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

radiator in Victoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mars query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attwood book covershaun-attwood-author-photo

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

Congratulations, Shaun!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say, a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sunshine moving in trees2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And look where that got him.

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

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

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

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

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

In a word: yes. Moving on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has some intriguing possibilities, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No need to recruit the local zombies to ascertain that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Goose's grave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See you at dinner, my pet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juggling multiple protagonists, part II: sometimes, what we have here is a failure to communicate

juggling statuejuggling statue2juggling statue3

Oh, what a long day it’s been, campers — actually, a long few days. There’s something in the air that’s making all of us just a trifle slow on the uptake. Or something in the water. I include myself as one of the victims of this invidious plague, you see. I must be — how else could I possibly explain the fact that I spent a full half an hour today explaining to an incredulous optician that as hard as he might find it to believe, I did indeed expect to be able to see though my new glasses?

Surely, were I on the top of my communicative game, I would have been able to communicate this admittedly radical and abstruse philosophical concept in half the time. I think my problem was that I waited until twenty minutes in to resort to mime.

“But the frames look so good on you,” he kept saying, as if I has simply misunderstood the primary function of eyewear.

Apparently, ambient blurriness is the appropriate price to pay for fashion. Or so I surmise from the fact that he was not at all amused when I mentioned that if he would prefer that I wore the frames without lenses, I would have to wear my contact lenses at the same time, more or less defeating the purpose of glasses.

That last quip was magical in mime, you’ll be happy to hear. Marcel Marceau would have wept openly, but the optician remained befuddled.

As you may well imagine, carrying on such an argument is quite a strain on both parties. At one point, I briefly considered switching to another language — French, perhaps, or Italian — to see if this native English speaker would understand me better. I’m fairly positive that at least once, I broke into interpretive dance to illustrate a point.

In a week or two, if I’m very good indeed, the capricious optometry gods may see fit to provide me with workable glasses. So I’m sitting here, peering through contact lenses I have worn far too long for one day.

Let’s get right to work, then, before my eyeballs turn from mauve to magenta.

Last time, I was waxing poetic on the many benefits of writing a novel inhabited by multiple protagonists. I could, of course, rhapsodize equally long and loudly about the joys of the first person, or omniscient narrator, or distant third person, etc. All of these are perfectly legitimate narrative choices.

No matter what the Point-of-View Nazis (POVNs) like to claim. They would like you to write solely about single protagonists, please, in the tight third person or in the first person; all other choices, they say, are confusing, if not downright unprofessional. And omniscience is so 19th century.

As I’ve been saying for a couple of weeks now, there’s not much you can do if your multiple-protagonist project happens to fall upon the desk of a POVN screener or contest judge. The same generally holds true if you happen to hand your writing to POVN members of even a very good critique group or first reader — which is quite easy to do by accident, since POVNs seldom think to wear a t-shirt reading More than one perspective? Madness! to social gatherings. And don’t even get started arguing with a POVN in an online forum.

Just smile, nod — and get your work into some other reader’s hands as soon as humanly possible. No matter how much or how demonstrably your narrative benefits from incorporating multiple perspectives, you’re simply not going to win this argument. Move on to pastures new.

Must the retreat be that total, you cry in horror? Well, I would recommend it, to minimize the carnage: if you stick around, any further exchange can only end in tears, probably yours.

What distinguishes the POVN from other advocates of particular writing styles is vehemence, typically: once a critic has pronounced that no writing that differs from the two chosen (and not entirely coincidentally, the two of the most common) narrative voices is acceptable, what else is there to discuss?

You have one vision of your book, and your critic another. As the parable of the monomaniacal optician abundantly illustrated, in order to have a fruitful discussion, both parties must agree on at least a few underlying principles of reality.

Move on, I beg you — but before you do, see if you can learn anything from the POVN’s feedback. (Beyond his personal literary preferences, that is.) Because chances are, you can indeed learn something from his monomania.

Why am I so sure about that? There is one lesson that every multiple protagonist user can learn from any POVN: if the reader is ever confused about whose perspective is whose on the page, it’s not the reader’s responsibility to re-read, scratching his head, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s the writer’s job to make the perspective switches easy to follow.

From this, we can derive the first principle of utilizing multiple protagonists successfully: clarity, clarity, clarity. (Which wouldn’t make a bad first principle of optometry, either, in my humble opinion.)

What does this mean, in practical terms? Well, not switching perspectives without warning, for one thing — a surprisingly common lapse in multiple protagonist manuscripts. Once you have established a perspective, stick to it until it’s time for a well-marked perspective switch — or just take the full leap into omniscient narration for the entire book.

In other words: commit. (Commit, commit. Just to keep things symmetrical. Or maybe I’m just seeing double, as the optician suggested.) Otherwise, Millicent the agency screener and other professional readers are all too apt to mistake your genuinely intricate and well-justified perspective choices for mere head-hopping.

“Did the writer just forget that we’re seeing this from Janet’s perspective?” the Millicents of the world mutter over their scalding lattes. “Or is this scene also from Robert’s? And why on earth doesn’t he have any lenses in his glasses?”

Unfortunately for the self-editing writer, commitment slips are often very subtle. So much so that they generally appear to be unintentional to a non-professional reader, making it hard for most first readers to point them out. If your eye isn’t specifically looking for them, they’re even — brace yourself — easy to miss when you read a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Hey, if I don’t mention that tip every few posts, I’m likely to start having headaches. Or so my optician tells me.

You want to see for yourself just how hard perspective slips are to catch, don’t you? Take, for example, this paragraph from a book about the aforementioned Janet and Robert, where Janet has so far been the designated protagonist for the scene:

Janet felt queasy, so she took a quick sip of water, to buy herself time to think. It was clear to her now why Robert had taken the job at Corrupt Executives, Inc.: to hunt her, to taunt her, to hurt her feelings at every possible opportunity, just as he had in high school. Well, she was no longer fifteen years old. She knew how to fight like an adult now.

Her face was pale, but her eyes flashed blue fire. “So’s your mama, Robert. So’s your mama.”

Did it jump out at you? Believe me, it would have made Millicent scream: the narrative was coming from inside Janet’s head all throughout the first paragraph — yet in paragraph 2, the reader is suddenly seeing something she could not possibly see without a mirror. Once again, Millicent is left to wonder, has the perspective suddenly switched to Robert’s, and the author just didn’t bother to tell us? Or is the narration now omniscient?

Trust me, these are not questions that Millie likes to answer for herself. Clarify, clarify, clarify.

The first step to perspective clarity is to make it magnificently clear when perspective shifts occur — and it’s often easier than the average reviser assumes, or at least less word-consuming. No need for a lengthy explanation; just give the reader a simple heads-up when you’re taking them into another head.

That’s an easy enough axiom to remember, isn’t it? Heck, you can even embrace it as an opportunity to enrich the scene. Take another gander at J and R:

Janet felt queasy, so she took a quick sip of water, to buy herself time to think. It was clear to her now why Robert had taken the job at Corrupt Executives, Inc.: to hunt her, to taunt her, to hurt her feelings at every possible opportunity, just as he had in high school.

Well, she was no longer fifteen years old. She knew how to fight like an adult now. “So’s your mama, Robert. So’s your mama.”

He gripped the arms of his leather chair, startled by her transformation. Her face was pale, but her eyes flashed blue fire.

Simple change, wasn’t it? Yet now it’s perfectly obvious that the reader is hearing about Janet’s external characteristics because Robert is observing them.

But you’re no longer thinking about Janet and Robert, I’m sensing. You’re so alert to the nuances of foreshadowing that you are already steeling yourself to receive your homework assignment.

It’s worth making a sweep through your manuscript to make sure that the protagonist of the moment can actually perceive anything you report her to perceive. People seldom see the backs of their own heads, for instance, without the aid of several cleverly-rigged mirrors. Similarly, their hearing from far away and sightlines around corners is often imperfect, as is their ability to reproduce entire conversations taking place in Moscow when they are in prison camps in Siberia.

I’m looking at you, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Also, not all that many people are psychic, at least not to the extent one encounters in manuscripts. Or perhaps these are instances of another common perspective lapse, when a tight third person narrative uses projection in order to get into another character’s head without officially switching perspectives.

Not entirely certain what I’m talking about? Okay, here’s a lovely example. So far, the book has been mostly from Henry’s perspective:

Henry felt Blanche looking at him hard, passionately, as if she had never seen a man before and the sheer nearness of him had induced the onset of puberty on the spot. Odd behavior, in someone he’d just met. He must remind her of some hunk in one of those old movies that had always seemed to be playing at her grandmother’s house throughout her childhood, black-and-white images on a small black-and-white screen. Maybe she didn’t even know that they made films in color now. Maybe she didn’t even know what a man looked like naked, and was dying to find out.

Never mind that you want to keep reading, to find out what happens next. Tell me: what part of this is from Blanche’s perspective?

Offhand, I’d say none of it. Upon close examination, it’s clearly from Henry’s — but if so, how on earth does he know so much about her childhood? So is what the reader learning about Blanche here fact to be relied upon for the rest of the book, or merely a projection of Henry’s over-sexed imagination?

Oh, you wanted to add something, Millicent? Put down that latte and join the conversation, by all means. Give your eyes a rest.

“Does the she in the next-to-last sentence,” Millicent asks, and not without reason, “refer to Blanche or her grandmother? The last sentence implies that it’s Blanche, but like every other reader on the planet, I seldom read all the way to the end of a paragraph before forming a mental image of what occurred in the middle of it. Of course, it makes me grumpy to have to re-read so much as a single word, but when I don’t even know who is who, I just stop reading. Oh, great — now I’ve thought about it so much that I’ve been pulled out of the story. Next!”

Thanks for sharing that, Millicent: from the reader’s side of the page, clarity is indeed 100% the writer’s problem, not yours. Remember that when you are revising, my friends. It may seem a bit restrictive, but within the context of a particular protagonist’s section of text, edit like a POVN.

Yes, you read that correctly. The writer gets to set up the rules of narration, but once they are established, professional readers — even those who are not POVNs — will regard any deviation from those rules as accidental.

And if you thought Millicent came down hard on accidental typos and logic problems, wait ‘til you see her lay into an accidental perspective switch. Even if she is not a card-carrying POVN — which, as I mentioned last week, she is significantly less likely to be than her counterpart of a decade ago — she probably had an English professor who was. Or a boss at the agency. She’s not going to let a thing like this pass, nor is her cousin Maury, who is an editorial assistant at the big publishing house just around the corner.

The best way to avoid their ire is to edit for perspective consistency — and send a strong signal whenever the perspective switches, in order to illustrate that the change is not accidental. Before anyone tenses up at the potential enormity of that task, I hasten to add that there are many good strategies for achieving these laudable goals.

1. Formal breaks in the narrative. Structural means are the simplest signposts, and among the most popular. As we have discussed, you could switch chapters each time you want to change perspectives. Heck, you could even title the chapters with the protagonist-du-jour’s name, to avoid even the remotest possibility of confusion.

2. Just start a new scene. Usually, this involves inserting a section break, then starting a fresh section. This technique, like the chapter trick, works best if the first sentence or two contains a pretty broad indication of whose perspective is on deck now. (If you’re tempted even for a moment to assume Millicent will enjoy guessing, please go back six paragraphs and re-read her observation on Henry’s narrative skills.)

3. Hitting the RETURN key. In other words, try to limit yourself to a single perspective per paragraph.

The space bar can provide quite a bit of clarity, if you will let it help you. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve written in margins, “I cut the paragraph here, to keep the two perspectives distinct.”

Why does this simple trick work so well? To skimming eyes, it’s just too easy to miss the indicators that might make clear that the perspective has changed within a single paragraph; he and she, for instance, don’t look all that different on the page.

