As the screen goes wavy again, or, what had already begun to bore Millicent by the time talkies rolled around


No time for a long-winded missive today, campers, but I could not let the occasion pass without posting a few words. What occasion rises to the mandatory observation level, you may well ask, eyeing both the lapse between this and my last post and the undeniable fact that Author! Author!’s older posts are still, alas, unhappily plagued with extraneous symbols? Participating in a species of conversation all too common behind the scenes in publishing circles.

It tends to run something like this: someone whose job it is to read submissions, all day, every day (except, of course, on those days she invests in skimming a few hundred queries at a sitting) quietly goes nuts while reading the 531rst submission of the month. Grounding her no doubt expensively straightened teeth to an extent that her former orthodontist would deplore, our Millicent — for yes, it is she, everybody’s favorite agency screener — she vents her frustration upon a sympathetic friend while she is waiting in line for her latté.

“It’s happened again,” she murmurs into her phone. “Three submissions in a row in which the text asserted that what was going on was…wait for it…just like something in a movie!”

Having been savvy enough to call a fellow professional reader, she’s sure to meet with sympathy. Calling me, however, might not have been the best choice. “I know, I know: it’s maddening to see writers rush to use the same metaphor, over and over again. But you must admit, it isn’t those three writers’ fault that you happened to read their submissions back to back.”

“Not their fault!” Predictably, Millicent burns her lip on her too-hot latt?. “Everybody knows that saying something happening on the page was just like a movie is bad writing.”

I can’t resist teasing her; we’ve had this discussion too many times. “It depends upon how the sentence using that tired old concept is constructed, doesn’t it? I could imagine it being expressed very prettily.”

“Fine. I’ll send the next fifteen manuscripts that use it to you, so you can compare their delightful sentence structure.”

She’s laughing by the time we hang up, but I must admit, she has a point. As anyone who reads for a living could tell you — particularly agents, editors, and the screeners they employ, all of whom by necessity must read manuscripts one after another, due to sheer volume — nothing quite makes the mind scream like spotting the same phrase, concept, or metaphor crop up repeatedly, page after page. When those pages happen to belong to different manuscripts, the frustration can be even greater: after the fourth or fifth time in a week, even the most literature-loving Millicent can start to wonder if half of the writers in the English-speaking world gathered someplace secret five months ago, to agree upon what the clich? of the season will be.

Hey, there are fashions in writing, just as in anything else that requires taste to appreciate. And, just as in runway fashion, once an innovative author hits the big time with a unique offering, the pros are used to seeing dozens — nay, hundreds — of copycat submissions flooding their inboxes shortly thereafter.

At first, that can be exciting: it’s no secret that publishers often attempt to capitalize upon the success of a bestseller by bringing out similar books in short order. Which makes sense, right? A certain group of readers have already demonstrated that they like that kind of book; why not offer them similar titles?

Actually, there’s a pretty good answer to that: after what can be an astonishingly short time, however, the readership for a particular type of story can, well, get tired of it. Perhaps more to the point for those trying to break into print, the Millicents tasked with screening all of those remarkably similar stories can begin to find them a bit predictable.

And those Millies are not the only ones. “Another Twilight knock-off?” their bosses exclaim. “This one had better have an awfully different spin.”

The rapid rise and fall of bestsellers and their followers is too well known in literary circles to raise many aspiring writers’ eyebrows these days. Come closer, though, and I’ll let you in on a little professional secret: that’s not the kind of repetition that causes Millicent to fling aside a submission, rend her garments, and rush out the door for a coffee refill. It’s seeing how many otherwise original, well-written manuscripts utilize precisely the same standard comparisons and hackneyed phrases as those that are neither prettily constructed nor particularly unique.

Seriously, it’s kind of startling to spot on the page. A pro will be reading along, enjoying a good story well told, when she’s abruptly confronted with a paragraph like this:

Ambrose staggered, stunned by the force of the blow. The world wavered before his eyes, as if he were watching an old movie and a flashback was just about to begin.

Nothing wrong with the writing there — so why might that last clause send Millicent’s hand automatically reaching for a form letter beginning Thank you so much for your submission, but I’m afraid it does not meet our needs at this time? Could it have anything to do with the fact that an hour ago, she had just rejected a manuscript containing this gem?

Mignonette clutched her head, trying to make sense of it all. It was surreal. She felt as if she was in a movie.

Leaving aside the relatively rare editorial pet peeve regarding how often narratives describe perfectly comprehensible scenes as surreal — not nearly so often as they label a situation utterly devoid of irony as ironic, admittedly, but still, frequently enough to become annoying — is it really so hard to understand why the lingering memory of Mignonette’s affection for film might color Millicent’s perception of the freshness of Ambrose’s reaction to the blow?

And a thousand writers’ hands shoot into the air. Yes? “This is ridiculous, Anne,” film aficionados everywhere grumble. “Why shouldn’t two writers embrace the same comparison, if they write about it differently? Feeling like you’re in a movie is a fairly common experience, after all; eschewing writing about it would be akin to declaring that depicting a character drinking milk an instant-rejection offense.”

An excellent argument, grumblers, but part of the problem is that so many manuscripts don’t write about it differently. Even in conversation, it was just like a movie is a clich? for a reason, after all: in everyday life, people tend to describe what you rightly point out is a common feeling in the modern world in a common way.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one of the primary goals of developing an individual authorial voice not to express things precisely like everybody else does? And don’t we writers pride ourselves upon presenting our readers not merely with a mirror held up to their own lives, accompanied by a transcript of what they already hear, but our own personal take on reality, phrased in a way that is like no one else’s prose?

Do I sense writers of third-person fiction leaping to their collective feet, shouting, “Yes, by gum! Down with hackneyed phrases and concepts!” while those of you who spend your time crafting first-person narratives sat on your hands? I’m not entirely astonished: writers of first-person fiction and memoir frequently work under the principle that if good first-person narration reads as though an actual human being might conceivably have said it out loud, and if most people incorporate clich?s into their everyday speech, then loading a first-person narrative with clich?s is only being true to life, right?

Well, arguably. It can — and all too often does — result in a narrative voice that sounds not like a specific individual, but just anybody. Millicent is also confronted with this kind of opening many times a day:

Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. I’m sick of this. The gall of some people! I’m so over it. I’m out of here.

Believable verbal expression? Oh, yes. But I ask you: what do those stock phrases actually tell you about this narrator? Or about the situation, for that matter?

Hackneyed phrases and concepts are, after all, generic. That’s why polite exchanges so often bore readers: by definition, those phrases that everybody says in particular situations convey no individualized meaning.

