What Needs to Be In a Story? Who’s the Decider?

Sometimes when you get an edit or critique, your correspondent will remove entire lines or entire passages from your tale, saying that you don’t need to tell readers this. You as author need to give it a moment’s thought before you strike passages wholesale from your story. Sometimes these are things your reader needs to know. Because you want them to know those things.

Here’s an example. It’s an edit I received from an agent in an auction win (they have charity auctions all the time on eBay and elsewhere to benefit authors who have had tragedies, and usually “ten page line edit” is in there). This is early on in the Ari book. Gil has called to ask Ari to come out to Marfa to see about Aaron’s final arrangements.

“Additionally, I’ve been unable to contact any next of kin or find anything that could lead me to them. I’m counting on you to help make Aaron’s arrangements.”

Arrangements. I knew all too well what that meant. The very word brought back memories of my nephew’s funeral and the chaos surrounding it. Without thinking, I let my gaze wander to Ricky’s school photo collage, still hanging on the wall of what used to be his bedroom. Whenever I looked at it, my mind’s eye saw Ricky’s last portrait enlarged and set on an easel next to his coffin, his wide-eyed freckled face staring optimistically out at me from eternity. My late nephew would’ve started eighth grade in the fall.

When I tried to talk, I found my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. “That might be difficult. Because of my job and all.” It was a lame excuse, and it sounded like one.

This edit was very helpful. The agent wanted to make clear what it was that she didn’t think needed to be in there. I appreciate that she marked exactly what she wanted to cut. Most of the time when you get a critique or line edit, they are very vague and just say, “Tighten this,” or say, “Don’t tell us about anything in the past,” or some such.

That said, I disagree with this cut because I see it as too extreme. My readers need to know that Ricky is dead. They need to know it now (it resonates). Also, they need to know how old he was when he died. After all, it’s quite different for him to have been two years old and drowned in the backyard pool . . . or to have been twenty-two and taken down by anti-personnel fire in Afghanistan. In each case, the family’s grief has a different tinge. Ari’s sister Zoe was sixteen when she got pregnant with Ricky and was thrown out of the house by their strict fundamentalist parents (who were afraid of what their churchies might think) and left to fend for herself. Ari helped Zoe as best she could while still under her parents’ roof; despite the odds, Zoe made it, to the point that she owns the daycare center where she found work when she was five months pregnant. She raised Ricky alone and the years made her stronger. This brings her to her current age, in her thirties. I don’t dump all of this on readers, note. I just tell them what age Ricky was and by extension what age Zoe is (and since Ari says she’s three years younger, voila.) Readers need to know this NOW. Because I say so.

But I did tighten it a bit. I ended up with this:

“Additionally, I’ve been unable to contact any next of kin or find anything that could lead me to them. I’m counting on you to help make Aaron’s arrangements.”

Arrangements. I knew all too well what that meant. The very word brought back memories of my nephew’s funeral and the chaos surrounding it. Without thinking, I let my gaze wander to Ricky’s school photo collage, still hanging on the wall of what used to be his bedroom. Whenever I looked at it, my mind’s eye saw Ricky’s last portrait enlarged and set on an easel next to his coffin, his wide-eyed freckled face staring optimistically out at me from eternity. My late nephew would’ve started eighth grade in the fall.

When I tried to talk, I found my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. “That might be difficult. Because of my job and all.” It was a lame excuse, and it sounded like one.

And I’m not sure I won’t go back and restore the peanut-butter-tongue. Why can’t her mouth get dry? I’ll think about it.

Again, this particular edit was helpful, even though I didn’t use it verbatim.

But it gets old being treated as a newbie when I’m not. If this were a published book, readers would trust that the author is going somewhere with the passages or has a reason for dropping these clues and facts. When it’s a manuscript, everyone and his dog feels the need to make a personal mark of some kind. Still others feel the need to tell me that I act as if I’m better read and smarter than the Powers That Be, and that this will continue to sink me. Well . . . take a look at Congress today and then come back to tell me that I ain’t no smarter than them. They can’t even come to an agreement on this default/debt ceiling mess. Talk about not being able to compromise!

