Sunday, September 24, 2006

Workshop: Gretel

When I am editing, the easiest thing to do is to fix a writer’s errors in English. It’s no problem to make them write properly because most often a way to express themselves makes itself obvious (I don’t say the way because dissimilarly to some other editors, I don’t feel there is only one way to say a thing).

What is difficult though is to fix tone. By tone, I do not mean register. If someone’s language is inappropriate to the setting or context, that’s not difficult to put right. If they are not formal enough, for instance, you choose a more formal structure, a stiffer word. An instance in Sal’s piece is this: “So were the stations,
once you got beneath ground.” Given that she is aiming for at least well-styled English, that “got” should be “were”. (Not the only problem with that sentence, which was uncharacteristically bad.)

What I mean is that a piece has feel: it does not just convey an action but it conveys a sense of that action. Stories say something. The good short story makes an observation of how we are, but at the same time how we feel about how we are. Often, a piece of short fiction is a sharp piece of moral judgement; other times, it presents questions rather than answers. Either way, it presents a view. Think about it when you are reading what you consider to be a great short story. It will not just be presenting an observation of human nature; it will be describing what that observation means. This does not entail the story’s stopping and presenting a lecture in philosophy. The judgement, the view, is conveyed by the piece’s tone.

So when I say that Sal’s piece lacked tone, this is what I mean. When I have read Sal’s blog, which I do on occasion but not as often as I might if her writing did not have this… I hesitate to call it a flaw because that seems harsh, I have felt that her observation is good but she lacks engagement. Even in her food reviews, where one would expect passion, Sal is detached. I sometimes think, make me feel what you feel and you would hit the notes you aim for. But how to do it? It’s not easy to put right. It’s the element of writing that comes naturally to those who can do it but is so hard for those who can’t. Or won’t. In Sal’s case, I think it’s more a won’t. I have seen writing from her that has that engagement, and it’s very good. She wrote a piece about her brother that was better than anything else I’ve seen from her. I think Sal has doubts about her writing but if she hit that pitch often, they would be dispelled.

I have to say, and I give the caveat up front that I am not particularly well versed in the genre, that it strikes me that Sal’s unwillingness in particular to make moral judgements will tend to make her mysteries – tales that are often highly concerned with morality – hollow and unengaging. (I am guessing because she doesn’t share her fiction writing with me.) Her slightly flat writing would also tend not to make for good crime writing, which it strikes me relies on tautness and energy to push it along. You rarely want to be able to stop and think in a mystery because they rely on events’ playing out in a way that doesn’t always bear scrutiny.

I would not say any of this if I didn’t feel that Sal could fix this problem and write a genuinely good piece of fiction. I’m not sure it should be a mystery, at least not the Lawrence Block type. And I am not suggesting either that Sal must do what I sometimes do: lead the reader by the nose and relentlessly batter them with my view. (I’ve been writing cautionary fiction, which requires that to some extent. Mind you, I felt this would have worked better as a caution.)

To the point. In Gretel, I felt that here we have a situation that demands a view. Without it, you have a story that can be set out in a sentence. What does Sal feel about the granny’s abandonment (sorry to give away the twist but I assume people read the story first to work out what they think about it before they read what I think)? What possibilities for feeling about it? She seems detached to me, even though she has used the first person. Is she angry? Sad? Does she feel there is a tragedy that we can no longer cope, that we are not supported, when faced with these problems in life?

By settling for what she did, which was neat enough, Sal passed up a chance. It was clever to have the narrator’s observation of the daughter be so wrong, but I found it profoundly unsatisfying. Worst of all, it did have tone! But I found it leadenfooted. The character, the narrator, made judgements, but the author, I felt did not.

It boils down to this: art is not a mirror. A piece of art does not merely represent. The things it concerns represent themselves. Art interprets. It is mediated by the artist and if it is not, it is not art. What does “mediated” mean? Imagine you are involved in a dispute and the parties have agreed to use a mediator. Instead of presenting your grievances to one another just so, you use a third party who is able both to extract the core from your grievance (its meaning, if you like) and to suggest what view the parties could have of it (and how to resolve it). When you experience a piece of art, you do not look at a thing, an event or whatever, you look at how the artist presents it. The artist is a filter and a refractor. You have their spin.

