WHAT I’VE LEARNED IN THE LAST TWENTY-THREE YEARS, PART 2

Last week I posted a short story that I wrote twenty-three years ago and had published in the now-defunct magazine Aberrations. I asked a big question: What have I learned in the last twenty-three years? Or as I said last week:

Though I stand behind this grim little bit of post-Lovecraftian mayhem, I’ve done an awful lot of writing, and a whole lot more editing, in the couple decades and change since it was first published. How would I have done this differently now? What would Editor Phil fix? How many of the items in my Common Comments file can I attach to this early example of my own work?

If you haven’t read last week’s post, including the complete text of “Piece Music,” the story in question, click here and start with that.

This week, let’s answer one of those questions and see if it also answers the others . . .

How many of the items in my Common Comments file can I attach to this early example of my own work?

At risk of seeming lazy, I’ve made a Word document I call Common Comments in which I’ve collected some of the advice I’ve found I’ve had to type into lots of different manuscripts in various genres by various authors of varying experience. It’s a time management tool for me.

I don’t care who you are, you can’t be both an editor and a writer—definitely not at the same time. And believe me, Writer Phil makes all sorts of crazy mistakes from simple typos to what-the-hell-were-you-thinking disasters that makes Editor Phil cringe. This is a little weirder for me in that now Editor Phil 2017 is looking at the work of Writer Phil 1994. That does make the text lots more fresh for Editor Phil’s eyes, while at the same time allowing Writer Phil to hide behind a couple decades’ more writing practice. And writing is something you get better at the more you do it.

So anyway, what Common Comments can Editor Phil attach to “Piece Music”?

Sentence 2, It was a growling, hissing sound and it was coming up fast behind her. gets this comment:

That construct: “something was verbing” is often a sign of passive voice. It’s almost always better to let the action be more direct: “something verbed” so that thing is happening in the past tense “now” and doesn’t come across as feeling as though there’s an extra layer of delay between your readers and the action. https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/active-search-something-was-verbing/

And yes, I link authors back to this blog.

The question then becomes, would that sentence, in context, read better as: A growling, hissing sound came up fast behind her.?

Not necessarily, because the “growling, hissing sound” adds detail to the “harsh music” of the first sentence. “Can I get away with this one?” asks Writer Phil. Editor Phil is nervous, and thinks maybe the better thing to do would be to rewrite the first sentence accordingly, combining the two into one thought:

It was a hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground, a growling, hissing sound, and it came up fast behind her.

Editor Phil might warn against “it was” as passive, but not always, and will give Writer Phil a pass on that this time.

Not in my Common Comments file, but I have to ping myself for going to the “this and this and this” well too many times. There’s no rule, and I don’t want to make one, but if you do that twice in one paragraph, that’s probably once too often:

It was a hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground, a growling, hissing sound, and it came up fast behind her. She turned, unable to go any farther. The fence across the end of the alley was thirteen feet high and she wasn’t in any condition to climb it now. Fear and anger and frustration, all the precursors to a violent and premature death raged in her head.

And the first paragraph ends with “this and this and this” number three: Her mind went to parties and laughter and humiliation and death and fucking. But Editor Phil will give that one to Writer Phil because it bookends the first sentence, and it’s not all about rules of grammar and syntax . . . Let’s not forget the art!

The first sentence is echoed in the last paragraph,and I definitely want to keep that agreement in place, so let’s fix the second one:

Fear, anger, frustration—all the precursors to a violent and premature death—raged in her head.

Editor Phil thinks he knows what Writer Phil was going for with this: Adjacent to that was her whole life. but isn’t sure Writer Phil got there. The intent was to show that, basically, while she was afraid and angry and frustrated, her whole life was flashing in front of her eyes. I like the little bits of her life that follow—they add some backstory in flashes and make her feel like a person, if an unhappy person, who’s already been through some stuff, so neither Editor nor Writer Phil wants to lose that. So Editor Phil will ask Writer Phil to look at that little sentence: Adjacent to that was her whole life. and find a better alternative.