On all these blogs containing Wisdom You Are To Receive and Believe From Published Authors/Agents, you always read recommendations like this:

“Every word has to be part of the story and add to the story. If you zoom the camera in on something that doesn’t do something, that doesn’t move the story or inform character or build tension or portend or something, you risk losing the attention of the reader or even annoying them.”

Yes. Well. May I ask. . . .

WHY IN THE **HE$#** WOULD I DO THAT? Why would I zoom in on something that doesn’t have to do with the story OR ANYTHING? What would that even BE? Suddenly breaking into the quadratic equation, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? What? I mean, WHO WOULD DO THAT?

If you encounter something in my work that you do not think is part of the story (and here I use the royal “you,” not the denizens of the LiveJournal/DreamWidth Tavern, loosely), take a moment to think. Perhaps this will be germane later in the story. Perhaps it is obscure and you don’t “get it,” which may be a valid complaint. Perhaps you just think it is lame and stupid. But . . . IT IS PART OF THE FREAKIN’ STORY. If it were not, I would not have included it there.

Everything I type is part of the story I am telling. You may not LIKE the story I am telling. You may see my character as an oozing psoriasis-plaque covered, poop-scented, Oscar Wilde-quoting friend of Beelzebub. You may think that my setting is the most boring place you have ever heard of. BUT EVERYTHING I TYPE is part of that story for a REASON. Either I want you to see the details of the setting so that you may experience what the character is experiencing, or I need to tell you something that is a clue, or I am having you live vicariously inside the brain of someone who is not-you. That is what reading a book is about.

If you don’t like to read books, you shouldn’t be in publishing making the items that used to be “books.”

Okay, calmer now. The point is that I don’t deliberately put things into the tale that are stale. If I have included a passage that a beta reader thinks is irrelevant, then the beta reader should mark that passage the way this line editor did. The reader should not just start out with a glib paragraph or two explaining that “you shouldn’t put extraneous material in the story.” Because if we saw it as extraneous, we wouldn’t have it in there. Tell us specifically what it is that ground your gears. Tell us which line made you stop reading and what terrible sin we committed by committing it to pixels. That’s if you actually mean to help, that is. If you’re just there to pick and poke, then fine.

Today, more than one ex-spurt blogger has stated that he or she does not see a future in going to traditional publishing. They say that the best thing to do is self-e-publish. How are you going to make people aware that these books are there? They don’t say.

My feeling is that you need to go commit some insane prank or stunt or even a crime that gets you fifteen minutes of fame. Post a YouTube of you doing a breakdance with your walker. Or make a Dept. of Transportation sign read “Zombies Ahead” instead of “Road Ends 100 Ft.” Then you’ll have a platform and you can shout, as they drag you away, “My books are available on the Kindle!!”

Also, it’s hot and I had to take my mother over to try to get her glasses fixed. She rolled over on them in the night in bed, and after two attempts to get them soldered back together (both attempts failed–the techs said it didn’t “take” because of the material of her frames) we returned home crying. Man, was it ever ridiculous. Where is that train to Californy?


My Kindle is available on the books . . . er . . . heatplop

“My voice will go with you”

A teacher has many, many children.

I can still see in my mind’s eye the tenth-grade English classroom. The dictionaries are piled on the west wall near my desk (we occasionally played a word game and they were passed out, but the most vivid memory I have of them is the night of a school play when Sid Catlett spent all his offstage time rearranging the spines and edges so that they spelled out in white a message to the class–sort of the same way they spell things with cola fridge packs in the front windows of supermarkets). The posters on the wall include the “Desiderata” poem that we still believed was by a medieval monk, Jimi Hendrix, and a snake in the grass with the Emily Dickinson quatrain superimposed over it. Today is the day that the AP English teacher from the senior high school will come to tell us about advanced placement English credit.