When I look at “art” by people like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, I am distinctly unimpressed. Why? Because when Hirst presents a decaying cow, he presents a decaying cow. He says “you figure it out”. But I say “I already figure stuff out. That’s life. But art is about presenting ways of figuring things out.” Art is about how you could feel, not about what you already know you feel. (I don’t discount the power of art that makes you stop and think “that’s what I’ve always felt about that”, which is a different thing: here, the art has presented you with a possibility that strikes a chord; it has not left the interpretation to you.)

At the same time, when I see a technically correct but soulless landscape or still life, I have the same feeling: there is no art in the mirroring of what there is.



Gretel

Mid-July. We were having an unseasonable heat wave.

I don’t mind beginning with “Mid-July.” It’s sort of a twist on “Once upon a time…” But I’m not keen on reading too much about the weather.

A key to opening a short story is to pose questions for the reader. They will want to read on to find out the answers to the questions. Here, my only question is “why the fuck do I care about the weather?” When I read on, I find out that I actually don’t. It doesn’t have any bearing on the story. It would have been better to open with the scene in the train: “We were sweating…” (who are we?) or description of passengers “Sweat from a fat man’s brow was bouncing from the vinyl of the vacant seat he spilled into…” or anything that a/ dumps us into it and b/ makes us start thinking.

In the second sentence, I like “heatwave” as one word. It looks odd as two. I have never liked "unseasonable". It's one of those egregious words that have, through usage, become part of the language, but defy all reason. A pedant's heart sinks when they see that. It can't be helped though, and it's useful, I suppose, that "seasonable" and "seasonal" express different things.


Samuel Clemens is
said to have said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in
San Francisco.


This is just too clever clever. Did he say as “Samuel Clemens”? Was he reported as Samuel Clemens’ saying it? I rather doubt it. “Said to have said…” is horribly convoluted. Say “They say Mark Twain said…” or just “Mark Twain said… or so they say”

Well, this wasn't one of those summers. The heat had been
in the mid-nineties for at least five days and we were all sick and
tired of it. Sweltering, we all were. Cranky.

Yeah okay. If this had anything to do with the story, I’d not mind the overkill. But the heat is nothing to do with it!

Avoid scenesetting. It simply robs a story of dynamism. You need to weave detail into your fiction, not replace your story with it.

The trains were air-conditioned and cool, though.


Two things here. If the trains are “air-conditioned”, we assume they are cool. It would only be noteworthy if the aircon wasn’t working, so they weren’t. Take care not to tell the reader things they can work out for themselves. For instance, if we are sick and tired of the heat, we are cranky, because the two ideas describe the same thing only slightly differently. The reader is given nothing by the third adjective. The second thing is minor: do not comma off “though”.

I know you think you should. It seems right. You’d comma off “however” here. But “though” works like an adverb such as “lately” or “often”. Do you write “I haven’t seen him, lately”? If you do, stop. (I know that “though” is not the same kind of thing as “lately”. I chose the latter to demonstrate the point. Replace it with “otherwise” and you’ll see it. If you comma off “otherwise”, stop.)

So were the stations,
once you got beneath ground.



I have to admit to chuckling when I read this, if only because I just recently read Partridge’s thoughts on “below”, “under” and “beneath”. To be “beneath ground” is to be buried, and by extension, dead. Use “under ground”, which is the idiom (as in “underground railway” of course). “Below ground” implies that there is ground above you but not below you, so reads a little oddly, but would just about work.

I do not like “so” here, although it isn’t strictly incorrect. I’d use “as”, which is the correct word for comparisons of actions of this type. “So” usually means “in the same way” of actions, and is just slightly uncomfortable when used of states. (I prefer “He is ugly. As is she” to “He is ugly. So is she.” But it’s close.) This is a nice distinction though. I wouldn’t correct it.

I would though correct “got” to “were”. Sal’s writing is reasonably formal and literate. She should definitely eschew vulgarities like “got”, simply because it strikes the wrong note.

I saw the two women as I got on



Particularly so if you’re going to use it again a sentence later! “Boarded” feels odd for light rail. “Hopped on”? “caught”? “took”?

BART at the San Bruno station. I was
headed back downtown to our unairconditioned office. The meeting in San
Bruno had not gone well. The client refused to give us a week extra even
after I explained the circumstances. She'd laid down the law about
contracts and penalties for noncompliance. No, it hadn't been a good
meeting.


Okay. So you’re a businesswoman. But again you didn’t really take this anywhere. It’s why you’re on the train but it doesn’t set you out as a character who… well, this would be “makes the moral judgement you go on to make”.