Did I just hear some eyebrows hitting the ceiling? I kid you not: as delightful as courtesy is to encounter in real life, it can be stultifying on the page. Take a gander:

Kendrick held out his right hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you, too,” Ghislaine said. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Yes, the weather is nice. Oh, here’s Maurice. How are you, Maurice?”

They shook hands like old friends, as indeed they were. “Fine,” Maurice said. “How are you?”

“Oh, fine. Ghislaine, this is Maurice.”

Maurice shook her hand. “How are you?”

“Fine. How are you?”

Longing yet for death’s sweet embrace? What if you had read similar personality-free conversations eight or nine times today?

Does that prospect appall you? Or have you caught up pitchforks and torches for some other reason?

“Oh, come on, Anne,” polite people everywhere scoff, genteelly brandishing weaponry. “Everyone understands that these are stock phrases — but that’s the point, isn’t it? By having the characters spout courteous clich?s, the narrative is letting the reader know that these are nice people.”

Perhaps, but surely, that’s not the only way to demonstrate their many sterling qualities. If Kendrick complimented Ghislaine on her fetching frock, would he not come across as a pretty nice guy? If she were rushing back from her volunteer work with homeless children, pausing only briefly to exchange pleasantries before her shift at the leper colony began, might the reader not gain an inkling of her other-orientation? If Maurice had just experienced the loss of his beloved pet ocelot, would you consider her rude if he mentioned it?

Actually, that last one’s not the best example, as Millicent would hasten to tell you. She could not even begin to estimate how many times in any given week of screening her tired peepers fall on a scene like this:

“How are you?” Kendrick asked.

“Fine.” Maurice drew his sleeve across his eyes. “Except my beloved pet ocelot, Coriolanus, has just passed away.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kendrick said. “Oh, here comes Ghislaine. Ghislaine, Coriolanus died!”

“Oh, Maurice!” she exclaimed. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

I could go on and show what the policeman on the corner, all seventeen of Maurice’s coworkers, and his great-aunt said upon hearing the news, but you’re sensing a pattern, right? I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: just because people say something in real life doesn’t mean that it will make good reading on the page.

Or, to put it another way: strong dialogue doesn’t need to sound like everyday speech to work in print. It’s needs to be more interesting than everyday speech.

If it’s to impress Millicent with its originality and beauty, that is. After hours of too-polite dialogue, imagine what a relief it could be to read an exchange like this:

Ghislaine realized that she knew the man tugging on her arm. “Why, Kendrick, you look just awful!”

“I feel as if my guts have been ripped out.” He managed a brave smile. “Haven’t you heard about Maurice’s ocelot?”

Her intestines squirmed with anticipated horror. “What’s happened to Coriolanus?”

“Killed in a freak basketball accident. He was prowling along the top of the backboard, and a rogue shot knocked him to the ground.”

“Oh, my God!” Ghislaine cried. “It’s just like something in a movie!”

Oh, so close! Millicent was just settling in for a nice, interesting read, and the manuscript had to throw up a red flag. It might not be the final red flag for this submission — you would want to find out why there’s an ocelot in this story, right? — but in most professional readers, Ghislaine’s cri de coeur would at least elicit a roll of the eyes.

Were there other problems on the page, though, it might well prompt a cry of “Next!” Remember, it’s Millicent’s job to thin the submission pile. Her boss, the agent of your dreams, can only take on a few new clients per year; naturally, there’s a heck of a lot of competition for those spots.

That being the case, is it truly sensible submission strategy to decorate your manuscript with that observation about how the ongoing situation resembles what one might expect to encounter on the big screen?

Do I hear some cries of despair out there in the ether? “There you go again,” frustrated writers complain, and who could blame you? “You’re just accepting Millicent’s claim that everybody knows that the movie comparison is bad writing. At the risk of repeating the grumble from earlier in this post, doesn’t it all depend upon the writing?”

Yes, of course — and no. You see, good writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum; readers of every stripe tend to read more than one author in their lifetimes. They have come to expect the work of one author to differ from every other’s.

And they’re right to expect that: imagine how boring life would be if all well-written books sounded as though they had all been written by the same person!

In an agency, publishing house, or even within the context of a writing competition, good writing doesn’t magically rise to the top of the submission or entry pile. To get to it, Millicent and her ilk read through everything else. Since a submitter cannot control the order in which his work is read, it really doesn’t make strategic sense to rely upon the hope that his use of the movie trope — or any other commonly-employed comparison or phrase — will not pass under a screener’s eyes immediately after somebody else’s attempt to do the same thing.

Even the best of literary devices can start to seem overused with repetition after all. Think about Millie’s screening day for a moment. What kind of pretty prose do you suppose greeted her over the morning’s first latté?

She ran through the bleak forest, her long, red hair streaming behind her. Were those dogs she heard in the distance? Why had Fidelio placed her in this horrible position?

No time to wonder — those villagers with torches would catch up with her any minute now. If she’d been the monster in a Frankenstein movie, she couldn’t have been in more danger.

Come on, admit it — you’re starting to tire of the film references. And although I’m certain it doesn’t feel that way, so far, only four of the examples in this post have contained it.

Yes, really. This comparison gets old fast.

Picture, then, how Millicent’s weary eye must twitch upon catching sight of yet another iteration of the same concept. Especially if the next manuscript in the pile read like this:

Silvia couldn’t believe it — this was all so surreal. She didn’t even feel like herself: it was like she was watching herself on television.

In response to what fully a quarter of you just thought: no, Virginia, referring to television instead of a movie wouldn’t lessen the negativity of Millicent’s reaction. She would merely think that the writer of that last one didn’t get out as often as the writer of the one before it.

She would have a hard time justifying sliding either page under her boss’ nose, and not just because, like any experienced professional reader, the agent for whom Millie works may safely be assumed to have seen the movie/television/music video comparison thousands of times already. Like many publishing professionals, that agent may also feel a certain resentment towards movies, television, music videos, and new media for taking up time that right-minded people used to devote to reading.

But it didn’t occur to our submitter to say that Silvia’s surreal experience was like something in a novel, did it?

Still not convinced? Okay, I’m dropping all pretense: there’s one other reason that Millicent might hesitate to overlook this particular red flag on the page. This next example is infected with a mild case of the phenomenon; see if you can spot it.

Ricardo ducked behind the nearest desk, gasping as if he were about to have a heart attack. What a great movie this chase would make! Except that no one would believe it.

Yes, this passage contains the dreaded movie comparison, but did you catch the secondary problem? Essentially, what a great movie this chase would make! is a review of the scene currently in progress: not only is the narrator telling the reader that this chase would be exciting on the big screen — the text goes so far as to say that the result would be great.

If Millicent and her kind cringe when they spot a hackneyed phrase or concept in a submission, they see red when they think a manuscript is indulging in self-review. “It’s not your job to tell me how great you are,” she’s likely to snap at the manuscript. “It’s your job to show me. And it’s my job to decide whether you’re great, good, or so-so.”

