Sunday, October 1, 2017

Editing Roald Dahl

This is going to seem presumptuous as hell, but there's a point to it. Who am I, Writer McNobody, to suggest changes to the great Roald Dahl? Well, that's not exactly what I'm saying. Dahl IS great. I'm not arguing that. And I wouldn't want to change a word that he wrote.

Unless he were trying to get published today.

What I'm saying has more to do with something I suggested a few months ago, something having to do with not having read a lot of modern fiction until very recently. A lot of people who start writing have read a lot of fiction, but a good portion of what we've read is older. We've read a lot of the type of stuff we were assigned in school. I know when I first started writing, I'd read more 19th-Century literature than all other literature put together.

The 19th Century is great. Melville is great. I wouldn't change a word of Moby Dick. But you couldn't write Moby Dick today and get it published. You couldn't write Shakespeare today and get it published. Right or wrong, each generation has certain expectations it has to write to. As much as journals love it when someone turns those expectations on their heads, there are still some things you just can't do. In the 19th Century, journals often paid by the word, which lead to florid sentences. That was part of the expectation of editors and readers. But if you tried to write a story now with a bunch of seven-line sentences, you'd be rejected before the first page was up, unless you were writing something that explicitly channeled the age, such as John Knowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Same goes for the early-to-mid 20th Century. There are things writers from that age did that tend to have a low reputation among editors nowadays. You can argue with me that this is stupid, that the currently approved lit-fic conventions are terrible and banal and lead to literature that all sounds the same. You can argue that, but if you stick to your guns and write like O. Henry or Roald Dahl or Dash Hammett or Ring Lardner because that's what you read in your teens or whenever your introduction to great literature came, you're probably facing an uphill slog getting your short stories published. So fight me if you want. I'm just the messenger here of what editors are looking for.

Two things to avoid

I just read Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter" this week, because my son was assigned it for his English class. Two things stand out about it that, as much as I enjoy them in Dahl, I would advise writers to avoid now if they want to get published in a good literary journal.

1. The "dark and stormy night" beginning. Okay, Dahl's opening here isn't hackish like "it was a dark and stormy night," but it is a cold start onto scene setting: "The room was warm, the curtains were closed, the two table lamps were lit." Now, right after that, we get action, so this might not really be a problem, but I see a lot of stories come in as an editor that go on with scene-setting for a page or more. There was a time when this was a standard way to begin a story. ("A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight...") But nowadays, there is an expectation that right from the jump, you're going to start to establish not only mood and scene, but also character and, if possible, a unique voice. Generally speaking, it's advisable to give an opening line that introduces the people we'll be getting to know. If possible, make it sound like no other opening line ever, so we know that there is also something special about the people we're about to meet. That's expecting a lot, and maybe it does lead to cookie-cutter fiction by making every opening line predictably unpredictable. But that's sort of what's expected. Don't believe me? Here are the opening lines from the first ten short stories in this year's Pushcart Prize anthology:

1) I was once a star on YouTube.
2) Full disclosure up front: I am a gay black man, a proud New Orleanian, thirty years old, five out of the closet, a decade on the down-low before that; bi-dialectical as every educated brother in this city must be, a code-switcher as needed; a poet in my spare time, in my unspare time a poetry teacher devoted to dead French guys and live black ones.
3) My former daughter-in-law is sitting in the next room eating cookies off a plate.
4) Barnes Hollow was actually Jason something, but no one dreamed of calling him that.
5) Afterward, Eva turns her face to the wall and falls asleep immediately, smacking her lips like a newborn.
6) It's the middle of the night and the woman can't sleep.
7) Her parents always said they'd dig their own graves if anything ever happened to their children, so when her sister Claire disappeared on a camping trip in the White Mountains, Elsie kept at eye on things.
8) He lived in a world of grease, and no matter how often he bathed, which was once a day, rigorously--and no shower but a drawn bath--he smelled of carnitas, machaca, and the chopped white onion and soapy cilantro he folded each morning into his pico de gallo.
9) Joan had to look beautiful.
10) When Father Tom comes to a party, people look embarrassed, even the ones who invited him.

As you can see, you don't have to necessarily have fireworks going off. Most of these are actually rather modest starts. But one thing they all have in common is that the people in them are in sentence number one. We eventually will get setting, but that's not where we start. We start with people, normally. I'm sure you can find exceptions. I'm not telling you not to break the rules. I'm telling you what the rules are.

2. The plot twist as the story's raisson d'etre. Plot twists are great. I'm sure a lot of the stories we all grew up loving were built around plot twists. "The Gift of the Magi" comes to mind. (I just re-read that not long ago. It honestly stands up pretty well to the test of time.) But you can't make the plot twist the thing on which your whole story stands. In Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter," we get three moments where the plot turns: the man tells his wife some secret, probably that he is leaving her and their unborn child for another woman; she murders him with a frozen lamb leg; and then she feeds the murder weapons to the police who worked with her husband.

Again, I'm not saying Dahl's story is some cheap one-trick thing. It's a strong character study of a woman who puts too much of her own self-worth into how her husband feels about her, a story of a woman treated badly but who finds, suddenly, that she has the emotional reserves necessary to bring about her own resolution. If the story doesn't resonate with us today quite as much as it might have with readers in 1953, that's because we're now used to stories of abused women fighting back. It's like expecting us to be impressed with the special effects from Ben Hur.

But that's not the problem for a modern writer who would try to build a whole story around a plot twist. You can certainly have plot twists, but if we feel that's the whole reason you offered us a story, if that's what was gnawing at you until it spilled out of you into words on the page, then an editor is going to feel you've cheated him, that you didn't really have that much to say. The plot, in modern fiction, is a result of two things: what the author throws at the character, and how the character reacts. If the editor feels that the end result of your story was something you had in mind from the beginning without pausing to get input from your characters, then you're going to get a polite letter thanking your for your story, which isn't quite right for the journal right now.

And so, I offer this simple edit:

In order to make it not feel like Dahl is trying to spring surprise on us as the main draw of his story, and also to make the story open on Mary, rather than the setting, I would simply suggest that he change his opening sentence, if Dahl were alive and unknown today and trying to get his story published. I'd offer these two sentences: "The day Mary Maloney killed her husband with a leg of lamb, she was sitting with equanimity on the couch in front of the curtains, which were closed. The room was warm, and the two table lamps were lit." Now, it no longer seems like Dahl is trying to shock the reader with a plot twist more characteristic of mystery genre fiction than literary fiction. He's fine from there. Mary is still a fully realized character, and interesting for the way she reacts to her whole world being blown up with a few words uttered off camera. 

So there you have it. Open on people and don't make a surprise ending the whole draw of the story. Mock me if you wish for suggesting a legend should change to suit my dull tastes. Just keep some of what I said about those dull tastes in mind if you're trying to get published in a journal of serious fiction.  


  1. Replies
    1. I jumped eras there. The 19th Century was florid. But then, I was talking about 20th Century people, who had a whole different aesthetic. You're closer to today if you ape Lardner, of course, but probably still won't have much luck.

  2. how to explain a bore like umberto eco? clearly, it matters what genre. Whenever I find some recommended modern great, it all reads rather trite and obvious to me: perhaps the market driven aesthetic.