Requiem for an Edit: A guest post by John Joseph Adams and Jake Kerr

Today’s guest post is from John Joseph Adams–editor of Lightspeed Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, and more than a dozen anthologies–and one of his oft-published authors, Jake Kerr. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on between an author and an editor from a rewrite request to publication, you’re about to get a behind-the-scenes look that is invaluable both for new writers and new editors. You can click through the links to follow the evolution of “Requiem in the Key of Prose.” Many thanks to both of them for sharing this with us!

Requiem for an Edit: an Instructional Adventure

Introduction – John Joseph Adams

Earlier this year, I took on an editorial intern who would be working with me on Lightspeed, Nightmare, and my other editing projects. I started her off with some simpler tasks, and had her read some slush and whatnot, and then eventually I wanted her to try her hand at doing a first edit on a manuscript I’d bought for publication. I gave her some general pointers, but then it occurred to me that seeing the actual back and forth between editor and writer might be beneficial to her.

The only two good examples I thought of were both from author Jake Kerr. The first, was the story behind his story, “The Old Equations,” which he previously detailed here on the Inkpunks blog. The other was his story “Requiem in the Key of Prose,” which took a lot of back and forth between us to get it where we were both happy with it. I thought that it would serve as a good example (at the extreme end of the spectrum) of what lengths an editor might go through to work with a writer on a story.

Of course writers should not expect this kind of developmental editing to happen; this was a rare case where the story came so close and I liked it so much that I didn’t want to let it go. Most of the stories I publish don’t require much revision–certainly not as much as this one did; in fact, most just require some minor line editing, without any structural or developmental changes at all. (Typically stories that would require such changes are just rejected as not good enough. But sometimes you see a spark in something and want to work to make it sing.)

So what you’ll find here is a blow-by-blow of my editorial process with Jake Kerr on “Requiem in the Key of Prose.” It’s organized so you can read the original submission draft of the story, then read my rewrite request email, and then follow along with our back-and-forth email correspondence, and you can also read the different iterations of the story that went back-and-forth between us.

Introduction – Jake Kerr

I really don’t mean to drive John Joseph Adams crazy when I send him stories, but it appears that an active back-and-forth round of edits between us has become par for the course. He has published three of my stories, and each one has required significant changes. None were as intense as the edits you are about to read involving my story, “Requiem in the Key of Prose,” but I have yet to send John a story which he’s just done light edits and called it a day. Maybe someday.

The thing is: This is healthy. This is part of the process. As a writer, I do my best to look at my work objectively and address mistakes and oversights as best I can, but I can never be as objective as an editor. The difficult part for the writer is to reconcile the opinion of the editor with your own goals and perceptions. You’ll see a lot of that in the correspondence below: John asking for a change, and me expressing concern over how it affects the emotional resonance of a scene or the introduction of setting or other things. It is hard to really sit back and consider re-doing something that at first glance achieves what you want it to achieve, but like any revision you have to take that closer look. Even if you don’t change a word, the additional attention makes the work better, and that’s the most important goal.

For new writers, I hope that the below is enlightening. The important thing to realize is that you and the editor have the exact same goal: Creating the best story possible. While some may find it uncomfortable, the process of discussing what you’re trying to achieve and how to adjust the story to better achieve it doesn’t have to be confrontational. It’s about discussing cause and effect, narrative goals, and authorial intent. As I mention in one exchange below, there a lot of ways to handle changes or recommendations. The editor will give you guidance, but which direction you go is ultimately up to you.

———

ORIGINAL SUBMISSION: 2012-01-03-Jake_Kerr-Requiem_in_the_Key_of_Prose [Link opens a .pdf]

On Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 1:43 PM, Lightspeed Magazine wrote:

Dear Jake,

Thanks for submitting this story; I’m going to pass on it in its current form, though I do have some suggestions for revision. If you’re willing to make some changes, I’d definitely like to see the story again.

Basically, I think this is a great piece–really well-written, and emotionally affecting–but there’s not enough of a clear science fiction element present.

