We had the children’s writer and poet, my old friend Nick Dowson to talk to us at the ‘Facets of Fiction’ group meeting last week. Nick writes for Walker Books, (check out Tigress, Panda, & North), and told us about the process of creating and developing a title for publication. In particular he talked about the value of an editor, and especially one with whom you have a good working relationship. My own experience of that has been with Loree Westron, organiser of the International Postgraduate Short Story Forum on which you may have seen some of my essays on short story form. I’ve contributed well over dozen articles to her site over the last year or so, and right from the start Loree has taken the trouble to iron out wrinkles, flag-up incoherencies and generally keep me on the straight and narrow. M ore than that, she has made sure that where possible I have been successful in communicating what it is I am trying to communicate. She has taken on the role of a good editor, and helped me to say what I am trying to say. This has been a co-operative venture, a process of negotiation and conversation, of mutual respect and trust, and I know that I owe to her, a debt of gratitude not only for improving my competence, but also for increasing my confidence in what I might write, and indeed write about.
There have been essays where Loree had even added sentences, and when I came to read the revised versions, I had to look to the originals to find which were her words instead of mine. Not just a matter of getting it right about what I was striving to say, but doing it so closely to the way I would have done it, I couldn’t tell the difference. That’s what I think of as a really good editor.
Of course, it doesn’t always work like that. Take the case of the National Flash Fiction Day related site, Flash Fiction World (http://www.flash-fiction-world.com ). They have an editor too, and he’s written a little essay about himself. He kindly took one of my stories for use on the site, and a few days ago I took the chance to read it. It wasn’t as good as I remembered it. In fact, though all the events seemed to be in place, and the characters were the same, it seemed to have lost what I thought of as its sparkle. Perhaps, I thought, it was those irritating speech-marks my generation got into the habit of using, and which I have banned from my writing for the past few years. If you can’t tell when, or who is speaking with out the fingers flexing in the air, it means I’m not making a proper job of it, or you’re not paying attention, or I’m wanting to leave you wondering. But that wasn’t the problem. There was something about the music of the piece that had altered, and when I got right to the end, which as you know, is where I believe a short story stand or falls, there was a sentence break of such inelegant clumsiness that I knew that I couldn’t have written it like that, at least, not and let it go uncorrected. It was then that I had the thought that the chap must have taken something out. Hadn’t he said something about being confident he could make minor adjustments without needing to seek authorial agreement?
So, I went back and compared with the original. There are about ten ‘and’s removed from my story; ten connections between sentences, and paragraphs, where the writing was to add to what had just been said, rather than to follow it. In their places? Full stop after full stop. The story brought to a halt again and again, started up again and again, like putting traffic lights on a motorway. Now, removing a single ‘and’ is no great crime, when the sense is not changed, but if you find near on a dozen, you might think it might occur to someone that so many are there for a purpose. In fact, David Lodge says somewhere that style is fundamentally something that is done often enough to get noticed as being out of the ordinary. This ‘editor’ takes out a ‘then’ too, which was doing a similar job, just to be consistent I imagine, and substitutes a ‘Manx explained’ towards the end of a sequence that had begun with ‘and Manx said’. If you think it worth your time, I’d be interested to hear which version you prefer. You can read his story at (http://www.flash-fiction-world.com/the-turkey-cock.html ), and mine below:
The Turkey Cock
By Brindley Hallam Dennis
The taxi rank was tucked against the wall downhill from the station. Two women laden with shopping bags were climbing into the last taxi. Manx loitered awkwardly on the pavement, waiting for the next one to pull up. A little man with bird bright eyes followed him down and stood beside him.
You must be a clever bloke, the little man said, pointing to Manx’s briefcase, and staring into his eyes.
Not especially, Manx said, feeling uncomfortable.
Oh, I’m sure you are, the little man said, still staring and stepping closer. I bet you’re very clever indeed.
I’m just average, Manx said, smiling.
No, no, the little man insisted. I’m sure you’re very, very clever. Why would you need one of those otherwise?
I might have my sandwiches in it, Manx said.
You see! You are clever. That’s a very clever thing to say, in a situation like this. Why I bet you’re clever enough to talk your way out of anything. He was standing so close now that Manx could smell the beer on his breath.
I don’t know about that.
Now, me, I’m sure you’d think I was a stupid man, wouldn’t you?
I’m sure you’re not stupid.
Are you now? Are you really? Manx said nothing more, but that was not enough. It had gone beyond the point of saying nothing. I think that’s what you think I am, the little man said, stepping up so close that he and Manx were almost touching. You think I’m stupid.
I think you’re a bully, Manx said.
I said, I think you’re a bully. The little man took a pace back. I think you like to bully people with briefcases, because you think they’ll let you.
I think you enjoy it. The little man almost stopped, but he could not.
Who the fuck do you think you are? No one important, Manx said, turning towards the next taxi, which had just pulled up beside them.
Don’t fuckin’ turn your back on me, the little man shouted, and he made a grab for Manx’s sleeve.
And Manx dropped the briefcase, and pulled away, and grasped the little man by his wrist, and twisted it, so that the little man’s arm was locked out straight; and Manx swung him round, and almost instinctively, for the first time since he’d done Judo as a kid, he swept his right foot round in a curve, like some fancy dance move, and took the little man’s legs from beneath him; and as the little man fell, he turned him, using the twisted arm, which he now held firmly in both hands, as a lever. And the little man landed face down on the pavement with his arm pulled taut and vertical behind him, and with Manx’s foot pressed against his ribs.
And Manx knew for the first time in his life the wild joy of having another living thing entirely within his power, and the little man said, I’ll fucking kill you, you bastard. And Manx twisted the arm, putting the weight of his body behind it, and the little man screamed, and Manx felt something give, inside the little man’s shoulder, and it reminded him of something but he could not remember what.
And Manx said, that’s not what I want to hear, and the little man’s eye, because the side of his face was pressed hard against the pavement, looked up at him like a bird’s.
And Manx said, I want you to say, please don’t hurt me, but the little man said, fuck you Jack.
And Manx pressed down with his foot and felt something brittle crack, and he pulled harder against the arm, and he could feel the little man’s muscles tearing.
And the little man screamed and shouted please don’t hurt me, but Manx said, it’s gone beyond that now, and the little man’s eye filled with tears and there was the sudden sour smell of faeces.
And Manx said, you’ve shit yourself, but don’t be embarrassed, because that often happens in situations like this, and the little man screamed more desperately than before.
Then the taxi driver, who’d witnessed it all, and had got out of his cab, which might in other circumstances have been a foolish thing to do, said, you’ve done enough, mate, don’t you think?
And Manx looked at him, and knew he was right; but then he remembered what it was that twisting the arm had reminded him of, and he also remembered running away from a bully when he was at school, and he gripped the arm tighter and twisted it as hard as he could, and he felt it come away, just like the turkey leg had at Christmas, and the man on the ground stopped screaming, and heaved a great sigh, as if he really did regret everything, and Manx thought to himself, that however clever he was, he wasn’t clever enough to talk himself out of this one.