“I can’t give you anything but sluuush, baybeeee….”
Fiction writers should be aware that every reader, including every editor and agent and slush reader, will have certain pet peeves that turn them off of manuscripts. These usually include not only sensible and expected rules (“don’t use adverbial dialogue tags” and “don’t have a Mary Sue main character”), but also several subtler and more personal things you can’t possibly guess at the get-go. If you know an editor’s list, it can increase your manuscript’s chances.
Herewith the list of Toni’s Peeves, as paraphrased from the FenCon workshop with Baen publisher/editor Toni Weisskopf: (The asterisks are footnote-clues. I deal with them later in the post, so watch for the explanations.)
@ Character with dead parent(s)
– “Instead of trying to import a template of sympathy and emotion and overlay that on the reader, develop relationships between your characters. If other characters care about your character, your reader likely will, as well.”*
@ waking up as an opening [!]
@ dream sequence in the opening [!!]
@ naming convention should have a point and should be consistent
– “Fantasy novels should have fantasy names, mundane novels/characters should have mundane names. In either fantasy or mundane, names can (should) reflect cultural background or relationship.”**
@ Beware “bus trip” plot lines***
– Be sure your story has a beginning, a middle and an end.
– Be sure your story has a concept, moral, or theme.
She didn’t make this part of the official list, but let me add this one: “Don’t have your character make observations about herself and what she’s doing at the time.” This is fodder for an entire CRAFT post, but basically it’s saying not to write, “I was seriously freaking out,” but instead to show how the character is freaking out. (“Her hands shook of their own volition . . . she dropped her knitting,” yadda yadda.) At least I don’t do this . . . at least not very often. Do I?
Okay. But there it is, a set of a particular person’s perfectly phrased pet peeves. (I typed “perfectly valid,” but I couldn’t resist the alliterative change. *grin*) Avoid them if you intend to try to sell to this person.
That said, I’d like to point out that these “don’t do” rules are not universal. In fact, I happened to send to the workshop a novel that hits three of them, and that’s most likely the reason that I was so badly flayed during critique.
Let’s deal with the footnotes (that’s what *, **, and *** are, for you newcomers.)
* The Dead Parent Taboo: While I know the types of books the lady is talking about, mine is not one of them, though she evidently assumed that it was. The meme works (*ahem HARRY POTTER ahem*) (*cough THE OUTSIDERS cough*) (even *hack* TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD cough*), which is why people use it. These tragedies happen in real life. And you can’t tell someone, “Just get over it,” or “Get past it,” because it shapes the person you become, and even if you don’t dwell consciously on it, it has changed you in various ways. But of course some stories *do* import the template, and are trying this just to be melodramatic. _Camille’s Travels_ has it as a thing that kicks off the events that change the main character’s life, though.
When the book opens, Camille’s dad is dead. Has been gone for a year. His death itself caused a trauma in her young life. I know that this happens when a fourteen/fifteen-year-old girl’s daddy dies, because mine dropped dead one morning when I was fifteen, and it has affected my life ever since. I wasn’t finished with him yet. This means that it’s one of MY MAJOR PET PEEVES in real life, eh?
(Because the book was deemed a YA by a couple of powerhouse agents, I went back and put in two or three emotional introspections about how this has affected Camille; it was said that YA novels need these. This workshop thought they were over-the-top, so I’ll delete them. I thought they were a bit much, too, but they were said to be correct for the market. And that’s another cautionary tale against making changes “for the market” or because someone tells you to who is not giving you a contract, unless you really think the changes are improvements.)
Also, this plot truth facilitates Camille’s mother’s reaction (grief and denial and an attempt to hold death off for herself, in part), which is to glom on to a gigolo-type younger man and marry him and start spending up what she got in the insurance benefits department. Camille tried to keep her mother from making this mistake and got on her wrong side, as her mother was deeply in “rebound” mode. Worse, when Jimmy Cline got drunk shortly after the wedding, he came into Camille’s room and jumped her. Her mother said she was a compulsive liar and that of course he did no such thing. Camille knew that this would happen again. She ran away from home rather than go into the foster care system or continue to live with this. Okay? That’s kind of a cornerstone of my storyline in _Camille_.
