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

old-fashioned writing desk in Victoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She should: professional readers are trained for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You think Millicent is unaware of that capacity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was as if an iceberg had spoken,”

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

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

“Mapp turned to ice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you had dropped it.”


“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!

But enough about you — what about me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza XIII: I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter…and then insert it properly into a manuscript

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Yes, the photos are unusually small today, but if it’s any consolation, it’s because this post is going to be an unusually long one, even by my hyper-communicative standards. So fasten your seatbelts and extinguish all smoking materials, everybody — it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Oh, you thought I was going to post fluff pieces for Christmas week? Au contraire, mon frère: I’m hoping to wrap up Formatpalooza by the end of the year, so we have a lot of ground to cover. Besides, you asked for it.

You in the collective sense, of course: ever since I first started Author! Author! readers have been asking in the comments how to format letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, and other text-within-text opportunities within manuscripts. Today, I’m going to be answering that perpetual item on Literary Santa’s gift list.

Who do you thinks gives the good children books?

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

Seriously, I’ve seen lipstick confiscated as a potential liquid in Seattle (yes, really), but been chided in Newark for cluttering my requisite 1-quart bag of carried-on liquids with Perky Passion. New Orleans seems to harbor an antipathy against pointy tweezers, a fear apparently reserved in Boston for the smallest gauge of knitting needles. In Chicago, I heard a lady screamed at because it hadn’t occurred to her to place her asthma inhaler in the plastic bag with her carried-on liquids; in Newark, the same poor woman was permitted to retain her inhaler, but was grilled mercilessly about the glass jar of seasoned salt that she was taking to her sister.

If there is any sort of national standard about whether shoes should be placed in a box or directly upon the conveyor belt, it must change at least twice weekly. And don’t even get me started on how a security guard reacted when I was reading Reza Aslan‘s fabulous new compilation of Middle Eastern writing, Tablet and Pen, in the Houston airport last month. Silly me, I thought, “Ma’am, what are you reading?” was an invitation to a literary discussion.

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

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

New, as in it had apparently been made up on the spot; this was a good six months before the new scan-or-pat rules were publicly announced. It also appeared to be rather sporadically enforced: even as she articulated it, beskirted women were passing unmolested through the three other security stations. As were men in baggy pants, priests in vestments, and bagpipers in kilts.

“I flew wearing this skirt two days ago,” I told her politely, “and nobody ran his hands over it. Is the regulation new as of today?”

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

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

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

Or, to put it in the terms we use here at Author! Author!: if the agent of your dreams has just tweeted angrily that she hates seeing a second space after a period with a venom that less stalwart souls reserve for the sound of nails scratching a blackboard, being cut off in traffic, and nuclear war, it’s simply not worth your time or energy to pointing out that those spaces are in fact proper in typed documents in English. You’d be right, of course, but if she’s sure enough of her interpretation to devote 127 words to it, I can tell you now that you’re not going to win the fight.

Trust me, I’m not saying this because I am too lily-livered to take a stand on principle. Ask the security guard I gave a ten-minute lecture on the importance of a diversity of literary voices in a free society.

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

But don’t, whatever you do, assume that particular agent’s pet peeve is shared by everyone else in the industry, any more than one security guard’s antipathy to women carrying — gasp! — lipstick onto airplanes is a universal standard. As we’ve seen earlier in this series, not only are some of the newer standards far from standard; adhering to some of them might actually alienate more traditional agents and editors.

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

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

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

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

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

My hand is raised, by the way. Back in my querying days, a West Coast Millicent once huffily informed me that he’d hated my premise when he’d first read my query three months before at his previous job in an East Coast agency — and he still hated it now. So much so that he took the time to write me a personalized rejection letter: a good two-thirds of a page of snarling admonition about doing my homework before querying. Evidently, I should have been following his professional movements closely enough to have taken wincing pains to avoid running my query under the same screener’s eye twice.

Shame on me for not having read his mind correctly. The next thing you know, I’ll be reading or wearing a skirt in an airport, scofflaw that I am.

Realistically, though, what good would it have done my submission to argue with him? It was indeed absurd of a faceless, anonymous Millicent to expect any aspiring writer to know anything about who is working behind the scenes at any agency, much less who is moving from one agency to another and when.

But do you know what would have been even more absurd and misguided? My automatically assuming that barker was right, simply because he was speaking from an apparent position of authority and with vehemence. Contrary to popular opinion, being right and sounding insistent have no necessary relationship to each other.

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

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

Remember: when in doubt, the smart thing to do is ask follow-up questions; many an aspiring writer has run afoul of Millicent simply because he didn’t fully understand Rule #10 on an under-explained list of 27. Isn’t that a better use of your energies than fighting with an agent who cares enough about her personal hatred of italics to tweet about it every other month?

Another smart thing to do is to put in the necessary research time to track down a reasonable answer from a credible source. And yes, Virginia, that often means doing more than just Googling the question and averaging the answers on the first ten sites that pop up.

Since there actually isn’t all that much out there on today’s topic, I’m going to state it in nice, easily-searchable terms: today, we’re going to be talking about how to format a letter, diary entry, or long quote in a manuscript.

Or, to be more precise, the many different ways in which one could format them. The short answer to “How do I do that?” is, as it so often is in this game, it depends.

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

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

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

In other words, sometimes a skirt is just a skirt. Exceptions do exist.

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

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

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

academic example

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Rather than fight you, I’m simply going to show you the two acceptable ways of formatting a letter like a letter in a manuscript — which, not entirely coincidentally, will also work beautifully for letters that go on for pages and pages. First, unsurprisingly, it may be presented like dialogue, within quotes:


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

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


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

Don’t laugh; it happens, and not for reasons that necessarily reflect negatively upon the average Millicent’s intelligence. She’s got hundreds of pages to get through in any given day, and skimming eyes can miss details.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly: don’t fall into the extremely common aspiring writer’s trap of believing that every reader will read — and more importantly, absorb — every single syllable on every page of your entire manuscript.

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

Like academic publishers, Millicents don’t like to leave such things open for interpretation; it tends to make her bark-prone. Don’t make her guess where a letter — or any other long quote — begins or ends. The format should make it clear — but never, under any circumstances, use a different typeface to differentiate a letter from the rest of the text.

That last format would work beautifully for an article or diary entry. Again, though, if all the reader needs to know could be summed up in a few short sentences, why not quote the diary entry within the regular text, just as you would an excerpt from a letter?

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

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

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

academic diary entry

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

NF diary entry 1

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

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

NF diary entry b

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

For fiction or memoir, a similar format should be used for diary entries longer than a few lines but less than a couple of pages long — unless several diary entries appear back-to-back. (But of that, more below.)

A novelist or memoirist faces a structural problem, though: it can be considerably harder in fiction to work the entry’s date into the preceding text (although many a fine writer has managed it with such sterling phrases as The minute volume trembled in Gerald’s hand. On May 24, 1910, his mother had written:), so the subheading is a popular choice for indicating the date.

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

diary fiction 1

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

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

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

diary fiction 2

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

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

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

diary chapter 1

diary chapter 2

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

If working through this often-misunderstood formatting issue doesn’t get me on Santa’s good list, what possibly would? Tomorrow’s foray into more formatting mysteries, perhaps. Keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Normal Is What You Know, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence in Memoir winner Jennifer Lyng


Is everyone getting excited for Querypalooza this coming weekend? I hope so; although I frequently teach query letter-development boot camps, I’ve never before done a weekend seminar here on Author! Author! The timing really couldn’t be better, however: as we had discussed early last month, most of the NYC-based publishing world goes on vacation from the end of the second week of August through Labor Day. So there really wasn’t much point querying recently.

Especially for those of you devoted to querying via e-mail. I’m not a big advocate of electronic querying in general, unless the agent of your dreams absolutely insists upon it: it’s significantly less time-consuming to reject via e-mail. That’s especially important to realize around this time of year, for just as e-queries sent between Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to pile up, to be read in droves when Millicent the agency screener is back from vacation, August-sent e-queries usually end up being read in an unusually great hurry (even by Millie’s standards). And since the quickest way to clear an e-query out of her inbox is to reject it…

Human nature, I’m afraid. Who doesn’t rush through the backlog on one’s desk after a few days out of the office?

What wisdom may we derive from this set of depressing observations? Well, for starters, it’s a safe bet that our Millicent is going to be pretty swamped right after Labor Day — so whatever you do, campers, do not send out an e-query between now and then.

Trust me, you do not want your query to be the 512th in her inbox. If you must e-query, wait a few days, until her inbox no longer looks like it was the RSVP site for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

So much for today’s cautions. On to the fun part: awarding a prize.

Today, I shall be discussing the 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence in Memoir winner, Jennifer Lyng’s NORMAL IS WHAT YOU KNOW. As with the three other A!A!AEE winners this year, Jennifer also won the Grand Prize in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest.

After yesterday’s very technical discussion on the merits and liabilities of the A!A!AEE winner in Adult Fiction, I thought it might make for a nice change of pace to discuss this entry on a more visceral level — which is, not entirely coincidentally, the level at which the judges most enthusiastically responded to it. And, while we’re at it, to talk a little bit about how differently memoir tends to be evaluated from fiction at the submission and contest-judging stages.

For starters, as I hope most of you memoirists are already aware, the vast majority of memoirs currently acquired by publishers in the United States are sold via a book proposal, not an entire manuscript. That means, in effect, that a memoirist not have to have a complete draft in hand before beginning to query; technically, all that’s required is a book proposal and a beautifully-polished sample chapter or two.

Does that giant collective gasp mean that some of you had heard otherwise? I’m not entirely surprised; misinformation on this subject has been circulating rampantly around the writers’ conference circuit for at least a decade. But as an author who has successfully garnered publication offers for two memoir book proposals, I’m living proof that the you-must-write-the-whole-thing rumor just isn’t true.

For those of you who are already sprinting toward the archive list at right, you’ll find the guidance you’re seeking under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL and HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK PROPOSAL categories. You’re welcome.

To be fair, though, one does encounter memoir agents who state categorically in their submission guidelines that they will only read the work of first-time memoirists, but that certainly is not an industry-wide preference. Prudently, these agents want to make sure before they sign a new writer that (a) she has a gripping book-length story to tell (not always apparent in the first draft of a proposal), (b) she has the writing chops to tell it well (ditto), and (c) she is already aware that writing a truly revealing memoir is awfully hard work, emotionally speaking.

Obviously, it is a whole lot easier to tell whether any or all of these thing are true if the writer has already produced a full draft. No imagination required: the potential of the book may simply be evaluated on the manuscript page, like a novel.

But even after a manuscript proves itself on (a), (b), and (c) levels, the acquiring agent will probably expect the by-now-exhausted writer to toss off a book proposal, anyway. That’s how memoir is sold in this country, you know.

(a), (b), and (c) are not the only reasons a cautious agent might want to see the whole thing right off the bat, though. Many a promising memoir heralded by an excellent book proposal has never seen the light of day as a book. And not just because first memoirs by non-celebrity writers have become significantly harder for agents to sell in the post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES literary world. As I mentioned above, the darned things are emotionally draining to write.

Even for those lucky memoirists whose books’ publication is not stymied by threatened $2 million lawsuits. (Long-time readers, can you believe that as of last month, my A FAMILY DARKLY has been on hold for FIVE YEARS?)

The trouble is, a memoirist may not realize just how draining the process can be until he’s well into the writing process — which is to say, for a memoir sold on a proposal, perhaps not until after he’s penned the proposal or even sold the book. It can take a while to reconstruct one’s own past substantively enough to be able to write about it, after all. Unfortunately for personal happiness, but fortunately for the emotional truth of memoir, the brain and the body do not always make a strong distinction between a vividly-recalled event and one that is actually happening in the moment.

