Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Few Editing Suggestions

(I wrote this in 2007, but again, neglected to post it.)

I have noticed that the Walrus is working hard to attract marquee bylines. I would be happier about this if the magazine had a stronger mix of up-and-coming writers and the big guns, but what are you going to do? Sure, Adrienne Clarkson might catch the eye on the newsstand, but I’m not going to buy the magazine because of her. (The problem, of course, is that the Walrus target demographic is considerably older than me, and nothing I can say or do will change that.)

There is of course, a danger in soliciting the big names. The danger is that they will say yes. When a writer reaches a certain level of success, a magazine is paying for the name as much (if not more) than the actual content. And in the interests of maintaining a good relationship with the Big Writer, the publication tends to edit lightly, if at all -- even if the magazine is given a less-than-stellar piece of writing from a Big Name Canadian Writer.

As a case in point, I’m going to provide some editing comments on a (not very) recent Walrus piece, a Field Notes. I feel that my editing suggestions are, in fact, reasonable. I’m not trying to be a snotty prig here. Really. If this piece were submitted to a major magazine, I humbly suggest that these are the sort of editing suggestions that the writer might expect to receive back.

[All editing comments in square brackets refer to the sentence preceding.]

QU’APPELLE VALLEY – In the summer of 2006, a miniseries adaptation of my novel The Englishman’s Boy went into production in Saskatchewan. Since half of the drama is set in the American and Canadian West of 1873, it was decided that a crash course in equitation [Editor: Is this the right sort of tone/diction for a light piece about learning to ride a horse?] was necessary for the actors. When I learned this “cowboy camp” [Editor: Why is this in quotes? Not sure it needs to be in quotes.] was being convened in the Qu’Appelle Valley, north of Regina, wild horses couldn’t have kept me away. [Editor: As written, the pun is clear, but the pun is also a cliché. I’m not sure that you provide a sufficient wink or acknowledgement to the reader that this cliché is being used as anything more than a cliche. Might I suggest something like, “In the words of esteemed hirsute philosopher Gino Vanelli, wild horses could not drag me away.”] For males of a certain age, who galloped their mothers’ brooms over backyard ranges in the fifties, holstered cap guns flapping against their thighs, the fantasy of playing cowboy is lethally attractive. [Editor: Somewhat AWK.]

On the first morning of instruction, I arrived wearing a pair of boots I had bought in Dallas fifteen years before and worn only once or twice since. My middle-aged feet had spread like the rest of me, forcing me to mince about camp in a most unmanly fashion. The wranglers in charge of teaching horsemanship were former professional rodeo riders and ranchers – laconic, leathery types given to unfathomable stares, most of which I felt were directed my way. [Editor: This reminds me of the movie City Slickers. Might it be worth making a humourous aside/nod to the film?]

The first course was a safety primer, covering topics such as how to approach a horse from behind without getting kicked into the bleachers, or what to do if you find yourself on a careering runaway. For instance, don’t scream. It might further panic the horse. [Editor: You could combine those two sentences without losing any effect.] Next, each actor was assigned a mount and spent time currying and feeding it and performing other ingratiating services meant to encourage it to, if not like you, tolerate you. [Editor: Somewhat AWK. Could this be smoother?] I lingered hopefully on the fringes like a kid awaiting the call to join a pickup football game. Invitations were not forthcoming. [Editor: Delete final sentence in paragraph – stronger without it.]

By the time the actors were engaged in learning the rudiments of steering, stopping, and accelerating their new four-legged friends, [Editor: cliché/weak style.] I was in a desperate state of unrequited desire. [Editor: ???] Making meek, supplicating motions, I approached a wrangler who had just ridden up and identified myself as the writer. Like Richard III, I abjectly begged for a horse.

“Take mine,” he said and, dismounting with catlike grace, [Editor: I find the animal metaphor jarring, especially since a human is dismounting the horse. The animal to animal metaphor is not as vivid or appropriate as it could be.] left me to claw myself aboard, joints grinding and creaking. This was a mistake. Wranglers’ horses are not like the ones assigned to actors. They are provided with the most docile horseflesh [Editor: Using ‘horseflesh’ here comes across as overwriting.] available, because injury to the talent would be a catastrophe. But what happens to the writer is not a cause for concern.

