“Thanks for the cookies Millicent,” “What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” and other easily-averted holiday faux pas

This time of year, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver sees it all the time: a reason to move otherwise good girls and boys from the Nice to the Naughty list. Yet often, as both he and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, know only too well, the difference between a properly-punctuated sentence and one that is, well, not, lies in a simple slip of the writer’s finger — or lack of one. Take a gander at the type of hastily-scrawled note that often greets our St. Nick.

Hello Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy. Wow do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

No wonder the otherwise jolly elf weeps at the sight: clearly, the Punctuation Vacuum has beaten him to this household. Either that, or Janie has really, really lazy fingers. The note he had expected to see nestled next to a plate of cookies would have read like this:

Hello, Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy. Wow, do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

Let me guess: to many, if not most of you, these two notes are essentially identical: the words are the same, right, so the meaning must be? That’s an understandable interpretation, given how often we all now see direct address and exclamation commas omitted all the time. Indeed, some modes of electronic expression, such as news program bottom-of-the-screen crawls and Twitter, seem actively to discourage proper punctuation.

But that doesn’t make it right. Santa’s a stickler for rules.

As it happens, so are Millicent and those of us who edit for a living. Punctuation matters to us — and, frankly, folks in publishing tend to laugh when aspiring writers express the astonishingly pervasive opinion that it doesn’t.

Why the ho, ho, ho? Well, leaving aside the perfectly reasonable proposition that one of the basic requirements of a professional writer is the consistent production of clearly expressed, grammatically correct prose, in some cases, improper punctuation can alter a sentence’s meaning.

And that, boys and girls, can only harm self-expression. Take, for instance, the two faux pas in the title of this post.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Most readers would assume, as those of you who didn’t notice that commas had been purloined from Janie’s original note probably did, that what she actually meant to say was this:

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof? Reindeer?

That’s not what the first versions actually said, though, was it? Basically, Janie operated on a presumption evidently shared by an amazingly high percentage of queriers, literary contest entrants, and manuscript submitters: that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the author probably meant, not the writer’s job to express it so clearly that there would be no question.

In practice, most of us are perfectly willing to translate casual communications into more comprehensible prose, at least mentally. People often tap out or scrawl notes in a hurry, or, since the advent of mobile electronic devices, under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s relatively safe, then, to presume that your third-best friend will understand if that text message you sent while hanging upside down from the monkey bars omitted a comma or two.

Writing intended for publication is expected to adhere to a higher standard, however: even an editor wowed by the sentiments expressed in that last set of examples would not seriously consider publishing them without revision. Although the rise of on-screen editing has increased the number of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors that slip through editorial fingers and onto the printed page — nit-picks are significantly harder to catch on a backlit screen than in hard copy — no one who reads for a living would believe for a second that clarity and proper punctuation don’t matter. A manuscript that seems to imply that the writer believes they are unimportant not only is unlikely to impress a pro — to an experienced agent or editor, it simply screams that this is a writer who will require extra time, effort, and, yes, proofreading.

Why might that harm your submission’s chances? Think about it: if the agent of your dreams already has 127 clients, who is his Millicent more likely to regard as a viable candidate for #128, the writer who expects her to guess whether What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer? means what it literally says, or the writer whose prose is so clear that she’s not left in any doubt?

Remember, too, that your garden-variety agency screener or contest judge has very little of a writer’s prose upon which to judge talent and facility with language. How on earth could Millicent possibly know for certain whether the speaker of that first sentence was simply sliding back up the chimney while he was writing, and thus was too busy to devote the necessary thought to the beauty and rigors of proper punctuation, or simply was not aware of the relevant rules? She’s not allowed to base her reading upon what she guesses a writer meant, after all; she can only evaluate what’s actually on the page.

All of which is a nice way of saying: don’t expect her to cut you any slack. A writer familiar with the rules of punctuation and conscientious about applying them is simply less time-consuming for an agent to represent than one who believes that the fine points of how a sentence looks on the page doesn’t really matter. Someone at the manuscript’s future publishing house will take care of the copyediting, right?

Well, no. Not if Millicent or her boss, the agent of your dreams, stops reading after the second missing direct address comma on page 1.

Yes, really. Since this particular rule is pretty straightforward, it’s fairly common for screeners and contest judges to regard non-adherence — or, equally pervasive in submissions, uneven adherence — as an indicator of, if not necessarily poor grammar in the manuscript as a whole, then at least an authorial lack of attention to detail. Any guesses as to why detail-orientation would be a desirable trait in an agency’s client?

Slap a great, big gold star on your tree if you leapt to your feet, shouting, “By gum, a detail-oriented writer could be trusted to produce clean manuscripts!” You’re quite right, shouters: since few agencies employ in-house editors (although some agents do like to edit their clients’ pages), signing a writer who had already demonstrated that he regards the world as his proofreader would inevitably be a more time-consuming choice than snapping up one that could be relied upon to spell- and grammar-check his own manuscripts. On a revise-and-resubmit deadline too short for anyone at the agency to proof pages, that could be the difference between selling a book to a publisher and rejection.

Comma placement is starting to seem a trifle more relevant to your life, isn’t it? Fortunately, the rules governing direct address and exclamations are quite easy.

Hey, wake up. Were you aware that you were snoring, Janie?

There — that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Hey is an exclamation, so it is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. And because that second sentence was directly addressed to Janie, a comma appears between the rest of the sentence and her name.

Armed with those valuable precepts, let’s revisit the punctuation choices that made the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver choke on his milk and cookies — or cognac and truffles, as he always insisted on being left for him in the Mini household throughout my childhood. (My parents said that he deserved the upgrade for shinnying down our unusually small flue.) How do they look to you now?

Hello Santa.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy.

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Now that you’re looking for those commas, the paucity of them — and, I hope, the extra one in that last sentence — is distracting, is it not? Let’s talk about why. Sentences 1 and 4 are aimed at Santa and Millicent, respectively, right? The names are a tip-off that each requires a direct address comma.

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

Sentence #2 is a bit trickier, since what Janie is calling the reader (old boy) is not a proper noun. If we don’t apply the direct address rule here, though, the most logical interpretation is actually this:

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave for the old boy.

Yet Janie’s household does not contain any old boy, or indeed any boys at all — and if Santa knows when they are sleeping and knows when they are awake, he must logically be aware of where said boys are sleeping, must he not? He might be forgiven, then, for finding this sentence perplexing. Fortunately, all it would take is a single stroke of the pen to render Janie’s intended meaning crystal clear.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy.

No question that the reader — Santa, presumably, if Janie’s been a good girl this year — is the old boy being addressed, right? Now that we’ve cleared up that cosmic mystery, what should we note-proofers do with this?

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Wow is an exclamation — and we have a rule for that, do we not? Let’s try applying it. While we’re at it, why not allow Janie’s punctuation to reflect the intensity of her gratitude?

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

If you’re ever in doubt about whether an expression is sufficiently exclamatory to require separation from the rest of the sentence, here’s a nifty test: vehement exclamations can stand alone. As in:

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

Heavens! What an enormous cake! You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge!

What a difference a punctuation choice can make to a sentence’s meaning, eh? (See what I just did there? Eh is an exclamation, albeit not a particularly intense one.) A detail-oriented punctuator could become even more creative, depending upon context. Let’s have some fun.

Wow — do I ever appreciate it? I would have thought my reaction to your having given me a rabid wolverine last Christmas and the Christmas before would have told you that.

Oh, my, what a beautifully-wrapped present…if you happen to believe that bacon is an appropriate wrapping medium for a desk lamp.

Heavens, what an enormous cake. You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge: as much as we all enjoyed seeing your immediate family leap out of that enormous pie at Thanksgiving, that’s really the kind of surprise entrance that works only once, don’t you think?

Speaking of how punctuation can alter meaning, our remaining example presents some difficulties, doesn’t it? Let’s take another peek at it.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

At first glance, this may appear to be a proper use of direct address: the narrator was simply speaking to a reindeer that happened to be lingering nearby. In today’s incredibly rich fantasy novel market, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a context in which that comma use would make sense.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie shouted. “Your ears are better than mine.”

Blitzen shook his antlers in annoyance. “Ceilings are opaque, you know. I can only fly; I don’t have X-ray vision.”

However, being an intimate friend of the writer’s — we could hardly be closer — I know that the original sentence was tucked within a thriller. I ask you: does a direct address interpretation make sense here?

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie whispered.

The Easter Bunny did not bother to stop stuffing presents into his basket. “Oh, stop jumping at every sound. Santa’s not due for an hour.”

“I still say that we should have hidden in a closet,” the Tooth Fairy hissed, “and waited until after ol’ Kris dropped off the swag.”

“And let Fat Boy snag all the cookies?” The rabbit snapped off a small branch from the tree to use as a toothpick. “I’m in it for the sugar, baby.”

“Then we should have gone to the Minis,” the fairy grumbled. “They have truffles.”

Blitzen’s hoof poked into the small of Janie’s back. “Move, sister, and you’ll find yourself with a face full of tinsel.”

Since the reindeer doesn’t enter the scene until five paragraphs after Janie’s speech, it seems unlikely that she’s addressing him. What the writer intended to convey by that comma was not direct address, but something closer to my original suggestion:

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Reindeer?”

In fairness, though, you can see why even a meticulous self-proofreader might not have caught this one. If Janie had speculated that the sounds were caused by an inanimate object, that comma might have passed muster.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Unless this is a book about a madwoman or a psychic whose ability to cajole roofing substances into telling her Santa’s whereabouts, direct address doesn’t make sense here, does it? Even a skimmer is unlikely to fall into that interpretive trap. Several alternate constructions would obviate the possibility entirely, though. The first option should look slightly familiar.

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Falling shingles?”

“What’s that I hear on the roof — falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Am I sensing some growing excitement about the possibilities? “Hey, Anne,” some of you exclaim, beautifully demonstrating your grasp of how a comma should offset an exclamation, “something has just occurred to me, you sneaky person.” (Direct address!) “Since the natural habitat of both direct address and exclamations is conversation, wouldn’t it make sense to zero in on dialogue while proofreading for these particular faux pas? If I were in a hurry, I mean, and didn’t have time to read my submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Not a bad timesaving strategy, exclaimers — they do tend to congregate in text written in the second person. (Hey, I’m talking to you, buddy!) You might be surprised, though, at how often direct address and exclamations show up in first-person narratives, or even chattier-voiced third-person narratives. For instance:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly, searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove, I was in a pickle.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, may I hastily add that the rookie strategy of attempting to make first-person narration sound more like common speech (as opposed to what it’s intended to represent, thought) by eliminating necessary punctuation and grammar has become awfully hard to pull off in a submission, at least for adult fiction or memoir. You wouldn’t believe how often Millicent sees text like our last example submitted like this:

Oh God I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Yes, yes, we all understand that both versions could arguably be regarded as conveying breathlessness. So could this:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. I felt every last oxygen molecule being sucked out of my lungs.

While style choices vary, naturally, from book category to book category — there honestly is no adequate substitute for reading recent releases of books similar to yours, particularly those written by first-time authors, to gain a sense of what is considered stylish these days — generally speaking, relating what’s going on via actual words tends to be considered better writing than offbeat presentation choices. All the more so if those words show what’s going on, as we saw in that last version, instead of telling it — or requiring Millicent to perform a dramatic reading of the text in order to grasp the fully intended meaning.

Oh, you thought that OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat didn’t convey an expectation that the reader would try saying it out loud? Isn’t the sound of this sentence spoken as a single word the point here?

Style is not the only reason that you might want to give careful thought to whether non-standard presentation choices would be more effective than other means of narration, however. While they may seem like a shortcut, they can actually mean more work for you. Not only must any such punctuation and grammar voice choices be implemented with absolute consistency throughout an entire first-person narrative– quite a bit harder than it sounds, if one happens to know the rules or wants to be able to use Word’s grammar-checking function — but honestly, it’s really only clever the first few times a reader sees it done.

Trust me, any experienced Millicent or contest judge will have seen this tactic crop up too often to find it original at this late date in literary history. And how could either of them tell on page 1 whether the omissions were the result of a manuscript-wide authorial choice or the writer’s not being conversant with proper comma use? Heck, are they even sure that the writer of that last version even knows where the comma key is located?

Judgmental? You bet. If Millicent, a literary contest judge, and Santa’s job descriptions have anything in common, it’s that they are tasked with separating those who make an effort to follow their respective spheres’ recognized standards of niceness from those who do not. Rejection is the literary world’s lump of coal, available year-round.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike so much of the manuscript submission process, proper comma use lies entirely within the writer’s control. Personally, I find that rather empowering — unlike style judgment calls, which must necessarily rely in part upon Millicent’s personal reading tastes, punctuation is governed by rules. And rules can be learned.

Does that huge thunk of jaws hitting the floor reverberating throughout the ether indicate that some of you had been thinking about acceptance vs. rejection purely in terms of writing style? If so, you’re hardly alone: why do you think so many submissions and even queries turn up on Millicent’s desk apparently unproofread? Or spell-checked? Obviously, there are a heck of a lot of aspiring writers out there who think punctuation, spelling, and grammar just don’t matter — or that it’s an agent’s job to see past rule violations to story and talent.

Had I mentioned that to the pros, these things matter very much? Or that in publishing circles, providing error-free manuscript pages containing only sentences whose meanings are clear on a first reading is considered the minimum requirement of professional writing, not an optional extra?

Frankly, every writer who has taken the time to learn her craft should be rejoicing at this. Imagine how hard would it be to get on Santa’s Nice list if you had no idea what he considered nice.

While I’ve got you pondering the hard questions, here’s another: is resting your book’s future on a manuscript draft that does not consistently apply the rules you already know people in publishing expect to see respected really any less of a stab in the dark? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term strategy, as well as a better use of your scant writing time, to invest in making sure that the factors you can control are tweaked in a manner more likely to land you on Millicent’s Nice Job list?

Ah, that suggestion got under some skins, didn’t it? “But Anne!” bellow those who find thinking about rules a barrier to the creative process — and you are legion. “I understand that it’s the writer’s job to make a story come to life on the page, not the reader’s job to decipher convoluted text, but to be absolutely truthful, I don’t feel completely comfortable wielding all of the various rules of grammar and punctuation. I had kinda hoped that once I landed an agent and sold a book, the kind folks who handle books for a living would walk me through all of that.”

I’m glad you brought this up, wobbly rule-appliers — this is one of the greatest divides between how the publishing world thinks of what constitutes a well-written manuscript and how most aspiring writers tend to envision it. To a pro, the technical side of writing is not separable from the overall writing quality; to a new writer, though, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even clarity are primarily sentence-level issues, easily fixed down the line.

No wonder, then, that it comes as such a shock to most first-time queriers and submitters to learn that the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected on page 1. While the pros see a book’s opening as a representative writing sample, writers regard it as a minuscule fraction of a larger work, each page of which is entitled to its own assessment.

“What do you mean, a couple of punctuation, spelling, or clarity problems on page 1 could have triggered rejection?” they wail, and who could blame them? “Shouldn’t a book be judged by — wait for it — the writing in the whole thing?”

Perhaps, in principle, but very, very few readers wait until the end to come to conclusions about a book, even outside the publishing industry. A Millicent at a well-established agency will read literally thousands of submissions every year. If she read each in its entirety, she would have time to make it through only hundreds.

Believe it or not, this way actually provides a writer with a fresh idea and original voice with a better shot of impressing her. It means fewer book concepts are weeded out at the querying stage than would be necessary if agencies routinely assigned Millicents to read every single syllable of every single submission.

And, lest we forget, to a professional reader, a hallmark of a fabulous new literary voice is its consistency. The Great American Novel should read as lyrically on page 1 as on page 147, right? And shouldn’t it all sound like the same author’s voice?

See why I always encourage writers to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting them? All too often, aspiring writers new to the game will start sending out their work practically the moment after they type THE END on a first draft, without double-checking that the voice, style, and — as an editor, I must ethically add this — story are 100% consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s completely normal, however, for a first-time novelist’s voice and sense of the story to develop throughout the writing process; going through, figuring out what you like best about your own writing, and revising the whole so it sounds like that (to use the technical term) before you submit can increase your story’s chance of winning friends at an agency by leaps and bounds.

Or, to put it another way, are you the same writer you were the first day you sat down to work on your book? Aren’t you better at conveying your intended meaning now? And, if you take a long, hard look at your objection to Millie’s rejecting manuscripts on page 1, isn’t part of your chagrin that she might not read long enough to get to your best writing?

Heavy thoughts for a holiday, perhaps, but the Literature Fairy’s annual gift to those of us who work with writers is an awareness of just how many of you lovely people spend the last few weeks of December kicking yourselves for not having landed an agent or gotten published in the previous year. If the past is prologue, a phenomenally high percentage of you will translate those feelings into a New Year’s resolution to be a more active aspiring writer next year — to send out a barrage of queries, for instance, or to come up with a really solid list of agents to query. Perhaps you’re going to finish that manuscript, or get the one an agent requested eight months ago out the door. Or maybe, finally, you are going to rearrange your schedule so you can write a specified number of hours per week, rather than the more popular method of trying to squeeze it in whenever you can find the time.

All of these are laudable goals — don’t get me wrong. I would like to suggest, though, that while you are shuffling through the resolution possibilities, you consider adding one more: promising yourself that this will be the year that you spend January sitting down and reading your manuscript from beginning to end, in hard copy, as a reader would, to gain a sense of what is best about your own writing.

Because, really, wouldn’t you have an easier time presenting your work professionally if you didn’t just know that it’s good, but also why? And wouldn’t you be happier if Millicent judged your page 1 if it actually did represent a consistent voice and style throughout the book?

Just a thought. While you’re reading, of course, you could always humor me by keeping an eye out for omitted commas.

Hey, nobody ever said that making it onto Millicent’s Nice Job list was going to be easy. Who did you think she was, Santa?

Enjoy the holiday, everybody; try not to run afoul of any reindeer. I hear that you wouldn’t want to run into Blitzen in a dark alley. Keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part IV: evading the tentacles of the dreaded Millicent-irritating squid

Happy St. George’s Day, everybody! Traditionally, the streets of Barcelona are filled with rose sellers and bookstalls on this day: the custom has long been to give one’s love a rose and a book to mark the occasion.

Why the book? It’s Miguel de Cervantes’ birthday. DON QUIXOTE was one of the first large-scale bestsellers.

In the spirit of celebration, I’d like to share few bits of happy news before I launch into today’s peroration on all things repetitive. First, in recognition of William Shakespeare’s birthday (you still have an hour or so to run out and buy him a present, West Coasters, if you forgot to pick one up when you bought Cervantes’), magnificent historical novelist, lyrical actress, and all-around Bard maven Nicole Galland has written a lovely article on the Huffington Post about why his work remains well worth every English-reading person’s while. Nicely done, Nicki!

(And just between ourselves, Amazon is running an amazing deal right now on her soon-to-be-released novel, I, IAGO: today, they’re offering a whopping 32% off the cover price. Just in case you happened to be looking for a birthday present for anyone.)

As if that weren’t enough to set the Author! Author! masses rejoicing, brilliant fiction stylist and cook extraordinaire (isn’t it fascinating how often the two go hand-in-hand?) Bharti Kirchner’s fifth novel and eighth book, TULIP SEASON has just come out as an e-book, with trade paper to follow soon. This one’s a mystery, and thus a bit of a departure for this well-established literary novelist. Having read a couple of incarnations of this story — oh, you thought that once a writer became a professional, she dropped out of her critique group? — I have to say, I love her voice in the new genre. And that’s saying something, as I consider the ending of her novel Pastries one of my favorite of the last decade of literary fiction releases.

