NOTE: This post will be reposted with PDFs of the original and final versions of the story after the submission has been judged.
Isjaki may be the best story I’ve written yet. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is, and that if it isn’t my greatest accomplishment, then that spot would probably be taken by Kill Yourself. But Kill Yourself is a special story: it ran off my mind and onto the page, and required very little editing between the first draft and the version that was posted here.
This was not the case with Isjaki. True, as with most stories I write, the actual story being told remained very near identical throughout the editing process. Only specifics were changed, and the largest overall change can be found in that the narrative and style of prose were both stripped back and away from themselves.
Here, I want to discuss the stripping-down that took place, and how the specifics of that process resulted in a better story. I’ll discuss the following facets in-depth:
- The opening paragraph
- Specificity and verisimilitude
- Less is more
Drawing The Audience In: The First Paragraph
What a lot of people said about Isjaki was that it started off slow. It took a while to get the ball rolling, and, even though the payoff was good, the opening paragraph in particular was a little sluggish. So, let’s look at the original opening lines:
We’ve been sailing for some time now. We recently hit what we believe to be the northernmost part of the ocean, and we are keeping warm. My wife, Matilda, and I are making our ways forward through the misty, misty days, and the clearest of nights for each others’ sake, we suppose. We’ve nowhere else to be, you see. There was a larger vessel, once, which we’d sailed with the Archibalds, and with the Winterbottoms, and with the Tallises—but those days are over now. Those days of port, and of starboard, and of bows and sterns… cast aside. Matilda will only use “left” or “right” now, in speech or command, in what I see to be a protest against Angela Winterbottom’s strict regency that had once reigned as queen over the ship.
If we look at the specifics of this paragraph, it’s easy to understand the perceived “slowness” of it. The first four sentences don’t establish any specifics—only broad strokes of the tale we’re about to read—and they tend to repeat themselves a little (in that none of them say very much at all). The first sentence establishes a setting, but then the second sentence rehashes that setting, and adds a tiny piece of information. As such, the first sentence was cut pretty early on.
The second half of the original paragraph is actually pretty okay, though the last sentence is a little long-winded. “strict regency that had once reigned as queen over the ship” was easily reduced down to “strict regency”, because a regent naturally reigns and so that last part of the sentence is redundant.
The opening paragraph then became as such:
We have recently found what we believe to be the northernmost part of the ocean, and we are keeping warm. My wife, Matilda, and I are making our ways forward through the misty, misty days and the clearest of nights for each others’ sake, we suppose. There was a larger vessel once, which we’d sailed with the Archibalds, and the Winterbottoms, and the Tallises—but those days are over now. Those days of port, and of starboard, and of bows and sterns… cast aside. Matilda will only use “left” or “right” now, in speech or command, which I hear as a protest against Angela Winterbottom’s strict regency.
Now we encounter another issue: too much backstory before the setting is established at all. And still, the first two sentences are kind of repetitive. So, I killed my darlings, and here is what I ended up with:
We recently entered the northernmost part of the ocean, and we are keeping warm. Bundled up beside the gas lamp in the cabin, and looking at the light’s reflection on the window, we sail on. In the past we’d manned a larger vessel, with the Archibalds, and the Woodcombes, and the Tallises—but those days are over now. Those days of port, and of starboard, and of bows and sterns… cast aside. Matilda will only use “left” or “right” now, in speech or command, which I hear as a protest against Angela Woodcombe’s strict regency.
(Note: the name “Winterbottom” was replaced because my friend pointed out to me that it sounds like someone’s attempt to parody someone from Game of Thrones: ANGELA OF HOUSE WINTERBOTTOM and so on.)
Not only is this new opening 38 words shorter, but it also establishes tone and place more clearly before going back in time to establish the past. The second sentence is particularly good in the way that it describes the physical nature of their environment without using the word “boat”.
Showman-Ship (or, Why I Deserve To Punch Myself In The Face)
I’m pretentious. You know this. You read my shit. You read this journal. Sometimes I say shit for no reason other than I think it sounds cool, or poetic, or sentimental. I’m trying not do that, especially when I’m trying to tell a damn story. All my critics circle phrases on the page and ask: “But why are you saying this?”
It’s difficult for me to control this, since my mind is an entire mess of tangents—but, you know, I’ll work on it. For the best.
Another one of the repeated critiques I got in the last month of editing this story was that I let beauty get in the way of the story too often. That the beauty was already there, and that I didn’t have to shove it in everyone’s faces (more on this in the Less is More section).
In any case, here are a few of the sentences where I got carried away. The change is very slight in most cases, but I hope that some sense of its effect is communicated. Here they are, shown in the form of a literary Before/After snapshot, like an online fitness ad: fat and pale, tanned and muscle-bound.
The boat that Matilda and I now sail is not three, but four times smaller than that shining behemoth.
The boat that Matilda and I now sail is not three, but four times smaller than that sterling ship had been.
She stares upwards then, as she ever does, and when she sees me watching, she whispers.
She stares upwards then, as she always does, and when she sees me watching, she whispers.
I watch her fingertips dance in the morning air, in celebration of the storm’s passing, in the glorious light finding its way through the windows.
I watch her fingertips dance in the morning air, in celebration of the storm’s passing, in the light that finds its way through the windows.
We are moving, slightly. We are moving forward, and toward a large piece of ice that spirals and swirls and plateaus and points, and which beckons us closer, closer, closer, and has been this whole time, since we set out on this final voyage over a month prior, from our home waters and into the unknown.