I know; the implications of this are a bit depressing. Hey, if I ran the universe, every agency screener and editorial assistant would read every syllable of every writer’s submission with reverent care before pronouncing judgment. Opticians everywhere would strive to maximize their customers’ visual acuity, and friendly cows would roam the streets, giving chocolate milk to every hungry child in the world.

But I don’t — and they don’t, alas.

The primary drawback to all three strategies lies, as drawbacks so often do, in the first pages that you will be submitting to an agent, editor, or contest judge. If a book begins with one protagonist, then switches to another too quickly, one of three professionally unpleasant things may happen.

First, plenty of agents and editors feel cheated if they’ve come to accept one character as a protagonist, only to learn a few pages later that they didn’t need to care about this character much at all. (Yes, really.)

The way around this is — hold on to your hats, boys — clarity: the narrative can make it plain that both the initial protagonist and the next are in fact both critical to the story. A good way to do this: if you’re introducing your protagonists in separate chapters or sections, show each initially in a situation where the stakes are very high for him/her.

Which isn’t a bad way to establish sympathy for a character, either. I just mention.

Second, the initial protagonist may be introduced too briefly to make an emotional impression upon the reader, and so may not appear to the skimming eye to be a true protagonist at all. We’ve all seen enough movies where the identity of the guy shot in the opening scene isn’t clear until the very end of the story, right?

Well, think like Millicent for a moment, and picture that storyline on the page: she began reading that scene assuming, not unreasonably, that the entire book is going to be either about that guy or his assassin. So imagine her surprise (and umbrage) to see her pal weltering in a pool of his own blood by the bottom of page two.

I have a really, really cynical fix for this one, so brace yourself: for the submission version of your book (as distinct from the final, published form), make sure that the most attractive — in whatever sense you choose — protagonist is on stage for at least the first five pages. You can always switch it later, and five pages is plenty of time to make Millicent fall in love with Bill thoroughly enough to be sanguine about meeting co-protagonist Bob on page 6.

I told you it was cynical. I’m all for art, but I’m also all about getting art past the gatekeepers so the public will eventually be able to see it.

Danger #3 is the opposite of #2: the reader may like the first protagonist so much that she will become annoyed when the second emerges. “I was just getting into the story of that coal miner,” she will grumble. “Why am I suddenly reading about a debutante?”

This reaction is especially likely in novels where the connection between the protagonists is not apparent until very late in the story. We writers LOVE this kind of revelation, don’t we? I think we tend to overestimate its surprise value: after all, the reader is aware that all of these people are occupying the same book; the presumption, then, is that they are going to be connected somehow.

And a professional reader has an even greater advantage: if she becomes curious about who is who, all she has to do is flip to the back of the submission and take a gander at the synopsis.

This inherent expectation of connection a good thing to bear in mind while revising. Take a hard look at the first time each of your protagonists appears qua protagonist in the book — if it is not clear how protagonist #2, #3, and so on to the proverbial cast of thousands are connected to the story you are telling in the first protagonist’s first appearance, what specific benefit is the book deriving from maintaining the secret?

If you’re not positive what is being gained (other than the coolness of later revelation which, as I said, is probably not going to come as a jaw-dropping surprise to Millicent), consider letting the reader in on the connection a bit — at least for the submission draft.

Or at least in a subtle manner. Would it be more effective, for instance, if you added a hint or two about possible connections? What about if you had Protagonist #1 make a walk-on in this introductory scene — or if Protagonist #2 make a cameo in Protagonist #1’s chapter, so the reader would already know who he is?

It may not always be desirable — or even possible — to use this tactic in every story, of course. But do consider it: readers love to try to figure things out from subtle hints; it makes them feel smart. And no one loves to feel smart more than Millicent and Maury.

Call it a family failing. Try not to hold it against them.

Vision-correction conditions permitting, I shall take more next time about nifty strategies for keeping perspectives distinct. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The return of the Point-of-View Nazis, Part II: ve haf veys of making your POV singular

Spanish inquisition drawing

Last time, I re-introduced the Point-of-View Nazi, that fine ilk of professional reader who positively insists that the only way to conduct a third-person narrative is to focus upon a single protagonist for the entire duration of the book. Since tight third-person (also known as close third-person) was very much the dominant voice for about ten of the last fifteen years POVNs still have a lot of backing. Because of their long reign — and, as I mentioned on Thursday, the fact that they were disproportionately represented amongst composition teachers in the post-war era — an aspiring writer is still very likely to encounter authoritative-sounding voices eager to tell aspiring writers that their work is going down in flames if they take the smallest step toward omniscience or multiple protagonists.

To paraphrase my last post: piffle.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with a super-tight third-person narrative, naturally — stylistically, there is much to be said for it as a storytelling device. However, perspective choice is a matter of writing style, not formula, is it not?

That deafening roar you’re hearing is not the ride of the Valkyries, but a chorus of dissent from POVNS. To them, the only proper writing perspectives are the first person singular and a tight third person singular, where the narration remains rigidly from the point of view of a single actor in the drama, usually the protagonist. They may not always state it so baldly, but effectively, that’s their stance.

How do POVNs usually convey this impression? By implying (or even stating as law inviolate) that good writing is always either in the first person or the close third-person — and in fiction, they’re often not all that crazy about the first person. Yet no matter how emphatically someone states these opinions, they are in fact a matter of personal taste.

Because this is only of the most commonly-blurred distinction between Thou Shalt Do This dicta and style tips, I want to devote today to giving you a concrete look at what a difference regarding such advice as absolute can make. This may seem like an odd thing for a professional writing advice-giver to say, but I don’t think that it’s ever a good idea to take ANYONE else’s opinion on your writing style as gospel. Particularly if that advice is, well, sweeping.

Yes, even if the advice in question happened to fall from my fingertips. One of the reasons I go on at such length about the rationale behind industry norms and stylistic tips is so you have enough information to make up your own minds about your writing choices.

I was notorious for this inform-’em-and-let-’em-go attitude back when I was teaching at a certain unnamed university (go, Huskies!). Professors would come fuming (or laughing) into the faculty lounge, exclaiming, “I’ve got another of your old students, Anne!”

“How do you know?” I’d ask, although after the first couple of times, I was pretty sure of the answer.

“She’s questioning EVERYTHING I say.”

“Good. You wouldn’t want it otherwise, would you?”

Some of my former colleagues would want it otherwise, it turns out. And the POVNs definitely would.

Philosophically, I find POVNs’ idea that there are only two ways to tell a story troubling, and not especially conducive to the production of good art. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance.

Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of any politically-oriented news program, if you doubt this. I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

And the disagreement amongst writing experts on this point tends to support my argument, doesn’t it?

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the point of view of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, for instance, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work.

If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and the lady who leaps out of a cake at a bachelor party, I shall happily eat my hat. Either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who thinks this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. Almost nobody and nothing can be completely portrayed from only a single third-person point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

But that’s just my opinion. Read a bunch of good novels and make up your own mind.

Regardless of your own perspective preferences, it’s important that you know that there are people out there who will want to impose their stylistic preferences upon yours, because they turn up with some fair frequency in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. They are statistically more likely to be Baby Boomers than Gen Xers or Gen Yers, however, so they are less likely to be agency screeners than in years past. (Being a Millicent is typically someone’s first job in the business, not one kept for decades, the burnout rate is too high.)

Nevertheless, they do turn up, sometimes in agents’ chairs and behind editorial desks, so it’s best to be prepared for them. When your work is attacked with phrases like, well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator in contemporary fiction, you’re going to need to resist the temptation to throw half of Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker, aren’t you?

So how should a prudent writer handle it? Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a gargantuan grain of salt. You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.

But before you do, consider the possibility that the critique may be useful to apply to your manuscript of the moment. Would a more focused narrative perspective add something useful to your story? If not, is the narrative completely free of head-hopping?

That switcheroo caused a few double-takes, didn’t it? POVNs do occasionally have a point: too-frequent perspective switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow. Take, for instance, the following mash-up of point of view — and timeframe, while we’re at it — and assuming that the book so far has been primarily from Marybeth’s perspective.

Trevor stormed noisily into the room, causing her to groan and pull her cat, Mergatroyd, from his perch on her head onto her face. The sudden glare of the overhead light was blinding. Criminy, was Marybeth still asleep? He throws a pillow at her disheveled head on his way to his dresser. “Wake up, sleepyhead, if you want a ride.”

Marybeth glances between Mergatroyd’s limp paws at the 1970s-era clock-radio by her bed: she was supposed to be at work ten minutes ago. Oblivious to the long streak of raspberry mousse adorning her cheek, she adopts her best I’m-in-charge-here tone. “How long were you planning to let me sleep? Next Tuesday?”

Ah, there his tie was. He yanks it from between the mattress and box springs, scowling at the back of his boss’ frizzy head. “Hey, for all I knew, you had a bevy of butlers to wake you in the mornings.”

Yeah, right: attempt to take three steps in this bedroom, and you’d either stub your toe on a cast-aside manuscript or catch your toe in a stray t-shirt and go sprawling. Obviously, her domestic staff was crackerjack. “Throw me my robe, will you?”

Did his job depend upon the civility of his answer? Her kitchen didn’t even have any decent coffee, for goodness’ sake. He’d have to stop at Starbucks on the way in — unless today is Millicent’s day to snag the a.m. lattes? Struggling into her robe, Marybeth watched him wade back to the bedroom door, wondering if she would be pressing her luck if she sent him out for coffee.

A tad confusing, isn’t it? It’s possible to follow, admittedly, but is it really the reader’s job to sort this mess out?

Like abrupt switches of tense, unannounced perspective shifts may puzzle even a reader who isn’t skimming. (As Millicent often is, recall, while she’s sipping that latte Trevor just dropped off at her desk.) That’s unfortunate, because, one of the more common first-novel megaproblems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence.

And every time that happens, a POVN Millicent gets her wings. Or at least another justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing.

How so? Well, think about it: if Millie’s been assuming for the past 25 pages that she’s reading a tight third person narrative based exclusively upon Marybeth’s perspective (perhaps one written as a not-very-subtle roman-à-clef by her fellow screener, Trevor, who showed up awfully late to work this morning), why WOULDN’T her first question upon reading this excerpt be, “Hey, why is this suddenly from Trevor’s perspective? And if it isn’t, how on earth could a narrative from Marybeth’s perspective mention a smudge she didn’t know was on her face?”

In Millie’s defense, even if the book so far had been in an omniscient narrative voice (where the dominant storytelling voice can adopt any of the characters’ individual perspectives or none of them at will), this excerpt would have been problematic enough to raise her always rejection-ready hackles. The sad thing is, the perspective problems above would be really, really easy to solve. Any guesses how?

A gold star for the day if you shouted, “Why, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion!” Make it three if you added, “It’s also helpful if a narrative decides whether it’s in the present or the past tense and applies that choice consistently. Get your act together, Trevor.”

Great advice, on both fronts. Let’s take a gander at what this excerpt might look like if Trevor made only those two revisions: (a) rearranged things so each perspective its own paragraph and (b) picked a tense choice and stuck to it.

The sudden glare of the overhead light was blinding. Trevor stormed noisily into the room, causing her to groan and pull her cat, Mergatroyd, from his perch on her head onto her face.

Criminy, was Marybeth still asleep? He threw a pillow at her disheveled head on his way to his dresser. “Wake up, sleepyhead, if you want a ride.”

Marybeth glanced between Mergatroyd’s limp paws at the 1970s-era clock-radio by her bed: she was supposed to have been at work ten minutes ago. She adopted her best I’m-in-charge-here tone. “How long were you planning to let me sleep? Next Tuesday?”