Please think about that, the next time you pick up a beautifully-written memoir on a searingly painful subject. The author had to walk through fire twice in order to tell you about her experience.

Which brings me back to Jennifer Lyng’s powerful entry. Frankly, the judges had not originally planned to have a separate memoir category in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest; when I set up Category II: Adult Fiction and Memoir, I had anticipated simply including any winning memoirs in the general adult category.

Then we read Jennifer’s entry. It was clear right away that memoir deserved its own category.

Actually, I probably should have designed the contest that way in the first place: after all, as we discussed above, memoirs are not usually submitted in the same manner as novels. Yes, grabbing Millicent by the bottom of page 1 is still important, but let’s face it, if she has to plow through 30-50 pages of marketing material before she gets to it — sample chapters are placed at the end of proposals, typically — she’s probably not going to make it to page 1 if she is not already at least slightly interested in the subject matter.

That’s why for this contest, the judges read the memoir entrants’ brief book descriptions prior to turning to the first page, instead of the other way around. The result was a reading that more closely resembled how Millicent would approach the first page of a memoir.

Happily, Jennifer’s description was a lulu. So much so, in fact, that one of the judges immediately suggested, “Maybe you should run this on the blog to show queriers that it is actually possible to intrigue a reader with a one-paragraph description.”

Good idea, judge. Here it is, in all of its glory:

How does a child live with the man she believes killed her mother? My book, a combination of memoir and true crime, will answer that question, as well as detail the murder trial that took 17 years to unfold — one with no body, weapon or eyewitness.

Wow. You already want to pick up that book, right?

It also — and this is remarkable in a blurb this short — answers one of the first two questions the pros invariably ask about a non-celebrity memoir: is this a story that only this author could tell? If not, why is this author uniquely qualified to tell it in this particular way? Jennifer addresses these salient issues even more fully in her one-page description:

Normal is synopsis

Sends chills up your spine, doesn’t it? If you were Millicent, wouldn’t you run, not walk, to the first page of the sample chapter, to see how well the person who lived through this remarkable set of events can write?

As it happens, quite well. Here is Jennifer’s first page, precisely as the judges saw it.

Lyng entry page 1

What do you think? More importantly for submission purposes, if you were Millicent and basing your decision whether to read on solely upon the descriptions above and this first page, would you? And if you were Millie’s boss, what conclusions would you leap to about (a), (b), and (c)?

The judges felt (and I concur) that this first page has a lot of promise — but not for the same reasons that a similarly-written novel opening might. Remember, the single biggest way in which fiction and nonfiction first pages are read differently is that it is ASSUMED that the nonfiction manuscript will be rewritten to the acquiring editor’s specifications. It is still to be written: the proposal is in essence the job application the writer submits to the publishing house in hopes of being paid to write it. A novel, on the other hand, is expected to be print-ready by the time the writer submits it to an agency.

Admittedly, agents often ask novelists for significant revisions after the representation contract is signed. So do editors, either before or after they acquire a manuscript. That may seem odd, given that they expect fiction to be polished to a high shine before they see it, but it makes abundant sense from a professional point of view: a writer who has the skills to perfect a submission, they reason, is the best candidate for making good revisions.

Part of the point of selling a memoir — or any nonfiction book, for that matter — via a book proposal, rather than a manuscript, is that the publisher will be able to tell the writer how it should be written. Although book proposals always include an annotated table of contents, it’s not at all unusual for an acquiring editor to ask for different chapters to appear in the finished book, for instance. It’s not even all that uncommon for the editor to request slight changes in authorial voice.

I mention all this in part because I suspect some of you novelists are going to be a smidge shocked when I show you how Millicent might respond to this first page on a sentence-by-sentence level. She’s expecting it to be revised between now and publication, so why not go to town on the feedback?

Lyng p 1 edited

(If you’re having a spot of trouble reading the comments, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key while pressing the + button. And no, I hadn’t realized that the light in this room was so very golden.)

Most of these points are pretty self-explanatory — beginning the page with the moment of dread, for instance, rather than showing a moment of normalcy first for contrast — but I want to take a minute to talk about the ones that turn up most often in memoir. I would have flagged the percussive repetition of my mother on any first page, but does anyone have a wild guess about why this redundancy is especially dangerous on the first page of a memoir?

Give up? It’s because virtually every first-time memoirist consistently refers to relatives as my mother, my father, my sister, and so forth, just as they would in a verbal anecdote. That’s fine in speech, but on the printed page, a constant reminder of characters’ relationship to the narrator quickly becomes tedious for the reader.

“What’s wrong,” Millicent fumes, “with referring to all of these people by NAME? They’re characters in a book, for heaven’s sake!”

That objection is relevant even in a case like this, where the single most likely name to replace the relationship marker is Mom. Believe it or not, simply changing two of the three my mothers to Mom would make most Millicents like it better.

The moral, should you not already have shouted it toward the sky: the little stuff matters. Especially on page 1.

It’s also both common and dangerous for a memoir to open with a sentence in the passive voice. As this one does: It was a crisp, overcast fall day… Any guesses why this simple statement of fact might raise Millicent’s hackles?

If you immediately cried, “Because it’s in the passive voice, by jingo!” give yourself a gold star for the day. As we have often discussed, the overwhelming majority of professional readers have been trained to regard the passive voice as poor writing. While that’s not quite fair — plenty of very good established authors use the passive voice all the time, after all — it is a belief worth noting.

In fact, I’m going to lay it down as an axiom: never, unless you are actually quoting someone else, use the passive voice on page 1 of a submission. And never, ever, EVER use it in the first sentence of a manuscript, or in the first sentence of any paragraph within the first few pages.

Why is the use of the passive voice more likely to make Millicent’s molars grind if they occupy those particular positions within the text? The first sentence of any paragraph is the one most likely to catch a skimmer’s eye. And if Millicent reads nothing else on page 1, she will take a gander at the first sentence.

The third common first memoir characteristic I’d like you to notice is much subtler than the first two: the emotional distance between the narrator and what is going on. On the first page of a memoir — and in memoir-writing in general — the more the reader can feel that he is observing the action from within the narrator’s body and psyche, the better.

Didn’t expect another axiom so soon, did you? Hey, I was on a roll.

Are some of you having trouble spotting the emotional distance, given how nicely Jennifer has set up the suspense here? A professional reader would appreciate the tangible sense that something awful is about to happen, but would note that while we’re seeing the narrator’s thoughts and reasoning in detail, the narrator is not telling us much about her own feelings, fears, or even physical sensations.

Yes, she mentions needing to go to the bathroom, but is that honestly the most character- or situation-revealing physical sensation the narrative could bring up here? At the risk of overloading this post with axioms, I would like to see this narrative be the protagonist’s head a bit less and in her body and emotions a bit more.

Jennifer’s in luck here: as she has presented this situation, it is particularly rich in opportunities for working in this kind of telling detail. The narrator could have a visceral reaction to the unexpected sensation of the doorknob fighting her hand, or to the sight of the “Sorry we missed you” sign. She could feel a rush of comfort when the dogs bark. Heck, she could even feel the cold coming through her jacket as she stood outside longer than she had expected.

Or — and this would be my first stop, revision-wise — the narrative could give us a peek at the most awful thing that 13-year-old could have imagined resulting in the door’s being locked. Given what the book description has led us to expect, the contrast between the normal fears of a kid and what is about to become her new reality would probably be quite poignant.

But you want to turn the page to find out, don’t you?

That, my friends, is the best possible evidence that a first page is a grabber — and yes, what constitutes a grabber does in fact often vary between fiction and nonfiction. Already, in just this page and her one-paragraph description for her query letter, Jennifer has made it clear that she has a fascinating story to tell, has the writerly tools to tell it well, and is ready to embrace the memoir-writing experience.

It’s as clear as (a), (b), (c), right? Congratulations on a job well done, Jennifer — the judges can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

In future posts, we shall continue apply what we’ve been learning all summer to the great first pages of more contest winners. (You did realize that’s what we’ve been doing, right?) Think of it as a master class in seeing submissions from Millicent’s perspective.

That noble effort will have to wait, however, until after Querypalooza — after so much craft, we’re all ready for a marketing weekend, right? Keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision, part VI: and then there’s the fine art of doing it right, or, love, agent-style

pre-butchered fir tree

This, I am happy to say, used to be one of the views from my studio window, a sweet fir tree stuffed to the proverbial gills with cavorting crows, mischievous blue jays, and a small family of squirrels deeply devoted, for reasons best known to themselves, to digging up my crocus bulbs, saving them for a month or two, then replanting them in entirely different locations. I used to enjoy watching them before the strange men from the phone company showed up unannounced yesterday and slashed a ten-foot hole in the middle of the tree in order to make room for a half-inch cable scheduled to be installed three months from now. As one does.

Actually, it would have been a twenty-foot hole — quoth the foreman: “But those other branches were, like, in our way! We would have had to work around them!” — had I not managed to hobble out front to stop them in mid-slice. (Never underestimate the moral force of a crutch-wielding Valkyrie with a rudimentary knowledge of property law.) The damage has been done, though: this morning, there are no birds in the defiled tree.

Why does this seem like an apt time to wrap up this series on revising dialogue?

I can tell you why: all too often, in the first glow of enthusiasm following a newly-acquired self-editing tip — or, if you’ve been following our intensive discussions of craft this summer, a whole mess of ‘em — writers will, to put it succinctly, over-cut. Fired up by the time-honored advice to kill their darlings, they hack and slash with gusto, assuming, sometimes incorrectly, that if a line or two of dialogue runs afoul of the freshly-learned rule, the entire speech should go. Or the entire scene. Or the entire chapter.

But not all darlings are apt candidates for slaughter. Sometimes, too-vigorous cutting can do some serious harm to the tree. You don’t want to scare off the pretty birds, after all.

(I know — isn’t it amazing how often my day-to-day life provides PRECISELY the metaphor for what we’ve been discussing? Somebody up there must have a great fondness for blogs. Either that, or a monumental antipathy toward trees.)

Which is to say: not all of the results of revision are necessarily intentional. Over-enthusiastic cutting can, among other things, result in uneven tone, the loss of information the reader might need to know later in the plot, confusion of motivation, the omission of that foreshadowing sneer that alerts the attentive reader to the possibility that the protagonist’s mild-mannered coworker may turn out to be the super villain intent on destroying every ice cream stand in Gotham…

It can lead, in short, to a Frankenstein manuscript. There is no such thing, then, as a revision that would not benefit from a follow-up re-reading of the ENTIRE manuscript (preferably IN HARD COPY and, especially if it is dialogue-heavy, OUT LOUD) to make absolutely certain that the post-cut scenes not only read well on the page, but still pull their weight in the plot.

With that incentive for caution in mind, here is a final post in our revisit to 2009’s Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk series. Actually, it’s a mash-up of two posts in that series, presented in composite form for your perusing pleasure. When I originally posted the second, John Updike had just died — providing, yet again, a nudge toward a blog-friendly example.

Enjoy! But please, employ your pruning shears judiciously — and sparingly — after reading it.

Are you surprised to see another post on first-page rejection reasons coming after I’ve already gone over the agent-generated list of submission red flags? What can I possibly still have to say on the subject, after nearly three weeks of harping upon it?

Plenty, as it turns out. As excellent and extensive as the agent-generated list was in its day, as full of classic submission problems as any such list could possibly be, the agents in question generated it several years ago. As I’ve been shouting from the rooftops practically since I began writing this blog, the standards for what agents are seeking in a manuscript change all the time, along with the literary market itself.

Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, good writing, a solid premise, and catchy character names are not necessarily enough to catch an agent’s eye today. Yes, a novel or memoir submission typically needs all of those elements to be successful, but now as ever, it needs something else: to be a book that the agent can picture selling in within not an ideal market, but the one in which s/he is currently attempting to sell books.