We are moving, slightly. We are moving forwards and towards a large piece of ice that spirals and swirls and plateaus and points, which beckons us closer, closer, closer, and has been this whole time.
Sometimes, I am reading, and she is knitting (the click-click rhythm of her knitting needles grounding me somewhat), and we glance at each other for a while, and we know. And that’s all we need, you see.
Sometimes, I am reading and she is knitting, and we glance at each other for a while, and that’s all we need, you see.
TRUST YO READER FOO. Trust that the words you write will conjure a strong enough image, and allow the reader to do the rest. You do not need to use pretty words to paint a pretty picture. A gorgeous paintbrush does not paint a gorgeous picture—you simply need a well-selected and quality brush, and a hand with the skill to use it.
Specificity and Verisimilitude
Verisimilitude is a word my writing lecturer used in a piece of advice he gave me a few days ago. He said, in terms of polishing my story, that “you could drop in one or two more specific details about prepping a small boat for a storm here – show his familiarity and add a bit of verisimilitude.” In other words: I had to prove to the reader that this guy, Hank, really does sail a boat. So I had to use the right terminology, and work to describe actions that would be undertaken by someone who sails.
She is knitting me a sweater, you see. It is green, mostly, as are the ocean’s shallower regions.
She is knitting me a sweater, you see. It is mostly green, as are the shallower regions of the Scandinavian seas.
Here, establishing the colour of a specific place was important; it shows that the narrator has a history sailing, and memories of the parts of the world he’s travelled. The way that the memory is applied in this situation gives us not only the colour of the sweater, but also an idea of his character and his past. What you remember is a large part of who you are.
The following are both parts of the text strengthened by sailing terminology:
I hold Matilda’s hand as she comes across, and we look at our boat. Its blue hull, bobbing in the water, the mast extended but the sails down.
I hold Matilda’s hand as she comes across, and we look at our boat and its blue hull, bobbing in the water, the mast extended and the sails furled.
I run outside and tie everything down that isn’t already. I tension the mainsail and reef the rest. I pull on each sheet of fabric several times, just to be sure that they are taut. They are. I come inside and I slam the door. Bolt it. I gather our lifejackets by the bed.
I rush outside. Check the tension of the knots. Everything tied down. Drop the jib and reef the mainsail. Pull on the fabric several times. It is taut. I go inside and slam the door. Bolt it. I pray we do not hit a squall as I gather our lifejackets by the bed.
The last edit above is worth noting beyond its use of terminology. In addition to language choices, the structure of the passage and its individual sentences also contribute to the piece’s improvement. The use of short, tense sentences and hard noises give a sense of urgency, and, indeed, a rhythmic understanding of the storm that is going on. Tying style and content together is a glorious thing to do for the sake of literary merit.
This is the best lesson I’ve learned from the process of writing this story. Less is more, so long as you trust your audience. And now I do. The ending of my story was stripped down so much because of this, and I think the tale reads in a less-clunky way, now. The reader understands enough of what’s going on without having to be told too much, and that’s a real cool thing to achieve. So yeah, I’m kinda proud of this story.
I don’t really want to post the entire ending without context, since, until the competition’s been judged, I can’t post the piece online. So I’m gonna look at maybe one or two examples of less is more, and then deal with the rest some other time.
“If we were younger, we could crawl,” I say, gesturing at where the loop became too narrow for us to fit through.
“We still can,” she says.
“Oh, Matilda,” I say. “You know that we can’t.”
“If we were younger, we could crawl,” I say, gesturing at where the loop becomes too narrow to fit through.
“We still can,” she says.
“Oh, Matilda,” I say.
By omitting the final part of this passage, we see that Hank and Matilda understand each other—we understand that a simple “Oh, Matilda” is all that is needed, because these timeless lovers do not need to clarify things for one another. Underscoring an understanding through the unsaid is pretty important, I think, especially when you’re writing about a preexisting relationship.
She walks away, smiling back at me, her fingertips dancing again as the light coat of water jumps away from them in spots. I follow. We spend the day like this: walking around, passing each other by, watching ourselves constantly in the iceberg that always reflected us.
“This was the perfect place to come, my love.”
“I know,” I say.
She walks away, smiling back at me, her fingertips dancing again as the light coat of water jumps away from them in spots. I follow. We spend the day like this: walking around, passing each other by, watching ourselves constantly in the iceberg that always reflects us.
This is another piece of dialogue cut, right before a scene break. It was, once again, too much. The reader understands through the prose already that the couple are having a good time together—what is achieved by the characters speaking of this sensation? Nothing. Let feeling be inherent to the prose; what is unsaid is always more powerful, so long as what is said around it is strong enough.
I think the sentiment of “Less is More” really does summarise the entire process of editing Isjaki. What was saying was always clear, I think. The “point” of the story was always understood (people have had strong emotional responses to both the first and final drafts), but the way that the point was being made had to be fine-tuned and smoothed over. As such, the final draft is over 150 words shorter, and is a much cleaner piece of prose. There’s less clunk, less repetition of content/information, and fewer overwhelmingly long sentences for the reader to deal with.
And you know what? At the core of all this technical talk, there’s a story with real, actual emotions embedded in it. And you know why that is? Because I wrote this story with a feeling in mind, and for a person who inspires that feeling, and for the sake of expressing that. So perhaps what is being expressed is more important than how it’s expressed—but at the end of the day, if you’re writing well, then that expression is more vivid, and then the emotions inspired are more raw.
And what more can we hope for, as writers, than raw?