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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

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

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

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

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Querypalooza, part IX: toiling productively in the vineyards of literature, or, would Pavlov’s doggie like a biscuit?

Good evening, campers! Since we began our last post with an image of a crowd storming a castle, I thought it might be nice to open our night shift Querypalooza post with an image of an un-stormed one.

Besides, I like to yank this gorgeous image from the Book of Hours out of the mothballs every now and again, because it is such an accurate depiction of how so many aspiring writers view the work of querying these days: a long, toilsome effort aimed toward impressing the powerful folks in the white castle on the hill — who may or may not be paying attention — under a sky that (we hope) conceals at least a few minor deities rooting for the underdog’s eventual success.

What’s that you say, campers? That’s what it felt like back I was trying to find the right agent way back in the dimly-remembered mists of the Paleolithic era, but everyone concerns feels perfectly marvelous about the process today? Whew, that’s a relief — thanks for clearing up that little misconception.

On the off chance that I wasn’t the only writer who ever shivered in the face of seemingly unalterable industry coldness, I feel an obligation to point out from the other side of the Rubicon that even those newest to querying are not as entirely helpless in the face of it as we writers tend to tell ourselves we are. Although much of a writer’s progress along the road to publication is dependent upon factors outside her control — fads in writing style, fashions in content, and what kind of memoir has garnered the most scandals recently, to name but three — how an aspiring writer presents her work to the industry is in fact entirely under her own control.

Which is a really, really nice way of saying that from a professional reader’s point of view, scads of query letters traject themselves like lemmings straight from the envelope into the rejection pile with scarcely a pause in between, for problems that the writers who sent them could have fixed. Sadly, the vast majority are rejected for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the potential personality fit between the author and agent, the agent’s ability to sell the book in question, or even the quality of the writing.

Because agents and their screeners read hundreds of the darned things every week, even if only 20 of them share the same basic mistake — and trust me, more of them will — the 21rst query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake his head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to Dear Agent, rather than to an individual?”

Oh, yes, Dr. Pavlov, there are few epistolary errors that engender a stronger — or quicker — negative response than a Dear Agent letter. But that’s merely the best-known of the notorious query-readers’ pet peeves.

In response to that giant collective huff of indignation I just out there: you’re probably thinking that Millicent the agency screener is hyper-sensitive, far more eager to reject a query than to accept it, and perhaps even downright mean. Heck, judging by the expressions on your faces, you probably wouldn’t be remotely surprised to learn that she regularly eats live kittens for breakfast, snarls at babies, and honks her horn when Boy Scouts assist people with canes across the street.

Don’t be ridiculous. Millicent lives in New York City; she doesn’t drive a car.

Perhaps she does reject writers for a living, but that doesn’t mean that rejections are necessarily her fault: many, many, MANY query letters just scream from their very first paragraph, “Reject me! I have no idea what I’m doing on your desk, much less what book category the manuscript my rambling prose professes to promote might best fit into, so why not put me out of my misery right away?”

The ubiquity of such self-rejecting queries — yes, they’re really called that — means that the all-too-common writerly practice of blaming the rejecter is not in the long run the best strategy for landing an agent. Call me zany, but if a query elicits a rejection for any reason other than that the storyline or argument in the proposed book didn’t grab Millicent or her boss, my first question is not, “Oh, how could the screener have made such a mistake?” but “May I have a look at that letter, so see how the writer may improve it?”

Why do I tend to leap straight to that conclusion, you ask? Experience, mostly. Out comes the broken record again:

broken-recordIf there is a single rule of thumb that may be applied at every stage of any successful author’s career, it’s that it ALWAYS behooves us to look critically at our own writing, rather than assuming that the only possible explanation for frowned-upon writing lies in the eye of the predisposition of the reader to frown.

Let me put it more simply: offense does not always lie in the propensity of the affronted to take umbrage. Millicent may indeed be a bit rejection-happy — it’s her job to reject 98% of what she sees, recall — but any writer can learn how to avoid provoking her.

As with a manuscript, the writer of a query will virtually always be better off taking steps to improve what she can control than blaming the rejection upon other factors. It is possible to learn from one’s own mistakes, even in the current insanely competitive agent-seeking environment, where the vast majority of queriers are never told precisely what made Millicent slide their letters directly into their SASEs with a copy of the agency’s prefab one-size-fits-all rejection note.

Or, in the case of e-queries, to hit the REPLY key, sending the prefab rejection reply. (You didn’t honestly believe that Millicent or her boss actually re-typed I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with thisevery time, did you?)

In the spirit of trying to avoid being the object of either dismal fate, let’s plunge back into our ongoing efforts to elevate a merely okay query letter into a really good one, shall we? At this point, we’ve moved far past the most basic mistakes; now, we’re well into the more sophisticated problems.

That’s good news, by the way. You should be proud of yourself for taking your own writing prospects seriously enough to make it this far. As a reward for virtue, we begin tonight with a few an exceptionally easy problems to fix.

(18) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the third person and the present tense?
Regardless of the narrative perspective of the manuscript itself, descriptive paragraphs in queries are always written in the third person. So if your description of your first-person chick lit begins I had just landed my dream job, change it right away: to Millicent’s eyes, it will read like a description for a memoir. Ditto for pitches and synopses, by the way.

Don’t you wish someone had mentioned that little tidbit to you at least three months before you sent out your first query?

The proper tense choice, too, may strike some as counter-intuitive: one-paragraph book descriptions, like pitches and synopses, are always written in the present tense. Even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire.

And apparently, writers are supposed to know both of these things because the synopsis fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so. Or so I surmise from the fact that this particular piece of advice isn’t given much these days.

I’m not a big fan of keeping expectations like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: YOUR DESCRIPTIVE PARAGRAPH SHOULD BE IN THE THIRD PERSON AND THE PRESENT TENSE.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir. Which leads me to:

(19) If I am querying a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the present tense and the first person?
The logic behind describing memoir in the first person doesn’t really require much explanation — the book’s about you, isn’t it? — but the tense choice might. It simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say:

Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I chose to bury it in the back yard instead.

It’s confusing to a sane person’s sense of time. But then, so are the querying and submission processes, frequently.

All too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, say so; go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.

Otherwise, the same basic structures we applied last time to describing novels will work perfectly well for memoir. Just make yourself sound like an interesting person in an interesting situation overcoming obstacles to your happiness in a different tense. For example:

Back in my days as a silent movie star of the 1920s, women ruled the silver screen. I was paid more than my male counterparts; I had my pick of projects (and extras for my private pleasures); my dressing room’s cushions were trimmed in mink. But once the talkies came, I was faced with an impossible choice: take a massive pay cut or allow my public to be told that my opera-trained voice was too squeaky for the new technology. If I was going to make the films that I wanted, I realized I would have to start writing and directing for myself.

See? By describing herself as the protagonist in a story, rather than just a person talking about herself, our starlet has made a compelling case that both she and the challenges she confronted would make for fascinating reading.

(20) Is the tone and language in my descriptive paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?
Yes, yes, I know: I’ve just finished telling you that the tense and perspective choice in the description should not be dictated by the voice of the narrative in the book. But all the same, just as a stellar verbal pitch gives the hearer a foretaste of what the manuscript is like, so does a well-constructed descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Just bear in mind that nice writing is not the only goal here; if you really want to make a great first impression, allow the descriptive paragraph to reflect the voice of the book.

Stop laughing. Query letters do so have narrative voices. It’s just that most of the boilerplates we see are so businesslike in tone and generic in content that you’d never notice.

So if the book is funny, go for a laugh; if it’s scary, make sure to include at least one genuinely frightening image; if it’s sexy, make Millicent pant in her cubicle.

Getting the picture?

Some of you find this suggestion a trifle wacky, don’t you? “But Anne,” a scandalized few protest, “didn’t you say earlier in this series that part of the goal here was to come across as professional? Won’t making the descriptive paragraph sound like my surly protagonist/whiny narrator/a lighthearted romp through the merry world of particle physics make me seem like a grump/annoying to work with/like I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Good questions, scandalized few. Your concerns are precisely why I’m advising that only the descriptive paragraph match the tone of the book, rather than the entire letter.

Surprised? Don’t be. You’re entirely right that Millicent might well draw the wrong conclusions if your ENTIRE letter were written in an entertaining tone. And let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to turn the credentials paragraph of a query into much of a comedy.

Seriously. Even if you happen to have taught comedic theory for 52 years at the Sorbonne, it would hard to turn that fact into a giggle line.

But in the part of the letter where you’re supposed to be telling a story, why not let your manuscript’s voice come out to play for a few lines? Can you think of a better way to demonstrate to Millicent how your narrative voice is unique?

(21) Am I telling a compelling story in my descriptive paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?
All too often, aspiring writers will construct their descriptive paragraphs as though they were writing high school English papers. There’s usually a pretty good reason for that: writers tend to have been excellent high school English students. So were most agents and editors, as it happens, and certainly most Millicents who screen submissions.

But collective nostalgia for the happy days in Intro to American Literature doesn’t mean that a descriptive paragraph demonstrating that glorious past too clearly is smart book marketing at the query stage. Analytical descriptions distance the reader from the story being told.

Don’t believe me? Take a gander:

MIXED SIGNALS is a nuanced slice-of-life tale of interpersonal and intergenerational misunderstanding set against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960s. The protagonist is a troubled man, an employee caught up in a realistic conflict with his boss while his fantasies of perfect love are constantly thwarted by a lackluster family life. Told in alternating first person voices and the present tense, character is revealed through slice-of-life episodes before reaching the denouement.

Doesn’t exactly draw you into the protagonist’s world, does it? This description is essentially about a man without a face. While all of these things may well be true of the book being discussed, what is this book ABOUT? WHO is it about? What’s the central conflict, and what is at stake for the protagonist in overcoming it?

As a rule, Millicent is eager to know the answer to those questions. She is also likely to roll her eyes and mutter, “English term paper,” and swiftly move on to the next query.

Why apply that particular epithet? Because this kind of description talks about the novel, rather than telling its story.

Because Millicent’s job is to spot great storytellers, not great textual analysts, she would have preferred it if the querier simply told the story directly. Then, too, the writer’s choice to concentrate upon the themes and construction of the novel, rather than who the protagonist is and what conflicts he wants or needs to battle in order to fulfill his dreams keeps the reader from getting into the story.

Indeed, we’re left wondering what it is. Here’s the same plot, presented in a manner Millicent is far more likely to find pleasing:

Troubled Harry (47) can’t seem to make it through even a single work day at the squid ink pasta factory without running afoul of his boss, chronic aquatic creature abuser Zeke (52). Since the pasta factory is the town’s only employer, Harry has little choice but to stomach the flogging of innocent carp — until Zeke’s merciless sarcasm at the expense of a dolphin cracks his stoic veneer. After an unsuccessful attempt to unionize the squid, Harry must face the truth: Zeke has been just stringing him along for the last seventeen years about that promotion. But now that he is cast adrift in a rudderless sailboat, what is he going to do about that?

I spy some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some terrific English essay-writers point out, “doesn’t the second version leave out a couple of pretty important items? Like, say, that the book is written in the first person, or that it has multiple protagonists?”

Actually, I left those out on purpose; as important as those facts may be to the writer, they would only distract Millicent at the querying stage. Or in a synopsis.

Do you English majors want to know why? Cue the music department.

broken-record Neither the point of view choice nor the number of protagonists is germane at the query stage: the goal of the descriptive paragraph is to show what the book is ABOUT, not how it is written. Let the narrative tricks come as a delightful surprise.

That’s what the manuscript is for, right? As Millicent’s boss, the agent, likes to say, it all depends on the writing.

(22) Does my descriptive paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (and I do hope that revelation doesn’t startle anybody, at this juncture; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, I had such high hopes when I raised you, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers. Or, to put it another way, if you printed out your list of selling points and read it side-by-side with your query, would the summary paragraph demonstrate that at least a few of those elements you identified as most market-worthy?

If not, is the descriptive paragraph doing your book justice as a marketing tool?

Don’t look at me that way: there is absolutely nothing anti-literary about making it clear why habitual readers of your book category will be drawn to your work. Remember, no matter how beautifully your book is written or argued, Millicent isn’t going to know you can write until she reads your manuscript — and if your query does not convince her that your book is potentially marketable, she’s not going to ask to see the manuscript.

Even if she happens to work at one of the increasingly many agencies that allow aspiring writers to send pages of text along with their queries, the query is going to determine whether Millicent reads anything else you sent. So just in case any of you have been receiving form-letter rejections based upon query + pages agent approaches: I know that it’s tempting to assume that the problem is in the text itself, but strategically, the first place you should be looking for red flags is your letter. In a query + approach, it’s the gatekeeper for your pages.

I’m going to take that chorus of great, gusty sighs as a sign that I’ve made my point. If it’s any consolation, it’s great experience for working with an agent: when their clients bring them book ideas, the first question they tend to ask is, “Okay, who needs this book, and why?”

(23) Even if Millicent skipped my opening paragraph, would the descriptive paragraph that followed prompt her to exclaim, “Oh, that story is perfect for {fill in my target audience here}? Or have I forestalled that spontaneous cry by describing my book in back-jacket terms?
This is a corollary of the last one, obviously, but still worth considering as a separate question. One of the most common mistakes made in descriptive paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who MIGHT conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men. It belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America.

With:

Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, rapids-navigating men on generous inner tubes. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave that smells of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.

The first sounds an awful lot like the summary a publisher’s marketing department might construct for a book’s back jacket, doesn’t it? It’s all breathless hype and promotional persuasion, leaving the reader thinking, “Um, I know where this story takes place, but what is this book about?”

As you may have already gathered, that’s not a question Millicent is fond of muttering in the middle of reading a query. Which is a shame, really, as so many queriers give her such excellent provocation to mutter it.

The second version answers that question very directly: CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is about Caroline and Elizabeth’s trip down a river, where they meet some sizzling potential love interests.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Millicent cries, reaching for the seldom-used Yes, please send us the first 50 pages boilerplate. (Oh, you thought that they wrote a fresh letter for every acceptance?)

Unfortunately, as we saw earlier in this series, most aspiring writers are so used to reading marketing copy that they think the first version is inherently more professional than the second. In fact, it’s far from uncommon to see this type of marketing rhetoric in synopses, or even in contest entries.

To clear up this misconception once and for all, I’m going to ask you to join me in a little experiment. Scroll down so those last two examples above are hidden, please.

All gone? Good. Now take this multi-part pop quiz.

1) What do you remember most from the first summary paragraph?

The title? The Snake River? The bad cliché? Your speculation that my reference to “every paddle-wielding woman in America” might cause this blog to spring up in some unlikely Internet searches from now until Doomsday?

2) What do you remember about the second?

As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

3) If you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women?

I rest my case.

Except to say: in the first summary, a reader is unlikely to remember the STORY, rather than the query. And in the second, the query-reader is encouraged to identify with the protagonists — who are, like the reader, contemplating all of those inner tube-straddling guys.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously: stop picturing those floating bodies. We have work to do.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it presumably echoes the tone of the book. Which brings me to…

(23) If my descriptive paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?
This is a question that often makes even seasoned queriers do a double-take, but actually, it’s closely related to #20, is the tone and language in my description representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

Most query letters share one of two tones: unprofessional or serious, serious, serious. The first is never a good idea, but the second is fine — if you happen to have written the 21rst century’s answer to MOBY DICK.

Which I’m guessing no one currently reading this actually has. If, however, you’ve written this year’s answer to BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, a super-serious summary paragraph is probably not the best marketing tactic. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to make a lighthearted romp seem either lighthearted or like a romp if it’s described in a turgid manner, a deadpan presentation is probably not the best strategy for convincing Millicent that you can write comedy.

So why not use the description as a writing sample to demonstrate that you can? In fact, why not take the opportunity to show how well you understand your target readership by including images, wording, and details likely to appeal to them?

The same logic applies to any category of book — and it’s a great way to figure out whether a plot point is worth mentioning in your summary paragraph. If you have written a steamy romance, select the sexy detail over the mundane one. If it’s a western, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a feeling of the open range. If it’s a horror novel, opt for the creepy detail, and so forth.

The sole exception to this rule is if you happen to have written a really, really dull book on a mind-bendingly tedious topic. Then, and only then, do you have my permission to construct a descriptive paragraph that doesn’t sound anything at all like the tone of the book.

Hey, you have to pique Millicent’s interest somehow.

(24) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Despite my utmost efforts in spreading advice on the subject, most queries include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched.

Call me mercenary, but I think that is rather market-unwise, don’t you? If an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to murmur, “Hmm, who on earth is going to want to buy this book?”

No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no.

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises in my earlier series on pitching (easily found under the obfuscating category title IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE on the archive list at right) already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect its appeal to be self-evident.

Yes, even for a book like CANOE PADDLING MAMAS, where the appeal is pretty close to self-evident.

To revisit one of my earlier mantras: structure your marketing materials to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to help you. You want Millicent to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript.”