The second paragraph has more “something was verbing” issues but worse, a weird transition from how she feels to what the monster looks like, and Editor Phil sends Writer Phil back to the drawing board on that one. Paragraphs don’t have to religiously be about one thing and one thing only, but there does seem to be too big a separation between those two ideas. You’ll have to come back next week to see if Writer Phil could figure that out.

Then we get to: It was drooling from lots of places and she could smell it.

An easy “something was verbing” fix to start with but then: she could smell it gets this from the Common Comments file:

Since this is all in this character’s POV, we get that this is what this character smells (or sees or hears or thinks, etc.)—an easy trim just to get to the heart of it. More at: https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/active-search-he-could-see/

And that easy trim is: It drooled from lots of places and she smelled it.

That’s not really good enough, though, and Editor Phil asks Writer Phil to go back and show what it smelled like, inhabit that smell for a few words at least.

Editor Phil thinks we have an “it” problem here: The pain was beyond anything. She wanted it to go away and leave her alone. in that the “it” in the second sentence seems to refer to “the pain” but is meant to refer to the monster. That should be fixed.

Then we get to our first POV issue. The first few paragraphs are clearly from the point of view of our unnamed victim, but then a hard transition with: In the morning they found just enough of her to identify her by dental records.

The easy solution would be to simply add a scene break—some little indication that we’re jumping time and/or place and/or point of view. Writer Phil will try that even though he’s worried that maybe the “blended POV” (his words, not Editor Phil’s) is a . . . good thing . . . ?

What follows then are a couple strong paragraphs that are clearly from the point of view of Detective Reyes, even if the first paragraph doesn’t necessarily nail that down right up front. But Writer Phil will get pinged with a Common Comment on this sentence: She was twenty, HIV positive and still working. The comment being:

The Oxford or serial comma is non-optional in long form prose—doing without it is a relic of print journalism where any opportunity to save column width is taken.

Right. So: She was twenty, HIV positive, and still working. Easy enough.

Editor Phil will then compliment Writer Phil on ending that paragraph with: It was a complex world. Writer Phil feels good about himself for the way that landed.

Perhaps infused with a transitory sense of mercy, editor Phil chooses to let this instance of “Reyes heard” pass: One of the other guys said, “Holy shit,” and Reyes heard the voice again, guttural, throat full of something. It may be “passive” but it works, and works always trumps correct.

Transitory sense of mercy spent, Editor Phil puts the hammer down on this sentence: There was no more than a quarter of the girl’s face left, her body was in (by the coroner’s best estimate) thirty-seven distinctive pieces in two separate laboratories. That “There was” is just too passive and hey, Writer Phil, “distinctive” means: characteristic of one person or thing, and so serving to distinguish it from others (according to the dictionary app I use). Surely Writer Phil meant to say “distinct”: recognizably different in nature from something else of similar type, but actually it’s better just left as “pieces” anyway. And Editor Phil has a weird bias against parenthesis, so . . .

No more than a quarter of the girl’s face survived. By the coroner’s best estimate her body was in thirty-seven pieces in two separate laboratories.

Then we get to our second flagrant POV violation in this paragraph that jumps from Reyes’s head to Sarah’s:

Sarah mouthed “Oh my god,” but nothing came out. She turned her face away. She was crying, and then suddenly she stopped having any idea what was going on. It was better that way. She had dinner with Jeff last night and almost went to bed with him. During lunch today, she bought a CD and was going to listen to it in her office. The parts of a woman’s face were talking. She forgot to buy coffee and tampons.

Editor Phil might suggest just cutting that whole paragraph but would also agree with Writer Phil that one of the strengths of this little story is that a small group of people, including the victim herself, are confronted with the shared experience of this horrible weirdness, which we then hope pays off in the end with the revelation of the intent of the monsters.

Now Editor Phil starts to think, Okay, then, just use another scene break, but hesitates because in a tiny little story like this, just barely over a thousand words, too many scene breaks will break it up too much, visually chopping the text and bumping readers out of the moment, however briefly. And a thousand-word horror story is all about sustaining a single moment, so here’s where Editor Phil grits his teeth and realizes that though it is patently “incorrect,” the story—the reading experience—is better served with the blended POV.

