This time, I mean it about the deadline — and I always mean it about logical flow

I’m going to keep it short and semi-sweet today, campers — tomorrow, if you will recall, is the deadline for entries to The Sensual Surfeit Literary Competition of 2012, this year’s edition of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. To be specific, your fabulously-detailed scenes must be submitted by midnight in your time zone on Monday, December 3.

Some helpful links for those of you whose writing chops bloom under last-minute pressure: you’ll find the rules here. You’ll also find, for your rushed entry-proofing pleasure, a handy post in which I show precisely what a winning entry for this contest might look like on the page. You’re welcome; have at it.

I have a nice treat in store for all of us once contest-entrants once again have time to read, something that I think is really going to provide a launching-pad for some fabulous big-picture discussion. I’d like to free up some time for those of who whose creative brains are this very instant suggesting, “Hey, Mavis, I know you hadn’t planned on entering this contest, despite the genuinely pretty great prizes, but wouldn’t that scene in Chapter Five precisely fit the bill?”, though, so for the nonce, let’s concentrate upon something nit-picky.

Fortunately for the cause of relative brevity (hey, we are talking about me here), as so often happens, the universe leapt to provide an apt blogging topic for our immediate need. See if you can spot the notorious editorial pet peeve in the following sentence, courtesy of a news program’s bottom-of-the-screen eye distraction headline ticker. So as not to tar the catastrophe in question with the additional stigma of reader-irritant, I have altered the sentence’s subject matter.

The governor blamed the storm on the extensive flooding.

My, that would be newsworthy, wouldn’t it? How unusual for flooding, extensive or otherwise, to cause a storm, rather than the other way around. May we also conclude that sand build-up on a beach is the ultimate culprit for all of those waves?

This kind of sentence has resulted in more handfuls of editors’ and agents’ hair ending up on carpets, parquet, and desktops than I can even begin to estimate. It’s unclear, of course, but in a way that the rise of reality television, misread teleprompters, and hastily-typed Tweets has led your garden-variety member of the general reading public to shrug and accept: the sentence’s running order runs counter to what the reader must assume was the writer’s intended meaning.

Causation, in short, is flipped here. (Either that, or that governor’s mental processes could bear some psychological scrutiny.) What the writer almost certainly meant — and what the news program’s producers were evidently cavalier enough to presume viewers would be willing to put in the effort to extract from this convoluted logic — was this.

The governor blamed the extensive flooding on the storm.

Not nearly such an eye-catching headline, admittedly, but I hope we can all agree that this version poses less of a brain-teaser. It’s also, to be purely practical about it, significantly less likely to cause a professional reader like our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to stop reading.

Does that immense clank of ten thousand jaws hitting the aforementioned floor tiles indicate that we hadn’t discussed this sad fact in a while? I hate to be the one to break it to those of you brand-new to the submission process, but due to the sheer volume of aspiring writers clamoring for their literary attention and the concomitant necessity to narrow tens of thousands of requested manuscripts down to the four or five new clients even a very well-established agent could hope to take on this year, Millicent tends not to read each and every submission in its entirety before passing judgment upon it. She simply does not have the time.

She does not, in short, approach each fresh manuscript like an ordinary reader, any more than her boss, the agent of your dreams, or the acquiring editor you’d like to pick up your book would. Generally speaking, at least for a submission’s opening pages, Millie will read one or two lines. If they are well-written, book category-appropriate, current market-appropriate, presented professionally, and sound like the kind of book her boss likes to represent, she’ll move on.

For a line, whereupon the assessment process begins anew. Repeat as needed until a rejection red flag pops up — or Millicent becomes sufficiently engrossed in the story to follow it for its own sake.

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, the overwhelming majority of submissions to agencies get rejected on page 1. Can you imagine how many Millicents a truly popular agent would have to hire if they did not?

Oh, dear, I didn’t mean to send those of you new to this blog curling into the fetal position. “But Anne,” shocked writers everywhere moan, and who could blame you? “Speaking of logic, that doesn’t make sense. Why would an agent request a full manuscript if he doesn’t intend to read all of it?”

In a word, time. Some small fraction of those requested manuscripts will make it past Millicent’s line-by-line scrutiny, after all, and isn’t it fortunate that she’ll have the rest of those books on hand when she does? If all the agent asked to see was the opening page or two (which, I should note, some agencies do ask queriers to include; check individual submission requirements), then Millie would have to stop after being wowed by an opening, contact the writer, and ask for another chunk. If her boss asked for the full manuscript, she can simply read on.

To be fair, requesting the full manuscript used to mean precisely what excited successful queriers and pitchers still usually believe it does: that the query or pitch excited great professional interest on the agency end. In days of yore — which is to say: more than years ago, a lifetime in a trend-based business — the usual positive response entailed asking to see the first 50 pages, or perhaps the opening chapter.