The moral here, should you care to know it: it’s a heck of a lot easier to impress a professional reader with good writing that’s original than good writing that strays into overused territory, either in terms of wording or concept. Stock phrases and comparisons might sound right in the privacy of your writing studio — as well they should: people actually do talk in clich?s. But by definition, clich?s are not fresh; clichés are not original.

And trust me on this one: that clich? about how the current scene is like a movie ceased causing agents and editors to exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that on the page before!” approximately two and a half years into the silent era.

Maybe it’s time to give it a rest. Instead, why not startle and delight Millicent with an insight and phrasing only you could have produced?

It’s worth a try, anyway. Keep up the good work!

Capturing the distinctive buzz of reality

As Virginia Woolf — whose birthday all right-minded literary types are celebrating today — tells us, “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” Our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, might like to add, however, “Yes, but that does not mean that everything that has ever occurred on the planet Earth would necessarily make a good scene in a novel, or even a plausible one. And that goes double, perversely enough, for memoir.”

Are you wondering just how that is possible, those of you devoted to writing about reality? Feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-time readers: just because something actually occurred does not mean that it will ring true on the page. In a book, it’s the writer’s job to make everything that happens seem plausible; within the world of the story, everything has to make sense.

That can be a daunting task for the writer devoted to truth-telling, because, let’s face it, the world as we actually experience it on a day-to-day basis frequently defies understanding. Storylines meander; villains do not receive their well-earned comeuppances; virtue is not always either its own reward or lauded by anyone else.

In fact, when you come right down to it, quotidian life is usually dramatically unsatisfying, and have you ever paused to consider the kinds of characters reality routinely introduces onto its stage? Totally unbelievable; the average reader would laugh ‘em off the page. And let’s not even begin to discuss how some of those characters talk.

All of which means, contrary to apparently popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that simply jotting down a transcript of a real event and inserting it into a novel may not work particularly well; all too often, a purely factual account will not provide the reader accustomed to fiction’s standards of world-depiction with sufficient information to be able to picture what the writer experienced. Nor does lifting a living, breathing person and inserting him into a novel necessarily create a character that will spring to life on the page, unless the writer fleshes him out as fully as any character dredged up from her imagination.

There’s a reason that perennial cry of the realistic writer — “But it really happened that way!” — doesn’t particularly impress agents, editors, or contest judges, you know. With apologies to Aunt Virginia, no matter how true the facts, it’s the writer’s responsibility to make them seem true to the reader.

By the same token, while reporting accurately what happened in one’s own life is necessary in a memoir, it’s not the only storytelling requirement; it has to sound true as well. More than that, the narrative needs to present the memoirist’s world vividly enough that the reader can, to recycle a metaphor, walk in the protagonist’s shoes. Plausibility on the page is largely dependent upon style. As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing.

Do I spot some raised hands out there in the ether? “Fair enough, Anne,” writers of the real across the globe admit. “I never conceived myself as a mere recorder of human events. I want to add my unique authorial voice, trenchant analysis, and distinct worldview to the story I’m telling. But now that you’ve got me worried about the difference between factual accuracy and literary plausibility, how about sharing some tips on how to tell the difference on the page?”

A perfectly reasonable request, reality-lovers, but as it does indeed all depend upon the writing (where have I heard that before?), there really are not any one-size-fits-all criteria. Some plausibility faux pas crop up in submissions and contest entries more than others, however. So that you may learn to spot them in the wild, let’s take a gander at a few of them roaming about their natural habitat.

Here, for your Millicent-imitating pleasure, is an honest-to-God, hand-to-heart real event, rendered for the fiction page as professional readers often see it. Does it ring true to you, or could it use a reality overhaul?

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

Excited, Antoinette extended a shapely leg from the covers to test the air. Chilly, but bearable: surely, by the time she got down to work, the room would have risen to a temperature that would not cause her fingers to cramp. Antoinette clambered out of her cot and into her robe and slippers, shuffling to her cabin’s door.

Nothing there but freezing air and a bit of lingering snow on the doorstep. Laughing at her own optimism, Antoinette turned to fill the electric teapot next to her makeshift desk.

Strange that a place that boasted such an endowment would expect her to balance her laptop on a sheet of plywood resting on sawhorses made out of two-by-fours. It did not make Antoinette sanguine about breakfast down at the dining hall; maybe she’d wait for lunch before she ventured out. That would give Antoinette a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended. She was glad she’d had the foresight to slip some Lady Grey tea and a few protein bars into her luggage.

If you immediately cried, “In heaven’s name, why must every other female leg depicted on the printed page be described as shapely? Couldn’t some of them be, say, nicely-formed or well-rounded? Sometimes, I think that there are no other leg-related words in the language,” well, Millicent would agree with you there. She’s seen enough shapely legs trot across the manuscript page to keep the Rockettes fully staffed until the end of the next millennium. And not, as some genre snobs might assume, merely in the kind of hard-boiled mystery in which dames with gams that go all the way down to the floor lure tough guys into the kind of trouble of which film noir is made.

I tremble to report, though, that this description — and this type of description — is fairly common in both memoir and fiction based upon real events, especially if those events happened to occur in the writer’s own life. Any guesses why?

The answer is rather charming, I think: when writers are describing themselves, even fictionally, they tend to focus upon what they consider their best features — or their worst. Our writer friend above may well feel that the leg in question is what would catch a discriminating bystander’s eye first.

Neither Millie nor I have any reason to doubt that, of course. We just wish that the writer would have come up with a means of describing her leg with sufficient clarity that after having read about it, we could recognize it in a crowd of well-constructed torso support systems, if you catch my drift.

Does the sound of two thousand of you shifting uncomfortably in your desk chairs mean that I hadn’t mentioned lately that those of us who read for a living often develop some rather strong negative reactions to clich?s — or phrasing that turns up in submissions and contest entries so often that it might as well be on every set of lips in North America? That’s an inevitable side effect of screening, I’m afraid: after the 7,259th iteration, even a pleasing and apt description can seem a bit, well, overdone.

The moral, should you care to know it: a writer has no control over where a submission or contest entry falls in a screener or judge’s reading queue. It would behoove a savvy writer, then, to make sure that the page is phrased so it will come across as original and stylish if it’s Millie’s first of the day or her 105th. Give those gams a rest, will ya?

Now that I’ve lectured you into feeling good and protective about the text we’re discussing — oh, you thought I was being nit-picky for its own sake? — let me ask: did you notice the red flag that might have prompted Millicent to shout, “Next!” even if she personally can never get tired of the sight of a shapely leg? While you were at it, did you notice the yellow flag that might merely have irritated her a bit?