The contrast between her manner and the long streak of raspberry mousse adorning her cheek almost made him giggle. Ah, there his tie was. He yanked it from between the mattress and box springs, scowling at the back of his boss’ frizzy head. “Hey, for all I knew, you had a bevy of butlers to wake you in the mornings.”

Yeah, right: attempt to take three steps in this bedroom, and you’d either stub your toe on a cast-aside manuscript or catch your toe in a stray t-shirt and go sprawling. Obviously, her domestic staff was crackerjack. “Throw me my robe, will you?”

Did his job depend upon the civility of his answer? Her kitchen didn’t even have any decent coffee, for goodness’ sake. He’d have to stop at Starbucks on the way in — unless today is Millicent’s day to snag the a.m. lattes?

Struggling into her robe, Marybeth watched him wade back to the bedroom door, wondering if she would be pressing her luck if she sent him out for coffee.

Clearer, isn’t it? Tense consistency and easily-followed perspective shifts won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage if you choose to write from multiple perspective, of course, but it will make your scene substantially less of a chore for the non-POVN reader.

Because you’ve already given up trying to please a POVN Millicent or contest judge with a multiple-perspective manuscript, right? You know better than to try to battle her personal preferences and the deafening roar of her writing teachers — and perhaps her boss agent’s writing teachers, right? Right? Hello?

I see a few timid hands waving out there in the ether. “But Anne, how can I possibly know before I submit whether the agent of my dreams employs a POVN Millicent — or is one herself, for that matter? Shouldn’t I, you know, just assume that every Millicent and agent out there is a POVN, and make my narrative choices accordingly?”

You could do that, of course; that’s a relatively safe route. You could also go to the agency’s website, find out whom it represents, and spend a fruitful hour in your local bookstore, yanking its clients’ novels off the shelves and checking for narrative voice. At least the ones in your chosen book category. If an agent represents someone who writes from multiple perspectives, you probably don’t need to worry about her Millicents being POVNs. If, however, the agency’s authors seem to make astonishingly similar perspective choices…

Or you could just choose the voice you feel is best for your story and take your chances. Most of the time, submitters don’t know precisely why agents pass on their manuscripts, anyway. In this age of form-letter rejections (and rejecting through silence), it’s unlikely that even the most vitriolic POVN Millicent would reject you by saying, “Great premise, nice writing — but God, I hate omniscient narration!”

Before you commit to any of these three perfectly reasonable strategies, let’s take a look at how knuckling under to the POVNs might conceivably harm a narrative. Suppose that Jane Austen took the following paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to her writing group, a cabal of POVNs:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

As an editor, I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons here, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose, right? Yet, as the POVNs in her group would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives rolling around promiscuously together in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry…(Elizabeth’s POV)

…but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. (the POV of an external observer)

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her… (Darcy’s POV)

Now, a POVN in our Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly implore her to pick a single perspective (Elizabeth’s would be the logical choice) and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly. (Or, more commonly, send out an editorial memo saying that he might consider acquiring the book, but only if Jane revised it so all of the action is seen from Elizabeth’s perspective only.)

Let’s say that Jane was cowed by the vehemence of the POVNs and scuttled home to take their advice. Inevitably, the resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from her original intention. It would probably ending up reading rather like this:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry. Darcy remained silent.

Comparatively terse, isn’t it? Legitimately, that is all that she could keep, if she were going to please the POVNs completely.

I cannot presume to speak for Aunt Jane, of course, but I suspect she would not be particularly satisfied with this revision, both because some characterization has been lost, as well as some long-term plot clues. At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. This would, of course, mean that his proposal would be a greater plot twist, coming out of the blue, but the reader would also end up with absolutely no idea how, beginning from initial indifference, Elizabeth charms began to steal over Darcy, over his own objections.

Which would mean, really, that the title of the book should be changed to just PREJUDICE. And since PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a quote from another novel (Fanny Burney’s excellent-but-dark 1782 novel CECILIA, where the phrase appears three times, all in capital letters), I’m inclined to think that Aunt Jane would have disliked that outcome.

Yet if I may pull up a chair in Jane’s writing group for a moment (oh, as if this whole exercise wouldn’t require time travel), allow me to point out how easily the judicious use of space bar would clear up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what when:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.

Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

The moral here, my friends, is once again that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true in every case. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for a good, long while.

You may well find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular writing project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of a single perspective works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the personal opinions of others.

Now that our collective loins are girded for possible knee-jerk objections to multiple perspective narratives, I feel I can move on to the topic of juggling them with a clear conscience. Tune in next time, and keep up the good work!

Nobody expects the…oh, heck, we all expect the Point-of-View Nazis by now, don’t we?

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Remember how I mentioned last week that reality is sometimes a genuinely lousy storyteller, one that often deviates from a nice, dramatic story arc to devolve into low-end comedy or abrupt tragedy? Well, yesterday provided abundant evidence that it can have as heavy a hand with coincidences as any aspiring writer desperately afraid that otherwise, his readers will be too gosh-darned dim-witted to figure out that all of those clues littered liberally throughout the plot might ADD UP TO SOMETHING.

How heavy a hand did reality apply, you ask? How’s this for overkill: an otherwise completely unconnected agent, long-time reader, and my mother all suggested to me within a six-hour period that perhaps my blog posts were a touch on the long side. Not that they didn’t contain good, useful advice, they all hastened to add; the first and third were concerned about the rather significant drain upon my writing time to compose them, the second about the rather significant drain upon his writing time to read them.

Both sides had a point, I must admit. I’ve always been of the school of thought that holds that blogs can’t really be over-fed: since any given post remains here permanently, there’s nothing stopping a time-pressed reader from stopping in the middle of one and coming back later. Yet even I occasionally experience qualms about just how much time a new reader might end up investing in perusing the archives, especially now that we’re heading into conference (and therefore pitching) season.

And let’s face it, as volunteer activities go, blogging is one of the more time-consuming ones. Most freelance editors who want to give back to the writing community volunteer a few hours a year at their local writers’ conference and call it good.

So far, so good: I took a day off (mid-week, even!) and today’s post is going to be a comparatively short one. In the days to come, I’ll try to dial it back a little.

Historically, I haven’t been all that good at giving the time-strapped bite-sized pieces of analysis, rather than a full meal — in my experience, a fuller explanation tends to be more helpful for writers — but hey, I’ll give it the old college try. Although truth compels me to add that my alma mater has never been noted for the brevity of its graduates’ — or professors’ — observations. That’s the problem with complex analysis; it doesn’t really lend itself to bullet-pointed how-to lists.

Word to the wise: a time-strapped individual might want to be cautious about getting any of us started on explaining the quark or deconstructing MOBY DICK unless she has a few hours to kill. I just mention.

But was that perennially insecure storyteller, reality, satisfied with making this suggestion THREE TIMES in a single day? Apparently not: the moment I logged in this evening, my incoming link alert informed me that two readers had also blogged on the subject within the last couple of days. And not precisely in a “Gee, I’m glad she’s explaining it this thoroughly, but where does she find the time?” vein.

If I’d encountered this level of conceptual redundancy in a manuscript, I’d have excised the third through fifth commentaries upon my wordiness. Possibly the second as well, if the writer intended the manuscript for submission.

Why be so draconian, those of you who write anything longer than super-short stories ask with horror? Well, what would you call a protagonist who needs to be given the same piece of advice five times before acting upon it?

Oh, you may laugh, but making the same point made five times is hardly unheard-of in a manuscript. Nor, alas, is ten or twelve. You’d be astonished at just how many writers seem to assume that their readers won’t be paying very close attention to their plotlines.

Not that Millicent the agency screener would know just how common this level of plot redundancy is, mind you; she tends to stop reading at the first paragraph that prompts her to exclaim, “Hey, didn’t this happen a few lines/pages/chapters ago?” She’s less likely to chalk the redundancy up to narrative insecurity, however, than to a simple lack of proofreading prior to submission.

Why would she leap to the latter conclusion? Well, let me ask you: have you ever made a revision in one scene, didn’t have time to go through the entirety of the manuscript, altering each and every scene affected by that change, and forgot to write yourself a note to remind you to do it right away? Or changed your mind about the plot’s running order without immediately sitting down and reading the revised version IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD in order to make absolutely certain that you deleted in Chapter Two what you added to Chapter Six?

Hey, we’re all strapped for time. Things slip through the cracks. Millicent hates when that happens.

Actually, I was thinking about all of you on my day off, contrary to agent’s, reader’s, bloggers’, and mother’s orders. I couldn’t help it: I was watching Absolute Zero, a documentary about a man who froze to death in what he believed to be a refrigerated railway car. (It wasn’t: the chiller wasn’t working properly.) Trapped, with no prospect of escape, he documented his sensations while yielding to apparently psychosomatic hypothermia by writing on the car’s walls at periodic intervals. After it finished, I leaned over to the arty film-loving friend who had dragged me to the flick and whispered, “Now THAT’s an active protagonist!”

See? It can be done.

I had planned to launch into the burning issue of juggling multiple protagonists today, but all of the control issues of that film must have seeped into my consciousness: I had written only a few paragraphs before I noticed that I had already used the term Point-of-View Nazi twice in passing. Rather than making those of you new to this site guess what this means, I thought I might go the wacky route of spending today’s post defining it, and THEN use it in later discussion.

Just in case any of you missed my earlier point about not putting off those follow-up writing tasks until some dim future point when one will magically have more time to devote to them: it’s a really, really good idea to deal with ‘em right way, before one forgets. Because one often does forget, and for the best of reasons: most of the writers I know are perennially swamped, struggling to carve out writing time in already busy lives.

So let’s cut right to the chase: who is the Point-of-View Nazi, and how can he harm those of you who favor, say, the use of multiple protagonists?

A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) is a reader — frequently a teacher, critic, agent, editor, or other person with authority over writers — who believes firmly that the only legitimate way to write third-person-narrated fiction is to pick a single character in the book or scene (generally the protagonist) and report ONLY his or her thoughts and sensations throughout the piece. Like first-person narration, this approach conveys only the internal experience of a single character, rather than several or all of the characters in the scene or book.

To put it bluntly, the POVN is the Millicent who automatically throws up her hands over multiple protagonist narration REGARDLESS OF HOW WELL IT IS DONE. And while this ilk of screener has been less prominent in recent years than formerly, those of you who play interesting experiments with narrative voice definitely need to know of her existence.

Now, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with tight third person narration focused upon a single character, inherently: it combines the advantages of a dispassionate narrator with the plotting and pacing plusses of a single perspective. It permits the author to sink deeply (or not) into the consciousness of a chosen character without losing the emotional distance of an omniscient narrator. Also, since no one else’s point of view is depicted, it can render the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader, which can in turn help build suspense and conflict on the page.

It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN positively mad with rage. Maybe not I’m-gonna-cause-some-mayhem mad, but certainly I’m-gonna-reject-this-manuscript mad. A little something like this:

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All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, naturally, and many of us have been known to lobby for their use. What distinguishes a POVN from a mere enthusiast for a particular narrative style is his active campaign to dissuade all other writers from ever considering the inclusion of more than one perspective in a third-person narrative.

Just ask one — trust me, he would be more than glad to tell you what voice is best for your book. He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth with all possible speed, please. He has been known to tell his students — or members of his writing group, or his clients, or the writers whom he edits or represents — that multiple POV narration in the third person is, to put it politely, terrible writing.

It should be stamped out, he feels — by statute, if necessary. And definitely by rejection letter.

So much for the majority of fiction currently being published in the English-speaking world, I guess. And so much for Jane Austen and most of the illustrious third-person narrative-writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who used multiple perspectives to great effect.

