Here are the comments from my editor and consultant on my “manuscript,” what I call “the story.” She read every word and understood what I was trying to do. That, all by itself, is satisfying. I have linked to my comments. The bottom line, is that she gave me a lot of really good thoughts and questions for me to work with.
Anyone who has paid attention would know that I have worked, practiced, writing like Hemingway. That came through and I am glad for that, not because I’ll ever be a Hemingway, but because my efforts to be spare in prose were picked up by a skilled writer and editor.
I’ll go with funny over heady intellectual stuff. She said it may be satire. If only. Swift wrote Satire. Here it is. Enjoy.
Thank you for sharing your manuscript with me. It represents a huge amount of thought and effort on your part, and it’s an epic feat to have reached the end of a draft, especially if you don’t consider yourself a writer.
The first thing I’ll say about the manuscript is that I didn’t realize this book would be so experimental—or so funny![RV1] Both elements held my attention throughout. The book’s originality, imaginativeness, and absurd wit (not to mention some of its cultural specificity) gives it a great deal of mileage that I think could easily see it through the next revision (or two, or five, or twelve, because that’s the way of revision). I also find the intersection of both high and lowbrow elements in the lives of these characters appealing.[RV2]
That said, I do think there’s a significant amount of revision—and in some cases reconceptualization[RV3] —to to grapple with in order for this story to become its highest self. But this is par for the course[RV4] . I’m going to break things down into some major categories here:
Focus: An important consideration from the get-go is, Who’s story is this[RV5] ? The implicit contract that this book makes at the outset is that it will be the story of the male protagonist, and to an extent the female protagonist, with a bit from their daughter. Occasionally there will be some odd, outside perspectives informing the central narrative of these three. Obviously, it’s important to know the backstory of all the parentage involved, but in some places, we go off the map of the primary characters’ lives as an omniscient narrator (who knows about the world from their parents’/grandparents’ perspectives or someone else entirely) takes over. My feeling is that this approach sometimes dilutes the focus [RV6] (you’ll see notes about this in the text). In many cases, the cure for this outcome is sometimes clarifying the point of view[RV7] , and to funnel info through the knowledge/perspective/memory of the viewpoint character in any given moment. In other cases (such as the scenes with Florence and the dad), the presence of those extra viewpoints[RV8] might not be necessary. We can discuss.
Organization: You’ve developed a nontraditional, nonlinear and sometimes postmodern narrative. This is of course more challenging to work with (both for writer and editor!) but I am certainly willing to accept a nontraditional organizing principle if it enhances the story or if there seems to be a clear reason for doing so.
Thus far, I have mixed feelings about this approach. At times, having my expectations about structure undercut (or the undercutting of the release of important info, or even who/what the controlling intelligence of the story is) was quite enjoyable[RV9] . At other times, I found myself searching for the internal logic underpinning the nonsequential approach and found myself craving [RV10] for at least some of the material to be a little more chronological. I think that the reveal about the two characters’ familial connection, in particular, is going to need some rethinking (more on that below, and you’ll see notes about this as well in the text). In any case, I’d like to hear more about why you chose this approach, and whether you intend any thematic or intellectual meaning to arise from this sort of architecture[RV11].
Character Development: I love both of these ridiculously brainy main characters (and the daughter is great too), and you do an excellent job of playing them off of one another and allowing them their humanity, even when they go to extremes. In most cases[RV12] , we have a clear sense of what they want, and what gets in the way of what they want, and what is ultimately at stake for them. One thing I do find myself craving[RV13] , however, especially in the early chapters, is something that’s exceptionally important for developing a well-rounded character: access to the characters’ interior worlds. Granted, there are a few amusing early insights in the first couple of chapters, but overall I find that we don’t have much of that access, esp. for the male protagonist. In fact, I would say that the style of this book is very Hemingway-esque, which sometimes conveys an effective restraint and a good instinct for implication, but is other times frustrating.[RV14] Though we don’t need to know absolutely everything, we do need to know more in order to be fully invested in these characters. I’ve marked a number of places in the text where I’d like to get at a character’s interior. I’ve also marked a number of places where I do think we need to know more about a given character or moment in the story[RV15] . Always, the addition of concrete sensory details (what the character sees, hears, smells, etc. in the moment) will always ground a character into a scene, so that they don’t becoming a disembodied talking head.