Once again, we see that it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true.

Just a little something to ponder while our heroines explore some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym.

Since I’m not going to be able to wrest that image from your mind, this seems like an excellent place to stop for the day. More probing questions follow at 10 am, of course.

Oh, you thought I was going to bring Querypalooza to a screeching halt the instant Labor Day weekend was over? Oh, but we still have exciting material to cover, campers. So while I shan’t be able to keep up this weekend’s blistering pace once the working week has started, you might want to check back in tomorrow morning. And early evening, if I have not collapsed into a quivering heap of exhaustion by then.

I wouldn’t send you out to query only partially prepared, after all. Keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part V: push-polling the reader, and other tell-tale signs that you’ve slipped into Hollywood narration

Aspiring writer on the job, keeping the metropolis safe from Hollywood Narration

Aspiring writer on the job, making the world safe from Hollywood Narration

Hello again, campers —

I’m hoping to get back to generating brand-new posts sometime next week; the hand doc turned pale at hearing how often and how much I usually post, but I entertain high hopes of his getting over the shock soon. In the meantime, I am re-running some older posts on constructing effective interview scenes, to keep those revision gears chugging in everybody’s brains. Just so those of you who read it the first time around won’t be too bored, I reserve the right to interpolate comments or make small changes from time to time — or, in this case, add huge, honking sub-sections — but for the most part, I shall be husbanding by hand strength by posting these pretty much as is.

Before anyone decides the result is unlikely to be relevant to the types of manuscript revision we have been discussing, the interview scene is one of the most frequently-muffed types of dialogue; unfortunately, it’s also among the most common, period. Interview scenes, for the benefit of those of you joining us late in this conversation, are spates of dialogue where one character (usually the protagonist) is trying to extract information (the pursuit of which is often the driving force behind the plot) from another character (sometimes, but not always, historically reluctant to spill.)

In discussing interview scenes, we’ve also talked quite a bit about Hollywood narration, my term for a scene where Character 1 tells Character 2 a bit of information or backstory of which both 1 & 2 are already aware, purely so the reader may learn it. Yet Hollywood narration is not the only questionable tool writers sometimes use to shovel heaping piles of extraneous facts into a narrative.

Today, I shall discuss a few others. Enjoy!

You know how I keep saying that real life perpetually volunteers examples at just the point I could really, really use them on the blog? Well, it’s happened again: I was actually writing yesterday’s post on Hollywood Narration and how annoying a poor interviewer character can be, when the phone rang: it was a pre-recorded, computerized political opinion poll.

Now, I don’t find polls much fun to take, but since I used to do quite a bit of political writing, I know that the mere fact that the polled so often hang up on such calls can skew the accuracy of the results. Case in point: the number of percentage points by which most polls miscalled the last presidential election’s results.

So I stayed on the line, despite the graininess of the computer-generated voice, so poorly rendered that I occasionally had trouble making out even proper names. A minute or so in, the grating narrator began retailing the respective virtues and aspirations of only two candidates in a multi-player mayoral race — neither of the candidates so lauded was the current mayor, I couldn’t help but notice — asking me to evaluate the two without reference to any other candidate.

In politics, this is called a push poll: although ostensibly, its goal is to gather information from those it calls, its primary point is to convey information to them, both as advertisement and to see if responders’ answers change after being fed certain pieces of information. In this poll, for instance, the inhumanly blurred voice first inquired which of nine candidates I was planning to honor with my vote (“I haven’t made up my mind yet because the primary is a month and a half away” was not an available option, although “no opinion” was ), then heaped me with several paragraphs of information about Candidate One, a scant paragraph about Candidate Two, before asking me which of the two I intended to support.

Guess which they wanted my answer to be?

Contrary to popular opinion, although push polls are usually used to disseminate harmful information about an opponent (through cleverly-constructed questions like, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Candidate X if you knew that he secretly belonged to a cult that regularly sacrifices goats, chickens, and the odd goldfish?”), the accuracy of the information conveyed is not the defining factor, but the fact of masking advertisement under the guise of asking questions, In a well-designed push poll, it’s hard to tell which candidates or issues are being promoted, conveying the illusion of being even-handed, to preserve the impression of being an impartial poll.

Yesterday’s call, however, left no doubt whatsoever as to which local candidates had commissioned it: the list of a local city councilwoman’s attributes took almost twice as long for the robot voice to utter, at a level of clarity that made the other candidates’ briefer, purely factual blurb sound, well, distinctly inferior. Even his name was pronounced less distinctly. To anyone even vaguely familiar with how polls are constructed, it was completely obvious that the questions had, at best, been constructed to maximize the probability of certain responses, something that legitimate pollsters take wincing pains to avoid, as well as to cajole innocent phone-answerers into listening to an endorsement for a political candidate.

To be blunt, I haven’t heard such obvious plugging since the last time I attended a party at a literary conference, when an agent leaned over me in a hot tub to pitch a client’s book at the editor floating next to me. In fact, it’s the only push poll I’ve ever encountered that actually made me change my mind about voting for a candidate that I formerly respected.

{Present-day Anne here: FYI, she lost.}

Why am I telling you fine people about this at all, since I seldom write here on political issues and I haven’t mentioned who the commissioning candidate was ? (And I’m not going to — the pushed candidate is someone who has done some pretty good things for the city in the past, and is furthermore reputed to be a holy terror to those who cross her — although something tells me it may crop up when I share this story with my neighbors at the July 4th potluck. Unlike the polling firm, I’m not out to affect the outcome of the election.)

I’m bringing it up because of what writers can learn from this handily-timed phone call. True, we could glean from it that, obviously, far too much of my education was devoted to learning about how statistics are generated. A savvy interpreter might also conclude that cutting campaign expenditures by hiring polling firms that use badly-faked human voices is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

But most vital to our ongoing series, in an interview scene, it’s important to make it clear who is the information-solicitor and who the information-revealer.

If the interviewer’s biases are heavy-handedly applied, he/she/the computer-generated voice appears to be trying to influence the content of the answers by how the questions are phrased. (As pretty much all political poll questions are designed to do; sorry to shatter anyone’s illusions on the subject, but I’ve written them in the past.) While a pushy interviewer can make for an interesting scene if the interviewee resists his/her/its ostensibly subtle blandishments, the reader may well side against a protagonist who interviews like a push-poller.

The moral of the story: impartial questions are actually rather rare in real life. When constructing an interview scene, it’s vital to be aware of that — and how much interviewees tend to resent being push-polled, if they realize that’s what’s happening.

Got all that? Good. Because the plot is about to thicken in an even more instructive way. Let us return to our story of civic communicative ineptitude, already in progress.

Being a good citizen, as well as having more than a passing familiarity with how much a poorly-executed campaign ad (which this poll effectively was) can harm an otherwise praiseworthy candidate, I took the time out of my busy schedule to drop the campaign manager an e-mail. I felt pretty virtuous for doing this: I was probably not the only potential voter annoyed by the pseudo-poll, but I was probably the only one who would actually contact the campaign to say why.

You know me; I’m all about generating useful feedback.

So I sent it off and thought no more about it — until this morning, when the campaign manager sent me the following e-mailed reply:

Dear Dr. Mini,

Thank you for your comments. We appreciate the feedback on any of our voter contact and outreach efforts. In everything we do, we want to make the best and most professional impression. You are right that automated surveys are cost competitive {sic}. In this situation, the need for feedback from voters was important {sic} and we hope that almost everyone was able to hear the questions clearly.

I have included the following link to an article on what push polling is {sic} (address omitted, but here’s the relevant link). I assure you that our campaign does not and will not ever be involved in push polling.

Thank you for supporting (his candidate) for Mayor {sic}.

At first glance, this appears to be a fairly polite, if poorly punctuated, response, doesn’t it? He acknowledged the fact that I had taken the time to communicate my critique, gave a justification (albeit an indirect one) for having used computerized polling, and reassured an anxious potential voter that his candidate’s policy was to eschew a practice that I had informed him I found offensive.

On a second read, he’s saying that he’s not even going to check in with the pollsters to see if my objections were valid, since obviously I am stone-deaf and have no idea what push polling is. Oh, and since push polling is bad, and his candidate is not bad, therefore no polls commissioned on her behalf could possibly be push polling. Thank you.

In short: vote for my candidate anyway, so I may head up the future mayor’s staff. But otherwise, go away, and you shouldn’t have bugged me in the first place.

To add stupidity icing to the cake of insolence, the article to which he referred me for enlightenment on how I had misdefined push polling confirmed my use of the term, not his: “A call made for the purposes of disseminating information under the guise of survey is still a fraud – and thus still a ‘push poll’ – even if the facts of the ‘questions’ are technically true or defensible.”

Wondering again why I’m sharing this sordid little episode with you? Well, first, to discourage any of you from making the boneheaded mistake of not bothering to read an article before forwarding the link to somebody. An attempt to pull intellectual rank is never so apparent as when if falls flat on its face.

Second, see how beautifully his resentment that I had brought up the issue at all shines through what is ostensibly a curt business letter, one that he probably thought was restrained and professional when he hit the SEND key? If any of you is ever tempted to respond by e-mail, letter, or phone to a rejection from an agent or editor, this is precisely why you should dismiss the idea immediately as self-destructive: when even very good writers are angry, they tend not to be the best judges of the tone of their own work.

And when a writer is less talented…well, you see the result above.

Another reason you should force yourself not to hit SEND: such follow-ups are considered both rude and a waste of time by virtually everyone in the industry. (For a fuller explanation why, please see my earlier post on the subject.) Like a campaign manager’s telling an offended voter that her concerns are irrelevant for semantic reasons, it’s just not a strategy that’s at all likely to convince your rejecter that his earlier opinion of you was mistaken.

Trust me: I’ve been on every conceivable side of this one. Just hold your peace — unless, of course, you would like the recipient of your missive to do precisely what I’ve done here, tell everyone within shouting distance precisely what happened when you didn’t observe the standing norms of professionalism and courtesy.

Yes, it happens. As you see, the anecdote can be made very funny.

Okay, back to the business at hand. Last time, I sensed some of you writers of first-person narratives cringing at the prospect of minimizing the occurrence of Hollywood narration in your manuscripts.

Oh, don’t deny it: at least 10% of you novelists, and close to 100% of memoir-writers — read through my excoriation of Hollywood narration and thought, “Oh, no — my narrator is CONSTANTLY updating the reader on what’s going on, what has gone on, other characters’ motivations, and the like. I thought that was okay, because I hear that done in movies all the time. But if Hollywood narration on the printed page is one of Millicent the agency screener’s numerous pet peeves, I’d better weed out anything in my manuscript that sounds remotely like screenplay dialogue, and pronto! But where should I begin? HELP!”

Okay, take a deep breath: I’m not saying that every piece of movie-type dialogue is a red flag if it appears in a manuscript. What I’ve been arguing is that including implausible movie-type dialogue can be fatal to a manuscript’s chances.

Remember, in defining Hollywood narration, I’m not talking about when voice-overs are added to movies out of fear that the audience might not be able to follow the plot otherwise — although, having been angry since 1982 about that ridiculous voice-over tacked onto BLADE RUNNER, I’m certainly not about to forgive its producers now. (If you’ve never seen either of the released versions of the director’s cut, knock over anybody you have to at the video store to grab it from the shelf. It’s immeasurably better — and much closer to the rough cut that Philip K. Dick saw himself before he died. Trust me on this one.)

No, I’m talking about where characters suddenly start talking about their background information, for no apparent reason other than that the plot or character development requires that the audience learn about the past. If you have ever seen any of the many films of Steven Spielberg, you must know what I mean. Time and time again, his movies stop cold so some crusty old-timer, sympathetic matron, or Richard Dreyfus can do a little expository spouting of backstory.

You can always tell who the editors in the audience are at a screening of a Spielberg film, by the way; we’re the ones hunched over in our seats, muttering, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell!” like demented fiends.

I probably shouldn’t pick on Spielberg (but then, speaking of films based on my friend Philip’s work, have I ever forgiven him for changing the ending of MINORITY REPORT?), because this technique is so common in films and television that it’s downright hackneyed. Sometimes, there’s even a character whose sole function in the plot is to be a sort of dictionary of historical information.

For my nickel, the greatest example of this by far was the Arthur Dietrich character on the old BARNEY MILLER television show. Dietrich was a humanoid NEW YORK TIMES, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and KNOW YOUR CONSTITUTION rolled up into one. (He also, several episodes suggested, had a passing familiarity with the KAMA SUTRA as well — but hey, it was the ‘70s.) Whenever anything needed explaining, up popped Dietrich, armed with the facts: the more obscure the better.

The best thing about the Dietrich device is that the show’s writers used it very self-consciously as a device, rather than pretending that it wasn’t. The other characters relied upon Dietrich’s knowledge to save them research time, but visibly resented it as well. After a season or so, the writers started using the pause where the other characters realize that they should ask Dietrich to regurgitate as a comic moment.

(From a fledgling writer’s perspective, though, the best thing about the show in general was the Ron Harris character, an aspiring writer stuck in a day job he both hates and enjoys while he’s waiting for his book to hit the big time. Even when I was in junior high school, I identified with Harris.)

Unfortunately, human encyclopedia characters are seldom handled this well, nor is conveying information through dialogue. Still, as we discussed yesterday, most of us have become accustomed to it, so people who point it out seem sort of like the kid in THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES:

”Why has Mr. Spielberg stopped the action to let that man talk for three solid minutes about backstory, Mommy?”

”Hush, child. There’s nothing odd about that. In film, it’s an accepted narrative convention.”

In a book, there’s plenty odd about that, and professional readers are not slow to point it out. It may seem strange that prose stylists would be more responsible than screenwriters for reproducing conversations as they might plausibly be spoken, but as I keep pointing out, I don’t run the universe.

I can’t make screenwriters –or political operatives — do as I wish; I have accepted that, and have moved on.

However, as a writer and editor, I can occasionally make the emperor put some clothes on, if only for the novelty of it. And I don’t know if you noticed, but wasn’t it far more effective for me to allow the campaign manager to hang himself with his own words, allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions about his communication skills and tact levels before I gave my narrative opinion of them, rather than the other way around? Trick o’ the trade.

Trust me, when Millicent is pondering submissions, you want your manuscript to fall into the novelty category, not the far more common reads-like-a-movie-script pile. Which, as often as not, also serves as the rejection pile.

No, I’m not kidding about that. By and large, agents, editors, and contest judges share this preference for seeing their regents garbed — so much so that the vast majority of Millicents are trained simply to stop reading a submission when it breaks out into Hollywood narration. In fact, it’s such a pervasive professional reader’s pet peeve that I have actually heard professional readers quote Hollywood narration found in a submitted manuscript aloud, much to the disgusted delight of their confreres.

Funny to observe? Oh, my, yes — unless you happen to be the aspiring writer who submitted that dialogue.

What may we learn from this degrading spectacle? At minimum, that if your characters tell one another things they already know is not going to win your manuscript any friends. There’s a lesson about bad laughter to be learned here as well: if a device is over-used in submissions — as Hollywood narration undoubtedly is — using it too broadly or too often in a manuscript can in and of itself provoke a bad laugh from a pro.

And that, too, is bad, at least for your manuscript’s prospects of making it past Millicent. As a general rule of thumb, one bad laugh is enough to get a submission rejected.

This danger looms particularly heavily over first-person narratives, especially ones that aspire to a funny voice. All too often, first-person narratives will rely upon the kind of humor that works when spoken — the anecdotal kind, the kind so frequently used in onscreen Hollywood narration — not realizing that pretty much by definition, a spoken joke does not contain sufficient detail to be funny on the printed page.

Especially on a printed page where the narrator is simultaneously trying to sound as if he’s engaging the reader in everyday conversation and provide the necessary backstory for the reader to follow what’s going on. Think, for instance, of the stereotypical voice-over in a film noir:

Someone kicked my office door down, and this blonde walked in on legs that could have stretched from here to Frisco and back twice, given the proper incentive. She looked like a lady it wouldn’t be hard to incite.

Now, that would be funny spoken aloud, wouldn’t it? On the page, though, the reader would expect more than just a visual description — or at any rate, a more complex one.

Present-day Anne breaking in again here, feeling compelled to point out two things. First, people from San Francisco have historically hated it when others refer to it as Frisco, by the way. It’s safe to assume that Millicent from there will, too.

Second, and more important for revision purposes, memoirs fall into this trap ALL THE TIME — and it’s as fatal a practice in a book proposal or contest entry as it is in a manuscript. It may be counterintuitive that an anecdote that’s been knocking ‘em dead for years at cocktail parties might not be funny — or poignant, for that matter — when the same speech is reproduced verbatim on the page, but I assure you that such is the case.