I dropped into the seat across from them



Okay, I get what you’re saying, but I did picture you swinging on the railing and almost parachuting into the seat.


: the middle-aged woman and the
older woman sitting next to her. The baggage at their feet indicated


that. Don’t omit it here.

they'd got on


Again, I much prefer “boarded” or “caught the train” here.

at the airport, not the Millbrae station.



TMI. I don’t know why I’d think they’d boarded at “Millbrae” and I don’t care.

Their warm clothes seconded my guess that they'd just arrived.


You can’t say this! Because there is the idiom “to second guess someone”, this reads horribly. Just say “confirmed”.


Wherever
they'd flown in from, the temps


No. ”Temps” are office workers.


were considerably cooler than those
everyone in town had been complaining about for days. Montana maybe?


Okay. That’s a nice bit of humanising of the narrator because idly speculating about where people have been on holiday is a thing we all do.


She



Who? You’ve gone from “they” to “she”. Although the sentence makes clear who “she” is, it’s poor writing to leave the reader struggling for sense by using an unclear referent. Say “The younger woman…”

might have been in her mid-forties. More likely she was in her early
fifties, well-preserved and trying hard to stay that way.


I feel this was just too much. She might have been in her forties but she was probably in her fifties… ho hum. It is of no consequence to us, is it? And you are pretty much conveying the same thing twice. Just say “She was probably in her early fifties, but well preserved and trying hard to stay that way” or “she was probably in her fifties but trying to pass as ten years younger” (which has a nice air of judgement in it).

No hyphen in “well preserved” when you use it after the noun. “Well” is just an adverb like any other. It is only hyphenated with the adjective it describes when both are before the noun because of the possibility of confusion with the idea of “well (healthy) and preserved”.


Her traveling
clothes were fashionable, neither trendy nor expensive. Her makeup was
carefully applied. Her colorful handknit sweater was wool

I don’t know why I prefer “woolen” but I do. Yet I wouldn’t write “silken”…

But yes, I’d write “a woollen jumper” but a “silk blouse”. I just do. “Silken” means “silk-like” for me rather than “of silk”.

, not silk or
cashmere. She wore dark slacks and sensible leather flats. She probably
bought her clothes at Macy's. On sale.


Is Macy’s a cheap department store? I guess it is. You are clearly not writing for an international market!


The old woman was dressed simply in a cotton print dress with a
lightweight matching jacket. Her fine, white hair was combed back in
loose curls. A cane leaned against the baggage she'd brought on board.
Her ankles were swollen, bulging over the sides of the canvas slipon
shoes she wore. Her feet must hurt. She looked like a farmer's wife
dressed up to take a trip into the big city. Maybe she was.

The old woman


You could use “she” here.


was neat enough. She didn't have drool down her chin or
spills on her front, but she seemed absent, not altogether there. Maybe
it was the way she didn't look at me when I sat down across from them.

This is horribly informal and won’t do. You might say this but you absolutely cannot write it. You must append “that gave me that impression”. That’s understood in speech, and there wouldn’t be any confusion, but writing demands less elision, more precision.


Maybe it was the way she stared down and twisted the gold band on one of
her arthritic fingers. The fifty-something traveling companion glanced
at me as I sat down, then looked away.


You must say “then she looked away”, because this says that you sit down and then look away. In any case, you need not say it at all. You cannot “glance” at someone without then looking away. You would be staring if you didn’t.

I pulled my half-read Economist out and settled in for the short trip
in.

I think you have to say “back” or “into town”.


I didn't even want to think about how I was going to explain to my
unsympathetic boss why we were being held to the original deliverables.


You need not say he is “unsympathetic”. We infer that from your concern about having to explain.

"Where are we going, dear?"

"Into town."

"Is it time for my school to start again?"

"Yes, pretty soon now."

"Am I staying with Uncle Buster again?"

"Yes. He and Aunt Lois are looking forward to seeing you."

"Are they going to make me take care of my bratty cousins again?"

"We'll talk about it when we get there."

"Who are you again?"

"Your daughter, Mom. I'm your daughter."

"Oh. ... I knew that ..."

There was silence for a few minutes. We reached the South City station.

"Where are we going, dear?"

"Into town."

"Is it time for school to start again?"

"Pretty soon now."

"Am I staying with Uncle Buster?"

The conversation looped again. And again.


Okay. Given that you’ve shown its looping, this is a bit redundant. I’d rather have put “And so it went, the same conversation, beginning again at each station.” Or something like that.