There are hints to be sure, but it kind of felt like the protagonist’s job could have been anything. It’s described as being important to the world, but it seems very much in the background, and it’s only science fiction because you decided that it is. It doesn’t seem critical to the story, in other words. He could just be an nuclear power plant technician (with the plant on a verge of a meltdown) or something and the effect would be the same.

I imagined he was on a space station, or maybe a sort of post-apocalyptic compound and the fan was necessary to survive, or maybe he was on Mars like in Total Recall, or maybe a generation ship…. That’s the main issue I’m having: There are not enough concrete details. I think that if you were to drop in a reference somewhere (or create a new section) that mentions or describes a science fictional location, that would begin to solve the problem (you could call it “setting” maybe?).

You might also consider what other “prose” sections might be useful (“theme” maybe?), though I can’t say I particularly felt it was lacking in that regard, just an idea.

So, if you’d like to consider making some revisions along those lines, I’d love to see this again. And if you’d like to discuss any of the suggested changes, I’m certainly open to discussion. This one is really close, it just needs a bit of tweaking to make it great, I think.

Nicely done! I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

John

———

From: Jake Kerr
Date: Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 12:05 PM
To: Lightspeed Magazine

John,

I think your suggestions are spot on. The nature of the structure is a series of snapshots, so I need to be extra clear on creating a sense of place and context, but in hindsight I don’t think I did that. I’ll work on it and get it back to you.

Thanks for the feedback and kind advice.

Jake

———
From: Jake Kerr
Date: Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 1:35 PM
To: Lightspeed Magazine

What do you think of something explicit, like a section entitled “setting,” which describes place, time, and “feel.” And then a section called “adjective” or some such that describes the apocalyptic nature of the dome and how it got into its precarious position.

The actual devices aren’t important, what I’m really wondering is if you think this would be too obvious or if you think it would work well within the structure of the piece.

I can handle the rising tension, by the way, so don’t worry so much about placement or things like that. I’m more concerned about the perception that presenting the “setting” in a part called “setting” would be cheating.

My instinct tells me this would work, as the whole piece is vaguely like a Penn & Teller thing, we’re I’m telling you the trick I’m going to do and then I do it. (Although it bothers me to call them “tricks,” as that isn’t remotely the intent).

Jake

———
From: John Joseph Adams
Date: Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 7:47 PM
To: Jake Kerr

Hi Jake,

I think that could work quite well! I’d say try that and see how it goes. Any other questions, let me know. I’m happy to try to advise before you put pen to paper if that helps.

– John

———
From: Jake Kerr
Date: Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 8:14 PM
To: John Joseph Adams

Got one great idea for setting the scenario (“foreshadow”). Need one for setting his character situation.

I totally got this, as I have a very firm grip on this story. Just need to find the right piece to fit the puzzle. ;)

Jake
———
On Thu, Jan 12, 2012 at 5:50 PM, Jake Kerr wrote:

Attached is my re-submission with a rewrite based on your recommendations. I’m certainly open to more revisions, but I’m pretty sure I nailed it. :)

Jake

ATTACHMENT: Kerr – Requiem revision [Link opens a .pdf]
———

On Thu, Jan 26, 2012 at 3:16 AM, John Joseph Adams wrote:

Hey Jake,

Sorry again for taking so long to get back to you. I still really like the core of this story, but it’s still not quite all coming together for me.

I went over the story and made some notes. I started thinking about how you might want to rearrange some of the sections, so I opened up a new document and did that so I could see how it looked. The end result ended up being a bit sloppier than I would like, but I think it gets my points across. Let me know if anything is unclear or if you want to talk anything through.

If you’d like to make these changes, I’d love to see the story again. Or if you’re not inclined to, just let me know–no worries either way.

John

ATTACHMENT: requiem remix [Link opens a .pdf]

———

On Thu, Jan 26, 2012 at 9:09 AM, Jake Kerr wrote:

Took a quick look. Pretty sure I see what you’re aiming for. The emotional arc of the story needs to be foreground and direct. I can agree with that. I’ll get it back to you in a day or two.