Yes, I do realize what I just said: a manuscript could conceivably be perfectly marvelous and still not be what an agent would consider marketable in the literary market right now.

Why right now in particular? Well, agents have always made their living by selling their clients’ work to publishers — since reputable agents don’t charge fees over and above their contracted percentage of a book sale, they make money only when they hawk their clients’ books successfully — but even a cursory glance at PUBLISHERS WEEKLY or PUBLISHERS MARKETPLACE will tell you that these are exceptional times for the publishing industry.

What does this mean for aspiring writers? Probably, that agents will be a bit warier about picking up new clients until the publishing houses decide what their new strategies will be. That, and that vampire books like the TWILIGHT series will continue to get snapped up at a prodigious rate until the next surprise bestseller comes along. {Present-day Anne here: amazingly, although I originally posted this a year and a half ago, this statement remains true. That’s how cautious agents have become.}

So the best thing you could possibly do right now is rush right out and buy 50 books similar to yours — and convince 100,000 of your friends to do the same. Like it or not, that’s now new marketing trends are made.

Since my readership is made up almost exclusively of writers, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that none of you like it.

I don’t pretend to be able to predict the next big thing — other than the novel I’m about to finish writing, of course — but there are a few trends in what gets rejected and accepted that I’ve noticed cropping with increasing frequency over the last year or so. Since once a pet peeve is established, it tends to hang around for a while on Millicent the agency screener’s red flag list, it’s probably a good idea to avoid them for the foreseeable future.

I know — kind of ironic, given how opaque the future of publishing is right now. Let’s plow ahead anyway. Some stuff that hasn’t been playing well lately {and, again, this list remains astonishingly current}:

1. Unprofessionally formatted manuscripts.

I know that I harp on this one quite a bit — as evidence and for the benefit of readers new enough to this blog not to have lived through my extensive discussions of what publishing professionals expect manuscripts to look like, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right — but it honestly is true that if a submission does not look professional, Millicent is more likely to reject it, regardless of the quality of the writing. Since the volume of queries and submissions has been skyrocketing as the economy has worsened (writing a book is a LOT of people’s Plan B, apparently), she can afford to be even pickier than usual.

Take the time to make it look right.

2. “I’ve seen that before.”

This is a practically inevitable side effect of the aforementioned volume of queries and submissions rising, but standard storylines, stock characters, and literary clichés in general seem to be getting judged more harshly of late, probably because Millicent has been seeing the same things over and over again.

Does this mean that this is a great time for writers who embrace radical originality. Not exactly, because…

3. Fiction that challenges the status quo very strongly.

This is one of the truisms of the publishing industry for the last century — during uncertain economic times, comforting and escapist plot lines tend to sell better. Unfortunate, but true. It has to do with what’s known as the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index: when Americans are feeling insecure about the future, sales of inexpensive comfort foods tend to rise — as do books that make readers all warm and fuzzy.

Historically, agents and editors have followed these trends, shying away from more challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and even experimental use of prose. Since I’m personally a big fan of challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and experimental use of prose, I’m not all too happy about this, but it might be worth holding off on submitting any of the above for a few months, until the industry has had time to get used to new economic realities.

I know; it’s annoying. {Even more annoying: that this advice is still apt, to a very great extent.}

4. Vocabulary or tone inappropriate to book category.

I’ve been hearing a LOT of complaints in that bar that’s never more than a 100 yards from any literary conference in North America about submissions from writers who don’t seem aware of either the target audience or the conventions of the categories in which they have written books. From coast to coast, Millicents and their bosses have been railing about YA with too-adult word choices, literary fiction with a fourth-grade vocabulary, cynical romances, paranormals where vampires cavort in the sun…

I suspect that the increased pervasiveness of this one is actually an expression of the publishing industry’s smoldering resentment that book sales have dropped; if the writers of these books were actually buying the new releases in their genres, the logic goes, they would be more conversant with what’s selling right now. Having met scads of writers who say, “What do you mean, what do I read? I don’t have time; I’m too busy writing,” I have to say, I have some sympathy with this one.

Remember, from the pros’ point of view, a writer’s being up on the current releases for her type of book is considered a minimum standard of professionalism, not an optional extra. At least take the time to go to a well-stocked bookstore and thumb through the recent releases, to make sure that your submission doesn’t fly too far out of the acceptable range.

5. Narrative voices that read as though the author has swallowed a dictionary.

This is a perennial complaint that’s been getting more play recently, probably because of the convenience of the Thesaurus function in Word, but for Millicent, a submission crammed with what used to be called three-dollar words does not necessarily read as more literate than one that relies upon simpler ones. Especially if — and this problem turns up more often than anyone would like to admit — not all of those words are used correctly.

Or, to put it as some aspiring writers might: without embroiling us in superfluous polysemousness, it must be averred that the aesthetic propensities of a vainglorious tome toward prolixity or indeed even the pseudo-pragmatic co-optation — as by droit du seigneur — of an antiquitarian lexis, whilst purportedly an amendment to the erudition of said opuscule and arguably consanguinean (metaphorically speaking) and perhaps even existentially bound up with its literary apprizal, can all too facilely directionize in the azimuth of fustian grandiloquence or unmanacle unpurposed (or even dystelelogical) consequences on a pith and/or douceur de vivre level vis-à-vis even the most pansophic reader. As Pliny was wont to quip in his cups…

Come on, admit it: this is a BIT over-the-top for YA.

Yes, yes, I know that English is a beautiful language crammed to the gills with fabulous words, but use that thesaurus sparingly: from a professional reader’s point of view, the line between erudite and pretentious can sometimes be pretty thin. Few readers, they argue, will actually stop reading in order to go and look up a word in a novel written in their native tongue.

They speak from personal experience: it’s something Millicent would literally never do while scanning the first few pages of a submission.

Here again, your best guideline is the current market for your type of book: generally speaking, a writer will always be safe sticking to the vocabulary level of recent releases in his book category. If you want to sneak in more obscure words here and there, make sure that their meaning is evident from context. Trust me on this one.

6. Humor that Millicent doesn’t find funny.

Perhaps it’s due to the major presidential candidates’ having employed speechwriters last time around who wrote better jokes for them, but in the last few years, more aspiring writers seem to be trying to incorporate humor into their work. Since genuinely funny writing is a rare and wonderful thing, I can only applaud this trend.

Just make sure that it’s actually funny before you submit it on the page — not just to you and your kith and kin, but to someone who has never met you and is from a completely different background. And no, having one character laugh at a joke another character has just made will not cause Millicent to find it humorous.

Remember, too: nothing dates a manuscript faster than borrowing a joke from the zeitgeist. Particularly if the joke in question is lifted from a sitcom. (Have your parents explain why they ever thought “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis?” was funny, children.)

If you choose to open with humor, run your first scene (at least) by a few good, unbiased first readers before submitting it. Even those of us who write comedy professionally are heavily reliant on reader reaction to determine what is and is not legitimately funny.

7. Unlikable protagonists.

This is another golden oldie that’s been cropping up with increasing frequency of late: it’s long been an industry truism that if the reader doesn’t find the protagonist likable, she’s not going to want to follow him through an entire book. And I don’t just mean finding him kind of tolerable; Millicent’s going to want to find the guy actively engaging.

Why might this perennial objection be flying out of Millicent’s mouth more often recently, you ask? Did you read that one above about the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index?

And don’t tell me that your protagonist or narrator becomes more likable as the reader gets to know her. If the writing on page 1 doesn’t grab Millie, it doesn’t matter if the protagonist is marvelous on page 15.

It’s not as though agents or editors open books at random to check out the writing, after all. Millicent honestly does expect to see your best writing on page 1 of your submission — and that since she is going to assume that the writing on page 1 IS your best writing, it’s worth taking exceptional pains over it.

Begin at the beginning, as a reader would, when you revise. Your time investment will bear the greatest returns there. As agents have been known to tell one another when they’re in their Pliny-like cups (in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference, natch), they want to fall in love on page 1.

All that being said, a moment of silence, please: John Updike is dead.

When I heard the news — repeatedly; one of the mixed blessings of being widely known as a writer and descendent of a long line of writers is that people very considerately call to break the news to me whenever any well-established author kicks the bucket, as if everyone who has ever set pen to paper were a distant cousin of mine whose death I should not be forced to learn from the standard media sources — I naturally went straight to my bookshelf and glanced through some of his work. In light of our ongoing series on opening pages and the fact that his first novel, THE POORHOUSE FAIR, came out in 1959, I expected his initial pages would, to put it politely, have a tough time making in past today’s Millicents, thus underscoring Updike’s frequently-made point about how literary fiction has been all but brought to earth over the last 40 years.

I was pleased to find that quite the opposite was true: his first pages were grabbers. Take that, eulogists of literary fiction!

More to the point of the latter part of this series, his hooks largely operated not through garish action, but interesting character development. Take a gander, for instance, at the first two paragraphs of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1984):

“And oh yes,” Jane Smart said in her hasty yet purposeful way; each s seemed the black tip of a just-extinguished match held in playful hurt, as children do, against the skin. “Sukie said a man has bought the Lenox mansion.”

“A man?” Alexandra Spofford asked, feeling off-center, her peaceful aura that morning splayed by the assertive word.

Now, we could speculate all day about the probable insecurities of a male author who felt compelled not only to have a female character repeat the word man here, as though the very concept of the Y chromosome were inherently unsettling to heterosexual women (at least the frail kind discombobulated by assertive words) but also to employ splayed, a term commonly associated with the things models do in the centerfolds of men’s magazines, to describe a mental state. It might not be too much of a stretch to assume based upon this opening that Mr. Updike wasn’t picturing much of a female readership for this book when he wrote it — intriguing, since in 1984 as now, women were far and away the most common purchasers of literary fiction.

But none of that concerns us at the moment. Look, I ask you, at how beautifully he has used visceral details to establish both a mood and character in the first lines of this book.

It’s a heck of an opening in general. Let’s take a moment to ponder why: instead of easing the reader into the story by an extensive description of the physical space in which we discover these characters, or the even more common physical description of the characters themselves, Updike introduces these women by providing specific insight into their mental processes and motivations. Instead of just telling us that Jane is mean and Alexandra shy, he shows us through an analogy and word choices that we might not expect.

Yes, what you just thought is absolutely right: this opening would grab Millicent because it’s not only well-written, but surprising.

Seeing all the elements in action helps to clarify what we’ve been talking about, doesn’t it? But while we’re at it, let’s be thorough about this. Quick, without rushing back and checking our initial list of red flags that often lead Millicent to reject a submission on page 1, what might strike her as problematic if she saw this opening in a submission by a brand-new writer today?

If you pointed out the typo in the very first sentence, give yourself a great big gold star for the day. (Technically, there should be a comma between oh and yes; as Mr. Updike was a graduate of my alma mater, I’m relatively certain that he should have been aware of this.) While some Millicents might be kind enough to read past a first sentence grammatical or spelling error, it’s not a foregone conclusion.


While we’re giving out prizes for observation, take a red ribbon out of petty cash if you flagged the repetitive dialogue. As we discussed earlier in this series, repetitive dialogue tends to annoy agents and editors, since they’ve been trained since they were pups to excise redundancy. Besides, characters who simply echo what has already been said tend to come across as less intelligent than those who actually add something new to the conversations in which they participate — always a tad risky in a protagonist.

Anything else? What about the unnecessary tag lines (Jane Smart said, Alexandra Spofford asked), now out of fashion? Since Mr. Updike had already been established in the first rank of North American authors by the time for decades by the time the use of tag lines fell out of fashion, this might seem like an unwarranted quibble, but remember, we’re judging this by the standards that would apply to a writer trying to break into the biz now.

Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: an established author can often get away with things that someone new could not.

Did any of you red-flag the semicolon? If Mr. Updike were submitting this to Millicent labeled as anything but literary fiction, you’d be right to consider cutting it. Generally speaking, in fiction that isn’t aimed at a college-educated audience — as literary fiction is, ostensibly, but most fiction is not — semicolons are considered a bit highbrow.

Admittedly, the fact that Millicent regularly sees manuscripts whose vocabulary barely scrapes the 10th grade positively peppered with semicolons might have something to do with this. No one but writers really like semicolons, and not even all of us use them correctly (as the late John Harvard would no doubt be delighted to note, Mr. Updike has done properly above), but my, don’t we like to shoehorn them into a manuscript!

Unless you’re submitting your work as literary fiction to an agent with a successful track record of representing a whole lot of it AND her client list fairly bristles with semicolon-wielding authors, you might want to minimize their use.

All of which, as fate would have it, is a perfect lead-in to my wrap-up of the rejection reasons because, really, it’s important to recognize that while, in the past, agents tended to be open to working with their clients in order to work out the technical kinks prior to submission to publishing houses, now most of them expect writers to submit manuscripts so clean and camera-ready that the agency screener could confidently walk them directly from the agency’s mail room to the desk of even the pickiest editor. Thus these last few weeks of weeding out the most common submission problems, at least on page 1: we’ve been going over these points exhaustively precisely so you can meet standards far higher than when the late, great Mr. Updike faced when he was first trying to break into the biz.

Today, however, we get to see the reward: the kind of manuscript that makes agents weak in the knees.

Surprisingly, agents and editors tend not to talk too much at conferences about what they love to see in manuscripts. They tend to stick to describing what is marketable, because that is, after all, their bread and butter. Remember, agents (most of them, anyway) don’t hold submissions to such high standards in order to be mean — they want to take on books that they know they can sell within today’s extremely tight market.

Which is to say: it’s not enough for an agent to love your work; she needs to be able to place it at a publishing house for you. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that’s in the writer’s interest as much as the agent’s.

But as those of you who have been querying strong, marketable projects for a while already know, agencies often reject submissions for perfectly marketable books, a fact that is very confusing to those who believe that every agent is looking for the same thing, or that a single rejection from a single agent means that everyone in the industry will hate a book. Or that there exists writing so beautifully literary that every agent currently drawing breath will instantly exclaim, “Oh, of course — I’ll represent that!”

Especially for first fiction or memoir, it’s not enough for an agent to recognize that a writer has talent and a book has market potential: they like to fall in love. If you’re a good pitcher, you already know the reaction I’m talking about: the eyes becoming moist with desire, the mouth appearing to go dry with lust. When an agent wants a project, the symptoms strongly resemble infatuation, and as this series has taught us, it’s often a case of love at first sight.

As with any other type of love, every agent has his own particular type that is likely to make his heart beat harder, his own individual quirks and kinks. Just as an agent will train his screeners to rule out submissions containing his pet peeves, he will usually set some standards for the kind of project he would like to see forwarded to his desk.

So, in a way, our old pal the underpaid, latte-quaffing, late-for-her-lunch-date screener is her boss’ dating service. Literarily, of course.

With an eye toward getting your submission on the litero-romantic short list, here’s the list of what the Idol panelists said would light their fires sufficiently to ask for a second date. In other words, these are the traits they said would lead them to want to read beyond page 1 of a submission:

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.

2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.

3. The author made the point, then moved on.

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.

5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.

6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.

7. “Good opening line.”

8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

Notice anything about this list? Like, say, that the opening of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK knocks every single one of these criteria out of the proverbial ballpark?

Hey, I told you Updike’s work stood up well.

Notice anything else? How about that all of these criteria could be applied equally well to a memoir and a novel? That’s something that memoirists often forget: just because a story is true does not mean that it will be judged by less stringent requirements than a fictional one. A good memoirist, like a good novelist, is first and foremost a storyteller.

“Hey,” I hear some of you out there saying, “isn’t there something missing from this list? Shouldn’t ‘This is a marvelous writer,’ or ‘That’s the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for a love affair gone wrong,’ or ‘Wow, great hook’ have made the list? Shouldn’t, in fact, more of these have been about the craft of writing, rather than about the premise?”

Excellent questions, both. Would you like the cynical answer, or the one designed to be encouraging to submitters?

Let me get the cynicism out of the way first: they are looking for a book that can sell quickly, not necessarily a writer whose talent they want to develop over a lifetime, and that means paying closer attention to an exciting plot than pure beauty of voice. Yes, they are seeking good writing with a genre-appropriate voice, but at first glance, they are looking to fall in love with a premise.

The less cynical, and probably more often true, reason is that this is not the JV team you are auditioning to join: this is the big league, where it is simply assumed that a writer is going to be talented AND technically proficient AND able to draw the reader immediately into a pulse-elevating plot.

Unless an agent specifically represents literary fiction — not just good writing, mind you, which can be produced in any book category, but that specific 3-4% of the fiction market which is devoted to novels where the loveliness and/or experimental nature of the writing is the primary point of the book — the first question she is going to ask her screener is probably not going to be, “Is it well-written?”

Why not? Well, presumably, if any submission weren’t fairly well-written and free of technical errors, it would not make it past the screener. Thus, her question is much, much more likely to be, “What is this book about?”

Before you sniff at this, think about it for a minute: the last time you recommended a book to someone, did you just say, “Oh, this is a beautifully-written book,” or did you give some description of either the protagonist or the plot in your recommendation? Even the most literary of literary fiction is, after all, ABOUT SOMETHING.

Ideally, any good novel will be about an interesting character in an interesting situation. Why does the protagonist need to be interesting? So the reader will want to follow her throughout the story to come, feeling emotionally engaged in the outcome. Why does the situation need to be interesting? So the reader will not figure out the entire book’s plotline on page 1.

If you have included both of these elements in your premise, and you have presented them in a way that avoids the 74 rejection reasons I’ve been discussing throughout this series, most of the rest of the criteria on this love-it list will follow naturally. Not necessarily, but usually.

If the reader cares about the protagonist, the stakes are high enough, and the pacing is tight, the scene is much more likely to be emotionally engaging than if any of these things are not true. If you eschew heavy-handed description and move straight to (and through) the action, conflict is more likely to seem as though it is happening in real time, no one can complain that you are belaboring a point, and the suspense will develop naturally.

So really, this avalanche of critique has been leading directly to the characteristics of an infatuation-worthy book. (You’re welcome.)

Of course, all of this IS about the quality of the writing, inherently: in order to pull this off successfully, the writer has to use a well-rehearsed bag of tricks awfully well. Selecting the right narrative voice for a story, too, is indicative of writerly acumen, as is a stunning opening line. Each of these elements is only enhanced by a beautiful writing style.

However, most agents will tell you that lovely writing is not enough in the current market: the other elements need to be there as well. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi that the pros call an individual voice.

All of which is to say: submission is not the time to be bringing anything but your A game; there really is no such thing as just good enough for a first book in the current market. (Unless, of course, you’re already established, like John Updike, or a celebrity, or you happen to have written the story that the agent always wanted to write himself, or…) Playing in the big leagues requires more than merely telling a story well — that’s the absolute minimum for getting a serious read.

Which brings me to #8, ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.” Submission mail bags positively burgeon with clear accounts of straightforward stories, as well as with manuscripts where every nuance of the plot is instantly accessible to the reader as soon as it is mentioned. Books that work on a number of different levels simultaneously, that give the reader occasion to think about the world to which the book is introducing her, are rare.

That the Idol agents would be looking actively for such a book might at first blush seem astonishing. How much subtlety could a screener possibly pick up in a 30-second read of the first page of a manuscript?

Well, let me ask you: the last time you fell in love, how much did you feel you learned in the first thirty seconds of realizing it?

On that note, I’m going to close this series. Pat yourselves on the back for making it all the way through this extremely sobering list, everybody: this was good, hard, professional work, the kind that adds tangible skills to your writer’s tool bag. Be pleased about that — and 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 scourge of the passive interviewer, part III: as you know, robot, I have a nefarious plan…

Dr. Smith and the robot

Shh! The houseguests are sleeping, so I have tiptoed into my studio to have a few words with you. Perhaps it is inhospitable of me, but all weekend, I’ve been yearning to log in to warn you further of the horrifying perils of Hollywood narration.

That’s not the kind of yen that makes sense to non-writers, in case you’d been wondering. I believe the term most often being applied to it in my household over the last few days is pathological.

But then, most conscientious revisions would strike outside observers as pretty odd, I suspect. “What do you mean, you’re going to go over every syllable in the book several times?” they demand, wide-eyed. “Isn’t that, you know, the editor’s job, not the writer’s? Why don’t you just send off the manuscript and let the publisher take care of any typos — or whatever it is you think you’ll find on your seventeenth read-through?”

Hoo boy — it’s hard to know even where to start countering that pervasive set of misconceptions, isn’t it? Rather than engaging in a lengthy explanation that will only depress all and sundry, let’s get back to the matter at hand.

Last time, I introduced you to Hollywood narration, the perplexing practice wherein backstory is conveyed by dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well — and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having that particular conversation at all. Interestingly, writers who pride themselves on the pursuit of realistic dialogue are every bit as likely to incorporate Hollywood narration as those who do not.

It’s just so darned convenient. Particularly if a reviser is editing for length: a paragraph or two of Hollywood narration can, after all, replace pages and pages of backstory.

But page-slashing self-editors are not the only writers fond of Hollywood narration, unfortunately. Many a first-time novelist or memoirist has panicked at the notion that the reader will walk into a story without knowing basic facts about the participants. As a result, our old pal Millicent the agency screener is constantly confronted with opening pages that read something like this.

Hollywood narration

Did any of that seem a trifle unnecessary to you? It would to Millicent, or indeed to most readers. For this scene to work, we don’t actually have to know how old these people are, how long they’ve been married, or even how long little Tara has been sleeping through the night. We certainly don’t need to hear about all of that on page 1; these tidbits could pop up naturally as the story progressed.

Or, to put it in editing terms, most of those statements of fact slow down the story, rather than adding to it, at least at this juncture. To grab the reader, this opening scene needs to present Helga and Chaz as interesting people in an interesting situation — so why take up page space with matters that, while important in and of themselves, are not integral to the conflict at hand?

Heavy-handed application of backstory isn’t solely the province of dialogue, of course (as that whopper of a sentence in the second paragraph proves abundantly). Most first novel manuscripts (and quite a few first memoirs as well) produced within the last thirty years or so have leaned pretty heavily upon dialogue to introduce facts that both parties already know, for the exceedingly simple reason that we’ve all heard it done so much in movies and on TV.

Thus the term Hollywood narration: all too often, writers forget that having a character essentially narrate backstory or fundamental facts crops up in movies because film is limited in how it may convey the past. On the printed page, however, we have more — and more interesting — options than having a character start waxing poetic about the past to people who shared that past, don’t we?

Before we go any further, and to save confusion in critique groups and editorial conversations in the dim, uncertain future, I should point out that the term Hollywood narration is mine; the agent of your dreams may well look at you blankly if you mention it. She will undoubtedly be familiar with the phenomenon, however: due to its continual widespread unpopularity amongst aspiring writers, it is cursed under many names throughout the publishing world. My personal favorite is the SF/fantasy moniker, as you know, Bob… dialogue.

Whatever you like to call it, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the scourges of both the modern publishing industry and the screenwriters’ guild.

What’s so wrong with it on the manuscript page? From a reader’s perspective, Hollywood narration in dialogue is effectively an interview scene with no interviewer but the author.