Her name is Mrs. Bettye Mischen, and she has taught APEs (Advanced Placement English students) for ten years. She tells us we will cover the masters of English literature in AP English. Hamlet and Henry IV, Part I; Paradise Lost; Saint Joan; Keats and Shelley. I couldn’t wait.

I did have one question. I raised my hand and was called on.

“If we want to have a background in American literature, what should we study?” (I was a grind even then. I didn’t want to miss anything.)

She leaned earnestly forward. Ticking them off on her fingers, the greats. “Hawthorne, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Twain.” As an afterthought, she added, “Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost.”

Her voice has come with me for forty years. It doesn’t seem possible. That classroom is as vivid to me today as it was the hour after our overview of AP coursework.

A professor who was a colleague of my father’s added, “Don’t forget Herman Melville.” I added Carl Sandburg because I had always loved “Fog” and “Chicago” (“the city with big shoulders”) and the young Mr. Lincoln books. And later I also added Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg so I would have the Beats, and Henry Miller so I would have the classic perv. But really, the list of the Big Seven is the bottom line. If you read them, you have read the American bards.

At the time I was in school, the courses in the American Novel Since 1900 covered a standard group of novels that you didn’t need as much help to read as you did to read, say, Dante or Milton. We could (in those days) generally still follow the prose in Gatsby, Sun Also Rises, O Pioneers, a Sinclair Lewis (usually Arrowsmith), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. And one of the Steinbecks–either Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men. Sometimes Faulkner, though not always, and sometimes Zora Neale Hurston to give a nod to the Harlem Renaissance. If the teacher felt expansive, To Kill a Mockingbird.

These were our touchstones.

Today’s scholars complain that they can’t follow the prose or that “nothing happens” because “it’s so boring.” But we who thought we would be English majors (although not all of us turned out that way) loved them. We would someday see our works in print and on library shelves along with these classics.

But today the facade of traditional publishing seems to be crumbling like an ant farm with the front pane of glass fallen off. The grains of sand cascade to the carpet and the ants scurry wildly to try to gain a foothold anywhere. Borders is gone, and three independent bookstores are closing this month (one in Denver that has been a mainstay of many mystery authors on their book tours). E-books are selling three times better than last year, and softcover novels are sitting in the racks only around six weeks before being pulled and replaced. It doesn’t look good for authors.

Still, it was swell while it lasted. And my teacher’s voice still echoes in my ears when I revisit one of the works we studied so eagerly and assiduously in first period APE.

“Never use ‘of course,'” she admonished us. “Not in papers for my class. Because it really means, ‘As any jackass can plainly see.'”

That’s insightful. I still use the phrase. But now you know what I REALLY mean.

Cross-posting failing, DDoS attack, but BLESSINGS AT HOME

Man . . . what a drag that LiveJournal has had such intense DDoS attacks over the past few days. It’s probably those who would limit or eliminate freedom of speech and a platform for their citizens, alas. I haven’t seen any comments or been able to load my page or my friends’ pages. And my cross-posting from dreamwidth seems to be failing, at least for now. Bah!

Also, the agent who was so promising has found April too tough to warm up to. She says my prose is better than most writing that crosses her desk (though that may be damning with faint praise, considering what slush looks like!) and that the pacing of this one is really good. She just couldn’t warm up to April. Whether that’s because April thinks too much and is precocious, I don’t know. I’ve offered to send her other books, because she did like my writing. Still, that is another anvil to the head.

But! BUT! And again, BUT!!! (quoting from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, print edition)

Hubby’s trip has been cancelled! ! ! Prayers answered “yes!”

The big boss somehow came across the group’s recent financial transactions on their AmEx company cards, and thus discovered all the reservations and plane tickets and rented cars and so forth. Steam whistled from his wingnut ears as he shouted, “What the 3@$!% is this?” Apparently he didn’t think that sending five of the best (and ONLY) coders off on an 850-mile party trip for a short demo and a long picnic was at all sensible. He said that considering that they have a deadline of September 1st for the next software release, a delivery that has several important additions and upgrades and that CUSTOMERS are WAITING for, it was ridiculous for the programmers to lose almost ten days of work time. In fact, they could not finish the release on time if they left. So he put the kibosh on it, bless him.