I bring up our forebears advisedly, because one of the reasons that POVNs were so common was that in the post-World War II era, the prose stylings of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to be rejected as old-fashioned (and therefore bad) by writing teachers. “Downright Dickensian,” many a POVN has cried, covering her students’ first forays into fiction with gallons of red ink. “How can we possibly follow the story, with so many characters’ perspectives?”

I should stop here and make a distinction between the POVN and a good professional reader who objects to what’s called in the trade head-hopping: when a narrative that has been sticking to a single point of view for pages or chapters on end suddenly wanders into another character’s perspective for a paragraph or two. That can be genuinely confusing to any reader, regardless of preexisting belief systems.

Think about it: if a book has been looking out of the protagonist’s eyes for 147 pages, it is a little jarring for the reader to be abruptly introduced to another character’s thoughts. The implication is that the protagonist has magically become psychic, and should be benefiting, along with the reader, from hearing the thoughts of others. If it’s an extreme enough perspective shift, the reader can get knocked out of the story to wonder, “Hey, how could Jemima possibly have seen that?”

Sometimes, this is a deliberative narrative choice, naturally, but more often, it’s the remnant of an earlier draft with an omniscient narrator — or one where another character was the protagonist. (I don’t need to reiterate the advice about going through the manuscript to make sure such changes of perspective are implemented universally, do I? I thought not.)

Another popular justification for head-hopping — although I’m sure all of you are far too conscientious to pull a fast one like this on Millicent — is that the strictures of a close third-person became inconvenient for describing what’s going on in a particular scene. “Hmm,” the wily writer thinks, “in this busy scene, I need to show a piece of action that my protagonist couldn’t possibly see, yet for the past 57 pages, the narration has presumed that the reader is seeing through Jemima’s eyes, and Jemima’s alone. Maybe no one will notice if I just switch the close-third person perspective into nearby Osbert’s head for a paragraph or two, to show the angle I want on events.”

Those of you who have encountered Millicent’s — or indeed, any professional reader’s — super-close scrutiny before: how likely is she not to notice that narrative trick? Here’s a hint:

spanish inquisition python 3

Uh-huh; it’s not worth the risk. In fact, no matter what perspective you have chosen for your book, it would behoove you to give it a once-over (preferably IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD), checking for head-hopping. It drives those of us who read manuscripts for a living batty.

But simple (or even complex) head-hopping is not what’s likely to get you in trouble with your garden-variety POVN. Oh, he hates head-hopping, like most professional readers, but he tends not to be the kind of well-meaning soul who will point out this type of slip to aspiring writers. Nor, indeed, is he the sort at all likely to make a charitable distinction between accidental head-hopping and a misguided narrative choice.

No, a really rabid POVN will jump upon ANY instance of multiple-perspective narration, castigating it as inherently unacceptable, even unpublishable writing — and will rather smugly inform the author that she has broken an ironclad writing rule by doing it. To an aspiring writer expecting to engage in a straightforward, friendly discussion about whether his voice and perspective choices are the most effective way to tell a particular story, this can come as something as a shock.

To be fair, the POVN tends to believe she’s doing aspiring writers a big favor by being inflexible on this point. Remember, many of today’s more adamant POVNs are merely transmitting the lessons they were taught in their first good writing classes: for years, many English professors set it down as a general rule that multiple points of view were inherently distracting in a third-person narrative.

Take that, CATCH-22!

Personally, I think the focus of the narrative voice is a stylistic choice, up to the writer, rather than something that can be imposed like the Code of Hammurabi on every novel wavering on human fingertips, waiting to be written. My primary criterion for judging voice is whether a writer’s individual writing choices serve her story well, rather than rejecting a manuscript outright because of a preconceived notion of what is and isn’t possible.

Call me zany, but I like to think that there’s more than one way to tell a story.

To be fair, though, as an inveterate reader of literary fiction, I have a special affection for authors whose talent is so vast that they can pull off breaking a major writing commandment from time to time. Alice Walker’s use of punctuation alone in THE COLOR PURPLE would have caused many rigid rule-huggers to dismiss her writing on page 1, but the result is, I think, brilliant. (Fortunately, and probably not entirely coincidentally, though, she already had an agent when she wrote it, so she did not have to subject that stylistic choice to the vagaries of Millicent and her ilk.)

I love to discover a writer so skilled at her craft that she can afford to bend a rule or two. Heaven forefend that every writer’s voice should start to sound alike — or that writing should all start to sound as though it dropped from a single pen.

Which is precisely what hard-and-fast rules of narrative style tend to produce, across a writing population. It’s not accidental that a particular perspective choice often dominates a book category for years at a time — agents and editors tend to assume that the narrative choices of the best-selling authors in that category are those that readers prefer. Then some brave soul will hit the big time with a book written from the non-dominant point of view, and all of a sudden, that choice is the new normal.

Like so many other matters of subjective aesthetic judgment, close third-person narration (also known as tight third-person) goes in and out of fashion. But just try pointing that out to a POVN.

One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular indeed, then fall into disuse, only to rise anew — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s point of view and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar. And, wouldn’t you know it, those POVs are overwhelmingly upper-middle class, college-educated, and grateful to teachers who kept barking, “Write what you know!”

The POVNs have also given us a whole slew of books where the other characters are exactly as they appear to the protagonist: no more, no less. No subtext here. The rise of television and movies, where the camera is usually an impersonal narrator of the visibly obvious, has also contributed to this kind of what you see is what you get characterization (if you’ll forgive my quoting the late great Flip Wilson in this context).

The result is a whole lot of submissions that just beg the question, “Why wasn’t this book just written in the first person, if we’re not going to gain any significant insight into the other characters?”

I suspect that I am not the only reader who addresses such questions to an unhearing universe in the dead of night, but for a POVN, the answer is abundantly obvious. The piece in question focused upon a single POV because there is simply no other way to write a third-person scene.

Oh, you disagree with that? Cue the Spanish Inquisition!

As a matter of fact, I disagree with that, but I’m going to sign off now, before the blog-length hard-liners come after me for the sixth time. Should the POVNs come after you before my next set of (comparatively brief) thoughts on the subject, fling some Jane Austen at ‘em; while they’re ripping it apart, you can slip out the back way.

I hate to leave you in the lurch, but…wait, who is that pounding on my door? Pardon me if I run, and keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part III: the many, many different translations of aloha

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Can you believe it, campers? I took an entire weekend off. Well, not off, precisely — I edited copy for two wildly different websites, walked a new author through the mysteries of blogging, and threw a gala dinner party — but the point is, I didn’t blog. Not even a little.

Except for very late last night, when I discovered that an apparently well-disposed Russian blogger had tried to leave a comment here. To be specific, I discovered it in my about-to-be-deleted spam. (What, you thought I wouldn’t log on to see if my spam-blocking program hadn’t committed some unanticipated mayhem while I was looking the other way, just because I wasn’t posting? Even when I’m on vacation, I often check in to answer readers’ questions.) Unfortunately, I don’t read Russian, but a friend who does said that it was an interesting comment. Even more unfortunately, neither my blogging program nor I is in a position to provide translation services for the fine folks who read this blog in translation. Which means, I’m afraid, that I can only post comments in English, even on the rare occasion that my spam-screening program allows me to see those in foreign languages.

All of which I felt compelled to mention late last night. What I neglected to mention was (a) the fact that my blogging program requires me to approve every first-time commenter’s post (which is why, in case some of you first-timers had been wondering, your comments may not have appeared on the blog right away) and (b) the reason that this level of scrutiny is necessary. Spamming advertisers often try to post links to their products’ websites as comments on blogs; if I did not employ my dual-level screening system, you would constantly be regaled with 40 or 50 ads, many of which for products and services that do not bear mention on a family-friendly site. (Since it’s important to me that those of you reading on computers with parental controls and/or public computers and/or work computers have unfettered access to the Author! Author! community, I actually do check links.)

So in case I haven’t said it recently: please, keep the conversation G-rated, keep it in the language of the site, and I’ll make a sincere effort to keep my spam screener from eating your thoughts. And if you’re even considering posting a link in my comments, please review the rules for posting comments before tossing ‘em up there.

Thanks tons. Let’s get back to the matter at hand.

Last week, I gave you a heads-up about a bugbear that haunts many a novel and memoir submission, the passive protagonist problem. The dreaded PPP, for those of you who missed my last couple of posts, arises when the action of a book occurs around the main character, rather than her participating actively in it — or (dare I say it?) causing it.

As I intimated last time (and the week before, and a year ago, and…), passive protagonists tend to annoy professional readers. While naturally not every single agent, editor, contest judge, or screener in the biz will instantly stop reading the moment the leading character in a novel stops to contemplate the world around him, at any given moment, thousands and thousands of submissions sitting on professional readers’ desks feature protagonists who do precisely that.

Often for pages and chapters at a time. It’s not necessarily that there’s no action occurring on the page; the protagonist merely seems to be an observer. Unlike the assumed other observer of the plot — the reader — the protagonist is a spectator enjoying the considerable twin advantages of being personally involved in the outcome of the struggle-in-progress and having the capacity to comment upon goings-on for the reader’s benefit. (In the language of the prevailing narrative, presumably.)

Yes, yes, I know: the latter practice is a necessity in a first-person narrative. The nature of the beast, really — when the narrator and the protagonist are one and the same, it’s pretty hard to keep the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings out of the narrative. (Although you’d be surprised at how many memoir submissions seem devoted to the losing battle of trying to keep the narrative impersonal. Just the facts, ma’am.) And in a close third-person narrative, the reader if often treated to glimpses of the protagonist’s internal mutterings.

All of that’s perfectly appropriate, of course — although as Millicent the agency screener would be only too happy to tell you, the proper proportion of internal monologue to external activity varies wildly by genre. An unusually chatty protagonist of a Western would be practically silent by the standards of most science fiction subcategories, for instance, and even a relatively reticent memoir narrator would strike the average thriller’s protagonist as living almost entirely inside his own head.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: there’s just no substitute for being conversant with the norms of your chosen book category. And there’s just no other way of becoming conversant with the current market than sitting down and reading books like yours that have been released within the past few years.

Category-appropriate levels of internal monologue is not what I mean by a passive protagonist problem, though. I’m talking about the kind of protagonist who watches intently what is going on around him — sometimes letting the reader in on his thoughts on the subject, sometimes not — but does not speak or act in a way that is in any way likely to change what’s going on.

The plot just carries him along, a leaf tossed into a river.

Nothing against a little quiet contemplation, but if you were screening 50 manuscripts a day, and 30 of them featured passive protagonists, it would start to annoy you eventually, too. (And in response to what half of you just thought: no, that’s not an exaggeration; if anything, the 30 out of 50 estimate is on the low side. Just ask any experienced contest judge.)

Given the extreme popularity of the passive protagonist, perhaps it’s understandable that the average Millicent’s reaction to encountering inert characters tends to be a trifle, well, negative, almost to the point of being reflexive. One doesn’t need to pull all that many pans out of hot ovens without using mitts to start snatching one’s hands away from blister-inducing surfaces, after all.

Already, I see a forest of raised hands. “But if the pros dislike character passivity so much,” some of you call out, and with excellent reason, “why don’t they just tell writers so? How hard would it be to post on their websites or include in their agency guide listings, ‘No passive protagonists, please?”

Excellent point, thought-huggers: that would indeed be a spectacularly good plan. However, as is the case with so many basic facts of publishing, many agents and editors are under the impression that they do tell aspiring writers about it — in fact, even form-letter rejections tend to contain some reference to the phenomenon, but not in so many words. Usually, it’s cast in terms that you’d have to read many manuscripts a week to translate accurately.