Why? Well, Bharti’s extraordinary eye for nuanced detail and subtle character analysis really shines here. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s the publisher’s blurb:

A missing domestic-violence counselor. A wealthy and callous husband. A dangerous romance.

Kareena Sinha, an Indian-American domestic-violence counselor, disappears from her Seattle home. When the police dismiss suspicions that she herself was a victim of spousal abuse, her best friend, Mitra Basu, a young landscape designer, resolves to find her. Mitra’s search reveals glimpses of a secret life involving her friend and a Bollywood actor of ill repute. Following the trail, Mitra is lured back to India where she uncovers the actor’s ties to the Mumbai underworld and his financial difficulties –- leading her into a web of life-threatening intrigue where Mitra can’t be sure of Kareena’s safety or her own.

She had you at Bollywood actor of ill repute, didn’t she? It really is quite a ride.

Third, I decided this very morning that I am going to give in to the collective pleas of no fewer than seven apparently otherwise unrelated readers and run a series on the ins and outs of entering literary contests. Beginning later in this week (oh, you thought I had only one more post’s worth of things to say about structural and conceptual repetition?), I shall be talking at length and in my patented obsessive detail about how to select the contest most likely to recognize your particular writing gifts, how to read contest rules, how to follow them (not always the same thing), and most important of all to your entry’s success, what kinds of things judges seek and deplore in entries.

Having both won a major national writing competition and served often as a judge, I’m here to tell you: this stuff isn’t self-evident. Reading contest rules is an acquired skill.

Or so I surmise from the many, many questions I regularly receive on the subject; I have written about it at length before. As is so often the case, I had responded to the first two such requests this year with a cheerful suggestion that the question-askers check out my earlier posts on the subject, conveniently collected under the CONTESTS AND HOW TO ENTER THEM SUCCESSFULLY category heading on the archive list at right. By the fifth such question, I started to wonder if it wasn’t time to run an entire series about it again, rather then answering questions piecemeal. Then this very morning, when the seventh request rolled in, it occurred to me to check just how long it had been since I had tackled that Herculean task.

Let me put it this way: the last time I set aside a couple of months to blog about it, the economy was humming along just fine. So was the publishing industry: people were still buying new books in droves. . (One of the seldom-discussed aspects of the book world’s contraction: used book sales never declined; according to all of the data I have seen, they actually went up.) They were just the teensiest bit concerned about the rumored e-publishing phenomenon, but like every other fad, they were pretty confident that it would pass quickly.

It’s time, in short.

To make the timing seem even more apt, I’m going to resurrect my 2008 strategy of picking a specific contest to discuss. Why? Well, it’s always helpful to have a concrete example when talking theory — and, let’s face it, it’s more fun if we’re all working on a project together. This time around, I shall be taking a hard, close look at the entry guidelines for the Words and Music, November 28 to December 2. Dare I hope that I will see some of you accepting top honors there?

Okay, back to our business already in progress: craft. Specifically, that most pervasive of submission bugbears, word and phrase repetition?

Surprised that I have so much to say on the subject? Unfortunately, that’s a reflection of submission reality: just as every spring brings a fresh crop of tulips, similar to last years yet not the same, poor Millicent the agency screener’s inbox is continually refilled with manuscript that repeat themselves. And repeat themselves. And did I mention that they repeat themselves?

Not always as obviously as I just did, naturally — although you would be surprised how often even page 1 of a submission contains the same word or phrase three or four times. Why might that be the case? Quite a few, many, and/or a proportion of the writing public, the pushers of the pen, the haunters of the keyboard seem predisposed, have a tendency to, or just plain enjoy saying the same thing, speaking a similar concept, and stepping into the same river twice. Or thrice, three times, a trilogy. Or just plain throwing caution to the winds, grabbing their destinies with both hands, and jumping in that stream with both feet.

Are you thanking the Muses that most human characters possess only two feet, so the narration could not keep revisiting them until there seemed to be seventeen? I assure you, Millicent would be. She sees enough conceptual redundancy in one day of screening to compile her own dictionary of euphemisms.

And enough repetitive information to drive her to distraction. So does her aunt, our old friend Mehitabel the veteran contest judge. “Why are you telling me this again?” they wail in unison, rending their respective garments. “Are you afraid that I didn’t catch this particular plot point when it first appeared three pages ago? Or do you think I did read it, but I’m just a…”

Because my readership possesses such tender sensibilities, I shall spare you the word those of us who read for a living almost universally apply in these instances. Suffice it to say that it rhymes with squidiot.

As in, “What does this writer think I am, a squidiot?”

Alas for many an otherwise admirably-written manuscript or contest entry, the presumption of squidiocy is a common bugbear for new writers. It’s the squid that whispers in their ears, “Tell, don’t show,” and not just because squids are notorious shortcut-takers. Yes, it’s usually quite a bit quicker and easier to summarize action, dialogue, or emotional response with flat statements — Ambrose was sad. The pair discussed their marital difficulties. Melissa ran up fifteen flights of stairs, turned right, and sent the haunted portrait hurtling to the marble floor below. — rather than showing them through a series of specifics. But convenience is not the squid’s best lure for a rookie writer.

What is? Taunting her with the horrifying possibility that the reader might not draw the correct conclusion.

Has the squid just released a small battalion of you from its capacious arms, or are many of you shouting because you’ve had an insight? “But Anne!” the liberated masses shout. “That’s not what the classic writing advice show, don’t tell means, is it? I’ve always assumed that it referred to the proportion of action to contemplation in the text. Rather than having my protagonist sit around and analyze what’s going on, I’m supposed to stuff my scenes with conflict, right?”

That’s certainly good writing advice, former squid victims, but that’s about avoiding an equally common Millicent-irritant, the passive protagonist. By all means, consider excising scenes in which your protagonist ponders over coffee/tea/a beer/a meal/his cat/the steering wheel of his car what the reader has just seen happen. Ditto with the dialogue in which he explains it all to his best friend/partner on the police force/mother/George, the fellow that lives in his head, because, let’s face it, that’s recapping.

And, frankly, too much recapping can slow a novel’s pace to a crawl. Not to mention endangering Millicent and Mehitabel’s garments. “We just saw this happen!” they moan, shredding their hems. “What kind of a squidiot would I have to be to require a reminder that Hortense fell off a cliff in the previous chapter? In what kind of novel would that not be memorable?”

That’s a different problem than telling the reader what to think about it all, however. Show, don’t tell is what the pros bark at text that consists mostly of summary statements about relationships, activities, emotional states, etc. Instead of setting out a series of actions, revealing gestures, subtly suggestive dialogue, and so forth to demonstrate what is going on, trusting the reader to be intelligent and sensitive enough to draw the correct conclusions from that array of clues, the narrative simply states those conclusions. Or, as is astonishingly common in submissions, both shows the clues and tells the conclusions.

Not quite sure what each option would look like in practice? Okay, here’s a told interaction.

Blue to the bone, Miss M. walked across the room and sat on a tuffet. She was starving. “Where are my curds and whey?” she called crossly.

She was startled by the spider that dropped down beside her. He was polite, but he frightened her away.

Not devoid of interest, stylistically speaking, but hardly a subtle demonstration of human-arachnid relations. Here’s that same series events, shown rather than told.

Miss M. dragged her feet, listless, toward the kitchen, nearly deafened by the rumbling of her stomach. Halfway across the dusty floor, her legs crumbled beneath her. Thank goodness, a tuffet was handy.

“Where are my curds and whey?” she called. “Dag nab it, Goldilocks, you were supposed to have dinner ready an hour ago.”

A cold and slimy leg tapped her on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” a spider as big as a Volkswagen said, “but I believe that’s my seat.”

Palpating, she watched the venom form on its fang, threatening to drop into her eye. She wrenched herself off the tuffet and fled the room.

Makes for more engaging reading, does it not? That’s because the storyline is presented through specifics, not generalities. Yet the intended meaning comes across just the same; the reader is simply presumed to be free enough of pernicious squidiotic influences to be able to follow what’s going on without being told outright.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s allow the dreaded assumption of squidiocy to pervade the narrative. Here’s what might happen if the squid persuaded our example-writer that Millicent could not be relied upon to conclude that two plus two might render something in the neighborhood of four.

Miss M. dragged her feet because she was listless. She was headed toward the kitchen, nearly deafened by the rumbling of her stomach; she was hungry. That trip took her halfway across the dusty floor, where her legs gave out beneath her, as she was tired. Thank goodness, a tuffet was handy, so she sat on it.

“Where are my curds and whey?” she called crossly into the kitchen, where her fellow fable inhabitant was cooking. That’s what kitchens are for, in case you didn’t know. “Dag nab it, Goldilocks, you were supposed to have dinner ready an hour ago. I am hungry, so I would like to have it sooner.”

A cold and slimy leg tapped her on the shoulder. It belonged to a spider as big as a Volkswagen hanging over her, attached by a thin strand of web from the chandelier. “Excuse me,” it said, “but I believe that’s my seat.”

She reacted with horror. Palpating, her heart beating fast, she watched the venom form on its fang, threatening to drop into her eye, where it might poison and even kill her. Fearing for her life, she wrenched herself off the tuffet and fled the room to the kitchen, where her friend was. Goldy might save her; she had bear-fighting experience.

A trifle over-explained, isn’t it? Cue the garment-rending: “What does the writer of CHARACTERS FROM THE NURSERY IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR think I am? A — wait for it — squidiot?

No, Millicent and Mehitabel, the writer of that last example or any of the hundreds of thousands like it you have seen does not think you are a squidiot (although s/he may harbor that suspicion about the end reader). In all probability, s/he merely thought s/he was being thorough.

Or that the phrasing was so nice that it bore inclusion. Or because another part of the scene/chapter/book was running long, and the writer thought that s/he should bulk this part up for balance. Or — and this motivates writers more often than any of us care to admit — s/he just liked the way it sounded and/or looked on the page.

Unfortunately, writers often like the look of certain phrases a little too much — and not necessarily, as most professional readers presume, because they simply love the sight of their own words on the page so much that they cannot bear to cut a single one of them, or because they are so arrogant about their talent that they believe no one will care if they reuse text or concepts, as many contest judges reluctantly come to believe.

I think there is something else going on here, benign in intent but inadvertently harmful to the texts in question. I illustrate the phenomenon with a parable.

Around this time last year — the tulips had just begun blooming, as I recall, in slightly inaccurate salute to St. George — I was puzzled into wakefulness by my significant other’s waving a soy latté and a freshly-baked pretzel under my nose. A new German bakery had opened in our neighborhood, and he’s terrified that it will go out of business without our daily support. A reliable source for Black Forest cake and hot dogs baked into the middle of pretzel dough is not to be taken for granted, after all.

Now, I’m as fond of a good pretzel as the next person, but at 8 a.m., I must confess, my tastes run much more to sleep. If I must be awake, a cup of tea is more my cup of tea. Even if it were not, obtaining mustard-laden foodstuffs would not be my first order of business before, say, five p.m. Nor is rock salt my favorite pillow covering, given my druthers.

Rick, however, subscribes to the surprisingly pervasive school of thought that holds what a person has said she liked once, ever, will come as a pleasant surprise to receive at any randomly-selected moment for the rest of her life. He’s the type of person that will give an 87-year-old a teddy bear for her birthday, because she collected them when she was 50, still liked them at 69, and smiled wanly when he presented her with one while she was blowing out 86 candles. Never mind that every surface in her apartment is covered with the darned things: she liked getting one once, therefore she must enjoy the replication of the experience in perpetuity.

He’s presuming, in short, that she’s the kind of squidiot who enjoys books that explain basic concepts over and over to her. “Show me that generic dialogue one more time,” he must imagine her begging. “The part where everyone is so polite that the characters are indistinguishable from any other people on the planet.”

That being his view of humanity, I suppose I should not have been surprised that his response to my expressing surprise at the advent of a warm pretzel in my mouth was that I had apparently enjoyed a remarkably similar pretzel only two afternoons before. Which, of course, would render it even less likely that I would want another one now, but just try explaining that to a kindly soul in the clutches of a manipulative squid.

The pretzel was turning out to be pretty tasty, though, so rather than take the time to explain at length that piling on more of a good thing does not necessarily improve, well, anything, I decided it would be the better part of valor to thank him graciously and bear my unusual breakfast into a more appropriate environment for consuming something warm and squishy. As I fled, I marveled at how, once again, the muses had tumbled all over themselves to provide me with a delightfully apt metaphor for a craft issue you and I were already discussing.

Oh, wasn’t the parallel instantly self-evident? Allow me to recast it as a self-editing aphorism for the ages, then: what might read beautifully as a stand-alone sentence may not work as well within the context of a page of text. Varying word choice and sentence structure will usually provide the reader with a more pleasurable reading experience than a narrative’s insisting that if something looked good on the page once, it will necessarily look great if it’s repeated.

Resist all sea creatures that tell you otherwise. Millicent and Mehitabel will thank you for it.

Again, I’m sensing that for some reason best known to yourselves, a hefty proportion of my audience would like to see a concrete example of the phenomenon — nay, perhaps several — so you may recognize it in its natural habitat. It comes in a variety of stripes. There’s the version in which favorite phrasing and/or sentence structure is repeated close together, often for rhythmic effect:

What did she want? Mostly, she knew what she didn’t want. Snow White had had it with dwarves. She had had it with princes. Heck, she had even had it with being a princess.

All she wanted, all she ever had wanted, was to be wanted. What was wrong with wanting that?

Or, as Millicent and Mehitabel would see it:

What did she want? Mostly, she knew what she didn’t want. Snow White had had it with dwarves. She had had it with princes. Heck, she had even had it with being a princess.

All she wanted, all she ever had wanted, was to be wanted. What was wrong with wanting that?

Just a touch term-repetitious, is it not? Ditto with the sentence structure. Either can induce garment-rippage, I’m sorry to report.

“I get that the writer wanted to establish a rhythm here,” Millicent mutters, “but what kind of a squidiot would have a vocabulary this small? I certainly don’t, and I doubt the readers of a book like this will, either.”

Don’t believe that an isolated and obviously purposeful repetitive pattern would rise to the level of clothing endangerment? Okay, what if the manuscript in question also exhibited another ubiquitous stripe of repetition, tactic reuse? 37 pages after our last example, this gem accosted our Millie’s weary peepers.

Rapine was so tired of indecision, tired of equivocation, tired of not being able to make up her mind. She didn’t really know what she wanted out of life, but she had reached some conclusions about what she didn’t want. She wanted to be free of the tower. She wanted to be free of her Guardian Witch. But mostly, she wanted to be free of the crushing weight of all that hair.

All she wanted, all she had wanted since she was sixteen, was a sharp pair of scissors. What was wrong with a girl’s wanting a new hairstyle? It’s not as though her future depended upon sporting two-story locks.

Starting to get to you a little, or is the squid still murmuring in your ear that this is just an example of a unique voice demonstrating its uniqueness at two different points in the text? Sorry, Squidbo, but repeating the same words and structures over either the course of a paragraph or the course of a book is the opposite of original: it’s a style choice Millicent and Mehitabel see every day. Imagine, then, the state of their clothing after encountering this gem 153 pages later.

“How dare you accost me?” the first little pig said quavering under the remains of his straw house. “What you want of me that could not have been equally well accomplished by knocking politely?”

The rather large and certainly evil wolf scratched his furry head. “Oh, what do any of us want? To be wanted, I suppose.” He flopped down on the scattered straw. “Man, I’m depressed.”

Piggie rooted his way through the debris to sit by the wolf’s side. “I hear you, Wolfie, but had it ever occurred to you that we might all feel that way? That it might be the fairy tale condition? That it might even be perfectly normal not to know what you want?”

“Ah,” the wolf said, thoughtfully buttering the top of the pig’s head, “but we all know what we don’t want. We don’t want hate. We don’t want war. And as God as my witness, I don’t ever want to be hungry again.”

Is that pretzel starting to taste a little stale? Or would you like another one? No? How about now?

What’s that huffing and puffing I hear out there? Is someone trying to get into my house, or do a few of you want to make a collective observation? “Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you who have not reread your manuscripts recently object, gnawing your fingernails, “this last one isn’t very similar to the first two. Certainly not garment-rendingly similar. I’ll give you that the level of word, phrase, and sentence structure repetition is a bit extreme in the first two examples, but presumably, they didn’t bug M & M too much to read on. Aren’t you picking nits here?”

It’s my job to pick nits, rereading-avoiders. The same might be said of Millicent and Mehitabel. Which is why I can assert with confidence: in a submission, that last passage might as well have been stamped in bright red ink: DITTO. Not only is the trope about knowing and not knowing one’s own desires conceptually redundant (and, let’s face it, not all that original in the first place), but the galloping three-part sentence structure gets a trifle dull to read. At minimum, it encourages the eye to skim.

Admittedly, though, that might not strike writers less eagle-eyed than your good selves. Let’s take a peek at another common species of structural repetition, to see what too-similar sentence structure too close together on a page can do to even a conscientious eye. (Yes, yes, I know: body parts seldom have their own independent motivations. The squid made me do it.)

This time, try our trick of backing up from the computer, then walking slowly toward the screen. As soon as the words come into focus, try reading the following as fast as you can.

“Oh, go away,” Beauty moaned, pulling a silken pillow over her head, “and take your pruning shears with you. Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep?”

“But I fought my way through the briars for you, and I climbed over a fence,” the prince protested. “A stone wall blocked my path, and a pit of snakes slowed me down. Brickbats the size of baseballs beat upon my head, and a dragon singed my toes. Can’t you even make the effort to roll over and look at me?”

Angrily, she complied. “Look, buddy, I don’t know what manners are like where you come from, but in these parts, it’s considered rude to barge into someone’s chamber and start slobbering all over them. Can’t you make any allowance for local mores?”

“But I swam the moat and scaled the castle wall! I toted that barge and lifted that bale. I got a little drunk and I landed in jail.” He clutched at his head. “No, that’s not right. Can’t you see I’m exhausted here?”

Beauty tossed a pillow at him. “Try taking a nap. That’s what I’m going to do.

Notice any visual patterns? All of those rhetorical questions beginning with can’t you, for instance — did your eye try to skip directly from one capital C to the next, without reading what came between? And what about the fact that almost every sentence the prince uttered (as opposed to his stab at rhetorical question-asking) was structured identically: I did X and I did Y? Didn’t all of those ands distract you?

Okay, maybe they didn’t; the squid may have been living with you a bit too long. (You know what Ben Franklin said about fish and houseguests, right? They both begin to stink after three days. And if you think that was a long way to go to make an analogy, well, you have a point, but you wouldn’t believe how often Millicent and Mehitabel encounter this kind of failed humor attempt. The squid is almost as fond of telling writers they are funny as it is of urging writers to explain the obvious.) You must admit, though, that so much structural repetition quickly became pretty boring to read.

And that goes double for concept repetition, even over the course of a fairly lengthy run of text. Or are you saying that you don’t wish I would stop harping on the squid?

The same holds true, believe it or not, with repetitive characterization, recycling the same descriptors or actions every time a particular character sets foot in a scene. Our squiddy friend often tries to convince aspiring writer’s that’s a good idea. Many’s the manuscript in which the hero’s sidekick utters something like, “Well, beats me!” every time the pair meets a challenge, or in which the heroine’s sister sneezes every time a window opens. That makes the character in question memorable, right?