FYI: The sudden release of methane starving the world of oxygen is one of the theories behind the dinosaur extinction event. It’s related to an asteroid collission, but the theory goes that a catastrophic series of volcanoes and ice shelf melting could do the same. :)

I don’t feel strongly about the science part at all. I just liked the prose I used as I was working from personification and wanted to draw that from the feel of an epic opening shot a la the Lord of the Rings movie scene where we are flying in to Orthanc and seeing the devastation. Totally get that it could seem info-dumpy.

Jake

———

From: John Joseph Adams
Date: Thu, Jan 26, 2012 at 9:30 AM
Subject: Re: REWRITE of Lightspeed Magazine Submission [#936984] Requiem in the Key of Prose
To: Jake Kerr

Feel free to put it back in; maybe I’ll feel differently about it with the rest of the other pieces in place. We can always take it out again later.

– John
———

On Thu, Jan 26, 2012 at 9:40 PM, Jake Kerr wrote:

Looked at your recommendations and edits in detail, and I don’t really have a problem with any of them. In fact, some of them are REALLY strong (the simile section, for example). That said…

Looking this over, I have one question before I get down to business:

You discussed moving the third person limited section to Adam’s POV.

The present tense section is a third person limited POV of Adam crawling in to fix the fan. The third person limited section is present tense from the lead engineer’s POV as he tell’s Adam he’s pretty much going to die. The reason I switched POV is that if we go to Adam’s POV, the narrative device of the present tense section will be absolutely identical to the device in the third person POV section (Adam third person limited in present tense). I’m not sure it structurally makes sense to have two distinct sections labeled for distinct prose methods that are identical in structure. Obviously overlap is unavoidable, but 100% overlap seems to minimize the entire reason behind the prose section heads.

Some ideas:

Keep it as I wrote it. Pulling in a new POV underscores the nature of the section heading. Downside is that I agree with you, having something from Adam’s POV would be more visceral.

Go for something completely different. Pick a new structural piece and create a more lyrical and emotionally-laden scene, where Adam has to face the fact he is going to die. Something like Internal Monologue or similar might work.

Move the sections around. I could do what you recommend and move the Third Person Limited POV to Adam but fix the identical nature of the previous section by physical separation. The downside to this is that I’d probably have to work on a non-linear narrative. That said, I could even create a section called non-linear narrative and do another flashback or flashforward. :)

My preference is probably for doing something different. The downside to this is that you’ll be getting something brand new and it may not work at all for you, putting us back to the drawing board, and I’m quite sensitive to wasting your time with a whole another round.

Also, any reason you wanted to start with the Metaphor (anti-fuse) section? For the start of a story it seems a bit abstract. I was thinking starting with the scene-setting section or an emotional hint of the core story would be stronger. This is probably the only recommendation you made that has me genuinely scratching my head.

Jake

———

From: John Joseph Adams
Date: Thu, Jan 26, 2012 at 9:54 PM
Subject: Re: REWRITE of Lightspeed Magazine Submission [#936984] Requiem in the Key of Prose
To: Jake Kerr

Hey Jake,

Glad you found the edits useful.

As to your questions… First of all, PLEASE don’t worry about “wasting” my time! This is a back and forth process, so I’m happy to consider different takes, especially for a piece as short as this one, and as difficult and experimental as it is, it may take some work to fine-tune it–but I think it’s time well spent, as I think there’s the potential for greatness here. I was more worried about wasting YOUR time.

That said, I think any of those ideas you came up with could work, but it’s hard to say without actually seeing the results, obviously. I think maybe the “something different” might have the best potential upside, though I think all of those ideas have potential.

As for the Metaphor scene… I don’t know if I can explain why per se, it just occurred to me that it might be a good way to start the story, as I really liked that part and I thought maybe it deserved greater prominence…though I take your point as well. Feel free to move it back where it was, of course. I didn’t have a strong preference there, I just wanted to see how it felt there, and when I moved it, I liked it. True, it’s abstract, but it sort of sets you up right away for the unusual type of story this is. That said, a more traditional start might be best. It’s your story, though, of course–and it was just an idea; if you don’t like, feel free to discard!