The reader is left to wonder: why the heck is that chattering character responding to questions that no one has actually asked him — and furthermore, whose answers must come as a mind-numbing bore to the character to whom he’s saying it? Why, in fact, is this monologue (or dialogue; both Helga and Chaz engaged in Hollywood dialoguing above) appearing on the page at all?

As we discussed last time, the answer to all of those questions usually disarmingly straightforward: because the writer wants the reader to learn the answers to those questions, that’s why. So much so that the characters’ motivations and listening preferences are ruthlessly disregarded in favor of audience enlightenment.

Anyone see a teensy problem with this narrative strategy? Anyone?

No? Well, I could just tell you that Hollywood narration has the characters tell what the narrative doesn’t show — but it would be far, far more effective to show you, wouldn’t it? Especially since it isn’t always easy to catch in revision.

Oh, you may laugh, recalling the throw-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window subtlety of the example above, but sometimes, Hollywood narration can be very low-key. You’d actually have to be looking for it. As you should be, ideally, in the following:

Lois did a double-take at the stranger — or was he? It was so hard to tell behind those thick, black-rimmed glasses. “You remind me of someone. Funny that I didn’t notice it before.”

Clark grinned shyly. “It is funny, considering that we’ve been working together for the last five years.”

Did you catch it?

Or rather, I should say did you catch them, since the Hollywood narration cuts both ways here. Surely, both parties have been aware for quite some time — say, five years — of what Clark’s glasses look like. So why is Lois describing them? On the flip side, Clark is also telling Lois something that she must have known for, at minimum, five years. So why is he saying it, other than to let the reader know that they’ve been working together for — wait for it — five years?

And is that honestly sufficient reason to keep this sterling exchange in the text? As a reviser, you should constantly be asking yourself, “Is this really the most effective way to convey this information? Brilliant writer that I am, could I not find a more graceful way to let the reader in on the backstory — or is it possible that the backstory actually is not integral to this scene, and thus could be introduced later?”

Yes, that is quite a mouthful to keep muttering to yourself. It gets easier with practice.

More often, though, Hollywood narration is laid on with a heavier hand, if not a shovel or a backhoe. Sometimes, the helpings are so lavish that they practically constitute a flashback:

“We could always spend the weekend at our rather derelict lake house,” Desmond pointed out. “We’ve owned it for fifteen years now, and I don’t think we’ve stayed in it five times.”

Elaine shrugged, a good trick, considering that her hands were deeply imbedded in the clay turning on the wheel. She was going to need major chiropractic work on her neck some day soon. “That’s not true. We spent a month there when little Betty came down with the measles during the family reunion, don’t you remember? All 117 of us, the whole extended family as far as it could be traced — or at least as far as Aunt Rose managed to trace it in her three volunteer afternoons per week at the Genealogical Society, bless her heart and reading glasses — locked inside after Dr. Stephens nailed the quarantine sign on the door.”

“I remember. It was the worst three weeks of my life.”

“Worse than the time that we and our three kids fell through that hole in the space-time continuum and ended up chasing the guy we mistakenly thought was Galileo for twelve days? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Which just proves my point,” Desmond said triumphantly. “We need to spend some serious time doing repairs at the lake house. Anyone could tumble through one of those holes and end up in the fourteenth century.”

Reads like an interview scene, doesn’t it? But Desmond didn’t ask Elaine for a recap of their previous adventures — escapades, one hopes, detailed earlier in the book in the reader’s hand, or in a prequel; they sound as though they would be interesting to see fleshed-out, rather than glossed over anecdotally in dialogue. Nor did Sandra represent herself as not knowing how long they had owned the lake house. They were talking about their vacation plans — so why the sudden plunge into backstory?

Even a reader not much given to questioning the printed word might have been brought up short by this passage, as the narrative itself gave a major clue that something’s wrong with this dialogue. But to Millicent and her ilk, the mere fact that Desmond said, “I remember,” is like a neon sign, flashing HE ALREADY KNOWS THIS! fourteen times per minute.

It’s a touch distracting.

Like pretty much every other over-used narrative devices, Hollywood narration can work effectively, if used in miniscule doses and rarely. Unfortunately for Millicent, manuscripts seldom display the trick sparingly, especially in the openings of novels.

Why do those first few pages tend to be prime display space for Hollywood narration, you ask in all innocence? Because, dear friends, few aspiring writers have the patience to allow backstory to reveal itself over the course of chapters; most want to get it out of the way at once.

This is why, in case those of you who have been haunting literary conferences lately had been wondering, so many agents are prone to advising roomfuls writers not to try to cram the entire premise onto the first page — or, when they choose to express it a trifle more politely, to consider waiting until later in the book to reveal background information. “Don’t tell me everything at once,” they beg. “Let me be surprised.”

Good advice: the first page of a novel doesn’t need to include all of the information in the book’s premise. Confident novelists reveal character and situation over the course of an entire book, rather than within the first few paragraphs.

Was that deafening muttering indicative of some discomfort with that last statement? “But Anne,” masses of reveal-it-up-fronters protest, “in your last post, you told me not to have the characters comment to one another on the first few pages; today, you’re trying to dissuade me from having them talk about what happened before the book began. So how on earth am I to introduce these characters to the reader? Telepathy?”

Good question, up-fronters. (Although you might want to watch the sarcasm when you’re asking me to explain something to you as a favor. Your mother cannot possibly know that you’re that flippant with your teachers.) How about opening the book by placing your characters in the middle of a conflict so engaging — and so central to the plot — that the reader quite longs to stick around to find out more about them?

Just a suggestion. It’s always worked for me.

There are a million other ways to introduce characters, of course. Although Hollywood narration might feel satisfyingly efficient — one way to describe cramming a whole bunch of information into just a few lines of text, I guess — it’s actually one of the weakest kind of opening. So much so that anxious conference-goers are sometimes stunned to hear an agent or editor say that he does not like to see a manuscript to open with dialogue at all.

Before the 2/3rds of you whose manuscripts open with dialogue faint, reach for your heart medication, or frantically revise your first pages, let me hasten to add: what this assertion generally means is that the speaker objects to books that open with precisely the type of dialogue that we’ve been discussing, poor interview scenes and Hollywood narration, not to any dialogue, ever.

“How do you know that?” those of you currently clutching your chests demand.

Experience, mostly — and not just editing experience. One of the things that a savvy writer learns by attending many conferences over the years is that sweeping generalizations tend to be common features of conference-given advice; something about sitting on a dais seems to bring out a desire to lay down all-inclusive axioms.

Another way I know is that I read manuscripts for a living, so I have a pretty darned good idea of just how high a percentage of the submissions agents who express this preference see open with Hollywood narration. Trying to stuff backstory into the first few exchanges is awfully common.

The result is, all too often, unrealistic dialogue — and an opening that feels contrived, as in this glorious example of a first scene. I shan’t put this one in standard format; who would blame you if you gave up after the end of page 1?

”So, Ambrose, how was your work at the paper mill today?” Penelope asked, drying her rough hands on the fraying dishtowel that served her as a makeshift apron.

The burly man shook his head. “Having worked there for fifteen years — one before we married, two more before the twins were born, and five years since our youngest girl, Vivienne, fell off the handlebars of Ambrose Junior’s bike and sustained brain damage, forcing me to quit my beloved teaching job and stay home to help her re-learn basic life skills like walking and chewing gum — I sometimes get sick of the daily grind.”

“Did your boss, the redoubtable Mr. Facinelli, terrify you for the fourth consecutive week by sticking his hand into a working chipper to demonstrate how reliable the shut-off mechanism? Doesn’t he recall the hideous accident that deprived your former foreman, Eldon Wheelford, of the use of his left arm, leaving him embittered and lopsided after that unsuccessful lawsuit against his negligent employer?”

“Which he would have won, had Mr. Facinelli’s rich uncle, the mill owner, not bribed his second cousin, the judge. It probably also didn’t help that the entire jury was made up of mill workers threatened with the loss of their jobs.”

“I wish you would stand up to management more.” Penelope sunk her hands into the bread dough that always seemed to be sitting in a moist ball, ready to knead, on the kitchen table. “But you are my husband, my former high school sweetheart, so I try to be supportive of all you do, just like that time I went down to the police station in the middle of the night in my pink flannel nightgown to bail you and your lifetime best friend, Owen Filch, out after you two drank too much near-beer and stole us the biggest Sequoia in the local national park — renowned for its geysers and the annual migration of the canary finch — for our Christmas tree.”

Ambrose stroked his graying head ruefully. “How could I forget? I had gotten you that nightgown for Valentine’s Day the year that little Fatima, then aged six, played Anne Frank in the school play. I never miss one of her performances — nor, indeed, anything that is important to you or the kids. But since our eldest daughter, the lovely and talented Lulu, won that baton-twirling scholarship to State, I have felt that something was lacking in my life.”

”Why don’t you go downstairs to the workshop you built in the basement with the money from that car-crash settlement? You know how much you enjoy handcrafting animals of the African veldt in balsa wood.”

”What would I do without you, honey?” Ambrose put his arms around her ample form. “I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you, clutching a test tube over a Bunsen burner in Mr. Jones’ chemistry class in the tenth grade. That was when the high school was housed in the old building, you recall, before they had to move us all out for retrofitting.”

”Oh, Ambrose, I’d had a crush on you for six months by then, even though I was going out with my next-door-neighbor, Biff Grimley, at the time! Isn’t it funny how he so suddenly moved back to town, after all those years working as an archeologist in the Sudan?” Ambrose did not respond; he was busy kissing her reddish neck. “But you always were an unobservant boy, as your mother Joanna, all sixty-four years of her, invariably points out when she drops by for her weekly cup of Sanka and leftover cookies from my Tuesday night Episcopalian Women’s Empowerment Group social.”

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme example — but honestly, anyone who has read manuscripts professionally for more than a few weeks has seen narratives almost this bald. Make no mistake: Hollywood narration is telling, not showing in its most easily-identifiable form.

As in Millicent can spot it from a mile away. Or at least within the first line or two.

Like so many transgressions of the show, don’t tell rule, Hollywood narration does provide some definite benefits to the writer who incorporates it. Placing backstory and description in dialogue instead of narrative text is a shorthand technique, a means of allowing the author to skip showing entire scenes — or, even more commonly, to avoid figuring out how to reveal necessary information in a slower, more natural manner.

It is, in short, a trick — which is precisely how a professional reader who has seen it used 500 times this month tends to regard it. Millicent might not see it as necessarily the result of narrative laziness (although it can be that, too), but at least as evidence of a writer’s not being conversant with the many ways a text can convey information to a reader without just coming out and telling him outright.

Is that a thicket of raised hands I see before me, or did half of my readership spontaneously decide to stretch in unison? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “I don’t quite understand. I see Hollywood narration in published novels fairly often, especially in genre works. Hasn’t it become common enough that it’s simply an accepted storytelling convention by now?”

Good question, hand-raisers or stretchers, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days: you are in fact correct that Hollywood narration has become pretty ubiquitous amongst established authors. But that doesn’t mean that an aspiring writer hoping to break into the book-writing biz is going to win friends and influence people in the publishing industry by embracing it. Submission is definitely one time when you shouldn’t be following the crowd in this respect.

That strikes some of you as unfair, doesn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear large numbers of you sputtering, “can you seriously be arguing that dialogue in movies, on TV shows, and in books first published in English aren’t indicative of what an agent might be looking to find in my novel? How is that possible, when I can find such dialogue on the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble right now?”

I’m betting that the examples you so long to wave at me, oh objectors, are not first novels by North American writers who landed their North American agents within the last five years — and for the sake of this particular discussion, the dialogue in no other books can possibly be relevant. In order to be successful, an aspiring writer’s manuscript usually has to be quite a bit better than what’s currently on the shelves, at least on average.

