I spent a couple of hours going through my unsolicited manuscripts on Monday with Danielle, my new assistant. It was fascinating going through this with a new person after a year and a half, when the material has become a bit more focused (much more historical fiction, much less fantasy and literary shoe-gazing). But we were struck by the fact that so many writers were still falling into the trap we call The Modifier Zone. Therefore, as a Public Service (as well as because it is evening and I've just returned from a conference run by the writing program at Columbia), I'm reprinting an old column (hey, after a year and a half this is the first time I'm doing this--not SO bad, no?) called (uh huh) The Modifier Zone. PS--The manuscript I discussed in this column turned out to be The Midwife's Tale by Sam Thomas, which was released last month by Minotaur and is selling like crazy (and which is THAT good).
“Josh stretched his tired arms and wearily dragged his calloused, tapered fingers through his curly, tangled hair as he struggled to rouse his overworked body out of his comfortable bed, the tinny chirps of the chrome iHome alarm clock mocking him…chirpily. He staggered blearily past the cluttered wood desk and opened the white door to the beige bathroom, where he splashed cold water on his scruffy cheeks and shook himself awake as the minty toothpaste shocked his sleepy tastebuds into awareness. He trudged heavily into the book-lined family room, past the herringbone sofa and the orange chairs, stopping at his dark brown Jack Spade messenger bag to take out his red Dell laptop. It is 5:15, and you have entered…The Modifier Zone.”
One of the more common flaws I’ve found in the queries I read is the Modifier Dump, when an author—whether in looking to be absolutely sure that the reader knows precisely what the room looks like or the character feels, goes adjective and adverb crazy. A tree is not a tree—it’s a green, leafy tree. A person doesn’t walk down the street—he walks down the wide, car-filled, green-leafy-tree-lined, newly-paved highway. At times it’s an excuse to show off SAT words: “The perspicacious toddler lugubriously imbibed the apple juice, perspiration trickling over his blowzy digits.”
Regardless, it’s the sure way to make me stop reading. When I am looking at the beginning of a book, I want to be hooked. That’s not a revelation—everyone wants to be hooked at the start of a book. It either needs to have action that draws the reader in, or a description of a place or character that makes you want to continue because that character or place is going to do something or be the site of something interesting. And you don’t need a lot of words to make that happen. (And you sure don’t need to describe the weather. Weather, unless we’re talking about, say, the moors or the desert or the ski slopes or the Islands, is rarely relevant; and when it is, it’s often self-evident.)
Rather, in a short space, you (typically) need to place the reader in time and location, and indicate something about the person or people involved, and what they are doing.
I was talking to my (FORMER!) assistant, Maddie, yesterday (LAST YEAR!), about an exciting query which had come in through the weekend. It had many of the elements I salivate over—foreign, historical setting, crime, class issues, badass proto-feminist protagonist, and author with a great background and the background to pull off an ambitious novel of this ilk.
“How’s the writing?” Maddie asked.
“Marvelous,” I said, and read the first sentence to her. “On the night I delivered Mercy Harris of a bastard child, the King’s soldiers burned the city’s suburbs and fell back within its walls to await the rebel assault.”
There is so much good about this—in 29 words, the author managed to convey so many things—let’s see how many:
1) The narrator delivers babies. So the protagonist is a doctor or a midwife. Not an amateur, or it would have been “The night I helped Mercy Harris deliver her baby.”
2) More than that, the narrator delivers bastard babies, which means that the story takes place during a time where that is important.
3) It’s set in a city.
4) With a wall.
5) It’s set during a time and place where there is
- A king
- A rebellion
So the reader immediately knows that there are big things going on—a civil war of some kind—and also local dramas of childbirth. We don’t know where it’s going, exactly, but we want to continue. And in these 29 words, there is one modifier—bastard—and it’s vital, and evocative. It would say something very different about the book if the adjective were “illegitimate,” right? And it wasn’t necessary to say that the night was dark or rainy or dangerous, because the details given are more than sufficient to pique our interest. I don’t know if the author will be able to sustain the prose or the story, but I do know that I want to read on, and I’m inclined to like it.
So the takeaway on this I suppose is that for me the best writing is careful writing, where the pyrotechnics can be subtle, the adjectives minimal and always germane, and the weather implied. Many agents and editors talk about wanting to be transported to a different or unfamiliar time and place, with unique characters and gripping plots. That’s an incredibly tall order, and one whose difficulty is only magnified when it is burdened with unnecessary modifiers.