The result? Any Millicent working for a memoir-representing agent spends days on end scanning submissions that read like this:

So there I was, listening to my boss go on and on about his fishing vacation, when I notice that he’s got a hand-tied fly stuck in his hair. I’m afraid to swipe my hand at it, because I might end up with a hook in my thumb, and besides, Thom hadn’t drawn breath for fifteen minutes; if the room had been on fire, he wouldn’t want to be disturbed.

The fly keeps bobbing up and down. I keep swishing my bangs out of my eyes, hoping he will start to copy me. Then he absent-mindedly started to shove his hair out of his eyes — and rammed his pinkie finger straight into the fly. That’s a fish story he’ll be telling for years!

Did those paragraphs make your hands grope unconsciously for highlighting pens and correction fluid? After all of our discussion of Frankenstein manuscripts and how to revise them, I sincerely hope so. Like so many verbal anecdotes, this little gem wanders back and forth between the past and present tenses, contains run-on sentences, and is light on vivid detail.

For our purposes today, however, what I want you to notice is how flat the telling is. Both the suspense and the comedy are there, potentially, but told this tersely, neither really jumps off the page at the reader. It reads like a summary, rather than as a scene.

It is, in short, told, not shown. The sad part is, the more exciting the anecdote, the more this kind of summary narration will deaden the story.

Don’t believe me? Okay, snuggle yourself into Millicent’s reading chair and take a gander at this sterling piece of memoir, a fairly representative example of the kind of action scene she sees in both memoir and autobiographical fiction submissions:

The plane landed in the jungle, and we got off. The surroundings looked pretty peaceful, but I had read up on the deadly snakes and vicious mountain cats that lurked in the underbrush. Suddenly, I heard a scream, and Avery, the magazine writer in the Bermuda shorts, went down like a sacked football player. He hadn’t even seen the cat coming.

While I was bending over him, tending his slashed eye, an anaconda slowly wrapped itself around my ankle. By the time I noticed that I had no circulation in my toes, it was too late.

Now, that’s an inherently exciting story, right? But does the telling do it justice? Wouldn’t it work better if the narrative presented this series of events as a scene, rather than a summary?

Ponder that, please, as we return to the discussion already in progress.

To professional readers, humor is a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two of a partial, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

But think about why the Frisco example above made you smile, if it did: was if because the writing itself was amusing, or because it was a parody of a well-known kind of Hollywood narration? (And in the story about the campaign manager, didn’t you find it just a trifle refreshing that he didn’t speak exactly like a character on THE WEST WING?)

More to the point, if you were Millicent, fated to screen 50 manuscripts before she can take the long subway ride home to her dinner, would you be more likely to read that passage as thigh-slapping, or just another tired piece of dialogue borrowed from the late-night movie?

The moral, should you care to know it: just because a writer intends a particular piece of Hollywood narration to be funny or ironic doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t push the usual Hollywood narration buttons.

I shudder to tell you this, but the costs of such narrative experimentation can be high. If a submission tries to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

I hear some resigned sighing out there. “Okay, Anne,” a few weary voices pipe, “you’ve scared me out of the DELIBERATE use of Hollywood narration. But if it’s as culturally pervasive as you say it is, am I not in danger of using it, you know, inadvertently?”

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is that you’re absolutely right, weary questioners: we’ve all heard so much Hollywood Narration in our lives that it is often hard for the author to realize she’s reproducing it. Here is where a writers’ group or editor can really come in handy: before you submit your manuscript, it might behoove you to have an eagle-eyed friend read through it, ready to scrawl in the margins, “Wait — doesn’t the other guy already know this?”

So can any other good first reader, of course, if you’re not into joining groups, but for the purposes of catching Hollywood narration and other logical problems, more eyes tend to be better than fewer. Not only are multiple first readers more likely to notice any narrative gaffe than a single one — that’s just probability, right? — but when an aspiring writer selects only one first reader, he usually chooses someone who shares his cultural background.

His politics, in other words. His educational level. His taste in television and movie viewing — and do you see where I’m heading with this? If you’re looking for a reader who is going to flag when your dialogue starts to sound Spielbergish, it might not be the best idea to recruit the person with whom you cuddle up on the couch to watch the latest Spielberg flick, might it?

I just mention.

One excellent request to make of first readers when you hand them your manuscript is to ask them to flag any statement that any character makes that could logically be preceded by variations upon the popular phrases, “as you know,” “as I told you,” “don’t you remember that,” and/or “how many times do I have to tell you that…”

Ask them to consider: should the lines that follow these statements be cut? Do they actually add meaning to the scene, or are they just the author’s subconscious way of admitting that this is Hollywood narration?

Another good indicator that dialogue might be trending in the wrong direction: if a character asks a question to which s/he already knows the answer (“Didn’t your brother also die of lockjaw, Aunt Barb?”), what follows is pretty sure to be Hollywood narration.

Naturally, not all instances will be this cut-and-dried, but these tests will at least get you into the habit of spotting them. When in doubt, reread the sentence in question and ask yourself: “What is this character getting out making this statement, other than doing me the favor of conveying this information to the reader?”

Flagging the warning signs is a trick that works well for isolated writers self-editing, too: once again, those highlighter pens are a revising writer’s best friends. Mark the relevant phrases, then go back through the manuscript, reexamining the sentences that surround them to see whether they should be reworked into more natural dialogue.

And while you’re at it, would you do me a favor, please, novelists? Run, don’t walk, to the opening scene of your novel (or the first five pages, whichever is longer) and highlight all of the backstory presented there. Then reread the scene WITHOUT any of the highlighted text.

Tell me — does it still hang together dramatically? Does the scene still make sense? Is there any dialogue left in it at all?

If you answered “By gum, no!” to any or all of these questions, sit down and ponder one more: does the reader really need to have all of the highlighted information from the get-go? Or am I just so used to voice-overs and characters spouting Hollywood narration that I thought it was necessary when I first drafted it but actually isn’t?

Okay, that’s more than enough homework for one day, I think, and enough civic involvement for one day. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part II: consistency, consistency, consistency. And did I mention consistency?

partial trees

A quick reminder before we get begin today’s free-for-all: this coming Monday, May 31, is the deadline for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. To allow each and every one of you to squeeze every last second of productive time out of your Memorial Day weekend, entries do not need to be date-stamped until midnight in your time zone.

I would especially love to see entries from those of you who have spent the last couple of weeks reading my super-close analysis of a reader’s opening pages and slowly turning bright green with envy: here is your chance to subject YOUR first page to similar scrutiny, free, gratis, and without charge. And not only my scrutiny, either: the quite genuinely fabulous Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the newly-released YA novel WHISPER, has graciously agreed to join me in this critiquing venture.

The complete rules, should you care to take a peek at them, may be found here. We shall now rejoin the blog already in progress.

Yesterday, as sometimes happens, the universe obligingly stepped up and provided me with a simply delightful metaphor for what we were already in the depths of talking about here at Author! Author! Accompany me, if you will, to the wildlife-harboring, honeybee-attracting, neighbor-annoying thicket of blackberry bushes that spans the wee creek running outside my house.

Okay, so maybe the snapshot above doesn’t really give you much of an idea of it. If you squint at that mass of green behind the trees, though, you may see the yellow glint of raccoon eyes.

Due to a brisk little bout of rezoning a few years back, all of the land above us on our hill has been concreted or asphalted over, so we like to keep some of our yard wild for the sake of the critters. (Also, so the abundant local rainfall has someplace to go — hasn’t anyone else noticed that as more and more land is paved and built over, overflowing rivers have less and less ground to suck up excess? Why is anyone surprised that flooding ensues?)

Not all of our neighbors are crazy about our impromptu wildlife sanctuary. Why, only last autumn, one set of civic-minded folk expressed their aesthetic opinions by flinging a large wooden pallet formerly used for their building materials into the aforementioned blackberry bushes.

I was all for moving it immediately: it was partially on public land. What if, I asked my significant other, the city suddenly took it into its collective head to cut back the part of the thicket that impinges upon the road, as it occasionally does? Once the blackberries grew over the pallet, wasn’t a sleepy public employee only too likely to run his mower smack into it? And since I was neither physically strong nor raccoon-repellent enough to extricate the pallet from its green grave myself (wildlife interprets my cries of “Shoo!” as “Here’s your dinner!”), was my SO not the logical candidate to head off that municipal disaster by moving the silly thing before, say, any city-owned machinery were permanently incapacitated and we were fined?

In the time-honored tradition of inter-spouse communications all over this great land of ours, my SO chose to regard these questions as purely rhetorical. He must have found them interesting food for thought, however, if not action, as the pitter-patter of tiny raccoon feet on wood slats prompted me to repeat these questions roughly once per month. I can only attribute his not actually doing anything about the pallet to a great and abiding love of the sound of my voice — and to an oft-expressed opinion that the neighbors should clean up their trash themselves.

Yesterday, about a month after the neighbors in question had moved away (much to the relief of local wildlife), I was startled from my daily creative reverie by the immistakable racket of heavy machinery being driven up our hill by someone rather unused to the task. The clipper attachment dragged on the ground.

I went running into my SO’s study. (Actually, I limped slowly, due to my recent back injury, but allow me a bit of creative latitude here.) “They’ve come for our blackberry bushes! Did you ever manage to move that pallet?”

He admitted that he had not; the neighbors, he said, should have taken care of it. Upon further questioning and a spirited discussion on the nature of reality vs. wishful thinking and the annoying imperatives of linear time, he was heard to opine that it was now too late now to do anything about it.

Well, as long-time readers of this blog are, I hope, quite well aware, I’ve never been a big fan of letting fixable problems just lie there. Upon my repeated urgings, he begrudgingly invested the roughly 2 1/2 minutes required to shout at the operator to stop, free the pallet, and moving to our garbage bin. He explained glibly throughout about the nature of linear time and our deadbeat ex-neighbors’ ethical shortcomings.

The municipal handyman was effusively grateful. “I never would have seen that. It would have smashed up my machine.”

“Naturally,” my SO said, with a perfectly straight face. “Anyone could have predicted that.”

What does this little domestic homily have to do with our ongoing discussion of necessary manuscript revisions, you ask? Why, I should have thought that was obvious: if you wish to please a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener, there’s just no substitute for taking the time to learn the rules of grammar, spelling, structure, and formatting, incorporate them consistently into your text — and then, before you submit your manuscript, double-checking how you have implemented those rules by reading your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Oh, that wasn’t your first thought after reading that anecdote? How puzzling. What about if I put it this way: if you know the rules but don’t implement them every time, you should expect Millicent to be annoyed when she stumbles over them in your submission.

But most of us writers don’t expect that, do we? In fact, even the submitters of the most egregiously error-prone manuscripts and contest entries are both astonished and hurt when agents, editors, and contest judges respond as though not unprofessionally-presented writing were bad writing, or as if an apparently unproofread first page were an infallible indicator of a manuscript rife with spelling, grammatical, and logic problems.

To spare anyone reading this any shocks in future: they will respond that way, predictably. In their minds, it’s the writer’s job to free a manuscript of distracting errors, rather than a professional reader’s job to try to see past those errors in order to discover new writing talent.

And it’s not enough to present your writing professionally in some parts of your manuscript and not others, either; a pallet hidden deep in the weeds is as likely to wreck the machinery as one left out in the open. But if the inflexible rules of spelling, grammar, and connective logic are the necessary foundation of a strong submission, consistency is the hallmark of a strong authorial voice.

Just in case I’m being too subtle about what this means for submissions: the Millicents of this world just abhor inconsistency in manuscripts, whether those gaffes lie in the realm of format, spelling, grammar, story details, style, or tone — and with good reason. People who read manuscripts for a living are trained to spot and deplore unevenness.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: as a result of this necessary but rather pedantic focus, a manuscript whose voice is sure and consistent tends to strike Millicent’s tired eyes like the sight of a cool river on a blazing summer day.

Why is it such a rare sight? Well, think about it: very, very few of us, no matter how talented we might happen to be, find our authorial voices the first time we sit down to write a novel. Or memoir. Or any other type of book, for that matter. It’s not even all that uncommon for a good writer to finish the first draft of her first novel, only to discover that her voice is significantly stronger, or even quite different, at the end of the book than at the beginning.

That should not surprise us very much, should it? After all, no one is born a technically perfect writer. And even after a writer has honed her professional toolkit, consistent authorial voice requires work to produce — and usually quite a bit of revision and re-reading.

Those of you who write only when you feel inspired are squirming right now, aren’t you?

I’m not astonished by that reaction — all too often, we writers talk about voice as though it were more or less synonymous with talent, as if it were something a writer is either born with or not. I don’t think that’s true. Oh, it’s true enough that talent can’t be learned, but craft can be, and many a great sentence-builder has missed becoming a great writer because she relied too much on the former at the expense of developing the latter.

Here’s a novel thought: consistent voice is almost always the product not of original inspiration, but of conscientious revision.

Let that one sink in for a moment. I’ll wait. I’ve got this pretty view to ponder.

Voice is more than self-expression, a way of writing a sentence, or even inspiration: it’s tone, level of detail, analytical perception, sense of humor, rhythm, and all of the other hyper-personalized ways in which one writer tells a story differently than another. Learning to wield these weighty tools to produce a consistent and seemingly effortless result takes practice, patience, and much trial and error.

Or, to put it another way: it’s a whole lot harder to write a good book than a good individual sentence, paragraph, or scene. Why? Because the alchemy doesn’t need to come together only once, as it does in a well-written sentence; it has to come together every time, and in a similar way.

On an artistic level, I’m always thrilled when a client (or any other talented writer, for that matter) finds her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work to come. Because, you see, once a writer discovers the right voice and perspective for the story he’s telling, he will have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, back to the Frankenstein manuscript, doesn’t it? Funny how that worked out.

A Frankenstein manuscript, for those of you joining us late, is a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, may create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

To forestall your getting blank looks at writers’ conferences, I should hastily add: this is my personal nickname for such a book, not an industry-wide moniker. (Although since this blog has readers in circles in circles that might surprise you, the term has been gaining currency over the last couple of years.) I assure you, however, every single agent and editor currently working in North America is aware of the phenomenon and dreads it — because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Especially, alas, a writer so excited by an agent’s request for materials that he simply prints out the latest version of his manuscript and sends it off right away. Regardless of where it might happen to be in the revision process, getting it out the door before the requesting agent changes her mind seems more important than taking the time to make sure that each and every revision has been implemented consistently all the way through the manuscript.

I won’t make those of you who have fallen into this trap, only to kick yourself later, raise your hands. You know who you are.

The fact that aspiring writers generally don’t realize that their manuscripts are uneven should not surprise us unduly, right? Writing a book takes a long time: authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK — which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Let me repeat that, as it’s awfully important: there is absolutely no way to diagnose and treat a manuscript’s Frankensteinish tendencies without sitting down and reading the whole darned thing. Preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

If the prospect of improving artistically is not enough to set you running for your comfy reading chair, pronto, here’s an excellent marketing incentive to send you scurrying in that direction, manuscript in hand: unfortunately for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author.

Translation: if you don’t catch the problem, they will. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript on your hands, you are far, far better off recognizing the fact yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

Again, not precisely a surprise, is it?

But for most aspiring writers, tackling an entire manuscript, even if its their own, is a rather overwhelming prospect — so much so that many simply dismiss the idea of reading their own manuscripts in their entirety, much less fixing them, as impracticable. To assuage some of those fears, let’s embrace the old-time editors’ trick of attacking only one manuscript megaproblem at a time.

Seriously, revision is a process, not a one-time deal: breaking up that immense task into bite-sized pieces and eating them one at a time is far more sensible than trying to force your psyche to think about every conceivable problem in a 400-page manuscript simultaneously. Worry about the totality of the diagnosing and revising down the line — just for now, focus on only one easily fixable gaffe and repair that.

You can read through your work, searching for only a single problem, can’t you? Piece o’ proverbial cake.

Then, after you are positive that your manuscript is perfect in that respect, pick another megaproblem and work on that — for every page of the manuscript, so you may be absolutely positive that you haven’t missed anything. Repeat as often as necessary. When you are pretty sure that you’ve systematically rooted out all of the ongoing problems, sit down and read your manuscript — wait for it — IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, to catch any remaining Frankenstein tendencies.

Sound time-consuming? It is. But it’s far, far less likely either to drive you mad or lead you to throw up your hands in despair and abandon the book altogether than trying to tackle a universal revision in one fell swoop.

Don’t shrug off the latter danger as improbable, please: revision burnout is a very real phenomenon. I’ve seen many, many more promising manuscripts tossed into trash cans by their writers out of despair over how long revision might take than out of anger at rejection.

In the spirit of incremental progress, let’s begin with a single, extremely common manifestation of Frankensteinery with an eye to rooting it out of the manuscript: the text that hasn’t yet really decided which tense it is in, and so meanders back and forth between (usually) the present and the past.

In fiction, the explanation for this phenomenon is usually pretty straightforward: the writer thought at one point that it would be nifty to write the book in the present tense, realized part-way through that it’s darned difficult to tell a story that way (how does one writing in the present tense of events that have been in progress for some time, for instance?), and changed to the past. Only in the transition process, not all of the verbs got changed.