Colma station.

I don't know how the daughter had the patience to answer the same
questions over and over again, but answer them she did, quietly,
patiently.


That’s one too many “patient”s for one sentence.

Each time she gave the same answers to the same questions as
though she was hearing them and answering them for the first time.


Yes, we know. You showed us that.

Each
time with the litany over, the old woman quieted down, reassured, her
questions answered, content.

A few minutes later she'd start again.



I think you get bogged down in here, struggling to express that they went through this routine.

The repetition didn't seem to bother the daughter. I would've strangled
the old woman myself


This is a slightly wrong construction because it says that you would do the strangling yourself rather than leave it to someone else, not that if it were you, you'd strangle her. A comma before "myself", or simply saying "In her shoes...", "If she were my mother..." or similar.


, but her daughter was an angel. So patient.

Again. I’d just cut from the dialogue up to here, I think.

So
unbelievably patient. The good daughter. I wish I had that in me, but I
don't. If I'd been expected to be the good daughter and answer questions
over and over, I'd have taken the old fool out in the woods and left her
to die. Lucky for me my mother is dead.



Okay. So the narrator presents her view. But why don’t I think that what this represents Sal’s presenting “tone”?

It’s simply this: the character has not been drawn sufficiently well for me to be clear whether Sal approves or agrees! Maybe Sal would leave her mother out in the woods in this situation. I don’t know because she has not delineated her character and judged her. Do you see what I mean?

How would I have approached this? I would not have written it in the first person, or if I did, I would have allowed my narrator to be more strongly toned. She would have had something to say about the person she was negotiating with – something stronger, indicating better what kind of judgement she is prone to making. She would have taken a tone when describing the younger woman: the makeup would have been “more carefully applied than I would have bothered with for myself” or “applied in that way ageing women do to try to convince us that they have a face worth painting”.


Daly City station.

24th and Mission.

At the Civic Center station the daughter picked up her bag. "I'll be
back in just a minute, Mom. Stay right there. Don't move. I'll be right
back. I need to use the bathroom."

"All right, dear. I'll wait."

The old woman looked down at her hands in her lap, then up at the
advertisements above the windows. She looked back down at her twisting
fingers, and waited.

There are no bathrooms on BART.

Nice.


The train started up again. Next stop: Powell Street.

I glanced out the window at Powell Street and saw the daughter getting
off

“leaving”?

the train with her bag in hand.



Either “with bag in hand” or “with her bag in her hand”.

She'd taken off the bright green and
aqua handknit sweater I'd noticed earlier


Why do you mention the colours only now though? Better to give colours earlier and use “colorful” here.

and had it slung over her arm
as she hurried up the escalator.

Unseasonably hot weather.


Okay. I’m guessing you want us to think “yes but she’s not taking it off because it’s unseasonable.”

I looked across the aisle. The old woman was still waiting, her bag and
cane at her feet.

Montgomery station.

I put my Economist back in my briefcase. The Embarcadero station was
next. My stop.

I got off.

I looked back in the train car window. I could see the old woman,
sitting quietly. Waiting.

Someone would notice eventually.


Okay, that worked, I guess. I’d have preferred an impact ending. Leave us with a moral, that type of thing.

Perhaps you could note that she is waiting to begin her routine again. This indicates that the narrator has an awareness, however dim, of the destruction being deserted will bring to her world but also how trivial it will feel to the woman.

Also, I would much have preferred not to see the younger woman again after she says she’s going to the bathroom. It would have been better to have the old woman deserted at the stop the narrator leaves the train and for the narrator then to see the old woman, alone, moving off into the distance.


I repost the whole story below. The copyright remains with the author, whose moral right to be identified as the author I affirm by attaching her name.



Gretel


Mid-July. We were having an unseasonable heat wave. Samuel Clemens is
said to have said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in
San Francisco. Well, this wasn't one of those summers. The heat had been
in the mid-nineties for at least five days and we were all sick and
tired of it. Sweltering, we all were. Cranky.

The trains were air-conditioned and cool, though. So were the stations,
once you got beneath ground.

I saw the two women as I got on BART at the San Bruno station. I was
headed back downtown to our unairconditioned office. The meeting in San
Bruno had not gone well. The client refused to give us a week extra even
after I explained the circumstances. She'd laid down the law about
contracts and penalties for noncompliance. No, it hadn't been a good
meeting.