*Now*, that said, I think that the reason it pushed her hot button so firmly is that I actually have a line about how someone reminds her of her real father and how it brings on a feeling of sadness RIGHT THERE on page three or so, as she’s getting ready to shoplift some stuff at a store. Why would I feel the need to mention this? I didn’t used to (as Grandpa used to put it) until about the fourth draft of the novel. The reason I do this is that so many readers balked at reading about a girl who was shoplifting because she was hungry and on the street. They said she was unlikable and they couldn’t identify nor sympathize. After I put in the explanation about WHY she is on the street–she didn’t just run away at whim or because her mom wouldn’t let her stay up late, but to escape the abusive stepfather who replaced her real dad after his passing because her mom went nutzoid and ran out to find another man to reaffirm that SHE wasn’t dead or going to disappear–fairly early, these objections faded away. Most readers now go, “Oh, then I see why she’s in this situation and understand why she’s like she is.” The dilemma is that I have to explain to readers directly why Camille is not someone we should hate because she’s about to steal and she lives on the streets, and I need to do it early on while their minds are not closed against her. That happens fairly quickly when I just “show” all her actions without any internal monologue about what motivates her.
If that makes this a semi-literary novel, then it does. “It is what it is.” (*sorry* See Tod Goldberg’s peeves below.)
(My book also violates one of Tod Goldberg’s rules as listed later in this entry, as Camille’s dad dies in the Iraq war. Previously he died on 9/11, and before that in the OKC bombing. That’s how long ago I wrote this one. That’s how long I have believed in her story and its power. The Iraq war change was suggested by two agents, and I think it works here.)
Waking Up Openings/Dream Sequence Openings [!] and [!!]: Ages ago, I did both of these in my first fantasy novel, the one about the healer with prophetic dreams. Hee! However, that one was heavily influenced by the first Anne McCaffrey Dragon book.
** Naming Conventions: The bit about making things reflect the culture–I do this, although some people don’t see it this way. Fantasy/SF novels should have appropriate naming conventions. However, I don’t agree that mundane novels/characters should have only mundane names. As a Texan, I see lots of Texan names. “Bubba” and “Dub,” “Jerry Jeff” and “Joe Bob” and “Dabney”: these are not weird redneck names. As a child of the hippie generation, I have seen lots of hippie names, as well, and creative respellings of names. I count a “Typhani” and a “DeBorah” among my acquaintances. Why should I tell them that they don’t know how to spell their names?
Pertinence here: I used the name “Deedra” in _Camille_ and was told I should spell it “Deirdre” or “Deidre.” However, many people’s birth certificates may not reflect the “official” spelling out of the baby names books, and so why should characters be different? In that case, it’s obvious how the name is pronounced, whereas it isn’t with the original spelling.
I think that if your fantasy novel draws on Celtic mythos, your characters’ names and place names ought to as well, and should not have names that come out of (say) the Apache culture. But an American-set novel set in the present day? I can’t see the prob with a Harry and a Dweezil and a Mahmoud. In fact . . . I know those people. I also use a goodly number of unusual names in my stories, because I feel that this way no real person is going to yelp that I used his/her name as the “bad” character or the main character and therefore try to sue me. I also like unusual names. This is one of the stumbling blocks that some people are just gonna have with my work.
***Bus Trip Plots: Yeah, yeah, but MY BOOK IS NOT A PICARESQUE. I’m not going to argue it here. She saw my book as a wandering-around thing. She thinks this is not a story. However, this is a classic story when that’s what the story is about (as implied by my title).
Damon Knight (I miss him) once said that there are only two stories: “Stranger Comes to Town” and “Hero Goes on a Journey.” Duh! Hero’s Journey, anyone?
