The Critics’ Corner
High School Honey: Confessions of a Conflicted Author
By way of preface, I’ll confess that I began writing “High School Honey” around 1975. My artistic goal was to evoke the 1960s, the period of my adolescence, and to bring back to mind the girl of my dreams, whom I had lost forever. I felt intense nostalgia for a bygone time and stage of life and wanted to share that bittersweet feeling with those who might read the work.
In the course of many years, I went back to HSH, continuing to write it but never finishing. It saddened me to leave it undone. Then, about a year ago, I happened to hear an old song from the 60s:
I met him at a party and my heart stood still.
Da doo ron ron ron
Da doo ron ron
Somebody told me that his name was Bill...
It provoked a flood of emotions. I flashed back in time, pulled the MS from the drawer, went to work, and finished it.
* * *
In the course of a Bewildering Stories Review Board discussion of HSH, one editor observed, “Sometimes I wonder if Bill is being sarcastic or serious. For instance, this passage:
Flea’s touch was so gentle, he was so sensitive, and she felt so safe and secure with him.
“I mean, I guess... This is what teenage girls think.”
Now I suppose we all pretty much agree that the “show, don’t tell” adage has been beaten to death, though it retains some utility for beginners.
And I suppose we have all read great 19th-century novels, with their beautiful passages of authorial exposition, digression, and commentary. I think in particular of Dickens, Hugo and Tolstoy. What writer has not sought to emulate the exquisitely phrased gems of omniscient wisdom that we find in those novels?
Among the first pieces I submitted to Bewildering Stories was a story called “Birds of a Feather.” It opened with a lengthy, carefully crafted, dare I say, eloquent background exposition on the history of robot development and robot military application. I had labored over the minutiae of the phrasing, and was shocked when editor Don Webb said, in effect, “Cut all that stuff out. The story begins here, on page ten.”
For some time after that, I clung to the idea that profound authorial commentary was essential to my storytelling, something I could scarcely deprive my readers of. Then the reaction set in, and things got ugly. I proceeded to “kill my darlings” as Stephen King advises.
I found, as I was reading stories by other authors, that I became annoyed when the narrators would stick their noses in and tell me things I already knew, interpret the action for me, explain the meaning, or judge the characters. Was I incapable of drawing my own conclusions? I found it quite aggravating. It was an overreaction, but that’s where I was at the time.
* * *
In such a frame of mind, I commenced the final phase of writing HSH, and the text shrank considerably. I decided to expunge the author from the text and leave only the characters, setting, and plot. I would say nothing about the story, but rather convey the story itself, and nothing else.
Going back through the MS, I hacked and burned anything and everything that came from the author, that was about the story, or not part of the story, or that was à propos of the story. No background exposition, no digression, no philosophical musing, nothing but the facts.
I had, for example, written historical passages about the year 1968, establishing the background, setting the stage:
A cheerless cold wave swept America on January 1, 1968, sobering the New Year’s revelers as the mercury dropped close to zero from California to Florida. The country shuddered and bundled itself up tight as the Arctic front swept down and sat on the doorstep. People were driven inside to wait out the cold, but outside, events continued to rage. The heated conflicts remained: old against young, white against black, hawk against dove, rich against poor. America was lurching along like a huge overheated machine ready to burst at the seams and grinding its own gears, etc., etc.
I took them out.
I had digressed in the form of a satiric history of Brookbank, the locale for the drama:
The railroad tracks from Hoboken Terminal reached Brookbank in 1885, and the township was incorporated two years later. In 1893, the Hohoneck Brook, which runs through Brookbank and whose name in the Teetawah language means “clear water with many trout,” was dammed by the County Water Co. to form the Brookbank Reservoir on a plain surrounded by pine forests where the Teetawahs once buried their honored dead, etc., etc.
I decided to get down to ground level, sketch the setting, eavesdrop on the dialog, and report the action, without explaining, interpreting, or judging, simply to depict the events and let the chips fall where they may. Let the reader decide what it all means.