In terms of at least one of the minor characters: You will also see in my notes that I think that—for better or worse—the presence of Sabine Ulibarrí (! my professor, too!) just isn’t earning its place[RV16] , and his presence also raises certain ethical issues. I’m sorry to have to say this, because there is clearly something personally meaningful to you to about including him, but the reason for his presence isn’t clear to the reader on a number of levels and isn’t gelling with the narrative. I’m afraid he might be part of the lard that needs to be cut from this recipe in order to prepare the tastiest dish.
That brings us to….
Plot[RV17] : I think the moments that the reader connects most deeply with the story is when we have a clear sense of plot, in the scenes that are not only played out in real time, but that are clearly part of a sequence of cause and effect, even if that sequence is presented nonsequentially. These moments are stronger than the ones that seem to float in time and space and whose purpose mostly seems to be to convey some more academic idea. In other words (you’ll see notes on this in the ms.), beware of imposing Big Ideas [RV18] from the top down, instead of letting them arise organically from the experiences that result from the choices the characters make (e.g., cause and effect). Top-down attempts most often feel artificial or heavy-handed to the reader.
Next up, let’s discuss a very important development in the plot: The revelation of the two main characters’ relationship to one another. I think the larger issue to consider is where the best place in the narrative for this reveal would be. Right now, the narrative treats this revelation like it needs to be the end-all, be-all bombshell at the end of the book[RV19] …but I would submit to you that that’s not really the emotional heart of the novel, and that the reader knows something is up for so long—just not the exact details of it—that it really doesn’t come as much of a surprise, and it seems to pull the weight of the ending off-center. I think it would be worth considering releasing that info much earlier in the narrative—in effect, undercutting the readers’ expectations in yet another way—and just allowing us to see how your characters have dealt over the course of their lives with what some people would consider a relationship-ending revelation. Alternatively, you could still drop this on the reader as a bit of a surprise in the second half of the book, as another highpoint beat of the story, but just not the ending beat[RV20] . [And do note some important character development considerations: in terms of the buildup to this, on p. 43 there is some intimation of how the female protagonist knows that her mother isn’t her mother etc., but even by the end of the book, the details of this remain unexplained. How/when did her mother die, why did her father cut her off from the rest of her family, why did her stepmother leave (and why did she not maintain contact, if she was raising the female protagonist as her own and presumably had a meaningful relationship with her, and how does the female protagonist feel about that? [RV21] It seems to me that there might be a number of issues surrounding trust and abandonment to be explored, both in relation to her mother and her daughter.) We are also completely lacking any direct contact with the male protagonist’s parents[RV22] , and any references to/memories of Florence early on, laid as breadcrumbs, so that when all the dots are connected, things feel resonant instead of convenient.]
Let’s also discuss a particular element you’re employing in the service of your plot: The Breaking of the Fourth Wall. I love this outside-of-the-box thinking, though depending on what happens in revision, I think your story could be told either with or without this device. What I will say is that, if it stays, I think you should leave the explanatory, self-referential “I” out of it as much as possible (you’ll see notes about this) and let it become clear through context that, say, the author is having a conversation with either the reader or one of his characters, and just let the material otherwise speak for itself. Otherwise you run the risk of bumping the reader out of the continuous dream of the story in a way I don’t think is useful.
On that note, I have mixed feelings re: the interviews/direct conversations with the female character. It’s clever and fun, but in addition to disrupting the story, it tends to pulls the focus out of balance, in that you establish this story as being primarily the male protagonist’s, [RV23] even if we do get the woman’s point of view and that of others. At the very least, if this convention stays, I think you’re also going to have to directly debrief with your male character as well—and shorten the existing conversations considerably (I made suggestions).