Oops. What an annoying-yet-easily-fixable problem.

Spotting this particular Frankenstein problem is great practice for sharpening your editorial eye, because once you’re on the look-out for improper tenses, they will just start leaping off the page at you. (Hint: don’t try to catch them on your computer screen; sit down with a hard copy of your latest draft and a highlighting pen.) Quite quickly, you’ll begin to regard those tense slips in the same light as Millicent does: like an indicator that the writer did not take the time to sit down and re-read his work after revision.

Hmm, where have I heard before that such a course of action really isn’t the best strategic move? I’m sure it will come to me…

Fair warning: sometimes tense slips are intentional. Sometimes — and this one is more common in nonfiction, notoriously so in memoir — the writer just thinks it’s cool to present past events in the present tense. It sounds more colloquial that way, she reasons, the way someone might tell an anecdote verbally.

The trouble is, flipping past actions into the present tense can rapidly become darned confusing for the reader. To illustrate how and why, let’s take a gander at a favorite (and kind of surprising, from so usually consistent a writer) example of mine, Sarah Vowell’s THE WORDY SHIPMATES:

Williams in Salem is such a myopic researcher of biblical truth he doesn’t care who gets hurt. His intellectual fervor, coupled with a disregard of practical consequences, reminds me of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, running his secret Manhattan Project lab in Los Alamos with a single-minded zeal, then quoting the Bhagavad Gita as the first test of his atomic bomb lights up the desert. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he said.

Now, this paragraph makes perfect sense, on one level: an intelligent reader could figure out that the narrator is in the present, talking about Oppenheimer and Williams in the past. But quick, tell me based upon this passage alone: who was born first, Oppenheimer or Williams?

If you said Oppenheimer, you were following the hint given by the tense choices in this passage. Since Oppenheimer is clearly speaking in the past, and Williams is presented in the present tense, the implication is that Williams is the more recent trodder of the earth’s crust, right? Perhaps even a contemporary of Vowell’s?

So would it astonish you to learn that Williams was obsessing in 1635, not 2008, when the book came out?

For some reason best known to herself, Vowell chose to describe the actions of Williams and his fellow Puritans in both the present and the past tense, sometimes within the same paragraph. Since her background is in radio (by definition a speaker’s medium), I am forcing myself to conclude that this was a well-considered authorial choice, not merely the result of a reluctance to re-read her own work (which she does regularly on NPR) or an editorial oversight.

As a well-established nonfiction writer, she was, obviously, able to get away with this choice, but that does not necessarily mean that the writer of a first book could. As we have often discussed, the standards for breaking into the biz are quite a bit more stringent than those for the folks already in it. So it would behoove you to consider this authorial choice very carefully before submission: when most aspiring writers slip around in time, it’s because they’re trying to mirror the patterns of common speech or believe that actions described in the present tense are more immediate to the reader.

While you are weighing your revision options, you might want to bear in mind that Millicent (a) tends not to be all that big a fan of narrative text that reads just like the spoken word UNLESS the manuscript is written in the first person singular, and (b) very few professional readers believe that ordinary readers are sufficiently now-oriented to prefer the present tense to the past. (“Wait — this isn’t happening right now? Why should I pay attention to it, then?”)

And then there’s the very real possibility that Millicent will simply assume that any slips between tenses are not a narrative choice, but a mistake. A mistake made by — chant it with me now, readers — a writer who did not bother to read his submission IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, to make sure that the tense choices are consistent.

I like using THE WORDY SHIPMATES as an example of this dilemma, as it is one of the rare cases where reviewers were as uncharitable to a well-respected author’s efforts as Millicent would have been had THE WORDY SHIPMATES crossed her desk as a submission from a previously unpublished aspiring writer. “As a whole,” the New York Post’s reviewer commented dryly, “the book reads like an unedited manuscript.”

Like, in other words, a Frankenstein manuscript.

In Ms. Vowell’s defense, I can think of a number of strategic reasons the frequent tense changes might have seemed like a good idea at the composition stage. Casting so much of the Puritans’ story in the present tense might have been a deliberate attempt to draw a parallel with current political conditions at the time the book came out, for instance (which may be why the book already seems a trifle dated). Or perhaps it was an effort to make the lives of our long-dead forebears seem more immediately relevant to the reader.

But whatever the motivation, I don’t think it worked — which irritated me, as this is an author for whom I harbor a great deal of ongoing respect. As a reader, though, I have to say that I found the frequent temporal shifts jarring every single time they occurred in the book. I thought they made the historical tale she was telling significantly harder to follow on the page.

But some of you out there share the belief that writing in the present tense is inherently more grabbing than writing in the past, don’t you? Certainly, those of you who feel this way are not alone: there has been quite a bit of literary fiction over the last 20 years (particularly short stories) that has embraced that notion that placing a narrative in the now is more immediate.

Personally, I don’t think it’s true, largely because anyone who reads on a regular basis is already well versed in the not-very-difficult mental process of becoming absorbed in a past tense story as though it were happening in present time. A reader has to be awfully darned literal to perceive himself to be distanced from action simply because it is presented in the past tense. I also know from experience that writing an entire book in the present tense necessarily entails quite a few technical difficulties that may be avoided almost entirely by placing it in even the most recent of pasts. Even the most minimal tense slip-up runs the risk of yanking the reader out of the world of the book and back into mundane reality.

All that being said, tense choices are entirely up to the author — if you love the present tense and feel it’s the best means of telling your story, by all means write in it. I ask only one thing, for your own sake: if you’re going to write in the present tense, do it consistently.

Again, if you’re not willing to heed this advice for artistic reasons, embrace it because it’s good marketing. Manuscripts that tense-flip for no apparent reason tend to get dismissed as poorly proofed, at best, and poorly revised at worst. So unless a reader has a pretty darned good reason to assume that your authorial choices are deliberate — like, say, Sarah Vowell’s extensive track record of excellent published writing — assume that he’s going to interpret tense inconsistency not as a matter of style, but as a mistake, and an easily preventable one, at that.

Am I suggesting that you might want to save the major experimentation until after you’re already an established writer? Well, I hate to seem cynical, but it’s usually simpler to break into the book market that way. (The norms of the short story market remain quite different, I am grateful to report.) Many a well-respected literary luminary has cut his teeth on less radical ways to make English prose interesting, then moved on later to challenge the language.

Hey, Nobel laureate José Saramago wrote an entire book devoid of periods. Do you honestly believe that a first-time writer could have gotten away with the same trick?

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unfair that the already-published should be judged by less exacting standards than those just breaking into the biz, but I’m not going to lie to you: that’s how it works. I don’t think that THE WORDY SHIPMATES would have made it past Millicent had it been written by a previously unpublished writer.

Which would have been a shame, as it’s an interesting book with some wonderful insights and some very memorable sentences crammed into it. But plenty of interesting books with wonderful insights and memorable sentences don’t clear the first hurdle at agencies or in literary contests.

Why? Often, because those insights and sentences come across as flukes, occasional narrative bright spots not entirely integrated into the overall narrative. The voice is not consistent.

Cue the monster; he’s on again.

Don’t despair, however, if you fear your manuscript has Frankenstein tendencies. Next time, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house — as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Allowing butter to melt in your characters’ mouths, and other little revisions you can make to brighten Millicent’s day

melting-butter2melting-butter3

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s ruminations about the ever-changing state of publishing, I happened upon this article about print-on-demand going on in a local independent bookstore. Basically, the buyer picks a book off an extensive list (most of whose items are in the public domain, neatly side-stepping the whole how-does-the-writer-get-paid issue), a clerk sets up an industrial print-and-binding machine, and violà! Roughly 18 minutes later, the customer is holding a physical copy of a 19th-century novel that’s been out of print for decades.

Progress, or just another sled on the slippery slope toward authors not being paid for their writing at all? What do you think?

While you’re pondering that Gordian knot, let’s revisit yesterday’s subject, politeness as a scene-killer. In fact, while we’re already on the topic, let’s make a day of it and take a guided tour of standard agents’ euphemisms for being bored by a submission.

Why should every reviser worth her proverbial salt be aware of these euphemisms, you ask? A couple of reasons, and good ones. First, as I have pointed out several times throughout our recent discussion of self-editing tactics, writers of first drafts often don’t actively consider during the composition process the possibility that their stories or arguments, while no doubt beautifully written and new to them, may be rather similar to other stories or arguments currently making the rounds of agencies. Particularly — and it pains me to say this, but it is true — if the story or argument in question happens to bear even the slightest to a bestseller that came out any time within the last decade.

Trust me, no matter how slight the familial resemblance between your novel and, say, THE DA VINCI CODE, Millicent’s seen so many iterations of the latter come across her desk in recent years that a similar paragraph or, heaven help us, 3-page chapters may well strike her as the identical twin of something she’s seen 20,000 times before. Thus that latte Millicent, the agency screener in my examples, keeps chugging, regardless of the danger to her oft-burnt tongue. She has to do something to stay awake as she’s leafing through the fifty submissions before yours turns up to brighten her day and gladden her heart.

Which leads me to the second reason: boring Millicent is one of the most common reasons for rejection at both the submission and query stages, yet interestingly enough, when one hears agents giving advice at conferences about how to guide manuscripts through the submission process relatively unscathed, the rather sensible admonition, “Whatever you do, don’t bore me!” is very seldom heard. Partially, I think, this is due to people in the industry’s reluctance to admit in public just how little they read of most manuscripts before rejecting them.

How little? Long-time members of the Author! Author! community, chant it with me now: the average submission is rejected on page 1. Sometimes in paragraph 1, or even sentence 1. As with query letters, submissions arrive at agencies in sufficient volume that screeners are trained to find reasons to reject them, rather than reasons to accept them.

Why isn’t this fact shouted from the rooftops and hung on banners from the ceilings of writers’ conferences, since being aware of it could only help everyone concerned, including Millicent? Well, having met my share of conference organizers, I would imagine it has something to do with not wanting to discourage attendees into giving up. It is a genuinely depressing state of affairs, after all, especially for those who have been querying and submitting for a while, and I can understand not wanting to be standing in a room with 400 writers hearing this hard fact for the first time.

Also, whenever I HAVE heard the news broken at a conference, the audience tends to react, well, a trifle negatively. Which is perfectly understandable, since from an aspiring writer’s point of view, such a declaration almost invariably means one of two things: either the agent or editor is a mean person who hates literature (but loves bestsellers), or that the admitter possesses an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners and thus should not be submitted to, queried, or even approached at all.

Either way, writers tend to react as though the pro were admitting a personal failing. That, too, tends not to help anybody concerned.

Actually, the prevailing assumptions about Millicent’s notoriously short attention span aren’t entirely fair. She may have a super-short of attention span for the opening pages of submissions, but she’s been known to pore over the 18th draft of an already-signed writer whose work she loves three times over. So have her boss, the agent, and the editor to whom they sell their clients’ work. However, since none of the three want to encourage submitters to bore them, they might not be all that likely to admit the latter before a bunch of aspiring writers at a conference.

Something else you’re unlikely to hear: that on certain mornings, the length of time it takes to bore a screener is substantially shorter than others, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control. I cast no aspersions and make no judgments, but they don’t call it the city that never sleeps for nothing, you know.

But heaven forfend that an agent should march into a conference and say, “Look, I’m going to level with you. If I’m dragging into the office on three hours of sleep, your first page is going to have to be awfully darned exciting for me even to contemplate turning to the second. Do yourself a favor, and send me an eye-opening first few pages, okay?”

No, no, the prevailing wisdom goes, if the reader is bored, it must be the fault of the manuscript – or, more often, with problems that they see in one manuscript after another, all day long. (“Where is that nameless intern with my COFFEE?” the agent moans.)

As it turns out, while the state of boredom is generally defined as a period with little variation, agents have been able to come up with many, many reasons that manuscripts bore them. Presumably on the same principle as that often-repeated truism about Arctic tribes having many words for different types of snow: to someone not accustomed to observing the variations during the length of a long, long winter, it all kind of looks white and slushy.

Here are a few of the most popular — and don’t be surprised if they seem a trifle familiar, long-time readers. I cribbed them from the extremely-useful-but-utterly-horrifying list of reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1 we discussed in last January’s HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE series (conveniently gathered under the category of the same name on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page, incidentally). They include :

(1) Not enough happens on page 1.

(2) Where’s the conflict?

(3) The story is not exciting.

(4) The story is boring. (I know: not a very subtle euphemism, but bear with me here.)

(5) Repetition on pg. 1 (!)

(6) Took too many words to tell us what happened.

(7) The writing is dull.

(8) I didn’t care enough about the protagonist and/or his situation to muster the effort to turn to page 2.

Sensing a pattern here? Now, to those of us not lucky enough to be screening a hundred submissions a day, that all sounds like variations on snow, doesn’t it? But put yourself in Millicent’s snow boots for a moment: imagine holding a job that compels you to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between not exciting, boring, and I’m just not interested.

This probably wasn’t the glamour she expected when she first landed the job at the agency.

Most of these are pretty self-explanatory, but not enough happens on page 1 might confuse, as it is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. Many a wonderful manuscript doesn’t really hit its stride until page 4 — or 15, or 146. And you’d be amazed at how often a good writer will bury a terrific first line for the book on page 10.

That’s not criticism; it’s just a fact. Unfortunately, neither Millicent, her cousin Maury who screens manuscripts for editors at a major publishing house, nor their Aunt Mehitabel, the inveterate contest judge, tends to have the time or the patience to wait for a slow-moving manuscript to pick up momentum.

The screening process is not, to put it mildly, set up to reward brilliance that takes a little while to warm up — and that’s not merely a matter of impatience on the reader’s part. Remember, that burnt-tongued screener racing through manuscripts will have to write a summary of any manuscript she recommends to her boss. So will Maury. Even Mehitabel will have to jot down a little something in order to pass a contest entry on to the finals round.

Think about it for a moment: how affectionate are any of them likely to feel toward a story that doesn’t give her a solid sense of what the story is about by the end of page 1? Please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, give the reader a sense of who the protagonist is and what the book is about quickly.

Yes, even if you are convinced in the depths of your creative heart that the book in its published form should open with a lengthy disquisition on philosophy instead of plot. Remember, manuscripts almost always change between when an agent picks them up and when the first editor sees them, and then again before they reach publication. If you make a running order change in order to render your book a better grabber for Millicent on page 1, you probably will be able to change it back.

Or at least have a lovely long argument with your future agent and/or editor about why you shouldn’t. In the meantime, you might want to revise those early pages with an eye to getting on with it.

Speaking of unseemly brawls, where’s the conflict? is an exceptionally frequent reason for rejecting submissions — and not merely on page 1. In professional reader-speak, this means that the opening is well-written, but lacks the dramatic tension that arises from interpersonal friction (or in literary fiction, intrapersonal friction).

Or, to put it less technically, it’s not clear to Millicent what is at stake, who is fighting over it, and why the reader should care. Oh, you may smile at the notion of cramming that much information, which is really the province of a synopsis or pitch, into the first page of a manuscript, but to be blunt about it, Millicent’s going to need all of that information to pitch the book to her higher-ups at the agency. Giving her some immediate hints about where the plot is going is thus a shrewd strategic move.

Perhaps more to the point, while that’s going to be problematic at any point in a submission or contest entry, if it’s the prevailing condition at the bottom of page 1, our Millie tends, alas, to revert by default to #8, I didn’t care enough about the protagonist and/or his situation to muster the effort to turn to page 2. Next!

Where’s the conflict? has been heard much more often in professional readers’ circles since writing gurus started touting using the old screenwriter’s trick of utilizing a Jungian heroic journey as the story arc of the book. Since within that storyline, the protagonist starts out in the real world, not to get a significant challenge until the end of Act I, many novels put the conflict on hold, so to speak, until the first call comes.

(If you’re really interested in learning more about the hero’s journey structure, let me know, and I’ll do a post on it. Or you can rent one of the early STAR WARS movies, or pretty much any US film made in the 1980s or 1990s where the protagonist learns an Important Life Lesson. Basically, all you need to know for the sake of my argument here is that this ubiquitous advice has resulted in all of us seeing many, many movies where the character where the goal is attained and the chase scenes begin on page 72 of the script.)

While this is an interesting way to structure a book, starting every story in the so-called normal world tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter, by definition: according to the fine folks who plot this way, the potential conflict is what knocks the protagonist out of his everyday world.

I find this plotting assumption fascinating, because I don’t know how reality works where you live, but around here, most people’s everyday lives are simply chock-full of conflict. Gobs and gobs of it. And if you’re shaking your head right now, thinking that I must live either a very glamorous life or am surrounded by the mentally unbalanced, let me ask you: have you ever held a job where you didn’t have to work with at least one person who irritated you profoundly?