I made sentence level edits like the following:
Honey dropped her best friend off and drove home along Brookbank Ave. in that pleasant mood which results from being the object of attention.
—> Honey dropped her best friend off and drove home along Brookbank Ave.
No “gems” of wisdom from the author. Authorial fiat meant nothing. I had to show Honey in that pleasant mood or drop it.
The same principle applied in the following deletion:
Neither of them was eating as they drank and the alcohol took effect rapidly.
No. Make it a scene and show it, or shut up.
There were many such cuts:
a little nervous from his forwardness.
No, show it.
modestly held her blouse —> held her blouse
She’s modest? Show it.
Both friends were still wound up from the night’s unexpected excitement.
No. Show it or forget it.
Floater babbled on.
Either write the babble or drop it.
Don Webb thought this “drastic” editing resulted in a kind of barebones narrative resembling cinéma vérité. Maybe so, though that was not necessarily my intent.
In any event, I did try to slash the fat, and go lean and mean. I methodically removed (almost) all exposition, digression, and authorial comment, for a total of several thousand words.
* * *
There was at least one little fly in the ointment. Part of the original inspiration for HSH was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; I dearly love both the author and the novel. But Tolstoy’s sexual guilt can be a bit much at times, despite the brilliance of his psychological analyses.
The HSH epigraph was drawn from this longer passage in Tolstoy’s novel:
The desire that had been Vronsky’s only one for almost an entire year and had replaced all earlier desires, and the desire that had been an impossible, horrifying and therefore all the more seductive dream of happiness for Anna — that desire was gratified. Pale, his mouth trembling, he stood over her and implored her to calm herself, not knowing himself why or how.
“Anna! Anna!” he said, his voice shaking, “Anna, for God’s sake!...”
But the louder he spoke, the lower she dropped her once proud, once happy, now shamed head. She was bent over and falling from the divan on which she sat, to the floor, to his feet. She would have fallen on the rug, had he not held her...
He felt what a murderer must feel upon seeing the body he has deprived of life. And this body, deprived by him of life, was their love, the first period of their love. There was something horrible and repulsive in the memory of what it was for which they now paid this frightening price of shame. Shame before her own spiritual nakedness crushed her and communicated itself to him. But, despite all the horror the murderer feels before the corpse, it is still necessary to cut that body into pieces, to conceal it.
And with rage, as if with passion, the murderer throws himself on the body, and drags it, and slashes it; so did he cover with kisses her face and shoulders.
Now this is really awful stuff at one level, and I feel sorry for Lev Nikolaevich that he couldn’t get past it. But it was the 19th century. What are you going to do?
So I took his themes but played them out among American teenagers. I conceived of the story as kind of a “teenage Anna Karenina.” But I also wanted to parody Tolstoy’s style, which was in direct opposition to my hack-and-slash editing. So I compromised. I left in some passages of authorial comment to achieve, as Don Webb surmised, a faux Tolstoy effect:
Flea had given absolutely no thought to the subject. It had never once entered his mind before, in the grip of his desire. Then it had simply not occurred to him, had not seemed to be his problem nor even something which touched upon him. It was simply outside the sphere of his consciousness, an irrelevance as meaningless as tomorrow, etc., etc.
Another of the Bewildering Stories Review Board editors remarked, “It’s as if Tolstoy were narrating Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
This is precisely the effect I was going for. It’s possible, as the same editor also commented, that the “elevated” narration of “mundane” events backfired and that the exalted narration does not suit the subject or tone. But I was trying to be funny and wanted to rib my idol, Tolstoy.
So I went for 99% show and 1% tell. I may have gone too far, but I needed to kind of purge it from my system to get ready for the next one.
And when a Review Board editor wonders if I am being serious or sarcastic when I report Honey’s train of thought, I feel that maybe I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.
Copyright © 2010 by Bill Bowler