Before you sigh gustily and long for a time machine, so you could pop back to the 1980s, land an agent, and wing back to find yourself a well-established and long-beloved author, though, consider this: accepting electronic queries or submissions was unheard-of then. Many an aspiring writer still produced her manuscripts on typewriters then, rendering very real the possibility that she would accidentally send an agent her old copy. It would also have been much, much harder for that writer to learn much of anything about the agents she intended to approach: agencies posting websites at all is a relatively recent phenomenon, even by Internet standards.

Does any or all of that make you feel better about the fact that the advent of widespread personal computer ownership and the later easy access to worldwide connectivity have caused an astronomical rise in the number of queries and submissions those agents receive in any given week? Probably not, at least if you’re like the hefty majority of first-time submitters who believe that the only factor an agent or editor could possibly consider in deciding whether to acquire a manuscript is the quality of the writing.

Oh, are some of you still curled up like shrimp? I am sorry. “This logic is making my head spin,” those maintaining the fetal position protest. “I get that agencies are busy, busy places, but how is it possible to judge the talent of a writer of book-length works by the first, second, or fiftieth line of text? Shouldn’t novels be judged, you know, as a whole?”

In an ideal world, yes, but as you may have noticed, we don’t live in one.

Or so those of us who read for a living surmise from the fact that the reading public is perpetually barraged with so many logically-convoluted sentences every day. Apparently, we’re all just expected to rearrange the running order ourselves. In a well-ordered universe, that surely would not be the case.

Admittedly, that’s not all that difficult in our example — unless either the news ticker-writer or the governor knows something about how storms work that the rest of us do not, reason dictates only one possible intended meaning, right? Storms cause flooding, not the other way around. But as any hair-rending agent, editor, or literary contest judge would be only too glad to tell you, it’s the writer’s job to produce clear text, not the reader’s job to guess what the writer actually meant.

Or, to put it another way, logical flow is the minimum requirement in professional writing, not an optional extra. Readers of published books have a completely legitimate right to expect every sentence in a narrative to make sense, without having to put in the extra effort required to change running order, as I did above.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought (and quite loudly, too), logical flow is not just the acquiring editor’s problem. Yes, your future publisher will most likely employ copyeditors to spot this type of gaffe, but in the current over-stuffed literary battleground, it’s rare that editors, contest judges, or agents will not expect a talented writer serious about getting published to proofread his work closely enough to catch it himself.

Ah, how gratifying: my regular readers automatically shouted that they habitually read every syllable they submit or enter IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD. That’s solid strategy, as well as the best way to weed out such inadvertent errors. It’s also a means of obtaining a competitive edge at submission time, because, frankly, the overwhelming majority of manuscripts appear to Millicent not to have been proofread at all.

Heck, many of them don’t appear to be spell-checked. Folks seem to be in too much of a hurry.

That’s a genuine pity, because as I like to point out early and often on this blog, one of the double-edged differences between writing on a typewriter and composing on a computer lies in the latter’s comparative ease of revision. Changing even a single word in a sentence used to require White-Out (ask your grandparents, children); altering a description could require retyping entire pages. And let’s not even talk about how much easier automatic pagination makes life for writers; imagine having to renumber pp. 328-472 by hand, just because you had a second thought about that scene ending on page 327.

Don’t see a down side to being able to copy and paste your favorite paragraph from Chapter 3 and plunk it down in Chapter 1, where a line-by-line reader like Millicent might be better able to appreciate it, or to insert a startling new descriptor in a formerly lackluster sentence without being forced to ink over the original verbiage? Millie does: all too often, a self-editor in a hurry will forget to read over the resulting scene, to check for logical flow. The result, I tremble to report, frequently looks like this:

“What is that a tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, turning toward the window. “I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Oh, you may laugh, but Millicent actually does see incomplete revisions this logically mixed-up. Yes, we could invest the energy in figuring out the possible intended running orders, but is it legitimate for the author to expect us to determine whether she meant to say this?

“I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.” Gabriella turned toward the window, glancing toward the horizon. “What is that? A tidal wave?”

Or this?

“What is that?” A tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, checking for violent cloud activity.

Musette remained focused upon her newspaper and warm fire. “Yes, I’m worried by that news report, too. Maybe we should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Quite different situations, are they not? Can you think of any particular advantage the writer of the original version derived from expecting us to tinker with the logic to this extent?

Only one strikes me as at all likely: time. Our author was in a hurry, clearly, either at initial composition time or when revising this excerpt. Perhaps he even intended to come back and rework it, but all of a sudden, Millie’s boss, the agent of his dreams, requested the manuscript. Besides, a copyeditor will catch any lingering problems down the line, right?

Perhaps — but she might not get the chance, if Millicent stops reading. And could you really blame Millie for not fighting her way through the twisted version?