Having grown up in a very small town, my impression is that your garden-variety person is more likely to experience conflict with others on the little interpersonal level in a relatively dull real-life situation than in an inherently exciting one — like, say, a crisis where everyone has to pull together. Having had the misfortune to work once in an office where fully two-thirds of the staff was going through menopause, prompting vicious warfare over where the thermostat should be set at any given moment, either hot enough to broil a fish next to the copy machine or cool enough to leave meat, eggs, and ice cubes lying about on desks for future consumption, let me tell you, sometimes the smallest disagreements can make for the greatest tension.

I know, I know: that’s not the way we see tension in the movies, where the townsfolk huddled in the blacked-out supermarket, waiting for the prehistoric creatures to attack through the frozen food section, suddenly start snapping at one another because the pressure of anticipation is so great. But frankly, in real life, people routinely snap at one another in supermarkets when there aren’t any prehistoric beasts likely to carry off the assistant produce manager, and I think it’s about time more writers acknowledged that.

I’m bringing this up for good strategic reasons: just because you may not want to open your storyline with the conflict of the book doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t open it with a conflict. Even if you have chosen to ground your opening in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, there’s absolutely no reason that you can’t ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1.

Or, to put it a trifle less delicately, it will not outrage the principles of realism to make an effort to keep that screener awake throughout your opening paragraphs. Or, indeed, on any page of your manuscript.

What was that shopworn industry truism again? Oh, yes: in a novel or memoir, there should be conflict on every single page.

Do I spot some hesitantly raised hands out there, perhaps ones that have been waving in the air since I posted yesterday? “But Anne,” some courteous souls protest, “conflict to me equals fighting, and I’m trying to show that my protagonist is a normal person, a nice one that the reader will grow to love. How do I present my sweet, caring protagonist as likable if she’s embroiled in a conflict from page 1? Is it okay to have the conflict going on around her in which she doesn’t actually get involved?”

Ah, you’ve brought up one of the classic aspiring novelist’s misconceptions, courteous protesters, one that’s shared by many a memoirist: the notion that what makes a human being likable in real life will automatically render a fictionalized version of that person adorable. It’s a philosophy particularly prevalent in first-person narratives. I can’t even begin to estimate the number of otherwise well-written manuscripts where the primary goal of the opening scene(s) is apparently to impress the reader with the how nice and kind and just gosh-darned polite the protagonist is.

Butter wouldn’t melt in any of their mouths, apparently. As charming as such people may be when one encounters them in real life, from a professional reader’s point of view. they often make rather irritating protagonists, for precisely the reason we’re discussing today: they tend to be conflict-avoiders.

Which can render them a trifle, well, dull on the page. Since interpersonal conflict is the underlying basis of drama (you might want to take a moment to jot that one down, portrayers of niceness), habitually conflict-avoiding protagonists tend to stand in the way of both plot and character development. Instead of providing the engine that moves the plot forward, they keep throwing it into neutral, or even reverse, in an effort to keep tempers from clashing.

Like protagonists who are poor interviewers, the conflict-shy have a nasty habit of walking away from potentially interesting scenes that might flare up, not asking the question that the reader wants asked because it might offend another of the characters, or even being just so darned polite that their dialogue doesn’t add anything to the scene other than conveying that they have some pretty nifty manners.

These protagonists’ mothers might be pleased to see them conducting themselves so well, but they make Millicent want to tear her hear out.

“No, no, NO!” the courteous gasp. “Polite people are nice, and polite people really do talk courteously in real life! How can it be wrong to depict that on the page?”

Oh, dear, how to express this without hurting anyone’s feelings…have you ever happened to notice just how predictable polite interchanges are? As I mentioned last time, they’re generic; given a specific set of circumstances, any polite person might say precisely the same things — which means that if the reader happens to have been brought up to observe the niceties, or even knows someone who has, s/he can pretty much always guess what a habitually polite character will say, and sometimes do, in the face of plot turns and twists.

And predictability, my friends, is one of the most efficient dramatic tension-killers known to humankind.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take a gander at this gallant conversation in a doorway:

“Oh, pardon me, James. I didn’t see you there. Please go first.”

“Not at all, Cora. After you.”

“No, no, I insist. You reached the doorway before me.”

“But your arms are filled with packages. Permit me to hold the door for you, dear lady.”

“Well, if you insist, James. Thank you.”

“Not at all, Cora. Ah-choo!”

“Bless you.”

“Thanks. Please convey my regards to your mother.”

“I’m sure she’ll be delighted. Do send my best love to your wife and seventeen children. Have a nice day.”

“You, too, Cora.”

Courteous? Certainly. Stultifying dialogue? Absolutely.

Now, I grant you that this dialogue does impress upon the reader that James and Cora are polite human beings, but was it actually necessary to invest 6 lines of text in establishing that not-very-interesting fact? Wouldn’t it be more space-efficient if the author had used that space SHOWING that these are kind people through action? (“My God, Cora, I can’t believe you risked your life saving that puppy from the rampaging tiger on your way back from your volunteer gig tutoring prison inmates in financial literacy!”)

Or, if that seems a touch melodramatic to you, how about showing dialogue that also reveals characteristics over and above mere politeness? While you’re at it, why not experiment with letting some of that butter in your protagonist’s mouth rise to body temperature from time to time?

“But Anne,” a few consistency-huggers out there shout, “you can’t seriously mean to suggest that I should have my protagonist act out of character! Won’t that just read as though I don’t know what my character is like?”

Actually, no — in fact it can be very good strategy character development. Since completely consistent characters can easily become predictable (case in point: characters on sitcoms, who often learn Important Life Lessons in one week’s episode and apparently forget them by the following episode), many authors choose to intrigue their audiences by having their characters do or say something off-beat every so often. Keeps the reader guessing — which is a great first step toward keeping the reader engaged.

And don’t underestimate the charm of occasional clever rudeness for revealing character in an otherwise polite protagonist. Take a look at this probably apocryphal but widely reported doorway exchange between authors Clare Boothe Luce and Dorothy Parker, and see if it doesn’t tell you a little something about the characters involved:

The two illustrious ladies bumped into each other at the entrance to the theatre. As it was an opening night performance and the two were well known to be warm personal enemies, a slight hush fell over the crowd around them.

In the face of such scrutiny, Mrs. Luce tried to rise to the challenge. “Age before beauty,” she told Mrs. Parker, waving toward the door.

“And pearls before swine,” Mrs. Parker allegedly replied, sailing in ahead of her.

Polite? Not particularly. But aren’t they both characters you would want to follow through a plot?

“Okay,” my courteous questioners admit reluctantly, “I can see where I might want to substitute character-revealing dialogue for merely polite chat, at least in my opening pages, to keep from boring Millicent. But you haven’t answered the rest of my question: how can I make my protagonist likable if she’s embroiled in a conflict from page 1? What if I just show conflict going on around her, without her, you know, getting nasty?”

For polite people, you certainly ask pointed questions, courteous ones: it means you’re starting to get the hang of interesting dialogue. As you have just illustrated, one way that a protagonist can politely introduce conflict into a scene is by pressing a point that another party to the conversation wants to brush off.

Nasty? Not at all. Conflictual? Definitely.

Not all conflict entails fighting, you see. Sometimes, it’s mere disagreement — or, in the case of a protagonist whose thoughts the reader hears, silent rebellion. Small acts of resistance can sometimes convey a stronger sense of conflict than throwing an actual punch. (For more suggestions on heightening conflict, please see the CONFLICT-BUILDING category on the list at right.)

When in doubt about whether the conflict is sufficient to keep Millicent’s interest, try raising the stakes for the protagonist in the scene. As long as the protagonist wants something very much at that particular moment, is prevented from getting it, and takes some action as a result, changes are that conflict will emerge, at least internally.

Note, please, that I did not advise ramping up the external conflict, necessarily, especially on a first page. In a first-person or tight third-person narrative, where the reader is observing the book’s world from behind the protagonist’s eyeglasses, so to speak, protagonists who are mere passive observers of their own lives are unfortunately common in submissions; if Millicent had a nickel for every first page she read where the protagonist was presented as little more than a movie camera taking in ambient conditions, she wouldn’t be working as a poorly-paid screener; she’d own her own agency.

If not her own publishing house.

Should any of you nonfiction writers out there have been feeling a bit smug throughout this spirited little discussion of protagonist passivity, I should add that the conflict insufficiency problem doesn’t afflict only the opening pages of novels. It’s notoriously common in memoirs, too — as often as not, for the two reasons we discussed above: wanting to make the narrator come across as likable and presenting the narrator as a mere observer of events around him.

Trust me on this one: in both fiction and nonfiction, Millicent will almost always find an active protagonist more likable than a passive one. All of that predictable niceness quickly gets just a little bit boring.

Mix it up a little. Get your protagonist into the game from the very top of page 1.

Then keep her there. Oh, and keep up the good work!

More of those telling details lifted from real life, or, well-mannered camel seeks wiser man

camel in profile

Last time, in the midst of indulging my passion for telling details, I forgot to tell you about my recent holiday encounter with the camel pictured above. If this isn’t a story where the specifics provide all of the characterization needed…well, I let you judge for yourself. While you’re at it, why not continue our ongoing tradition of figuring out what editorial tweaks could improve the story?

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

I watched scores of children fling hay at them, shouting, “Hey, Reindeer!” (or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before), but the trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

One small pink-clad screamer simply would not leave the animals alone, however. She kicked at the metal fencing, bellowing words I was a surprised a kindergartener would be able to use correctly in a sentence. When she picked up a rock, I wandered over to the fence to distract her with a hastily-constructed fairy tale about our barnyard friends. And camels.

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

Was he going to make her apologize to the camel? I doubted Curly would appreciate it.

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

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

So why, I ask you, would our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, have stopped reading part-way through paragraph #2? Because, I assure you, most Millicents would have: one of her most notorious pet peeves has reared its ugly head here.

If you pointed out that the narration switched tenses between the first and second paragraphs, congratulations! Paragraph #1 is in the present tense; paragraph #2 is in the past. Submissions and contest entries do that all the time. Sometimes, they even switch back within a paragraph or two.

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

Good question, tense-switchers. Remember how I mentioned earlier in this series on self-editing that professional readers — agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, etc. — are trained to spot redundancies in a manuscript? They’re also taught to leap upon inconsistencies.

In other words, Millicent is likely to assume that the change of tense is not the result of well thought-out authorial choice, but simply a mistake that did not get caught in the proofreading process. And, like other commonly-made errors, the tense inconsistency may well jar her out of the flow of the story. Next!

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

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

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

So even if the writer is technically correct, if a tense switch seems unjustified to Millicent — if it appears to be, say, an incomplete revision between a manuscript originally in the present tense and a subsequent draft in the past, or vice-versa — that’s usually the ball game. Why risk it?

Especially when, as in this case, making the tense consistent does not detract at all from either the meaning or the voice of the section. Lookee:

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

I watched scores of children fling hay at them, shouting, “Hey, Reindeer!” (or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before), but the trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

That’s as painless a revision as you’re ever likely to see, folks. It just requires a good proofreading eye to catch — and need I even add that this variety of inconsistency is easiest to catch if one reads one’s submission or contest entry IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, what’s the problem this time? Hint: it’s even more subtle than the last.

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

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

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

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

Do I see a raised hand or two out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “haven’t we already talked about this in this series? Just as absolutely faithful recreations of real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing a nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers also tend to forget that real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as we sometimes expect.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Move ON with it!”

Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.) To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

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

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

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

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

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

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

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

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response. Fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

In other words, this is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well.

But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Most self-editing writers wouldn’t notice this narrative lack — any guesses why?

If you said it was due to the fact that his memory of Dina the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a chocolate sundae with jimmies on top. In his mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

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

And yes, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development.

Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read.

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

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

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

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

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

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

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more insight, then I’m done for the day: you’ve been having just a little trouble paying attention to my arguments, haven’t you? Some part of your mind has been distracted, wondering what happened to the arm in the camel’s mouth?

That, my friends, is how Millicent — and most other readers, professional and non-pro alike — feels when an interesting one- or two-paragraph teaser, the kind that aspiring writers so love placing within italics, gives way to an apparently or only tangentially unrelated second scene. “Hey!” Millicent cries, spitting out her mouthful of scalding latte, “what happened to that darn interesting plot I’d gotten absorbed in? What’s this writer trying to do, hook me with something exciting, then drop me into a comparatively mundane storyline?”

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

Remember, part of being a good storyteller involves knowing when to relieve the suspense. In the case of my camel story, now would be a good time.

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

The crate-kicker and I complied. With his uneaten hand, he began tickling the camel’s lips, rubbing the gums as if he were a mammalian dentist. Curly face elongated, as though he were going to sneeze. A loud pop, a slurp, and the man was freed.

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

“Yes, Daddy,” she whispered, staring aghast at his friction-reddened arm.

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

That, and keeping any parts of your body involved in typing out of animals’ mouths. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XIII: building your synopsis from solid wood, or, do you think it’s EASY to come up with a thematically-appropriate photo every day?

window corner

Did you enjoy your day off, everyone? I like to think of it as step one in declaring my birthday (and Truman Capote’s, and Euripedes’. as it happens) an international holiday. Rested and refreshed, let’s meander back to our ongoing list of questions designed to ferret out the most pervasive of synopsis problems. The hit parade so far:

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

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

(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound compelling? Does it make me eager to read it?

(4) Does the synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Is it clear where the climax is and what is at stake for the protagonist? Or does it merely list all of the events in the book in the order they appear?

(5) Have I mentioned too many characters in the synopsis? Does each that I mention come across as individually memorable?

(6) In a novel synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is?

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

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

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

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

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

(12) If I’m marketing fiction, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible?

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

Is everyone happy with all of those? More importantly, is everyone’s synopsis happy with all of those?

For the sake of getting on with it, I’m going to assume that the answer is a resounding, “By gum, Anne, YES!” But if you have any questions about what I’ve covered so far, please feel free to bring ‘em up in the comments. (And for those of you new to how blogs work: to leave a comment, go to the very bottom of the post, after the category listings, and click on the green word COMMENTS. That will take you to a form where you can leave, well, comments.)

Moving on — and all of these apply equally well to a synopsis intended to rest within a query packet, a submission packet, and a contest entry, by the way:

(14) Does the first couple of paragraphs of my synopsis contain an indelible image that the reader can take away?

Since part of the goal in a synopsis is to convince Millicent the agency screener that the manuscript is fresh, unique, and well-written, wowing her with the first paragraph is essential. So wiggle your way into Millicent’s moccasins and ask yourself: does the opening of the synopsis contain something both unique and memorable? A vivid sensual image, for instance? A surprising juxtaposition of words? A fresh emotional dilemma?

In short, something that she hasn’t already seen — preferably never, but at least not within the hour?

Don’t tell me, please, that there’s something terrific at the bottom of the page, or that if Millie will only have the patience to make it to the middle of page 3, she’ll be hooked. All of that may well be true, but remember, you can’t be sure that Millicent will make it to page 3, or even the bottom of the page.

Why, you exclaim in horror? Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and sing along: screeners stop reading as soon as they’ve reached a conclusion about a submission.

Again, this isn’t a matter of laziness, meanness, or a hatred of literature — Millicent has to get through a lot of these in any given workday. So as with a contest entry, screeners tend to pass judgment upon synopses pretty fast. Also, in order to approve a query or submission for continuing on to the next step of the screening process, screeners often need to be able to describe the book in just a sentence or two. Giving Millicent (or a contest judge) a fantastic detail will make that part of her job significantly easier.

Trust me, you want to make her job easier.

Still want to believe that she’ll read on if the writing is good enough? Okay, let’s assume for a moment that she will. (Although 9 times out of 10, she won’t.) Let’s further assume that she likes what she sees when she does read on. Which would you rather be, the synopsizer whose pages prompt Millie to run into her boss’ office and cry, “Wow, I’ve just seen an image I’ve never seen before!” or the one whose synopsis requires two minutes of explanation about why it caught her interest?

Believe me, Millicent isn’t the only one who keeps glancing at her watch. Her boss’ timepiece is set even faster than hers.

What you DON’T want to do — oh, you may think you do, but it’s not in your best interest — is to make your job as a synopsizer easier by reusing text from the first chapter of the book. Especially, as synopsis-writers for contests so often do, by recycling the opening paragraph of the book.

Which leads me to…

(15) Does the opening of the synopsis read too like the opening of the book?

This may make some of you giggle — this list has been a real laugh riot, hasn’t it? — but you wouldn’t believe how often the first paragraph or two of manuscript are actually identical to the first paragraph or two of its synopsis.

Yes, even in contest entries, where the synopsis and chapter are almost always read within the same sitting. Strategically, that’s just not very bright, in a context where a writer is trying to prove within a scant allotment of pages that it’s worthwhile to read his entire book.

Millicent and her ilk tend to regard this as a symptom of authorial laziness, but I suspect that there is usually more to it than that: I think that aspiring writers, having slaved to create a memorable opening for their books, often regard those opening paragraphs as some of their best writing. If it really is so, they reason, why not feature it in a document where it’s likely to do them some good?