I couldn’t identify with the main character, for instance, is a fairly common euphemism for Passive Protagonist Syndrome.

Was that giant thump I just heard a thousand jaws hitting the floor? Let me guess: you thought you were the only submitter who had ever heard gotten this response, right?

Would you be surprised to learn that variations on this sentiment are the most common pieces of rejection feedback writers receive? So I would imagine that quite a few of you — at least, the ones who have been querying and submitting diligently, bless your intrepid hears — have seen at least one iteration of this little number in at least one rejection letter.

Let’s take a little informal poll to see how effective this common form-rejection phraseology has been at making its point. Hands up, anyone who received such a response and instantly thought, “Oh, I’d better make my protagonist more active, by gum.”

Anyone? Anyone?

To be fair, there are other a million reasons a screener (who is usually the one weeding out submissions at a big agency, by the way, rather than the agent) might not have identified with a protagonist other than passivity. But it is one of the more common. Other rejection-speak that might translate as an appeal for more activity: I didn’t like the main character enough to follow him through an entire book, There isn’t enough conflict here, and the ever-popular I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist enough to pick up the book.

Since this last euphemism has about as many meanings as aloha, however, it’s often difficult to translate exactly. I have seen it mean everything from, The first paragraph bored me to I hate books about brunettes. You’d be amazed what a broad range of issues folks on the business side of the biz will lump under the general rubric of writing problem.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you slice-of-lifers fume, “this is grossly unfair! Surely, this is not a reaction that every reader would have to a slightly lackadaisical character — and in case you haven’t noticed, the world is stuffed to the gills with people who do not rush headlong into conflict at the slightest provocation. Haven’t any of you professional readers ever heard of REALISM?”

Oh, I think that this problem is all about realism — I suspect that writers tend to identify with passive protagonists far, far more than other readers do. (And just to give you a heads-up, imaginary protestors: professional readers generally HATE it when aspiring writers accuse them of having invented the marketing reality that certain books are harder to sell than others. Really.)

There’s good reason that writers tend to root for the quiet types, of course: we writers spend a lot of time and energy watching the world around us, capturing trenchant observations and seeing relationships in ways nobody ever has before. Small wonder, then, that writers often think of people who do this as likeable, charming, interesting people, well worth knowing — and certainly lovable enough to warrant following all the way to the end of a book, thank you very much, Millicent..

So it often comes as a great shock to these writers that the average fiction or memoir agent, to put it mildly, does not share this opinion. Nor does the average editor of same; even those who publish books by journalists — who are, after all, trained to be primarily observers — want the subjects of those stories to be active.

For one simple reason: because such stories are, by and large, infinitely easier to sell to readers.

Yes, really — remember, we writers are far from normal readers. We buy a disproportionate share of any year’s crop of literary fiction, for instance, as well as much of the short story collections and masses of poetry. We pore over books in our chosen book category — at least I hope you do; I certainly recommend it often enough — following our favorite authors’ careers with a loyalty and intensity that others reserve for sports stars.

We are, in fact, an extremely specific niche market of book purchasers. It would be interesting to try to make the case that a particular piece of literary fiction could be marketed successfully to writers-who-read, specifically on the grounds that its protagonist does think like a writer: observing, observing, observing.

However, if you are writing in most of the established book categories, I can virtually guarantee that writers will not be your primary target audience.

And that’s something of a pity, because from a writer’ point of view, one of the great fringe benefits of the craft is the delightful ability to make one’s after-the-fact observations on a situation appear to be the protagonist’s first reactions — and one of the simplest ways to incorporate our shrewd observations on the human condition seamlessly into a text is to attribute them to a character.

Writers who read LOVE that.

Which is fine, until the protagonist becomes so busy observing — or feeling, or thinking — that it essentially becomes his full-time job in the book. Since in the two of the three most common fictional voices — omniscient narrator, first person, and tight third person, where the reader hears the thoughts of the protagonist — the observing character is generally the protagonist, this propensity sometimes results in a book centered on someone who is too busy observing others to have a life of his or her own.

Yes, you did just draw the correct conclusion there: on the page, being purely reactive seldom comes across as all that fascinating a life.

That sentiment just stirred up some pretty intense reactions out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear some reactivity-lovers cry, “my protagonist enjoys a rich and full emotional life by responding to stimuli around him. His mental activity is prodigious. If that was good enough for Mr. Henry James, why shouldn’t it be good enough for me?”

Well, for starters, have you taken a gander at some of Mr. Henry James’ sentences lately? Some of them are two pages long, for heaven’s sake; even Dickens would have blushed at that.

More to the point, from a regular reader’s point of view, a protagonist’s being upset, resentful, or even wrestling within himself trying to figure out the best course of action is not automatically dramatic. To compound that blasphemy, allow me to add: thought about interesting matters does not necessarily make interesting reading.

In the throes of eliciting solid human emotion or trenchant insight, writers can often lose sight of these salient facts.

Why aren’t internal dynamics inherently dramatic, you ask? Because whilst the mind is churning, the entirety of protagonist’s glorious energy expenditure typically is not changing the world around her one iota. At the risk of sounding like a constructor of form-letter rejections, it’s substantially more difficult to identify with a protagonist who diagnoses the problems around her with pinpoint accuracy, yet does not act upon these insights in order to rectify the situation, than one who jumps into the conversation or does something to disturb the status quo.

I’ll go even farther than that: the character who speaks up in the face of what she perceives to be injustice, even if it’s very quietly, or who takes a concrete step to gain what she wants, even if it’s a very tiny or largely symbolic one, is usually more likable than one who remains inert and resents. And before any of you creators of anti-heroes scoff at the very concept of protagonist likability, let me whip out yet another of the great form-letter euphemisms: I didn’t care enough about the character to keep turning the pages.

Harsh? You bet, but not entirely unjustified, from Millicent’s point of view. Here’s how the passive protagonist phenomenon generally plays out in otherwise solid, well-written manuscripts:

(1) The protagonist is confronted with a dilemma, so she worries about for pages at a time before doing anything about it (If, indeed, she elects to do anything about it at all.)

(2) If it’s a serious problem, she may mull it over for entire chapters. (Or entire volumes of a trilogy, in an 18th-century novel.)

(3) When the villain is mean to her, instead of speaking up, she will think appropriate responses. Should the mean person be her love interest, she must never, ever ask him to explain himself; much better to mull his possible motivations mentally, and proceed upon those assumptions.

(4) At some point, she will probably talk it all over with her best friend(s)/lover(s)/people who can give her information about the situation before selecting a course of action. (See parenthetical disclaimer in #1.)

(5) If she is confronted with a mystery, she will methodically collect every piece of evidence before drawing any conclusions that might require action. Frequently, this requires tracking down interested parties, asking a single question, and listening passively while those parties provide her with the necessary clues.

(6) However, if the problem to be confronted is relationship-based, she must on no account simply ask any of the parties involved how they view the situation, or reveal her own feelings on the subject to them. Avoidable guesswork may in this manner frequently supply suspense.

(7) Even in the wake of discovering ostensibly life-changing (or -threatening) revelations, she takes the time to pay attention to the niceties of life; she is not the type to leave her date in the lurch just because she’s doomed to die in 24 hours.

(8) When she has assembled all the facts and/or figured out what she should do (often prompted by an outside event that makes her THINK), she takes swift action, and the conflict is resolved.

Is it me, or is this progression of events just a tad passive-aggressive? Especially in plotlines that turn on misunderstandings, wouldn’t it make more sense if the protagonist spoke directly to the person with whom she’s in conflict at some point?

Gee, one might almost be tempted to conclude that writers as a group are confrontation-avoiders. Maybe we should all retreat into our individual corners and mull that one over.

Up those hands go again. “But Anne, I’m worried about the opposite problem: if I send my protagonist barreling into every available conflict, won’t that make readers dislike her, too? Not to mention getting her into all kinds of trouble — if she said out loud precisely what she thought of the people around her, they’d bludgeon her to a pulp within fifteen minutes.”

I’m glad you brought this up, hand-raisers: often, writers will have their protagonists keep their more trenchant barbs to themselves in order to make them more likable, especially if the protagonist happens to be female. The logic behind this choice at first glance seems solid: in real life, very aggressive people don’t tend to work and play as well with others as gentle, tolerant, accommodating sorts.

But as we’ve discussed before, what’s true in real life isn’t necessarily true on the page. An inert character who is nice to all and sundry is generally less likable from the reader’s point of view than the occasionally viper-tongued character who pushes situations out of the realm of the ordinary and into the conflictual.

Because, as I MAY have mentioned before, conflict is entertaining. On the page, if not in real life.

More to the point, lack of conflict can slow a narrative practically to a standstill. So can conflict in which the character the reader is supposed to care most about is not integrally involved, or conflict where the outcome doesn’t matter much to the protagonist — because if the protagonist doesn’t care enough to get involved, why should the reader?

“But Anne,” the hand-raisers protest, “my protagonist cares deeply about what’s going on; that’s why she thinks about it all so much, Besides, my villains are based upon people who are just awful in real life, so it’s impossible that the reader won’t automatically root against them, no matter whether my protagonist leaps into the fray or not. So what’s wrong with letting her sit back while the bad guys expose their true colors?”

Ooh, that’s a tough one. Not the question, necessarily, but pulling off plopping characters ripped from real life into a narrative where a comparatively virtuous protagonist stands back and observes their bad behavior. While pitting kindly and forbearing protagonists against aggressive bad folks (who often bear suspicious resemblances to the writer’s “ex-friends, ex-lovers, and enemies,” as the bard Joe Jackson likes to call them) is probably a pretty healthy real-world response, emotionally speaking, it can be deadly on a page.

Why? Well, the reader’s sense of dramatic fitness, for one thing: while it may be realistic to show a character confronting the same intractable problem or awful co-worker day after day, the mere fact of bringing the problem up generates an expectation that something will happen to change that status quo, doesn’t it? If the narrative violates that expectation, not only is the reader likely to become impatient — he’s likely to get bored.

It’s difficult to keep a reader interested indefinitely in a repeating pattern of events, no matter how beautifully they may be described. Then, too, sitting around and resenting, no matter how well-justified that resentment may be, is awfully darned hard to convey well in print.

But that doesn’t stop most of us from trying from time to time, does it?

Come on — ‘fess up; we all do it. We writers are notorious for taking revenge on the page, Rare is the creative writer who does not blow off the occasional real-world resentment, angst, or just plain annoyed helplessness by having his protagonist think pithy comebacks, uncomfortable reactions, pointed rhetorical questions, and/or outraged cris de coeur against intractable forces. Instead of, say, uttering these sentiments out loud, which might conceivably provoke a confrontation (and thus the conflict so dear to Millicent’s heart), or doing something small and indirect to undermine the larger conditions the protagonist is unable to alter.

Yes, people mutter to themselves constantly in real life; few of us actually tell of the boss in the way s/he deserves. However, at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, just because something actually occurs does not necessarily mean that it will make good fiction.

What does make good fiction is conflict. Lots of it. On every page, if possible.

This is not to say, of course, that every protagonist should be a sword-wielding hero, smiting his enemies right and left — far from it. But even the mousiest character is capable of acting out from time to time.

And yes, I am about to give you another homework assignment. How clever of you to see it coming.

Whip out those Post-It notes and highlighting pens and start running through your manuscript, seeking out silent blowings-off of emotional steam. Whenever you find them, check to see if there is conflict on the rest of the page — and if your protagonist is taking part in it actively, only in thought, or simply as an observer.