Perhaps, but not necessarily in the way you might hope. As a tactic, this stripe of conceptual repetition seldom works on the page. Trust me, by this late date in literary history, any reasonably experienced Millie or Mehitabel will already have seen thousands of characters announce themselves through personal stock phrases and/or activity tics that this characterization will strike her as neither effective nor amusing.

So how will it strike them? As redundant. And, if the dialogue keeps throwing around a stock phrase, repetitive as well.

At the risk of seeming to beat a dead horse, cross the same river twice, and not learn anything from experience, may I add that the same principle applies to retreads of descriptions, reused metaphors and too-similar similes? I’m not just talking about rhapsodizing about every flower in a garden-centered romance as fragrant as a breath of spring or consistently referring to the protagonist’s nefarious boss’ face as frog-like. Although that is indeed annoying for the reader: if you’d like Millicent and Mehitabel to remain fully clothed, varying your descriptions is a good place to start.

No, I’m warning you against waxing poetic about the wolfish fierceness of Brent’s eye on page 147 if you have already treated the reader to observations on the almost lupine ferocity in his eyes on page 83 and its angry canine expressiveness on page 52. Especially when the reader was assured on page 10 that his eyes held an ferocious, almost feral expression reminiscent of a wolf, and the book opened with a lengthy description of an eye in close-up. A distinctly wolfy eye.

“Yes, yes,” Mehitabel sighs, glancing sorrowfully at her shredded blouse. What make those claw marks, some sort of werewolf? “We all get that you’re making a point here: the eye in question is darned wolf-like. I got that the first time you mentioned it. How much of a squidiot would I have to be still not to get it by the fifth time that parallel appears on the page?”

Good question, Hitty. Perhaps squidiocy knows no bounds.

Something else that knows no bounds: professional readers’ astonishment at how many submitters and contest entrants apparently don’t read their own writing closely enough to notice that the same points, phrasing, and metaphors crop up again and again. People who read for a living tend to have quite retentive memories, especially for text. It’s flatly flabbergasting to us that a good writer would not remember having come up with a spectacular phrase, description, or parallel.

But many good writers suffer from phrase amnesia, apparently. Or so the squid would lead us to believe.

If we can convince the big guy to squiggle out of the room for a moment, I’d like to talk to you seriously about the usual result of listening to his blandishments: rejection. Just as using the same (or very similar) phrasing in three paragraphs on page 1 will generally discourage Millicent from turning to page 2, repeating phrases, dialogue, sentence structures, or even imagery too often over a long stretch of text can also lead a manuscript to the same grisly fate.

And although I hate to be the one to break it to you, it sometimes does not take a great deal or very flagrant redundancy to send a submission skittering into the rejection pile. Remember, screeners have to cover a lot of manuscripts in a workday. Once a text has established a repetitive pattern, can you really blame Millie for deciding pretty quickly that the rest of the book will continue it?

Or, to drag one of our running analogies back into the narrative: if Millicent didn’t like the second pretzel of the day, she is likely to take it as given that she’s not going to like the 145th. She will seldom feel the need to gobble up pretzels 3-144 to confirm it.

Why? Because she’s not a squidiot. She can learn from experience — and remember what she has already read.

More on structural repetition follows on the morrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Details that tell it all: a post-Boxing Day story about excess baggage

Before I launch into today’s post, I am delighted to bring you some fabulous news about a member of the Author! Author! community, long-time reader and incisive commenter Kate Evangelista. Kate’s first novel, TASTE, will be published by Crescent Moon Press! Please join me in congratulating her on this wonderful leap forward in her writing career — and in looking forward eagerly to the day when I can let all of you know that the book is available for sale.

It sounds like a great read, too. Take a gander at the blurb:

At Barinkoff Academy, there’s only one rule: no students on campus after curfew. Phoenix McKay soon finds out why after she finds herself on school grounds at sunset. A group calling themselves night students threatens to taste her flesh until she is saved by a mysterious, alluring boy. With his pale skin, dark eyes, and mesmerizing voice, Demitri is both irresistible and impenetrable.

Unfortunately, the gorgeous and playful Yuri has other plans. He pulls Phoenix into the dangerous world of flesh eaters. When her life is turned upside down, she becomes the keeper of a deadly secret that will rock the foundations of the ancient civilization living beneath Barinkoff Academy. She doesn’t realize until it is too late that the closer she gets to both Demitri and Yuri, the more she is plunging them all into a centuries-old coup d’état.

Sounds exciting, eh? It also, if you’ll forgive my lapsing into the practical in mid-kudo, an awfully darned good role model for anyone on currently in the process of trying to write a descriptive paragraph for a query or a synopsis, by the way should anyone be interested. Kate’s charming author photo, too, is instructive: she comes across as friendly, interesting, and certainly literate, with all of those shelves in the background. Not to mention the playful gleam in her eye that promises adventure to come.

So well done on several fronts, Kate. It’s a genuine pleasure to see a writer who has worked as hard as you have receive recognition, and I, for one, want to read that book.

It just goes to show you, campers: it can be done. Keep persevering, everybody — and keep that good news rolling in!

Back to the business at hand — or rather, back to the hiatus between the last theory-minded Queryfest posts and the rest of this week’s reader-generated practical examples. (Look for the latter to begin on Wednesday and continue through the end of the year!) After having devoted Sunday’s post to a Christmas-themed parable about the importance of vivid, original details to impressing every querier’s beloved nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, I fully intended to run this companion piece, another anecdote-based lecture on specifics, on Boxing Day. Then the lights went out (again!) but the oven remained operational (post-Christmas cookies!), and I never managed to post this yesterday.

I suppose I could just have skipped it and moved on to pragmatic query consideration today, but in case I was too subtle in my last post: just as the threshold between an opening page of a manuscript or book proposal that leaps off the page at a weary-eyed Millicent and one that doesn’t is frequently a turn of phrase, image, or specific that surprises her, the difference between a query that makes a weary-eyed Millicent jerk bolt upright, exclaiming, “Wow! This story/argument/memoir story arc has potential!” and one that leaves her unmoved is sometimes as little as a single, creative detail that she’s never seen before.

That’s harder than it sounds to pull off: as I pointed out on Sunday, Millicent — like her boss the agent, the editors to whom the agent pitches clients’ books, the members of the editorial committees to which those editors suggest manuscripts they would like to acquire, and any experienced contest judge — reads a heck of a lot. Not only in general, but in the book category that her boss represents.

And aspiring writers, unfortunately for their queries and submissions, often do not have the time, inclination, or the access to what others are writing to be anywhere near that familiar with what Millicent would and would not consider a cliché. Even writers who, bless their warm and literature-loving hearts, routinely improve their professional knowledge by not only keeping up with the new releases in their categories, but also seeking out works by first-time authors of books like theirs in order to see what has pleased the agents and editors who handle them recently, will often remain blissfully unaware that a pet plot twist, character trait, or turn of phrase is not original. To them, it just sounds good.

How could they know, poor benighted souls, those particular plot twists, character traits, and turn of phrase have turned up in a good quarter of what crossed Millicent’s desk within the last six months? Admittedly, if any of those things appeared in a recent bestseller in that book category, it’s a safe bet that our Millie will be inundated with them for the next two years — more if a movie version appears. And because so many writers define good writing in a particular category by what sells well — not the only criterion, I think, nor the best — a submitter is often genuinely unaware that his nifty description on page 14 echoes the same nifty description on page 247 of a bestseller, a fact that almost certainly will not be lost upon a well-read Millicent.

At least, not after she’s cast her eyes over the 53rd similar submission. Of the week.

Of course, not all popular elements are derived from established authors’ works. By some mysterious means known only to the Muses alone, the zeitgeist seems to whisper the same suggestions in thousands of writerly ears simultaneously. So often does this occur, and so lengthy is the lag time between submission to an agency and eventual publication for most first books, that even an extremely conscientious trawler of the latest releases would have a hard time predicting what types of details or story arcs to avoid this year, as opposed to next.

What does all of that mean in practice? Well, it’s pretty easy to bore Millicent, for one thing: see the same plot, plot twist, memoir story arc, or descriptive detail 1,700 times in any given year, and you might become a trifle inured to its charms, too. In order for a detail, image, or argument to impress her as original, she genuinely has never to have seen it before — or, more realistically, never have seen it done in that particular way before.

Or anywhere near as well. And even then, she has to like it.

That doesn’t mean, though, that going completely wacky or waxing surrealistic is necessarily the way to win her literary heart, either. As we have discussed before, publishing pros make a pretty strong distinction between the fresh, an original concept, twist, or voice that’s likely to appeal to an already-established book-buying audience, and the weird, an original concept, twist, or voice that doesn’t really fit comfortably into either the expectations of the book category for which the author is ostensibly writing or the current literary market. A fresh plot, story arc, or phrasing is the polar opposite of one that’s been done (see earlier point about the fate of original twists from bestsellers), or, even worse, is dated.

Confused? You’re certainly not alone: due to the market-orientated slant of freshness, a book idea that’s fresh today might well have been done by tomorrow — and will be downright dated a year from now. Complicating things still further, agents and editors will sometimes talk about a fresh take on a well-worn topic.

“Okay, Anne,” originality-lovers everywhere cry, scratching their heads. “I’ll bite: is that good, or is that bad?

Well, it’s a good question, for starters — but yes, a fresh take is a positive thing. Consider, for the sake of example, the story of the Ugly Duckling. That’s certainly been done a million times, right? Since most YA readers and virtually all literate adults currently buying books on U.S. soil may already be presumed to be familiar with the basic story, it would be hard to surprise any reader, much less one as genre-savvy as Millicent, with the essential plot twist there. But if, for instance, a writer felt that the UD’s turning out to be something completely different and pretty watered down the message of the early part of the tale — what, it would have been perfectly okay for the other poultry to have made fun of an ugly duck who actually was a duck? — and presented essentially the same premise, but had UD possess the ability to foresee that the duck pond was shrinking and lead her waddling brethren and sistern to swampy safety elsewhere, thus winning their respect, that would be a fresh take on a well-worn topic.

Oh, you may laugh, but a clever author did in fact create a similar variation on this story that was very successful, both artistically and commercially: it was a little number called THE COLOR PURPLE. Very fresh — in 1982. But do I even need to tell you how many Ugly Duckling variations the Millicents of the mid-eighties saw tumble into their inboxes? As anyone who perused women’s fiction bookshelves regularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s could no down tell you to her sorrow, it was done. Over and over again. And since that essential plotline has been done so many times since, can you imagine how dated the same manuscript would appear if it showed up on Millicent’s desk today?

So get your thinking caps on, campers. We’re going to devote the rest of today’s post to learning to walk the fine line between the Scylla of what’s been done and the Charybdis of the weird. But before I launch into the how-to part of our program, allow me to tell you a little story.

To set it up for those of you who have not boarded a commercial airliner lately, since the airlines have started charging to check bags, many passengers have simply begun wheeling their bulky suitcases down the center aisle, fighting with one another to find space for them in the overhead bins. During the holidays, this battle royale necessarily entails jostling some passengers’ shopping bags full of presents too delicate or valuable to pack in checked luggage. In the midst of this ongoing conflict between the crammers and the fearful, we join our intrepid memoirist.

After my companion and I were seated — he in 18B, your humble narrator in 18C — I felt my chest tighten: the gentleman behind me had evidently bathed that morning in some pepper-based cologne. That, or he was a secret agent for the airline transit authority, testing the viability of toxic scents in knocking nearby passengers senseless.

A sympathetic flight attendant told me I could move if I could find an empty seat away from the source of the nerve agent. Having first gobbled down some precautionary antihistamines to ward off an asthma attack, I wiggled my way into the center aisle to begin scouting.

Up by row six, a tall woman in cashmere with faux fur cuffs knocked me sideways — right into in the lap of the man in 6C. I repeatedly apologized for treating him like Santa Claus (he didn’t seem to mind much), but I could not budge: the imperious woman was blocking the aisle too thoroughly while searching for a place to stow her immense roll-on luggage in the already crammed overhead bins.

A time-conscious flight attendant murmured in her wake, tactfully replacing the shopping bags the passenger was blithely flinging to the floor. “Could you please hurry, ma’am? We can’t close the cabin doors until everyone is seated, and we’re already behind schedule.”

Clearly, though, that baggage had to be placed just so. As my assailant made her noisy way down the aisle, I was able to free myself of my human seat cushion and follow, clambering over the flotsam and jetsam the flight attendant could not manage to scoop up. I felt like the caboose in a slow-moving train.

By the time I could smell where I was supposed to be parked, the picky passenger had managed to free enough space in the bin above row nineteen to shove her suitcase inside. The flight attendant and I pushed from behind.

As I slipped, choking, into my assigned seat, the woman turned to the flight attendant. “Well, that’s a relief. Now you need to switch my seat assignment.”

The exhausted flight attendant looked at her blankly. “You’re in 6E.”

“Yes,” the woman said testily, “but my bag is back here. I’ll have to wait until everyone else gets off the plane before I can grab it. I need to sit next to it.”

Feeling both revolutionary levels of resentment rising off the rest of the passengers and my throat constricting from the cologne fumes, I knew my time had come. I leapt to my feet. “She can have my seat! I don’t mind coming back for my carry-on.”

The woman had plopped herself into my seat before the flight attendant could even nod. She thanked no one.

The flight attendant propelled me forward to row six before the irritating passenger could change her mind. I gave the five extra bags of pretzels she slipped me to the man who had let me share his lap.

Amusing, I hope? Good, but as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while had probably already begun suspecting by the end of the first paragraph, I didn’t share that anecdote with you purely for entertainment value, or even to vent. (I thought the other passengers were going to attack the rude lady. She must have delayed our departure by 15 minutes.)

No, I’ve included this story here because it has an editing problem — several, actually. Any guesses?

Hands up if you think it is too long. Is the action/narrative ratio off? Do you think a swifter telling would have allowed the comedy inherent in the situation to come out more clearly, or would you have liked to see more internal reaction from the narrator?

Which is right? Well, it depends upon what kind of narrative the author is creating — and where the scene is going. In a memoir, the reader expects the narrator’s character to be revealed through her reactions to the events around her, so I might well want to ramp that up. Getting out of the narrator’s head and into her body might be a good place to start: I felt my chest tighten is a strong detail in that respect; it makes the same point as I began to worry, but does so by showing how the emotion manifested, rather than just naming it.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned lately that most of the memoir Millicent has been seeing lately seldom mentions a reaction occurring below the narrator’s neck? I guess one has to read an awful lot of memoir manuscripts to know about that.

While showing, rather than the dreaded telling, is good strategy in many kinds of writing, there honestly isn’t a one-size-fits-all revision strategy for fiction. How a savvy writer might go about showing what’s going on in the scene above and what kind of details might make the piece sing would vary. In a romance, for instance, the reader would probably want a slightly different focus, perhaps showing my companion’s dismay at being first left alone, then saddled with another seatmate, or more complex interactions with the gentleman with the lap. So the smart specifics to add here would illustrate the relationship between the narrator and her companion: he could make an ineffectual grab after her as she flees the cologne, for instance, or try to convince Santa to switch seats with him, so the pair could travel together.

If, by contrast, this is a scene intended for a thriller, and the reader has some reason to suspect that one of the passengers on the plane is carrying something lethal, this semi-amusing bit of business might merely be a means of prolonging the suspense, right? In that instance, I would want to edit to speed up this scene, so Millicent would not become impatient at a too-lengthy digression. Or I would have the protagonist spy another character doing something odd out of a corner of her eye, allowing the reader the fun of speculating whether the obnoxious woman was some sort of decoy, creating an intentional distraction from the real threat. If I really wanted to ratchet up the danger, our heroine could feel something cold and hard beneath her after she tumbled into Santa’s lap: a gun?

Or, to surprise Millicent more, how about a titanium leg that can receive radio signals?

The possibilities are legion, right? Many self-editors, though, as well as a hefty percentage of writers’ group critiquers, would not take intended book category into account when making decisions crucial to revising this scene. All too often, short and terse is deemed appropriate for any type of book.

But it doesn’t always work, because — wait, I’m going to let you see why for yourself. Here’s that scene again, winnowed down to a just-the-facts-ma’am telling. This, too, is a style Millie sees quite often in memoir submissions.

After my companion and I reached our seats, I felt my chest tighten: the guy behind me reeked of cologne. I waved down a flight attendant to ask if I could change seats, and she said yes, but she was too busy to find one for me. I gobbled down some precautionary antihistamines to ward off an asthma attack and began scouting.

A woman shoved me into some guy’s lap in row six. She was trying to find an overhead bin to stow her luggage, but the ones near her seat were already crammed. The flight attendant kept urging her to hurry, since the plane couldn’t start taxiing until everyone was seated. I remained trapped in the guy’s lap until the woman had exhausted all of the possibilities near her seat and moved up the aisle, with the flight attendant replacing the items she had displaced.

The woman finally found enough space for her bag above row nineteen, just behind me. But before I could buckle myself in, the woman demanded to sit near her bag, rather than in her assigned seat.

The passenger and flight attendant had a small argument about it, causing the other fliers to express resentment. I offered to switch seats with her, in order to solve both of our problems. The flight attendant gave me extra pretzels; I shared them with the guy whose lap I had previously occupied.

Not a very effective editing job, is it? It’s precisely the same story, true, but most of its charm has evaporated. Any guesses why?

If you immediately shot your hand into the air, exclaiming, “The humorous voice is gone!” lower that hand 18 inches and pat yourself on the back with it. Very, very frequently, insecure self-editors will sacrifice narrative voice to pace, resulting in the kind of tale you see above.

But one of the main selling points a writer has for an agent or editor is freshness of voice! If it’s largely edited out, how is Millicent to know that this is a writer with an interesting and unique worldview?

If, on the other hand, you cried out, “In this version, the reader doesn’t really learn much about who these characters are or why this incident is important. It’s just a flat description of events,” you also deserve a pat on the back, because that’s also true. Characterization is a very frequent casualty of the revision process, because, well, it takes up room on the page.

I’m reserving today’s gold star, though, for those of you who noticed both of these problems, yet pointed out, “Hey, Anne, both of these examples share a flaw I’d like to see fixed: what are any of these people like? Admittedly, the second example exhibits much weaker characterization than the first, but most of these characters are one-note: the pushy passenger is rude, the flight attendant harried, and the guy with the lap — well, let’s just say that I couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup, based upon this account. I’d find this story both more enjoyable and more plausible if the narrative showed them more. In fact, isn’t this a show, don’t tell problem?”

Wow, that’s one well-earned gold star. Both versions are indeed light in the characterization department.

Some lovers of terseness out there find that diagnosis a bit dismaying, I sense. “But Anne,” they protest, struggling manfully to keep their commentary brief, “isn’t the usual goal of editing to cut out what doesn’t work? You admitted above that the original anecdote was a little long — won’t adding characterization just make it longer?”

Not necessarily — if the characterization is achieved not through analysis or lengthy descriptions, but through the inclusion of vivid, unexpected details and interesting phrasing. Such as:

The lanky woman seemed barely muscular enough to drag her leopard-print suitcase behind her, yet she surged up the aisle, flinging open every single overhead compartment on both sides as she passed. A small child bashed in the head by a pink umbrella moaned in her wake. The flight attendant leapt to keep the morass of holiday gifts, rolled-up winter coats, and overpacked suitcases from tumbling onto the passengers who had arranged their carry-ons so carefully just minutes before, but to no avail. Within moments, rows seven through twelve resembled a picked-over bargain bin at a thrift store.

“Could you please hurry, ma’am?” she kept murmuring after every slam and between bites on her regulation pink-frosted lips. The first-class flight attendant was wearing the same color. “We can’t close the cabin doors until everyone is seated, and we’re already behind schedule.”