If you believe nothing else I tell you today, please believe this: it won’t do you any good. People in the publishing industry remember what they’ve read; make sure every sentence you submit within a packet is different.

(16) Is my synopsis in the present tense and the third person, regardless of the tense and voice of the book itself? For a memoir, is it in the first person and past tense?

This is one of those secret-handshake things that render a rookie’s submission so apparently different from an experienced writer’s, from Millicent’s perspective: a professional synopsis is ALWAYS in the present tense and third person, unless the book in question is a memoir.

Yes, even if the book being synopsized is written in the first person. Don’t bother to try to fight this one; it’s just a convention of the trade.

(17) If the synopsis is longer than one page, are its pages numbered?

Even after years of reading both synopses intended for submission and contest entries, I remain perennially shocked at how few of them identify either themselves or the author, due no doubt to a faith in the filing systems of literary agencies that borders on the childlike.

Why do I attribute this to faith? Well, like everything else in a manuscript or book proposal, the synopsis should not be bound in any way; like pretty much everything else on earth, paper responds to gravity.

Translation: things fall; pages get separated, and some luckless soul (generally, the person under Millicent the screener on the agency’s totem pole, if you can picture that) is charged with the task of reordering the tumbled pages.

Place yourself in that unhappy intern’s Doc Martens for a moment: given the choice between laboriously guessing which page follows which by perusing content, and pitching the whole thing (into what we devoutly hope is the recycling bin, but is probably merely the overloaded wastepaper basket) and moving on to the next task, which would YOU choose?

Okay, so maybe you’re ultra-virtuous. Allow me to rephrase: what if you were Millicent, had 20 other submissions to screen before lunch, and had just scalded your tender tongue on a too-hot latte?

Even if you cried, “Of course I would take the time!” in each instance, Pollyanna Karenina, don’t rely upon the kindness of strangers. Especially busy ones who have been trained to believe that unnumbered pages are unprofessional in a submission. Make it easy to put the pages back in the proper order.

(18) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book, or does it just begin abruptly? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Standard format for a synopsis dictates that the title (either all in caps or bolded) is centered at the top of the first page of the synopsis, with “Synopsis” on the line below it. Then skip one double-spaced line, and begin the text of the synopsis.

Having trouble picturing that? Here’s a crib for the visually-minded:

Looking familiar, I hope? Everyone clear on why those paragraphs need to be indented?

And if it seems a bit silly to tell the nice people who asked you to send a synopsis that what they’ve got in their trembling hands is in fact a synopsis, remember that in a largish agency, the person who requests a submission is often not the person who subsequently reads it. Not the first person, anyway.

Even if it were, from the envelope-opener’s perspective, being expected to recall one request for further materials from — how long? Perhaps a month? — before is tantamount to being asked to guess how many fingers the author is holding up.

In Nebraska, when the guesser is standing in midtown Manhattan. Don’t make ‘em guess.

(19) Is the synopsis absolutely free of errors of any kind? Not just what your word processing software tells you is an error, but an actual error?

Naturally, like every other piece of paper you intend to send anywhere near an agency, you should both spell-check and read the ENTIRETY of your synopsis IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere.

Period. No excuses. I’m not listening.

Why double-up on the proofing? 95% of writers — and 99.98% of non-writers — fall into the trap of thinking that if a document passes muster with their computers’ spelling and grammar checkers, it must therefore be spelled correctly and grammatically sound. That is, alas, generally not true.

Word processing programs’ dictionaries are NOTORIOUSLY inaccurate — and often surprisingly outdated. I am fascinated by the fact that mine evidently does not contain any words that relate to the Internet or computer operations.

Don’t believe me? At this point in human history, should I really have had to introduce “blogger” into my spell-checker’s vocabulary?

And don’t even get a professional editor started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers. Mine disapproves of gerunds and semicolons, apparently on general principle, strips necessary accent marks off French words, leaving them obscenely naked, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg you, drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.) Once, when I was not looking, it incorrectly changed a word in this very blog from “here” to “hear.”

Editors like to fantasize about the special circle of hell reserved for those amoral souls who teach our children that the differences between these don’t matter. I’ll spare you the details, but they include the constant din of fingernails on chalkboards, a cozy relationship with angry skunks, and the liberal application of boiling oil to tender parts.

Grammar checkers also typically butcher dialogue, especially if it contains necessary slang. Suffice it to say, most standard word processing spelling and grammar checkers would condemn the entirety of Mark Twain’s opus outright.

My point is, like a therapist who doesn’t listen well enough to give good advice, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded. Even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do.

Read the manuscript for yourself.

And if you’re in doubt on a particular point, look it up. In a well-regarded dictionary, not on the Internet: contrary to popular opinion, most search engines will list both the proper spelling of a word and the most common misspellings. There is no gigantic cosmic English teacher monitoring proper spelling and grammar on the web.

So get up, walk across the room, and pick up a physical dictionary, for heaven’s sake. After so much time spent sitting in front of a monitor, the walk will do you good.

(20) Are all of the proper nouns spelled correctly?

This is a perennial agents’ pet peeve, and with good reason: believe it or not, misplaced cities, states, and even character names are rife in synopses.

Why? Because these are words that are generally omitted from standard spell-checkers — or are entered with a number of possible variations. So unless you have inserted all of the proper nouns in your work into your spell-checker’s memory, it will often overlook the difference between your elegant heroine, Sandy, and that trollop who wandered into your synopsis unbidden, Sandie.

Triple-check all character and place names. Seriously.

(21) Does the synopsis read as though I am genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, or does it read as though I am deeply and justifiably angry that I had to write a synopsis at all?

Yes, I’ve talked about this one before, and recently, but this is a subtlety, a matter of tone rather than of content, so it bears repeating. It’s often not as visible to the author as it is to a third party.

So once more, with feeling: writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis, even ones that do not breathe an overt word about marketing. The VAST majority of synopses (particularly for novels) simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

If you have even the vaguest suspicion that your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your marketing materials — may give off a even a whiff of that attitude, hand it to someone you trust for a second opinion.

Made it through all of the questions above? After you have tinkered with the synopsis until you are happy with all of your answers, set your synopsis aside. Stop fooling with it.

Seriously — there is such a thing as too much editing. Then, just before you send it out, read it again (IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, of course), and ask yourself a final question:

(22) Does my synopsis support the image of the book I want the requesting agent or editor to see? Would it be worth my while to modify it slightly in order to match more closely to what I told this sterling individual my book was about?

”Wait!” I hear some sharp readers out there cry. “Is Anne saying that it’s sometimes a good idea to tailor the synopsis to the particular agent or editor? Catch me — I’m about to faint with surprise!”

Well caught, oh ironic fainters. Yes, I am the queen of specialized submission packets. Down with genericism, I say!

It’s just common sense, really. If you heard an agent or editor expresses a strong personal preference for a particular theme or style in her speech at an agents’ and editors’ forum or during a pitch meeting, isn’t it just common sense to tweak your already-existing synopsis so it will appeal to those specific likes? If your dream agent let slip in your meeting that she was really intrigued by a particular aspect of your story, doesn’t it make sense to play that part up a little in the synopsis?

Doesn’t it? Huh?

A word of warning about pursuing this route: do NOT attempt it UNLESS you have already written a general synopsis with which you are pleased AND have saved it as a separate document. Save your modified synopsis as its own document, and think very carefully before you send it out to anyone BUT the agent or editor who expressed the opinions in question.

Why? Well, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers and as I have been pointing out for several years now in this very forum, agents and editors are not a monolithic entity with a single collective opinion on what is good and what is bad writing. They are individuals, with individual tastes that vary wildly, sometimes even moment to moment — and certainly over the course of a career.

Think about it: was your favorite book when you were 13 also your favorite book when you were 30? Neither was any given agent’s.

And isn’t your literary opinion rather different on the day you learned that you were being promoted at work and the day that your cat died? Or even the moment after someone complimented your shirt (that color brings out your eyes, you know, and have you lost a little weight?), as opposed to the moment after you spilled half a cup of scalding coffee on it?

Again, what’s true for you is true for any given agent, editor, or screener: a LOT of factors can play into whether they like the pages sitting in front of them — or the pitch they are hearing — right now. As the old international relations truism goes, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Bear this in mind when you are incorporating feedback into your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your work. Just because one agent (or an editor, or a contest feedback form, or every last member of your writers’ group, or the Wizard of Oz) has advised you to tweak your story this way or that, it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone in the industry will greet that tweak rapturously.

Use your judgment: it’s your book, after all. But by all means, if you can modify your synopsis for the SPECIFIC eyes of the individual who expressed the particular opinion in question, do it with my blessings.

Okay, that’s enough poking at your synopsis for now. Next time, by popular request, I am going to make a jump from a fairly high dive: I’m going to show you a 5-page, 3-page, and 1-page synopsis for the same book, to help give those of you new to the game a clearer idea of the scope of each. Yes, that’s right: I’m VOLUNTARILY sitting down and writing three separate synopses of the same story.

Never say I didn’t do anything for you, people. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part VIII: spinning one heck of a good yarn — for the space of a paragraph

wildfire
Before I launch back into our ongoing efforts to elevate a merely okay query letter into a really good one, allow me to pause a moment to express the hope that all of the writers living in the path of the California wildfires are and will continue to be safe, sound — and if they have to evacuate, either did or will have time to take copies of their works-in-progress with them.

To those who did not: the hearts of all of us here at Author! Author! go out to you.

In honor of what I devoutly hope were very few lost manuscripts, would the rest of you do me a favor, please? Would you make a complete copy of your writing files now and store it in a safe place? Or if you’re not in a position to do that at the moment, will you please take the precautionary step of e-mailing the files to yourself as Word attachments?

Weren’t expecting that last one, were you?

It’s not ideal, of course, and it isn’t really a substitute for making complete backups early and often. I wanted to mention it, though, because if one were in a hurry — if, say, one’s governor had just ordered the evacuation of one’s neighborhood and one had to choose between saving the family photos, the deed to the house, or the heavy computer — it is something one could conceivably do within just a couple of minutes. It would also — and this is no small consideration in an emergency situation — create back-up copies of one’s work that would be accessible from another computer.

Say, one far, far away from where anything was likely to burst into flame anytime soon.

I’m just saying. Of the many, many hideously sad results of a home or business lost to flames, the manuscript whose only copy was on a lost computer is one of the few against which a prudent person can prepare in advance — and one of the many that can strike prudent people who have prepared.

How so? Well, tell me: where is your primary computer? How close to it do you store your back-ups? And if they’re in the same room, or even the same structure, how long would it take you to reconstruct your book if you couldn’t get to them?

In the longer term, of course, regular back-ups by more conventional methods probably make more sense. I have a terrific little thingamabob that automatically backs up my entire hard disk from time to time, and it’s small enough to shove into a coat pocket if I suddenly had to dash from the building. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s certainly portable.

Less expensive but more trouble: saving back-ups to disks or DVRs. Admittedly, it’s kind of a pain to burn a new one after each significant revision (rule of thumb: if you couldn’t reconstruct what you’ve changed in your manuscript since your last back-up, either from memory or by reading through the backed-up version, it’s time to make another back-up), but disks are easily stashable. So much so that you could store a set somewhere other than the building that houses your computer.

Sound paranoid? Perhaps. But again: how much of your manuscript would you have if your current computer went up in flames? Or got stolen? Or even simply had a hard disk meltdown?

Please, don’t let your only copy get lost forever. Take the time to make regular back-ups, and either don’t store them right next to your computer or encase them in a fireproof box. Someday, you may be very, very happy that you did.

And to those who did not get the chance to take preventative action: again, my condolences.

Back to work. For those of you joining us mid-series, I’ve been spending the past few days going over some common query letter faux pas, so all of us here in the Author! Author! community may avoid them. Let’s recap our checklist so far:

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

(14) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?

Everyone comfortable with all of those? Or, if comfortable is too strong a word, at least no longer breaking out in hives at the mere mention of these concepts?

Good. Let’s move on.

(17) Is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?
Just as a stellar verbal pitch gives the hearer a foretaste of what the manuscript is like, so does a well-constructed summary paragraph in a query letter. So if the book is funny, go for a laugh here; if it’s scary, make sure to include at least one genuinely frightening image; if it’s sexy, make Millicent pant in her cubicle.

Getting the picture?

Some of you find this suggestion a trifle wacky, don’t you? “But Anne,” a scandalized few protest, “didn’t you say earlier in this series — nay, in this post — that part of the goal here was to come across as professional? Won’t making the summary paragraph sound like my surly protagonist/my whiny narrator/a lighthearted romp through the merry world of particle physics make me seem like a grump/annoying to work with/like I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Good questions, scandalized few. Your concerns are precisely why I’m advising that ONLY the summary paragraph match the tone of the book, rather than the entire letter.

Surprised? Don’t be. Millicent might well draw the wrong conclusions if your ENTIRE query letter were written in an entertaining tone. But let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to turn the platform paragraph of a query letter into much of a comedy.

Seriously. Even if you happen to have taught comedic theory for 52 years at the Sorbonne, it’s hard to turn that into a giggle line.

But in the part of the letter where you’re supposed to be telling a story, why not let your manuscript’s voice come out to play for a few lines? Can you think of a better way to demonstrate to Millicent how your book is unique?

(18) Am I telling a compelling story in my summary paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?
This one should sound at least a little bit familiar — I brought it up back in Pitching 101. (That seems so long ago, doesn’t it, now that the weather has calmed down a bit?) All too often, aspiring writers will construct their summary paragraphs as though they were writing high school English papers.

There’s usually a pretty good reason for that: writers tend to have been excellent high school English students. So were most agents and editors, as it happens, and certainly most Millicents who screen submissions.

But it doesn’t mean that a summary paragraph that demonstrates that glorious past too clearly is smart book marketing at the query stage. Take a gander:

The protagonist is a troubled man, caught up in a realistic conflict with his boss. Told in alternating first person voices and the present tense, character is revealed through slice-of-life episodes before reaching the denouement.

Not the best descriptive paragraph, is it? All of these things may well be true of the book being discussed, but tell me: what is this book ABOUT? WHO is it about? What’s the central conflict?

As a rule, Millicent is eager to know the answer to those questions. She is also likely to roll her eyes and mutter, “English term paper,” and swiftly move on to the next query.

Why? Well, the presentation of the storyline is distancing; she would much, much rather that the querier simply told the story directly. Here’s the same plot, presented in a manner she’s far more likely to find pleasing:

Troubled Harry (47) can’t seem to make it through even a single work day at the squid ink pasta factory without running afoul of his boss, chronic aquatic creature abuser Zeke (52). Since the pasta factory is the town’s only employer, Harry has little choice but to stomach the flogging of innocent carp — until Zeke’s merciless sarcasm at the expense of a dolphin cracks his stoic veneer. After an unsuccessful attempt to unionize the squid, Harry must face the truth: Zeke has been just stringing him along for the last seventeen years about that promotion. But now that he is cast adrift in a rudderless sailboat, what is he going to do about that?

I spot some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some terrific English essay-writers point out, “doesn’t the second version leave out a couple of pretty important items? Like, say, that the book is written in the first person, or that it has multiple protagonists?”

Actually, I left those out on purpose; as important as those facts may be to the writer, they would only distract Millicent at the querying stage. Or in a synopsis.

Do you English majors want to know why? Because neither the point of view choice nor the number of protagonists is germane: the goal of the summary paragraph is to show what the book is ABOUT, not how it is written.

That’s what the manuscript is for, right? As Millicent’s boss the agent likes to say, it all depends on the writing. Let the narrative tricks come as a delightful surprise.

(19) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (and I do hope that revelation doesn’t startle anybody, at this juncture; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, I had such high hopes when I raised you, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers. Or, to put it another way, if you printed out your list of selling points and read it side-by-side with your query, would the summary paragraph demonstrate that at least a few of those elements you identified as most market-worthy?

If not, is the summary paragraph doing your book justice as a marketing tool?

Don’t look at me that way: there is absolutely nothing anti-literary about making it clear why habitual readers of your book category will be drawn to your work. No matter how beautifully your book is written or argued, Millicent isn’t going to know you can write until she reads your manuscript.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but if your query letter does not convince her that your book is potentially marketable, she’s not going to ask to see the manuscript. Even if she happens to work at one of the increasingly many agencies that allow aspiring writers to send pages of text along with their queries, the query letter is going to determine whether Millicent reads anything else you sent.

So just in case any of you have been receiving form-letter rejections based upon query + pages agent approaches: I know that it’s tempting to assume that the problem is in the text itself, but strategically, the first place you should be looking for red flags is your query letter. In a query + approach, it’s the gatekeeper for your pages.

I’m going to take that chorus of great, gusty sighs as a sign that I’ve made my point.

And here’s the good news: once again, if those of you who did your homework throughout the recent Pitching 101 series are already well equipped to tackle #19: you’ve already sat down and figured out who will be buying your book and why, right? If you have not assembled a list of selling points for your book, there are a series of posts that will walk you through it relatively painlessly, cleverly hidden under the category YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS at right.