Since a disturbingly high proportion of you just mentally shouted, “Yes! It’s her job to see past the rough edges to the underlying brilliance of that submission,” allow me to tinker with this example in order to render it more reflective of what screeners often see. Slip into Millicent’s well-worn moccasins for a moment, and picture a manuscript featuring the following four gems on three consecutive pages:

Jacob ran his hands through his full head of hair. “I can’t believe I forgot to proofread the news ticker before put it on air.”

Arleen reached a sympath hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Jared. It could happen anybody.”

Still reading, Millie? You’re a trooper. We’ll press on with you.

“But Governor,” Jared gasped, slapping his bald scalp, “you can’t be serious! I can’t tell viewers that gravity is no longer operational?”

Governor Medfly frowned. “Our citizenry deserves we can’t lie to them to know the truth.”

Persisting in your love of literature? Read on.

The house would soon be swamped by the rising flood, that was apparent. {Insert some show-don’t-tell stuff here.} Boats were already flying into the sky, knocking rain from the ominous cloud cover.

Stop rolling your eyes at me; submissions occasionally turn up in agencies with writers’ revision notes included this obviously. So do contest entries. (I speak from experience, but because I love you people, I shan’t induce nightmares by describing any specific occasion.)

Let’s say for the sake of argument, though, that Millicent has become intrigued by the fascinating pretzels into which the laws of physics seem to be bending themselves in this manuscript. Let’s take a gander at the context for the earlier example.

Water flew skyward. Droplets covered the window so rapidly that she had to open it to see the horizon.

“What is that a tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, turning toward the window. “I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Musette squirmed in her cozy chair. “The governor said not to worry. Knock it off your whining, already.”

Starting to sense a pattern here? Millicent would. Clearly, this is a manuscript still in the throes of revision; it might be wonderful down the line — I, for one, would like to know how that whole sky-flooding thing works out for Gabriella and the gov — but it certainly is not yet ready for publication. So why, Millie is left to wonder, did the author send it now, rather than when the revision-in-progress was complete?

I can answer that one: time. The author may not have any more of it to spare than Millicent or her boss. The crucial difference, though, is that while rushing an unproofed manuscript out the door — often, these days, by the simple expedient of hitting SEND — will usually merely save the fine folks at the agency some time, it can doom the author to rejection. Think about it: what would tell a busy agent that this would be a time-consuming author to represent more effectively than the run of text we’ve just seen? Wouldn’t some luckless soul at the agency have to proofread everything he submitted before the agent could possibly submit it to a publishing house?

So yes, knee-huggers, it is a trifle unfair to judge an entire manuscript by just a few lines, but most professional readers can tell pretty quickly whether that small logic flow problem on page 2 is indicative of a larger pattern across the manuscript. Manuscript gaffes are like ants, after all: one does occasionally see one trudging along in isolation, but generally speaking, they travel in groups.

Oh, you thought that the news ticker text contained only one faux pas? Want to help me count up the number of necessary apostrophes it omitted that day, or how many repetitions it took before someone on staff noticed that Egypt had been spelled without a y?

As I said, we see evidence of writing haste all the time, but that does not mean that the level of gaffe-forgiveness most of us extend to our e-mail correspondents has permeated the publishing industry’s expectations for exciting new manuscripts. Take the time to make sure your text makes sense, not only on the story level, but in every sentence as well.

Millicent’s scalp will thank you. Old time may be still a-flying, but her lovely hair need not. Keep up the good work!

These are the times that try editors’ souls

No time for a lengthy missive today, I’m afraid, but I could not resist sharing a bit of tangible evidence in support of a theory long lurking in the minds of editors across the English-writing world: in recent years, many people’s eye-brain connections seem to have ceased working reliably. At least insofar as signage is concerned, citizens of this great land have evidently decided that if a piece of prose sounds vaguely like what its writer had in mind, well, that’s close enough to print.

To an editor, that logic represents the first step down the slippery slope that leads to, well, a heck of a lot of work. If nailing down a precise meaning in writing has ceased to have social value, what’s next? Widespread confusion of colons with semicolons? Ravening packs of the untutored roaming the streets, doubling or even tripling prepositions? Or even — avert your eyes, children — eschewing proofreading altogether?

Whom the gods would destroy, Euripides informed us, they first drive mad. Clearly, this was the kind of thing he had in mind.