Depending upon what you find in each instance, here are some possible next steps. (Fair warning: some of these are going to sound a wee bit familiar from last week’s assignment, as we’re talking about fixing the same phenomenon.)

(1) If there’s not conflict on the page in front of you, ask yourself: how could I add some? Or, if you’re trying to avoid adding length to the manuscript, are there elements slowing down the scene that you could cut? Does this interaction add enough to the plot or character development that it actually needs to be there?

(2) If your protagonist is active, pat yourself on the back. Then ask yourself anyway: is there something even more interesting s/he could do here? Something less predictable? A way that her reaction could surprise the reader a little more, perhaps? Small twists go a long way toward keeping a reader involved.

(3) If your protagonist is merely thinking her response, go over the moments when she is silently emoting. Is there some small tweak you could give to her response that would make it change the situation at hand? Or — and it’s astonishing how infrequently this solution seems to occur to most aspiring writers — could she say some of the things she’s thinking OUT LOUD?

(4) If your protagonist is a pure observer in the scene, sit down and figure out what precisely the observed interaction adds to the book. Are there ways that you could achieve the same goals in scenes where your protagonist is a stronger player? If not, could there be more than one conflict in the scene, so your protagonist could be involved in the lesser one?

If you find yourself worrying that these textual tweaks may cumulatively transform your protagonist a charming, well-rounded lump of inactivity into a seething mass of interpersonal problem generation, consider this: many agents and editors like to see themselves as people of action, dashing swashbucklers who wade through oceans of the ordinary to snatch up the golden treasure of the next bestseller, preferably mere seconds before the other pirates spot it. Protagonists who go for what they want tend to appeal to them.

More, at any rate, then they seem to appeal to most writers. In fact, this whole argument may well seem glib and market-minded to some of you, and frankly, from an artistic perspective, that’s completely understandable.

That’s not the only perspective that’s relevant here, though, even for the artist. Remember, a submitted manuscript does not need to speak only to its author, or even to other writers: its appeal needs to translate into other mindsets. It’s the writer’s job to make sure that the manuscript can speak to both the business side of the publishing world and the artistic side.

Before your work can speak to your target market of readers, it has to please another target market: agents and editors. Even if you have good reason to keep your protagonist from confronting his challenges directly — and you may well have dandy ones built into your plot; look at Hamlet — he will still have to keep in motion enough to please this necessary first audience.

So while you’re revising, ask yourself: how can I coax my protagonist out of his head, and into his story? How can his actions or words alter this particular moment in the plotline, if only a little?

As individuals, we can’t always more mountains, my friends; we can, however, usually kick around a few pebbles. Give it some thought under those swaying palms, people — but not too much. Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XIII: letters, diary entries, and what on earth is this hotel’s wifi doing to my coding?

the places youll go cover

That was an unusually long break between posts, wasn’t it? By my hyper-communicative standards, at least. Honestly, I didn’t mean for it to be. I’ve been on business trip to someplace small, and, as often seems to be the case when conducting novel research, getting there required several airplanes each way. While you intrepid readers have been twiddling your thumbs, breathlessly awaiting another discussion of standard format, I’ve been busily tapping away at my keyboard, wedged between a window and a man who claimed his wife didn’t understand him.

Yes, on every leg of the flight. Either air flight is the haven of the misunderstood husband, or these guys’ wives understand only too well how they act while traveling.

So why, given how hard I was trying to ignore the small army of fellow flyers wishing to discuss their failing marriages with me, was I not posting constantly throughout the trip? Oddly, my hotel’s wifi seemed to have a penchant for scrambling the coding on such blogging decorations as photographs and italics; when I tried to post, the result looked as though it had been designed by Dr. Seuss.

And not in a good way, I’m afraid.

Not posting seemed to be the better part of valor, then, yet since my typing speed was directly proportional to just how much those fellows wanted to tell me about their wives (does that ever work as a pick-up technique, by the way?), I returned to Seattle up to my ears in post material. Seldom has so much been written on formatting in so short a time.

So fasten your seatbelts and extinguish all smoking materials, everybody — it’s going to be an extra-long post. As will tomorrow’s, and probably the day after’s, because frankly, the misunderstood men weren’t the only irritant spurring my fingers to fly.

As someone who travels a lot (I teach all over the place, should anyone be interested in flying me someplace to hear me talk about, say, querying or pitching), I’ve become accustomed, if not precisely resigned, to the fact that pretty much every airport in the country has slightly different security regulations. Even within any given airport, enforcement is variable. What is required in, say, Los Angeles will sometimes get you scolded in Duluth — and sometimes even in Los Angeles, if a new manager happens to come on shift.

Seriously, I’ve seen lipstick confiscated as a potential liquid in Seattle (yes, really), but been chided in Newark for cluttering my requisite 1-quart bag of carried-on liquids with Perky Passion. New Orleans seems to harbor an antipathy against pointy tweezers, a fear apparently reserved in Boston for the smallest gauge of knitting needles. In Chicago, I heard a lady screamed at because it hadn’t occurred to her to place her asthma inhaler in the plastic bag with her carried-on liquids; in Newark, the same poor woman was permitted to retain her inhaler, but was grilled mercilessly about the glass jar of seasoned salt that she was taking to her sister. And if there is any sort of national standard about whether shoes should be placed in a box or directly upon the conveyor belt, it must change at least twice weekly.

Like all of us, I try to be flexible, open-minded, cooperative, reminding myself that the person chiding me for doing precisely what the official in the last airport told me to do four hours ago is merely enforcing the rules as she understands them, and that alerting her to the fact that she is apparently the only security officer in the continental U.S. that genuinely believes that socks, as well as shoes, need to be removed and run through the scanner is unlikely to improve the situation. Chances are, she’ll only get miffed, and I’ll still end up strolling through the metal detector barefooted except for the Perky Passion on my toes.

Coming home this time, however, I received an instruction that left me dumbfounded. After I scurried, shoeless, through the metal detector, the security officer made a grab at my skirt. “I have to pat it down,” she told me when I snatched it back. “New regulation.”

New, as in it had apparently been made up on the spot; even as she said it, beskirted women were passing unmolested through the three other security stations. As were men in baggy pants, priests in vestments, and bagpipers in kilts. “I flew wearing this skirt two days ago,” I told her politely, “and nobody ran his hands over it. Is the regulation new as of today?”

She looked at me blankly. “I suppose,” she said after a moment’s thought, “I could have you turn around while I did it, to make it less embarrassing.”

A brief, enlightening chat with her very apologetic supervisor later, she still apparently didn’t understand just how she had misinterpreted the latest instructions. “But the skirt’s below her knee,” she kept saying, as if a strumpet in a miniskirt on this 27° day would have been substantially less suspect than a lady dressed for the weather. “I have to pat her down, don’t I?”

As I reclaimed my hem from her grasp, I thought of you, my friends. Honestly, I did. There’s a moral here, one’s that’s highly applicable to any aspiring writer’s attempt to navigate all of the many conflicting pieces of formatting advice out there: while the rules themselves do not change, interpretations do vary. In situations where the deciding party holds all the power, it’s best not to quibble over even the wackiest interpretations.

Or, to put it in the terms we use here at Author! Author!: if the agent of your dreams has just tweeted angrily that she just HATES seeing a second space after a period, don’t waste your time pointing out that those spaces are in fact proper in English. You’d be right, of course, but if she’s sure enough of her interpretation to devote 140 words to it, you’re not going to win the fight.

Give her what she wants — yes, even if finding out what she wants involves checking her agency’s website, guide listing, and her Twitter account. (I know, I know — that’s pretty time-consuming, but remember, it has probably never occurred to her that the good writers querying her are probably also trying to discover similar information for twenty or thirty other agents. She’s just trying to come up with something interesting to tweet.)

But don’t, whatever you do, assume that particular agent’s pet peeve is shared by everyone else in the industry. As we’ve seen earlier in this series, not only are some of the newer standards far from standard — adhering to some of them might actually alienate more traditional agents and editors.

In fact, when trying to decide whether to follow any new guideline, it’s always prudent to consider the source. Someone new to the rules — who, for instance, is simply passing along a list he discovered somewhere — is far more likely to apply offbeat interpretations than someone who has had a great deal of practical experience with professional manuscripts, and advice heard first-hand from an agent or editor at a conference may alter considerably by the time it becomes fourth- or fifth-hand news. All it takes to skew the message is one link in the chain to get a tiny detail wrong in the retelling, after all.

Or, as with my would-be groper, to misunderstand a key word or phrase in the original instructions. One person’s suspiciously bulging fabric below the waistband is another person’s skirt.

Unfortunately, offbeat interpretations of the rules of standard format are not the exclusive province of fourth-hand advice-givers. Sometimes, newly-minted contest judges and even freshly-trained Millicents can give a tried-and-true rules a mighty original twist. In a contest that gives entrants critique or an agency that permits its screeners to scrawl individual observations in the margins of its form-letter rejections (as some do), even a small misunderstanding on the reader’s end has resulted in perplexing feedback for many an aspiring writer.

Even more unfortunately, the Mehitabels and Millicents producing this feedback seldom think to phrase their understanding of the relevant rule tactfully. To them, the rule’s the rule, just as calf-length skirts were security threats to my airport guard; why not just bark it?

The cumulative result of all of that barking of all of those interpretations of all of those rules: writers often end up feeling scolded, if not actually yelled at and shamed. Hands up, if this has ever happened to you.

My hand is raised, by the way. I’ve received snarling admonitions from contest judges for formatting that my agency flatly requires all of its clients to follow. Then, too, back in my querying days, a West Coast Millicent once huffily informed me that he’d hated my premise when he’d first read my query three months before at his previous job in an East Coast agency. Evidently, I should have been following his movements closely enough not to have run my query under the same person’s eye twice.

Shame on me for not having read his mind correctly.

But realistically, what good would it have done my manuscript to argue with him? It was indeed absurd of a faceless, anonymous Millicent to expect any aspiring writer to know anything about who is working behind the scenes at any agency, much less who is moving from one agency to another and when. It was also misguided of the contest judge to tell me that I should put my chapter heading where the title of a short story should be — a common judge’s misconception, by the way, since those with the publication credentials to be literary judges are more often successful short story writers than novelists. (And if that last sentence was mystifying to you, run, don’t walk to the discussion earlier in this series on the dos and don’ts of chapter openings.)

But do you know what would have been even more absurd and misguided? My automatically assuming that these barkers were right, simply because they were speaking from an apparent position of authority and with vehemence.

Contrary to popular opinion, being right and sounding insistent have no necessary relationship to each other. Had I automatically followed their advice without double-checking its soundness, I simply would have been compounding their interpretive missteps. (And my current agent would have been pretty annoyed with me about my chapter headings, because as it happens, I was already constructing them in the manner my agency prefers.)

I’m bringing this up not because it is integral to understanding today’s foray into the complexities of formatting — it isn’t, especially — but to reiterate the importance of not simply adopting every formatting and writing tip you hear. Look those gift horses very closely in the mouth before you ride any of ‘em home.

Yes, even the ones grazing in my pasture. Many a soi-disant writing guru has ultimately proven to be factually wrong, and when that happens, it’s not the guru that gets hurt; it’s the aspiring writers who blithely follow his advice because it sounds authoritative. Ditto, unfortunately, when aspiring writers misinterpret agents’ pronouncements of their personal preferences as iron-clad rules of the industry.

Remember: when in doubt, the smart thing to do is ask follow-up questions; many an aspiring writer has run afoul of Millicent simply because he didn’t fully understand Rule #10 on an under-explained list of 27.

I hear some of you tittering. Okay, so by my exhaustive standards, practically all of the advice out there is under-explained — but that’s precisely why it’s important not to accept any one interpretation blindly. If an advice-giver can’t (or won’t) answer questions, don’t just get a second opinion (or third or fourth or eighteenth); keep asking until you find an explanation that makes sense to you.