John
———

From: Jake Kerr
Date: Thu, Jan 26, 2012 at 10:00 PM
Subject: Re: REWRITE of Lightspeed Magazine Submission [#936984] Requiem in the Key of Prose
To: John Joseph Adams

So, I’m moving stuff around, looking at the results, and the more I move stuff, the more I realize I REALLY like having the metaphor section first. As you said, it perfectly sets up the structure, and it is both clear and opaque enough that it both gives away the whole story while giving away nothing… like a true metaphor. In hindsight, I honestly can’t think of a better beginning.

In other words, never mind. ;)

Jake

———

From: Jake Kerr
Date: Fri, Jan 27, 2012 at 11:10 PM
Subject: Re: REWRITE of Lightspeed Magazine Submission [#936984] Requiem in the Key of Prose
To: John Joseph Adams

Okay, attached is the rewrite. I think I agreed with all of your recommendations. I’ve read this over a few times, and here are some high level thoughts based on the changes:

I like how it now starts with a structural piece (metaphor). It sets the reader’s expectations that this isn’t a traditional narrative. That’s important. It also uses a metaphor that is directly relevant to the story. I also like that this flows directly into scene-setting. So we’ve set up the structure, hinted at the story, and presented the setting. My biggest concern, however, is that the emotional arc, which is very important in this piece, doesn’t really kick in until well into the narrative. In a previous draft I started with a future tense bit that talked explicitly about upcoming loss. I could see that as being a bit too obvious, but I think it established a tone that is important. I have no level of objectivity, however, so I will go with your perception, but I bring it up here as it is something that I’ve been thinking about.

The other thing that I’m not entirely sure about is the simile section. You cut it from in-scene to more abstract. Structurally I like it better, but in terms of emotion, I think it’s much less powerful. Again–no objectivity–but the image of a woman sobbing while completely losing any comprehension that someone else might be there or has left feels intense to me. I could be wrong.

All in all, I’m very comfortable going with your recommendations, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the above.

Thanks for the feedback. Open for another round of edits if you think it needs them and you don’t think we’ve gotten to a spot where I’m spinning my wheels.

Jake

ATTACHMENT: requiem Jake round 3 [Link opens a .pdf]

———
From: John Joseph Adams
Date: Thu, Feb 2, 2012 at 9:20 AM
Subject: Re: REWRITE of Lightspeed Magazine Submission [#936984] Requiem in the Key of Prose
To: Jake Kerr

Hey Jake,

I’ll take it! Sorry for the delay getting back to you. Contract forthcoming shortly.

John

FINAL DRAFT: Read the final version of “Requiem in the Key of Prose” at Lightspeed


John Joseph Adams, in addition to serving as publisher and editor of Lightspeed (and its sister magazine, Nightmare), is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, Oz Reimagined, Epic: Legends of Fantasy, Other Worlds Than These, Armored, Under the Moons of Mars, Brave New Worlds, Wastelands, The Living Dead, The Living Dead 2, By Blood We Live, Federations, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and The Way of the Wizard. He has been nominated for six Hugo Awards and four World Fantasy Awards, and he has been called “the reigning king of the anthology world” by Barnes & Noble.com. John is also the co-host of Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Find him on Twitter @johnjosephadams.

Jake Kerr began writing short fiction in 2010 after fifteen years as a music and radio industry columnist and journalist. His first published story, “The Old Equations,” appeared in Lightspeed and went on to be named a finalist for the Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. He has subsequently been published in Fireside Magazine, Escape Pod, and the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology of humorous SF. A graduate of Kenyon College with degrees in English and Psychology, Kerr studied under writer-in-residence Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and three daughters.

Trackback URL

  • Brendan

    With great respect to both John Adams and Jake Kerr, I think that this is a parable of what can go right and wrong when editing a story. I read the first and final stories, not the ones in between, deliberately to understand the extent of changes that were made, rather than the incremental (and possibly inoculating) steps through all drafts. I liked some changes (and agreed with Adams initial assessment) but was greatly disappointed with some of the changes.

    Firstly, I admit that the beginning is so much stronger in the final story. The Personification section was exactly what the story needed (as Adams pointed out), and I agreed whole heartedly with putting the Metaphor section at the beginning (and loved Kerr’s reasons).

