A Source of Amusement and Some Good Advice

I first encountered Wolcott Gibbs’s “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles” in James Thurber’s The Years With Ross, Thurber’s memoir of the early days of the New Yorker magazine.

In many ways, it’s a relic of its moment in time (1937, to be precise); it was an internal memo, intended to bring new fiction editors up to speed on the magazine’s general style and tone.  Unlike most such documents, though, it’s fun to read.  A few samples:

Our writers are full of clichés, just as old barns are full of bats. There s obviously no rule about this, except that anything that you suspect of being a cliché undoubtedly is one, and had better be removed.

Mr. Weekes said the other night, in a moment of desperation, that he didn’t believe he could stand any more triple adjectives. “A tall, florid and overbearing man called Jaeckel.” Sometimes they’re necessary, but when every noun has three adjectives connected with it, Mr. Weekes suffers and quite rightly.

Among other things, The New Yorker is often accused of a patronizing attitude. Our authors are especially fond of referring to all foreigners as “little” and writing about them, as Mr. Maxwell says, as if they were mantel ornaments. It is very important to keep the amused and Godlike tone out of pieces.

The piece is available in its entirety here, and I highly recommend it.

One of the Things We Tell People in the Writers’ Workshop…

…is that if people keep telling you that there’s something wrong with your story – they’re probably right.

They may be – in fact, they quite likely are – wrong about what, exactly, is wrong with your story, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the fact that you have a problem and the problem is real and you need to fix it.

The same thing, I would make bold to say, applies to politics.

(This is not, however, the point where I expound upon my grand theory of What Is Wrong With Our Politics and How to Fix It, because that sort of thing is not remotely within my skill set.  Your story, though, and how to improve it . . . that I can figure out, and gladly, too.)

Seasonal Special from Dr. Doyle’s Editorial and Critique Services

In the spirit of making the Yuletide (or other seasonal holiday of your choice) a bit brighter all ‘round:

From now through Twelfth Night (5 January 2015), my price for a full-dress line-edit plus a 3-5 page letter of critique drops to a flat $1000 for a standard-weight novel.

This offer can also be combined with the Seasonal Gift Certificate I blogged about earlier.

Besetting Sins

All writers have them – those prose tics they exhibit when the going is either too fast, or too slow, for them to notice the word-by-word; those all-too-easy-to-fall-back-on scenes and tropes that can take the place of carefully-crafted or character-driven plotting*; those personal or political agendas that will take advantage of an unguarded moment to turn sneaky fictional persuasion into open polemic.

One of my own sins is a horror of being too obvious about things.  Taken too far – as will happen, sometimes, despite all efforts to the contrary – this results in a story that lacks clarity because a lot of the necessary connective bits only exist inside my head.

So I’ve had to make a rule for myself:  When in doubt, spell it out.

It’s a useful rule, at least if you’re me, or if that particular writerly sin is one of yours, as well.

Generally speaking, I find that if I have to ask myself, “Self, are you perhaps being a bit over-subtle right here?”  the answer is usually, “Yes.”

Also – as I tell myself from time to time – don’t worry about being too obvious.  It’s actually fairly hard to be too obvious, and if you are being too obvious, trust me, your editor or your beta readers will let you know.

(And if you’re Vladimir Nabokov or James Joyce or Gene Wolfe, then you’re playing a different game altogether and a different set of general rules apply.  Also, you’re probably well beyond needing advice from me on anything, though possibly a good recipe or two might still be useful.) 

*Not that “carefully-crafted” and “character-driven” should be taken as mutually exclusive!

Summer Daze

‘Tis the season for muggy, oppressive weather, the kind that saps the energy and destroys the initiative . . . not the best kind of weather in which to be doing revisions, but still, revisions must be done.

A few of the things that get taken care of in revision, at least by me:

Turning a suitable number of semicolons into either periods or commas, as appropriate.  I am, as I’ve admitted here before, one of those writers with a tendency to love semicolons not wisely, but too well, and getting rid of at least one in three isn’t going to hurt the story and will probably improve it.

Double-checking the continuity, in order to make sure that characters don’t refer to things other characters have told them before they’ve actually been told, and similar stuff.  When you’re the bead-stringing, rather than the linear, sort of writer, this is a matter of particular concern.

Getting rid of any zero-draft filler material and placeholders that may have lingered in the text even through subsequent iterations.  A tertiary character may have been referred to as [NameOfCharacter] while the plotline was still being spun out, for example, and now that he’s been promoted to Bob the Delivery Guy it’s a good idea to make certain that all the instances of square brackets have been cleaned up.