I’m not merely talking about grocery store signage that adds an extraneous -e to potato or tomato, the misguided belief that pointless abbreviations such as tonite, thru, and alright have ever actually saved anybody any time, or even the bizarre gender blindness that struck otherwise perfectly reasonable people in the media to toss subject-object agreement to the winds in the mid-1980s, causing everyone and their monkey to crowd everyone and her monkey practically out of the language as she is spoke — although, naturally, the literate find such slips inexplicable. Many of my fellow editors insist that we should expect no better from people incapable of understanding why a female member of Congress might conceivably be known on paper as a Congresswoman, rather than a Congressman. Once it became necessary to begin explaining to even fairly well-educated people why paragraphs should be indented, handlers of manuscripts everywhere began hearing the resounding thumps of barbarian weaponry upon the gates of civilization.

I do not take such a dismal view of the matter, but I must confess, bungled logic in print drives me precisely as nuts as our pal Euripides predicted. Take, for instance, the undoubtedly generous offer that appeared in a local paper recently:

Did that second paragraph make you beard the heavens with your bootless cries? Or, like vast majority of the comparatively carefree denizens of the greater Seattle metropolitan area, did your eye simply gloss over it?

Unfortunately for editorial sanity, but fortunately for literature, those of us that read for a living do not enjoy the luxury of believing that close enough is fine for print. English is a language that permits, nay, positively encourages precision: just look at the stunning array of adjectives you have at your disposal. The benighted composer of the free pizza offer above had every bit as many tools at his disposal (nice subject-object agreement, eh?) as the next fella, yet fell down on the descriptive job.

To his credit, he does appear to have realized that his prose might be just a tad confusing to those who believe that words carry specific meanings. To an editorial eye, a phrase like to be clear can indicate only one of two authorial fears: either the writing immediately before it lacks communicative oomph, or the writer isn’t too sure of the comprehension capacities of the reader.

In this case, both terrors probably governed word choice. Let’s take a closer look. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the — sacre bleu! — all-caps presentation of the original.

After the costume parade, head up to Pagliacci for a free slice for your little monster! And to be clear, only kids in costume accompanied by a parent will be served.

Did you catch it, now that the eye-distracting formatting is gone? No? Would it help to know that what the writer almost certainly meant was this?

After the community-sponsored costume parade has run its course, we at this fine pizza emporium would be pleased to serve a free slice to any child in costume who shows up clutching the hand of either a biological or adoptive parent.

But that’s not what the original actually said, was it? Read literally, these were the preconditions for scarfing down some pie gratis:

(1) The potential scarfer must be a minor.

(2) The potential scarfer cannot show up before the parade has ended.

(3) The potential scarfer must be in costume.

(4) The potential scarfer’s costume must also be occupied by a parent — and, the use of the plural kids implies, possibly one or more other children.

Now, I can certainly picture a few charming two-wearer costumes — if the child in question were open to being strapped to a guardian’s chest at a 45-degree angle, the pair could form a wonderful spider. However, long practical experience with both advertising and careless writing leads me to conclude that the pizza-hawkers almost certainly did not intend to limit their offer to only literal readers with creative multi-party costumes on hand.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me. It’s my job to nit-pick. “But Anne,” eye-rollers everywhere protest, “I was not confused at all by the original version. It was clear enough what the pizza-mongers meant. I can see why prose imprecision might be unacceptable in a high literary manuscript, but why get so exorcised about a small slip?”

However did you manage to slip through that gate, barbarian? We in the editorial keep already have boiling pitch prepared to fling onto the noggins of all comers.

Seriously, those of us that read for a living are perpetually flabbergasted by how many writers seem to cling to a close-enough-is-good-enough philosophy. Clarity constitutes the minimum requirement for professional writing, not an optional extra. As a reader, I’m sure you would agree: on the printed page, you don’t believe it’s your responsibility to guess what the author probably meant, do you? It’s the author’s job to convey precisely what she had in mind.

Contrary to astonishingly pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, it’s not an agent, editor, or contest judge’s job to speculate, either. No matter how often any of us are treated to the sight of unclear, poorly written, or logically convoluted prose, the trick to catching a sharp editorial eye in a positive way lies in choosing your words with care.

Oh, and not stubbornly retaining topical jokes after their expiration date just because you happen to like them. ( I had intended to use that last paragraph a couple of weeks ago, you see.)

Yet another reason to read your submissions and contest entries IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course. Since the human eye, editorial or otherwise, tends to read about 70% faster on a backlit screen, even the most dedicated self-editor will be substantially more likely to catch subtle gaffes on a printed page. You wouldn’t want to leave Millicent the agency screener wondering just how many family members your text wanted her to envision stuffed into a single costume, would you?

Actually, the barbarians currently howling at the gate might actually prove helpful in this endeavor. Bless their unrepentant hearts, their lack of precision in wielding the language provides would-be self-editors with abundant opportunities to sharpen their editorial eyes. The photo at the top of this post, for instance: scroll up and give it your best nit-pick.