On the ensuing trail ride, the grin soon melted off my face as I wrestled to restrain my high-spirited steed. If it bolts, I reminded myself, resist the urge to shriek. Better to die in silence than in disgrace.

In the next few days, I found myself aching in places I didn’t know I owned and walking like an animated wishbone. [Editor: Great image. Love it!] Meanwhile, the actors were soldiering on, growing ever stiffer, sorer, and more chafed. They were also learning that horses, like thespians, sometimes exhibit quirks, foibles, and temperament. [Editor: Parallelism seems AWK. Quirks and foibles are pretty strong, so I’m not sure if temperament is necessary.] One morning at breakfast, I asked one of the actors, who sat morosely stirring his fruit cocktail, what was the matter. He blurted out, [Editor: Both ‘morosely’ and ‘blurted out’ appear overly dramatic. At the risk of sounding like an intro fiction professor, try to show instead of tell.] “My horse hates me. He knows I’m from Toronto and I’m wearing pantyhose.”

It was a charged, confessional moment. [Editor: Again, show, don’t tell. If this was a charged, confessional moment, it should be fairly obvious to the reader without you having to guidepost it so heavily.] Only later did I learn that all the other actors had also donned pantyhose. The wranglers had given them a “tip.” [Editor: Again, why is this in quotes?] Hosiery minimized saddle friction, preventing flesh from getting rubbed to hamburger. [Editor: Strong image, great language, light touch. Great work.] They had descended on a womenswear store to get outfitted.

Too soon, I had to leave, despairing at having notched only a single ride. When I returned weeks later, all the actors from Vancouver and Toronto had developed a blasé competence around horses and were now being glamorously referred to as “the posse.” [Editor: Again with the quote marks. I’m also not entirely sure how glamorous this is. I could use more on the masculine mystique of horse riding here. Perhaps a reference to Deadwood? I don’t think references to pop culture solve every problem, especially not in a short piece, but I’d like to better understand your inner hunger for horse riding.] As a Westerner, I seethed at the unfairness of it all. [Editor: This could be clearer and more precise.] But one afternoon, when an actor was somehow occupied and his horse needed to be ridden to a location, I was called upon. “Guy, take Michael’s horse. Go with the posse.”

Michael happens to be considerably shorter than me, but there was no time to adjust the stirrup lengths. Off I went, an overweight, superannuated [Editor: Again, is this the right word or tone? It strikes me that Westerns and novels tend to rely on sparse, clean, clear language. I understand the juxtaposition between the writer and the wild west, but I feel as though the rhythm of the piece is being compromised by word choice. This is, in its essence, a story about a man wanting to ride a horse. I think closely-observed details will carry the piece better than a specialized vocabulary.] jockey, knees hovering near my armpits. [Editor: Great. Funny and clear and simple. See previous note.] At the top of a hill, I halted to take in the scene. By squinting my eyes, I was able to banish the craft-services vehicle and other cinematic impedimenta [Editor: Again, this is too writerly for the light tone this piece should be striving for.] below. In the valley, teepees glistened in glaring [Editor: Delete ‘glaring’ and just use “the sunshine.” The alliteration isn’t necessary here.] sunshine. Raked by a breeze, a grove of poplars flashed silver. [Editor: A perfect sentence. This is great. More of these would strengthen this piece considerably.] Insects hummed in the heat. The posse filed down the slope, costumed and armed. I drank it all in. [Editor: This is a cliché and unnecessary. Delete.] By marrying movie illusion with psychological delusion, my fantasy was fulfilled. At age fifty-five, better late than never, I had become a high plains drifter. [Editor: Ending could be stronger, but I think it’s close.]

Monday, June 04, 2007

Thank You So Much

I suffered through an irritating bout of unproductiveness today, but I cheered up when I saw this CBC story about Eckler suing the makers of Knocked Up (link).

Frank magazine is going to eat her alive. ALIVE!