Editing Review: Stranger in a Strange Land

by Intermittent Rain ~ September 24th, 2014

I’m reading Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, but not for the first time.

Many, many years ago it was my ‘bible’; the good book that I read from before going to sleep. As an agnostic faux-intellectual college student I latched on to Heinlein’s unconvinced, usually cynical attitudes toward politics, government, society, and found solace in the advice of Jubal Harshaw and in the commune of the Nest.

My paperback has long since split in two and the back cover is no longer attached. These days almost everything I read is in ebook form, and the ebook version of Stranger I got is the unedited version. It opens with a forward by Heinlein’s wife Virginia explaining how some years after Heinlein’s death she found the original, thought it was better, submitted it for consideration, and how the new editors agreed with her and published it. (Or, ‘Hey, fresh revenue, guaranteed return, no risk; sure we love it.’)

Years ago I saw a web site with examples from each publication. The objective was to show how the original was more authentic, more Heinlein, and better, but I decided that I preferred the edited version so I never bothered to look for the original. Now that I’m reading the original, I still feel the same. I’m almost half way through and looking for chunks that were removed (this version is 220,000 words and the edited version clocks in at 160,000), but mostly I’ve noticed unnecessary phrases and sentences (including dialogue) and repetitive or muddy descriptions that aren’t familiar to me. The version I remember is cleaner, clearer and spends fewer words in fuzzy Heinlein-esque pirouettes. He was a great writer; full of cool ideas and philosophies and technologies and situations, but better with those elements than with the craft of perfecting sentences and paragraphs. Or maybe he just spent more of his focus on those parts.

 

Heinlein is a better read when filtered through an editor, even if that editor, apparently, was the author himself, pressured by the publisher to cut the length.

 

This brings up a number of points. One is that even the work of an experienced author like mid-career Heinlein can be improved—at least, imo—which brings up another thought; perhaps there are readers—and perhaps they outnumber readers like me—readers who actually prefer the unedited Heinlein (and not just for revenue generation reasons).

The edited version has more sharply defined characters, snappier dialogue and is missing extraneous repetition or near repetition. I don’t think those changes can be lamented too convincingly. But some of the self-indulgent meandering, occurring both in dialogue and in narration, is also trimmed or cut. Maybe some readers like those parts. They are common in Heinlein’s writing and, when he rambles well,  it’s one of his strengths as a writer/thinker, though the ones that have been removed are, imo, weak, unnecessary wanderings. And sometimes there is a soft, passive kind of interaction description style that I criticize when I’m presented with it in reviews.

 

Here are some examples. Not the best ones, scoured from the entire novel, but just a few from where I’m reading right now. I’m selecting these by comparing what I read against what I remember, then searching in my paperback to see how my memory compares with the actual and how that compares with the ebook.

“I said, ‘No!’ Can’t you understand plain English?  But you are to deliver this letter to Mr. Douglas at once and to him personally, and fetch back his receipt to me.”

A little over the top with anger, at least compared with the first published version:

“I said, ‘No!’ You are to deliver this letter to Mr. Douglas at once, and fetch his receipt to me.”

I don’t think the over-the-top anger is needed given the situation or the characters. A terse statement carries more authority, more impatience, and doesn’t make Jubal sound as petty as the first version does.

~

Here’s a simple one:

“Yes, but – Doctor, you speak Arabic, do you not?”

Not bad, but again, unnecessary words, compared with the edited version:

“Yes, but – Doctor, you speak Arabic?”

I couldn’t argue with either, partly because there isn’t much difference. The extra three words might better represent the character, but without them it reads a little faster.

~

This one I found disconcerting.

“I’ll get it,” said Dorcas, and jumped up.

It sounds so, beginnerish. Dorcas should be moving to collect the glass to refill as she speaks, her action concurrent with the dialogue and not that awful phrase “and jumped up.” Heinlein chose to prune it to:

“I’ll get it,” said Dorcas.

In this case I wouldn’t have minded a little something to indicate Dorcas’ enthusiasm because it helps set up her nature as the most sexually focused and seductive of the females, a characteristic that plays a part later in a small mistake by another character. On the other hand there are other indications, and it is a very small mistake/joke.

~

This one is awkward in more than one way:

“Anne, you have just interrupted a profound thought.  You hail from Porlock.”

Who is going to say “You have just interrupted a profound thought”? “Just interrupted”? “Profound thought”? Doesn’t sound like Jubal, and there must be better ways of saying this. How about “Anne, you’ve derailed an impending statement of brilliance.” And after saying this, why would he shift to the declamatory statement “You hail from Porlock”, using it like a fancy alternative to “You idiot.” To clarify this reference to “Kubla Khan” it seems more reasonable to say “You must hail from Porlock.” One extra word, but it fits the situation better, even if  you lose some of the the metaphorical element of his statement.

I admit that it took me years to figure out the reference from the edited version:

“Anne, you hail from Porlock.”