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “By Jove, that restaurant appears to be ordering lunch customers to bring their own egg roll and rice!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Come w(ith) egg roll in any other context would in fact mean that the speaker would expect the hearer either to show up with an egg roll — not the kind of thing most of us tote around habitually — or to accompany an egg roll on some unspecified journey. Neither, you must admit, seems like a particularly inviting prospect for restaurant patronage.

Snag a second gold star from petty cash if you also bellowed, “Nor is that the only labor the poor potential customer is evidently expected to perform. Why should the diner steam her own rice?” As steam is a verb, it must logically be a command to the reader; steamed, on the other hand, is an adjective that might conceivably be applied to rice.

Whom the gods would not see published, first they burden with an inability to spot the differences between parts of speech. While I’d like to think that they have also provided a special spot in Hades for sign-printers too callous to point out such problems, perhaps we should all be grateful for the proofreading practice advertising provides us all on a daily basis.

Excuse me — some charming visitors bearing pitchforks and torches appear to be banging on the gate, just in time for lunch. Perhaps they were courteous enough to bring their own egg rolls. Keep up the good work!

Getting possessive

The Author! Author! community is seldom far from my thoughts, but at moments when I pass a sign like this, I must confess, I find it difficult to think of anyone else. Especially of those of you brave souls that regularly put yourselves — and your manuscripts — through the literary contest-entry wringer.

Why contest entrants in particular? Because in recent years, contest judges have found themselves doing double-takes at the type of punctuation currently blaring at you from that otherwise rather straightforward piece of advertising above in ever-increasing numbers. So, too, has the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, found herself shaking her head over manuscript submissions, murmuring, “I wonder if this is what the writer here actually meant, or if this is yet another instance of the sad decline in punctuation plaguing our society in these decadent days.”

Millie’s mutter was a mighty big hint, by the way, to those of you who did not erupt in merriment the instant you first clapped eye on today’s guest image. See it now?

Chances are, if you were a contest entrant frantic to get your entry postmarked by a deadline, you would not see it; it’s the type of typo that writers in a rush often overlook. And that’s a real shame, if the entry’s well written: I’ve never encountered a writing contest that allowed its judges to assess an entry by what its writer probably wanted to say, rather than what’s actually on the page.

Nor does your garden-variety agency typically permit its screeners to correct punctuation, even mentally, while reading submissions. That, too, is a shame, for many a successful querier or pitcher aglow with the first burst of adrenaline that comes with hearing that a real, live agent or editor wants to see MY WORK has simply glossed over this kind of punctuation as well. Strategically, that’s a mistake: even if it ever were desirable to leave Millie guessing at your intended meaning — and it isn’t, ever — it’s fairly standard for screeners to be told to stop reading at the second or third typo.

And what’s the best preventative medicine for skirting that dreadful fate, campers? That’s right: taking the time to read every syllable of your contest entry, requested pages, and/or book proposal IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Does that chorus of groans mean I’ve poked some of you in a sore spot? Or merely that you wish the Submission Fairy would wave her magic wand and grant six extra hours to writers on deadlines, purely for proofreading purposes? “But Anne,” the time-strapped moan, “I see typos in published books all the time! Surely, that must mean that little punctuation gaffes, misspellings, misplaced quotation marks and the like are no longer taken as seriously as in days of yore, when mistake-free writing was considered the mark of the literate person?”

In some contexts, you’re quite right about this, proofreading-avoiders: thanks in part to a decline in hard-copy proofreading (it’s much, much harder to catch small gaffes on a backlit screen than on a printed page), we do all see more faux pas in print than even ten years ago. Spelling- and grammar-checkers have caused a general decline in proofreading, and not only amongst published writers. E-mails are notoriously typo-prone, as are texts, and Twitter practically demands leaving out otherwise essential words, letters, and punctuation. Given the choice between speed and graceful presentation, most opt for the former.

Then, too, most of us also scan a heck of a lot more unedited writing than would have been imaginable to those whose primary reading experience was before the rise of the Internet. And don’t even get a professional reader started on how much more frequently advertising copy — like, for instance, the sign depicted above — contains typos.

All of which means, in practice, that pretty much all of us have gotten almost as accustomed to seeing writing presented badly as we have to seeing it done well. So often do signs shout things like BOBS’ LIQUORS at us (spot it yet?) that even the most grammar-savvy writer might be forgiven for occasionally placing an apostrophe in the wrong place when she’s in a hurry.

Driving past ads like this all day, it might not even look problematic at first glance. So why, as our short-on-time discussants above asked, should a deadline-facing contest entrant or excited submitter lose any sleep over a questionable apostrophe or two? Won’t it be some copyeditor’s job to catch such problems before the book is published, anyway?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that a typo like this won’t jump off your pages at Millicent, if she’s been properly trained — and if she works at an agency you would want to represent you, she has. It would also look odd to Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. And, frankly, it would drive me nuts to spot on the page.