Isn’t that a better use of your energies than feeling crushed because some yahoo contest judge barked at you? Or fighting with an agent who cares enough about her personal hatred of italics to tweet about it every other month?

Personally, I love it when readers post questions; it helps everyone learn. For instance, here’s a terrific formatting question inveterate commenter Dave posted some time back:

While I have your attention, it seems that some time ago you were going to mention something about manuscript format. To be exact, I think you were going to tell us how to format longer passages that a character is voicing or reading, those that in published form are often printed with wider margins, in italics, or even with a different font. As a more concrete example, I’m thinking of a letter the protagonist might receive that is presented to the reader in its entirety.

The short answer is, as it so often is in this game, it depends.

Upon what, you ask? Well, upon the length of the letter one wants to include, for one thing. Also, if we want to get technical about it (and the masses cry, We do! We do!), it depends upon whether the manuscript in question is an academic work or not — or is a nonfiction work of the type often produced by academics.

That last declaration left some of you scratching your heads, didn’t it? And like sensible writers, you formulate a follow-up question: “Why on earth would it make a difference whether a professor — or someone else who aspired to that level of expertise — wrote the darned thing? Standard format is standard format, isn’t it?”

Well, it is and it isn’t. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: what is proper in a book manuscript is not necessarily what’s proper in a short story manuscript; what’s expected in a book proposal is not precisely what’s expected in a novel submission; contests often have specific rules that run contrary to the prevailing rules of standard format. And as we have so often discussed, if an individual agent or editor publicly expresses a personal preference, anyone who submits to him should honor it. It’s the writer’s responsibility to check what’s appropriate for the submission at hand.

In other words, sometimes a skirt is just a skirt. And maybe the guy in seat 27D’s wife actually doesn’t understand him. Exceptions do exist.

As much as aspiring writers would love it if all written materials were subject to the same standards, assuming that any writing, anywhere, anytime should be formatted identically, or that any stack of papers called a manuscript will look the same, is simply wishful thinking. True, life would be a whole lot easier for writers everywhere if that particular wish came true, but in case you hadn’t yet noticed, the publishing world isn’t really set up with an eye to making things more convenient for those just breaking into the biz.

So how might a scholar handle this problem? A university press — or college professor reading a thesis, for that matter — would expect any quotation longer than 3 lines of text to be offset, devoid of quotation marks, and single-spaced, provided that the quote in question is not longer than a page; quotes less than three full lines long are simply placed within quotation marks. Offsetting, for the benefit of those intrepid readers who did not automatically skip the rest of this paragraph immediately after the words university press, is achieved by skipping a line, then indenting the quoted material five spaces (or half an inch, using Word’s standard tabs) on both the left and right margins. After the quote comes another blank line, then the text resumes normally.

In practice, then, a page featuring quotations in an academic manuscript might look a little something like this:

academic example

Why do scholars mark quotes from other works so VERY well? That way, there can be absolutely no question about when a professor is borrowing material from somebody else’s published or unpublished work. (There tends to be a lot of unpublished work floating around the average university at any given time, after all.)

In a book proposal or nonfiction manuscript that isn’t a memoir, it’s perfectly permissible to present long quotes tend to be in this manner — although in non-academic nonfiction, the quote would be double-spaced. It’s clear, it’s direct, and most important of all, Millicents who work for NF-representing agents will get it. (Although most ultimately published memoirs begin life as book proposals, at least in the U.S., memoir manuscripts follow the formatting conventions of novels. Hey, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ‘em.)

“That’s all very well and good,” enough of you to get together and raise a barn are probably muttering, “but this doesn’t really address Dave’s question, does it? You’ve told us that a letter in a novel or memoir manuscript should not be treated like a quote one academic lifted from another and stuffed wholesale into her dissertation, but you don’t tell us how it should be handled. And how about showing us a practical example of that double-spaced offset quote you mentioned above?”

Don’t worry: a concrete NF example follows below. (Hey, I wasn’t kidding about the length of this post!) On the other front, patience, my friends, patience — because, again, it depends.

If the letter in question is short (or the excerpt being reproduced in the narrative is), there’s no need to treat it as anything but a regular old quote, like any other in the novel:

novel-letter-example1

Perfectly obvious what’s going on here, isn’t it? It doesn’t require special formatting for the reader to understand that this is an excerpt from a letter.

For short letters — say, under a page — some writers prefer to use italics (probably because, as Dave pointed out, they’ve seen them used that way in published books), but frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it in a novel or a memoir manuscript; it implies an ignorance of the fact that the editor, not the author, is always the one who makes decisions about how text will appear in a published version.

You don’t want to induce barking on the subject, do you?

However, since some of you are undoubtedly not going to listen to me on this one, here is how to use italics properly in this context:

novel-letter-example2

I sense some of you shaking your heads. “But Anne,” epistle-lovers everywhere cry in protest, “that doesn’t LOOK like a letter. I like a letter to look like a letter on the page; that’s part of its charm. So how do I convey that without seeming as though I’m usurping editorial authority?”

I had a feeling I would be hearing from you folks: there’s no shortage of writers who feel very strongly that every single syllable of every note passed between characters must be reproduced faithfully and its entirety in the text, as if the average reader had never seen a letter before and thus could not even begin to imagine what one might look like.

Frankly, it’s seldom actually necessary to a plot to include the parts of a letter that would be hard to squeeze within the strictures of standard format: the letterhead, if any; the date; the salutation; the signature. Within the context of a novel (or memoir), some or all of these are often self-evident — honestly, if the heroine is addressing her long-lost lover by, say, his given name and signs with her own, what additional insight could even the most imaginative reader derive from reproducing those salutations and signatures for each and every letter they right? Or even just one?

Even if she habitually opened with, “Dear Snotnose,” and signed off with, “Your affectionate bedbug,” that would only be character-revealing the first time she did it, right?

But you head-shakers are not convinced by that, are you? And I’m not going to be able to blandish you into believing that the 15-page letter starting on pg. 82 might work better simply broken off into its own chapter entitled The Letter, am I? (A fabulous solution with very long letters, by the way.)

Okay, here are the two acceptable ways of formatting a letter like a letter in a manuscript — which, not entirely coincidentally, will also work beautifully for letters that go on for pages and pages. First, unsurprisingly, it may be presented like dialogue, within quotes:

novel-letter-example-long

As with any other multi-paragraph quote, quotation marks do not appear at the end of a paragraph if the opening of the next paragraph is still part of the letter. They do, however, show up at the beginning of each paragraph within the letter, to alert the reader that this is not normal text.

The other option — and this will work with long quotes in nonfiction as well — is to offset the letter text, as one would with a long quote in an academic work. In a non-academic manuscript, however, the offset quote should be double-spaced, like the rest of the text:

novel-letter-example-long2

See? I told you that I’d give you a practical example.

Although this format does work well for long quotes, I’m not a huge fan for letters in fiction or memoir, I must admit. To my eye, it’s not as distinctive as the first option, and there’s always the off chance that a rapidly-skimming reader (like, say, Millicent) might not realize that the salutation is the opening of an offset section.

Don’t laugh; it happens, and not for reasons that necessarily reflect negatively upon the average Millicent’s intelligence. She’s got hundreds of pages to get through in any given day, and skimming eyes can miss details. Don’t fall into the extremely common aspiring writer’s trap of believing that every reader will read — and more importantly, absorb — every single syllable on every page of your entire manuscript.

Sometimes, being obvious is a really, really good idea, especially in a situation where a part of the text is deliberately in a different voice than the rest of the narrative, as is almost always the case with a letter. Bear in mind that the goal here is not to reproduce the letter exactly as it appeared in the story, or as you would like to see it in the published book — it’s to make it absolutely clear when the text is an excerpt from a letter and when it is not.

Like academic publishers, Millicents don’t like to leave such things open for interpretation; it tends to make her bark-prone. Don’t make her guess where a letter — or any other long quote — begins or ends.

That last format would also work for a diary entry — and that’s fortuitous, as it happens, because intrepid commenter Icy was asking about how to format a diary entry just the other day. Again, though, if all the reader needs to know could be summed up in a few short sentences, why not quote the diary entry within the regular text, just as you would an excerpt from a letter?

“But Anne!” diary-lovers exclaim. “I like to see entire diary entries in novels or memoirs! Even if some of the material in the entry is off-topic or even a trifle dull, that just adds to the sense of realism!”

Okay, okay — I know an idée fixe when I hear one; I’m not even going to try to talk you out of that one. (Except to remind you: Millicent’s threshold of boredom is quite a bit lower than the average reader’s. So’s Mehitabel’s; edit accordingly.) Let’s take a gander at all four types of diary entry format on the manuscript page.

Yes, I did indeed say four — because, again, it depends on the type of manuscript in which the diary entry appears. In a scholarly work, it would look like this:

academic diary entry

That’s not a tremendous surprise, right? In a nonfiction book on the subject not aimed at the academic market, however, Nellie’s diary would look like this on the page:

NF diary entry 1

No chance of Millicent’s not spotting the difference between the academic version and the standard format version, is there? To her eye, only the latter is formatted for professional consideration.

If the nonfiction writer preferred not to introduce the date of the entry in the paragraph preceding the diary entry, she could use a NF convention we discussed last week, the subheading. For many writers, there’s a distinct advantage to presenting a diary entry this way: a subheading, the entry would more closely resemble the way a reader might find it in a published book:

NF diary entry b

As you may see, this format takes up more room on the page — not always an inconsiderable matter, to a writer who is trying to edit for length. As with a letter, the more of the formal elements the writer chooses to include, the more space it will take. (Which often begs the question: is verisimilitude it worth taking up an extra few lines of text in a manuscript that’s already a bit on the long side? If so, a less literal rendering of frequent letters and diary entries can be a quick, easy way to reclaim a page or two of lines over the course of an entire manuscript.)

For fiction or memoir, a similar format should be used for diary entries longer than a few lines but less than a couple of pages long — unless several diary entries appear back-to-back. (But of that, more below.) A novelist or memoirist faces a structural problem: it can be considerably harder in fiction to work the entry’s date into the preceding text (although many a fine writer has managed it with such sterling phrases as The minute volume trembled in Gerald’s hand. On May 24, 1910, his mother had written:), so the subheading is a popular choice for indicating the date.

As with other subheadings in fiction, the date should not be in boldface. Let’s take a peek at what the resultant short diary entry would look like on the page.

diary fiction 1

Still clear what is and is not diary entry, isn’t it? By offsetting the text, even a swiftly-skimming Millicent would find it easy to figure out where Nellie’s words end and Gerald’s thoughts begin.

But how, you may well be wondering, would a writer present several short diary entries in a row? If the diary did not go on for more than a couple of pages, all that would be necessary would be to insert a section break between each.

In other words, by skipping a line between ‘em. Like so:

diary fiction 2

If a series of diary entries goes on for pages at a time, however, offsetting them makes less sense; the point of offsetting is, after all, to make a clear distinction between the offset text and the regular text. After the third or fourth page of offsetting in a row, a skimming Millicent (or, more disastrous, an agent flipping forward in the manuscript) might leap to the incorrect conclusion that the margins just aren’t consistent in this manuscript.

May I suggest an elegant alternative, one that would side-step the possibility of this type of misinterpretation entirely? Consider devoting an entire chapter to them, titling that chapter something descriptive and unprovocative like Nellie’s Diary, and formatting all of the entries as regular text with subheadings.