No? Perhaps it would help to see this excerpt as she would in a submission, on a page. If you’re having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image. And if you really want to replicate the screener experience, read the following fifteen times, walk away for an hour, then return and read it again.

Did one or both leap off the page at you this time? If not, I invite you to try a practical experiment. First, look away from that page for at least fifteen seconds. Then glance back and read the whole thing as quickly as humanly possible.

Notice how much the name repetition grabs the eye when you’re skimming? That’s the yellow flag, and long has it waved over submissions. Why might it bug a tired-eyed screener? Those capital As are visually distracting, so it could feel to someone who has been screening submissions all day as though our writer friend has reminded the reader that the protagonist’s name is Antoinette far more than is strictly necessary for clarity.

Or, as Millicent might put it, “How short an attention span do you think I have, to remind me of this character’s name on every other line?”

A picayune objection? Perhaps, but since fiction and memoir submissions alike tend to name-check their characters over-much — and as writers often love the monikers they’ve given their protagonists most of all — a Millicent can frequently become sensitive to the practice. Especially in a text like this, in which there is only one character, so there is no possibility of the reader’s saying, “Wait — which she are we talking about now?”

Over-naming certainly isn’t limited to writing based upon real-life events, however, any more than the other major red flag here. To get a handle on the second, let me ask you: how much do you remember about the plot of the page you’ve now read twice?

If your answer even remotely resembled, “Um, not much, but then, not much happened on that page,” congratulations; you’re reading like a pro. While you are already meandering in Millicent’s moccasins, then, let me ask you: if you were a screener, would you turn the page and keep reading?”

Oh, don’t look at me that way; most manuscript submissions get rejected on page 1. Yes, even ones like this: properly-formatted, free of typos, and clearly written. Remember, this is not the only manuscript Millie will be screening today; she may well have dozens loading her desktop, or even hundreds. If the story and/or protagonist don’t grab her pretty quickly, she’s likely to move onto the next.

Again, though, slow openings are not endemic only to fact-based fiction and memoir — but that does not prevent some of you who write one or the other from taking umbrage, I notice. “But Anne!” reality-huggers everywhere protest, and who could blame you? “If I — I mean, Antoinette — really did all of these things on the occasion described here, isn’t it a trifle dishonest to pretend that she did something else? Didn’t Aunt Virginia tell us at the top of this post that the more closely I cling to what actually happened, the better I will write about it?”

That’s not quite the central point of this ubiquitous piece of writing advice, contrary to popular belief. Possibly because one so seldom sees Woolf quote in its entirety: “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction — so we are told.”

Part of the art of writing fiction lies in providing sufficiently detailed descriptions and character development that the reader can feel she’s inhabiting the scene along with the protagonist. The same holds true for memoir, right? As we’ve discussed, that’s frequently the problem with transcribing a verbal anecdote directly to the page: the way most people tell their kith and kin about a real event does not contain enough evocative detail or subtle characterization to be equally gripping in print. That’s especially likely to be the case when, as in our example above, the real-world inspiration isn’t all that action-packed.

And don’t roll your eyes and mutter that clearly, Millicent’s never read any Proust. No one could be a greater fan than I of sitting around and remembering things past, but let’s face it, what wowed the literati in 1917 would not necessarily receive a kind reception today. Literary tastes change. And, as half of the publishing industry’s denizens would be only too glad to roll their eyes and tell you, even habitual readers of high literary fiction have more demands upon their time than in days of yore.

Oh, you think you’re immune to the pacing expectations of our age? Okay, let me ask you — by the middle of that first page, you were mentally shouting at Antoinette to do something, already, were you not? You wanted her to nibble on a madeleine, at least, if you happen to be a Proust fan.

Or, as editors like to scrawl in margins, “Get out of her head and into the story, already!”

To be fair, most current readers have a much, much higher tolerance for protagonists’ sitting around and thinking about stuff than your garden-variety Millicent, especially after the story has shown the major character(s) act vigorously. The cool-down-and-reflect scene is a staple of movies and television dramas for a reason: it allows Our Hero(ine) to reflect on what has just happened and decide what to do next. Since the cinematic medium requires a voice-over to convey silent thought, this scene often consists of the protagonist’s providing a recap and analysis for her best friend, his law partner, her boss, somebody’s mother, or a random passerby, more often than not while consuming some form of liquid libation.

Which is why, in case those of you who regularly frequent writers’ conferences and workshops had been wondering, agents and editors who have been at it a while sometimes urge startled attendees to cut any and all scenes in which the protagonist and another character imbibe coffee, tea, milk, hot cocoa, or any other drink conducive to cozy conversing. It’s not that, as a group, people who read for a living are hostile to, say, caffeine. Far from it.

It’s that, like Millicent, they’ve just seen so many plots stop dead in their tracks for pages on end in order to tell the reader what he already knows — what’s just happened — and to preview what’s about to occur that they cringe a little at the first hint of it. And don’t even get me started on how often manuscript submissions open with a conversation in which the protagonist explains what has happened just before the story started, as a shortcut for introducing back-story to the reader.

I see you blushing, writers of narratives that open with the protagonist’s calling her mother/best friend/significant other/beloved dog Trey to tell her/him/it about the awful/wonderful/just so-so thing that’s just happened to her. Yes, people do this all the time in real life, but that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to depict it on the page. Or even that it’s solid storytelling strategy: remember, the more Millicent is confronted with a narrative trick, the less effect it will have on her.

At the risk of going out on an interpretive limb, on the page, repetition often seems redundant. And before anyone suggests it, as writers so often suggest to agents and editors, no, the fact that something was done or said more than once in real life does not matter. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: just because something actually happened does not mean it will work well on the page. Or even be interesting.

Stop reaching for that club to bludgeon me. I’m not talking about writing untruthfully about actual events here; I’m merely suggesting selectivity in narrative. Just because real life is, let’s face it, often so darned repetitious that it ought to be brought up on charges of plot plagiarism, that doesn’t mean that having your narrative faithfully reproduce that already literary quite well documented tendency will not run the risk of boring the reader.

No matter how true a story is, a writer owes the reader an entertaining yarn, right? Antoinette’s creator/alter ego seems to have forgotten that, and I think I can tell you why.

But first — see what I did there? I gave reality a small twist, for narrative effect. If I were married to literalism in storytelling, I couldn’t have said that, right? I write 99% of the examples I use here at Author! Author! — why would I have to guess the motivations of today’s text-producer?

That being said, let’s return to the rhetorical conceit already in progress: like so many aspiring writers of the real, the teller of Antoinette’s tale presumed that readers would be interested in a fairly mundane set of thoughts and activities not only because they actually happened, but also because those thoughts and activities appear in a novel. Or a memoir. In any case, in print.