Thirteen sets of hanging doors later, the woman shoved aside a red shopping bag to make room for her carry-on. I helped the flight attendant wrestle the last three compartments shut before both of us provided the necessary muscle to inter the leopard. She did not thank us.

Obviously, these three paragraphs are not an adequate substitute for the entire story, but see what I have done here? The details provide characterization that neither the first version’s narrative reactions nor the second’s series of events showed the reader.

In this third version, however, the reader is neither left to fill in the specifics — something a time-strapped Millicent is unlikely to do — nor expected to guess what conclusions the author wants her to draw from these actions. The details make it perfectly plain that the lanky woman could not care less about anybody else’s comfort, feelings, or even rights: leaving those bin doors open behind her for the flight attendant and another passenger to close shows the reader what kind of person she is, just as the specifics about the volume of the luggage and the uniform lipstick, contrasted with the flight attendant’s consistent politeness, illustrate her dilemma, and the narrator’s automatically pitching in to help demonstrates her approach to the world.

Vivid details are the gem-like tiny touches so beloved of editors everywhere, the telling little tidbits that illuminate character and moment in an indirect manner. The frequency with which such details appear in a manuscript is often one of the primary factors professional readers use in determining whether to keep reading — and if such unusual specifics are incorporated skillfully into a query’s book description, they often prompt a request for pages.

Why? Well, more than almost any other device, they give the reader insight into the author’s worldview.

Sound like too amorphous a concept to be useful at revision time — or query-writing time, for that matter? It isn’t. A good writer sees the world around her with unique eyes, and — ideally, at least — powers of observation heightened to an extent that many non-writers would actually find painful.

This requires pretty sensitive nervous tissue, as H.G. Wells pointed out. He liked to call writers Aeolian harps (that’s a fancy way of saying wind chime, in case you were wondering), responding to our perceptions of the world through our art and, he hoped, making it better in the process.

Wells is now best-known for his science fiction, of course, but in his lifetime, many of his most popular novels were about social interactions. As I mentioned back on Veterans’ Day, his Mr. Britling Sees It Through was considered at the time THE definitive work on the British home front during the First World War. My favorite of his social novels is The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, a comedy about marriage and the establishment of decent, affordable apartment buildings for young working women.

Okay, so his political beliefs were not particularly well-hidden in his social novels. Neither was his evident belief that the primary purpose of female intellectual development was for those pesky women with brains to make themselves more attractive to men with brains. But his eye for social nuance — and social comedy — was exceptionally good.

The tiny little details that our sensitive nervous tissue lead us to notice — the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, as the song says — are a large part of what makes great writing seem almost miraculous to readers. Not everyone notices the worn-down heel of the left shoe of the man in his interview suit, after all, or the way the eyes of the president of the local charitable organization occasionally glaze with hatred while her mouth is loading the members with drippingly complimentary gushings.

Feeling special yet? You should: being aware of these details is a gift, after all, a sharpness of eye with which not very many human beings are endowed. Yet most writers don’t rely upon it nearly heavily enough in constructing their narratives — and still less in their queries.

And to someone whose job it is to read manuscripts all day, every day, seeing that gift wasted can start to get pretty annoying. “Where are those delightfully unexpected little insights?” the Millicents of the world think, running their fingertips impatiently down page 1. “Where is the evidence that this writer sees the world in a way that will change the way I see it myself?”

A tall order, yes, but — wait, do I hear some cries of distress out there? “Did you just say,” a strangled voice asks, “page ONE? As in my manuscript should produce evidence of my unique worldview and uncanny eye for telling little details that early in my book? Can’t I, you know, warm up a little?”

Great question, strangled voice. The answer is yes, if you want to make absolutely certain that an agency screener will read PAST the first page. (If you doubt this, please take a gander at the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s a series on reasons that agents report for not reading past page 1, a pretty sobering group of posts.) And to anticipate your next cri de coeur, yes, you should make an effort to provide such evidence in the book description section of your query, for the exceedingly simple reason that at most agencies, that’s all the page space you have to convince Millicent that her boss needs to read your manuscript.

Some of you submitters may find the necessity for cajoling reading more than a few paragraphs from people who, after all, asked you to send a chapter or 50 pages or your entire book. If you’re a novelist, it can be especially galling: presumably, if your forté as a writer were brilliant single-page stories, you would be entering short-short competitions, not writing 400-page books, right?

Believe me, I’m sympathetic to this view. If I ran the universe, agents and editors would be granted an entire extra day or two per week over and above the seven allocated to ordinary mortals, so they could read at least 10 pages into every submission they request. Writers would get an extra day, too, and lots of paid vacation time, so we could polish our work to our entire satisfaction before we sent it out.

And Santa Claus would tumble down my chimney to shower me with presents every day of the year, instead of just one.

Unfortunately, I believe I have mentioned before, I do not run the universe. If we writers want to be successful, it behooves us to recognize that queries and submissions are often read very, very quickly, and adapt our first few pages — and our queries — to that reality.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But before you condemn the rigors of the industry too vigorously, take a moment to consider the conditions that might lead to someone at an agency or publishing house to conclude that it would be desirable, or even necessary, to give a requested manuscript only a page — in a manuscript or in a query — to establish the author’s brilliance.

Lest we forget, Millicent can sometimes be the world’s most impatient reader. While some screeners and agents are looking to be wowed, Millie is in a rush to get out the door; she’s put off her lunch date three times already this week, because she had to work through lunch, and she’s not going to miss it again.

It is now 12:10, she’s just noticed a run in her tights, and your manuscript is the next in the pile. How easy do you think it is going to be for it to impress her into reading past page 1?

I bring up Millicent’s foul mood not to scare you — but since a writer has absolutely no control over the mood of the person deciding whether to accept or reject his manuscript, it is worth preparing your submission so that it would impress EVEN Millicent at her most frustrated. That’s just good submission strategy.

It’s also good querying strategy. Assume a bored Millicent longing to be startled out of her malaise by an exciting detail, and you’re halfway to perking up your query.

I hear some of you huffing, but pause to spare some sympathy for the Millicents of the agenting world, as well as Maury, the editorial assistant who is her equivalent in publishing houses. They are expected to read reams and reams of paper very, very fast — and for this Herculean effort, they are not necessarily always paid. Often, in this harsh economy, this work is assigned to interns. If it’s the summertime, Millicent is probably on break from a good Northeastern college, someplace like Barnard, and since her parents can afford to support her while she takes an unpaid but résumé-building job, she’s probably from an upper-middle class background.

If it’s the rest of the year, or she has already graduated, she is probably paid — poorly — and lives in an apartment the size of a postage stamp with four other young people with similar jobs. Millie would not have gone into this line of work had she not liked reading — in fact, she may have writing aspirations herself, or she may want to become an agent or editor, so taking a job screening queries and submissions seemed like dandy on-the-job training at the time.

But now, after weeks on end of seeing hundreds upon hundreds of rather similar storylines, her capacity for appreciating literature has markedly dimmed. Sometimes, when she is especially cranky, a single line of awkward dialogue or two lines free of conflict can make her feel downright oppressed.

And your manuscript will have to get past Millie, and often also a senior assistant who has been screening manuscripts for even longer and has an even shorter boredom fuse, before it lands on the agent’s desk.

Still think it’s a good idea bore her, as long as your writing is strong enough?

What if, as occasionally happens, your manuscript is the next on her list to read immediately after she has broken up with her loutish boyfriend, she twisted her ankle clambering up from the subway, or she’s wondering how she’s going to pay the rent? And if poor Millie has just burned her lip on her non-fat double-shot tall latté — well, let’s just say that the first few pages of your manuscript had best be tight. And your query had better be fascinating.

And either should feature at least a few delightful little details that will make Millicent sit up, forgetting her bright magenta lip, and cry, “Eureka! This writer showed me something I’ve never seen before, presented in magnificent, clear prose! Forget my lunch date — I have something to READ!”

The miracle of talent, as Mme. de Staël tells us, is the ability to knock the reader out of his own egoism. Let the first example an agent sees of your writing be living proof of that.

I think you have it in you; that gift of insight is what made you want to write in the first place, isn’t it? Don’t let the difficulties of the querying and submission processed dim that mission. Millicent, and readers everywhere, will be the better for the originality of your insight.

Oh, and do make an effort to share those overhead bins; you never know when the guy upon whom cast-off luggage tumbles will turn out to be Millicent’s brother. Although that’s an ending to an Ugly Duckling story she’ll never see coming. 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.”

“Go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

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

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

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

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXIII, and Structural Repetition, part X: a parting glance before we move to pastures new

Are you still palpitating over that false suspense I managed to build up by the end of yesterday’s post, campers? Or is that heavy panting I hear all of you who are planning to give verbal pitches this summer tumbling onto my virtual doorstep, breathlessly eager to begin our long-anticipated Pitchingpalooza bright and early tomorrow?

Well, it probably won’t be bright and early, unless you are prone to measure such things by moonrise, rather than sunrise; tomorrow is going to be a rather full day. But I shall be launching our latest ‘Palooza, never fear.

“Um, Anne?” the more pacing-minded among you murmur, tapping your watches meaningfully. “Is it my imagination, or did you just extend the false suspense about today’s promised professional readers’ pet peeve by another two whole paragraphs by the simple expedient of digressing into another topic?”

Quite right, pace-minders — and you lengthened it by another paragraph through pointing it out. Now, I’m stretching it to four. Whee! We could keep this up for hours.

But we won’t, because we’ve all gotten the message by now, right? When our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, picks up a page 1, she expects the story (or argument, in the case of nonfiction) to get going right away. When the opening lines dither, evade, and generally avoid leaping right into the meat of the story, she has been known to become just a trifle impatient.

“What is this story about?” she fumes over her latte. “And why isn’t this writer getting on with it?”

Certainly an understandable reaction — and if it isn’t, I can only advise you to go back and read the first four paragraphs of this post again. Perhaps it’s the circles in which I move, but personally, I’ve never met a Millicent — or agent, editor, or contest judge, for that matter — who didn’t share this preference for a book’s opening to get on with it, already. Rarely, if ever, does one hear a professional reader say, “I liked that book, but do you know what would have made it better? A slower page 1. Heck, it would have benefitted from not beginning the central story at all until, oh, page 12 or so.”

I bring this up not only because a page 1 that drags is very frequently enough to trigger rejection — yes, even if the writing that lulls the reader along is beautifully constructed — and this will be my last post in our long-lingering Pet Peeves on Parade series. No, I’ve treated you to this last-minute admonition as a segue into one of the most important rules for a revising writer to remember: just as each authorial voice is individual — good authorial voice, anyway — so is each writer’s pattern of problems. Some very talented writers just can’t manage to get their stories started until page 34; others use and in every other sentence, and still others are purely incapable of remembering the difference between there, they’re, and their. Some rechristen their characters every thirty pages, then forget to go back and change earlier names; some meant to do background research on their protagonist’s mother’s job as a beekeeper, but never seemed to get around to it.

Yes, falling prey to any or all of these tendencies could result in Millicent’s shouting, “Next!” over your submission. You could waste endless energy worrying about that outcome. But rather than fearing her ire or resenting the professional reader’s notoriously sharp eye, may I make a suggestion for a better use of your time? Why not devote yourself to learning what your personal writing patterns are, and figuring out which ones you like enough to keep?

After all, there is no secret formula for writing success: what works for one story will be appallingly inappropriate in another, and vice versa. A thoughtful writer often experiments with a number of different voices, literary devices, and writing styles before settling on the best fit for her book. That’s healthy and a necessary part of a good writer’s learning process — hey, nobody is born knowing every craft trick in the book — but it’s vital to get into the habit of re-reading one’s own manuscripts (ideally, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course) with an eye to figuring out which of those experiments are worth incorporating into the book’s overall voice.

Why? Chant it with me now, those of you who have been intrepid enough to follow this series all the way through to the bitter end: because the hallmark of a really good authorial voice is consistency.

That’s not going to happen all by itself, you know — but you’d be surprised at how many submitters seem to act as though it would. As Millicent would be only too happy to tell you if you take her out for a latte (you think it’s easy to stay awake through all of those slow openings?), submissions and contest entries that begin in one voice and switch to another 2, 10, or 100 pages in are almost as common as manuscripts that have no distinctive voice at all.

It may seem self-evident, but in order to clarify your authorial voice or make it consistent across a manuscript, you’re going to need to recognize what it is. How are you going to know what’s good about your writing if you don’t read it? And reread it with each subsequent draft? Not only to catch your personal pattern of mistakes, but to learn what you sound like at your best.

“That’s a lovely sentiment, Anne,” the clock-watchers we met above chime in, “and I’m sure it’s practical advice, well worth heeding. But haven’t you also just distracted us from the fact that you STILL haven’t filled us in on the identity of the Millicent-baiter you teased us about on Monday? Jeez, Alfred Hitchcock himself would have revealed the culprit by now.”

Quite right, pacing-minders. The notorious species of structural repetition that causes professional readers to gnash their teeth and mutter under their breath is — wait, Millie, put down that ice pick! Help! Hel…

Just kidding. You watch-tappers didn’t think you were going to walk away unscathed after the Hitchcock crack, did you?

Actually, one eagle-eyed reader delved into her own manuscript and diagnosed this dreaded form of repetition for herself. Kudos to intrepid Anne A. for bringing it up in the comments a couple of months back:

I’d been looking back at my writing and trying to get rid of my characters’ excessive nodding, shrugging, and looking…especially looking. I’m having a lot of trouble with the looking.

I’ve found that I tend to use looking as a cue in the dialogue for whom a particular phrase is targeted; that is, there are four or five characters standing around and if one character says something directed specifically to another (e.g., “Can you fight?”), I have the speaker look at the target first. I’m finding these terribly difficult to get rid of, because without them the conversation makes little sense.

Any advice on how to handle this? It appears I cycle through, in decreasing frequency: “looked to”, “turned to”, “said to”, and direct address by name. I have a terrible feeling that all of these sound far too repetitive.

We have a winner: looked is one of the most frequently repeated words in manuscript submissions. If I had a nickel for every time I had spotted look, watch, saw, etc. on the manuscript page, well, I’d have a heck of a lot of nickels.

I’m not talking about enough to buy my own publishing house, mind you. Don’t be ridiculous. I’m talking about enough nickels to build a publishing house from sub-basement to rafters entirely out of the things.

Why is look so pervasive? Well, aspiring writers rely upon it, and upon vision-related verb phrases in general, quite heavily, and not always because most human beings glean most of their information about the world around them through their eyes. Often, characters — particularly protagonists — will look things as a means of introducing those things into the narrative. Essentially, the character’s eyes act like a laser pointer, directing the reader’s attention someplace specific. Lookee:

“Oh, I give up,” Albert said crossly. “I’m tired of trying to find that last Easter egg. It can rot, for all I care.”

Sharon cast her eyes around the room, taking in the disordered bookcase, the emptied-out desk drawers, and the overturned couch. She saw no trace of an eggshell of any sort.

Effectively, Sharon is acting as the reader’s eyes in this passage: she moves her eyes, and we are shown objects. Although she is acting, she is passive; she’s not commenting upon those objects — say, drawing the conclusion that Albert is not a particularly well-organized searcher or that the hotel’s maid is likely to find his pastime annoying — nor is she changing the situation through doing anything like knocking over a bookcase herself. She’s not so much advancing the scene as allowing herself to be used as a narrative device.

That’s good news for the self-editor, believe it or not. Instead of showing us the room via a seeing-eye Sharon, the reviser can radically reduce the number of looking references by simply showing what is in the room. That would free up Sharon to engage in activities of her own.

Albert sat in the midst of chaos of his own making. He had disordered the bookcase, emptied out several well-packed desk drawers, and upended the couch. “Oh, I give up. I’m tired of trying to find that last Easter egg. It can rot, for all I care.”

“And I’m tired of cleaning up after you.” Slowly, Sharon withdrew a brace of pistols from her fashionable purse. “We duel at dawn. The maid has offered to be my second.”

Another popular use for looking verbs is to remind the reader from whose perspective she’s approaching the story. This is particularly common in first-person or tight third-person narratives. As in:

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

That’s one way to alert the reader to the existence of the buds on the trees and the beauty of the sky — which is, we are told explicitly, blue, as opposed to all of those other colors beautiful skies are always sporting — but it’s not the only narrative possibility, and usually not the most imaginative one. It also slightly blurs the author’s intention: is the reader supposed to concentrate upon the fact that the trees are budding hopefully, or the fact that our narrator saw the buds and projected hope onto them?

Even if the image hitting the narrator’s cornea actually were the most important aspect of this particular sentence — in this example, it isn’t — often, the point of the protagonist’s looking at things is not the action itself, but to alert the reader that the objects being seen exist. Unless this device is used very sparingly, though, most readers will tire pretty quickly of being told over and over again that the protagonist is — stop the presses — seeing or noticing everything around her.

Hard to blame the reader for that, you must admit. From his point of view, it’s self-evident: the object is present in the environment, so naturally, the protagonist sees it. So?

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

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

Fringe benefit: because this approach encourages the things in question to be more active, the result is often a more vibrant narrative. Take a peek:

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

Anne A’s concern sounds like combination of these two types of looking patterns, a mélange that used to be quite widespread in YA and many categories of genre fiction. In this combo, not only do the characters’ eyeballs serve as the narrator’s means of calling the reader’s attention to something in the physical environment as a sort of, “Hey, you — notice at that!” substitute — those busy, busy peepers also provide the transition between description (often presented as the result of observation) and the next set of actions.

What might that look like on the page, you ask? Let us turn to our next example. While I’m at it, I’ll toss in a little name repetition, since Anne A. mentioned that it was one of her personal bugbears.

Helene looked around the room. Not much there; the occupants must have moved out in a hurry. Suddenly, she saw a glint of silver on the mantelpiece.

She turned to Karen. “Look, Karen! Could that be Aunt Monica’s long-lost broach, the one we have been seeking for hours? If it is, maybe we will be able to figure out how to open its secret compartment and find the combination to the wall safe our beloved aunt told us three times a week throughout our collective girlhood was stored there.” She looked to her cousin for confirmation. “Well? Is it her broach?”

Karen picked up the round pin, examining it. “Possibly, Helene. Strange…”

Helene looked at her cousin expectantly. “What’s strange?”

Karen glanced nervously back toward the door. Did she hear movement out there? “Oh, that the search party, the militia, and the bloodhounds would have missed its being in such an obvious location.”

As you may see — looking verbs are addictive, aren’t they? — it’s not difficult for this type of looking to turn into Hollywood narration, dialogue in which the speaker tells the hearer things both parties already know, purely to convey the information to the reader. Like most dialogue plagued by this phenomenon, this passage benefits from trimming it. All of that visual activity could easily go, too, making room for some more revealing details or more action. (Why didn’t Helene pick up the darned broach herself, if she was so interested in it?) Also, if we really put our editorial minds to it, we could probably stop our heroines from squawking their names at each other constantly like hyacinth macaws.

The room’s dark wood paneling emphasized how quickly the former occupants had decamped. Dust outlines showed where a sinuously curved sofa, an ornate-footed chair, an old-fashioned two-sided partner desk had rested for decades. Only the mantelpiece seemed to have been cleaned within the last year. Silver glinted against the mahogany.

“Aunt Monica’s broach!” She dashed across the room, but Karen beat her to it.

Her cousin ran her fingertips across the polished surface. “How could it be this shiny, if it’s been lying here for a year?”

Helene completed the thought: “And why would everyone else who’s traipsed through here miss it? This was planted!”