It could have been a magical result of my “crushing their heads” the other night. Or it could just have been some semblance of management planning finally taking effect. They certainly need someone to make some PERT charts and so forth! It has been like a herd of cats up until now. Well, now they need leashes and litter boxes. If they’re going to sell a viable product to the military and to commercial interests, they’d better take off the hippie boots and tie-dye and get down to action! At least that’s what I envision the boss as having said. For once, I am on the side of The Man with this.

Mostly because I don’t have to miss a trip. *grin* Hubby and his co-worker (whose broken foot is still in a boot, with stitches, and he was supposed to drive a second Hummer! Ridiculous) are relieved, truth be told. I said that the first week of September Hubby must take a week or so of vacation and this family is going to GO SOMEWHERE FUN. Disneyland is first on my list . . . but we’ll see.

Could be that they’ll send a group to Savannah, GA, or San Diego, come September. Those locations would be quite acceptable to ME!

But the BIG blessing is that Mama didn’t have to be hospitalized. We went into the ER yesterday and sat and SAT while they took blood and did all sorts of tests. Then we sat watching “Two Stupid Dogs” on the teevee while they analyzed this. First they came to say that her hemoglobin was 10, down from 10.2 at the first of the month, so that is GOOD–for HER. She may be building herself up somewhat with the iron tabs and B-12 shots. (And eating right. Which she really still is not doing. Lots of crackers and leaving good stuff on the plate.) She had an irregular heartbeat, but they decided her potassium levels would return to normal if she’d just drop the Lasix; they weren’t that bad. They recommended she get a pacemaker check (“interrogation”) ASAP, so we’re waiting for a call back from her cardiologist. They also recommended she see a pulmonary doctor to ask whether her combo of asthma/COPD drugs could be improved. Otherwise, they said she should keep trying to build herself up. They want to wait until the last possible moment for any blood transfusion, because you CAN start rejecting them, which is the worst that can happen. They said that the shortness of breath and fatigue happens with older people and with anemia no matter what, so unless she gets markedly worse or develops other problems, we’re going to wait the five weeks and see the regular MD. (And get that pacemaker checked. They said it was double-firing now and then, which is sort of not supposed to happen very often. They were vague. She has right AND left bundle block, so they weren’t astounded or anything.)

Still, even though they sent us home, we were there from 10:30 AM to 3:45 PM. Mostly just sitting with all kinds of wires and tubes hooked up. Thank goodness all of that is there when you need it. But it is exhausting. We got home and the dog was absolutely ANGRY (some of which is ‘roid rage from the steroids he had to take early in the week), so we put him in the car and went off to get her a Luby’s veggie meal. By the time I got them back home and all unloaded, including lifting her walker and tote bags (we took supplies in case she was checked in) and the dog (eleven pounds!), I was pretty hot and tired. Did I mention that it was 104F? Not conducive to life on the planet. They have confused this planet with the surface of Mercury.

She was REALLY tired. She sat in that hospital bed like a pretzel. Those things just aren’t very comfy for her. So after an application of Arnica, a couple of Tylenol, a super-sized Diet Coke with Splenda and ice, and a package of frozen peas for her bad ankle, I flopped down beside the dog to watch Cash Cab. Mission accomplished.

. . . somewhat.

Anyway, we are saved from two possible disasters. Yay! And I am about to go practice the piano. I think I’ve nearly memorized Moment Musical 2. Well, the first page, anyway. Okay, just the top half of the first page. Still!

If only LJ stays up long enough to post this, we’ll be batting .500!

Madness takes its toll; please have exact change

Today would have been Aunt Jean’s 87th birthday.

Her daughter called my mother, and they commiserated. Mama will probably go into the hospital tomorrow or Friday for her transfusion, and when she is released, we plan to go up to Sherman to visit with her brother and my various cousins. (Yesterday was Cousins Day!)