Or, as in this case, the sign. To any of us, and almost certainly to the agent of your dreams, the very sight of BOBS’ LIQUORS immediately begs the question: just how many Bobs are there in that liquid-filled emporium?

Shall I take the resounding splat of eyebrows against hairlines as an indicator that this particular question has not been dogging some or all of you since this post began? I’m not entirely astonished: although it would make Millicent, Mehitabel, and their confreres choke to hear it, a stunningly high proportion of talented aspiring writers seem never to have learned the rules about creating possessives — or plurals, for that matter. Or at least to have been schooled in them so long ago that misuse of one or the other no longer causes their eyebrows to twitch at all.

So let’s embark on a quick refresher course, not only to revivify those complacent eyebrows, but so you have some guidelines on hand during any future moments of doubt. And if that means alerting everyone within the range of my keyboard to the genuinely puzzling nature of that provocative sign, well, so be it.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do not end in -s or -z — which is to say: most nouns — just add ‘s. If Ambrose happened to own a leopard, then, Millicent would expect the text to refer to Ambrose’s leopard; by the same token, the spots decorating Ambrose’s pet would be the leopard’s spots.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do end in -s or -z — Gladys, a spaz, a passing ibis — the apostrophe goes after the s or z. So if Gladys’ pet ibis happened to become friends with Gladys’ brother Glenn, whose business partner happens to be a spaz, the ibis’ buddy’s business’ interests might be endangered by the spaz’ annoying ways.

I was expecting a certain amount of resistance to that one — and already, a forest of hands have sprouted out there in the ether. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of you hand-wavers are fond of the ways of journalism. Yes, newspaper-huggers? “I can go along with Rule #1, Anne, and I remember when Rule #2 used to be common, but I see #1 applied all the time to nouns ending in -s and -z. Doesn’t that mean that Rule #2 is obsolete, and I may simply form possessives by adding ‘s to any old singular noun?”

I take your point, journalism-lovers: rarely do I pick up a magazine these days without having some well-meaning reporter inform me that the ibis’s buddy’s business’s interests might be endangered by the spaz’s annoying ways, and quite firmly, too. There’s a reason for that: in recent years, A.P. style, the style favored by newspapers and magazines, has indeed reverted entirely to Rule #1 for singular possessives. So you may expect those sources, along with online media, to slap ‘s indiscriminately on any noun. It has also become quite common for publishers of books by journalists to throw literary tradition to the winds in this respect.

And, to be fair, Millicent probably would not stop reading if you did the same: she, like the rest of us, has seen the ibis’s and similarly ungraceful possessives running amok across newspaper pages for years now. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the language in its most polished form — American English as it might appear in literary fiction, for instance — must drop one of the nicest punctuation rules we have.

To quote your mother: if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you? And if half the people you knew evidently thought — at least strongly enough to put the theory into practice — that it was correct to form a plural in English by adding ‘s, instead of just an s, would you throw the rules that say otherwise off the aforementioned bridge, simply because you’d seen plurals formed incorrectly so often?

Many, many aspiring writers would, as Mehitabel and Millicent could tell you to their sorrow; judging by what’s submitted, they either do not know the rules well enough to apply them consistently or have been rendered unsure enough by the sight of rule variation that they don’t notice when their texts lapse. Even if a contest entrant or submitter is made of stronger stuff and is familiar with the rules for constructing plurals and possessives, if she does not proofread closely, she might as well be unsure of the rules.

Why? Think about it: an agency screener or contest judge can only assess a writer’s talent and skill based upon what’s on the page, right? If none of the possessive usages on page 1 are correct, obviously, Millicent is likely to conclude that the writer needs a crash course in punctuation, which is not any agency’s job to provide its clients. Fair enough. That being the case, though, if two of the six possessive uses on page 1 are incorrect, in addition to the plural of fence being printed as fence’s instead of fences, could you really blame her for drawing the same conclusion?

While you’re still shuddering over the implications of that one, let me add hastily that the logic also tends to hold true in reverse. If your punctuation and grammar are impeccable, not only will the effort win your manuscript or entry Brownie points — always good in a competitive situation — but your pages will also enjoy the not inconsiderable advantage of novelty. To be blunt about it, so many contest entries and submissions contain incorrect possessives and plurals that those that don’t shine by comparison.

If, in addition to the virtues of solid grammar, the pages also manage to apply the elegant, old-fashioned rule of possessive formation in nouns ending in -s or -z, professional readers will usually like the writing even better. Seriously, literate old-schoolers just love seeing this old-fashioned punctuation used correctly. Indeed, amongst ourselves, we tend to complain that the only benefit of adding the extra s to words that do not logically require it is that those who have difficulty with complexity need memorize only one rule.

Hey, I didn’t say we were funny; I said we were literate. But seriously, folks, does it come as a great surprise that contest judges, especially in the early rounds, tend to be culled from the ranks of the conspicuously literate?