Or so Millicent and her ilk surmise from the fact that so many submissions contain — and open with — the kinds of scenes that do undoubtedly occur in real life, but neither advance the plot of the book in question nor provide character development. So why, the reader is left to wonder, is that part in the book at all?

Especially if, as in today’s example, it appears on page 1. As a reader, I find it hard to believe that this particular moment is the most interesting of Antoinette’s no doubt fascinating journey across this terrestrial orb. Nor, as an editor, do I accept that this was the only conceivable place to begin the story– or that a page of set-up was necessary to establish a mood before the plot could possibly lurch into motion.

And, frankly, as an intimate of Antoinette’s — we could hardly be closer, even at this very moment — it rather irks me that the fictional version of the original rather scarifying event translated this way to the page. In real life, this was quite the action-fest.

How might I — that is, Antoinette’s amanuensis — have conveyed that better? Perhaps by getting out of the lady’s head and into the plot more quickly. At minimum, let’s lose the tea.

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

No such luck, but she could easily skip breakfast. That would give her a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended.

She was deep into the middle of Chapter Three of her Great American Novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Startled, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? That’s the fault of the original page 1, I’m afraid. By devoting its entirety to the relatively uninteresting details of quotidian life, it would have fooled Millicent into thinking that this is a pretty slow book.

And honestly, did you really miss all of the earlier rumination this time around? Heck, if we really wanted to get things moving, we could skip all of that naming of emotions (Millicent sees too many {Name} was {emotion} statements on any given day of screening, anyway) and simply throw poor Antoinette straight into her dilemma — and, not entirely coincidentally, into the plot.

Antoinette had just finished typing the fifty-third joke of her novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Screaming, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk — or, rather, the bowed and frayed sheet of plywood balanced precariously upon makeshift sawhorses the It Shall Remain Nameless artists’ colony had seen fit to provide writers-in-residence. The second bee landed in her lap, the third atop her sleep-ravaged hair. She fled the cabin, sloshing through the March slush in her bedroom slippers.

Much more exciting, isn’t it? yes, Aunt Virginia, this quite different narrative is every bit as factually accurate as the original version; it’s merely told with an alternative emphasis and swifter pacing. Sticking to the facts need not mean relegating stylistic concerns to the compositional back seat, after all.

Two more common faux pas, and we’ll call it a night. See if you can spot what would raise Millicent’s notoriously easily-levitated hackles as the story moves through its next set of conflicts.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny window — was the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He’s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Did the level of word repetition bug you, so to speak? Again, it might help to see it as Millicent would.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny windowwas the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He‘s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Quite eye-catching, is it not? And entirely for the wrong reasons. For some reason that years of editing and writing experience have left me powerless to explain, word and phrase repetition — up to and including that clich? about the chattering teeth — is notoriously common in both fictional and nonfiction accounts of real events. The prevailing theory (to which I only occasionally subscribe): writers of the real tend to focus more upon recounting the facts accurately than upon how they recount them. In a laudable attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they sometimes forget to show off how well they can write.

I do think that explanation is sometimes applicable to real scenes committed to paper, because all types of writers fall into word repetition patterns at one time or another; when writers are in a hurry to get a good concept down on paper, style often falls by the wayside, at least for the first draft. I suspect, though, that a few other factors frequently nose their heads under the literary fence. The old verbal-anecdote-not-translating-well-to-writing trap, for instance: it’s hard to deny that even the most gifted raconteurs tend to reuse words more than the prevailing standards for professional writing smile upon in these decadent days.

If you still don’t believe that the spoken and the printed word are different, try reading that last sentence out loud. Tumbles awkwardly around the mouth, doesn’t it? Yet most readers would not have perceived it as especially awkward on a first reading. (I would — and did, as soon as I typed it — but hey, I’m a professional reader. Don’t try this at home.)

Writers of fact and fact-based fiction also occasionally fall into this pattern because in their aforementioned laudable effort to tell the truth, the whole…well, you know the rest, they conflate the goal of being factually accurate with a desire to be consistent. If an account is true, they reason, it should sound the same each time it’s told, right? And they’ve been telling it a certain way out loud for years. So telling it any other way can sound not only wrong to them, but actually untrue.

This logic, if you’ll pardon my saying so, drives many of us benighted souls that read for a living nuts. “What do you mean,” they bellow, rending their garments, “there’s only one way to tell this story? You’re a writer — there are a million ways you could tell this story!”

That response, in turn, drives many writers of the real equally nuts, especially if they happen to be writing memoir. “What do you mean,” they wail, bearding heaven with their bootless cries, “I should write about my life in a different way? I’m telling the truth here — so are you asking me to lie about what happened, or are you saying that I should have lived my life in some other way?”

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate realistically. Naturally, a memoir editor wants the writer to present her life story accurately, but if you’ll pardon my repeating myself, it also has to be a good yarn — and well written, too, if the writer can possibly manage it. That means being selective about what real elements to include, as well as exerting narrative authority to ascertain that the story both flows plausibly on the page and entertains the reader.

Oh, holster that throwing knife. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will necessarily read as plausible on the page. All that nice professional reader wants you to do is tweak your account so the reader gets yanked out of the story by muttering, “Oh, that would never happen.”

Exercising some finesse can be quite necessary, as I think we can all agree that sometimes, reality can be mighty implausible. As I may have mentioned, the world is often a genuinely lousy writer, distributing punishments and rewards with little sense of dramatic fitness, jumbling together entirely disparate character traits within a single individual, and generally displaying a perverse affection for the trite and predictable. The real world wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in an editor’s chair.

Or a writer’s, for that matter, because to make sure that the written word is appreciably better than reality. That takes both a discerning eye for the actual and an acutely sensitive sense of story.

Sound like a tall order? You may be encouraged to hear — I know I am — that many writers of autobiographical fiction and memoir do exercise both talents in their submissions and contest entries, imposing a very strong authorial point of view onto the story arc. Sometimes, unfortunately, they go a trifle overboard.

How? See if you can catch the subtle narrative bias in the next segment of Antoinette’s story. Why might this factually truthful account rub Millicent the wrong way at the end of a long day’s screening? (Hint: verbal anecdotes are prone to this misstep, too.)

Antoinette felt as though every bee in the world had landed on her back, buzzing and pacing on its tiny legs. “What am I supposed to do until he gets back?”

The administrative assistant rolled her eyes, clearly thinking what a wimp. “Why don’t you try ignoring it?”

“Them,” Antoinette corrected her quietly. “I’m being dive-bombed.”

“Try opening a window.”