This means Hubby will have to drive the Hummer all by himself through Amarillo and New Mexico and the Raton Pass and to Denver. He has a full suite at one of those “homesuite” places across from the company he is taking the Hummer to for demos. He’ll be gone all week. It would have been fun to ride along. (The other families are going–there’s a company picnic on Saturday that they’re all looking forward to. Hubby is not the picnic type, but he can suffer through it.)

I know a lot of people are “through with LJ because of the downtime,” but if we look at it rationally, any DDoS attack of that strength would shut down pretty much anyone except the Pentagon. The people who are responsible are trying to end freedom of speech and expression in Russia. Shame!

I should probably get that cross-posting stuff from Dreamwidth going. Been too lazy to do much except establish a DW account. I read here and feel that it’s a great home. But maybe it’s time for that backup. Facebook just ISN’T MY BAG.

Danger, Will Robinson! *beep*

When *I* lose interest in reading and can’t find anything I even want to read . . . that’s scary. Reading has always been like breathing for me. I’d read instruction manuals, textbooks, newspapers, the backs of cereal boxes. But lately it’s been a problem to find anything recently published that could hold my interest for very long at all. Some of my trusty old authors have been the only ones I could stand to sit down with. (Good old Phil Dick . . . Donald E. Westlake . . . Vonnegut . . . A. A. Milne.) But it’s alarming.

I sit down at the piano and play through the Schubert Moments Musical, some Beethoven bagatelles, the Mozart Sonata in C . . . maybe some jazz-idiom pieces . . . and then I think, “But what’s the use? I am the only one who hears it. What’s the use of some old fat slob pounding the 88s?” There doesn’t seem any real reason for it or goal in it. I even have an original composition based on jazz chords that I was working on, but more and more it seems pointless.

Borders is gone, and most bookstores will probably bite the dust soon. My old dream of having books on shelves to be browsed is now a pipe dream. That’s distressing. I hate self-promo and marketing, and you have to be the queen of honking your own horn in order to sell books now.

Hubby is going to take the company’s Hummer on a road trip to Denver from Dallas the first week of August. He and a co-worker are going to show off the functionality they have built in (their product is a radio that links up fire, police, military, and other service vehicles automagically when they’re within so many miles of one another-to prevent the sort of communications breakdown they had on 9/11, for example). I’m worried about him driving that far (and across the Raton Pass twice) and being gone so long.

I was invited to ride along, but I can’t possibly go: Mama has lost blood again and is down to a hemo of 9, but the insurance won’t pay to transfuse until you are 8 or below, so she’s weak and crawling around and having symptoms of CHF that we have to treat, and meantime I wait on her hand and foot and she’s still miserable. The dog has asthma as well and is suffering in the hot weather, and is too neurotic to be left with anyone. So they need me. I have to stay here in the heat. Don’t see how she and I and dog could take a road trip unless her oxygen gets better. (That’s why they can’t go to Denver–it’s a mile high and she already doesn’t do well in Dallas!) I haven’t had any kind of vacation or trip since the Scotch Brand contest in NYC in 2008.

This morning I got into the van at 8 AM to go get blood taken, and the battery was dead. I had to call hubster and get him to come jump the battery so I could take it to Sears for a new DieHard. The gasket on the driver’s side door fell off. It’s probably the heat, but I’ll have to go to Ford to fix that.

Furthermore, I go to the doctor in the morning for my quarterly tongue-lashing. I’m sure my blood numbers will stink and he’ll threaten to put me on Byetta and insulin and so forth again. He hasn’t done that because insulin tends to make you gain even MORE weight, and I’m only holding steady on the modified Medifast. He thinks pills and shots fix anything. Anything that can be fixed, I mean.

That’s even more depressing.

While wandering the mall waiting for the van to be finished at Sears Auto, though, I did get a USB-powered salt crystal lamp with a multicolored LED light inside. Tried on a Ganesha tee that I ultimately decided was just too scary at this size (imagine a huge elephant-head guy on a throne with a headpiece of skulls and the throne made of skulls and bones.) And I found my old iPod video that holds more music. It was in a tote bag I hadn’t seen in a while. I was searching through the totes to find the Flip video camera for him to take on the trip (it has to be here SOMEPLACE.)