Another tendency to keep an eye out for (oh, you think it’s easy to keep coming up with these?) is looking used as a stand-in for other, more interesting activity. It’s indigenous to recently revised manuscripts, as a means of identifying speakers without cluttering up the dialogue with all of those tag lines that graced the first draft. Unfortunately, not every alternative to he said makes for particularly scintillating reading.

Art looked askance at his adopted brother. “You’re not afraid, are you, Kay?”

Kay glanced at the dragon breathing fire nearby. Surely, any sane human being would be afraid. “Not if you will hand me that sword over there on your right. No, farther, next to the tumbledown shack in which that strange old man lives. That’s it, right next to the bronze chicken our grandmother smelted in her dotage. Oh, now you’ve gone too far. Don’t you see it there, beside that gently rippling stream?”

Art recoiled at the sight of it. “You mean the sword stuck in the stone?”

Here, the narrative falls into another Millicent-annoying trap: presentation of the physical environment not via explicit description, but by talking about it as though the narrator (or in this case, the character Kay) and the reader were watching a film of the scene together. Rather than giving us enough detail to be able to picture it as the writer imagines it, we’re left to guess what type of landscape could possibly contain all of those disparate elements.

And why might that narrative choice irritate Millicent? Sing it out loud and clear, campers: it’s the writer’s job to convey a sense of place, not the reader’s job to fill in descriptive details.

Another extremely common use of looked is as a substitute for showing emotional reactions. As any Millicent who has been at it for a while knows to her cost, aspiring writers just love having characters look at one another instead of evincing a more revealing response to something that has just happened.

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

“What’s happening?” Violet cried.

Doesn’t add all that much to the scene, does it? That’s because from the reader’s perspective, the mere fact that Violet and Llewellyn chose that moment to train their eyeballs on each other isn’t all that illuminating. Described this flatly, it’s such a generic act that mentioning it doesn’t either advance the plot or reveal character. It begs the question: how did they look at each other? Why did they look at each other?

Okay, so that was two questions. Here’s a third: is there something else that one or both of them could do or say here that would do a better job of advancing the plot and/or revealing what these people are thinking or feeling in this particular moment?

And, of course, there’s the ever-popular self-sufficient glare:

Not looking where he was going, Armand tripped over Patrice’s extended feet. She shot him a look.

Again, what kind of look? What did she intend it to convey, and was it in fact an accurate external representation of her internal mental processes? And while we readers are asking so many questions, why on earth didn’t the writer save us all this trouble by coughing up a substantive description of a meaningful response in the first place?

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

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

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

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

Don’t make me start the chanting again. You know the tune by now, right?

Remember, too, that what might work perfectly well in an individual sentence may well become a distracting pattern over the course of a paragraph, page, or even scene. Look is a sneaky one; it is used in so many context to mean so many things. To sharpen your eye to its many means of imbedding itself in text, let’s take a gander at few frolicking in their natural habitat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to take that look you’re all giving me as a yes. Perhaps if I’m really lucky, you’ll exchange glances. Maybe even meaningful ones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound at all familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s such a pretty thought that I am going to sign off here for the day — and the series. Next time, it’s on to the rigors and joys of pitching. Keep up the good work!

As individual as a snowflake — but my, don’t those snowflakes start to look alike when they start to pile up (or, as we like to call this post around here, Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXI, and Structural Repetition, part VIII)

My, that’s a mighty cool image for a midsummer day, is it not? After catching the tail end of a national weather report, I thought some of you fine people could use some visual air conditioning.

And what a refreshing breeze was caused by all of those hands suddenly shooting into the air. “But Anne,” those of you who have been following this series on self-editing and rigorously applying its principles, “air conditioning is felt viscerally, and visual images are seen by the eyes! Is this not, therefore, a mixed metaphor — and aren’t mixed metaphors one of the many, many things that get our old pal Millicent the agency screener’s goat?”

Quite right, sharp-eyed revisers, and well caught. Our Millie has indeed been known to gnash her teeth over analogies that are not quite analogous, as well as sensual organs that pick up sensations beyond their traditional ken. Hearts that skip a pulse, rather than a beat, eyes that observe inflections in tone, facial expressions that convey emotions of such complexity that Marcel Proust would consider their fullness over-examined on the page — all have done their part over the years in depleting Millicent’s goat herd.

She doesn’t have awfully many goats left, people. Choose your words with care.

In an effort to help her conserve a few cloven-footed beasts, I went on at some length last time about the yawn-inducing effect of mentioning characters’ names too often within a short stretch of text. As I tried to show in what was probably an excess of examples, the repetitive force of all those capital letters can be somewhat hypnotic. More seriously, they can be distracting from the story the book is telling.

And that, my friends, is bad news for any submission. It’s worth a novelist’s while, then, to massage the text a little to try to reduce the frequency of those monikers. It’s also worth the memoirist’s while, and the creative nonfictionist’s. Heck, if we going to be honest about it, it would behoove pretty much any writer who presents characters in a format other than a list.

Especially someone who has already performed one (three, five, a hundred and seventeen) revisions on a manuscript. Why? Well, think about it: the more worked-over a manuscript is, the more likely names are to have changed over the course of the revision process, right?

Oh, you thought Millicent wouldn’t notice if your protagonist’s sister was Emily for the first third of the book and Evie thereafter? I can hear her pet goats saying, “Meh!” at the very notion.

Even if this is your first attempt at editing your manuscript, it’s in your best interest to keep an eye on the percussive repetition of those proper nouns, particularly if the names in question begin with the same first letters or sound similar. As we saw last time, repeated first letters in different names can cause the reading eye to leap to unwarranted assumptions, or even — brace yourself, similar name-lovers — cause the reader to mix up the relevant characters.

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

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

Oh, you think it’s easy to keep track? Okay, skim over the following sterling piece of literature as rapidly as you can. As always, if you’re having a bit of trouble making out the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

similar name page 1

Be honest, now: right now, based on that rapid reading alone — no fair referring back to the page — could you draw Cheryl’s family tree? Not as easy for a skimmer to keep track of everyone as one might have at first supposed, is it?

The good news (yes, there is some) is that this problem is at least partially avoidable with a little advance planning on the writer’s part. Since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Beryl, Bunnie, and Benny. Adopting the old screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter will help alleviate reader confusion.

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

Starting to get the picture, or rather the pattern? Millicent is. And her goat is getting antsy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, given its ubiquity, this type of opening turns up on practically every Millicent’s pet peeve list. Judge for yourself why it might be a goat-getter:

pronoun-only text

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

“Meh,” says the goat. “I could take this story or leave it, at this point.”

I’m with you, Flossie. For the false suspense device to work, the reader has to find being kept in the dark titillating — and overwhelmingly, Millicents do not. When presented with an opening like this, they are all too prone to start asking practical questions along the lines of Who is this broad?, What on earth is going on here?, and Why is this writer withholding relevant information from me? Is this lady’s name a state secret?

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

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

Oh, those hands are in the air again. Yes? “Um, Anne?” those of you joining us mid-series inquire meekly. “I have to admit, I rather like this kind of opening. I can see that it’s suspenseful, but what’s false about it? I’ve seen it in plenty of published books. And if there’s only one character in a scene — or only one whose name the protagonist knows, as in that last example — what’s so confusing about not telling the reader who she is?”

Valid questions all, meek inquirers. Yes, this opening is exciting, and yes, there was a time when this strategy was considered pretty nifty, particularly in fantasy circles. But really, hasn’t it been done to death by now?

The rather hackneyed nature of the tactic is not its primary drawback, however: the problem is that the suspense arises not solely from the considerable inherent stress of the situation upon the protagonist, but from the fact that the reader knows neither who she is nor why she is being pursued. (And why is she wearing a party dress in the woods?) Obviously, though, the narrator, the woman, and the author do know the answers to these questions — so the only possible reason not to share this information with the reader is to prompt the reader to be curious about it.

Hey, you — put Millicent’s goat right back where you found it. It’s not her fault (or the goat’s, for that matter) that the author didn’t have enough faith in the action of his opening scene to let it speak for itself. No, he thought had to introduce a narrative device (and a rather tired one at that) in order to interest the reader in his heroine’s plight.

Frankly, this opening doesn’t need it. Take a gander at the same page 1 with the withheld evidence added in:

“Come on, admit it,” the goat says. “It’s every bit as suspenseful, isn’t it?”

Good point, surprisingly articulate barnyard animal. For many readers, it may even be more suspenseful — having a bit of background to this chase enables us to empathize with Alice’s plight more fully.

Let’s go ahead and establish an axiom: unless there is a very, very good reason for denying the reader information as basic as a character’s name — particularly if, as in that last example, it’s the protagonist in a tight third-person narrative where the narrative voice evidently knows everything there is to know about that character — go ahead and call your characters by name the first time they appear in a scene (or the book), rather than referring to them constantly by only a generic he or she.

Believe me, Millicent doesn’t like to guess — and she has a point in this instance. Too little name-calling can be as harmful to the reader’s experience as too much. Even if the reader should in theory already know who is who, even a relatively mild policy of principled name avoidance can often lead to confusion, especially in action scenes.

Take, for example, the following little number — and to make it a fair test, I shall valiantly resist the temptation to give all of the combatants similar names.

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

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

Now, I’m guessing that most of you were able to follow what was happening, even without drawing a diagram of the domino effect. (Although that would have been fun to see, wouldn’t it?) All a reader would really have to do is read slowly and carefully, perhaps going back and re-reading as necessary to answer any lingering questions.

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

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

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

Here, Flossie. Where has she gone?

Millicent is also quite sure — and this comes as a nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters — that it’s not her job to go back and re-read a sentence because she found it confusing the first time around. So positive is she on this point that if such a sentence (or paragraph, or page) appears on page 1 of a submission, as we saw in the example above, she will often simply stop reading altogether.

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

Does that low, despairing moan mean that some of you remain confused about when to name and when not to name? “But Anne, aren’t you presenting us with a Catch-22? I’m afraid that once I start adding all of the proper nouns necessary for clarity to my manuscript, I shall almost instantly run afoul of our bugbear from last time, too-frequent name repetition. Help! And why is this goat following me?”

Fear not, low moaners: you are not alone. Fortunately for all, the last time I brought this up, perplexed reader Elizabeth was brave enough to speak up:

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

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

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

Elizabeth speaks for many here: I frequently meet aspiring writers who tell me that their early writing teachers insisted (wrongly, as it happens) that the only conceivable way to avoid confusing a reader by in a scene with more than one he or she is to avoid using pronouns altogether. The result, as she points out, can be name repetition of the most annoying variety.

Let’s see why. To revisit our earlier pronoun-problem example:

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

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

Oh, dear: that won’t do at all, will it? Unless a writer wants to stock up on Goat Chow, this seems like a strategic mistake.

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

Yes, you read that correctly. So here is my advice: never — and I do mean NEVER — accept a writing rule as universal unless you are absolutely satisfied that it will work in every single applicable instance. If you are not positive that you understand why a writing axiom or piece of feedback will improve your manuscript, do not apply it to your pages.

What should you do instead? Ask questions, plenty of them, and don’t accept, “Well, everybody knows it should be this way,” as an answer. Plenty of stylistic preferences have been foisted upon fledgling writers over the years as laws inviolable, and it actually not all that uncommon for writing teachers not to make — how shall I put this? — as strong a distinction between what is indispensably necessary for good writing and what is simply one possible fix for a common problem.

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

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

Heck, even the goat’s seen it.

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

Seriously, professional readers see practically pronoun-free first pages more than you might think — although nowhere near as often as the type of proper name-withholding opening we saw above. The trick, as is so often the case for good revision, is to approach each potential name vs. pronoun conundrum on an individual basis, rather than seeking to force every imaginable use of either into a one-size-fits-all rule.

Don’t be afraid to apply your common sense. As Aristotle liked to point out, moderation is the key.

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

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

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

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

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Meh,” the goat observes, shaking its horned head, “that’s quite a lot of proper names for such a short scene, isn’t it?”

Far more than Millicent would deem necessary, certainly — which is to say, far, far more than are necessary for clarity, yet more than enough to feel repetitious on the page. Yet simply replacing all of the names with she (or, in John’s case, he) would leave the reader wondering what was going on. Lookee:

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

“Why ever not?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

Her eyes stung for a moment. She always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

She sighed. “Those were the days, eh?”

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

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

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

“Why ever not?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Those were the days, eh?”

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

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

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

Oh, come back, Flossie — Millicent doesn’t like bad puns, either. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXIII: the monster always returns…returns…returns…

I’m having a good day, campers: today, I got to delve back into an editing project I’d had to put aside for a while. It’s something that requires my full energy; digging one’s arms up to the elbow in a complex manuscript takes more out of a conscientious editor than writers tend to believe.

You’d be surprised at how deeply those of us who read for a living can bond with the manuscripts we handle. It’s not as though an editor (or an agent, or an agency screener) can plop himself down and read a book like any other reader; it’s our job to be alive to every detail. I like to think of myself as the book’s advocate, trying to figure out all of the little ways to make it as beautiful and marketable as humanly possible.

And no, in response to what a good third of you just thought very loudly, beautiful writing is not always marketable, any more than marketable writing is always beautiful. Ideally, a manuscript should be both. It should also, if I can possibly manage to nudge it in this direction, be written in a voice and vocabulary appropriately challenging for its target readership.

Bringing out any of these laudable traits is not only a matter of critiquing what could be improved; quite a lot of what I do involves helping the author see what is already good and could be made better. Part of being a thoughtful freelance editor — as opposed to a careful copyeditor, the nit-picky soul who concentrates on making sure that the manuscript is clear and the sentences grammatically correct, the minimum standard for professional writing — involves not only checking for possible red lights that might lead to rejection, but also figuring out what a manuscript’s strengths are, as well as why it will appeal to its target audience.

Again, those are not necessarily the same thing, right?

Most aspiring writers do need to be reminded, I’ve noticed, what is good about their work. Or even told what the selling points for their books are.

There’s a pretty good reason for this, actually. Throughout the writing process, it’s awfully easy to start to think of the effort you’ve put into a book as its most important characteristic. But realistically, publishing houses do not acquire books simply because someone went to the trouble to write them. Nor, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, will readers — ones who do not already know the author personally, at any rate — pick up a book simply because somebody happened to write it.

Why does prompt publishers to acquire manuscripts and readers to buy books, you ask? Would I sound like a broken record if I suggested that both sell because of their strengths?

In fact, the length of time it took to write a book is precisely the wrong thing to mention in a query letter or pitch; it’s widely considered unprofessional. Millicent the agency screener is apt to regard queries that include statements like I have spent seven years writing NOVEL, GREAT AMERICAN as not only a waste of page space, but as a studied appeal for her sympathy.

“Why on earth would I care how long this manuscript took to write?” Millicent murmurs into her omnipresent latte. “And why would I be more favorably impressed by a seven-year effort than one that took only six? What matters is on the page, not what Herculean efforts it took to get there.”

Let me repeat that, as it’s awfully important: at the submission stage, manuscripts are evaluated based upon what actually appears on their pages, not the writer’s intentions, effort, or even what the book might look like after a conscientious editor’s had a few rounds with it. Many, many aspiring writers seem to have a hard time accepting this, judging by how often justifications and explanations seem to find their way into queries and pitches. From a professional point of view, this information just isn’t relevant.

But that’s not the only reason that including it could hurt you. Because it’s quite standard for both agents and editors to request revisions after taking on a book project — see my earlier observation about how involved professional readers can get with manuscripts they like — it’s prudent to assume that the pros in your future will expect you to be able to incorporate feedback in a timely and reasonable manner. So if the agent of your dreams’ reaction to a detailed account of the five years you invested in producing the manuscript is less likely to be, “Gee, this book must be worthwhile,” but “Heavens — if a single draft took five years, how long will any revisions I want take?” is it truly in your interests to mention it?

Save the probably quite interesting story of how you churned out that 400-page novel in the scant ten-minute increments you managed to snatch between your day job and your night job for future interviews. Trust me, your reading public will eat it up.

In your queries and pitches, stick to the information that Millicent actually needs in order to decide whether to request pages. As submitting writers are all too prone to forget, publishing is a business, not an art form — agents and editors acquire books they believe are marketable, not just ones they believe are well-written. And, as I believe I have mentioned several hundred times before, they do not — contrary to the hope of most submitting writers — read the entire submission before making up their minds on either point.

Anyone care to tell the class at what point in the average submission Millicent stops reading? Think on it, and I shall give you the answer at the end of this post.

Hint: it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of pages her agent boss asked you to send. Not at all.

How does this relate to the revision process, you ask? Well, swift judgments mean that if you have limited revision time at your disposal, it’s smart strategy to concentrate on the first 50 pages of your manuscript — the usual first request from an agent — or, in a pinch, the first 5. (If you are planning to head to a writers’ conference anytime soon, burnishing the first 5 until they shine is imperative: the first five pages of the manuscript are the standard writing sample, the most anyone is at all likely to ask to see within the context of a pitch meeting. But I digress.)

Do I sense an undercurrent of amusement out there? “Are you seriously taking the time to justify doing any revision at all, Anne?” those of you who have followed the Pet Peeves on Parade series closely ask, chuckling. “Isn’t it a bit late in the series for that? We all know what a stickler Millicent can — and indeed, should — be. Or are you once again leading us down the primrose path to some well-concealed eventual point?”

Well, the importance of revision bears repeating, chucklers, but you’re right: my little peroration was warming you up for a pet peeve that I suspect not all of you will agree is problematic on the page. Or so professional readers like yours truly surmise from how pervasive the problem I’m about to mention is in submissions — particularly in openings.

I’m speaking, of course, to invocatory rhythms that don’t quite work. And you thought this post wasn’t going to be a continuation of our discussion on voice!

Invocatory rhythms are one of the most popular tools aspiring writers use to beautify their narratives, a kind of sing-song rhythm that alerts the reader that Something Literary is Going on Here. One of the easiest ways to add this music to a text is through word and phrase repetition. Take a gander at a fairly representative sample:

Musette ran through the corridor, ran like the wind, ran as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her freedom, after all this time? Didn’t she deserve a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

See the problem? No? Okay, let’s take a peek at it through Millicent’s experience-sharpened peepers.

Musette ran through the corridor, ran like the wind, ran as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her freedom, after all this time? Didn’t she deserve a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

The problem is clearer now, right? Not only does this innocent-looking paragraph harbor a heck of a lot of word and phrase repetition — enough that our Millie may murmur under her breath, “Wow — doesn’t this writer know any other words?” — but that eye-confusing reiteration is encased in identical sentence structures. The result is a little something we professional readers like to call structural repetition: a percussive repetition of similarly-structured sentences (or sentence fragments) intended to make a rhythmic point.

Why bring this up as a voice and revision problem, in addition to a notorious Millicents’ pet peeve? Because part of the issue here is editorial: merely broadening the vocabulary, the usual fix for word repetition, would not solve this problem. Lookee:

Musette ran through the corridor, sped like the wind, fled as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? Didn’t she merit a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, have an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

Better already, is it not? To a professional reader, though, this passage would still read as structurally repetitious, despite the wording being more varied (and thus more interesting) this time around. And that reaction is apt to confuse self-editors, who would tend to see the nice, pulsing rhythm pushing the paragraph forward, rather than the probability that the too-similar sentence structures will cause the reader to zone out a bit as the paragraph goes on.

Not to mention the virtual certainty that Millicent will murmur, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with this narrative trick, but why must this writer foist it on us twice in a single paragraph?”

You’ve got an excellent point there, Millie. Like every other narrative device, structural repetition works best when it is used sparingly.