The Road Trip/Searching novel is about the character’s inner journey, and that is mirrored by the character’s external journey. Camille is trying to get somewhere that she thinks is safe when we start out, but then she starts being chased. This isn’t just a bus-trip thing, although there IS a bus trip in it. There is a train trip. There is a hitchhiking trip. She meets her mentors and the trickster on these trips. If you don’t like this kind of story, it won’t be “your thing,” but don’t say it isn’t legit as a story. _Thelma and Louise_ . . . heck, _Huck Finn_! It’s about the journey down the river that mirrors Huck’s inner journey! But I forgot–Huck Finn isn’t valid because it’s a banned book written by a Dead White Male. Forgive me, world!
Okay, so that was the Baen no-no list. But hers is not the only list!
For comparison, Tod Goldberg’s (Lee Goldberg’s brother–Lee writes the “Murder, She Wrote” and “Diagnosis Murder” novelizations, among others–Tod runs writers’ workshops in out beloved Hollyweird.)
An excerpt from Tod’s list of rules and no-nos (his is deliberately tongue-in-cheek and a bit snarky-toned, bear in mind):
Every fall, I reassess the rules I have for the writing workshops I teach. A few stay constant: no use of the word theme, no air quotes, no use of the word motif, no use of the word vis-a-vis unless you’re a citizen of France, no use of the sentence “but that’s how it really happened!” unless you’re explaining why the threesome involving you and Clinton & Stacy from What Not to Wear is physically (and psychically) accurate, no crying, no saying “your short story would make a great novel/movie/pop up book/Choose Your Own Adventure/Cinemax After Dark series,” no use of the terms “POD is the future” and “but John Grisham self-published his first novel,” and, finally, no adverbs in dialogue tags.
This year, I’ve decided to expand these rules to include certain story lines, as well as certain behaviors, and, naturally, a few more choice terms. They are as follows:
1. No stories about the war in Iraq. Last year, I read 25 student stories and three student novels concerning the war in Iraq. None of them were very good and every time I told the people who’d written the stories/novels that their stories/novels about Iraq lacked authenticity and were already dated the moment they printed them out, I was greeted with a retort like, “Someone has to tell the soldiers’ stories.” When I’d reply that that the soldiers were likely to be those people, they’d say, “But what about now, while they are serving? Don’t their voices need to be heard?” And then I’d tell them that, you know, making up their voices from your apartment in Northridge was probably not going to suffice.
2. No stories about 9/11. No stories about the Virginia Tech shootings. See above.
3. No novel synopses that utilize the title of your novel as a word in the closing sentence. As in: “When the floods left New Orleans, Jennifer realized she’d need to become a stronger woman…or she’d be Drowned In The Bayou.”
[and so forth]
6. No use of the term “It is what it is.”
[I include this because I actually *said* that during my FenCon critique, because when she said mine was a “bus ride” story, I pointed out that there *is* such a thing as a “road trip” story that mirrors the character’s inner journey, and that the title she disliked, _Camille’s Travels_, is a conscious reference to this and is a literary allusion to the Joel McCrae film _Sullivan’s Travels_, out of which came the recent Coen Brothers film _O Brother Where Art Thou_. She was assuming, I think, that my story is a picaresque like _Don Quixote_, but it isn’t–we can discuss that in an entry sometime, because picaresques are a tough sell now, and mine really isn’t one. But I should have kept quiet, as the only thing that explaining does is get you tagged as someone who “defends her work,” and that’s a no-no.]
9. No stories about cancer. No stories about incest. No stories about pissing on someone. No stories told from the pov of a dead person. No stories told in the pov of a dead person who died from cancer but, first, f#&$ed their brother. No stories where it’s all a dream. In fact, no dream sequences. No sentences that end with “…I thought to myself” unless the character is also a clairvoyant and can think to other people, too. No stories that are really about you and will cause you to cry in class when everyone complains that it’s just not believable, that the character lacks empathy and that, also, the character seems like he’s suffering from some kind of brain injury, since no one is actually that f#$%ing stupid. No novels that used to be your sh*##y screenplay.