So your rhinoceros favors a particular pond, you might want to consider making Mehitabel happy by referring to the rhinoceros’ watering hole. (If there was more than one rhino, it would be the rhinoceri’s watering hole, but that’s a horn of a different color.) If Chaz were the rhinos’ keeper, they would be Chaz’ rhinos.
If you preferred A.P. style, however, you could also render it as Chaz’s rhinos. They would sound the same spoken out loud.

Getting the picture? This one is legitimately up to you, as long as you don’t mind causing Mehitabel to sigh nostalgically. Just make sure that the text is 100% consistent about whether a -z noun takes an apostrophe in the possessive or not.

Even if you decide to get modern on the -z question, I would urge clinging to tradition on the -s front. If the creatures that frequented that pond were flamingos, you would say that it was the flamingos’ favorite place to drink. I feel a rule coming on:

To form a possessive for a plural noun, the apostrophe goes after the s. Thus, the spots belonging to more than one leopard would be the leopards’ spots. Contrary to popular belief, the Thus, if the entire Anderson family owned a leopard ranch, it would be the Andersons’ leopard ranch.

Let me state that another way, because Millicent and Mehitabel see family names and possessives mismatched all the time, for some reason. If the leopard in question belonged to just one person — let’s call him Ambrose Anderson — both Ambrose’s leopard and Anderson’s leopard would leave M & M’s eyebrows mercifully unraised. However, if the leopard were so lucky to belong to both Ambrose and Antoinette Anderson, it would be the Andersons’ leopard.

Is the BOBS’ LIQUORS conundrum starting to make more sense now? Let’s take a gander at why: if it belonged to just one guy named Bob, it should be BOB’S LIQUORS, right? While it would be gracious to give the sign-painter the benefit of the doubt, neither of the two remaining possibilities seems particularly likely. The place could belong to a person named not Bob, but Bobs, in which case BOBS’ LIQUORS would be perfectly correct. It’s also not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the store’s owners may well have intended the literal meaning here; we may well be looking at a two-Bob situation.

But if either of these turns out to be the case, I feel the inhabitants of Lake City are entitled to a full explanation, don’t you? The vast majority of passersby would read this sign as it was probably meant to read: as BOB’S LIQUORS.

Good old Bob may well be counting upon that; he may well believe, and with some reason, that it doesn’t really matter whether his potential customers walk in expecting one Bob or several. It’s not wise, though, for an aspiring writer to play similarly fast and loose with Millicent or Mehitabel’s sense of what’s going on.

Oh, you don’t think Mehitabel will dock your entry points if your punctuation choices imply that there are more Bobs running around your short story than there actually are? Or that Millicent might stop reading if the text seems to indicate a lack of familiarity with the rules governing apostrophes — if, say, a manuscript falls into the pervasive habit of forming plurals by adding ‘s, instead of just s?

To calm the nerves of those of you currently clutching your hearts and hyperventilating: possessive misuse all by itself is not necessarily an instant-rejection offense all by itself (although it can be, if Millicent is in a bad mood). It’s not uncommon, though, for it to combine with one or two other small gaffes to add up to rejection. Heck, I’ve known Millicents to reject a manuscript after the first malformed plural, if it fell within the opening page or two. Contest judges seldom have that luxury, thank goodness, but you’d be astonished at how often an otherwise well-written entry will knock itself out of serious finalist consideration by a typo or two on the first page. Or even — sacre bleu! — the first paragraph.

Why? Well, are you sitting down? I hope so: professional readers are paid to presume that everything on the manuscript page is there because the writer intended it to be. If the text consistently misapplies a rule, then, or simply does not apply it consistently, they tend to assume that the writer simply does not know the rule at all.

Well might you turn pale, time-strapped submitters and contest entrants. What might have started life as a typo actually can transmogrify at entry time into a reason to consider a submission less than literate — and to send the message to an agency that this talented writer would be more work to represent than someone whose work did not include such gaffes.

Why? Well, tease out the reasoning: either the writer is not aware of the rule (and thus the agency would have to invest time in teaching him something any professional writer would be expected to know), the writer is not sure enough of the rule to apply it consistently (so the agency would have to waste time proofreading his work before submitting it to publishers), or the writer knows the rule, but was simply too lazy (or, more likely, too rushed) to reread his own writing before submitting it. Whichever turns out to be the case, it means that it would be inadvisable to trust him to submit clean manuscripts, especially on a short deadline — and short deadlines crop up in the publishing world all the time. The agent of his dreams wants his work to sell, after all: it’s really in no one’s interest for her to submit his work to a publishing house if it’s peppered with typos.

She wouldn’t want to run the risk of the acquiring editor’s assuming he just didn’t know the rules. Or that he wasn’t serious enough about his own writing to proofread.