How sparingly, you ask with fear and trepidation? Two or three times, say, in the course of a manuscript, to draw the reader’s attention to particularly important passages. Even within the context of this short excerpt, see how much more effective the first use of structural repetition is if we remove the second.

Musette ran through the corridor, sped like the wind, fled as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? She longed with the urgency of a sneeze for a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat. Clearly, she had an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever.

Didn’t like it that way? Okay, let’s switch where the structural repetition falls — and while we’re at it, take out the cliché about the wind.

Musette sped through the corridor as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? Didn’t she merit a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, have an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

Was that a sudden gust of non-clichéd wind that just made my cat topple over, or did a significant minority of you just sigh gustily?
“I see that there are repeated words in the original version, Anne,” some of you point out, “but frankly, I liked it best. Surely the choice to incorporate structural repetition is a stylistic choice, rather than a matter best left up to an editor. Unless you have just inadvertently proven your point about not every reader’s liking every well-written narrative voice, and you are demonstrating yourself to be the kind of knuckle-dragging troglodyte who eschews the joys of literary fiction in favor of novels that — ugh — feature a plot?”

Actually, I’ve been known to read and enjoy both, oh ye quick to judge. What’s more, I’ve read plenty of literary fiction with strong plots and genre fiction that features beautiful language. So there.

But you are obliquely correct, oh sighers, that the original version above was more likely to have dropped from the fingertips of a writer with specifically literary aspirations than one who was aiming for a more mainstream readership. Since invocatory rhythms are quite common in poetry, this style turns up very frequently in novel and memoir submissions, particularly in those that are either literary fiction or are other types of manuscript written with a literary tone. It just sounds pretty, right?

“If the writing’s pretty on an individual sentence level,” sighers everywhere argue, “how could that be problematic in a submission?”

In several ways, actually. Rather than telling you why, let’s look at the single most famous example of invocatory prose in English literature, the opening to Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Yes, I use this particular example fairly frequently, but humor me here: Dickens, bless his now-still heart, has provided us with a lulu of an example of why structural repetition is problematic in print.

Just for kicks, pretend that you have never seen it before, and try to read like an agency screener. To facilitate that laudable endeavor — and to give you the opportunity to judge for yourself whether all of this textual repetition provides a compelling entrée into the story that follows, here is not just the well-known opening, but the next page as well. As always, if you find you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.

Now, this voice is certainly distinctive, isn’t it? Hard to conceive of a more memorable opening, rhythmically speaking. But it’s also true that if these were the first two pages of a submission, virtually any modern-day Millicent would have rejected it by line three. Any guesses why?

If your hand instantly shot into the air, alerting me to your trenchant observation that it was because the first paragraph is one interminable run-on sentence — 119 words, connected incorrectly by commas, rather than semicolons, sacre bleu! — give yourself a gold star for the day.

Ditto if you zeroed in upon the apparently random capitalization of nouns, the criminal punctuation choices, the ubiquitous logical contradictions (yes, I know it’s meant to be ironic; think like a screener here and look for reasons to shout, “Next!”), the second paragraph written entirely in the passive voice, and the fact that two paragraphs into the piece, the reader still has absolutely no idea who the protagonist is or what’s going on.

And can’t you just picture an editor furiously scribbling in the margins: “Which was it — the best of times or the worst of times? It could hardly have been both. Commit to one or the other!”

Although any one of those perfectly valid objections might have prompted that cry of “Next!”, the structural repetition is what most pros would have noticed first. To see why, you stand up right now and take two steps backward from your computer monitor.

Notice the visual pattern? Millicent would have spotted it as soon as she pulled the first page of ol’ Charles’ manuscript out of the envelope.

Actually, if you’ve been revising for a while, you might have caught that the structural repetition problem without backing off. A solid tip-off: the verb to be appears 14 times within the first sentence.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Yes, this is a level of verb variation that would make Millicent long for the comparatively challenging vocabulary choices of See Dick run, Jane. Run, Jane, run. Remember, though, it’s not just the repeated words and phrases that would raise professional readers’ weary eyebrows here: it’s the phenomenon of consecutive sentences being set up in the same way. No matter how great your high school English teacher told you this particular opening was, it’s dull for the reader to read the same It was X, it was Y sentence structure over and over again.

Or, indeed, any given sentence structure, if it is repeated often enough within too few lines of text.

Unfortunately, a lot of writers just adore structural repetition: it reads a bit like a prayer. It can provide a driving, almost galloping rhythm to a page. Many aspiring writers see that rhythm in the work of authors they admire and say, “By gum, I’m going to make my paragraphs read like that!”

And they do. Sometimes, they make their paragraphs read like that several times per page.

Don’t mind that loud rapping. It’s merely Millicent pounding her head against a wall, moaning, “Make it stop! Make it stop!”

That’s what happens when perfectly legitimate voice choices run amok. Like any magic trick,, repetitive structure loses its ability to charm when the reader sees it too often. After a surprisingly short while, it can start to come across less as an interesting stylistic choice than as a sort of narrative tic.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let me ask you: how many iterations of It was… did Dickens put you through before you first thought Oh, come on, Chuck; get on with it?

“But Anne,” lovers of percussive repetition beg piteously, “I just love my structurally repetitious opening page/paragraph/chapter. If I’m careful not to use this trick again anywhere in the manuscript, I can keep it, can’t I?”

I have a news flash from Millicentville: she sees a LOT of structurally repetitious openings; as with anything else she sees a dozen times a week, it’s probably going to be more difficult to impress her by this method. She’s also not particularly likely to believe that an opening redolent with repetition is a one-time narrative choice.

More often than not, when a manuscript opens with repetitive structure, it will continue with repetitive structure. That, alas, renders structural repetition dangerous to use in the first pages of a submission. Or book proposal. Agents and editors are just so used to this tendency that they’re all too likely — fairly or not — to conclude that to read on would be to be treated to the same type of sentence over and over, ad infinitum.

And that, my friends, is not invocatory; it’s soporific. Next time, I shall talk about ways to tell which is which in your writing, to figure out when invocatory rhythms will help your work.

Remember, Millicent seldom makes it all the way to the bottom of page one. That’s not a whole lot of lines in which to establish the originality and power of your voice.

Too bad our pal Chuckles blew his chance by repeating himself so much, eh? Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIX: there was something about his eyes, something indescribable…



I could not allow another week to end, campers, without filling you in on yet another common professional readers’ pet peeve. Specifically, one that drives your humble servant up the wall, not only because it is ubiquitous in manuscript submissions, but because when it does appear, its context usually makes it pretty obvious that the writer who penned it considers it (a) original, (b) philosophical-sounding, or even profound, and (c) pretty darned good writing, rather than what it actually is: (a) a hackneyed phrase, (b) descriptively vague, and (c) see (a) and (b)

What is this pervasive descriptive shortcut, you cry, famous for causing gentle souls like me — and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — to rend our garments and wail when good writers foist it upon us? Let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat.

Here are five sterling examples of it, ripped from five different manuscripts. Let the garment-rending begin!

“If that’s really the way you feel, I have nothing more to say.”

Something in his eyes made Aileen pause, reconsider, turn back. “What is it you’re not saying, Jeremiah?”

He smiled, slowly, cruelly. “Ah, that would spoil the horrible surprise, wouldn’t it?”

Did anything in that exchange strike you as odd? If you are shaking your head at the computer screen, you’re not alone — most aspiring writers would see nothing wrong with it.

Millicent, to put it mildly, would. To gain a sense of why, let’s examine the phenomenon in another incarnation.

A feeling washed over Emily, strong and powerful. She couldn’t have put it into words, even to her closest friends, but it shook her to the core of her being.

“Yes!” she cried, startling everyone in the courtroom. “I shot the sheriff!” She turned to her incredulous husband. “But I swear to you, Archibald, I did not shoot the deputy.”

See any similarity between those last two examples? Millicent would. She’d also spot a definite familial resemblance between both of them and this:

Oliver walked her forward, keeping his hands over her eyes. Some ten feet of awkward stumbling later, he gently removed them. “Look.”

Perdita gasped. A vista of indescribable beauty spread out before her. “Oh, my! Why hadn’t I noticed this before?”

“Beats me.” Oliver returned to his game of solitaire. “I would have thought the Grand Canyon was kind of hard to miss.”

Starting to feel an inkling of Millicent’s well-justified irritation? One more time, maestro, please.

The audience swayed on its feet, blasted by the power of Mervin’s voice. It was not what he said, precisely, or even the words he chose to express it that moved them so strongly: it was an indefinable manner, a confidence that told them as surely as if he had shouted it that this man was telling the truth.

It’s begun to feel redundant, hasn’t it, even though I assured you at the outset that each of these examples came from a different source? Welcome to the world of the agency screener: if 35 out of the 127 first pages Millicent reads today contain the same descriptive shortcut — certainly within the bounds of possibility, with a trope this popular — Instance No. 34 is going to seem as repetitious as if it had appeared on the same page as Instances Nos. 28-33.

“Not this again!” she mutters, rending her aforementioned garments. “Show me something original, I beg you!”

We could feel smug, of course, that Millicent has just fallen into precisely the same phrasing trap to which she is objecting: the writer would be entirely justified in inquiring what precisely she had in mind. We could also point out that it isn’t particularly fair to the writer of Instance No. 30 that a professional reader might well have been more annoyed by the sight of this descriptive shortcut than she was by Instance No. 2. And who could fail to feel for the aspiring writer who decided that Instance No. 34 is just what his page 1 needed but did not call upon the descriptive device again for another 273 pages being treated as precisely as repetitious as the writer who elected to place Instances Nos. 5-9 all on the same page?

Oh, you don’t think that really happens? Au contraire, mes amis. I can beat that record in two sentences flat.

There it was again, that odd, vague sensation. It told Erminia without words that something, somewhere, somehow, was wrong.

What sensation?” Millicent demands, ripping her cuffs to shreds. “What is Erminia feeling, precisely? What does she think is wrong, and for what possible narrative reason has the writer chosen to hide the content of her fears from the reader?”

You must admit, these are perfectly reasonable questions. After all, it’s the writer’s job to describe what’s going on in sufficient detail for the reader to be able to picture it, not the reader’s job to fill in the details when the writer prefers to remain vague.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from a hefty minority of the submissions that cross Millicent’s desk on a daily basis. Apparently, there are a whole lot of aspiring writers who believe — wrongly, according to the overwhelming majority of professional readers — that leaving crucial sensations, thoughts, intuitions, and even physical descriptions to the reader’s imagination is not only permissible, but stylish. It’s hard to blame them, really: unless one happened to have had the privilege of reading many manuscripts or contest entries back to back, one wouldn’t have any idea just how common this descriptive shortcut is.

Trust me, it decorates many, many first pages. And contest entries. And dialogue. You’d be astonished at how many novels (and memoirs, actually) open with this well-worn trope — it’s an extremely popular (and thus Millicent-annoying) means of establishing suspense from line 1.

A noise came from behind her, causing Jemima to jump. Silly to be so nervous, when she had been through these woods more times than she could count. Admittedly, she had never been carrying quite this heavy a load of goodies for her grandmother, bread and sausage and pears and three whole roasted chickens.

There it was again. Something was following her; she was sure of it now.

Already, Millicent’s collar is in tatters. “What noise?” she wails, beginning on her right sleeve. “What did it sound like? What does she think is following her, and upon what auditory clues is she basing that conclusion. Also, what do three ands in a row add to this description that would not be adequately conveyed by the grammatically correct bread, sausage, pears, and three whole roasted chickens?”

Does the general pallor that just spread over half my readership’s faces indicate that some of you were under the impression that featuring this kind of and repetition within a single sentence was (a) stylish, (b) technically correct, (c) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once every 50 pages or so, (d) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than every 50 lines or so, (e) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once per paragraph, or (f) all of the above? I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, then.

It’s even worse news if you happen to subscribe to the rather pervasive school of thought that holds that regardless of whether the point of view is in the first, second, or third person — heck, even if it is from the omniscient perspective of Somebody Up There who can pry into every character’s mind — it is always an effective writing technique to make the narrative voice sound like someone speaking out loud in casual conversation in the year in which the manuscript was written. While this can work beautifully for novels and memoirs set in the recent past and written in the first person, chatty contemporary spoken word styles will not fit comfortably with every storyline.

It’s especially jarring in stories set in eras of the past when people spoke more formally — which is to say pretty much anytime prior to the last decade. Every era has its own slang, of course, but there’s no denying that the vagueness of modern conversation would have puzzled Jane Austen exceedingly, either in dialogue or narration.

Everybody knows that a single man who happens to be rich must be looking to get married. Or something.

Whatever you do or don’t know about his feelings or beliefs, no sooner does he set foot in a neighborhood than everyone decides he belongs to one of their daughters. Whatever!

“May one inquire,” Miss Austen demands, ripping her delicate handkerchief in long, clean lines, “to what this author is referring? Why has he elected to dispense with subject-object agreement, that well-belovèd and inflexible rule denoting that the subject of a sentence — in this case, everyone — should agree in number with its object. I would lay it down as a general principle, then, that everyone and his daughter would always be preferred by right-thinking readers to everyone and their daughters. And what, if I may be so bold as to ask, is the significance of whatever in this context?”

Search me, Aunt Jane. Millicent and I have been wondering about that, too.

Another popular species of vagueness in openings — also frequently born, I suspect, out of a desire to create suspense by omission, rather than via a detailed depiction of an inherently tense situation — is a little something we pros like to call the unnamed protagonist cliché. Tellingly, it is also known by another moniker: she ran through the forest…

Oh, you may laugh, but you wouldn’t believe how many manuscripts begin rather like this:

She fled through the forest, her long, red hair whipping against the bundle she hid ineffectually under her cloak in an attempt to shield it from the driving sleet. All she knew was that something was pursuing her, something terrible, something violent. Something that had forced her to leave behind everything she had ever known. Something that had changed her life forever.

Suddenly, a noise came from behind her…

By this point in the afternoon’s reading, poor Millicent’s wardrobe is in tatters. “Who is this woman, and why should I care that her life has changed forever when the narrative hasn’t yet told me anything about her previous life? From what is she fleeing? Am I supposed to think that the bundle is a baby, or am I only thinking that because it was a baby in 15 out of the last 37 similar openings? And why oh why not just tell me what’s chasing her?”

Again, perfectly legitimate questions — but not, it’s probably safe to assume, reactions the author would prefer this opening to elicit from a screener. Or indeed, any reader. Presumably, the writer is hoping that lay reader would read the opening above and murmur, “Heavens, will she get away? What is pursing her? Is the baby alive?” — and be spurred by those questions to keep reading.

Millicent, however, is unlikely to scan even one more line; had I mentioned how frequently she is treated to this kind of false suspense? “Is there any particular reason that I’m being kept in the dark about this broad’s name?” she murmurs, the frayed edges of her garments wafting gently in the air conditioned breeze. “Is it a state secret? Is it really my job to read on until the narrative deigns to tell me something that basic? Or maybe this writer has seen too many movies; in a book written in the third person, you don’t need to wait until someone addresses the protagonist to find out her name.”

Trust me, you’re better off identifying your characters right away.

A few valiant specificity-haters have had their hands in the air for paragraphs on end. “But Anne,” they point out, “in that last example, the writer was obviously just trying to start the story with a bang. You must admit that there’s no shortage of action in that opening, nor is there any serious question about what the book is about: the story that follows is obviously going to concern this woman, her bundle, and all of that red hair in their collective attempt to reach safety from the unnamed threat. Millicent can’t deny that it is exciting!”

Actually, she could — you would be astonished how efficacious sheer repetition can be in sapping the thrill from an exciting-but-common opening scene. And let’s face it, the long, red hair cliché and the everything she had ever known exaggeration would not exactly stun Millicent with their originality, either. Fleeing maidens habitually forget to tie back their long red or blonde hair while they are leaving everything behind, burning their bridges and changing their lives forever, whilst fleeing unnamed pursuers.

Those of us born brunette and/or bob our hair should be deeply grateful, evidently. An alien from the Planet Targ dropped into Millicent’s desk chair to form opinions of life on earth from manuscript submissions would undoubtedly conclude that we dark-haired females alone remain safe at home, rather than being chased by noises offstage into some conveniently nearby woods.

One more omnipresent variety of rend-inducing narrative vagueness, then I shall sign off for an evening of peaceful brunette serenity. See if anything in the following little gem strikes you as a potential Millicent-irritant.

As smoke curled up Blair’s nostrils, the irreality of the situation smote his consciousness head-on. It was like a movie: he simply observed his nearest and dearest go up in flames. As much as he longed to change the channel, he couldn’t.

Actually, there were two classic pet peeves cunningly concealed in that compact paragraph; did you catch them? First, the it was just like a movie trope has been so widely used in submissions since the 1920s that even the most recently hired Millicent is likely to regard it as a cliché at this late date. A more experienced Millicent might also regard it as the narrative shorthand it is: rather than showing readers precisely how and why Blair experienced the situation as divorced from his real life, the narrative not only chooses to tell us in just a few words what it was like — the writer is presuming that every reader will know precisely what she means by it was like a movie.

In essence, then, the writer is expecting the reader to guess in what specific ways Blair’s experience was filmic. And we all know how Millicent feels about that species of narrative expectation, right?

“Is it my job to provide the necessary description?” she fumes, taking a stapler to her hitherto undamaged skirt. “Isn’t it the writer’s responsibility to, well, write?”

Come on, admit it: she has a point. She would also be well within her rights to call out the narrative for its other professional reader-piquer, the mixed metaphor.

Oh, you didn’t catch it? Although we are told that Blair’s current situation is like a movie, he longs to change the channel as if he were watching television.

Someone didn’t reread this submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, clearly.

What’s the cumulative moral here? Select your words with care — remember, all Millicent, or any reader, actually knows about the scene you are presenting is what you describe on the page. Yes, it’s undoubtedly quicker and more convenient to allow the reader to fill in the minutiae, but if you resort to vagueness or shorthand, how can you be sure that every reader will come up with the specifics you intend?

Or to put it another way: isn’t your creative vision worth conveying in detail?

And for heaven’s sake, tempestuous redheads and blondes-in-peril, grab a barrette or a baseball cap on your way out the door. Perhaps without all of that hair flying about in your eyes, you can finally get a good look at who or what is pursuing you.

Maybe then you could describe it to us. Keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: what we have here is a failure to communicate — in a business that’s all about communication

What do you mean, most manuscrips get rejected on page 1? That’s ridiculus.

I can’t believe you’re telling us that presentation can count as much as writing style. Agents know to look past any minor problems to the actual writing.

I hate Millicent. She must hate literature, or else how could she possibly reject subission so quickly?

The publish industry has become completely shallow. They only care about what sells, so it’s impossible for a genuiney talented new voice to get heard. Why even bother?

You got me, commenters on my series on professional readers’ pet peeves: the publishing industry doesn’t care whether books sell or not; it’s a non-profit enterprise devoted to the promotion of literary art. Nor are agencies at all market-oriented: while they don’t actually object if one of their pet authors happens to have a book that sells well, they can all afford to take on every project that appeals to them, regardless of whether they think they can sell it or not. Agents have limitless time to proofread — or even copyedit — their clients’ work before submitting it to editors, so it doesn’t matter what shape a manuscript is in when they take it on, and since they never specialize in a particular kind of book, they take chances on writing they just like all the time. In fact, they have so much time on their hands in any given workday that Millicent the agency screener doesn’t actually exist: she’s a figment of my imagination, intended to fill you with fear. In practice, every agent in the United States sits down to read every single query submitted, as well as every syllable of every requested manuscript, before making up her mind whether to reject it or not. Since only bad writing gets rejected, this of course an easy task.

