Sample Novel Excerpt, Shriek An Afterword, with Line Edits (Chapter 7 Extra)

Shriek An AfterwardThanks to Tor editor Liz Gorinsky’s generosity, I’m able to offer up the general and specific comments she gave me on my novel Shriek: An Afterword as part of the developmental edit on the novel back in 2005. Shriek is a somewhat difficult novel with dueling narrators from a dysfunctional family, whose story spans sixty years and plays out across the landscape of the fantastical city of Ambergris under threat from subterranean “gray caps.” Janice Shriek is an art gallery owner and her brother Duncan is a discredited historian who has his own theories about the gray caps. Janice is a cantankerous and unforgiving person given to flights of rhetoric, while Duncan in parentheticals comes along behind and comments on her version of events. Duncan’s sophistication as a historian is juxtaposed with his immaturity when it comes to relationships, almost to the point of farce–indeed, his diary entries and romantic correspondence are meant to scan as ridiculous drivel, as is often the case in real life. His affair with Mary Sabon, a promising historian in her own right, becomes an issue between him and Janice. Indeed, Mary is only seen through the intersection of Duncan’s and Janice’s distorted view of her; the reader must read between the lines to truly see her.

Because of the nonlinear approach and characters who may be interesting but, in being all too flawed and human, can’t be said to be completely sympathetic, Gorinsky’s notes focus on the relationships, precision of language, and making sure sections of summary don’t overwhelm the novel.

Below you’ll find her initial general notes for the developmental edit. A developmental edit is a thorough analysis of a novel at a high and intermediate level of detail, but may also include line edits. (Note the early draft cover above, which would receive its own edit to get the title correct.)

You can also download, in RTF format, the following files. PLEASE NOTE: RTF gets around worrying about having the right version of Word, but you will have to download, and then open in Word.

I still consider her notes on Shriek and her follow up (too scattered to reproduce here) to be one of the finest dev edits I have received. Among its finer qualities are Gorinsky’s willingness to dive in and make her own edits and additions to the text, which gave me something substantial to react to even when I didn’t agree with the changes. It’s often better to suggest a specific revision to a writer than to simply comment that something needs to change.

In all, by the time of publication, after the back-and-forth, I think a good 20,000 words of the novel changed or were radically revised, along with writing new scenes and moving scenes around. As her analysis of contradictions indicates, she had the additional burden of making sure that Shriek dovetailed with the prior book in the series. Indeed, her careful analysis resulted in me making some changes to the first book when it was reprinted.

We were both pleased with the results of the process, and the book received a great deal of critical acclaim and attention. Hopefully these documents are of use to you in thinking about the feedback given by professional editors during the revision process. The novel is still available, at a discount, should you wish to do further comparison of versions.  – Jeff VanderMeer


Below, a list of thoughts I wanted to convey about the text and its production. I by no means require responses to all of these, but I wanted to broach most of the issues I noted while editing, in case they were of concern to you as well. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if anything is unclear. And of course, if there’s something you’d wanted to change that I didn’t address in my edits, by all means go ahead and incorporate it.

– Liz G. 3/24/05


I. The Line-Editing

To start, a general disclaimer: you’ll notice that I’ve made a good number of small, tweak-y changes to the text. Some of the things I changed were clear typos, but many of them were responses to lines that were confusing or felt wrong to me, and could therefore be considered a matter of opinion: issues like adding and removing commas when they seemed to fall in contrast to phrasal lines, eliminating the second word in most cases where you followed a word with its exact synonym (except where it served some obvious rhythmic purpose), eliminating redundancy, and keeping extended metaphors from getting out of hand. While most of your chosen phrasings did eventually become illuminated through multiple reads, I worry that the more mainstream side of your readership will become alienated if you pick phrasings that take too much effort to unravel. There’s a fine line between realizing that particularly florid sections are a product of Janice’s prose style, and the propensity to get annoyed at them despite the fact that we’re supposed to see them as failed pieces of prose.

A lot of these changes are therefore things that I hope don’t—but potentially could—cross the line into disrespecting the (intentionally melodramatic?) narrative style used for this book. The last thing I want is to drive you “to near insanity with [my] relentless line edits.” But since we’re doing this in Word, where it’s easy to track what’s happened to the text, I figured I’d just make the changes and let you accept any changes that you like, and modify or reject any that you don’t. If you want me to elucidate what felt wrong to me about a particular passage, by all means let me know.

All that said, most of these changes are the product of editing the book once on paper, then transcribing it to electronic form so I could see what stuck. I was tempted to look over the MS one more time after I finished digitizing it, but in the interest of getting it back to you… well, sometime this month… I gave up on that idea. So please forgive me if I contradicted myself, if anything is unclear, if I missed something silly, or if I catch a few things on the next pass that I didn’t see this time.