Antoinette dragged herself downstairs, hoping to delay her unexpected exterminator duties with some scrambled eggs, but the breakfast servers slammed the dining room door in her face. She couldn’t even snag a lousy cup of coffee. With envious eyes, she watched the well-fed sculptors, painters, and photographers amble back to their beautifully lit and undoubtedly bug-free workshops.

Has the self-pitying tone begun to grate upon you yet? No? Okay, I’ll ramp it up.

She waded back through the ankle-deep slush to her cabin, rolling up a newspaper she had snagged from the dining hall into what she hoped and prayed would be an adequate hornet-smasher. Opening the cabin’s door just enough to peek inside, she recoiled. The plywood desk was polka-dotted with groggy be. Dozens more lazily circled the old-fashioned bowl light fixture on the ceiling.

Terrified to her bones but determined not to lose a half-day’s writing time, she clamped her eyes and mouth shut, clenched her teeth, and ran across the room. Grabbing the nearest window by its sash, she wrestled it open, a worrying buzzing just off her right ear the whole time.

The storm window couldn’t be budged. Swatting wildly in all directions, she ran all the way back to the administration building.

“Back already?” the administrative assistant snorted. She called to workers in other parts of the office, laughing.

“Please,” Antoinette begged, “I don’t know what to do. I think there’s an entire hornet’s nest in the ceiling light. I can’t get to my computer to rescue it.”

Everyone laughed. “Can’t you write in longhand?” someone asked.

She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain polite. “I don’t mind trying to work someplace else for the rest of the day, but could I borrow an electric fan or something so I can get back into the cabin for some clothes? Or maybe even my laptop?”

More guffaws. “Look,” the administrative assistant snapped, “if you want, you can write a note for Joe.”

I was pretty flabbergasted at this reaction, I must admit; as I said, reality’s not a very subtle writer. Which is why, believe it or not, this narrative seems to lack authenticity: it’s too obvious where the reader’s sympathies should fall. Not only is our saintly heroine — who is, you will note, unflaggingly polite — entirely in the right while her faceless tormenters cold- and warm-blooded alike are entirely in the wrong, but the humans’ reaction doesn’t even make sense.

“Oh, come on,” the reader would have every right to huff. “What kind of retreat’s administrative staff would be this callous to danger to one of its guests? Some people are allergic to beestings, you know. And even if that possibility hadn’t occurred to anyone concerned, wouldn’t they be worried that a massively bee-stung former writer-in-residence might, if she lived to tell the tale, make certain that any writer who might even consider taking up residence there would hear this dreadful epic of woe and uproar?”

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The purpose of telling this story in writing, though, is presumably not to point a finger at the guilty — or at least not to do it so obviously that the reader perceives a narrative bias — but to beguile the reader with a true-to-life, entertaining yarn. Antoinette’s creator might try, for instance, limiting the dismissive reaction to only one character, the administrative assistant, rather than presenting the rest of the office’s staff and the dining hall’s personnel as uniformly hostile. Some individual character development might be nice. And why not seduce the reader into sharing the protagonist’s horror by giving more of a visceral sense of what it felt, smelled, sounded, and tasted like to be in that room stuffed with bees?

Let me answer that last question myself: I’d rather not relive that nasty moment any more intensely than I already have to write the story so far, thank you very much. If I were writing this scene for a memoir or autobiographical fiction manuscript, however, it would be my job to envision it down to the very last flutter of wings.

The truer the facts, the better the fiction, right? Otherwise, how could the reader possibly gain a true sense of what it was like to be living inside Antoinette’s skin? And wasn’t that what the writer telling her story set out to achieve?

Hey, nobody ever said writing about reality well is easy. Often, it’s not particularly fun, either. But you chose your subject matter because you wanted a writing challenge worthy of your ambitions and talent, didn’t you?

In the interest of factual accuracy, I should add that Joe did eventually turn up — he’d gotten embroiled in a still life — but since the hornet’s nest extended all the way into the cabin’s disused attic, he wasn’t actually able to stop the hailstorm of hornets until well until the middle of the next day. I slept on a crumbling couch between two other writers’ bedrooms. My slippers did not dry out fully until the beginning of Week 5.

P.S., I wrote roughly 200 pages while I was in residence. But I’ve never looked a hornet in its beady little eye again.

Seriously, I could have constructed a far more dramatically satisfying resolution to that storyline, reality. You really do need to work harder on your craft and characterization.

But nice job on all of the shapely legs with which you’ve managed to stock the world. Keep up the good work!

The ever-knotty question of what constitutes good writing

An old friend presented me with a stumper yesterday, campers: although neither a teacher nor a writer himself, Nate had just been asked to teach a writing class at work. Specifically, he had been allotted six hours in which to transform the prose stylings of the fine folks in another department from argumentatively sound but hard to follow into…well, the company’s owner had not been all that clear about what better writing would mean in that context, but he certainly was adamant that he wanted it.

Oh, and would the day after tomorrow be too soon to offer the class? Under the circumstances, I would have called me in a panic, too.

Already, I see the logical conclusion-huggers out there scratching their heads. “But Anne,” the rational point out, as they are wont to do, “if this storyline popped up in a novel, readers would find it implausible. In the first place, if the owner doesn’t know what good writing is, how can he set writing standards for the department? If he does not know how his staff is falling short of those standards, how is the class — which, if my calculations are correct, should convene sometime tomorrow morning — to address the problems? And if the boss is so darned worried about his employees’ writing, wouldn’t it make more sense to bring in someone with experience diagnosing writing problems and helping writers iron them out?”

There you go, expecting the real world to be as plausible as fiction. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: reality is a lousy writer.

Case in point: Nate’s predicament is exceptional not in that he’s fallen victim to the astonishingly pervasive notion that anyone who can express himself well on paper must perforce be capable of teaching others how to do it — which, as anyone who has attended an authors’ panel on craft issues at a writers’ conference could tell you, does not always bear out in practice — but insofar as he happened to have gone to elementary school with an editor willing to help him come up with a last-minute lesson plan. Makeshift workplace writing seminars seem to have been on the rise in recent years; I hear constantly from aspiring writers who insist that their queries must be in business format (left-justified, non-indented paragraphs, a skipped line between paragraphs) because, they claim, “the guy who taught my writing class at work said standards have changed.”

Upon further inquiry, that guy virtually never turns out to have received the Nobel Prize in literature, if you catch my drift.

To be fair, though, Since my primary experience of Nate’s forays into the realm of the Muse has been a paragraph or two in his annual Christmas card, I’m not really in a position to assess his writing — and since neither of us work in the department he’s assigned to teach, I had to ask to peruse his potential students’ writing specimens before I could even begin to give him advice. Every profession has its own internal standards for communicative excellence, after all; for all I know, Nate might be the Edith Wharton of interoffice memoranda.