In short, there’s no need for a naturally talented writer to take the time to learn how to format a manuscript, much less proofread it. Or, heaven forfend, find out how the publishing industry actually works.

Do I even need to shout, “April Fool,” campers?

I sincerely hope not. I’m writing about real-world phenomena here, not my opinion about how promising new talent ought to be discovered. I’m only telling you about the norms; I didn’t invent them. But now that some of you have brought your concerns about how difficult it is to get published to my attention, I’ll just wave my magic wand, and…

Oh, wait a minute: not being the Literature Fairy, I can’t change the publishing world upon request. No matter how often aspiring writers plead with me to say I didn’t really mean it when I said that there are practical things they can do to maximize the probability of their work making it past Millicent, I’m simply not in a position to alter reality in this respect. Sorry.

Which is why, in case any of you had been wondering, I’ve chosen to take the hard path here at Author! Author!, concentrating on craft and marketing issues, rather than just being a cheerleader for writers in general. I don’t believe (as some writing gurus out there apparently do) that it helps aspiring writers much to view the submission process through a rosy, hazy glow: as both a lover of literature and a great believer in the intelligence of writers, I would rather show you the actual conditions under which your work is going to be evaluated, encourage you not to worry about the factors that are outside your control, and, yes, to urge you to consider altering your texts to improve your chances of impressing Millicent.

Rather than, say, investing your energies in resenting Millicent for existing at all. It’s not her fault that the competition to grab an agent’s attention is so very fierce.

Surprised to see me defending her? Don’t be: I’m rather fond of our Millie. Without her, it simply would not be possible for agents to give even a passing glance to the avalanche of queries that constantly arrive in their offices. Then, too, it’s hard not to feel protective toward someone writers routinely blame for a system she did not create.

Heck, blame is putting it nicely: because most aspiring writers understandably don’t tend to think of their own queries or submissions as just one amongst the thousands an agency receives, many just assume that if they are rejected, the problem must lie in the obtuseness of the reader, rather than in any problems in the manuscript.

From Millicent’s perspective, this doesn’t make sense: there is quite a bit of truth to the industry aphorism that most manuscripts reject themselves. Not merely via the kind of opinion-influencing pet peeves we’ve been talking about throughout this series, but through plain old weak writing. Or a story that’s just not very interesting, or one that’s not original. Or — and this often comes as a gigantic surprise to those new to the process — because it’s not the kind of book that her boss habitually sells.

And frankly, in most cases, it genuinely is possible for a sharp reader to spot these problems within the first page. Sometimes with in the first couple of lines. Most of the time, it’s not a particularly hard decision, or one that ties her up in agonies of indecisiveness. To put it bluntly, from where Millicent is sitting, the vast majority of submissions deserve to be rejected.

To most aspiring writers, this attitude would come as a surprise, and with good reason: all they believe is being judged in a submission is the writing style and the overall story. The former is either good or bad, their logic tends to run, with few possibilities in between: if the writer is genuinely talented, it will be instantly obvious to an agent or editor.

If the prose needs work, well, that can always be fixed down the line: it’s the voice that counts. Regardless of how hard the text may be to read due to typos, skipped words, light gray type because the printer cartridge was running on empty, etc., an agent who truly loves literature is going to read the entire submission, because, after all, why would she ask for 50 pages if she didn’t intend to read every word? Nor will she worry about niggling marketing issues like who the target audience is for the book: good writing sells itself. And even if it didn’t, that would be the publishing house’s problem, not the author’s.

Is here where I get to shout, “April Fool!” again?

Unfortunately, no: while not all aspiring writers draw out the logic to this extent, this is the basic mindset reflected in the comments at the top of this post. These sentiments — including, heaven help us, the spelling — are not exaggerations to make a point: they are honestly representative of the feedback I have gotten from aspiring writers over the years whenever I have gotten specific about red flags in manuscripts.

Oh, not all of the feedback takes this tone, of course; this is merely a vocal minority. The Author! Author! community is rife with urbane, sensible aspiring writers who honestly do want to find out why some manuscripts get rejected and others do not. Which is why most of the protests that inevitably arise whenever I start going through common reasons that submissions get rejected on page 1 — as the vast majority of them do, much to the chagrin of aspiring writers all across the English-speaking world — tend to take a much more dignified, thoughtful tone.

Not to mention being spelled better. Why, just today, incisive reader Nancy posted this well-argued comment on yesterday’s celebration of pet peevery:

Thanks for the post. I’ve been giving some thought to page one & chapter one revisions. But one thing bothers me about this post & how you present it. It seems like we should be tailoring our early content for the sole benefit of an over-worked, bleary-eyed, impatient Millicent so that she doesn’t hurl our beloved pages into the trash. It doesn’t seem right to fashion our stories in this manner. It feels much like pandering to me. I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.

I love this kind of comment, because it both reflects a very natural resentment common amongst aspiring writers and an understanding rare amongst submitters that Millicent actually has an incredibly difficult job — much, much harder than it used to be before the advent of the home computer permitted the number of queries and submissions she has to get through in any given week to skyrocket. I’m not convinced that there are more people who want to get books published now than ever before, but technology has certainly made it significantly easier for the aspiring writer to get her work in front of Millicent’s aforementioned bleary eyes.

Oh, you had thought that she uses form-letter rejections — or, increasingly, no rejection letter at all — because she likes them? Au contraire, mon frère: it’s a matter of available time. Think about it: it’s her job to narrow the tens of thousands of queries and hundreds of requested materials packets down to the couple of dozen of manuscripts her boss, the agent of your dreams, could possibly read himself for consideration for the four or five (at most) new client slots he has this year.

Which is to say: our Millie doesn’t magically get more hours in the day if the current flock of submissions happens to be especially good. Talk to the Literature Fairy about that.

But that’s not how aspiring writers think about the submission process, is it? To the garden-variety hopeful querier or submitter, it’s practically unthinkable that the other writing projects the agency receives would have any effect on how an agent might view her book.

All that ever matters are the story and the writing style, right? Right?

From Millicent’s point of view, no. She is in charge of mediating the competition for those few client spots, not rewarding every prettily-worded submission that she sees. If her agency hasn’t been able to sell a story like the one in front of her for the last couple of years, she’s going to lean toward rejecting it. Furthermore, she reads too many manuscripts to believe that the way the text appears on the page is not reflective of how serious a writer is about his craft; she has observed too many book sales to regard whether an editor is likely to find the opening pages too slow as irrelevant to whether the manuscript would appeal to her boss.

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate, exacerbated by form-letter rejections that don’t let the writer know whether Millicent rejected a manuscript on page 1 or page 25. Or if abundant typos prompted her to stop reading, or if the story just didn’t interest her. Or — and this is positively mind-boggling, from a writerly perspective — whether she loved everything about the manuscript, but her boss just didn’t think it would sell in the current literary market.

Don’t think that’s a legitimate concern? Okay, let me ask you: why are you seeking an agent for your manuscript? Do you not hope and expect that agent to sell your book to a publisher?

Interesting to think of it in those terms, isn’t it?

Now that we are in a marketing mindset, let’s return to Nancy’s central question about yesterday’s post: if a writer bases a decision about what scene should open a manuscript upon what she thinks will appeal most to Millicent — or even gives some serious thought to how her book might appear to someone who read only the first page — is she pandering to the agency and, by implication, compromising her art? Or is she merely being market-savvy, and are the two mutually exclusive?

A perfectly legitimate set of questions from a writer’s point of view, right? To Millicent, they wouldn’t even make sense.

Why? Well, for the same reason that the question of selling out vs. artistic integrity has traditionally been much more of a concern for aspiring writers than ones who already do it for a living. From a professional point of view, there is not a necessary trade-off between good art and good marketing. If there were, getting published would be solely the province of those who don’t care about literary style, right?

“If an aspiring writer believes that,” Millicent says, scratching her head, “wouldn’t my being interested in his book be an insult? And how could a writer justify admiring an established author, who by definition writes for a specific market? This sounds like a Catch-22 to me — an unusually-structured novel that became a major bestseller, by the way — if playing to an audience necessarily means throwing one’s artistic values out the window, why would anyone who liked good writing ever read a successful author’s work?”

Allow me to translate, Millicent: aspiring writers sometimes assume that there’s only one right way to tell the story they have in mind — and that the author is only person who can determine what that running order is. From this point of view, it’s equally harmful to artistic freedom of expression for an editor to ask a writer to change the opening scene as for the writer to feel compelled to rearrange the text to begin with action, because someone giving advice on the Internet said — accurately, as it happens — that you tend to reject slow openings. In essence, both imperatives are based upon the assumption that it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice the most effective way of telling a story in order to sell a book.

“Please tell me,” Millicent replies, “that you’re about to shout, ‘April Fool!’ Are you seriously suggesting that it’s artistically inappropriate for an agent to say, ‘Okay, new client, I like your book, but it would resemble other books in your chosen category — and thus be easier to sell to the editors who acquired those books — if you rearrange the running order?’ Most published novels get revised fairly heavily between when an agent picks them up and publication, and while new authors tend to kick up a fuss about it, most ultimately agree in the long run that the requested revisions actually improved their books. So I think you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find anyone on my side of the submission packet who would say with a straight face that the author’s original version is the best or only way to structure a book.”

If you listen closely to both sides of this argument, you can hear how it comes back to that perennial difference of opinion about how and why books should get published. On the one hand, many aspiring writers would like to believe that it’s Millicent’s job — and the publishing industry’s duty — to base decisions upon what to accept and what to reject solely upon writing talent (defined by potential, rather than what’s actually on the page) and the inherent interest of the story (defined in artistic terms, and not by what readers might actually buy). On the other hand, many agents and editors — and their Millicents — proceed on the assumption that it’s the writer’s job to create interesting, marketable manuscripts written in a strong, unique authorial voice appropriate to the target audience’s already-established likes and dislikes.

A good writer, in their opinion, is one who can pull off this high-wire act without compromising the book’s artistic value.

Which is in fact possible, as the work of all of our favorite authors attest. But if a writer trying to break into the biz chooses to think of the demands of art and the market as necessarily mutually exclusive, it’s a significantly more difficult high-wire act to complete without tumbling to the ground.

And honestly, in my experience, speeding up an opening scene or making it read more like a story in its chosen book category seldom involves doing great violence the text. It’s often as simple as moving that great exchange on page 4 up to page 1, or drafting a conflict-ridden scene from later in the book to use as a prologue.

Or — brace yourselves, purists, because this one is going to sting a little — going into the composition process realizing that it would be desirable to open the book with conflict, rather than a scene where very little happens or one loaded with constant digressions for backstory. While you’re at it, including a strong, sensual opening image would be nice.

That’s not a matter of the market dictating content. That’s a matter of understanding how readers decide whether to get invested in a story or not.

I’m not just talking about Millicent, either. Plenty of readers habitually grab volumes off bookstore shelves and scan the first page or two before buying a book, after all. While readers’ pacing expectations vary widely by book category (and sometimes by country: even literary fiction published in the U.S. tends to start much faster than similar books published in the U.K.), you must admit that it’s rare to find a reader who says, “You know what I like? A story that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere until page 148.”

Is that blinding glare spreading across the horizon an indication that a whole lot of light bulbs just went off over a whole lot of writers’ heads? You performed the translation for yourself this time: the publishing industry — and its first reader, Millicent — believes it is doing right by its customers by habitually rejecting slow-opening books or those with plots that don’t seem to be going anywhere for the first 200 pages. It’s protecting them from — well, perhaps boredom is a harsh term, but certainly disappointment.

What makes publishing types think that they know what readers want? They have the sales statistics for what readers are already buying sitting in front of them.

Instead of debating whether past sales are necessarily indicative of the kind of book that will strike readers’ fancies a few years hence, let’s take a moment to consider from what Millicent is protecting the reading public. Generally speaking, it’s not vividly rendered, fascinatingly written exemplars of cutting-edge prose that send her groping for the form-letter rejection pile. A startlingly high percentage of what any screener or contest judge sees reads like this:

It was a dark and stormy night. It was cold in the castle. Myra shook her long, red hair down her back, shivering. She was tall, but not too tall, a medium height just perfect for melting into Byron’s arms. She walked from one side of the room to the other, pacing and thinking, thinking and pacing. The walls of the room were covered in tapestries needled by her mother who spent years bent over them. Myra barely glanced at them now.

Come on, admit it — you wouldn’t really blame Millicent if she rejected this, would you? The writing’s not interesting, the sentence structure is far too repetitive, and nothing’s really happening. About all it has going for it, from a professional perspective, is that all the words are spelled right.

Oh, you may laugh, but part of Millie’s job consists of saving the literary world from the rampant misspellings that characterize the average submission — and an astonishingly high proportion of otherwise rather well-written ones. Let’s don her super heroine’s cloak for a moment, to see just how difficult the decision to reject such a manuscript would be.

If you opened the day’s submissions and saw this novel’s opening, how likely would you be to recommend that your boss read it? Or even to turn to page 2 yourself?

This is not a particularly egregious example of the type of manuscript problem Millicent sees on a daily basis. If the formatting, spelling, grammar, and capitalization issues bugged you, you were reading like a professional: when a pro looks at a page like this, what she sees is how it could be improved. In this case, so much improvement is needed that she would automatically reject this submission. Better luck next time.

But if you were reading this page as most aspiring writers read their own work, you probably saw something different: the charm of the story, the rhythm of the writing, the great use of specifics. You would have reacted, in short, rather like Millicent would have had the page above been presented like this.

Now that the distractions are cleared away, it’s rather nice writing, isn’t it? It ought to be: it’s the opening of Nobel laureate in literature John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

As those of you prone to thinking cynically about how hard it is to get published nowadays may be pleased to note, it would be nearly impossible for an aspiring writer to get this first page past Millicent today, even in the second format. Actually, even a very well established author might have difficulty getting this published now: that many ands in a row would put many a professional reader off. Essentially, this is a long list, rather than a fully fleshed-out description.

It’s also, by current standards, a rather slow opening. “Who is the protagonist?” Millicent cries. “And what is this book about?”

Based upon this page alone, it appears to be primarily about the writing — and that renders the peculiar sentence structure and choice to open with this material even more pertinent. John Steinbeck, no doubt, considered those run-ons artistically necessary; presumably, he also had a reason for electing to begin his story with this series of lists. When you have a Nobel Prize in literature, your readers may well be tolerant of this kind of thing. Even as a reader quite fond of the book that follows, though, I can’t concur in his choices: this page 1 does not even remotely do justice to the fabulously quirky characters and hilarious plot twists to come.

“This book is funny?” Millicent asks incredulously. “Could have fooled me.”

Actually, the opening page fooled you, Millie, and it’s hard to hold anyone but the author responsible for that. In Uncle John’s defense, though, his target readership would have grown up on Victorian novels, books where the early pages were often devoted to establishing time and setting through generalities. (And in the passive voice: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc.) It just goes to show you, the standards of what constitutes good writing are constantly evolving.

“Aha!” Millicent shouts triumphantly. “So much for the notion that good writing is always good writing. Take that, writers who want to blame me for readers’ ever-changing tastes! If I advised my boss to snap up every manuscript that would have sold readily 10, 20, or 150 years ago, I would not only be ignoring current literary tastes, but doing a disservice to those old-fashioned writers. It breaks everyone’s heart when we can’t place a book we love.”

That doesn’t require translation, I hope. Part of my goal in presenting Millicent’s pet peeves is not only to help aspiring writers realize that there is a human being, not a literature-evaluating machine, reading their submissions, but that since professional readers honestly do tend to like good writing, it genuinely annoys them to see a nicely-written opening marred by technical problems. Or a story with a lot of potential squandering the reader’s attention with too much backstory up front. Or — you were anticipating this one, weren’t you? — a beautifully worded first page making itself hard to market by eschewing conflict.

Is that the same thing as requiring a writer to compromise his artistic integrity or harm the story he is trying to tell? She doesn’t think so, nor, I suspect, would anyone else who reads manuscripts for a living. They have faith, even if aspiring writers don’t, that a genuinely talented storyteller will possesses the skills and creativity to structure her tale to grab the reader from the top of page 1.

Which most emphatically does not mean, as today’s commenter suggested, that every opening needs to read like the first scene of a thriller: “I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.”

Yes, she is — and so was the argument in yesterday’s post. If I may take the liberty of quoting myself, I specifically urged everyone not to begin page 1 with explosions or other genre-inappropriate activity:

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

Many, many aspiring writers misunderstand this point, so I am glad that Nancy brought it up. Allow me to restate it in clearer terms: no one is seriously suggesting that it would be desirable, or even appropriate, for a good writer to shoehorn conflict onto page 1 that doesn’t arise from legitimate plot elements and/or character development. Nor is anyone telling you that action-movie pyrotechnics are necessary to attract Millicent’s positive attention. To conclude that the publishing industry insists upon this kind of action at the opening of every book it decides to publish is to ignore what has actually appeared on page 1 of the vast majority of novels published in the United States this year — or, indeed, any year.

To professional readers, then, it’s downright puzzling to hear aspiring writers complain that the publishing industry has turned its back on non-sensational writing. Once again, we run into a translation problem.

This one arises, I suspect, from responding too literally to the words action and conflict. Although countless aspiring writers misinterpret marketing admonitions like open with action, throw the reader right into the book’s central conflict, and make sure there is action on page 1 to mean we’re not interested in any stories that could not be made into action films, that’s simply not what the advice means. (That’s why, in case anybody had been wondering, I was careful to phrase the rejection reason yesterday as not enough happens on page 1 and the story takes to long to get started, not as the more commonly-heard open the book with action.)

In literary circles, action and conflict can refer to relatively quiet activities. Yes, nearby objects blowing up are one kind of action, but so is the protagonist taking steps to try to challenge a situation she finds onerous, even in a very small way. Conflict can involve a Bruce Lee-style kung fu brawl, but it can also be a character silently disagreeing with the speech his boss is making, his subtle body movements demonstrating his ire. Neither term could be fruitfully applied, however, to the protagonist’s sitting around and thinking, multiple characters complacently agreeing with one another, or paragraph upon paragraph of backstory distracting from the current scene.

Even as feedback on a specific text, the advice open with action seldom means supply all of the ladies in the opening quilting scene with switchblades, and make sure that quilt is bloody by the bottom of page 1! Typically, when a professional reader suggests rearranging the running order or revising the scene to add action, it’s as an antidote to a scene that drags. Adding interpersonal conflict, placing a barrier in the protagonist’s path, or just plain having something exciting happen (“Look, there’s an albatross flying by, Grandma!”) are all standard ways to speed up a slow scene.

Again, none of these tactics would necessarily involve compromising the artistic integrity of the manuscript, interfering with the basic storyline, or tossing a Molotov cocktail into the middle of a sedate tea party. Implementing them successfully may, however, require some good, old-fashioned creative thinking to come up with a means of introducing believable conflict onto page 1 — and, indeed, onto every page of the text.

Why? Because conflict is interesting; readers like it. Do you need a better reason than that? Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part IX: how can I possibly get from here to the door without a guide?

Last time, I brought up in passing the dreaded Walking Across the Room (WATR) problem, a scene or paragraph in which a character does something, but the narrative gets so bogged down in detail that the important action gets watered down — and the reader gets bored. Instead of narrowing down the steps to complete a project to only what’s necessary for the reader to understand what’s going on, a WATR text mentions everything that happens.