II. Possible Deletions

In contrast to the line-edits, which I made willy-nilly on my own, the following is a list of sections that I thought detracted more than they added, or could stand to be modified. It’s not that I don’t think that these have merit in isolation, just that I think that eliminating these less effective sections would put more emphasis on the better ones. So I’m curious how attached you are to:

–The historical sequence following the news about Voss Bender’s death (77-79). There’s clearly a lot of interesting history going on during this period, but this early in Shriek, with no context to tie most of these facts into, this gets tedious and swampy pretty fast. I would suggest paring this down heavily, keeping only incidents that play an immediately recognizable role in Shriek.

–Duncan and Janice’s father’s mouse-catching machine (161). A little too mad scientist-y for my taste, and doesn’t really expand on his character enough to be worth the space.

–I wasn’t very keen at all on the diagram of the “maze of lust” (175). The accompanying text provides enough detail that anything additional we could get from the chart is pretty extraneous. If I was less charitable, I’d say that the fact that Duncan has named his travel routes makes him look dorky enough, without us having to actually see the map that he’s drawn. All in all, I think the drawn diagram would just distract people from the real point, which I assume is the large quantities of emotion and lust that caused him to go to these lengths.

–The names of the people in Mary’s necklace (205): I’m not sure about this. While the list of names is interesting, it ultimately bogs the reader down in a lot of detail that they will never need again. If you feel strongly about naming them all, you might at least want to reconsider the placement of this passage, and wait to name her followers until after she has already become successful.

–The family vacation (287-9): Although this is a pleasant passage, it takes us out of the flow of action for what feels like forever, or at least long enough to be distracting rather than helpful. This also feels like a more typical vacation than anything I’d expect to be enjoyable to the extraordinary Shriek family. I think you could get away with a brief summary of the vacation followed by what I think is the real point of this passage: “It is one of the only times I can recall the full attention of my father upon me.”

–The dissection of Mary’s book bios (327-34) is just so long that I feel it takes away a lot of the book’s forward momentum, especially after you’ve already pulled this trick with Duncan on page 40. I’d take a close look at this and try to shorten it by moving elsewhere any information that can be conveyed in a more active manner. In cases where this is not possible, consider breaking out the longer digressions: for example, the long explication of “Duncan’s love for questions with dubious answers” (330) could probably be combined with the discussion about historians coping with their personal history (247) or the earlier mention of Rybern on 320.

III. Structural/Temporal Sequencing

There were a few places where I thought the timing/sequencing could use some adjustment. I left most of these intact so that you can change them if you agree.

–While I think using the opera as an introduction to the entire war is an interesting effect, I think it’s ultimately a mistake to describe what is essentially the turning point in the war without giving readers any context of what has come before. I really think that the horror of the events described in this passage would come across much more effectively if we were first given an idea of how far-reaching the war has been. So I think you’d be better off starting off the chapter with the explanation of Duncan and Janice’s reporting job (now at 255) and then launch into the opera (now at 243) once you’ve established context. Since the plot of the opera so conveniently explains the how the war got started, you could probably still wait to explain the history of how the war got started until it comes up in the plot of the opera.

–The advantage of this book being told mostly in flashback is that any of the scholarly discussions, can be placed almost anywhere, which is useful since, while they’re clearly important to the whole I worry that too many pages of scholarly discourse in a row could tempt the inevitable readers who are more interested in the action sequences to skip ahead. For example: later in the book, we have a discussion about Dad’s research methodology, then Duncan’s thoughts on Rybern’s theories, (a short break for the mushroom sculpture episode), and the explication on Mary’s bio blurbs all in a row. Might we consider moving one or more of these digressions so that there are action sequences separating them?

–No specific complaints of this, but I was wondering if you had any explanation about the logic behind your chapter breaks, since there are a few places that feel like they could use them but don’t have them (e.g., before Janice sees Sirin about the job, or at the point where the job actually begins) and others that seem superfluous.

–I really like the device of gradually unraveling Janice’s confrontation of Mary throughout the text, but I made one small shift, which was to shrink the second iteration a bit, leaving the ““Once upon a time… no one knew your name” for the final confrontation. This would result in us dividing it like so (for my reference as much as yours):

6: Janice overhears the comment.

121: Janice slaps Mary.

193: Mary responds (“What is it you really want, Janice?”)

376: Janice attacks her with the glasses

–As I briefly mentioned in section II, there may be call to unite all of the discourse on the personalization of historical accounts. This topic is touched upon at 247, 320, and 332, and I wonder if it would give the entire sentiment a greater weight if the sections were combined.