The edited version is so obtuse that, even one knows the reference, you probably have to read the line twice to figure it out. For me, it was many years later that I read Coleridge (I first read “Stranger” when I was 15 or so, didn’t read Coleridge until college) and was finally able to make the connection. But it fits the characters much better, and without the odd lead in/clarification sentence, it works by itself. As a bonus, Anne’s next sentence and Jubal’s response to it are short single sentences, creating a brief sense of hanging on the edge of something before Jubal hurries off to take the call that Anne announced.

~

The next is an example of redundant writing, otherwise known as “reader gets it”:

Jubal nodded agreement. “Quite true.  That’s why I’ve kept up my reading of it, a little.”

It’s not necessary to nod “agreement”. Nodding is agreement. And to say “Quite true” is a third statement of the same thing only in dialogue. Don’t need all three. Normally don’t need more than one.

And at the end of the example there’s no need to qualify the quantity of his Arabic reading because Jubal said those exact words a couple paragraphs earlier. When people talk they often repeat themselves but in fiction, unless it serves a purpose, characters should not be repeating themselves. If well written, the reader will pick it up the first time, and useless repetition makes the reading slow and sticky.

Jubal nodded. “That’s why I’ve kept up my reading of it.”

Just as clear that he agrees, and a better reading experience.

~

The next one is an example of confusing writing. It begins with a sentence that is awkward because Heinlein tries to transition between two scenes but creates a sentence that is unbalanced and runs too long in the second part, stuffed with too many things: returned, find, Nelson, Mike, bedrooms, checking.

The second sentence is one of those sentences we’ve all written, where our feet are in the way and over them we trip:

They said good-by and Jubal returned to find that Dr. Nelson had taken Mike into one of the bedrooms and was checking him over.  He joined them to offer Nelson the use of his kit since Nelson had not had with him his professional bag. Jubal found Mike stripped down and the ship’s surgeon looking baffled.

The whole thing is re-written into something much clearer:

They said good-bye. Jubal found that Dr. Nelson had taken Mike into a bedroom to examine him. The surgeon was looking baffled.

 

After completing the first part of this post I did some internet research and found people who claim there are two groups;

  1. people who like the first published version of “Stranger” and dislike the rest of his writing, and
  2. those who like everything else he wrote but wondered why they didn’t like “Stranger” as much.

I guess it’s comforting for them that their world is black and white. Myself, I like a lot of Heinlein—my favorite being “Farnham’s Freehold”— but “Stranger” is in a different category; something exceptional. I fail to see why the unedited version has any significant advantages over the edited one. It has some long paragraphs of muddied writing, some unnecessarily repeated statements and concepts, some unclear phrasing, and occasionally what I interpret as dialogue that does not fit the character. It is possible that his other works are more similar in looseness to the unedited version, but I have not spent anywhere near the number of hours reading any other of his novels, and don’t have any interest in doing so. As I said, “Stranger” is exceptional and I don’t think any other even tries to be as great an accomplishment as “Stranger” manages to be. They’re just novels.

There are times in the edited version where its succinctness makes understanding it more challenging, like the Porlock example I cited above, but like any good book, you get more out of it each time you read. I don’t need everything spoon fed to me the first time, and I don’t need elements (situations, emotions, descriptions, words, phrases) repeated multiple times unless each adds an additional shading or helps to generate an appropriate sense of urgency or of blockage.

Much of the confusing wording, the awkward phrasing, the unnecessary phrases, the repetitious writing, and the occasional actions uncoordinated with the dialogue in the original version are common in early drafts of writing. As  you’re typing you write “a little”, and when your character speaks again you think, I want him to qualify the amount that he reads, so you type “a little”, and it isn’t until many re-reads later, or sometimes not until someone else points it out, that you see you’ve repeated yourself.

It’s this last point makes me a little embarrassed to be reading a version that went unpublished during Heinlein’s lifetime. I feel as if I’ve arrived uninvited and caught him in his underwear (though, being a nudist, he might not have been wearing any). As a writer, though, it’s cool to be able to read and to compare the two versions.

Novel development

by Intermittent Rain ~ August 31st, 2014

With the help of NaNoWriMo and the 3DayNovel I have finished four novels, but after a year and a half on my current main WIP, I’m still stuck.

If you don’t mind, I’m going to have a discussion with myself, using you as the audience.

 

It’s a big challenge. The character now has far more elements to her than any other character that I’ve written—the result of having danced with her for longer than any other character—but the biggest problem is that the story doesn’t fit a structure easily. It also doesn’t fit any genre easily, which is another problem, one that keeps coming up for the local writing group that is being bashed over their heads with it.

And another issue is that it’s two stories in one. Actually, many stories in one if you consider the three backstories that are thrown in, and in one case I really mean thrown in. One breaks in and is titled ‘Memoir’, and the narrator meanders through some of her early history. Fine. Another comes from another character, but is told to the narrator as they sit in a car killing time. Really fine; that’s how backstory should be naturally slotted in, but the third appears out of nowhere and it jumps into 3rd person for the first and only time in the novel, and the central character’s name is never given. The reader has to assume at some point that it is a 3rd person retelling of the narrator’s backstory.

All of this is melded into a telling of the current situation of the narrator.

But what genre are we in? Lit? Fake memoir? Coming of age?