Editor Phil can be a tough nut to crack, but he can crack. In this case, he cracks so much he goes back and deletes the scene break he added in previously.

Still, this sentence: She was crying, and then suddenly she stopped having any idea what was going on. in that same paragraph calls out another Common Comment:

Be careful of words like immediately, suddenly, abruptly… a full rant here: https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/immediately-suddenly-and-abruptly-stop-using-the-words-immediately-suddenly-and-abruptly/

In this case, the “suddenly” is troubling because it indicates a sudden transition from crying to not knowing what was going on, but by this point in the story it’s clear that no one, including the victim, actually understands what’s going on. We have another “was verbing” moment there but this is another case where even Editor Phil thinks it’s okay since it indicates what she had been doing while we were over in the other character’s POV. So let’s try this: She was crying. She had no idea what was going on. because sometimes you have to just say it, and short, declarative sentences do that.

Editor Phil also deleted a comma in there, but refuses to tell you where.

Now, all that having been said, this next transitory POV jump, to Tillis, is too much, or maybe more accurately, too little:

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something and he couldn’t stop it in time to disbelieve. It was just happening. “Do you remember what. . . happened . . . to you?”

It seems to begin in someone else’s POV (Sarah’s? Reyes’s?), as indicated by “seemed to,” then goes into Tillis’s head. In the next sentence, though, we fall back into Reyes’s POV. Editor Phil needs Writer Phil to fix this so Editor Phil won’t have a stroke. Editor Phil can sometimes manifest physical symptoms in response to bad writing.

Actually, the story continues by jumping back to Sarah’s POV. Look at the whole exchange:

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something and he couldn’t stop it in time to disbelieve. It was just happening. “Do you remember what. . . happened . . . to you?”

It screamed loud and shrill and Reyes found himself screaming back. They did that for a full thirty seconds, they did it for a long time.

“Are you in pain?” Tillis asked, louder, his voice shaking along with his body. Sarah slipped on her way out and sobbed into the hallways where people were starting to congregate. She couldn’t remember the name of the CD she bought during lunch.

Both Editor and Writer Phil like touching back with Sarah and the CD she bought, so let’s keep this all in Sarah’s head, mostly with a few careful deletions, a needed paragraph break, and hallways changed to hallway:

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something. “Do you remember what. . . happened . . . to you?”

It screamed loud and shrill and Reyes screamed back. They did that for a full thirty seconds, they did it for a long time.

“Are you in pain?” Tillis asked, louder, his voice shaking along with his body.

Sarah slipped on her way out and sobbed into the hallway where people were starting to congregate. She couldn’t remember the name of the CD she bought during lunch.

Leaving almost all of the rest in Sarah’s POV works okay, but we find another Common Comment: “Never use ALL CAPS for emphasis. Italics in context should be fine,” when we get to:

“WHAT ATE YOU?”

“I’M RIPPED INTO PIECES!”

Easy enough to make those italics instead.

That brings us to the all-important last paragraph:

Their questions and her screaming and the echoes of the screaming and the muttering in the hallway was like hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground. What did it was the rest of them, slick and grey and impossible and full of teeth. Recording it. Recording it all.

Sticking with our only-okay-in-very-short-short-stories blended POV structure it’s okay for Writer Phil to pull back to the POV of the creatures in the end. But Editor Phil still has some gripes with the writing in here and Writer Phil is concerned that the big idea, or at least what Lester Dent would call “the snapper, the punch line to end it” isn’t landing properly.

Editor Phil sends Writer Phil off to think about this and see what he comes up with.

The results of all this will be revealed next week, when we look at the revised “Piece Music.” Whether or not it’s been made better or worse, or just different, I’ll leave up to you.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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One Response to WHAT I’VE LEARNED IN THE LAST TWENTY-THREE YEARS, PART 2

  1. Pingback: Writing 5/22/17 – Where Genres Collide

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