With those imperatives in mind, let’s try applying the theory to one of the great American apparent exceptions to the possessive formation rules: why is the Oakland A’s correctly punctuated?

If you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “Because that’s what the team calls itself — and proper names are spelled the way the people bearing them say they are,” give yourself partial credit. The team does in fact use the apostrophe in referring to itself. And grammar, I’m pleased to say, is on its side in that respect.

But not, I’m even more delighted to report, because the A is rendered plural by that ‘s. It couldn’t be, right? Adding an apostrophe is not how plurals are formed. That is, however, how contractions indicate that some letters are missing. In this instance, seven of ‘em: thletic. Thus, it’s perfectly acceptable to abbreviate the Oakland Athletics to the Oakland A’s.

Yet another cosmic mystery solved. Now if only we could crack the case of The Possibly Multiple Bobs. Keep up the good work!

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

old-fashioned writing desk in Victoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She should: professional readers are trained for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You think Millicent is unaware of that capacity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was as if an iceberg had spoken,”

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

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

“Mapp turned to ice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Crowing for good reason: Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Bruce Alford’s ROOSTER

Today, I am delighted to bring you the winning entry in the recent Author! Author! Rings True literary competition, Bruce Alford of Mobile, Alabama. In addition to carrying off top honors in Category I: literary fiction, Bruce’s breathtakingly delicate first page and well-constructed 1-page synopsis for ROOSTER also garnered the coveted Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence. Well done, Bruce!

As has been the case for all of the winners in this contest, I sat down to discuss this exciting opening and premise with the ever-fabulous Heidi Durrow, author of the intriguing recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. (The contest was timed to celebrate the paperback release of her novel.) She writes literary fiction, and I edit it, so our appetites were very much whetted.

Especially for this entry. When the judges first clapped eyes upon it, the opening seemed almost eerily apt for this contest: the primary protagonist of Heidi’s marvelous literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, is half Danish, half African-American. It just goes to show you, campers — no matter how carefully a writer prepares a submission or contest entry, there’s no way that he can control what happens to be on Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s mind at the moment she happens to start reading it.

What’s that I hear you muttering, campers? You feel that’s a trifle unjust, that the imperatives of literature require that all manuscript assessments be made from a completely clear mind, as if Millicent and Mehitabel had not read 27 first pages earlier in that sitting? Or perhaps as if they had not previously screened any literary fiction at all, and had not become jaded toward common mistakes?

Fine — you try it. Here are Bruce’s materials as they might appear in a submission packet: page 1, synopsis, author bio. (As always, if you are having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + to enlarge the image.) To make this an even fairer test, I shall not comment on the technical aspects at all until after Heidi and I discuss the content.

I’m going to stop you right here: quick, what’s your assessment of this book?

Approaching a new writer’s work with completely fresh eyes is more difficult than it might seem at first blush, isn’t it? Everything you have ever read, from your all-time favorite novel to your high school English literature textbook, contributes to your sense of what is and is not good writing.

So let me simplify the central issue for you: based on that first page alone, would you turn to page 2?

I would certainly read further. On the strength of that, let’s take a peek at the other materials in this packet.

Bruce Alford, a personal trainer, aerobics instructor and a former journalist, has published creative nonfiction and poetry in various literary journals. Alford’s “How to Write a Real Poem” was selected for Special Merit in the 2010 Muriel Craft Bailey Poetry Competition. His book of poems, Terminal Switching (Elk River Review Press), was published in 2007.

For a decade, he worked on drafts of Rooster. The book draws on tragedy in his family. His wife’s brother was missing for a week. Then migrant workers stumbled on his brother-in-law’s body near a tomato field in Louisiana. Over the years, as Alford wrote and re-wrote, he noticed that his relative’s short life and death said much about what being an American meant.

As an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama, he teaches a full schedule of classes, including British and American Literature, Poetry Writing and Creative Non-Fiction. He is a reviewer for First Draft, a publication of the Alabama Writers’ Forum.

Does ROOSTER’s plot sound vaguely familiar? It should: it’s Hamlet, cleverly updated and set in an unexpected setting. Many highly successful novels have taken time-honored stories we all know and transformed them. Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE, for instance, is a retelling of the Ugly Duckling; there have been so many versions of Cinderella that I cannot even begin to enumerate them.

While some writers might have chosen to conceal the eternal nature of the tale, Bruce has done something very interesting here: from the first line of the book, he evokes a fairy tale resonance. There was a girl in Denmark might be the opening of half of the stories in a Hans Christian Andersen storybook. That’s a definite marketing risk — chant it with me now, campers: most professional readers have been trained to regard the passive voice as stylistically weak writing, regardless of how and why it is used — but here, it may well pay off.

Did it? Heidi and I discussed that very question.