Scene: As you’ll see from my notes, it’s important to grasp that important moments in a story need to take place in scene (that is, in the real-time of the story, as opposed to summary), and that scenes end when something “happens” and the status quo of the moment shifts in some way. There are a number of scenes in this book that aren’t yet true scenes. You’ll also want to note that most scenes are at their strongest when they begin, and end, in the middle of the action (the great classic rule is: Get in late, get out early). You’ll see that some longer or more important scenes (especially in the final chapters of the book), I applied a much heavier line-editing hand, so that you can see in particular the tendency of the scenes going on too long at times (thus diluting their innate power), and how doing less in some cases really does allow your meaning to come through much more forcefully through implication. [RV24]
Backstory: As a corollary, some kind of backstory/exposition is always a necessary to a story, but: Keep in mind that it’s always important to establish the action and the conflict, in the moment, before you give in to the impulse to explain everything that happened to bring us to this moment. See notes[RV25] .
Dialogue: Really, the most important function of dialogue is to increase dramatic tension—and that is achieved primarily by showing the tension/difference between what is said and what is thought. This requires access to the viewpoint character’s thoughts in any given moment. Overall, dialogue should be used sparingly (although I give these characters more leeway than usual, owing to their hyper-academic personae) in order to avoid exhausting the reader. That said, also remember to avoid using Dialogue as Mouthpiece. This is going to be particularly true anytime you have someone pontificating about an academic or philosophical topic. The real meaning of any passage of dialogue lies between the lines.
Permissions: And now, I must bring up something that is probably going to be exceedingly painful to hear. The use of song lyrics in a work of literature requires obtaining permissions from whoever holds the rights to them. Every single permission—if you can track down the pertinent recording entity, and if they even respond, which they notoriously almost never do—requires money, and getting the permission falls squarely on the shoulders of the author, not the publisher. In the rare cases that permissions are granted, it’s only going to be for a line or two—most definitely not for the better part of a song. I hate to break it to you, but there is no way you will be ever to obtain all the permissions for the song lyrics you invoke in this book—the sheer volume of them is just too great.
However! You should take heart in knowing that I don’t think you need them[RV26] . Why? Despite the fact that, for the author, they evoke a time and place and contain deep personal meanings, they are more often than not being used in the text as a shortcut to describe and stand in for the protagonist’s feelings—I see this kind of usage a lot, in manuscripts that are heavy on song lyrics—when the protagonist actually just needs to be made to work harder to access his own take on his feelings himself. Otherwise, none of the feelings come across as concrete and “earned” (I’d liken it to giving someone a Hallmark card that expresses a specific sentiment, rather than struggling to come up with your own unique words. In this case, both the author and his characters are clearly articulate enough to access and express complex, unique thoughts.) And so, although you will have to reconfigure some of the material and do some workarounds, I think you should feel very good about the fact that I think there is more than enough story to sustain this book even without invoking them[RV27] . Those that do feel necessary to the moment can be summarized or paraphrased or otherwise alluded to without directly quoting them (other than, maybe, a very short, incomplete phrase, which should be done sparingly).
In conclusion: The last thing I’ll leave you with is a reading recommendation: Have you read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad ? Either your book has been influenced by that one, or you need to read that one, stat. These are loosely linked stories (less so than yours) that make brilliant use of both sequential and nonsequential timelines, with a few postmodern elements. It even eventually shifts genres.
BTW, in case you were wondering? You wrote the draft of a novel. Therefore, you’re a writer. : )
And so, I offer my very best wishes for this book as you move forward with it. It will have as much life as you wish to give it!
[RV1]I am happy about it being funny.
[RV2]This is encouraging.
[RV3]Throughout, I think my agreement will be evident. In many respects I overloaded the wheelbarrow and at the same time left a lot out it.
[RV4]That is encouraging.
[RV5]I need to make a decision here. What happened is that it began as her story, then I shifted to autobiographical fiction, then she stole the show. So it has become a frame tale: The narrator begins with his story but then her story is so compelling that it drew me in. I fell in love with her character, which explains the 4th wall break. I’ll contend with that later.
[RV6]I’m looking forward to these notes and agree that I was all over the place and some concentration is warranted.
[RV7]A major decision and probably a highly personal and emotional one – maybe. I usually struggle with these kinds of decisions then it just clicks and makes sense.
[RV8]I’m very curious about this and whether this breaks the “dream” as you mention later.
[RV9]When? I’m curious where that worked and whether and how to emphasize it or let it go.
