Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Tough Editing Decision

The most recent issue of One Story magazine (issue #166) showcases the story World's End by Clare Beams. Below are two versions of a short excerpt from the story. One version is exactly as it is published. The other version, I've altered. I'm wondering if you can guess which one is the version actually published.

To set the scene, Robert Cale, a wealthy businessman, is talking to an architect he's hired and is meeting for the first time.

Version one:

"What I want to do is put up houses. Sell them. People said I should talk to somebody before I bring in the builders, so we put everything in the right place. You're younger than I thought."

Version two:

"What I want to do is put up houses. Sell them. People said I should talk to somebody before I bring in the builders, so we put everything in the right place." Then, with no audible pause, "You're younger than I thought."

I'm assuming Clare Beams (or her editor) recognized both versions were possible, and I'd guess Clare (or her editor) thought long and hard about which version was preferable. The second version tells you that there's "no...pause" between two sentences, but by adding the words that tell you there's no pause, the story pauses. I see a conflict between what the text says and what the story does.

If you don't believe me, then try this third version, which I definitely made up:

" we put everything in the right place." Then, he didn't pause at all, he just went right on talking with no hesitation, no delay, no amount of time spent being silent between words... nope, he just went on to his next sentence and you couldn't have blinked twice in the time between his previous and his next sentence: "You're younger than I thought."

You see the problem.

I also wonder about the word "audible" in "no audible pause." Why not just "Then, with no pause..."? A pause in dialogue can be only heard. It can't be smelled or seen or tasted. Imagine the author writing "Then, with no smellable pause..." Ridiculous. So I wonder if "no audible pause" in this case contains a redundancy.

By now you've probably guessed that version two, with the spelled-out lack of an audible pause, is the one the author or editor chose. I wish I knew why. The only argument for it I can think of is to prepare the reader for a change in the subject of Robert's dialogue. It's a sudden change. Version one above might surprise readers enough that they'd have to re-read that bit. So I can see the need for something to mark the transition. But why "Then, with no audible pause..."? Why not "Then he changed the subject." or "His eyes narrowed as he added," or something much better written than either of these suggestions? There has to be a better "beat" available than one that blatantly contradicts itself, especially since self-contradiction plays no role in the story, thematically or otherwise.

See what happens when you take editing seriously? I can't just read stories anymore, I have to play around with the parts that bug me.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sometimes We Really Can Help Other Writers

Not so long ago, I critiqued a contest entry called "A Trip to America" that didn't make the final judging round of our contest. We liked the story and thought it had good potential. We also pointed out some specific areas where we didn't think it worked as well as it could have, and made suggestions about how to strengthen it.

The author just emailed us to say that he rewrote the story, at least partially based on our critique, and now it's published in a magazine called Litro. That makes somewhere around five to seven stories that our critiques have helped get published in other magazines.

I'm proud to show off "A Trip to America" by Tony Concannon. I hope you like it as much as we do. Congratulations, Tony!


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Why Fiction Based on Real Life Often Fails

Since late 2009, we've sent out over 130 paid critiques of rejected stories, and only two have generated what I'd call unhappy responses. In both cases, the authors felt I'd either missed or misinterpreted critical information in the story. And in both cases, the stories were based on real life to such a degree that I'm not sure either contest entry qualifies as fiction. I don't think it's a coincidence that my most negative reactions came from critiques of stories based on real life.

For one thing, it must feel kind of insulting to be told we don't believe your story that really happened. There's no solution to that problem, though, because On The Premises is a fiction magazine that emphasizes creativity, so we're going to keep assuming that the stories we receive are at least 90% made up. (If you want to write about your real thoughts and feelings, then give your real thoughts and feelings to made up characters and put them in made up situations that would evoke your real thoughts and feelings.)

To show why stories based on real life can often fail, I'll transcribe a conversation between me and an imaginary author who wrote an imaginary story called "Sister From Hell." (We have never received any story with that title, or any story similar to the one I'm about to describe.)

ME: to summarize, we didn't believe the extreme behavior change shown by the narrator's sister at the end of the story. Since the whole story hinges on that change in behavior, it's fair to say we didn't believe the whole story, and that's why "Sister From Hell" didn't make the final round of judging.

AUTHOR: Well of course you didn't believe it. She fools everybody.

ME: ?????