Why? Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along with me now: the standards governing established authors — i.e., those who already have published books — is considerably less stringent than those agents tend to apply to the manuscripts submitted by writers seeking representation. Established authors have, after all, already demonstrated that their work can charm at least a few people at publishing houses, if not droves of book-buying readers. A new writer, by contrast, is effectively asking an agent to take a chance on her talent without that kind of a track record.

Speaking of relevant backstory.

Setting aside this marketing reality, however, it’s still a good idea to minimize Hollywood narration in your manuscripts — and not just because relying on it in your opening pages is usually a pretty good way to alienate Millicent’s affection for your storyline darned quick. Readers tend to have a pretty good ear for dialogue; exchanges that might pass muster when spoken by a gifted actor — whose job, after all, is to make lines read plausibly — don’t always ring true to readers. And dialogue that doesn’t ring true, unavoidably, makes it harder for the reader to suspend her disbelief and sink into the world of the story.

Give it a bit of thought, please. Your readers will thank you for it.

Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XXII: letting a few of those darlings live to see another day


Throughout this series on Frankenstein manuscripts — which, should anyone be joining us late, is a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style; 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 consistent authorial voice — I’ve been asking you to examine your texts very closely. And with good reason: since every writer has different ways of slowing down or speeding up text, it’s vitally important to examine your own manuscript to learn what yours are.

We’ve been talking a great deal, in short, about what to take out of a manuscript. Today, I would like to discuss what to leave in, or even what you might want to add.

And the masses rejoice! “Oh, that’s such a relief, Anne,” burnt-out revisers shout from every corner of the globe. “Here I’ve been working my fingers to the elbow, excising redundant text, spicing up my dialogue, and, of course, getting rid of all of those ands, all the while steeling myself for the inevitable moment when you would talk me into axing my favorite sentences and phrases. Because, after all, we’ve all been told time and time again to kill your darlings. But may I, kind lady, dare hope that you’re going to tell me to keep them instead?”

Oh, you poor dears — no wonder you’ve been quivering in your boots. How could you not be, when writing teachers all over North America have been shouting at their students to axe their favorite bits of prose since practically the moment the classic piece of advice fell out of Dorothy Parker’s well-rouged lips sometime during Prohibition?

Well, I’m not going to do it. While a willingness to consider cutting even one’s pet bits is indeed a useful trait in a self-editor, in my experience, most talented writers — published and as-yet-to-be-published alike — actually have a pretty good sense about the little things that shine in their manuscripts. They may not be right that all of the pretty bits are indispensable to the story they are telling, but they usually know which sentences sing.

You have at least a visceral sense of what I’m talking about, right? Those telling little details, original, fresh, surprising specifics that bring joy to the eyes of agents, editors, and contest judges when they appear nestled in a manuscript — particularly on the first page of the text, where they act like miniature neon signs reading, “Hello? This one can WRITE!” causing Millicent to sit up straight for perhaps the first time that screening day and cry, “By gum, maybe I should NOT toss this one into the rejection pile.”

As lovely as eliciting this reaction is, there is more to catching a professional reader’s attention than a charming and detailed first page, I’m afraid. Of course, it’s a necessary first step to that reader’s moving on eagerly to the second, and the third, and so forth. Yet an initial good impression is not enough, however much writing teachers emphasize the importance of including an opening hook: as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before in this series, in order to wow an agent into asking to see the entire manuscript, or into reading the entirety of the one you’ve already sent, the impressive writing needs to continue consistently throughout.

Ah, some of you formerly joyous revisers have wilted a bit, haven’t you, under the realization that keeping your favorite writing may require more work than cutting it wholesale? “But Anne,” you whimper, “how can a revising writer tell if the proportion of telling little details falls off throughout a manuscript enough to harm the narrative? More importantly for submission purposes, what density of telling details is enough to continue pleasing a professional reader’s eye?”

Excellent questions both, revisers: we’re all aware that the answer to the first is not necessarily the answer to the second, right? The first is largely a matter of personal style, after all, as well as the narrative expectations of a particular book category. Some writers wrangle generalizations better than others. Generally speaking, though, the higher the proportion of exquisite detail to generalization, the more literary the writing; the more summary statements predominate, the lower the expected reading level of the audience.

And if the three repetitions of general in those last two paragraphs drove you crazy, I’m proud of you. You’ve been doing your editing homework.

In answer to the indignant collective gasp I heard echoing about the cosmos just a moment ago, literary is not simply a synonym for high-quality when we’re talking about writing. Let’s face it, there is plenty of good fiction writing that isn’t literary fiction — and plenty of excellent writing that isn’t literary. Just as the various striations of YA presume specific reading levels, literary fiction assumes a college-educated audience, or at any rate readers with a college-level vocabulary.

Thus, literary fiction is a book category, not a value judgment. It is possible, however, to bring a literary voice to other book categories — one sees literary-voiced memoir (like, for instance, Barbara Robinette Moss’ extraordinary CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER from time to time, and many breakout novels are literary-voiced genre works.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a highly literary voice would be appropriate to every book category — or indeed, to every story. Only you, as author, can decide the best voice for your story, but in order to figure out the detail/generalization level appropriate to your book category, you can pick up some external clues.

How? By keeping up with the market in your chosen field, of course. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: unless you are willing to read recent releases in your chosen book category — as opposed to what was coming out five or ten years ago — you’re going to have a much harder time querying, submitting, and yes, revising your own work.

Why, you ask? Because you won’t know what the current expectations and conventions are.

Case in point: detail vs. summary statements. Think about it: could you really get away with a summary sentence like, “She had legs that stretched all the way from here to Kalamazoo,” in a genre other than hardboiled mystery, bless its abstraction-loving fan base? (All right, I’ll admit it: one of the all-time best compliments I have ever received came from a writer of hardboiled; he commented on a dress I was wearing by telling me, “You look like trouble in a B movie.” I shall continue to cherish that to my grave.)

That’s one of the many, many reasons agents and editors tend to expect aspiring and published writers alike to read a whole lot of recently-published books within the category they write, in case any of you conference-goers out there had been wondering: to gain a working sense of the abstract/concrete statement ratio habitual readers of that type of book will expect to see.

Some other popular reasons for keeping up with the latest releases: learning what that particular readership likes, figuring out what is and isn’t appropriate vocabulary for that specific readership, gaining currency with what’s being published right now, rather than in, say, 1858, and other practical benefits.

I’m hearing a few of you sniffing disdainfully. Yes? “But Anne, none of this can possibly apply to me or my manuscript. My book is ART, you see: it is totally original. It cannot be forced into an artificial category.”

I can understand why you might feel that way, oh sniffers, but I have a news flash for you: there’s no such thing as a published book in the United States market that doesn’t fall into a particular book category, no matter how genre-busting it may be. It’s simply how agents, publishers, and booksellers think of books. (If that is indeed news to you, and for some tips on figuring out which conceptual container might best house your manuscript for marketing purposes, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the archive list at right.)

Because that’s the case, the pros’ eyes tend to glaze over whenever an aspiring writer refuses — or even hesitates — to say to which category his manuscript belongs. To them, that just sounds like, you guessed it, a lack of familiarity with the current book market.

It’s not enough, though, to have a general (there’s that word again!) sense of what kind of writing is currently highly regarded in your chosen book category. You also need to get a feel for your own personal style. Before you can decide where you want to pitch your manuscript on the detail scale, you need to figure out where the telling details already tend congregate in your work — and where they do not, so you may work toward overall voice consistency.

Which brings us right back to close textual analysis, doesn’t it? Funny how that worked out. Whip out your trusty marking pens, campers, and try this experiment:

1. Print out three chapters of your manuscript: the first, one from the middle, and one toward the end of the book.

Don’t use the final chapter; most writers polish that one automatically, doubtless the effect of our high school English teachers making us read the final pages of THE GREAT GATSBY so often. Second or third from the end will give you a better idea of your voice when you’re trying to wind things up.

Do print out Chapter 1, though, because if Millicent reads any of them at all, she will start there.

2. Make yourself comfy someplace where you will not be disturbed for a few hours, and start reading.

Easier said than done, of course, especially for those of you with young children gladdening your daily lives, but this isn’t relaxation: this is work. So don’t you dare feel guilty about taking the time to pore over your prose.

Yes, I know: your three-year-old will not be all that impressed that I said so. But you owe it to your writing to get to know your own voice.

3. While you are reading, highlight in nice, bright yellow every time the narrative gives information about a character in summary form.

Yes, this will be a phenomenal amount of work, but I’m deadly serious about this. Mark everything from Angelique felt envious to Maxine was a shop welder of immense proportions to “Zeb was a compassionate soul, drawn to injured children, limping dogs, and soup kitchens.”

4. Now use a different color of pen — red is nice — to underline any character-revealing information that the narrative conveys indirectly, through specific detail or speeches that demonstrate a characteristic or an environment that is reflective of a character’s internal mood.

Remember, you are not judging the quality of the sentences here — what you are looking for are passages that encourage the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about what the character is like, rather than simply stating it as a fact. To revisit the trio from above, red-marked sentences might include:

Unable to contain herself, Angelique surreptitiously poked her rival with a pin, or

Maxine’s broad shoulders barely fit through the doors to her metal shop, or even

Zeb was late for work again, having been sidetracked by a child’s scraped knee, a search for the same little girl’s lost cocker spaniel, and the absolute necessity to track down and fund the homeless person he had been forced to overlook yesterday because he’d already given away the last dollar in his pocket.

Beginning to see some patterns here? Good. Now your manuscript is color-coded to tell you at a glance what your summary statement/telling detail ratio is, how consistent is your narrative being about preserving those proportions?

That’s a big concept to get your mind around, I know. While you’re pondering, let’s get back to that colorful text.

5. Now that you’ve identified these different species of sentences, double-check immediately before and after the indirect indicators in red for summary statements telling the reader precisely how these dandy little details should be interpreted. Circle those in a third color — let’s say green, and complete the Rastafarian triumvirate.

Such summaries tend to lurk in the environs of telling details — usually unnecessarily, as telling details by definition speak for themselves. You may find them elsewhere, naturally, but these will be the easiest to spot.

6. For each green-marked sentence, ask yourself, “Self, is this summary absolutely necessary here, or does the indirect statement cover what I wanted to say? Could it in fact be cut, and would the manuscript be both shorter and better for it?”

Applied consistently, this question can strip a lot of unnecessary verbiage from a manuscript relatively painlessly. It’s a good strategy to know, because it’s often difficult for a writer to notice redundancy on a page he has written himself — from a writerly perspective, saying something in two different ways often just looks like creative emphasis.

Or — and this is more common — the writer may not trust the reader to draw the correct conclusion from the more delicate indirect clues, and so rush to provide the logical extrapolation. But readers are pretty smart, especially those lovers of good writing (in every sense) who dote on telling little details.

Again, that’s not to say that specifics should trump generalities every time. Abstract statements that bottom-line a character’s ever-changing array of feelings, thoughts, and actions (Eileen was morose, Teddy was sexy, Elvira was a tall, cool hunk of woman, etc.) can save a lot of time in a narrative, quickly providing the reader a sense of what’s going on and who is doing it.

Sometimes, that can come in very handy. In a scene where the action is pretty mundane, a swift summary statement like Bernadette spent the next fifteen hours yawning her way through book shelving can act like a fast-forward button for the narration.

The effect can be even greater when there is a lot going on. When an action scene suddenly requires fifteen thugs to jump Our Hero, describing each one individually and in a nuanced manner would slow the scene down to a crawl — which, inevitably, would convey the impression that O.H. is being beaten up in slow motion.