Stop groaning. Yes, it’s more work, but if it’s any consolation, it’s great experience for working with an agent: when their clients bring them book ideas, the first question they tend to ask is, “Okay, who needs this book, and why?”

(20) Does my summary paragraph read like a back jacket blurb, full of marketing-talk and generalization, or like a great elevator speech, grounded in details that will appeal to my ideal reader?
One of the most common mistakes made in summary paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who MIGHT conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men. It belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America.

With:

Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, rapids-navigating men on generous inner tubes. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave that smells of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.

The first sounds an awful lot like the summary a publisher’s marketing department might construct for a book’s back jacket, doesn’t it? It’s all breathless hype and promotional persuasion, leaving the reader thinking, “Um, I know where this story takes place, but what is this book about?”

Trust me, that’s not a question Millicent is fond of muttering in the middle of reading a query. Which is a shame, really, as so many queriers give her such excellent provocation to mutter it.

The second version answers that question very directly: CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is about Caroline and Elizabeth’s trip down a river, where they meet some sizzling potential love interests.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Millicent cries, reaching for the seldom-used Yes, please send us the first 50 pages boilerplate. (Oh, come on — you thought that they wrote a fresh letter for every acceptance?)

Unfortunately, as we saw earlier in this series, most aspiring writers are so used to reading marketing copy that they think the first version is inherently more professional than the second. In fact, it’s far from uncommon to see this type of marketing rhetoric in synopses, or even in contest entries.

To clear up this misconception once and for all, I’m going to ask you to join me in a little experiment. Scroll down so both examples above are hidden, please.

All gone? Good. Now take this multi-part pop quiz.

1) What do you remember most from the first summary paragraph?

The title? The Snake River? The bad cliché? Your speculation that my reference to “every paddle-wielding woman in America” might cause this blog to spring up in some unlikely Internet searches from now until Doomsday?

2) What do you remember about the second?

As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

3) If you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women?

I rest my case.

Except to say: in the first summary, a reader is unlikely to remember the BOOK, rather than the query. And in the second, the query-reader is encouraged to identify with the protagonists — who are, like the reader, contemplating all of those inner tube-straddling guys.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously: stop picturing those floating bodies. We have work to do.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it presumably echoes the tone of the book. Which brings me to…

(21) If my summary paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?
This is a question that often makes even seasoned queriers do a double-take, but actually, it’s closely related to #17, is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

As I mentioned last time, most query letters share one of two tones: unprofessional or serious, serious, serious. The first is never a good idea, but the second is fine — if you happen to have written the 21rst century’s answer to MOBY DICK.

Which I’m guessing no one currently reading this actually has.

If, however, you’ve written this year’s answer to BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, a super-serious summary paragraph is probably not the best marketing tactic. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to make a lighthearted romp seem either lighthearted or like a romp if it’s described in a turgid manner, a deadpan presentation is probably not the best strategy for convincing Millicent that you can write comedy.

So why not use the summary paragraph as a writing sample to demonstrate that you can? In fact, why not take the opportunity to show how well you understand your target readership by including images, wording, and details likely to appeal to them?

The same logic applies to any type of book — and it’s a great way to figure out whether a plot point is worth mentioning in your summary paragraph. If you have written a steamy romance, select the sexy detail over the mundane one. If it’s a western, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a feeling of the open range. If it’s a horror novel, opt for the creepy detail.

And so forth. Again, this is basic pitching strategy, right?

The sole exception to this rule is if you happen to have written a really, really dull book on a mind-bendingly tedious topic. Then, and only then, do you have my permission to construct a descriptive paragraph that doesn’t sound anything at all like the tone of the book.

Hey, you have to pique Millicent’s interest somehow.

(22) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Despite my utmost efforts in spreading advice on the subject, most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched.

Call me mercenary, but I think that is rather market-unwise, don’t you? If an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to think, “Hmm, who on earth is going to want to buy this book?”

No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no.

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises in my earlier series on pitching (easily found under the obfuscating category title IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE on the archive list at right) already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect its appeal to be self-evident.

Yes, even for a book like CANOE PADDLING MAMAS, where the appeal is pretty close to self-evident.

To revisit one of my earlier mantras: structure your marketing materials to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to help you. You want Millicent to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript.”

Once again, we see that it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true.

Just a little something to ponder while some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym.

Since I’m not going to be able to wrest that image from your mind, this seems like an excellent place to stop for the day. More probing questions follow tomorrow, of course.

Keep up the good work!

Where our fiction really lives, by guest blogger Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard author photo II
Hello, all —
Under any circumstances, today’s guest blogger, award-winning romance novelist Linda Gillard, would require little introduction: the good folks who decide which of each year’s new fiction to honor with prizes have already seen to that. However, I have even less temptation to be long-winded this time around, because Linda has a genuinely astonishing story to share about her road to publication.

Even if romance isn’t your proverbial cup of tea, you’re going to want to read this, I suspect. So I’m just going to get out of the way and let her tell her story herself.

Except to say: for the benefit of those of you not already familiar with Linda’s writings — and so those of you new to writing blurbs for your own books may see how the pros pull it off — here is the publisher’s blurb for Linda’s EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY:

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallRose Leonard is on the run from her life. Taking refuge in a remote island community, she cocoons herself in work, silence and solitude in a house by the sea. But she is haunted by her past, by memories and desires she’d hoped were long dead. Rose must decide whether she has in fact chosen a new life or just a different kind of death. Life and love are offered by new friends, her lonely daughter, and most of all Calum, a fragile younger man who has his own demons to exorcise. But does Rose, with her tenuous hold on life and sanity, have the courage to say yes to life and put her past behind her?

Quite the grabber, eh? Here’s the blurb for her second, A LIFETIME BURNING:

A lifetime burning cover gillard‘I think I was damned from birth,’ Flora said, staring vacantly into space. ‘Damned by my birth.’

Greedy for experience but determined to be good, Flora Dunbar spends a lifetime seeking love, trying to build a future out of the wreckage of her past – an eccentric childhood spent in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brings her Theo, the son she cannot love; middle-age, when she finds brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin.

‘If you asked my sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, then tossed him onto the sizeable scrap-heap marked “Flora’s ex-lovers”. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory…’

That one sounds like a real barn-burner, doesn’t it? Here’s the blurb for STAR GAZING:

star-gazing-cover gillardBlind since birth, widowed in her twenties, now lonely in her forties, Marianne Fraser lives in Edinburgh in elegant, angry anonymity with her sister, Louisa, a successful novelist. Marianne’s passionate nature finds solace and expression in music, a love she finds she shares with Keir, a man she encounters on her doorstep one winter’s night. Keir makes no concession to her condition. He is abrupt to the point of rudeness, and yet oddly kind. But can Marianne trust her feelings for this reclusive stranger who wants to take a blind woman to his island home on Skye, to ‘show’ her the stars?

It just goes to show you: even a short paragraph is enough room to tell a good story, as well as to show off one’s skills as a storyteller. Remember that, please, the next time you’re groaning over the task of compressing your 350-page plot into a two-minute pitch.

Oh, and before I sign off, those of you reading on this side of the pond might want to know that Linda’s books are available through the Book Depository in the UK. Why should that interest US and Canadian romance-lovers? Because the Book Depository ships worldwide for free.

I just mention.

So please make yourself comfortable in order to hear an interesting, informative, and dare I say it, inspirational story of one author’s climb from the Slough of Despair to successful publication. Take it away, Linda!

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillardstar-gazing-cover gillardemotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillard
When a disturbed pupil took a swing at me in the middle of a maths lesson, I saw the punch coming. I dodged and the blow landed on my shoulder. While the rest of the class waited, open-mouthed, to see what Miss would do — retaliate with a left hook? — I sent the boy out of the room, re-assembled the remnants of my shattered dignity and finished the lesson.

What I didn’t see coming was that the blow would signal the end of my teaching career and the beginning of a long mental illness. Nor could I ever have imagined that my illness would usher in a new career as a novelist.

I was teaching in a school that served a socially deprived area and I was already struggling to maintain my mental equilibrium. The kids were challenging, but lovable, despite the fact some of the boys (those who could write) would have listed their hobbies as martial arts and drug dealing. Gallows humour kept the teaching staff going, but we taught in a climate of fear — fear of verbal and physical abuse from pupils and their parents — and fear takes its toll.

My doctor signed me off sick, suffering from stress. Stress became profound depression. I was prescribed a series of anti-depressants, none of which seemed to help. My moods fluctuated wildly, from highs that took me on shopping sprees, to lows that had me planning the perfect suicide.

Teaching had been my vocation, but I was too ill to return to my old job or look for a new one. I was 47 and, as far as I was concerned, on the scrap heap. I sat at home, alternately doped and hyper, not getting any better. For some reason — the teacher in me, I suppose — I kept a chart of my mood swings, the black days and the better days. I became convinced there was a pattern and concluded that perhaps what I was suffering from was severe pre-menstrual syndrome, so I asked to be referred to a gynaecologist.

We were no more than ten minutes into the consultation when this wonderful man pronounced the words that would change my life (and possibly saved it.) He said, “You aren’t suffering from PMS. I think you’re suffering from bipolar affective disorder.”

Manic depression.

I knew nothing about this illness that wasn’t seriously bad news. I seemed to be the first person in my family to suffer from it (it runs in families) but as I learned more about the spectrum of behaviour, old tales of temperament and eccentricity took on a new perspective. And so did I. As I stood in a bookshop, poring over a medical textbook, I was appalled to see myself described in forensic detail. What I’d thought was my mercurial personality turned out to be a life-threatening illness. My world fell apart.

But I was a teacher. I’d also been a journalist, so I made it my business to educate myself on the subject of bipolar. I read psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, AN UNQUIET MIND. She’s bipolar herself and was the first person to alert me to the idea that there could actually be some positive aspects to the disease. (On my website. you’ll find a Mental Health section and a celebration of famous manic depressives: a long list of high-achieving people, dead and alive, many of them creative artists, some of them geniuses, all known or suspected to have been bipolar.)

My condition is mild and once on the correct medication, I stabilised. With the help of a supportive psychiatrist, I began to rebuild my life. Unemployed, technically disabled, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I read a lot of books and sewed a lot of patchwork quilts.

I read all sorts of fiction but struggled to find any that reflected my life and experience. There was very little that featured women of my age. Romantic heroines over forty simply did not exist. Mature women appeared only as somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife and they never had sex, unless for comic effect. (The publishing world appears to think that, although most books are bought and read by women over 40, they actually like to read about women much younger and thinner than themselves.)

Then one day, when I was reading Louise DeSalvo’s WRITING AS A WAY OF HEALING, I came upon a paragraph that changed my life:

I didn’t know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn’t know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you’ll learn through writing — and only through writing — all you need to know about your craft. And that while learning, you’re engaging in soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labour. I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

That was how I felt. Erased.

I laid the book aside and — as if in a trance — walked over to my PC, sat down and started to type. I wrote about “a woman alone in a light, white room”. I could see the room and sense the atmosphere. I could see the woman and she was writing a letter, but I didn’t know who she was or who she was writing to. With no thought of publication or even of writing well, I just started typing the first page of what was to become my first novel, Emotional Geology.

emotional-geology cover 2 Gillard

I didn’t plan to become a novelist and I didn’t plan my first book. I was a sick woman. On bad days, compiling a shopping list was a challenge, so I just wrote.

To begin with, I wrote lots of short, self-contained pieces that could be read in any order. If they told a story, it would be cumulatively, as a sort of collage. As I wrote, I noticed two things. The pain stopped. All kinds of pain. Writing, it seemed, was morphia for the soul. (And, incidentally, just as addictive.) I also noticed that time passed. I looked up and it was lunchtime. I looked up again and it was midnight. Hooray! I was exhausted and could sleep.

The word count grew, but still I avoided planning. Ducking the issue, I wondered if I could I write a “book-in-a-box,” a non-linear novel that didn’t need to be bound because the pages could be read in any order. (As a teacher I’d been a big fan of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.)

That idea worked for a while, but in the end I realised it did matter — from a dramatic point of view — what order you read the pages in. A final running order had to be established so I had fun carpeting the floor with printed sheets of A4, “designing” my book in much the same way I arranged blocks when assembling my quilts.

storm-at-sea-quilt

Emotional Geology wasn’t autobiography, nor was it fictionalised memoir. I managed to avoid some first novel pitfalls by wanting so very badly to escape. It was bad enough living my life; I certainly didn’t want to write about it. But I did want to tackle the issues.

I didn’t know it then, but what I was did was reject veracity in favour of emotional authenticity. Later, I realised this is an essential digestive process if the raw material of our lives is to be transformed into palatable fiction. Student writers often think a faithful, unflinching account of real-life events and feelings is enough to make something readable, possibly publishable. This is not the case.

As writers we have to accept the difference between something being true and something being convincing. Paradoxically, fiction can tell truer truths. If a reader is to believe (or suspend her disbelief), truth must be edited for fictional purposes and presented in the best form to do the job. This is what good fiction is: true lies.

If you find this idea difficult, think about raising money for charity and the photographs or news footage you might use in your campaign. You wouldn’t use material so upsetting that people would turn the page of the magazine or switch channels. You want to disturb, not repel, so unvarnished truth might not serve your purpose.

This isn’t a cop-out, it’s careful mediation. If we record “undigested” truth in our therapeutic writing, its therapeutic value exists for the author, not the reader. (To be sure, all writing is therapeutic to an extent and probably all writers begin writing therapeutically, but we need to move on from there if we’re to develop our skills, especially if we seek publication.)

When I wrote my first novel, what I wrote — instinctively and therapeutically — was an alternative autobiography, what my life might have been like under very different circumstances. I was married; my heroine was single. I quilted as a hobby; she was a professional textile artist. I lived in a Norwich suburb; she lived on the bleak and remote, Gaelic-speaking Hebridean island of North Uist, which I knew from family holidays on the west coast of Scotland.

I set out to write a thinking-woman’s love story that tackled real issues. I wanted to put a sensitive, creative woman in the spotlight and ignore her age, just look at her heart and mind. I was able to write with passion and paint-stripper honesty because I knew my novel would never be published. (My mentally ill romantic heroine was 47, and so was I. A less commercial proposition would be hard to imagine.) Hooked on writing, in love with both my heroes, I was fascinated to the point of obsession by the technical challenges of my story.

Was it possible to make a bipolar heroine sympathetic?

How could I convey her bouts of “madness”?

Could I depict the dreadful toll manic depression took on carers?

Was it possible to explore the undisputed links between creativity and bipolar without glamorising a potentially lethal illness?

Could I make depression interesting?

Could I, in short, come up with some good news about living, loving and working with bipolar?

I hadn’t the faintest idea, but I needed to do these things if I was to make sense of my own life, so I set about my self-imposed tasks with a will. I was writing for my life. Gradually writing became my life.

Structure was a problem from the start. Emotional Geology is a book in which nothing much happens, but all sorts of tumultuous events have occurred in the past. What the characters are dealing with in the present is fall-out. My heroine, Rose, lives alone but is haunted by her past. At times she’s barely able to distinguish the new man in her life from the one who got away. And that was the point. There is no escape. (My teacher-hero quotes Milton to her: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”)

I tried to construct a book that was confused, but not confusing. (My working title was SCRAPBOOK.) I came up with a kaleidoscopic structure, moving backwards and forwards in time, sometimes writing in first person, sometimes third. As I wrote, I delved into the layers of Rose’s memory, all of which existed simultaneously, like an archaeological dig. Landscape and particularly geology became the book’s dominant metaphors and so I arrived at my final title: Emotional Geology.

rockstrata

I wanted to take the reader inside my heroine’s troubled mind, so I opted to write in the present tense throughout, to create an “as it happens” feel for all events, past and present, since for Rose, the past was just as vivid as the present. (I discovered the present tense also stops you over-writing. It’s very exposing, like those bright, unforgiving lights in changing rooms. Verbal flab is spotlit.)

But how was I to convey Rose’s manic states? The problem with conveying mania from the inside (i.e. from Rose’s point of view) was that I had to portray a state of mind unfamiliar and alarming to most people. Was there a way to draw a reluctant reader in?

I’d noticed that at moments of drama or emotional stress my prose was straining toward a different, heightened style. Eventually I acknowledged — with considerable surprise — that what I was repressing was an urge to write poetry. (If I’d had any aspiration to publication, the introduction of poems as part of the narrative surely sounded the death knell for my literary hopes.)

The poems seemed to write themselves, even though I’d never written one before. This might have been because I wasn’t trying to write good poetry. (It’s wonderfully liberating when you stop trying to be “a good writer.” I recommend it. Aspiration can be artistically crippling. I never ask myself now if what I’ve written is any good, the question is rather, “Have I said what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it?” If I have, then for me it’s good writing. How could it be better?)

