THE OCEAN LEECH: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 16

Back to my ongoing series of posts where I’ve been reading a single issue of Weird Tales from 1925. You can read along in order by going back to the beginning and starting here. This week’s short story is “The Ocean Leech” by Frank Belknap Long, Jr., one of the pulp era’s most prolific and highly regarded authors. With a quick scan of the era you’ll see his name come up time and time again across a number of genres.

As an editor, I tend to run across the same issues over and over again. It’s the same, I think, for every profession—the same mistakes, the same issues, the same procedures… Though any art form tends to resist that kind of set of hard and fast rules, there are a few that are hard and fast enough that they’re worth at least noting if not fixing in an edit.

With all due respect to Frank Belknap Long, and with full understanding that both rules and reader expectations of the language can and have and will continue to change over time, I’d like to look at this story in the mode of a copy editor.

A copy editor is looking for issues of grammar, usage, spelling… all the technical aspects of writing. And it’s the copy editing or technical writing issues that tend to come up over and over again, enough that I’ve actually created a Word file I call COMMON COMMENTS. From that file and I can copy and paste certain bits of advice, explanations of editorial changes, etc.—in many cases then tweaking them a bit for the specific story at hand.

Let’s see how “The Ocean Leech” stands up to my COMMON COMMENTS file, starting right away with the very first line:

I heard Bourke beating with his bare fists upon the cabin door and the wind whistling under the cracks.

COMMENT: Since this is all in CHARACTER’s POV, we get that this is what CHARACTER thinks (or sees or hears or smells, 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/

EDIT: Bourke beat with his bare fists upon the cabin door and the wind whistled under the cracks.

This one is about active: He did this, vs. passive: I heard him doing this.

He pointed towards the door and ran his fingers savagely through his reddish hair, and I knew that something had nearly finished him—I mean finished him spiritually, damaged his soul, his outlook.

COMMENT: Toward tends to come off as passive—it’s almost (but not always!) better to direct your characters to or for something. You can see my extended rant here: https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2016/03/08/toward-a-more-balanced-use-of-toward/

EDIT: He pointed at the door and ran his fingers savagely through his reddish hair, and I knew that something had nearly finished him—I mean finished him spiritually, damaged his soul, his outlook.

And towardis okay in England but not in America.

Here’s one sentence that calls up two COMMON COMMENTS:

Oscar was standing by my elbow, and I turned suddenly and gripped his arm.

COMMENT: That construct: “something/someone was verbing” is often a sign of passive voice. It’s almost always better to let the action be more direct: “something/someone 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/

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/

EDIT: Oscar stood by my elbow. I turned and gripped his arm.

“Oscar,” I said, “I want you to be quite frank, and if necessary, even brutal. Do you think you can explain that thing? I don’t want any wretched theories, Oscar. I want you to fashion a prop for me, Oscar, something for me to lean upon. I’m so very tired, and I haven’t much authority here. Oh, yes, I’m supposed to be in command, but when there is nothing to go upon, Oscar, what can I say to them?”

COMMENT: Watch out for what I call “used car salesman dialog”—too many lines of dialog that end with or include the name of the person being spoken to. Real people almost never do that, so reserve it for those characters who do it on purpose—like used car salesmen or other villains. Full rant: https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/some-dialog-tips-we-know-who-hes-talking-to/

Frank Belknap Long lays this one on thick, too. I’d give him the first one…

EDIT: “Oscar,” I said, “I want you to be quite frank, and if necessary, even brutal. Do you think you can explain that thing? I don’t want any wretched theories. I want you to fashion a prop for me, something for me to lean upon. I’m so very tired, and I haven’t much authority here. Oh, yes, I’m supposed to be in command, but when there’s nothing to go on, what can I say to them?”

And a bonus COMMON COMMENT changing there is to there’s:  Don’t be afraid of contractions! I whine about that at length here: https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/contractions-arent-bad/

“The thing is obviously a cephalopod,” said Oscar, quite simply, but there was a look of shame and horror in his eyes, which I didn’t like.

COMMENT: Be careful of relying too heavily (if at all) on adverbs in dialog attribution: she said sympathetically, etc. Though I’m not sure I entirely agree with Stephen King’s more strident: “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs,” he does have a point. The adverb tells, but a description of the sound of that character’s voice, the look on his or her face, body language, or just the context in which the line is spoken, shows.

EDIT: “The thing is obviously a cephalopod,” said Oscar, a look of shame and horror in his eyes that I didn’t like.

Notice that I’m also simplifying sentences from time to time, again because of the change in the language and reader expectations between 1925 and 2019.

He screamed, made shocking grimaces, fell down upon the deck and tried to draw himself along by his hands.

COMMENT: 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.

EASY EDIT: He screamed, made shocking grimaces, fell down upon the deck, and tried to draw himself along by his hands.

Though this one isn’t in my COMMON COMMENTS file, I think it deserves to be called out here. I won’t copy the whole very long paragraph in the first column of page 114, just this last part:

“Oscar, ” I said, “I didn’t really suffer when that thing fastened upon me! I didn’t, really. I enjoyed it!” He scowled, and scratched his ridiculous fringe of hair. “Then I saved you from yourself!” he cried. His eyes blazed, and I saw that he wanted to knock me down. That was the last I saw of Oscar. He faded into the shadows after that, but had I kept him with me I might have been wiser.

Except under a small set of circumstances, which we do not see here, keep dialog from two different characters in their own paragraphs.

EDIT:

“Oscar, ” I said, “I didn’t really suffer when that thing fastened upon me! I didn’t, really. I enjoyed it!”

He scowled, and scratched his ridiculous fringe of hair. “Then I saved you from yourself!” he cried. His eyes blazed, and I saw that he wanted to knock me down.

That was the last I saw of Oscar. He faded into the shadows after that, but had I kept him with me I might have been wiser.

I didn’t bother calling out every little mistake the way I would if I were really copy editing this story, like the misspelling of gurgling (guggling) on page 112 and 115, but there’s not too much there.

And last, he used the word about in a way that’s old fashioned (it was 1925, after all) and in almost ever instance the copy editor in me would change it to around, for instance:

…but the thing had wound its tenebrous tentacles about his leg: but the thing had wound its tenebrous tentacles around his leg…

All that said—I loved this story. A weird tale indeed!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

In my four-week online Pulp Fiction Workshop we’ll learn storytelling techniques that transcend the pulp genres and make writing fun again.

Write a 6000-word short story, with edit, in any genre!

Next class starts Thursday June 13.

 

 

 

 

 

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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1 Response to THE OCEAN LEECH: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 16

  1. Pingback: TWO CROWS: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 17 | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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