AUTHOR: The story's based on my real sister, who fools everybody into thinking she's the nicest person in the world, then stabs you in the back.

ME: Okay, but we're talking about the narrator's sister in "Sister From Hell."

AUTHOR: I'm the narrator! I'm writing about me and my sister.

ME: First, if we'd known the story was non-fiction, we'd have disqualified it from our contest. Second, we're not concerned with your real sister here, we're concerned with the character as described in "Sister From Hell."

AUTHOR: I just told you they're the same thing.

ME: Look, you have a great deal of personal history with your real sister. How did you learn she's lying when she's acting all nice to everybody?

AUTHOR: [Gives many long, detailed examples of sister's deceitful behavior, and the clues the author discovered that proved the sister was lying.]

ME: Great. The problem is, none of that information appears in the current draft of "Sister From Hell." The story we received spends ten pages showing the narrator's sister performing such selfless, kind acts that we were ready to nominate her for sainthood. Then on page eleven she burns down an orphanage and laughs at all the dying children. 

AUTHOR: Okay that never really happened, but it's the kind of thing she'd do if she could get away with it.

ME: My point is, there's nothing IN THE STORY to make us believe she's anything except what she appears to be: nice, sweet, etc. Not until she burns down an orphanage. To us readers, that act came out of nowhere. I think the real problem here is, you know your material so well, you forgot that we DON'T already know it. If we knew all along your sister was a psychopath, "Sister From Hell" would probably have worked better for us. Since we didn't know that, the last part made no sense to us.

AUTHOR: My gosh, you're right! [Author goes on to write best-selling novels, win a Pulitzer Prize, and publicly credit me as a mentor, thus helping me teach creative writing somewhere. Like I said, the author's imaginary.]

I think the biggest problem with the advice to "Write What You Know" is, it's too easy to forget your readers don't also know it. If you write what you make up, you'll ask important questions about your characters, plot, and story's world because you probably don't know the answers to those questions either. As you develop the answers to those questions, many of them will appear in your story, probably because that's how you're coming up with the answers. If you already have all the answers, you might leave out something your readers will need to know.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sentences Within Sentences

With the publication of Issue #17, the OTP blog returns!

A writing technique I've seen few authors get away with is the placement of complete sentences within other complete sentences. Below is what I consider a particularly telling example of what can go wrong when you try to put too much information into one sentence.

The quote comes from Statistical and Machine-Learning Data Mining: Techniques for Better Predictive Modeling and Analysis of Big Data, Second Edition, by Bruce Ratner.

(Don't worry if you don't fully understand the technical content. Just examine it as one huge sentence. And it's a real shame this sentence had the same effect on my reading that a speed bump has on my driving, because for the most part, I thought Ratner's book was well done. In fact, his explanation of CHAID and related techniques is the best I've read to date. All that aside, I wish someone had revised this next bit before it went to print:)

CHAID is a popular technique, especially among wannabe regression modelers with no significant statistical training because (1) CHAID regression tree models are easy to build, understand, and implement; and (2) CHAID underpinnings are quite attractive: CHAID is an assumption-free method, meaning there are no formal theoretical assumptions to meet (traditional regression models are assumption full, which makes them susceptible to risky results). 

That was published as one sentence! I count five distinct sentences in all that text. Here's how I'd rewrite it. For clarity, I put a number in brackets in front of each separate sentence.

[1] CHAID is a popular technique, especially among wannabe regression modelers with no significant statistical training. [2] First, CHAID regression tree models are easy to build, understand, and implement. [3] Second, CHAID underpinnings are quite attractive. [4] It's an assumption-free method, meaning there are no formal theoretical assumptions to meet. [5] (Traditional regression models are full of assumptions, which makes them susceptible to risky results.)

I see such beyond-run-on-sentences quite frequently, especially in technical and academic writing aimed at audiences with a specific educational background. I know it's easy to get carried away with long sentences; I do it myself. When revising, examine those long sentences carefully and ask yourself if splitting them into shorter sentences would work better.

(As a real example, I considered removing the semi-colon in the "I know it's easy..." sentence. After some thought, I decided "I do it myself" is attached enough to the prior idea that the semi-colon works. However, the prior two sentences were originally one long one. Yes, that's right, I violated the very rule I'm talking about while drafting an example of not violating the rule. That's how ingrained long sentences are in me! Sad, isn't it?)