It’s really closest to a fake memoir.

Maybe that means that I should write it like a memoir, selecting incidents from a plethora of situations that will best collectively tell the overall story that I want to tell. If she is now five, ten years older and reflecting on her youth, on how she began in the business, how would she write her story?

That in and of itself wouldn’t be the worst thing, but the problem is that the second half of the novel is a mystery/detective story because that’s what the narrator is becoming; a PI. See, the entire story is kind of a prequel, showing where she came from and how she became the PI she would be in subsequent novels; a prequel to a novel that hasn’t been written yet. So to finish the novel I have to write her first mystery, but the problem is that the first half of the novel is not a mystery.

On top of this, I feel that the mystery part has to parallel, mirror, yet also be the opposite of her own personal history, which really constricts how the mystery itself can unravel.

 

After writing to this point, I caused a minor epiphany, and took a break before coming back to this post.

I realized that it would be entirely possible to write this novel as a stock detective genre novel. All I need to do is start with the end, run the story in two timelines, and let the history catch up to the beginning of the novel. A stock format. One that tricks the reader into the story by starting with excitement. If I did this I would prune the first scenes of the story down to bare minimums, just enough to set up the characters and to play out the parallel back stories, but that means two things: 1) the ending mystery better be good; something that can stand on its own, and 2) I”m ‘selling out’, turning my prequel into a genre novel.

That last thing disconcerted me. It doesn’t really matter whether I am selling out or not, only that I feel as if I am doing so.

Writer’s Block?

by Intermittent Rain ~ July 23rd, 2014

If I search this blog it tells me that by January 14 of this year I was already stuck for the ending of my current novel. That means that I’ve been stuck for over six months.

The four novels I’ve completed (three successful NaNoWriMos and one 3DayNovel) all came in around 60,000 – 70,000 words (the 3DayNovel finished at 23,000 and was expanded later). This current WIP stopped at about 65,000 words and now has over 70,000 in the main document, plus some bits for later insertion. It feels as if it should be complete with another 20,000 – 30,000 words.

The NaNoWriMos were all complete as first drafts after 30 days. This WIP began over a year ago, has been stuck for over six months, and yet the ending eludes me. Does that qualify as writer’s block?

I could finish it, if I had to. I was headed toward an ending when I decided to put it in neutral because if I continued to write I would have been committed to that version and I’m not confident that it was the right way to go. The more I wrote, the more difficult it would have been to dump 20,000 to 40,000 words and take it another direction.

Some of the things that I’ve tried:

  • used sticky-notes (listthings.com)
  • analyzed, in note form, the major characters
  • interviewed all but one of the major characters — using a best friend/journalist/shrink to ask questions — as a means of doing a psychological analysis of the personalities and to spend more time with each characters’ individual voice
  • listed any and all possible endings, and as many slight variations or combinations that I could think of (dozens and dozens of possibilities)
  • wrote an analysis essay, as if I were a student in a literature class writing an essay about the novel
  • reviewed the backstories and existing storylines to see if I can copy or build on one of those. There is the main story plus two chunks of backstory from the protagonist and one chunk of backstory from her mentor
  • built numerous tables and spreadsheets to chart similarities and parallels between stories and characters and situations

And now,

  • writing a blog post analyzing my situation

I’ve left one of the major characters plastic, malleable, and only vaguely defined. He is the victim of the crime and I don’t plan for him to ever appear in the story, at least not alive. At this stage in the writing I need him to remain flexible because his personality needs to fit the plot that I choose. That, of course, is part of my difficulty because were he clearly defined, the crime options would be narrowed. Odd, that the specifics of the crime depend more on the investigators and perhaps the family and friends of the victim than on those directly involved; the victim and possibly even the perpetrator(s)?

My artsy inclination is to make the victim as much a doppelganger of my protagonist as possible, tying their stories together for comparison and contrast. That was my thinking at the inception, except not to the degree that I’m considering now. I can make his story a copy of her story but the opposite, strengthening her story by telling his, and let the reader see how they are at once the same but different. There are logical options for doing this, well within the range of what I know about gambling and what I’ve researched about immigrant kidnappings.

The other good option would use the jealous/money-hungry guardian choice, with or without the victim’s co-operation, with or without the mentor’s complicity, or alternatively, the mentor’s manipulation by the guardian. This convolution is probably the plot that best satisfies a typical mystery reader’s expectations because it has hidden motives, duplicity of some characters (opposites again; character charged with guiding is bad, victim may be complicit, mentor may be bad or outwitted), and twists.

Maybe I can do both, some combination of the two.

But one element I’ve lost is that I wanted to force the protagonist, through the course of the investigation, to relive some of her own story, to make her travel through her past again to get to her future. Because that element is missing, she has become an observer. A questioner and an instigator, to be sure, but not a physical or emotional participant. She’s not accomplishing, re-experiencing, evolving, making the hero’s journey, she merely develops confidence and skills to be a better Poirot, a better Marple, a better Holmes than she was at the opening, and in the process, solves the mystery. But that wasn’t the primary purpose of the novel.