first supposed, is it?

The good news (yes, today there is some) is that this problem is at least partially avoidable with a little advance planning on the writer’s part — or, as is more often the case, a lot of between-draft revision of a Frankenstein manuscript. As we saw yesterday, since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Beryl, Bunnie, and Benny. Adopting the old screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter will help alleviate reader confusion.

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

Starting to get the picture, or rather the pattern? I assure you, Millicent is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

pronoun-only text

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

Again, you may laugh, but actually, for the false suspense device to work, the reader has to find being kept in the dark titillating. Overwhelmingly, Millicents do not. When presented with an opening like this, they are all too prone to start asking practical questions along the lines of, “Who is this broad?” or “What on earth is going on here?”

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

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

Unless there is a very, very good reason for withholding information as basic as a character’s name from the reader — particularly if, as in that last example, it’s the protagonist in a tight third-person narrative where the narrative voice evidently knows everything there is to know about that character — go ahead and call your characters by name on the page, rather than referring to them constantly by only a generic he or she. Yes, there was a time when the latter strategy was considered pretty nifty, particularly in fantasy circles, but really, hasn’t it been done to death by now?

Actually, even if the reader should in theory already know who is who, even a relatively mild policy of principled name avoidance can often lead to confusion, especially in action scenes. Take, for example, the following little number — and to make it a fair test of clarity, I will resist the temptation to give all of the combatants similar names.

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

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

Now, I’m guessing that most of you were able to follow what was happening, even without drawing a diagram of the domino effect. All a reader would really have to do is read slowly and carefully, perhaps going back and re-reading as necessary to answer any lingering questions.

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

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

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

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

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

Does that low, despairing moan I hear mean that some of you remain confused about when to name and when not to name? Afraid that once you start adding all of the proper nouns necessary for clarity to your Frankenstein manuscript, you’ll almost instantly run afoul of our bugbear from last time, too-frequent name repetition?

Fear not, low moaners: you are not alone. Fortunately for all, perplexed reader Elizabeth was brave enough to speak up for all of you in a comment on a recent post:

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

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

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

I’m glad you brought this up, Elizabeth: I frequently meet aspiring writers who tell me that their early writing teachers insisted (wrongly, as it happens) that the only conceivable way to avoid confusing a reader by in a scene with more than one he or she is to avoid using pronouns altogether. The result, as you point out, can be name repetition of the most annoying variety. To revisit our earlier pronoun-problem example:

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

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

Oh, dear: that won’t do at all, will it?

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

Yes, you read that correctly. Never — and I do mean NEVER — accept a writing rule as universal unless you are absolutely satisfied that it will work in every single applicable instance.

Why? Well, plenty of stylistic preferences have been foisted upon fledgling writers over the years as laws inviolable, and it actually not all that uncommon for writing teachers not to make — how shall I put this? — as strong a distinction between what is indispensably necessary for good writing and what is simply one possible fix for a common problem.

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

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

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

You’re laughing again, aren’t you? Seriously, professional readers see practically pronoun-free first pages more than you might think — although nowhere near as often as the type of proper name-withholding opening we saw above.

The trick, as is so often the case for good revision, is to approach each potential name vs. pronoun conundrum on an individual basis, rather than seeking to force every imaginable use of either into a one-size-fits-all rule. Don’t be afraid to apply your common sense.

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

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

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

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

“Why ever not?” April asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I believe I observed last time, that’s quite a lot of proper names for a short scene, isn’t it? Far more than Millicent would deem necessary, certainly — which is to say, far, far more than are necessary for clarity, yet more than enough to feel repetitious on the page. Yet simply replacing all of the names with she (or, in John’s case, he) would be confusing.

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

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

“Why ever not?”

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

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

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

“Just one. It’s been just him since the seventh grade, hasn’t it?”

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

“Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

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

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

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

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part VIII: but, then, what’s your function?

conjunction junction train

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about how professional readers tend to respond to repetition in submissions. (To summarize their reaction for those of you joining us mid-series: not at all well.) While we’re on the subject, I’d like to digress from classic Frankenstein manuscript problems to tackle a related issue. I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts without discussing those ever-popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

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Undeterred by that rare (for me) parenthetical commercial plug, positive legions of hands shoot into the air, waving for my attention. Yes, grammar mavens? “But Anne,” you point out, and rightly so, “then isn’t a conjunction! Why, then, would you include it in your discussion of conjunctions, when there are so many legitimate conjunctions — yet, for instance — deserving of your august scrutiny?”

In the first place, you’re right: when used properly, then isn’t strictly speaking a conjunction. However, enough writers are using it these days as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in The Little Red Hen kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — include it here.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth Roosevelts were presidents Dorothy Parker was still speaking to Ernest Hemingway editors like Maxwell Perkins called the shots in the publishing world, it was considered hugely improper to begin ANY sentence with and, but, or then; amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a fairly well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a stickler for grammar for his entire life) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I had written when he returned them to me, a conjunction, by definition, connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “they may not BEGIN a sentence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. Toward the end of his long, colorful, and largely scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions.

Despite Uncle Alex’s best efforts, time and the language have been marching on, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. In fact, as you may have noticed, I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

That mournful crashing sound you just heard was Uncle Alex and his late cronies from the LA Free Press stomping their feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get all of us to cut it out, already. Back to your celestial poker game, boys — your heavenly cacophony isn’t going to work.