Generally smoothing out any sentences that are still too bumpy for my liking, and fixing up anything else that doesn’t feel quite right.

All I can say is, it’s a good thing that I like doing revisions.  I’d hate to be doing something that I didn’t like, here in the hazy humid days of summer.


Stringing Ideas Together

Or, actually, not.

When you’re building up a sequence of ideas (which generally results in a paragraph, and a whole bunch of paragraphs together generally results in a completed story, or an essay, or a letter thanking your Great-Aunt Euphemia for the half-dozen silver fish forks in a pattern that isn’t yours), you don’t want to just string the ideas together as they occur to you.  You’re constructing something that has to stand up when you’re done with it, not just lie there on the carpet like a string of Christmas lights after the tree has come down.

This means that you need to think about the relationship of your ideas to each other, and put them together in ways that indicate those relationships – while at the same time making sentences that have good sound and good rhythm and good grammar.

Take a simple example.   Here’s a little paragraph where the sentences are all (mostly) grammatical, but it’s still a bad paragraph:

As she hit the ball, Jill ran for first base.  Running for first base, her foot turned under her, spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.

This is, as I said, (mostly) grammatical, in that a native speaker of English can read it and understand what’s going on at the softball game.  But it isn’t good.  It’s clunky, the ideas are in the wrong order, and there’s a dangling participle lurking in there as well.

(Also, entirely too many present participles, period.  Writers get told at some point in high school or thereabouts that they need to vary their sentence structures, and for some reason, the method that a lot of them latch on to is the introductory participial phrase.  People, I’m here to tell you – too many sentences starting with participial phrases is just as monotonous as a bunch of simple subject-verb-direct object sentences lined up in a row.)

But I digress.  Let’s fix that little paragraph, a bit at a time.

Sentence one:  As she hit the ball, Jill ran for first base.  This is bad because one, it takes two ideas of roughly the same weight and makes one of them subordinate to the other; and two, it puts the actions into the wrong order.  First Jill hits the ball; then she runs for first base.  So we can fix this sentence by changing it to:  Jill hit the ball and ran for first base.

Sentence two:  Running for first base, her foot turned under her, spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.  This sentence is also bad for a couple of reasons and not just one.  The biggie, of course, is the dangling participle right at the beginning:  Running for first base, her foot turned under her.  This is wrong because it isn’t the foot that’s running for first base, it’s Jill.  The first thing we do to fix this sentence, then, is to break that part off from the rest of the sentence and rewrite it:  While she was running, her foot turned under her.  (We also ditch the repetition of for first base, because the reader’s seen that already and we don’t need to have another iteration of it cluttering up the page.)

This leave us with spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.  There are a couple of different ways to fix this part, depending upon whether you think that the sprained ankle or the benching for the season is the more important idea, or whether you want to give the two ideas approximately equal weight.

You could throw the emphasis onto the sprained ankle:  She sprained her ankle, which put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

You could emphasize the fact that Jill has been put out of action:  Because she sprained her ankle, she was put on the bench for the rest of the season.

Or you could get fancy and use a semicolon to hook up two equivalent clauses, giving them both equal weight and letting the reader determine their relationship:  She sprained her ankle; the injury put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

I like that last one – but then, I generally like semicolons.  Let’s use it anyway, for maximum sentence variety.  That gives us a new, finished paragraph:

Jill hit the ball and ran for  first base.  While she was running, her foot turned under her.  She sprained her ankle; the injury put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

This still isn’t one of the world’s blue-ribbon paragraphs – but it’s better than the one we started with.

And the voice from the back of the lecture hall asks, “Do I have to think like that about all my paragraphs?”

Sadly, yes.  But not until the second or third draft.  Finish the story first, then work on making the sentences better.  Because pretty sentences will get you nowhere if you haven’t got a story for them to tell.

Another Thing Not to Do


And I say this who have written them.  In my defense,

  1. I was a much younger writer, then.
  2. I believed that the story demanded it.  And
  3. I think I got away with it.

Of the above, #3 is probably the most important.  Good writing is all about what you can get away with, and one of the big lessons to learn on the way to becoming a good writer is figuring out how much, and what sorts of things, you can get away with.

Usually, the answer to “how much can I get away with? is “not nearly as much as you think.”  On the other hand, sometimes your muse doesn’t leave you with any choice except to say, “what the hell” and go for it.  At which point, you do your best and take the consequences as they come.