    I am not sure if adding in the Foreshadowing section does much to the story that isn’t already in the Passive Voice section, and therefore feels like the story repeats two scenes. (The one exception is the statement “Accidents happen” but that could easily have been added to the Passive Voice section.) But this is only a minor issue.

    More important to my mind was the next two issues. Firstly, the replacement of Third Person Limited section with the Interior Monolog section killed the turning point of the story. Third Person Limited made the dilemma clear, by driving the tension of it through Mr. King’s progressive discovery. This provided a greater contextual understanding of the scenario and its impact on the entire community. This link is severed by Interior Monolog, as it focuses on what is only important to Adam. As a result, it reduces the emotive tension between the personal and communal viewpoints that is the power of the story. Remember too, by killing off Adam at, or near, the middle of the story indicates that the story is bigger than Adam and his motives, and the communal viewpoint is critical to continuing the building tension. (Note too that the criticism of the story by Rex Gardner would have been avoided by the Third Person Limited section)

    Secondly, and on the same theme, the changes to Simile significantly reduce this tension. It is much stronger opening with “At lunch one day, a friend of Violet’s asked her …” as this puts Violet’s dilemma into a deeply personal conflict, between her wishes/memories and her need to maintain her current communal ties. This context and tension makes the statements so much more powerful, as we can see both the stated and the unsaid statements. We can see how deep the pain goes when the stated words are somewhat sanitized, but still are powerful in their own right. As such, we can see a little of that heroism leaking out in Violet’s reflection, even though she may not have realized that fact. In the revision, the loss of context diminishes the power of heroism by focusing primarily on the pain. Further it makes all statements have equal weight, which makes all the statements appear more distant. I think Kerr’s instinct in this case was spot on, and wish that he didn’t compromise on this section. It would have been better to change the section name than to suck the emotion out of the most resonant element (IMO) of the story.

    I wonder if John Adams recognized the danger here of over-editing, and therefore accepted the story before more changes moved it away from the initial impact? (That’s a question that I’d love John Adams to answer.) At the same time, I wonder if Jake Kerr accepted the changes (particularly with the Simile section) because he simply wanted the story published and felt he was risking the editor’s patience by pushing (whether true or not)?

    • Jake Kerr

      Hi Brendan,

      I appreciate your thoughts.

      To answer your question about attitude and further edits: I cannot speak for John, but I was certainly open to more edits. Note that I mention in one email about the danger of getting to a place of “spinning my wheels.” What I meant by that was that I would make a change and that it wouldn’t be an improvement or at least shine light on some other solution. In that instance I would call it a day because I would basically be guessing at what John wanted or, perhaps more likely, unconsciously not wanting to embrace it.

      Sometimes the editor has a vision, and the writer has a different vision but has fooled him- or herself into thinking that they are the same. The result is that rewrites don’t really bring those two together but lead to “spinning wheels.” I obviously want to avoid that, and I don’t think that was the case here. I certainly would not accept changes that I strongly disagreed with, and I believe John would be disappointed if I did.

      Specifically to the simile section. My thoughts above as written are basically the same I have today. I think that it is structurally stronger in tying into the framework of the piece, but I was worried that the emotional impact would be lessened. I ran it by my wife and another friend, and they said my fears were unfounded–that even if there was a little less emotional impact the section just read and flowed better. At this point in time, I agree. So I guess we’re all right–the scene is more emotional in the previous version and the one you would like to see, but it is also stronger as written because it is tighter within the flow of the piece and it ties into the framework more directly. I’m quite happy with the final edit here but can understand alternate points-of-view.

      I could say the same for your other observations. There is a distance inherent in a piece framed in such an overt non-narrative way, so I was quite happy to move to interior monolog than a third character, which your prefer. Additionally, I don’t think you can read that section without the context of the section that follows it. It’s a deeply internal look and then a cold external description of aftermath. As a whole I think it works quite nicely and better than the section you like, but–as always–many of these are judgment calls and are exactly why people connect or don’t connect with various writers.

      Jake