Still, it’s tougher to be positive every day.

Even with the USB salt lamp changing color, right here next to the monitor. Positive ions (or whatever brand of snake oil it offers), get to work! Go, orange and purple!
Psychout!

Story as metaphor, by Alicia Rasley

“Think of story as metaphor. It’s not just the narration of events (though it’s that too). It’s got some meaning or meanings buried maybe not too far under the surface. How you name your characters, what you have them do for a living, whether they slam a door or close it quietly– all these can be metaphors for some deeper truth.”–Alicia Rasley

Read more at
http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/2011/07/fiction-as-metaphor.html

This is part of what I keep trying to communicate to so many seemingly clueless pros (yes, pros as well as the well-meaning amateurs and know-it-alls who are like me and who think they need to tell everyone how to Do It Right, grin.) Some critiquers are primarily focused on getting me to name my characters more mundane names or to have them do more common jobs and think a lot less, or they’ve got the idea that everything should be “about what happens.” If things do not take place in crashes and explosions and screaming on the surface, they feel that “nothing happens.”

Numerous people are convinced that there should be breakneck-paced, nonstop “moving forward” in every story, and they believe they want to see nothing but action in any story. But subtext, bidden or unbidden, perceived or not, is still there. (Subtext . . . it’s like in that episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond”* in which his mother takes a sculpture class and makes an “abstract” that looks like . . . well, everyone but the mom sees it as naughty bits, and it’s a hilarious commentary.)

* [I know, I know. Hubby makes fun of me for having gotten fond of the re-runs of this show. Yes, it can be stupid, but what it hits correctly is the family experience with a certain stripe of messed-up family. The character of Robert is the most human and humane of all of them. It’s not nearly as stupid as the majority of today’s sitcoms.]

Do you speak in metaphor often? Is subtext an essential part of the way in which people communicate, with or without their conscious knowledge? How does body language figure into this?

“Harry Potter is about doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”–Stephen King

Daphne Mystery Contest Results are In!

Results in. And . . . you’ll never believe this.

MARFA LIGHTS was one of the five finalists. I got VERY encouraging judge score sheets. “The dialogue is the best I’ve read since Salinger’s FRANNY AND ZOOEY.” “Masterfully written. You can really write.” “This is just the kind of book that my friends and I can’t find on the shelves but would love to see more of.” “E-mail me when this is published!” All but one judge gave me the top ranking.

So of course I had high hopes.

They announced the final rankings at RWA National in New York a few days ago. MARFA LIGHTS came in . . . dead last. Five out of five.

I had to laugh! I figured, them’s the breaks. The usual bad karma. People who were suspense readers who didn’t like cozy sister stuff. Whatever.

BUT TODAY!! Today the contest coordinator was kind enough to send me the final round judges’ evaluations. The two final round judges? An editor and an agent.

They didn’t even have to write anything. They could have just put a ranking number between 1 (dreamy) and 5 (icky). But both of them bothered to pay it forward. Kudos!

The editor writes, “MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS is well-written and the initial pages are fast-paced and interesting. Ariadne had a nice voice but also felt a bit uneven to me. I had difficulty getting a handle on her relationship with Aaron and was not as immersed in that aspect of the plot as I wanted to be. Other entries proved to be right up my alley, so that’s what the ranking reflects.” She ranked it . . . 4 out of 5.

This is an editor I don’t really know much about. Just that it’s someone generous enough to judge a contest FREE. It sounds as if she has never dated a guy like Aaron. The readers who love the book are women who write, “I am sure I have dated Aaron in the past. And possibly Gil.” So it isn’t going to connect with everyone. Hey, ARI herself had difficulty getting a handle on her relationship with Aaron, although I tried to “explain it” with a few lines I added for the benefit of beta readers who were similarly confused (more on this in a moment.) Ari is admittedly a Sad Sack like me, not a go-getter Superwoman the way people expect, so she is not going to be to everyone’s taste. Not everyone will love every novel. So that’s fine. Not up her alley.

