Learning from Publication

Recently I wrote a short story called “Steampunk Fairy Chick” for the UnCONventional anthology. Even though the story went through many revisions, lots of beta readers, two editors and a copyeditor, when I read through my author’s copy I found there were still things I wanted to change. Nothing major—just line edit stuff, a selection of different choices of sentence structure that I think would have made the story more readable.

I can’t react to this the way I would with a draft; the story’s in print. And I don’t want to just throw these insights on the floor. Instead, I want to analyze the story and find general ideas I could have applied that would have improved the story before it hit the stands—ideas I could use in the future on new stories.

Don’t Overload Your Sentences

I am verbose by nature, and my stories are ornate by design. Because I was trying to pack a lot into 10,000 words, I tried to pack a lot into each sentence of “Steampunk Fairy Chick.” Sometimes, the sentences simply couldn’t carry the load. For example, on the first page of the story this sentence appears:

Jeremiah prepared to dart out into the food court before one of them could cry “Foreigner”—or was the word on this world “alien”—and bring the whole restaurant down upon her.

Here I’m trying to do a whole raft of things all at the same time:

  • Set the scene: Jeremiah is in a packed restaurant near a “food court,” which helps set the story in the present day.
  • Show character: Jeremiah is active, quick thinking, prepared to bolt at a moment’s notice—and she’s hiding something.
  • Provide backstory: Jeremiah is hiding the fact that she’s part alien, and she’s concerned that admitting it can get her in trouble.

That’s a lot for one sentence to do, but I didn’t choke on any of that: I choked on the phrase “or was the word on this world ‘alien?’” which made me lose my place. Why is that aside even in there? It’s because in this sentence I’m also trying to:

  • Raise a question: Jeremiah is not clear that the rules or language are the same in “this world”—implying she’s from another.

That’s great, but it’s a separate idea. So perhaps, even though it costs more words, it would have been better to separate these ideas into two sentences:

Jeremiah prepared to dart out into the food court before one of them could cry “Foreigner” and bring the whole restaurant down upon her. Or wait—wasn’t the word for “Foreigner” on this world “alien?”

This rewrite is clearer … and by removing the interjection, it serves another hidden purpose of this sentence:

  • Clarifying ambiguity: “Jeremiah” is a male name for a female character … so “Jeremiah” needs to appear with a female pronoun.

Even though that creates yet another job for this sentence, it’s important. This is a very early sentence, so it’s critical real estate for establishing her gender clearly. Removing the aside brings “Jeremiah” and “her” eight words closer together.

As a side remark, Jeremiah’s male name illustrates the gender-neutral world of Victoriana from which she came, but otherwise isn’t material to this story—and some authors question whether a story should contain anything in it that doesn’t serve that specific story. For standalone stories, this might be the case, but for series fiction I respectfully disagree. In series fiction you must respect the rules of your series even if they aren’t convenient for a specific story. A series creates its own reality, and one could no more change Jeremiah’s name to Jeri for convenience than one could change Sherlock to Sherman—or move Atlanta to Albania.

“Spoilers!” she said with a smirk.

WARNING: the next two sections contain very mild spoilers for the story. If you’re a savvy scifi reader you probably can read the following section without being spoiled because what IS being spoiled is only a minor surprise. However, if you are one of the people who HATE spoilers, skip to “Make Learning Explicit” … or run out and buy a copy of the UnCONventional anthology and read the last story in it. (Yes, that was a subtle—but entirely shameless—plug).

Pay Attention to Rhythm

Back with us? OK. Another sentence that leapt out at me was:

“You really think,” the sharply dressed man said, “a handful of steampunks armed with coffee and vodka are going to stop the zombie apocalypse?”

There’s nothing too bad with this sentence, but it still jarred me—because “the sharply dressed man” is a complex noun. I’m referring to this character with this mouthful of a name for several reasons:

  • Limited third person point of view: Jeremiah, our point-of-view character, doesn’t know his name—and therefore, the narrator, who doesn’t know any more than the POV character in limited 3rd person POV, doesn’t either.
  • Limited oxygen for limited screen time: The sharply dressed steampunk is a key but minor character, appearing in two and a half brief scenes with only a few lines. Naming him in this already complex story could distract the reader.

Major surgery could fix the problem: make the character more prominent and introduce him formally; cut the character out; give the line to someone else; come up with a shorter epithet. But there’s an easier trick to solve the problem:

“You really think,” said the sharply dressed man, “a handful of steampunks armed with coffee and vodka are going to stop the zombie apocalypse?”