ANYway. Tod’s list is far more amusing, wouldn’t you agree? I share a number of *his* dislikes. HOWEVER, his list is HIS list. He doesn’t wanna workshop these stories. *But* many stories that he mocks (not the silly ones–I mean the incest/disease ones) are still valid, if done well and done right and aimed at the proper audience.
Give it a moment’s consideration. Those misery tales are really popular; a ton of “women’s fiction” blockbusters are exactly that–stories of incest, disease, war heroes returning to work out their pasts, people who hated their dads and never got to reconcile with them and are now inheriting the Old Manse and its ghosts, and the like. From “Terms of Endearment” to whatever is playing on “Lifetime For Women Movie Network” at this very moment, womenfolk**** seem to adore melodramas and buy them by the ton. I never have been interested in immersing myself in one of those Tales of Woe or Misery Books. I read quite a few for school when we were in school, and I read a couple of them when friends gave them to me, gushing about how Important the books were, and the books just made me sad and sick. Catharsis, heck. So I don’t read the damn things. BUT A LOTTA PPL DO. This is obvious from the popularity of such films and movies, at least during the last few decades. They’re almost as popular as the airhead-couple romantic comedy story in which neither of the pair is smart enough to live.
****Yes, women folk, for the most part. My mom, my aunts, and my cousins LOVE these three-tissue-box tales. Guys, not so much. My husband will flip past one of those faster than he will flip past a re-run of “The Jeffersons.” He says there’s enough sadness and loss in the world as we live it–why not have a little fun and escape when we watch a film or read a book? He gotza point, eh.
TOD EXPLAINS WHAT HIS RULES ARE FOR
“If you’re taking a class with me this year, please go over these rules closely as you will be expected to know them prior to week 1.”
TONI EXPLAINED WHAT HER RULES WERE FOR, TOO
She said that these were her pet peeves. This means that if you are going to send a book somewhere, and it relies on one of these things, don’t bother sending it to Baen.
Bear in mind, though, that these are lists of one particular person’s pet peeves. (Just as every workshop participant has his/her own bugaboos.) The honest truth is that different editors, as well as different readers, will have different hot buttons. So you can’t win by trying to avoid everyone’s pet peeves, as you’ll end up with a mess. You wouldn’t be able to write anything if you kept everyone’s personal stuff in mind to avoid; you’ve got to accept that your work won’t have EVERYONE in its audience. You have to decide whether your work needs to have that aspect (say, a dead parent) for artistic reasons, and then you’ll just know that your audience doesn’t include the people who’ve told you they don’t like it. Well, you can pretty much rely on *everyone* telling you not to kill dogs and cats . . . that’s been a topic around mystery fiction circles for a while. But most everything else is on a basis of “if it works.” (I’m talking about plot bunnies and setups here, not about grammar/punctuation or showing/telling peeves.) If you are not doing it for NO REASON except that it seemed like something that a lot of books have in them, then you probably have a reason that’s reasonable. No reason to rip your book apart just because it deals with something that happens in life.
Flashbacks, infodumps, contrived stuff, a limited number of adverbial dialogue tags (not as many as are in Harry Potter, though; she can do it, but WE can’t) . . . I’ve seen every one of these work when the author has other strengths and can make it all interesting. The trouble arises when you feel it works in
your book, except you’re wrong. *grin* That’s what beta readers are for.
I’m just saying that you can’t take them all so seriously, except when you’re going to send a piece to that particular editor/agent. “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” (I hope everyone hears Rick Nelson’s voice in that.)
Still, we love lists! There’s something about a list.
FROM TOD’S COMMENT THREAD
“Available soon: bobble head doll of Tod Goldberg holding a bitsy riding crop in its hand. Place in range of keyboard so taht it can smack your hand every time you’re tempted to use an adverb in a dialogue tag.” (apologies to Dawn C. of Tod’s comments thread)
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Charlie Brown: “Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask, ‘Why me?’ Then a voice answers, ‘Nothing personal; your name just happened to come up.'”–Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000), US cartoonist