If you were one of the many, many readers who responded to that last statement by muttering, “Well, not everything that happens — surely, few writers go down to the molecular level when describing relatively straightforward actions,” allow me to introduce you to Millicent, the intrepid soul charged with screening each and every query and submission all the writers in the English-speaking world are aiming at the agent of your dreams. She would be only too happy to tell you that she regularly sees descriptions that range from the itty-bitty:

The boss had only just begun lecturing the staff, but almost without noticing, Zelda found herself itching all over. Not just on the top layer of her epidermis, the stuff that separated her from the rest of the microbe-infested world, but right down to the dermis holding her together. Indeed, even her hypodermis felt like it was crawling with minuscule bugs. She pictured the very nuclei of her cells needing to be scratched.

to the grandiose:

After the magma cooled to form the valley, life slowly began to emerge from the primordial ooze. First small, cold-blooded creatures barely able to wrest themselves from the slimy waters that gave them birth, then warm-blooded animals that hid in terror from the giant lizards stomping outside their burrows. Gradually, ponderous dinosaur immensity gave way to grazing placidity and hunting ferocity. Late in the game, man came, in packs and tribes, and eventually, in covered wagons.

Close to where the first settlers had carved out sustenance from the unforgiving ground, Arnie made a latte for his seventeenth customer for the day. Ten minutes into his shift, and the café was already packed.

Mostly, though, our poor Millicent is overwhelmed by the obvious, descriptions so loaded down with the self-evident and the unnecessary that she begins to wonder how aspiring writers believe readers make their way through the world. Surely, if readers actually needed directions this specific, we’d all be in trouble.

Liza did a double-take. Was that her long-lost Uncle Max on the other side of the fairway, about to hand over his ticket, push open the small gate, and walk up the angled walkway to the Tilt-a-Whirl? She would have see for herself, but he was so far away, and the crowd so large! Summoning her resolve, she set off in the direction of the carnival ride, walking firmly, but stepping aside to let others pass as necessary.

When she bumped into people in her haste, she stopped and apologized to them. She veered around children waving cotton candy, lest she get it on her favorite tank top. That would be all she needed, meeting her mother’s favorite brother with a great big stain on her shirt!

Suddenly self-conscious, she paused in front of the funhouse to take a peek at her hair and make-up in the mirrors. They distorted her form and face so much that she could not tell if her stockings were straight. Sighing, she resumed her quest, but not before rummaging around in her capacious purse for a comb with which to set her hair to rights and lipstick to redo her lips.

I’m going to stop Liza’s trek to ask you something: do you still care whether she catches up to her uncle? Indeed, has the narrative’s constant digression into unimportant matters convinced you that Liza doesn’t particularly care if she catches up with him?

And while I’m asking questions, what would one do with lipstick other than apply it to one’s lips? Doesn’t the writer believe that the reader is smart enough to spot the word lipstick and draw the correct conclusion?

“Specifically,” Millicent asks with some asperity, “does this writer think I’m not smart enough to make that simple a connection?”

Oh, she might not hiss this question through gritted teeth upon encountering such over-explanation in her first few manuscripts on a typical Tuesday morning. If she hadn’t been too overwhelmed with the post-weekend avalanche of queries the day before, she might well be feeling benevolent as she sips her first latte. When she encounters the same phenomenon in her 37th manuscript of the day, however, she will probably be feeling less charitable — and by the end of a long day’s screening, she might be so sick of submissions that seem to be talking down to her that her ire is raised by sentences that indulge in relatively minor over-explanation, such as When the light changed, he walked across the street.

Even that slight provocation could make all of those lattes boil within her system. “How else would a pedestrian cross the street?” she growls the page. “And don’t tell me when a character does something as expected as crossing with the light — tell me when he doesn’t! Better yet, yank him out of that tedious street and have him do something exciting that reveals character and/or moves the plot along!”

If you take nothing else away from this series, please let it be a firm resolve not to resent Millicent for this response. Yes, it’s a trifle unfair that the last manuscript (or contest entry) to make a common error on that day would be judged more harshly than, say, the third one that did it, but it’s certainly not hard to understand why. There’s just no getting around the fact that professional readers — i.e., agents, editors, contest judges, agency screeners, editorial assistants, writing teachers — tend to read manuscript pages not individually, like most readers do, but in clumps.

One after another. All the livelong day.

That’s necessarily going to affect how they read your manuscript — or any other writer’s, for that matter. Think about it: if you had already spotted the same easily-fixable error 50 times today (or, heaven help you, within the last hour), yet were powerless to prevent the author of submission #51 from making precisely the same rejection-worthy mistake, wouldn’t it make you just a mite testy?

Welcome to Millicent’s world. Help yourself to a latte.

And do try to develop some empathy for her, if only to make yourself a better self-editor. If you’re at all serious about landing an agent, you should want to get a peek into her world, because she’s typically the first line of defense at an agency, the hurdle any submission must clear before a manuscript can get anywhere near the agent who requested it. In that world, the submission that falls prey to the same pitfall as the one before it is far, far more likely to get rejected on page 1 than the submission that makes a more original mistake.

Why, you cry out in horror — or, depending upon how innovative your gaffes happen to be, cry out in relief? Feel free to chant along with me now, long-term readers — from a professional reader’s point of view, ubiquitous writing problems are not merely barriers to reading enjoyment; they are boring as well.

Did the mere thought of your submission’s boring Millicent for so much as a second make you cringe? Good — you’re in the right frame of mind to consider trimming your pages of some extraneous explanation and detail.

It will require concentration, because these manuscript problems are frequently invisible to the writer who produced them. Yet they are glaringly visible to a professional reader, for precisely the same reason that formatting problems are instantly recognizable to a contest judge: after you’ve see the same phenomenon crop up in 75 of the last 200 manuscripts you’ve read, your eye just gets sensitized to it.

Let’s begin with that most eminently cut-able category of sentences, statements of the obvious. You know, the kind that draws a conclusion or states a fact that any reader of average intelligence might have been safely relied upon to have figured out for him or herself.

Caught me in the act, didn’t you? Yes, the second sentence of the previous paragraph is an example of what I’m talking about; I was trying to test your editing eye.

Here I go, testing it again. See how many self-evident statements you can catch in the following novel opening. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the individual words in the example, try holding down the Command key while hitting + to enlarge the image.

obvious example 1

How did you do? Is not night usually dark? Where else would the moon rise except on the horizon? What else could one possibly shrug other than shoulders — or, indeed, nod with, other than a head? Is there a funny bone located somewhere in the body other than the arm. Have I spent my life blind to all of those toes that aren’t on feet?

Seeing a pattern? Or are you merely beginning to hear Millicent’s irritated mutterings in your mind?

If you immediately added mentally, “That would be the mind in your head,” then yes, I would say that you are beginning to think like our Millie. That’s going to make you a much, much better self-editor.

Why? Well, once you are attuned to the possibility of this reader reaction, this sort of statement should send your fingers flying for the DELETE key. In fact, let’s go ahead and state this as a revision axiom:

Any statement in a submission that might prompt Millicent to mutter, “Well, duh!” is a likely rejection-trigger. Therefore, all such statements are prime candidates for cutting.

I heard a few jaws hitting the floor during the first sentence of that guideline, so allow me to elaborate: and yes, even a single “Well, duh!” moment might result in rejection, even if the rest of the submission is clean, perfectly formatted, and relatively well-written to boot. Read on to find out why.

I mention that, obviously, because I fear that some of you might not have understood that in a written argument, discussion of a premise often follows hard upon it, often in the paragraphs just below. Or maybe I just thought that not all of you would recognize the difference between a paragraph break and the end of a blog. I still have a lot to say on the subject — which is, presumably, why there are more words on the page. I’ve put them there in the hope that you will read them.

Rather insulting to the intelligence, isn’t it? That’s how your garden-variety Millicent feels when a sentence in a submission assumes she won’t catch on to something self-evident.

“Jeez,” she murmurs indignantly, “just how dim-witted does this writer think I am? Next!”

I feel you losing empathy for her, but remember: when someone is reading in order to catch mistakes — as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do when faced with mountains of submissions — one is inclined to get a mite testy. Liability of the trade.

In fact, to maintain the level of focus necessary edit a manuscript really well, it is often desirable to keep oneself in a constant state of irritable reactivity. Keeps the old editing eye sharp.

Those would be the eyes in the head, in case anyone was wondering. Located just south of the eyebrows, possibly somewhere in the vicinity of the ears. I’ve heard rumors that eyes have been spotted on the face.

To a professional reader in such a state hyper-vigilance, the appearance of a self-evident proposition on a page is like the proverbial red flag to a bull: the reaction is often disproportionate to the offense. Even — and I tremble to inform you of this, but it’s true — if the self-evidence infraction is very, very minor.

As luck would have it, we have already discussed some of the more common species of self-evidence, have we not? To refresh your memory, here is a small sampling of some of the things professional readers have been known to howl at the pages in front of them, regardless of the eardrums belonging to the inhabitants of adjacent cubicles:

In response to the seemingly innocuous line, He shrugged his shoulders: “What else could he possibly have shrugged? His kneecaps?” (Insert violent scratching sounds here, leaving only the words, He shrugged still standing in the text.)

In response to the ostensibly innocent statement, She blinked her eyes: “The last time I checked, eyes are the only part of the body that CAN blink!” (Scratch, scratch, scratch.)

In response to the bland sentence, The queen waved her hand at the crowd: “Waving ASSUMES hand movement! Why is God punishing me like this?” (Scratch, maul, stab pen through paper repeatedly.)

And that’s just how the poor souls react to all of those logically self-evident statements on a sentence level. The assertions of the obvious on a larger scale send them screaming into their therapists’ offices, moaning that all of the writers of the world have leagued together in a conspiracy to bore them to death.

As is so often the case, the world of film provides some gorgeous examples of larger-scale obviousness. Take, for instance, the phenomenon film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the Seeing-Eye Man: after the crisis in an action film has ended, the male lead embraces the female lead and says, “It’s over,” as though the female might not have noticed something as minor as Godzilla’s disappearance, or the cessation of that hail of bullets/lava/space locusts that has been following them around for the last reel, or the pile of bad guys dead at their feet. In response to this helpful statement, she nods gratefully.

Or the cringing actor who glances at the sky immediately after the best rendition of a thunderclap ever heard on film and asks fearfully, “Is there a storm coming?”

Or — if we’re thinking like Millicent — the protagonist whose first response to the sight of flames (vividly rendered in the narrative, of course) is to shout, “Fire!” What’s he going to do next, suggest to the firefighters that they might perhaps want to apply something flame-retardant to the immediate environment?

Trust me: the firefighters already know to do that. And Millicent is quite capable of contemplating a paragraph’s worth of smoke, embers, and licking flames and concluding there’s a fire without the protagonist wasting page space to tell her so.

Taken one at a time, naturally, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding triggers – but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages of a submission or contest entry, they can be genuine deal-breakers.

Oh, you want to see what that level of Millicent-goading might look like on the submission page, do you? I aim to please. Let’s take a gander at a WATR problem in its natural habitat — and to render it easier to spot in the wild, this one literally concerns walking across a room.

obvious example2

See why a writer might have trouble identifying the WATR problem in her own manuscript? Here, the account is a completely accurate and believable description of the process. As narrative in a novel, however, it would be quite dull for the reader, because getting that blasted door answered apparently requires the reader to slog through so many not-very-interesting events. Yet that requirement is purely in the writer’s mind: any reasonably intelligent reader could be trusted to understand that in order to answer the door, she would need to put down the book, rise from the chair, and so forth.

Or, to put it another way, is there any particular reason that the entire process could not be summed up as She got up and answered the door, so all of the reclaimed page space could be devoted to more interesting activity?

If we really wanted to get daring with those editing shears, all the revising writer would have to do is allow the narrative simply to jump from one state of being to the next, trusting the reader to be able to interpolate the connective logic. The result might look a little something like this:

When the ringing became continuous, Jessamyn gave up on peaceful reading. She pushed aside Mom’s to-do list tacked to the front door and peered through the peephole. Funny, there didn’t seem to be anyone there, yet still, the doorbell shrilled. She had only pushed it halfway open when she heard herself scream.

Quite a saving of page space, is it not? Yet do you think Millicent’s going to be scratching her head, wondering how Jessamyn got from the study to the hallway? Or that she will be flummoxed by how our heroine managed to open the door without the text lingering on the turning of the knob?

Of course not. Stick to the interesting stuff.

WATR problems are not, alas, exclusively the province of scenes involving locomotion — many a process has been over-described by dint of including too much procedural information in the narrative. Take another gander at the first version of Jessamyn’s story: every detail is presented as equally important. So how is the reader to supposed to know what is and isn’t important to the scene?

Seem like an odd question? It should: it’s not the reader’s job to guess what’s crucial to a scene and what merely decorative. Nor is it Millicent’s.

So whose job is it? Here’s a good way to find out: place your hands on the armrests of your chair, raise yourself to a standing position, walk across your studio, find the nearest mirror — if necessary, turning on a nearby light source — and gaze into it.

Why, look, it’s you. Who could have seen that coming?

There’s another, more literary reason to fight the urge to WATR. What WATR anxiety — the fear of leaving out a necessary step in a complex process — offers the reader is less a narrative description of a process than a list of every step involved in it. As we saw last time, a list is generally the least interesting way of depicting anything.

So why would you want Millicent to see anything but your best writing?

Where should a reviser start looking for WATR problems? In my experience, they are particularly likely to occur when writers are describing processes with which they are very familiar, but readers may not be. In this case, the preparation of a peach pie:

Obvious example 3

As a purely factual account, that’s admirable, right? Should every single pastry cookbook on the face of the earth suddenly be carried off in a whirlwind, you would want this description on hand in order to reconstruct the recipes of yore. Humanity is saved!

As narrative text in a novel, however, it’s not the most effective storytelling tactic. All of those details swamp the story — and since they appear on page 1, the story doesn’t really have a chance to begin. Basically, this narrative voice says to the reader, “Look, I’m not sure what’s important here, so I’m going to give you every detail. You get to decide for yourself what’s worth remembering and what’s not.”

Besides, didn’t your attention begin to wander after just a few sentences? It just goes to show you: even if you get all of the details right, this level of description is not very likely to retain a reader’s interest for long.

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

Do I hear some murmuring from those of you who actually read all the way through the example? “But Anne,” you protest, desperately rubbing your eyes (in your head) to drive the sleepiness away, “the level of detail was not what bugged me most about that pie-making extravaganza. What about all of the ands? What about all of the run-on sentences and word repetition? Wouldn’t those things bother Millicent more?”

I’m glad that you were sharp-eyed enough to notice those problems, eye-rubbers, but honestly, asking whether the repetition is more likely to annoy a professional reader than the sheer stultifying detail is sort of like asking whether Joan of Arc disliked the burning or the suffocating part of her execution more.

Either is going to kill you, right? Mightn’t it then be prudent to avoid both?

In a revised manuscript, at least. In first drafts, the impulse to blurt out all of these details can be caused by a fear of not getting the entire story down on paper fast enough, a common qualm of the chronically-rushed: in her haste to get the whole thing on the page right away, the author just tosses everything she can think of into the pile on the assumption that she can come back later and sort it out. It can also arise from a trust issue, or rather a distrust issue: spurred by the author’s lack of faith in either her own judgment as a determiner of importance, her profound suspicion that the reader is going to be critical of her if she leaves anything out, or both.

Regardless of the root cause, WATR is bad news for the narrative voice. Even if the reader happens to like lists and adore detail, that level of quivering anxiety about making substantive choices resonates in every line, providing distraction from the story. Taken to an extreme, it can even knock the reader out of the story.

Although WATR problems are quite popular in manuscript submissions, they are not the only page-level red flag resulting from a lack of faith in the reader’s ability to fill in the necessary logic. Millicent is frequently treated to descriptions of shifting technique during car-based scenes (“Oh, how I wish this protagonist drove an automatic!” she moans. “Next!”), blow-by-blow accounts of industrial processes (“Wow, half a page on the smelting of iron for steel. Don’t see that every day — wait, I saw a page and a half on the intricacies of salmon canning last week. Next!”), and even detailed narration of computer use (“Gee, this character hit both the space bar and the return key? Stop — my doctor told me to avoid extreme excitement. Next!”)

And that’s not even counting all of the times narratives have meticulously explained to her that gravity made something fall, the sun’s rays produced warmth or burning, or that someone standing in line had to wait until the people standing in front of him were served. Why, the next thing you’ll be telling her is that one has to push a chair back from a table before one can rise from it, descending a staircase requires putting one’s foot on a series of steps in sequence, or getting at the clothes in a closet requires first opening its door.

Trust me, Millicent is already aware of all of these phenomena. You’re better off cutting all such statements in your manuscript– and yes, it’s worth an extra read-through to search out every last one.

That’s a prudent move, incidentally, even if you feel morally positive that your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often. Remember, you have no control over whose submission a screener will read immediately prior to yours. Even if your submission contains only one self-evident proposition over the course of the first 50 pages, if it appears on page 2 and Millicent has just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that she will kindly overlook your single instance amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you? Excellent; you’re getting the hang of just how closely professional readers read.

“What do you mean?” writers of the obvious protest indignantly. “I’m merely providing straightforward explanation. Who could possibly object to being told that a character lifted his beer glass before drinking from it? How else is he going to drink from it?”

How else, indeed? Maybe we ought to add that he lifted the glass with his hand, just in case there’s a reader out there who might be confused.

In fairness to the beer-describer, the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin, especially when describing a common experience or everyday object. I’ve been using only very bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear in a text:

The hand of the round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second, marking passing time as it moved. Jake ate his cobbler with a fork, alternating bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry with swigs of coffee from his mug. As he ate, farmers came into the diner to eat lunch, exhausted from riding the plows that tore up the earth in neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. The waitress gave bills to each of them when they had finished eating, but still, Jake’s wait went on and on.

Now, to an ordinary reader, rather than a detail-oriented professional one, there isn’t much wrong with this paragraph, is there? It conveys a rather nice sense of place and mood, in fact. But see how much of it could be trimmed simply by removing embroideries upon the obvious:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. As he ate, farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. Even after they had finished eating and left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

The reduction of an 91-word paragraph to an equally effective 59-word one may not seem like a major achievement, but in a manuscript that’s running long, every word counts. The shorter version will make the Millicents of the world, if not happy, at least pleased to see a submission that assumes that she is intelligent enough to know that, generally speaking, people consume cobbler with the assistance of cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

Who knew?

Heck, a brave self-editor might even go out on a limb and trust Millicent to know the purpose of plowing and to understand the concept of an ongoing action, trimming the paragraph even further:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. Farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows. Even after they had left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

That’s a cool 47 words. Miss any of the ones I excised, other than perhaps that nice bit about the seedlings?

Self-evidence is one of those areas where it honestly is far easier for a reader other than the writer to catch the problem, though, so if you can line up other eyes to scan your submission before it ends up on our friend Millicent’s desk, it’s in your interest to do so. In fact, given how much obviousness tends to bug Millicent, it will behoove you to make a point of asking your first readers to look for it specifically.

How might one go about that? Hand ‘em the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask ‘em to make a great big X in the margin every time the narrative takes the time to explain that rain is wet, of all things, that a character’s watch was strapped to his wrist, of all places, or that another character applied lipstick to — wait for it — her lips.

It’s late now, so I am now going to post this blog on my website on my laptop computer, which is sitting on a lap desk on top of — you’ll never see this coming — my lap. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. If the room is too dark, I might switch the switch on my lamp to turn it on. After I am done, I might elect to reverse the process to turn it off.

Heavens, I lead an exciting life. Keep up the good work!