So, anyway, prologues.  Not nearly as many stories need them as have them, and entirely too many failed stories – especially in the Epic, or Doorstop, Fantasy genre – start out twenty years or so before the main action, with the portentous birth of the main character, or the portentous death of somebody important to the backstory, or the portentous prophecy of some future birth, death, or general catastrophic doom.  For this reason, if you find yourself feeling the urge to commence your novel with a prologue, at least stop first and ask yourself, “Can I put this same information into a flashback somewhere around chapter five?  Or into a couple of paragraphs of dialogue between the Young Protagonist and his/her Wise Mentor somewhere around chapter two? Or will this section work just as well if I label it ‘Chapter One,’ and commence the next chapter with ‘Twenty years later’?”

If you can answer any one of those questions with “Yes,” then you should probably take the hint and revise your no-longer-prologue accordingly.

Another Burning Controversy of the Literary Kind

Forget politics.  Forget philosophy.  If you want to start an argument in a room full of wordsmiths, raise the question of whether one space or two should follow a period.

Consider, for instance, this blast of the trumpet against the dreaded two-spacers, published back in 2011:

Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste.

In part the divide is a cultural one, with typographers (who work with proportional fonts and are concerned with beauty and readability from the consumer’s end) on one side, and writers and editors (who have traditionally worked with monospaced fonts and are concerned with making the text clear and easy to work with on the production end) on the other side.

There’s also a generational component in the spacing war.  Older writers, who learned to type on manual or electric typewriters that produced monospaced output, were trained to space twice after a period, for clarity’s sake.  Writers who came later to the trade, on the other hand, learned keyboarding on personal computers with access to proportional fonts, and were taught the typographer’s one-space principle.

Who’s right?  It doesn’t matter.  The glory of word processing is that you can write your book whichever way you were taught, without having to worry about retraining your spacebar thumb.  Then you can go to your publisher’s guidelines, and see if they have a stated preference.  If they do, then use the mighty power of global search and replace (if your word processing program doesn’t already come with a built-in “convert two spaces to one space/one space to two spaces” option) to make your text conform to the desired standard.

If the publisher doesn’t have a preference, then go with what you’ve got.  Or, if you’re still uncertain:  If you’re working in a monospaced font (which is to say, in Courier New – there are other monospaced fonts out there, but when an editor thinks “monospace” they think “Courier New”), then space twice after the period.  If you’re working in a proportional font (which is to say, Times New Roman, because the last thing an editor wants is to read a manuscript where the author has gotten cute with the fontwork), then space once after the period.

And don’t stress out about it.

Structural and Cosmetic Renovations

There are two kinds of writers, the ones who like cats and the ones who don’t   the ones who prefer music while they’re writing and the ones who need absolute silence the ones who find revision to be at best a painful but necessary chore and the ones who think that it’s the best part of the writing process.  What there aren’t, though, are successful writers who never revise at all.  Those rare writers whose first drafts come out submission-ready usually turn out to have gone through the whole process in detail inside their own heads before they ever start putting down words on screen or paper.  But even the writers who enjoy the revision stage of the process have parts of it they like better than others.

There are, as it happens, at least two different kinds or stages of revision.  One is major structural revision, the sort of work that involves disassembling large chunks of the manuscript and putting them back together in a different configuration, often with new material added in.  This can be a tough job, because it requires holding in your head both the story as it currently exists and the story you want to morph it into, all the while doing the cutting and pasting of the old stuff and the creating of new stuff.  The advent of word processing has made this part a lot easier — time was when “cut and paste” was not just a metaphor, it was the literal way the job was done.

I was around for the tail end of that era, when the “paste” part had been replaced by “transparent tape”, and if you did the work carefully enough and had access to a good Xerox machine, you didn’t have to retype the whole thing all over again.  But within a year of my finishing my dissertation, we had our first household computer-and-printer lashup, and I was happy to bid the old ways goodbye.

The other main type of revision is the line-by-line and word-by-word tweaking of the piece in question, with the goal of making it run as clearly and effectively and, well, tunefully as possible.  This is the part that I’ve always liked best, playing with the words and the sentence rhythms and the paragraph beats, getting the sounds of the piece to fall into line.  (Other people, it’s only fair to say, find this part to be not much better than drudgery.  It takes all kinds.)

And after that, of course, you come to the kind of revision that isn’t really revision at all, it’s stalling.  When you get to the point where you’re putting commas in during the morning and taking them out again in the afternoon, and then going back the next day and rewriting half of the same sentences with semicolons and then reverting them to commas again — at that point, my friend, you’re mostly working to put off the day when you’re going to have to rename your “NameOfStory working draft” to “NameOfStory final version” and get the thing out of the house and into somebody’s submissions queue.