Them’s the breaks. She admits it’s well-written and fast-paced. Booyah (to quote my cousin’s kids)!

The agent, however! She is a powerhouse agent whom you have undoubtedly heard of.

Ever heard of . . . Janet Reid?! !!!! Powerhouse agent. Query Shark. Rumored to have been Miss Snark, even.

I hope it is OK with her that I am posting what she put on my contest sheet. I’m sure it is, because IT’S ALL GOOD.

She writes: “This is a very nice piece. You start at the right point: the news of Aaron’s death. (A lot of the work I see starts before the story does. “Your story starts in chapter two/three” is a frequent comment.)”

After I came out of the swoon, I read the rest.

“You’re working too hard to get too much back story in too early. I suggested several places to pare that away. Let the story develop. We know her nephew is dead, we don’t need to know much more than that. We will intuit that she is griefstricken about that. There’s some tendency to tell not show (the klutz stuff/the overpacking stuff) Just show it. Your reader will get what you mean.

“Trust your reader. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that every sentence in a story should develop character or move the plot forward. You don’t have to tell us everything. We’ll get the idea if you show us where to look and what to pay attention to.
This is more of a cozy or traditional mystery (amateur sleuth, violence off the page) It’s not my strong suit, BUT you might query Stephany Evans here at FinePrint when you’re done. Done means finished, polished, revised, polished again! She handles work in this category.”

She ranked the entry . . . No. 1.

I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP

So what happened was that they averaged the 1 and the 4 and placed me as an honorable mention. I don’t mind, as the winner of the contest just gets a certificate–there’s no publication prize and nothing is guaranteed except bragging rights.

However, I’m blown away by the kindness of a major agent in taking the time to write up some comments like this.

Who takes time to actually mark what she means as “the stuff you don’t need to tell us”? SHE ACTUALLY MARKED HER EDITS ON THE MANUSCRIPT PAGES! Now, it sounds worse than it is. She marked out about ten lines in TOTAL out of three chapters of the manuscript. I don’t mind taking out any of them, but I’m thinking that I do need a couple of them in there because I have planted some info that the reader needs (though she can’t know that without a more detailed synopsis than the contest allowed). I mean, she didn’t think I needed the line that jokingly explains how to pronounce Ariadne, but then she is highly educated and literate and so forth. My kinfolks with the outhouse had no idea how to pronounce it, nor did some of my crit group people, and they applauded when I slipped in the line about how to pronounce it. So I think I can safely keep that one in there. I can easily delete the bit about how Ricky died (because that does come up later). I also put that in for a crit group, by the way, because they kept asking. So I think I’m being reasonable to take the others out.

In other words . . . A CONTENT EDIT FROM ONE OF THE POWERHOUSES OF THE INDUSTRY. Yes.

Pros do NOT waste time on that unless you DO HAVE PROMISE. I am not bragging. Yes, I am.

Now, I totally hear what she is saying and what Vonnegut said. I do think, though, that some of us like a bit more detail and some like less. There’s a balance we have to strike between being mystifying or coy and being TOO forthcoming. Sometimes I like a small digression here and there, especially if I can hide a clue. Still, when I did the final polish for APRIL, MAYBE JUNE (which I just sent this morning to the agent who requested a full), I found that the book is very minimalist in that regard. Ari is more thinky than the YA heroines were.

Most of the time when someone complains that “you could take some of this out,” when I press them, they can’t point out even one example. They’re waving their hands and they’re vague. THIS IS NOT VAGUE. And it’s not even that severe an edit.

Again, she only took out about a total of ten lines out of the entire three chapters. Six of them were about Ari’s nephew Ricky, three were about Aaron, and one was about her name (the one I really think I should keep). So it isn’t a case of my having written BLEAK HOUSE or anything. If I take out the stuff she marked (which is all in the first chapter) except for the name talk that I still think is needed because Ariadne is NOT your basic Typhani or RaShonda, we strike a good balance.

