About a week ago I got a very polite letter from a nice lady at an online literary ‘zine stating that she liked one of my stories, she really did, but that their publication only takes stories of 10 pages or less.
My story is 17 pages long.
Neverminding just how I overlooked that particular editorial guideline, I decided that I would throw my hat into the ring and try to undertake the Solomon-like challenge of cutting a story in half. While this is of course a tremendous pain in the dong, it does give me the opportunity to share my editorial process with you.
First, the back story:
Desperate to use the experience of my Israel trip in a short story, and wanting to do something politically tinted in terms of the exploitation of victims for partisan gain while also reflecting my own peculiar brand of “whiteness” as someone with ancestry extending back to a country no one else has heard of., I wrote Anchors Can’t Pronounce It in late 2007 and workshopped it to mixed reviews.
Usual criticisms along the lines of “strong at the sentence level” and “I think this is compelling, thematically” aside, this story had the same problem as many of my one-shot works in that it needed to either be way shorter or way longer. Heedless of this advice, I cleaned it up and sent it out twice (Fall 2008 and Spring 2009) before giving it one more revision and putting it in a big batch of shotgun submissions in the fall of 2009.
Now, the Story itself (this section is a bit long, but I think you’ll see what I do here):
Raymunas Alexandras is a third generation American of Lithuanian descent. He graduates from college in 2006 and his Grandfather, a devout Roman Catholic, buys the two of them tickets to the holy land for a celebratory pilgrimage. Jurgis Alexandras dies a week before the trip, but Raymunas goes anyway at the insistence of his family. While there, he generally sulks and drinks, and makes to take the actual pilgrimage on the last possible day. He takes a bus to Jerusalem and is escorted around the city by a young Arab boy who speaks no English. Raymunas dismisses the boy and tries to tip him, but is unable to, having only very small change and very large bills. While deliberating on his course of action, he is slightly injured by the premature detonation of a suicide bomber’s device.
While recovering in the hospital, Raymunas speaks with a representative of Natal, who encourages him to return to America immediately believing (quite rightly) that while the state can offer counseling and medicine, only the comfort and support of his family will help him to deal with the events mentally. Raymunas ignores her advice and checks himself out of the hospital, and returns to the old market of Jerusalem thinking he can find the boy again and give him his tip. He finds an improvised martyrs shrine in the now closed-down tunnel, and realizes that the boy likely stole the money from his pockets when the blast knocked him unconscious. He returns to America, and the story concludes with a summary: that the powers-that-be all had something big to say about the events, but nothing to say about the victim, whose name looks weird in the papers and was too hard for television anchors to pronounce.
Even the SUMMARY of this story is too long! Look at what’s going on here: back story, epilogue, plotted story – this doesn’t even get into the flashback of Jurgis’ escape from the Communists in the 1940’s which, while one of the better pieces of writing, serves all the purpose of wheels on a boat, and not one of those cool James Bond car-boats either.
This story suffers from an excess of what is called scaffolding. Scaffolding, just like that used in construction, painting, and so on is what holds the work up while it’s being built. The comparison is particularly apt because if one were to imagine, say, the Empire State Building with it’s very literal scaffolding still in place today then he would see a rough and jumbly excess blocking his view of the actual work of art. So too is it the way with Anchors Can’t Pronounce It. In seeking to tell one story, I had to tell myself another, and rather than just tell it to myself, I decided it was just so damn important that I had to tell it to anyone who picked the story up, too.
When you’ve got a story like this, the best thing to do is go in with a chainsaw and hack it to pieces. Rudely and crudely point to anything of ambiguous usage and sever it brutally.
Keep the part you’ve cut – in the example above, the story of Jurgis Alexandras escape from soviet Lithuania is probably worth exploring – but it serves very little purpose here. The political commentary at the end would make a fine blog post, but it puts a bit too much load on the character of Raymunas. He is pretty clearly just interested in drinking beer and chasing girls, and broad sweeping statements regarding the nature of the Israeli-Arab conflict just seem over his head and out of his league.
The one bit that’s hard for me to cut in part because A) I think it’s thematically important and B) it’s closely interwoven throughout the story is the recurring notion that Raymunas can’t live up to his Grandfather’s expectations or accomplishments, and that he finds his Grandfather’s pride in him embarrassing and unwarranted. Jurgis Alexandras was shot in the back and fled to America wounded and impoverished, and managed to work his way into middle-class comfort, while Raymunas barely squeaked his way through state university and has no job prospects whatsoever.
The solution here, the culmination of this process and the thing worth sharing with the interested reader, is to make two separate and distinct stories. The story of Raymunas Alexandras is not the story of the young man visiting Israel. Raymunas Alexandras has a lot of issues, but they’re going to stay domestic. While the story of the flight of Jurgis Alexandras will inform the Raymunas character, I’m free to have Raymunas deal with it in more active ways than regret and alienation.
As for Anchors Can’t Pronounce It, THAT is the story of someone being injured in Jerusalem and going a little bit crazy trying to find a kid in the streets. No more, no less. Even the drinking, the skirt-chasing, anything that doesn’t directly inform the bombing incident and the narrator’s connection to the boy must go. Now freed from the constraints of the Raymunas Alexandras character, the young man visiting Israel doesn’t even have to be a man anymore. I’m free to do all sorts of interesting things. I can explore whatever little sub-themes I like: gender, class, ethnicity, faith – having dropped the earlier baggage, I’m free to pick up something new.
And that is how you revise a story!
A Look Back – 2 August 2021
“It needs to be either shorter or longer” is one of my most oft-repeated criticisms when I participate in workshops or grade a student’s creative work. It’s also a criticism I have all but tattooed to the inside of my eyelids – it’s that important.
This particular story wound up getting published a little bit later under the title “1,000 Shekels, 15 Agurot” in the apparently now-defunct November 3rd Club. I had taken my own advice and hacked it down to about 10 pages. It was a big deal for me at the time because it was only my second publication and it was my first significant success at getting work out in the world. My previous short story “Hands” ultimately did not survive its publishers rebranding & site re-hosting, and so was short lived. My point being, this story felt bigger at the time.
In hindsight, it also touches on matters of Near East politics which I think in some respects are out of my depth just as they are with the character. I feel in hindsight that the story winds up reading as more than a little conservative, and for that reason I’ve not sought to re-home it all these years later.
Despite my best intentions at the time I have not done anything with the story of Jurgis Alexandras, and I don’t know if I ever will. I wrote the earliest version of this story about a year before going to Lithuania, and I never did the work to reconcile that experience with this story. I can’t say that I really “feel it” right now, and who knows if that’s something I’ll revisit in the future.
Rest assured, it will either be a long novel or a very short story. No in-betweens.