Curious about what that might look like? You’re in luck; here are the first two pages of Chapter Eight:
diary chapter 1

diary chapter 2

Lovely and clear, isn’t it? It’s also, in case those of you who are trying to shorten your manuscripts happen to be interested, the most space-efficient means of presenting these diary entries on the page. What a difference a half an inch of margin on either side makes, eh?

Oh, dear: I can’t justify saying anything more on the subject, and there are still twenty minutes of the flight to go. Maybe if I surreptitiously slip my paperback out of my computer bag, I can have it in front of my face before the misunderstood husband next to me notices I’ve turned off my computer.

Oh, the places I go. Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part IX: and then there are the rules that are sort of bendy sometimes

ice dancers

I’m posting a trifle later than usual tonight, campers, resulting in more of a Tuesday morning post than my planned Monday evening billet-doux to standard format for manuscripts. I blame the Olympics; does the coverage ever stop? Just when I manage to tear my weary eyes away from ice dancing, three hours of curling magically appear after midnight. It’s as if somebody in the programming department said, “You know what I’d really like to do this year? Schedule seven-hour blocks of competition in events where the athletes wear jewelry on ice.”

Oh, you may laugh, but have you taken a gander at the wrists, earlobes, and/or necks of the women curlers over the last few days? My eyes may be bleary from overuse, but I could have sworn that the U.K.’s wunderkind was sporting a charm bracelet today. On her throwing hand.

Enough frivolity. Back to business.

A few days ago, I introduced something that Millicent the agency screener just loves to see, a properly-formatted first page of a manuscript. It looked, if you will recall, a little something like this:

good example

This is also, in case you had been wondering, what the opening of each subsequent chapter should look like as well: on a fresh page, 14 single lines from the top. Or, to put it another way, 6 double-spaced lines under the chapter title. (For those of you who do not know how to insert a hard page break into a Word document, it’s located under the INSERT menu. Select BREAK, then PAGE BREAK.)

Not certain what that might look like in practice? Okay, here’s an example I have ready to hand: the first page of the sixth chapter of my memoir might conceivably look like this:

Memoir wo title

I said might, because actually, I’m not a big fan of chapters named Chapter Six, even if they happen to be the sixth chapter in the manuscript. It’s sort of like dubbing a suburban street lined with elm trees Elm Street: there’s nothing inherently wrong with a straightforward descriptive title, of course, but you must admit, it’s not precisely going to come as a shock to many readers when Chapter Six appears immediately after Chapter Five.

All of which is a rather heavy-handed lead-in (inevitable, perhaps, after having spent so many hours watching curling) to a question I’m sure many title-namers out there have been harboring: how should a titled chapter be formatted? Specifically, if a chapter has a title, should it also be numbered?

In a word, yes. The chapter title appears, centered, on the first double-spaced line under the chapter number, also centered.

As, indeed, we’ve already seen in today’s first example. But in furtherance of my ongoing mission to place so many examples of correctly-formatted manuscript pages in front of your weary eyes that you’ll start automatically recoiling from pages in published books, muttering, “Well, that wouldn’t work in a manuscript submission, let’s take a gander at another one:

memoir w ch title

Actually, I had an ulterior motive in showing you that last example: in comparing it to the example just before it, do you notice anything about the amount of space between the chapter number and the beginning of the text?

If you immediately shot your hand into the air, exclaiming, “By gum, Anne, the area between the two appears identical! You’ve simply placed the chapter title within it, you clever lady,” award yourself 1700 Brownie points. (Or a bronze medal — there seem to be an awful lot of them lying around these days.) Regardless of whether a chapter’s opening page contains a chapter designation, a title, or both, the text begins the same distance from the top of the page.

The same logic would apply, of course, to any other section-breaking information you might care to include at the beginning of a chapter — alerting the reader to a break between Part I and Part II of a book, for instance. While we’re at it, let’s take a look at that in practice: if Chapter 6 were the beginning of Part II of the book (it isn’t, but we aim to please here at Author! Author!), I would have formatted it thus:

memoir w part break

Starting to get the hang of this?

Not yet completely comfortable? Okay, let’s try inserting another common piece of introductory information: identifying a narrator-du-chapter in a multiple point-of-view novel.

If the switch comes at the beginning of a chapter, it couldn’t be easier: it’s simply another reader-signal that belongs above the pre-text white space, right? To see this principle in action, let’s pretend our ongoing example is fiction (which it isn’t; my middle school honestly was pelted with migratory spiders) and place the narrator’s name in the traditional spot:

new chapter with name

That’s the way one would handle the matter in a manuscript like, say, Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, where the narrator changes with the chapter. If there were also a chapter title (perhaps not advisable in this case, as there’s already significant information at the top of that page for the reader to absorb), it would go between the chapter heading and the narrator identifier.

I would show you an example of that, but it’s late; there’s curling on, and I’m positive that you can extrapolate.

You’re thinking that there must be an easier way to format the first page of a chapter than to memorize the way it should look and reproduce it from scratch each time, aren’t you? You’re not alone, if so; most seasoned authors probably wouldn’t appreciate my revealing a working secret, but pretty much everyone worries that someday her will forget to hit return one of the necessary times, so that Chapter 5 will begin — gasp! — ten lines from the top, while Chapter 1-4 and 6 on will begin twelve lines down.

I know: gives you the willies even to contemplate how Millicent might react to that level of formatting inconsistency, doesn’t it? Double-check each and every chapter opening before you submit; trust me, you’ll be happier in the long run.

Ooh — that was an unpopular suggestion, wasn’t it? Fully a third of you have your hands waving impatiently in the air. “That’s an absurdly time-consuming suggestion, Anne,” the irate third huff. “Oh, I understand that the chapter number or title needs to appear at the top of the first page and each subsequent chapter; I’m perfectly happy to leave five double-spaced blank lines between it and the first line of text, so the first paragraph starts six lines down. But surely there’s an easier way to do this — a template or something? Perhaps Word has some sort of default setting I can employ so I need never worry about the issue again as long as I live?”

Standard format templates do exist, now that you mention it, but frankly, Word is already equipped with two perfectly dandy features for reproducing formatting exactly in more than one place in a document: COPY and PASTE.

The easiest way to make sure from the outset each chapter opening is identical is to create your own template. It’s very simple to do: just copy from “Chapter One” down through the first line of text, then paste it on the first page of chapter 2, 3, etc. Once the format is in place, it’s a snap to fill in the information appropriate to the new chapter.

Easy as the proverbial pie, right?

Oh, dear — now another group of you have raised your hands. Yes? “But Anne,” exclaim those of you who favor switching narrator — or place, or time — more often than once per chapter, “we are, as we believe the tag line identifying us as speakers just mentioned, advocates of those nifty mid-chapter signposts that we see all the time in published books, boldfaced notifications that the time, place, or speaker has just changed. How would I format that in a manuscript?”

You’re basically talking about incorporating subheadings into a novel, right? Or at least what would be a subheading in a nonfiction manuscript: a section break followed by a new title.

I’m fully prepared to answer this question, of course, if only to show all of you nonfiction writers out there what your subheadings should look like. Before I do, however, I’d like to ask fiction writers interested in adopting this strategy a quick question: are you absolutely positive that you want to do that?

That’s not an entirely flippant question, you know. There are plenty of Millicents out there who have been trained by old-fashioned agents — and even more editorial assistants who work for old-fashioned editors. And that’s important to know, because even in an age when mid-chapter subheadings aren’t all that uncommon in published books, there are still plenty of professional readers whose knee-jerk response to seeing ‘em is invariably, “What is this, a magazine article? In my day, fiction writers used language to indicate a change in time or place, rather than simply slapping down a subheading announcing it; if they wanted to indicate a change of point of view, they would either start a new chapter, find a graceful way to introduce the shift into the text, or have the narrative voice change so markedly that the shift would be immistakable! O tempore! O mores!

I just mention.

To pros of this ilk, the practice of titling a section, or even a chapter, with clear indicators of time, place, or speaker will always seem to be indicative of a show, don’t tell problem. And you have to admit, they sort of have a point: novelists have been indicating changes of time and space by statements such as The next day, back at the ranch… ever since the first writer put pen to paper, right?

As a result, fiction readers expect to see such orienting details emerge within the course of the narrative, rather than on top of it. Most of the time, this information isn’t all that hard to work into a narrative — and if a novelist is looking to please a tradition-hugging agent or editor, that’s probably a better strategy to embrace, at least at the submission stage. As with any other authorial preference for how a published book should look, you can always try to negotiate an editorial change of heart after a publisher acquires your novel.

At least if you don’t happen to write in a book category that routinely uses such subheadings. If recent releases in your book category are crammed with the things, don’t worry your pretty little head about editorial reaction to ‘em. An editor — or agent, Millicent, or contest judge — who routinely handles books in that category may be trusted to realize that you’re simply embracing the norms of your genre.

Millicents tend to approve of that. It shows that the submitter has taken the time to become conversant with what’s being published these days in the category within which he has chosen to write.

Which is to say: these days, plenty of very good fiction writers prefer to alert the reader to vital shifts with titles and subheadings. And nonfiction writers have been using them for decades; in fact, they’re more or less required in a book proposal. (Of those, more follows later in this series, I promise.) I just didn’t want any of you to be shocked if the agent of your dreams sniffs in the early days after signing you, “Mind taking out these subheadings? Seven of the editors to whom I’m planning to submit this hate them, and I’d rather be spared yet another lecture on the pernicious influence of newspapers and magazine formatting upon modern literature, okay?”

All that being said — and now that I’ve completely unnerved those of you who are considering submitting manuscripts with subheadings — you do need to know how to do it properly.

It’s quite straightforward, actually: a subheading is just a section break followed by a left-justified title. The text follows on the next double-spaced line.

Want to see that in action? Okay. Just to annoy traditionalists who draw a sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction writing, let’s take a peek at a nonfiction page by a well-respected novelist:

Wharton subheading example

That caused some weary eyes to pop wide open, didn’t it? “But Anne!” the sharper-eyed exclaim, “that subheading is in BOLDFACE! Didn’t the rules of standard format specifically tell me never, under any circumstances, to boldface anything in my manuscript?”

Well caught, sharp-eyed ones: boldfacing the subheading does indeed violate that particular stricture of standard format. However, since nonfiction manuscripts and proposals have been routinely boldfacing subheadings (and only subheadings) for over a decade now — those crotchety old-fashioned editors are partially right about the creeping influence of article practices into the book world, you know — I thought that you should know about it.

It’s definitely not required, though; Millicent is unlikely to scowl at a nonfiction submission that doesn’t bold its subheadings. Like font choice, you make your decision, you take your chances.

In a fiction submission, though, I definitely wouldn’t advise it; those traditionalists I was talking about lurk in much, much higher concentrations on the fiction side of the industry, after all. Here’s the same page, formatted as fiction — and since we’re already talking about exceptions to the rules, let’s make this example a trifle more instructive by including a date and time in the subheading:

Wharton example2

Unsure why I used numerals in the subheading, rather than writing out all of the numbers under a hundred, as standard format usually requires? Full dates, as well as specific times, are rendered in numeric form in manuscripts. Thus, 12:45 a.m. on November 3, 1842 is correct; twelve forty-five a.m. on November three, eighteen hundred and forty-two is not. (It would, however, be perfectly permissible to include quarter to one in the afternoon on November third.)

Everybody clear on that? Now would be a dandy time to raise your hand, if not. Or perhaps engage in some ice dancing; I like watching that.

I have quite a bit more to say on the subject of first pages of chapters, but I’ve just noticed the clock: I seem to have written straight through the curling match! If only I had reason to believe a similar match would be televised in the wee hours of tomorrow night…oh, wait; one is.

Who could have predicted that, eh? Keep up the good work!