Fast-paced action deserves fast-paced narration, short, tense sentences that get the blood pumping. Short, to-the-point summary statements (Edmund ducked sideways. The anvil thudded into the wall behind him. may well serve the scene better than long, lyrical, detail-rich ones (As Edmund veered sideways, the rush of air by his ear, percussive and harsh, reminded him of that long-ago summer of fireflies and BB guns, unwashed berry juice climbing up to his elbows after braving the bees for an afternoon’s blackberrying. Funny, how something as dangerous as an anvil flung at his head could awaken such long-dormant memories.

Yes, the second set was prettier — but which would work best for this SPECIFIC action scene in this SPECIFIC story, told in this SPECIFIC voice?

By contrast, concrete characterization statements depict what a character is saying, doing, feeling, and so forth in a particular moment. In a story told primarily through concrete statements — and again, writing with a high concrete/abstract ratio is considered more stylistically polished — the narrative expects the reader to draw conclusions about what characters are like based upon an array of specific actions, feelings, words, and so forth, rather than simply providing a summary statement.

Does that distinction sound at all familiar? It should: this is yet another manifestation of everyone’s favorite writing bugbear, the difference between showing and telling.

Yet constructing an effective narrative is not as simple as eschewing the latter and embracing the former. Obviously, every manuscript ever produced needs both abstract and concrete statements. Because, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a chapter, paragraph, or even sentence that’s appropriate for every book in which the creative mind might choose to have it appear.

Context matters — and so does book category.

Avoiding summary statements wherever possible may serve a high-end women’s fiction writer very well, for example, but actually harm certain types of genre novel. The rash of semicolons that might make an academic book look learned is unlikely to fly in a Western — but you’d be surprised how much more acceptable it would be in a science fiction novel. And while those of us devoted to literary fiction do occasionally marvel at a story intended exclusively for a college-educated readership written in very simple language, the vocabulary range of most literary fiction is quite different from that of well-written YA.

But you knew that already, right?

And don’t even get me started on how much more acceptable rampant summary statements are in most types of nonfiction than in fiction. Memoirs in particular tend to rely upon them pretty heavily. Why? Well, as a reader, how eager are you to hear every detail of what happened to even a very interesting real-life narrator over a two-year period? If a memoirist steers too clear of abstract statements like Auntie Mame’s famous My puberty was bleak, she’s going to end up expending quite a bit of precious page space on illustrating just how bleak it was, right?

So much for my carefully non-judgmental speech on the subject of abstract vs. concrete statements. That being said, however, it is worth noting that on any given reading day, your garden-variety Millicent sees a whole lot more summary sentences in the course of any given day of manuscript-screening than concrete ones.

Which, obviously, can render a genuinely original telling detail quite a refreshment for weary professional eyes. So, generally speaking (ooh, there’s that pesky word again), if you can increase the frequency with which such concrete details appear, you’ll be better off in most types of submission.

Ready to take gander at the ratio in the manuscript you’ve been submitting — or are planning to submit to professional scrutiny anytime soon? Fantastic. Let’s go back to dig up those yellow, red, and green pages from above. But this time, grab a fourth color of pen –- how would you feel about embracing something in the purple family?

7. Mark all the sentences where your protagonist (or any other character whose thoughts are audible to the reader) THINKS a response to something that has just happened, instead of saying it aloud or the narrative’s demonstrating the reaction indirectly.

Remember, you’re not judging the quality of writing by determining what to highlight, or sentencing any given observation to the chopping block by marking it. You are simply making patterns in the text more visible.

These kinds of sentences are hard to show out of context, so let me mark up a bit of text for you. The sentences destined for purple overcoats are in caps:


WHY WASN’T HE ANSWERING? “What’s wrong?” Nanette asked, rubbing her tennis-sore ankles. “Are you feeling sick to your stomach again?”


Everyone clear on the distinction we’re making here? Excellent. Now humor me a little and dig up a fifth color of pen — blue, anyone?

8. Mark any sentence where your protagonist’s reactions are conveyed through bodily sensation of some sort. Or depicted by the world surrounding him, or through some other concrete detail.

You’re probably going to find yourself re-marking some of the red sentences from #4, but plow ahead nevertheless, please. Starting to notice some narrative patterns? Expressing character reaction via physicality or projection is a great way to raise the telling little detail quota in your manuscripts.

Does this advice seem familiar? It should, for those of you who regularly attend writing workshops or have worked with an editor. It is generally expressed by the terse marginal admonition, “Get out of your character’s head!”

I wish feedback-givers would explain this advice more often; too many writers read it as an order to prevent their characters from thinking. But that’s not what get out of your character’s head! means, at least not most of the time. Generally (ooh!), it’s an editor’s way of TELLING the writer to stop telling the reader about the character’s emotional responses through dialogue-like thought. Instead, (these feedback-givers suggest) SHOW the emotion through details like bodily sensation, noticing a significant detail in the environment that highlights the mood, or…

Well, you get the picture. It’s yet another way that editors bark at writers, “Hey, you: show, don’t tell!”

What will happen to your manuscript if you take this advice to heart? Well, among other things, it will probably be more popular with professional readers like our old pal, Millicent — because, believe me, protagonists who think rather than feel the vast majority of the time disproportionately people the novels submitted to agencies and publishing houses.

And when I say vast majority of the time, I mean in practically every submission they receive.
To put it bluntly, a novel or memoir that conveys protagonist response in ways other than thought a significant proportion of the time will at very least enjoy the advantage of surprise.

Why are characters who think their responses — essentially summarizing what they might have said or done in response instead of saying or doing it — so very common, especially in memoir? One theory is that we writers are so often rather quiet people, more given to thinking great comebacks than saying them out loud. (A girl’s best friend is her murmur, as Dorothy Parker used to say.)

Or maybe we just think our protagonists will be more likable if they think nasty things about their fellow characters, rather than saying them out loud. That, or there are a whole lot of writers out there whose English teachers made them read HAMLET one too many times, causing them to contract Chronic Soliloquization Disorder.

Whichever it is, Millicent would be happier about most submissions in practically every book category if they exhibited this type of writing less. Done with care, avoiding long swathes of thought need not stifle creative expression.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s revisit our little scene of domestic tranquility from above, this time grounding the characters’ reactions in the flesh and the room:

By the time Nanette was midway through her enthusiastic account of the office party, Zachary’s stomach had tied itself into the Gordian knot. The collected swords of every samurai in the history of Japan would have been helpless against it.

“Zach!” Nanette’s back snapped into even greater perpendicularity to her hard chair. “You’re not listening. Upset tummy again?”

He could barely hear her over the ringing of his ears. He could swear he heard their well-manicured lawn creeping up the doorstep to smother them in seductive normalcy. The very wallpaper seemed to be gasping in horror at the prospect of having to live here any longer. “I just had a long day at work.”

See the difference? The essentials are still here, just expressed in a less obviously thought-based manner. The narrative’s gotten out of the characters’ heads — and stepped right into their bodies.

Go back and take another look at your marked-up manuscript. How blue is it? How heavy purple is that prose? (Sorry; I couldn’t resist setting you up for that one.)

No, but seriously, it’s a good question: all of the types of sentence you just identified are in fact necessary to a successful narrative, so ideally, you have ended up with a very colorful sheaf of paper. Using too many of one type or another, believe it or not, can be boring for the reader, just as using the same sentence structure over and over lulls the eye into skimming.

If you doubt this, try reading a government report sometime. One declarative sentence after another can be stultifying for the reader.

The telling details of your manuscript will be nestled in those red- and blue-marked sentences – note how frequently they appear in your chapters. If you find more than half a page of yellow and/or purple between patches of darker colors, you might want to go back and mix up your abstract/concrete ratio more.

If you find any pages that are entirely yellow and/or purple, I would suggest running, not walking, to the nearest used bookstore, buying three or four battered paperback editions of books that sell well in your chosen genre, and carting them home to perform the five-marker experiment on them. Could you revise your manuscript so that the color ratio in it replicates that in those books?

Yes, this is a time-consuming exercise, now that you mention it. A test like this is rather nerve-wracking to apply to your own work, but it’s a great way to start getting in the habit of being able to see your pages as someone who does not know you might. (If you want to get a REALLY clear sense of it, trade chapters with a writer you trust, and apply the same experiment.)

At the end of it all, however, you will have a much, much clearer idea of what your narrative voice sounds like — not only at its best and worst, but when it is just trying to do its job. You’ll gain a sense of what it sounds like when you’re tired or excited, trying desperately to get a thought down before it vanishes or having the time to allow your words to revel in their own beauty.

Once you gain that working sense of your own voice, editing your own work will become easier. You’ll be able to spot the telltale signs that the narrative has slipped away from it; you may even come to feel the drift before the words hit the page. It sounds like magic, but it isn’t: it’s narrative consistency.

What does all of this have to do with saving your darlings? Plenty. Just think about it: how wonderful would it be if your best writing did not jump out at the reader because the entire manuscript was that good?

A lovely thought, isn’t it? Your darlings will be comfortable housed in a strong, sure narrative; they may — and this happens more than one might think — be your pets because they are already written in your personal narrative voice.

But you won’t know that for sure until you know your voice inside out, will you? Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XVIII: were you leading up to a point, Chatty Cathy? Or just killing some time with conversation?

chatty cathy doll

When last we met, I was urging you, through the oh-so-subtle means of inundating you with example after example, into an appreciation of just how annoying redundant, non-character-revealing, or just plain dull dialogue can be to someone who reads manuscripts for hours on end. Like, say, Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge.

Why bring this up in the midst of an ongoing series on self-editing a Frankenstein manuscript? Well, several reasons. First — and it pains me to tell you this — more otherwise well-written submissions and contest entries drop precipitously in M & M’s respective esteems due to lackluster dialogue than is generally believed. Due to the pervasiveness of this phenomenon (and we’re gearing up for the second reason here), typically, one of the quickest, easiest ways to cut length off an over-long manuscript is to track down and excise the ordinary, everyday dialogue, the chatter that neither advances the plot, creates interesting conflict in the moment, or reveals character.

How can I state that so confidently? Because almost every writer who has taken an English composition course was told repeatedly that good dialogue should sound real, the average novel or memoir manuscript overflows with dialogue that’s apparently there simply because people say those types of things.

Which is not to say that striving to make your dialogue realistic is bad writing advice. It’s very good advice — but what the vast majority of composition teachers should have added immediately thereafter yet did not was an explanation that real-sounding dialogue and the things that people actually say in real life are not the same thing.

The former rings true on the page; while the latter can sometimes be very interesting, it can also lull the reader into a deep, deep slumber. Trust me, when people talk about an author with a good ear for dialogue, they’re referring to someone who consistently produces real-sounding dialogue, not someone who simply holds a microphone up to life and records the unedited results on the page.

Of course, we writers 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 likely to occur 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:

“Oh,” Babette said. “You’re home.”

Rufus nursed the thumb the dodo trod upon earlier. “Yeah.”

“Have a nice day?”


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

“Yeah. We sure got wet that day.“

“Ham sound good for dinner?”


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?

Ordinary dialogue makes her especially antsy — again, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but if I don’t, who will? — on page 1. And that’s unfortunate, since this kind of chat is quite popular in the opening pages of manuscripts.

Why would the dialogue above have annoyed Millicent? Well, cast your eyes over it and tell me: what’s going on here? What is this story about? Who are these people, and why are 7 of the 10 opening lines of this story wasted on dialogue that doesn’t even begin to answer any of these questions?

Already, I see some hands raised out there in the ether. “But Anne,” writers of the real everywhere protest, and who can blame them? “It’s unfair to assume that every reader, even professional ones, would be turned off by the example above, even if it did appear on page 1. I think that Millicent and Mehitabel would be intrigued by its very terseness; I believe it would render them more likely to keep reading, not less, if only to find out what’s going on. I, for one, want to hear more about that dodo bite.”