It so happens that Stephany Evans requested a full of MARFA LIGHTS years ago at a MWA conference when it won their first prize in the manuscript contest. She has a house in Marfa, as well! But she saw the version that I was sending around at that time and turned it down, so perhaps she would be interested in taking another look after I scan through to see if there are any more “hitting them with a brick” lines that I can take out. I really think the first chapter is the one that’s front-loaded with a bit of heavy info, and that as you progress through the book, you’ll be wishing I would tell MORE. That’s usually what happens with me. (I end up front-loading things after hearing critiques that ask for more info up front. Usually that means something is unclear–but not necessarily the thing they’re asking you to clarify. Takes a while to smooth that out. One more trip through the typer, Heinlein used to say.)

This helps me get even less despondent about my chances of publishing with a major New York house.

Interesting sidelight: these two didn’t say that the book was too long. That has been one of its bugaboos. Also, cozy mysteries are reportedly due for an upswing, as they sell better in bad economic times. (They say.)

By the way . . . the editor’s comments have a trigger phrase in them. I mean, one of MY trigger phrases. See, normally I would do rejectomancy on her comments. “Has difficulty getting a handle on Ari’s relationship with Aaron?” Okay, I can deal. Explain! Explain! Explain!

In the past, I would have tried to “solve” this. I would have gone and inserted a bunch of lines here and there, early on, about how Aaron and Ari lived together and were going to go off and build a cabin in the wilderness and be self-sufficient, and that they had both quit their jobs as software engineers in preparation, and that they had charged a trailer and other camping equipment on her credit cards–but then her nephew Ricky had fallen ill with the leukemia that took him, and Aaron said that he’d go on ahead and send for her, because of course she couldn’t leave . . . and she had signed as the person who would be responsible if the insurance didn’t pay for all of Ricky’s care under the experimental program . . . and she was living in the cheap apartment in the dodgy neighborhood that they’d shared because they were saving their money for their life off-grid . . . and that Aaron was the type who was all wonderful until there was trouble or sadness, and then he would disappear until the troubles were over . . . so he had left and she kept expecting to hear from him . . . and she had kept paying on the trailer and stuff . . . but then his cell phone number was disconnected and she had no address or letters from him. Etc. Explain! Try to get it across!

But now that I am somewhat wiser, I realize that you CAN’T explain like that. If someone doesn’t understand how a woman can still love someone who has left, and can still understand that he disappears sometimes and it’s not “personal,” and can still believe that he loves her even if he has taken off and hasn’t contacted her, and still expects to hear from him and WILL go to him whenever he calls–she makes excuses, or she rationalizes, or she just knows the Willie Nelson song that says some guys DO love you and should have shown it, but they’re just free birds and they’d like to take you with them, but . . . YOU have to make the sacrifices. There are people like this. And there are women who “understand” and tolerate this kind of guy. Like women who are married to rock stars; the guys sleep with groupies every night and are always on the road, but “you were always on my mind.” I mean, this is life. Not everyone is a go-getting feminist “I don’t need you” type.

So some of my characters aren’t going to be like mainstream heroines. How many of us are? Some are, some aren’t. All I know is that I can’t explain away every “I don’t get this” in every book. That is a hard lesson to learn. You just have to accept that some people will never click with certain characters.

I have high hopes for APRIL, MAYBE JUNE. It came in at just under 45K words, which is the shortest novel I’ve ever written. I was worried about it being long enough, in fact, but guidelines say that YA should be 40-65K. So for once I hit the short end! That means they won’t be saying “delete a lot so you can get under the word count.” It is a fast-paced novel because it has NO subplots and is ONLY about their adventure. Part of this is because they’re young adults and they don’t have a lot of heavy baggage. If YA fantasy is still in fashion, it ought to have a chance.

Today we hit 106F in Richardson/Addison/Plano. My front patio melted. No one took walks today. The neighbors put bags of ice cubes in their pool because it was too hot to swim otherwise. Pray for autumn!

Oh, AND I lost four pounds. Probably from sweating.