Less is Best, Mr. Nabokov
(Originally appeared on McSweeney's, July 20 2001)
In April I submitted Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Torpid Smoke” to seven online manuscript evaluation services. Other than changing the title to “Russian Smoke” and Nabokov’s name to Jonathan Shade, I left the piece unaltered. My online editors had some praise for the story, but also some suggestions on how to improve it. They each charged between three and fifteen dollars for their services.
If the first sentence in any writing is too long, you’ve lost your reader before you’ve begun. A first sentence needs to grab the reader by being terse, shocking and/or raise questions the reader simply must know the answer to. Your first sentence, while vivid, is simply too long. It needs to be broken into shorter sentences to get the story moving right away.
Don’t overwhelm your readers with extraneous description. You have to leave something to the imagination of the reader, especially these days. In the past, this overly descriptive writing has worked, but sadly, we live in an era where the attention span (even of a voracious reader) is not quite what it used to be.
A good way to get a piece moving is to make the action more immediate and exciting: “The streetlamps hanging in the dusk suddenly blinked on all the way to Bayerischer Platz. Every object in the dark (as opposed to unlit) room shifted. The design on the lace curtains caught the light and blanketed the furnishings.” You can see how this has made the description active, immediate and snappy.
There is a tendency in the story for the author to interject himself …. What every writer should aspire to do is to make the reader forget that they’re reading. It’s not easy, but an aside, even if it seems necessary has the effect of saying to the reader, “hello, remember me the writer???”
You’ve set yourself a mighty goal by attempting one of the most difficult styles of writing there is. Mood pieces are never easy, and I honestly feel that very few writers have ever been able to pull them off. Kafka being the one glaring exception.
Your sentences could be shortened. You have a gift for lyrical prose. However, longer sentences often have less impact, particularly when laden with images. I’ve taken the liberty to recommend some revisions. Others are needed.
On several occasions, you find it necessary to use brackets to add details and clarifications. These tend to interrupt the narrative flow. Either phrase them as sentences, or make them parts of sentences. Once again, I’ve suggested how this might be done.
Again, this sentence two [sic] needs to be broken into smaller sentences to maintain reader attention.
‘Capitaled’ seems out of place here. Perhaps ‘underlined’?
The most important rule in writing: LESS IS BEST.
Ask yourself here: “What moves the story in this sentence?” While the image of the teeth/tongue is clever, it is not, in my opinion, moving the story along. On the contrary, it is slowing it down.
This sentence is far too long and leaves the reader lost in a maze of images. The mind needs short, quick photographic images to grab onto.
Beware of being overly wordy.
The last thing writers want to do is disturb a reader into thinking about the writing and not about the content. As readers we want to be taken along with the story, to peer into the minds and hearts of the characters. We really don’t want to be aware of the writer very much. Only at the end when we sigh, and look again to remind ourselves of the name so we can find other treasures written by them.
I’m uncertain about this last paragraph. Especially the first part. I understand what you’re saying, but some is confusing and can be taken two ways, thus my confusion in editing it.
Of course, this is simply an example [of a better written sentence]. But as you can see, the sentences are shorter and there is more definite nouns.
Towards the end of the story, you start using “I” quite a bit. It seemed like this was mostly the character’s thoughts, but the effort you were making was to use the outside world to describe what your character is thinking and feeling. This is a challenge to do, but I definitely think you have the groundwork laid to pull that off, however, when you started using “I” it again has the effect of pulling the reader out of the story.
I hope this [critique] has been useful and not to brief.
The final sentence of a manuscript [should be] followed by the word “END.”