I’m glad you brought that up, mythical hand-raisers, because the strategy of withholding basic information from the reader in an opening scene in order to create curiosity about what is to come is a suspense-building technique popular only with aspiring writers. Established writers soon learn not to do it, for the exceedingly simple reason that professional readers like Millicent, Mehitabel, and even Maury, Millie’s cousin who works as an editorial assistant at a publishing house, tend not to find this kind of opening titillating.

How do they regard it? Negatively, almost always. There’s even a term for it: false suspense.

That’s also the term for 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.

I’m not here to talk about plotting today, however — but don’t worry; I’ll be coming back to it later in this series. For now, suffice it to say that even if you are one of those writers who absolutely adores reproducing everyday speech down to the last grunt and hesitation, you might want to keep those mundanities off of page 1 of your submission. Or page 2. Or, really, out of the opening chapter.

You wouldn’t want Millicent, Mehitabel, or Maury to mistake your submission for the hundreds of thousands of others that don’t have as good an ear for dialogue as you do, right?

As a general revision guideline for any page of the manuscript, 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.

I’ll admit it: my fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and early in my career, 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.

But I apply a slightly different twist to it. For each line of dialogue, I ask myself: Is this here because it needs to be, or just because it’s something a character like this would say? In memoir and reality-based fiction, it can indeed be there simply because someone actually did say it — but is this particular line essential to the story being told here? And regardless of whether it’s a quote or not, if it isn’t either plot-advancing, character-revealing, or interesting in its own right, does it really need to be on the page at all?

Why, yes, you’re right, everyone who just grabbed the nearest sofa cushion and screamed into it: that is an awfully high standard to apply to every single line of dialogue in a manuscript. Your point?

To help the rest of you understand why your fellow readers felt faint at the mere thought of placing their manuscripts under that powerful a microscope, let’s take a gander at a species of dialogue gets under your garden-variety Millicent’s skin like wet sand under a swimsuit: the de facto monologue.

You know, the kind of ostensible dialogue that involves one character talking about something, while the other character doesn’t really add much to the conversation. It tends to run a little something like this:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Antoinette fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car.”

“Yeah,” Steve replied.

“You can say that again. I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization of Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Did you see how surprised he was that we left?”


“I’ll bet you did. You don’t suppose his telling me that women don’t know anything about cars is his standard sales technique, do you? Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

“No.” Steve was crawling into the passenger seat via the smashed back window. “I imagine not.”

Antoinette dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it?”

“Could be.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? You think I’m blaming the victims?”

“I never said that.”

“Anyway,” she concluded after she had successfully hot-wired the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition, “I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Steve murmured, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

I ask you: what purpose is Steve serving in this conversation, other than providing validation, the opposite of conflict? And if he isn’t in the scene for any other reason, why doesn’t he just shut up and let Sandy blurt out her entire speech, instead of adding line after excisable line of mostly colorless dialogue?

Not to mention repetitious. We all know by this juncture, I hope, how Millicent and her ilk feel about that in a submission: “Next!”

Even if you find none of those excellent arguments for revision convincing, there’s another, quite practical one you might want to consider. Just look, self-editors concerned about the fact that your manuscript is 40 pages longer than the expected length for a first book in your category, at how much shorter this scene would be if it were presented as an actual monologue:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Antoinette fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car. I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization of Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Saying that women don’t know anything about cars is sure a lousy sales technique. Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

While Steve crawled into the passenger seat via the smashed back window, she dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. She set about hot-wiring the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition.

“Or maybe it’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it?” The engine roared. “Bingo, baby! I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Steve murmured, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

See? Steve’s silence makes his unwillingness to argue every bit as clear as his bland continual agreement did above. So what would have been the payoff for retaining his chatter?

Perhaps more to the point, if such lightly-disguised monologues provide neither character development, interesting inter-character conflict, nor, frankly, many sentences worth preserving for posterity, why are they so very popular with aspiring writers? Expediency, mostly: there’s no denying that having a protagonist, villain, or crucial minor character suddenly hold forth like Hamlet is a mighty efficient way to convey information to a reader.

But from the professional reader’s point of view, this use of page space is not efficient at all: it’s the narrative equivalent of having a play’s lead excuse himself to the other characters mid-scene, walk to the edge of the stage, and say, “Look, I really don’t have time to convey everything you need to know in dramatic form, so I’m simply going to tell you what would have happened in the next couple of scenes if we had bothered to stage them, okay?”

It’s not okay, at least according to Millicent. She’s reading your manuscript partially in order to find out how you tell a story — is it honestly in your interest to make her read through filler before reaching your best writing?

Ditto with dialogue that repeats what the reader already knows, as in that archetype of easily cut-able scenes, the one where the protagonist tells another character what happened in a previous scene. As in what the reader has just read. This might be defensible if the protagonist were adding a new twist on the information, but most of the time, s/he recaps the information exactly as the reader has already experienced it because — you can see this coming, can’t you? — it’s what a reasonable person might do in real life.

How easily cut-able are such scenes, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: it’s rare that an accurate retelling, even one that takes up pages of text, could not be summed up in a single sentence: Sheila ran back to the classroom and told everyone what had happened.

Here’s an axiom for the ages: by definition, redundant text adds nothing new to a narrative. It merely takes up space.

That answer didn’t mollify some of you reality-huggers, did it? “But Anne, isn’t realism valuable in and of itself? I know plenty of people who effectively have their own catchphrases.”

As do I, as it happens. In fact, I recently enjoyed a long, gossipy conversation with a very old friend of mine with a very distinctive speech pattern: she says, “Like I said…” every other minute or so. In a long anecdote — to which she is quite addicted, as a world traveler with unusual tastes in traveling companions — she often uses this phrase ten or fifteen times.

Since we grew up together, you would think I would know where she had picked up this rare trope, but I don’t; it’s an adult acquisition. We have both wandered far from home, evidently. But still, you’d think I would have some inkling as to its origin: she and I were so closely allied in high school that at her wedding, both her father AND her uncle spent 45 minutes grilling my boyfriend about his prospects and intentions toward me.

You might say that we come from a close-knit community.

Our hometown does in fact have a distinct speech pattern, a mixture of the lilt remaining when a small town in Switzerland (cow and wine country) picked up and became a small town in California (wine and cow country), certain Mexican-influenced words, a smattering of barrel-related French, and a linguistically inexplicable tendency to pronounce “mirror” as “meer.” Being a farming community (the aforementioned wine), of course, certain agricultural tropes abound in season, such as, “How about this rain? Sure do need it,” “The grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), “Did you hear that bears have been at Farmer X’s grapes?” (true, incidentally; brown bears like expensive fruit), and “Damned drunken tourists have been at my vines again. They think every grape in sight is a free sample.”

But “like I said,” no. So I ask you: would it or would it not be a good means of revealing the background of a character from my home town to incorporate it repeatedly in the text? What about using it as that character’s personal catchphrase?

Pardon my asking, but what precisely would it reveal about her character — other than the not-very-interesting fact that she uses this phrase often? If it does not add anything to the dialogue other than repetition, what possible incentive could I have to reproduce this verbal tick except so readers who already knew the person upon whom the fictional (or memoir) character was based would recognize her?

Is that honestly a good enough reason to bore all of those potential readers who have never had the pleasure of making her acquaintance? Would those excellent souls gain anything but chagrin out of my fidelity in reproducing a rather annoying true-life speech pattern on the page?

The answer to all of those seemingly rhetorical questions was no, by the way. The fact that a real-life person a writer has chosen to use as a character in a book really speaks repetitively does not justify forcing the reader to put up with it.

Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of the phrases that actually were typical of my home town, real-life tropes that actual people say bloody often in my native neck of the woods. Chant it with me now: they would be DEADLY dull in written dialogue.

As would a character who constantly punctuated her personal stories with “like I said…” Or indeed, almost any of the small talk which acquaintances exchange when they bump into one another at the grocery store. Take this sterling piece of Americana, overheard in Sunshine Foods in my hometown not so long ago:

Mrs. Price: “See you got some sun today, Rosemary.”

Mrs. Darter: “I was picking peaches. Sure is a great crop this year. How did your dentist appointment go?”

Mrs. Price: (Laughs.) “The dentist won’t be buying his new boat on my dime. Was that the Mini girl who just dashed by?”

Mrs. Darter: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) Could be. Haven’t seen her for a while. She’s not married yet, is she?”

Mrs. Price: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie.

Dr. Mini: Oh, hello, Mrs. Price. Hello, Mrs. Darter.

Mrs. Darter: I haven’t seen you in a long time, dear. Moving back to town, I hope?

Mrs. Price: Or just visiting friends who have been loyal enough to return to the town that nurtured them as babes?”

Dr. Mini: (Seeking escape route.) How’s your son, Mrs. Price? I haven’t seen him since high school. (Murmurs to significant other, covered by Mrs. A’s lengthy description of the relative heights, ages, and weights of her grandchildren.) Thank God.

Mrs. Darter: And how’s your mother?

Dr. Mini: Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you both.

Mrs. Price: Give my regards to your mother. Tell her that we hope to see her soon.

Dr. Mini: (Wheeling cart away.) I will. Remember me to (thinks hard) Bobby.

Mrs. Price: Well?

Mrs. Darter: (Sighing.) Still no wedding ring.

Mrs. Price: Just wait until I tell Bobby. At least he’ll be pleased.

Okay, what’s wrong with this scene as dialogue on the page, over and above its repetition? You can hardly fault this exchange for verisimilitude — it not only is a transcript of an actual conversation, but it sounds like one, literary traits that do not, as I mentioned, necessarily go hand-in-hand — but it’s missing something, right? Any guesses, wild or otherwise?

Give yourself three gold stars if you yelled, “Well, it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? Who are these people as individuals, as opposed to representatives of a collective small-town mentality? And why oh why do we learn so little about Bobby?”

See it now? This exchange might as well have been said by actors, rather than specific people with personal quirks. Granted, as is, it might tell you a little something about the spying capability of my home town’s feared and respected Little Old Lady Mafia, but it doesn’t tell you much about the speakers as human beings, or our relative positions within society.

And if there was a plot (other than to get me married off to someone with whom I might produce more little winemakers, a quest that is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’life. (But trust me, you don’t want to know more about Bobby. His character strikes me as inherently hostile to development.)

More to the point of this series, the boring bits of this ripped-from-reality dialogue would be significantly more difficult to edit out of a manuscript than a linguistic trope such as my old pal’s “like I said…” Cutting the latter would a particularly easy edit, not only because the writer could simply use the FIND function in word to excise it, but because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice).

But reworking the exchange above to render it snappy? That would take an almost complete rewrite. Nevertheless, one of the best places for a self-editor to start looking to trim manuscript fat — or even eliminate entire scenes — is generally in scenes taken directly from real life. Most writers cut-worthy include elements in such scenes simply because it happened that way, not because those elements or lines of dialogue add crucial elements to the scene.

To put it bluntly, blandness tends to linger in reality — and that’s potentially problematic at the submission stage. To paraphrase one of Millicent’s most frequent exclamations, via a quote from Nietzsche: “Against boredom, even the gods struggle in vain.”

While I think we can all agree Nietzsche would have made a lousy agency screener — and an even worse agent — his observation might be a good adage to bear in mind while preparing your manuscripts for submission. For one very simple reason: some screeners and contest judges’ maximum tolerance for boredom in a manuscript is well under a minute.

So if you’ve ever heard yourself saying, “Just wait until page 15; it really picks up there,” you might want to give some thought to how to make your submissions more user-friendly for a reader with the attention span of an unusually persistent mosquito. Not that every Millicent, Mehitabel, or Maury would stop reading that quickly — but enough of them would that it just doesn’t make strategic sense to take a chance.

Especially on page 1. Had I mentioned that?

Oh, seven or eight times? Funny, I hadn’t noticed. Keep up the good work!