Arguably, there can be perfectly legitimate stylistic reasons to open a sentence with a conjunction. They can, for instance, be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph:

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

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

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

To old-fashioned eyes — sorry, Uncle — this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner grammatically. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a difference in the rhythm. A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Emily’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could be regarded as indicators of protagonist stress. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are.

Which is, of course, why any of us pay a visit to Conjunction Junction, right?

Before the next train leaves the station, though, a pop quiz: did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first example? No? Okay, let me whip out my editorial machete pen and remove a couple of Millicent’s pet peeves.

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

Any guesses why I made those three changes?

Award yourself a big, fat gold star for the day if you immediately said, “Why, word repetition is word repetition, Anne — which is why you removed the second Jason in the paragraph.” Stack another star on top of the first if you added, “Anyway is often how speakers inform hearers that they’ve digressed from their point. Is there a reason the narrative should go out of its way to inform readers that it has digressed?” And give yourself three more stars if you have gotten in touch with your inner Millicent sufficiently to have mused, “You know, to find out why — or not is logically rather redundant. Would the paragraph lose any actual meaning if I cut or not?”

I hear all of your muttering under your collective breath, and you’re quite right: this is nit-picky stuff. Both good writing and professional presentation are made up of lots and lots of nit-picky stuff. Your point?

While you’re trying to come up with a sufficiently scathing comeback for that one, let’s tie the anyway revelation (i.e., that what’s considered acceptable in everyday speech may not work so well in a narrative voice on paper, even if it happens to be in the first person), back to our ongoing discussion of and and but. Conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, so the former can be a positive boon to dialogue.

Not sure how that might work? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

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

“But Yvette, you’re ignoring the conventions of our genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. But you are fleet of foot in the face of danger. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Or what? Or you’re going to come after me with an axe?”

“Or else, that’s all.”

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

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

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

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

“Yvette, you’re ignoring the conventions of our genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair, but you are fleet of foot in the face of danger; therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Is there some penalty attached to my refusal? Are you going to come after me with an axe?”

“You must, that’s all.”

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

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

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

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

I’m not going to give you an example of this, because we all hear it so much in everyday speech. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, try this experiment the next time you’re at a boring cocktail party (they’re coming back, I hear):

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

(2) Tell a lengthy anecdote, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout.

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

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me.

Which is, in case you happen to be writing a book about such things, why panhandlers and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence: it discourages interruption. Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then.

For this reason, aspiring writers just LOVE to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: to create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative. Or, even more often, to create that chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice I mentioned above.

Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. Because it is a device that professional readers see so very much, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency.

Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being a bit pushy and marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially the opening? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the style throughout the entire manuscript. It’s in their interest: just think how much time Millicent can save in rejecting a submission if she assumes that what is found on the first page, or even the first paragraph, is an infallible indicator of subsequent writing quality.

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

No comment.

Let’s concentrate instead on what a writer can control in this situation. Narrative structure and voice are not just matters of style; to a market-savvy writer, they are also matters of strategy. If you over-use any single narrative tool in those early pages, Millicent and her ilk are not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways by page 25, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

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

In a word, yes. Next question?

In fact, I would highly recommend front-loading your submission with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed. So instead of complaining about the status quo (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), I’m going to give you some hints about how to minimize the problem early on, so your work can get a comparatively fair reading.

Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

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

(2) Pick a color for and, one for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets, too), and one for then.

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

Or even — yes, I see it all the time — per sentence.

(3) Mark where those words appear in your manuscript.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but EVERY time these words show up on those pages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technically, then is unnecessary here. In fact, thenis almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

Yet it is very widely used in submissions as a matter of style — or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice. To professional eyes, though, it’s logically redundant, at best. At worst, it’s a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events and so crammed them all into a list.

Which brings me back to my earlier suggestion: in your first five pages, you would be wise to avoid provoking this reaction by cutting all of the thens. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to omit temporal thens altogether in your writing UNLESS the event described after them is a genuine surprise or happened suddenly. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

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

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

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

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

Good question, but-resters, but I did mean what I said. But, however, and yet all imply contradiction to what has already been stated, but many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions, a way to make the sentence before seem to flow naturally — that is, in a way that sounds like conversation — into the next. What I’m suggesting here is not that you remove every legitimate negation, but rather that you should remove the negative conjunctions that are misused.

How may you tell the difference? Let’s take a look at some practical examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover the first 100 submissions that all share the same narrative device.

And yes, Virginia, the transitional but IS that common. As is the unnecessary then. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked words.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

“So why on earth,” Millicent wonders, impatiently waiting for her latte to cool (for once), “do these submissions keep leaning so heavily on to be, to have, to think, to walk, to see, to say, and to take? If it happened in, say, one submission out of fifty, I could cope with it, but every other one?”

Good question, Millie.

Varying your word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics. That’s a fact that I wish more first-time submitters knew, but usually, US writers have been taught just the opposite: all throughout their school years, teachers kept flinging THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA at us and quoting either Mark Twain or Somerset Maugham’s (depending upon how old the teachers were, and what examples their teachers had used) overworked axioms about never using a complex word when a simple word would do.

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing wrong with that, of course — but authorial affection is not always sufficient justification. If a word is not book-category appropriate, think seriously about finding a substitute. That’s not compromising your artistic vision; that’s gearing your voice to your audience.

Don’t toss out those marked-up Frankenstein pages, please: we shall be talking more about overused conjunctions in the days to come. Next time, it’s on to the ands!

Yes, yes, I know: today’s picture might well have led a reasonable person to believe that ands would occupy us today, but a girl can only do so much in a single sitting. Keep up the good work!