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The Editor's View August 04


John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

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Go easy on the hooptedoodle, exclamation marks and those modifying words. . .

IF YOU run a short story competition – or one for poetry – and you receive 100 entries you will make one friend – the winner – and disappoint 99 others. That is one of the first lessons you learn when judging a competition.

And many times you long to be able to say to some of the entrants – look, try it this way. That’s one of the benefits of our own competitions: we do give feedback and many authors take on board the advice, re-submit and win.

That affords us a great deal of satisfaction.

Rejection is just as much part of competition writing as submitting work to magazines and publishers.

Few competitors realise that writing is about re-writing – and re-writing and re-writing. Hemingway was once asked why he re-wrote the ending of one of his books 56 times. To get it right, he replied. The best authors re-write.

They do not expect to get it perfect at the first time of asking but many beginners do no more than get a good idea, make a few notes and then sit down and write it.

What they miss is one important fact:

Whether you are writing for a publisher or a competition judge you must be your own most exacting editor. You must work to a plan to consider every word in a short story.

Not for nothing do many established professional writers consider that it is harder to write a good short story than a novel. Every word must count.

When you write a short story do you have a checklist? Do you go through the story line by line or do you just run it through the spell checker and think that is good enough? It isn’t. Let’s have a few tips on editing.

The first question is easy. Has the author achieved what he or she set out to do? We assume that like the great P D James advised us, we are here to entertain the reader.

So have we entertained the reader? Have we made the reader think? Have we informed the reader?

Or is what we have written merely a dressed-up anecdote or some episodic adventure? It’s worth writing down a few headings and checking through your story.

OPENING: Is it dynamic? Does it set the scene? Does it grab the reader demanding that he should read on? Three quarters of any editor’s work concerns beginnings and endings. Without a good opening your story will sink into the reject pile.

TITLE: Original? Hackneyed? Provocative?

CHARACTERS: Stories, we are constantly told, must be character-driven. If so, characters must be memorable.

Remember we are talking about homo fictus – not homo sapiens. Memorable characters must by definition be larger than life. What about your subordinate characters? Remember somebody has to get the Oscar for best supporting actor. Too many beginners neglect the subsidiary characters in their stories.

THEME: Are you writing about something which really matters? This is as germane for a story in The Lady or the New Yorker as it is for your local circle competition.

ENTERTAINMENT: I cannot improve on P D James who said that once she realised she was in the entertainment business she began to succeed. Remember you make a contract with the reader – your story for his time and money. Is he getting a good deal?

DIALOGUE: A simple test: is it obvious who is speaking if you remove all the he said, she saids? It should be. If not, re-write it. Record it. And listen.

LANGUAGE: Writers are the guardians of the English language. If you break the rules know why you are doing it. It’s a rich language. Poets know that they want the perfect word in the perfect place. It’s no surprise that many good poets are good tellers of short stories.

AND THE ENDING: So important. It should not fizzle out. It should not be an anti climax. It should not be all revealed as a dream. But it does not necessarily have to tie up all the ends. Life is not like that.

Now could a producer make a film from your story without talking to you? Could your friends easily cast your hero or protagonist from a list of actors?

Have you answered the basic Kipling questions: who, what, why, when, where and how?

Do you need to? Perhaps not.

Have you utilised the senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch and that crime author’s favourite – the sixth sense?

Now here is some advice from the great Elmore Leonard – one of America’s finest crime writers. This is what he wrote for his ten tips:

Go easy on the adverbs, exclamation marks and especially the hooptedoodle.

1 Never open a book with weather.

2 Avoid prologues. There’s a prologue in Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday and a character in the book says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy’s that talking looks like. I want to figure that out from the way he talks . . . I like some description but not too much of that . . . sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story."

You don’t have to be a genius to hear the voice of Steinbeck here.

3 Never use a word other than said to carry dialogue.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the word said.

5 Keep your exclamation marks under control.

6 Never use the words suddenly or all hell broke loose.

7 Use regional dialects sparingly.

8 Avoid over-detailed descriptions of characters.

9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things unless you are Margaret Atwood.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. My most important rule is: If it sounds like writing re-write it. I cannot allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not to distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

We cannot all rival Maupassant or Chekhov, Hemingway or Margaret Atwood; William Trevor or V S Naipaul. But we can try. If you remember nothing else from Elmore Leonard, just remember:

Go easy on the hooptedoodle.


John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


Read the article about setting up WritersServices which was originally published in Writers' Forum magazine.

© Writers International Ltd 2004. Reproduced from the December-January edition of Writers' Forum magazine by kind permission of the editor.