As a writing teacher, however, I did know that his terrified, broad-based question, “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” was not one easily answered under any circumstances. Those of us who edit for a living hear this one fairly often, doubtless due to the widespread and erroneous belief in one-size-fits-all writing solutions — and universally-applicable writing advice, for that matter.

Which is why, one presumes, that the standard editorial answer is, “It depends. What kind of writing are you talking about?”

Did that resounding thunk of chins collectively hitting floors indicate that at least a few of you were unaware that what constitutes good writing varies not only by style and voice, but by context and intended audience as well? To those of us that read for a living, there’s no such thing as generic good writing, especially when one is discussing books. While clarity and voice consistency are desirable in any genre, specific standards vary by book category: what would be laudable in YA, after all, might bore a literary fiction readership to death, and vice versa. The conventions by which paranormals operate quite happily would seem absurd in a Western. And call me zany, but when I pick up a cookbook, I don’t expect it to read like a Sherman Alexie short story. (His new short story collection is terrific, by the way, even though it contains some old stories.)

So while a layperson might have responded to “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” with a handful of soothing platitudes about the importance of showing vs. telling or some light wrist-slapping on the subject of run-on sentences, Nate could hardly have asked a pro like me more challenging question, or one more likely to produce a three-hour answer. Since neither he nor his prospective students seemed to be looking to break into the literary market, however, I spared him the nuanced lecture on the many gradations of stylistic merit, contenting myself instead with asking what kind of writing these fine folks habitually did and what about their efforts had disturbed his employer enough to be willing to stop the enterprise dead in its tracks for a day in order to improve it.

The questions seemed to surprise him, or so I surmise from a pause long enough for me to have set down the phone, have my hair permed, and returned without missing his response. “Well,” he said eventually, “they’re expected to describe real-world situations.”

Was it callous of me to laugh? “That, I’m afraid, is the challenge faced by every memoirist and other nonfiction writer who has ever trod the earth’s crust — and a hefty percentage of the novelists as well.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but my folks are not very good at it.”

As I love you people, I shall not reproduce the eighteen minutes of cross-examination required to elicit what might charitably be regarded as a reasonable description of what kind of writing these excellent people were not doing well, for whose eyes it was intended, and how their literary efforts were not pleasing that target audience. To my ear, the problem seemed not to be entirely writing-related: the budding Hemingways in question were routinely expected to walk into conflict-ridden situations, rapidly assess the various potential and/or current combatants’ needs, desires, and aggressive capabilities, and produce a terse summary in the few minutes they had at their disposal before diving into the next fracas.

I’m inclined to believe that even the actual Hemingway would have found that a writing challenge, especially on a short deadline. And the more Nate talked, the more the tight deadlines seemed to be exacerbating the writing problems. In a move that might not astonish anyone familiar with either rushed writing or professional jargon — but evidently did come as something of a surprise to Nate’s employer — those harried scribblers had fallen into the habit of using stock phrases to save time. If not actually using the copy and paste functions to recycle entire sentences.

Obviously, that practice would over time try the patience of anyone tasked with reading many of these reports back-to-back, but not only for reasons of style. Specific descriptions would not be particularly conducive to reuse, right? In order to be easily portable, the less descriptive those statements could be, the better.

Better for the rushed copy-and-paster, that is, not for descriptive clarity — or, importantly for the credibility of the reports Nate’s students are expected to write, the reader’s ability to picture what’s going on. Even if one of these writers is a terrific observer and an obsessively honest reporter of fact, repetitive wordsmithing will convey a less-then-meticulous impression.

Let’s examine why. If Report #1 reads like this:

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

And Report #2 reads like this:

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

It’s pretty hard for the reader to tell these two battling groups apart, apart, isn’t it? That’s the nature of generic description: even if the writer’s has something specific in mind, stock phrasing represents generalities — and that’s what the reader is going to take away.

Lest those of you who write fiction be congratulating yourselves, thinking that this is one writing problem, thank goodness, that does not apply to your work, let me hasten to add that the same principle applies to any description. No matter how detailed the writer’s mental image of a person, place, thing, or situation might be, if the narrative uses generalizations to depict it, or holds back salient details, the reader’s going to end up with only a vague impression of the writer’s artistic vision.

Take, for example, the photograph at the top of this post. It would be factually accurate, as well as quite speedy, to describe it as a picture of a piece of wood. A writer in less of a hurry could tell a reader that the wood is dry, has a knot in it, and that a small portion of it had apparently been slightly burned at some point in the dim past.

All of that would be true; you can see that for yourself. But if you had never seen the photograph in question, would reading either of those descriptions enable you to picture it? Couldn’t those descriptions apply to a practically infinite variety of photos of pieces of wood?

If we cranked our observational skills up to high, however, and set our literary skills on stun, we could easily describe that image so thoroughly that the reader would not only be able to envision it, but would know precisely how that particular hunk of wood differed from every other piece of wood on the planet. If the reader ever encountered it in real life, she would recognize it. (“That’s it, officer — that’s the lumber I read about!“)

If the description on the page does not show the relevant specifics, though, how is the reader supposed to learn about them? Guesswork? Telepathy? Showing up on the author’s doorstep and demanding a fuller description?

Obviously, at least from a professional reader’s perspective, it’s not the reader’s job to do any of these things; it’s the writer’s job to provide those specifics. How a savvy writer would chose to go about that, though, might well depend upon the type of narrative that would contain the description, as well as the writer’s individual stylistic preferences and the needs of the scene. In a thriller, for instance, a just-the-facts description might be appropriate:

The glass in the window rattled in the wind. Not too surprising, really, considering the state of the wood holding it together: dry, cracked, and full of knots. Even its garish yellow paint job seemed to have given up on holding itself together.

In an emotional YA scene, however, this treatment might make more sense:

I ran my fingertips along the warped wood of the window frame, wondering if I could pry it open. Old yellow paint flaked onto my sleeve as I worked a pencil into the largest crack in the wood. The last inmate must have been too depressed to try to escape — all she seemed to have done was crush out a cigarette on the yielding wood.

For literary or mainstream fiction, though, it could read like this:

No wonder the window leaked heat like a warped sieve — the very wood holding it together had dried out to the point of shattering. An ancient knot spun near the confluence of sill and frame, sending angry concentric circles of resistance shivering toward the glass. Deep, murky cracks wrinkled decades-old yellow paint.

Quite a difference from the window frame was made of wood and painted yellow, eh? While all of these descriptions are factually true, the reader would take away radically varying mental images.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take another gander at our two original examples. Now that we know that the reader’s sense of what’s going on could be substantially improved by including more specifics, what other style changes would be helpful here?