The point of the dialogue tag in this sentence isn’t just to identify who’s speaking. It’s to break up the rhythm of the sentence so it reads the way it ought to be heard. The sentence is a secret in-joke, a riff off this line in Mortal Kombat:

“A handful of people on a leaky boat are going to save the world?”

Interjecting the dialogue tag into the sentence breaks up the reading, makes the reader pause in hearing at the right moment to make the quotable quote stand out. But the action that’s happening is speaking, and throwing a four word noun into the sentence completely derails the rhythm.  Why? A clue can be found from an earlier sentence with a very similar structure which did NOT disrupt my reading:

“This is a trick,” the sharply dressed man said. “Some kind of neon—”

The initial scrap of dialogue here—“This is a trick”—is a complete sentence. A reader knows it is speech from the quote marks, and expects to find a noun describing a speaker. But in the offending sentence, the initial scrap of dialogue—“You really think”—is NOT complete, forcing the reader to keep what the character said AND the character’s name in their mental buffer until the dialogue tag appears.

A better solution is to make the ‘said’ come first, easing the reader down off “You really think” by confirming that the reader has just read speech. Putting the verb first in this case reinforces the already existing expectation that the reader will encounter the name of a character, followed by a resumption of the dialogue which will complete the spoken sentence started with “You really think.”

Grammatically, switching the verb and the noun in a dialogue tag is almost always allowed, but it is not always recommended aesthetically. Consider:

“Give me a break,” he said.

versus

“Give me a break,” said he.

Ouch! If you don’t have a rhythmic (or other) reason to change the order of the dialogue tags … just stick to “he said.”

Stick to your guns

In several places in the story, the editors suggested I could get rid of dialogue tags to make the text shorter, smoother, and punchier. Here’s an example:

She brought this down on us.” Jeremiah stared into the wires feeding in to Jackson. “That big vacuum-tube enhanced brain of hers holds secrets of time travel not even the Scarab managed to discover in over a billion years.”

That paragraph works well, delivers its punch … but doesn’t sound like me. I want sentences to draw pictures with words. And for a sequence of actions, a sequence of short sentences without connectors can do that well:

Jeremiah darted forward. The nearest zombies stirred. Jeremiah shoved them aside. The remainder started to turn. Wayfarer sprayed them. Zombie eyes began to glow. Jeremiah reached Jackson and fumbled at her corset. The zombies raised their hands, crackling with power.

But when someone is speaking, action and speech are happening at the same time. The montage effect above works less well, perhaps because the dialogue lives in quotation space and the action lives in normal narrative space. That’s why I’d strongly consider changing the first paragraph above back to:

She brought this down on us,” Jeremiah said, staring into the wires feeding in to Jackson. “That big vacuum-tube enhanced brain of hers holds secrets of time travel not even the Scarab managed to discover in over a billion years.”

This weaves the action and the speech together so it’s clear they’re taking place at the same time. Your mileage may vary; there is nothing wrong with the version the editors recommended, and you could delete dialogue tags more extensively through the entire story without a fault. (Anthony waves to his editors, who did a great job!) But when I reread my own story, these dropped dialogue tags didn’t sound like ‘me.’

I find the very best edits are the ones that seem perfectly natural: the editor suggests it, and it goes so well with the story the words feel like your own. Sometimes this happens because the editor has nailed your voice; sometimes it happens because you have internalized the editor’s lesson. BUT, if a change doesn’t work for you, I think the right thing to do is say “stet” (Latin for “let it stand” and writer-editor jargon for “revert to original”). Trust me, editors are big boys and girls. They WANT authors to push back as much as they push authors, because the end result is a story that benefits from both the editor and the author’s best ideas.

Make Learning Explicit

You may agree or disagree with the recommendations I’ve made above. “Switching ‘said’ and ‘he’ for effect?” you might say. “Adding extra dialogue tags where none are needed? Adding extraneous material to a story at all? Heresy!” In fact, a few years from now, when I’ve grown more as a writer, I might say the same thing. But there’s a more general principle here which you can take advantage of even if our aesthetics don’t agree: use publication as an opportunity to make learning explicit.

People learn when they get feedback on their actions and try to improve based on it. If the feedback is timely and you don’t actively try to reject it, learning can be almost automatic. But you can’t always guarantee getting timely feedback—so sometimes you need to deliberately create a strategy that helps you improve.

So what I recommend is: when your work hits print, get a copy of it. Read it, marking anything you want to change. And then try to generalize what you’ve learned, so you can apply it to new stories in the future.

-the Centaur