Emotional Geology depicted an internal, dislocated world of shifting time and place. The present tense and the poems allowed the book to float in various limbos and the layout of the poems on the page drew useful boundaries: Rose occasionally went off the deep end. When she did, she broke out in poems.

Well, it all made perfect sense to me. That white room was both Rose’s island home and her “cell” in the mental hospital. It was also the deeply medicated blank space of her mind. There was a process going on and, in Zen-like fashion, I just needed to get out of its way.

Even now, working on my fifth novel, I find I don’t always understand what I’ve written, or rather why I’ve written it. I don’t actually think it’s necessary to understand. I do think you need to be able to trust what you’ve written, which means trusting in yourself as a writer. That’s hard.

It’s also hard to trust intelligent readers to complete the process; to bring, as co-creators, their own experience and understanding to your text. It wasn’t until I started getting feedback from readers that I realised a book isn’t just the words we write, it also exists in the spaces in between the words. As authors we have no control over those spaces, but we can (and should) create them. They are where our fiction really lives.

I wrote my first novel just as a treat for myself, but I had a change of heart and decided to try and publish it after I read the results of a Depression Alliance survey in the UK which said 26% of those questioned did not believe mental illness was a genuine illness.

That’s one in four. Clearly, there was work to be done.

Encouraged by my writers’ e-group, I sent my weird but now completed typescript to agents. To my astonishment, one took me on. (I think she fell in love with my hero. Or maybe it was the Hebrides.) Then we struck lucky. A new imprint, Transita, was looking for books written by, for and about mature women. (This is no longer the case, so please don’t send them unsolicited manuscripts.)

Transita bought Emotional Geology and published a wide variety of novels which were a hit with readers of all ages, but were dismissed by the UK media as “HRT Lit” (Anne here: that’s Brit-speak for hormone replacement therapy, i.e., menopause treatments), “Hag Lit” and “Romance for Wrinklies.”

Aged 53, with my first novel published, I concluded that my biggest “disability” as an author was not that I suffered from bipolar affective disorder, but that I was middle-aged, female and had had the temerity to write about a sexually active middle-aged female. (The ageism and misogyny of British culture beggars belief. But hey, they used to burn us as witches! Things are definitely looking up.)

Emotional Geology fared better than some of Transita’s lighter books, perhaps because it defies categorisation. It comforts and confronts. It has appealed to people who have no knowledge of, or particular interest in mental illness and was short-listed for the Waverton Good Read Award, given to the year’s best first British novel. Well received by the mental health press, Emotional Geology was also runner-up in Pure Passion a light-hearted library promotion of romantic reads.

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At author events readers complain to me in a good-natured way that they’ve been up till 2.00 am, unable to put the book down. But very little actually happens, so how can it be un-put-downable?

My theory is, since I write my books not knowing what happens next, nor even the final outcome, suspense and “hooks” for the reader are built in. Nobody wants to know what happens more than I do, so I’m writing as fast as I can, to find out. And that’s how readers like to read.

For this reason I’m anti-synopses. Publishers need them, but many writers don’t. Your subconscious — if you let it — will write a better and braver book than your conscious mind. After that, it’s all in the editing.

Planning a novel and writing a synopsis might encourage you to opt for the obvious in character and plot. You won’t arrive at your artistic decisions in an organic way. (E.M. Forster is supposed to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”) Would I have dared plan poems for Emotional Geology? The idea wouldn’t have occurred to me and, if it had, I would have dismissed it as pretentious. It was only in the writing of the book that poems presented themselves as the solution to a technical problem.

Faced unexpectedly with publication and the inevitable PR, I had to decide whether to be “out” about my own mental health history. Was I going to set myself up to be dismissed as a one-book wonder or an author of fictionalised memoir? (I didn’t realise then grounds for dismissal could just be middle age.)

I’d complicated matters by moving to Skye, another Scottish island, which made my novel look far more autobiographical than it was. (Be careful what you wish for… Writing my alternative life gave me the courage to go and live it.) A double bereavement and both our children leaving home had led to some domestic stock-taking. My husband and I decided to live our dream and move to a big house on a hillside, facing the spectacular Cuillin mountain range on the Isle of Skye.

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So I did what I thought was the only honest thing. I’d written a book in which manic depression was just one aspect of my heroine and secondary to her creativity. That’s how it had to be for me too. So from the start I was “out” about my mental health history. Readers have come forward, in emails and in person, to thank me for the book and for standing up in public to demonstrate that there’s life after breakdown, after diagnosis; that it is never, ever too late to reinvent yourself.

I no longer live on Skye but I live a quiet, creative and productive life. I write, teach workshops and speak to groups about writing and mental health. My third novel, Star Gazing, set on Skye, was short-listed earlier this year for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, organised by the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

star-gazing-cover gillard

This time, I created a romantic heroine whom most readers would regard as disabled. Marianne is middle-aged, widowed and congenitally blind. Much of Star Gazing is written in the first person, from Marianne’s blind point of view and this raised a number of technical problems. I learned a lot as I solved them — and not just about writing. I began the book thinking of blindness as a disability, but by the time I was halfway through, I was convinced the blind have other ways of “seeing”. (Or as the sighted hero, Keir says to Marianne, “You have perfectly good eyes, they’re just not in your sockets.”)

As writers we agonise about originality and commercial appeal. The more anxious among us fret about copyrighting our ideas. But Christopher Booker says there are only seven basic plots. (Did you know LORD OF THE RINGS incorporates all of them?)

But what is unique to each of us is our way of seeing the world. That is the commodity writers have to sell, the “story” we have to tell. When we discover our true voice, it’s as unique as our fingerprint. But it might take a long time — and a lot of writing — to find.

In the meantime, aim to say what you want to say, in the way you want to say it. That’s good writing.

How could it be better?
emotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillardstar-gazing-cover gillardemotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillard
Linda Gillard author photo IILinda Gillard studied Drama and German at Bristol University, then trained as an actress at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Whilst under-employed at London’s National Theatre, Linda developed a sideline as a freelance journalist. She ran two careers concurrently for a while, then gave up acting to raise a family and write from home.

Twelve years later, she re-trained as a teacher and taught in Norfolk for some years. She moved to the Isle of Skye where she lived for six years in a house on a hill overlooking the Cuillin mountain range, featured in her first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY (short-listed for the 2006 Waverton Good Read Award.) Linda now lives near Glasgow.

Her second novel, A LIFETIME BURNING was published by Transita in 2006 and STAR GAZING, set partly on Skye, was published by Piatkus in 2008.

The Frankenstein manuscript, part I, or, Puritans in the present?

puritan-family-painting

Yes, yes, I know: you were expecting a nice, scenic photograph of France, perhaps something in a medieval castle or a vineyard. But I’m on a writing retreat, people: I’m indoors, tapping away at my keyboard, not traipsing around the countryside with my camera.

Which is as it should be, of course. My work on my novel is going far more quickly than I had expected — hooray! — so much so that I’ve decided to extend my retreat by another couple of weeks.

All the more reason, then, to keep sitting here instead of wandering around outside.

And yet it’s a pity, because the weather is very nice, as nearly as I can tell from this side of my French (in every sense) windows. I’m getting quite a lot of revision done, the point of my being here, but every so often, that cartoon devil sitting on my shoulder does whisper that I could actually work on the novel anywhere, but how often am I in France?

By that same token, I do plenty of blogging back home, so I’m going to be posting some short ones this week, revising some craft issues rather than launching the promised new series on retreating. Because, really, how often am I in France?

Spending hours and hours revising my work, tinkering with voice and story, reminded me of a semi-magical moment a few years back, when an editing client of mine has just made a major breakthrough with her book. One day, after months upon months and chapters upon chapters of experimenting with different styles — writing which she did not perceive to be experimentation, incidentally, but finished draft — she suddenly stumbled upon precisely the tone and perspective that worked for the book, an engaging voice she could maintain consistently throughout the entire story. As happens sometimes, what had been a mess of words just suddenly congealed into something sharp and analytical and true.

Remember what I was saying last week about how the Millicents of this world just abhor inconsistency in submissions, whether those gaffes lie in the realm of format, spelling, grammar, story details, or tone? People who read manuscripts for a living are trained to spot and deplore unevenness. As a result of this necessary but rather pedantic focus, a manuscript whose voice is sure and consistent tends to strike Millicent’s tired eyes like the sight of a cool river on a blazing summer day.

(The view from the aforementioned French windows is really pretty spectacular. A river is involved.)

We writers don’t talk about voice nearly enough, I think, especially the fact that very, very few of us, no matter how talented we might happen to be, find our authorial voices the first time we sit down to write a novel. Voice is more than self-expression: it’s tone, level of detail, analytical perception, sense of humor, rhythm, and all of the other hyper-personalized ways in which one writer tells a story differently than another. Learning to wield these weighty tools to produce a consistent and seemingly effortless result takes practice, patience, and much trial and error.

Or, to put it another way: it’s a whole lot harder to write a good book than a good individual sentence, paragraph, or scene. Why? Because the alchemy doesn’t need to come together only once, as it does in a well-written sentence; it has to come together every time, and in a similar way.

Yet all too often, we talk about voice as though it were more or less synonymous with talent, as if it were something a writer is either born with or not. I don’t think that’s true. Oh, it’s true enough that talent can’t be learned, but craft can be, and many a great sentence-builder has missed becoming a great writer because she relied too much on the former at the expense of developing the latter.

Here’s a novel thought: consistent voice is almost always the product not of original inspiration, but of conscientious revision.

Let that one sink in for a moment. I’ll wait. I’ve got this pretty view to ponder.

On an artistic level, I’m always thrilled when a client (or any other talented writer, for that matter) finds her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work to come. Because, you see, once a writer discovers the right voice and perspective for the story he’s telling, he will have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, back to a topic that reared its ugly head last week: the Frankenstein manuscript, a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, to create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

This is my personal nickname for such a book, but I assure you, every single agent and editor knows what it is, and dreads it – because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Writing a book takes a long time: as was the case for my editing client, authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK – which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Let me repeat that: there is no way to diagnose and treat a manuscript’s Frankensteinish tendencies without sitting down and reading the whole darned thing. Preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

If the prospect of improving artistically is not enough to set you running for your comfy reading chair, here’s an excellent marketing incentive to send you scurrying in that direction, manuscript in hand: unfortunately for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author.

Translation: if you don’t catch the problem, they will. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript, you are far, far better off recognizing the fact yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine my surprise.

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

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

It read, in short, like a Frankenstein manuscript.

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

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

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

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

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

In the most extreme cases, the shifts are so pronounced that the Frankenstein book can actually read as a sort of unintentional anthology.

I’m not talking about multiple-perspective pieces — although it is very easy for a book relying upon several storytelling voices to end up as a Frankenstein work, without a cohesive narrative thread tying it all together. No, in a good multiple-perspective novel, each voice and/or POV is sharp, distinct, differentiated to the extent that a reader familiar with each could open the book at any page and know within a paragraph who is speaking. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, for instance, juggles multiple perspectives and voices beautifully, so that although the reader is treated to the overarching story in bits and pieces, the whole blends into seemingly organic coherence.

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

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

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

Another extremely common manifestation of Frankensteinery is the text that hasn’t yet really decided which tense it is in, and so meanders back and forth between (usually) the present and the past. In fiction, the explanation for this is generally pretty simple: the writer thought at one point that it would be nifty to write the book in the present tense, realized part-way through that it’s darned difficult to tell a story that way (how does one handle events that have been in progress for some time, for instance?), and changed to the past. Only in the transition process, not all of the verbs got changed.

Oops.

And what does the end result look like to a professional reader like Millicent, everybody? That’s right: like an indicator that the writer did not take the time to sit down and re-read his work after revision.

Hmm, where have I heard before that such a course of action really isn’t the best strategic move? I’m sure it will come to me…

Sometimes, though — and this one is more common in nonfiction, notoriously so in memoir — the writer just thinks it’s cool to present past events in the present tense. It sounds more colloquial that way, she reasons, the way someone might tell an anecdote verbally.

The trouble is, flipping past actions into the present tense can quickly become darned confusing for the reader. To take a recent random (and kind of surprising, from so usually consistent a writer) example from Sarah Vowell’s THE WORDY SHIPMATES:

Williams in Salem is such a myopic researcher of biblical truth he doesn’t care who gets hurt. His intellectual fervor, coupled with a disregard of practical consequences, reminds me of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, running his secret Manhattan Project lab in Los Alamos with a single-minded zeal, then quoting the Bhagavad Gita as the first test of his atomic bomb lights up the desert. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he said.

Now, this paragraph makes perfect sense, on one level: an intelligent reader could figure out that the narrator is in the present, talking about Oppenheimer and Williams in the past. But quick, tell me based upon this passage alone: who was born first, Oppenheimer or Williams?

If you said Oppenheimer, you were probably following the hint given by the tense choices in this passage: since Oppenheimer is clearly speaking in the past, and Williams is presented in the present tense, the implication is that Williams is the more recent trodder of the earth’s crust, right? Perhaps even a contemporary of Vowell’s?

So would it astonish you to learn that Williams was obsessing in 1635, not 2008, when the book came out?

For some reason best known to herself, Vowell chose to describe the actions of Williams and his fellow Puritans in both the present and the past tense, sometimes within the same paragraph. Since her background is in radio (by definition a speaker’s medium), I am forcing myself to conclude that this was a well-considered authorial choice, not merely the result of a reluctance to re-read her own work (which she does regularly on NPR) or an editorial oversight.

The New York Post’s reviewer’s response was less charitable — and more, I suspect, like Millicent’s would have been had THE WORDY SHIPMATES crossed her desk as a submission from a previously unpublished aspiring writer. “As a whole,” the review comments dryly, “the book reads like an unedited manuscript.”

Like, in other words, a Frankenstein manuscript. Which is sad, because I really, really wanted to love this book. (I don’t take just any author’s work with me to read on retreat, you know.)

In Ms. Vowell’s defense, I can think of a number of strategic reasons the frequent tense changes might have seemed like a good idea. Casting so much of the Puritans’ story in the present tense might have been a deliberate attempt to draw a parallel with current political conditions at the time the book came out, for instance (which may be why the book already seems a trifle dated). Or perhaps it was an effort to make the lives of our long-dead forebears seem more immediately relevant.

But whatever the motivation, I don’t think it worked. As a reader, I have to say that I found the frequent temporal shifts jarring every single time they occurred in the book. I thought they made the historical tale she was telling significantly harder to follow on the page.

Now, I suspect that some of you out there may share the belief that writing in the present tense is inherently more grabbing than writing in the past. Certainly, those of you who feel this way are not alone: there has been quite a bit of literary fiction over the last 20 years that has embraced that notion that placing a narrative in the now is more immediate.

Personally, I don’t think it’s true, largely because anyone who reads on a regular basis is already well versed in the not-very-difficult mental process of becoming absorbed in a past tense story as though it were happening in present time. I think that a reader has to be awfully darned literal to perceive himself to be distanced from action simply because it is presented in the past tense. I also know from experience that writing an entire book in the present tense necessarily entails quite a few technical difficulties that may be avoided almost entirely by placing it in even the most recent of pasts.

However, tense choices are entirely up to the author –but if you’re going to write in the present tense, please do it consistently.

Again, if you’re not willing to heed this advice for artistic reasons, embrace it because it’s good marketing. Manuscripts that tense-flip for no apparent reason tend to get dismissed as poorly proofed, at best. Unless a reader has a pretty darned good reason to assume that your authorial choices are deliberate — like, say, Sarah Vowell’s extensive track record of excellent published writing — he’s likely to interpret tense inconsistency not as a matter of style, but as a mistake.

So you might want to save the major experimentation until after you’re already an established writer; first, cut your teeth on less radical ways to make English prose interesting. Or, to put it another way: José Saramago wrote an entire book devoid of periods; that doesn’t mean that a first-time writer could get away with it.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unfair that the already-published should be judged by less stringent standards than those just breaking into the biz, but I’m not going to lie to you: that’s how it works. I honestly don’t think that THE WORDY SHIPMATES would have made it past Millicent had it been written by a previously unpublished writer.

Which would have been a shame, as it’s an interesting book with some wonderful insights and some very memorable sentences crammed into it. But plenty of interesting books with wonderful insights and memorable sentences don’t clear the first hurdle at agencies or in literary contests.

Why? Often, because those insights and sentences come across as flukes, occasional narrative bright spots not entirely integrated into the overall narrative. The voice is not consistent.

Cue the monster; he’s on again.

Don’t despair, however, if you fear your manuscript has Frankenstein tendencies. Tomorrow, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house — as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS to those of you who intended to enter the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, but don’t think you can get your entry in by midnight (your time) tonight: go ahead, take another couple of weeks.

After all, I am.

Yes, you read that correctly: if you can get your entry e-mailed by midnight on Monday, June 1, it will still be eligible to win fabulous prizes. (Hey, I happen to have it on good authority that the primary judge is on a writing retreat.)