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

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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