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

Did the word and phrase repetition catch your eye this time around? It would have maddened Millicent the agency screener, and for good reason. Even taking Report #1 and Report #2 individually, their repetitive phrasing is, let’s face it, not very interesting to read — and thus inherently less memorable, from the reader’s point of view, than more varied word choice.

Did that last contention make you do a double-take? Okay, here’s a test of whether it’s true: quick, without scrolling back up, explain the differences between what the writer observed in Situation #1 and Situation #2.

Did you come up with anything but a floor level, and perhaps a couple of the participants’ names? Neither would a reader. That’s a writing problem as much as a matter of content choice.

How so? Well, by definition, repeated phrases do not add new information to a description in the way that fresh wording can. Yet many writers deliberately repeat words and phrases, apparently in the mistaken belief that the reader will magically derive a more complex meaning from seeing the same writing a second, third, or fourth time than s/he did the first time around. Take a gander:

The sight made Zenobia sad, sad in a way that no sight had made her feel before. And that realization made her sad, too, because she realized that unless she could manage to change the course of history, she might well be the last human ever to see the sight at all.

Okay, okay, I get it: the lady’s sad, and she’s seeing something. But no matter how many times the narrative tells me Zenobia’s sad, I’m not going to understand her sadness better than I did the first time it used the word. And surely it’s not unreasonable for me as a reader to wonder what the heck she’s seeing — or to resent that the narrative keeps referring to a sight that it’s not showing me.

Seem like an extreme example? Perhaps this frequency of word repetition is on the high end, but you’d be amazed at how often manuscript submissions simply adapt few chosen words and phrases to many descriptive purposes. Verbs are particularly prone to this treatment.

The door was locked. That was unexpected, like the frustration downtown had been. He tried to break it down, but the door was too strong for him. Frustration made him grind his teeth.

He was down to his last idea. If he couldn’t get inside, or at least prove that he had tried, all of his plans would be down the drain. He would be broke. It was just like that time in Phoenix, when Ariadne had treated him like a dog.

If you don’t mind my asking, what does was convey to the reader the fourth time it appears that it didn’t in the first three iterations? Or, to stand the question on its head — a lot more interesting than any of the activity indicated by the verb choices here, I must say — what does this passage gain in either stylistic or in storytelling terms by recycling these words and phrases?

Come up with anything? I didn’t, either. But you’re starting to feel more sympathy for the conflict-describers’ supervisors, are you not, if not for Millicent, for having to read this kind of prose all the time?

I sense some furtive shifting in chairs out there. “But Anne,” those of you fond of word repetition protest, and well you should, “isn’t word choice a matter of style? Maybe the writer here reused things deliberately. The phrasing above might not be your cup of tea, or Millicent’s, but it is stylistically distinct. In fact, read out loud, it might even sound pretty cool.”

That, as you say, is a matter of opinion, but even if Millicent or I did think it sounded cool (and I don’t), the limited vocabulary and repetitive phrasing here carry distinct clarity costs. What, may I ask, happened downtown? Why was it frustrating, and what about it produced the same type of frustration as the current situation? For that matter, how is this situation like what occurred in Phoenix? While we’re asking, who is this trollop Ariadne, and in what way did her interactions with our hero resemble the manner in which she might hobnob with man’s best friend?

See the problem? Even if the manuscript prior to this point had simply throbbed with detail about that donnybrook downtown, conveyed a sterling sense of our hero’s door-battering capabilities, and devoted 70 pages to Ariadne’s emotionally questionable proclivities, the word choices here deprive the reader of a clear sense of what’s going on in this particular moment. Not all feelings of frustration are identical, so why present them as though they were? How does our hero attempt to breach the door, and how precisely did it resist him?

And don’t even get me started on how the inclusion of hackneyed phrases — down the drain, treated him like a dog — further obfuscate meaning. Yes, most of us will understand in general what these stock phrases mean, but it honestly isn’t the reader’s job to guess how these clich?d descriptions apply to this particular situation, is it?

Hadn’t thought of those phrases that way, had you? Most writers new to the game wouldn’t: if a phrase is in common use, they reason, it just sounds right. How else would someone put it?

That’s a dangerous question to tempt Millicent to consider, I’m afraid. “Well,” she is likely to snap, “a writer might want to phrase it in a more original fashion, just for the sake of style. While this one is at it, s/he might consider applying some thought to coming up with less expected ways to convey break it down and grind his teeth, too.”

You have a point there, Millie, and one that applies equally well to the workplace writing of our first examples and manuscripts intended for submission to agents and editors. Naturally, it’s important that writing sounds good to the writer, but that is not the only measure of whether a passage is well-written. It needs to sound good to the reader — and not just any reader, either. It must sound good to the reader in the writer’s chosen audience, the kind of reader who already reads books like the one the writer has produced.

Why? Because that’s the reader who will ultimately buy that writer’s work when it appears in print.

Millicent wants to help good writers reach that reader. So does her boss, the agent of your dreams, and the editor to whom he pitches manuscripts. Since agencies and publishing houses specialize in marketing to particular types of readers — thus book categories, right? — it’s a safe bet that all of these professional readers will be familiar with the kind of prose that’s currently selling well to your target audience.

That means, in practice, that they’re not just looking for generic good writing. They’re looking for what that audience will consider good writing.

Which, of course, will vary by book category. And if that doesn’t make you want to stop scrolling through this post, snatch up your hat, and race to the nearest well-stocked bookstore to check what kind of prose readers of books like yours are buying these days, well, you might want to reexamine your priorities.

I sense some purists gearing up to be huffy, do I not? “I’m appalled, Anne,” those who pride themselves on eschewing mere mercenary motives scold. “I thought we were talking about good writing here, not altering our artistic vision to conform to whatever bestseller happens to be dominating the literary market at the moment. I don’t want to sound identical the authors whose work happens to be selling well in my book category; my work is original.”

I applaud that — and it’s precisely my point. By definition, stock phrases, clich?s, and expected phrasing do not read on the page as the original phrasing of an exciting new voice; they’re generic. At submission time, that means that using them can never help a writer impress Millicent stylistically.

They’re a waste of page space, frankly. As your friend in the biz and sincere well-wisher, I would rather see you devote that space to what’s best about your writing: your individual vision, expressed as only you can describe it on the page, in a manner likely to appeal to your target readership.

No amount of one-size-fits-all writing advice is going to be able to tell you how to do that — and, frankly, that’s probably good news if you’re trying to develop your individual authorial voice. Generic style precepts that purport to be universally applicable presuppose a single notion of good writing. But you have too much respect for your intended reader than to buy into that oversimplified notion, don’t you?

Don’t squander your unique artistic vision by expressing it in vague terms or overused phrases. Trust me, your reader will want to gain a clearer sense of what you have in mind. Keep up the good work!