I dropped into the seat across from them: the middle-aged woman and the
older woman sitting next to her. The baggage at their feet indicated
they'd got on at the airport, not the Millbrae station.

Their warm clothes seconded my guess that they'd just arrived. Wherever
they'd flown in from, the temps were considerably cooler than those
everyone in town had been complaining about for days. Montana maybe?

She might have been in her mid-forties. More likely she was in her early
fifties, well-preserved and trying hard to stay that way. Her traveling
clothes were fashionable, neither trendy nor expensive. Her makeup was
carefully applied. Her colorful handknit sweater was wool, not silk or
cashmere. She wore dark slacks and sensible leather flats. She probably
bought her clothes at Macy's. On sale.

The old woman was dressed simply in a cotton print dress with a
lightweight matching jacket. Her fine, white hair was combed back in
loose curls. A cane leaned against the baggage she'd brought on board.
Her ankles were swollen, bulging over the sides of the canvas slipon
shoes she wore. Her feet must hurt. She looked like a farmer's wife
dressed up to take a trip into the big city. Maybe she was.

The old woman was neat enough. She didn't have drool down her chin or
spills on her front, but she seemed absent, not altogether there. Maybe
it was the way she didn't look at me when I sat down across from them.
Maybe it was the way she stared down and twisted the gold band on one of
her arthritic fingers. The fifty-something traveling companion glanced
at me as I sat down, then looked away.

I pulled my half-read Economist out and settled in for the short trip
in. I didn't even want to think about how I was going to explain to my
unsympathetic boss why we were being held to the original deliverables.

"Where are we going, dear?"

"Into town."

"Is it time for my school to start again?"

"Yes, pretty soon now."

"Am I staying with Uncle Buster again?"

"Yes. He and Aunt Lois are looking forward to seeing you."

"Are they going to make me take care of my bratty cousins again?"

"We'll talk about it when we get there."

"Who are you again?"

"Your daughter, Mom. I'm your daughter."

"Oh. ... I knew that ..."

There was silence for a few minutes. We reached the South City station.

"Where are we going, dear?"

"Into town."

"Is it time for school to start again?"

"Pretty soon now."

"Am I staying with Uncle Buster?"

The conversation looped again. And again.

Colma station.

I don't know how the daughter had the patience to answer the same
questions over and over again, but answer them she did, quietly,
patiently. Each time she gave the same answers to the same questions as
though she was hearing them and answering them for the first time. Each
time with the litany over, the old woman quieted down, reassured, her
questions answered, content.

A few minutes later she'd start again.

The repetition didn't seem to bother the daughter. I would've strangled
the old woman myself, but her daughter was an angel. So patient. So
unbelievably patient. The good daughter. I wish I had that in me, but I
don't. If I'd been expected to be the good daughter and answer questions
over and over, I'd have taken the old fool out in the woods and left her
to die. Lucky for me my mother is dead.

Daly City station.

24th and Mission.

At the Civic Center station the daughter picked up her bag. "I'll be
back in just a minute, Mom. Stay right there. Don't move. I'll be right
back. I need to use the bathroom."

"All right, dear. I'll wait."

The old woman looked down at her hands in her lap, then up at the
advertisements above the windows. She looked back down at her twisting
fingers, and waited.

There are no bathrooms on BART.

The train started up again. Next stop: Powell Street.

I glanced out the window at Powell Street and saw the daughter getting
off the train with her bag in hand. She'd taken off the bright green and
aqua handknit sweater I'd noticed earlier and had it slung over her arm
as she hurried up the escalator.

Unseasonably hot weather.

I looked across the aisle. The old woman was still waiting, her bag and
cane at her feet.

Montgomery station.

I put my Economist back in my briefcase. The Embarcadero station was
next. My stop.

I got off.

I looked back in the train car window. I could see the old woman,
sitting quietly. Waiting.

Someone would notice eventually.

Sal Towse 2006

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It boils down to this: art is not a mirror. A piece of art does not merely represent. ... Art interprets. It is mediated by the artist and if it is not, it is not art. ... When you experience a piece of art, you do not look at a thing, an event or whatever, you look at how the artist presents it. The artist is a filter and a refractor. You have their spin.

I'm glad I caught this today. It spoke to me. It sums up what I have always known was lacking in my work. I have no spin. I am a mirror. Not just in art, but in life. A chameleon who conforms herself to whatever is around her, "sucks up" to the crowd. I do it with you, too, you know.

July 6, 2011 at 3:47 AM  

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