[RV10]This was an intended effect of the approach. And it is a great word. But it is aiming extraordinarily high for someone with little skill and experience. I’m not in a position to make a reader work for it; but that’s a big question here.
[RV11]It is both personal and intellectual. It is hiding Easter eggs. The intention was to create a nagging sense that, “Wait a minute, I think she mentioned something about a screed door before.” If the book was being held in hand, I’d like to see a reader flipping back and forth trying to place something. The story is supposed to be a journey, a Bildungsroman, a pilgrimage (hence the Aeneas and Dante connection) and I want there to be a sense of emerging meaning rather than it being served up whole. I think of how annoying the Odyssey was to me as a teen ager: “C’mon, just go home already!” but how magical it was; Penelope weaving and unraveling her tapestry.
The other is personal. Am I worth pursuing? Will you follow me? As with most people attempting creative production, I would guess there is some personal crisis at work. This is mine, wanting to be seen, yet not sure whether I want the responsibility of being seen. I feel like an “LOL” is needed here. LOL.
[RV12]When is this and when does it not work? It’s good news that it gets through.
[RV13]That word again. And again, the question is have I earned enough credibility to play keep away from a reader.
[RV14]Hemingway is the biggest influence here along with Salinger. I practiced for a long time writing like Hemingway because I have way too much “interior world” going on. I may have overcorrected.
[RV15]Thank you. This will help.
[RV16]This idea, of including the professor in the story somehow and even to her, came to me literally in the last moments before I shipped the story to you. I don’t know where it came from, but it was as last-minute indulgence, an effort to connect with him somehow. I guess I am fascinated about the idea of weaving real people and historical characters into fiction. This is important because I want to force the idea of “real” and “fiction” as both constructs. This, again, is personal and intellectual. I have another chapter written in which I make up an outcome for a historical character and weave that back in. Again, high level of difficulty and probably difficult to pull off for the best technician.
[RV17]What you’ve picked up – not surprisingly – is my profound aversion to and disregard for plot. This is probably because I am not good at it and I find it embarrassing. Weird example: I love singing karaoke, but when I went to the old Sorry Charlie’s years ago, I could barely sing a song with a piano. I find plot exhausting, like doing math problems. So I resist it. So I may have resorting to something gimmicky to get out of it.
[RV18]I agree that this may have been ham handed; I’m curious whether the personal and ideological feud between him and her gets too in the weeds. They need to be in a continual feud, but the ideological stuff is sort of shadow boxing.
[RV19]It was intended that way, but your observations are persuasive. The thought was that the reader would get an inkling, and then at the end would realize, “Oh shit, they’re cousins!” This may have been my plotphobia driving this element.
[RV20]I am beginning to like this idea. I guess I felt that the twist at the end would carry the whole thing. Maybe an overcorrection, like a bone thrown to the plot gods.
[RV21]This was somewhat intentional to create that craving you mentioned. Again, probably an overreach for me, but I kept telling myself, “These questions will be answered in the sequel.” Like there’s going to be a sequel.
[RV22]I am interested in adding these in if it will bear the weight. Another reason I constructed the thing non-sequentially is the idea that it could be added to continuously.
[RV23]I mentioned this above and I am not entirely sure why I deployed this other than I deeply appreciate films and literature when the wall is broken. I guess this is part of the deliberate effort to undermine the notion that there is a difference between what is “real” and what is “fiction;” we get to make up our own story. The idea of the character becoming a muse to me might just be an entirely different story. Again, maybe doing too many things.
[RV24]I think I get your distinction but it’s really important for me to learn this and get it down as a technique. I probably don’t have this down since I haven’t formally studied literature or writing in a long time.
[RV25]Same as right above re: technique.
[RV26]Busted! This was cheating on my part. Because I went all Hemmingway, I felt like the music would do exactly what you suggest, create and describe feelings. And I love corny montages – love them – like Rocky running around Philadelphia. Here as in film, the montage functions as a shortcut, a way of pumping up the emotions of the audience. I still like that, but appreciate your point that I can take off the training wheels here.
[RV27]This is good news, and doesn’t interfere with how much of this writing was inspired by music – I can find a way to work with it.