IV. Duncan’s Comments

I think that having Duncan comment on Janice’s text is an awesome device, but one which you have to be very careful with because it’s is prone to misuse. So I’d like to take a careful look at Duncan’s comments and figure out which actually contribute something and which are just there to keep Duncan on our radar. If I had to do a basic breakdown of things I liked hearing from Duncan and things I didn’t, it would go something like:


–Indications of a gentle brand of sibling rivalry that goes beyond a lot of the whiny sniping that constitutes a lot of his early comments (e.g. 294)

–Since one of the first things we hear about Duncan regards “his barbed wit, his truculent genius for argument, his infinite appreciation of irony”, it would be nice if those qualities came across in his commentary more frequently. It would be sort of nice if some of his milder comments were replaced with wittier ones.

–Cases where he differs in opinion from Janice.

–Information that Janice wouldn’t know about.

–Cases where the narrator is unreliable: anything that offers a contradiction of her version of events or offers additional insights about differing life views, politics, etc.

–Since Duncan has second crack at the text, I’m surprised we don’t see upstaging her more often: for example, in the comment on page 99 (where she denies her closeness to Bonmot and he explains that it wasn’t really like that), he is clearly invoking some part of her past she didn’t intend to share, almost as a competition. I imagine that he could meet most of her anecdotes with better/worse ones of his own, if he so desired.

–It seems strange to me that Duncan doesn’t really complain about Janice discussing his relationship with Mary until page 297

Not so good:

–Don’t let Duncan deliver any information that Janice could/should have delivered herself.

–There’s a number of instances where Duncan chimes in that Janice has gotten something wrong but does not take the opportunity to correct the mistake, which seems a little odd to me.

–I really disliked the comments where Duncan is simply complaining about his sister’s florid prose or talking about what should have been left out (“Delete!”, “Get ion with it”, etc.). Even if Sirin did want to keep Janice’s text as historically accurate as possible, there’s little chance that he would decide that his audience needs to see him repeatedly snapping Janice’s prose style, especially since such complaints would be turned into ammunition by any reviewer that agreed with them. Consider recasting these as insight into why he might want these stricken, or try to fix the problem and delete the comment: we don’t want the reader to share Duncan’s irritation, and in cases where we’re told to get on with the story, we probably should (i.e. these are the sorts of things that would exactly fit under his boring radar).

–Changes that are too small/obvious. Since a side-effect of Duncan’s comments is that they must needs take us out of the flow of Janice’s narration, we should reserve his intrusions for when he has something to add that contributes to the text, and not, say, the obvious insight that getting de-mushroomed isn’t a pleasant experience.

–Leave out extended comments on historical background unless they’re actually relevant to what’s going on. Anything that seems like it would have been covered in the Early History of Ambergris itself probably doesn’t need to go into the afterword as well.

–Refrains of “I had no choice” just make Duncan sound feeble. Also be careful with the As you know’s: if we do know, then don’t repeat.

Things I wouldn’t mind hearing Duncan’s theories/opinions about:

–Insight about the motivations of the gray caps, when we’re not getting it from anywhere else: for example, why did the gray caps decide to wreak so much havoc on this particular festival night (especially in light of his claim that the Silence had been an accident rather than an expression of wrath)? I also wonder why there’s not more meta-commentary at the end: something about, say, how all these silly mortals have no idea what’s going on underneath them, so I am lending my voice to this book so that at least one account gets it right.

–I have my theories about why Duncan, once deciding to stay underground forever and generally becoming so much less concerned with vestiges of the human world, would come back up just to comment on Janice’s book, but it might be worth doing some direct textual discussion of this.

–There are some things that I’m surprised Duncan doesn’t show more emotions about: for example, why doesn’t he call her on how she took an instant dislike to Mary? She should have been supportive even if she thought it was a bad idea, or at least stop treating Mary like she was to blame once she’s graduated. It’s strange that Duncan doesn’t pick up more on some of the guilt about how she wishes she’d been more actively attentive to Mary.

V. A Few Random Questions

There are a number of questions pertinent to particular sections of text marked up in the margins using MS Word’s comment feature, but I also had a few questions that were either more general or related to more than one section:

–Somewhere between when Duncan declares he’s “not coming back” on 348 and Janice “remember[s] that [her] brother was missing” on 374, he must go away, but I don’t remember any direct reference to anyone trying and failing to find him. Might we want to insert one, perhaps at some point after she sees him for the final time, to remind readers that he’s actually gone?

–Sarah Galandrace, Sarah Gallendrace, and Galendrace Maleon: are these people supposed to remind us of each other, or is it just a common name in Ambergris?

–BlytheAcademy “barely lasted… two semesters” after 247, but it certainly seems to be intact and operating on 292. Am I missing something?

–I assume you’re aware that the several “oliphaunt” references will almost certainly invoke Tolkien in many people’s eyes? There are a few other places where people may read context into the text—take everyone’s opinions on critics, editors, and the publishing world to be your own; compare the New Art to the New Weird, etc. There’s no real way to defend against this, but I just wanted to make sure that you’re prepared.

–After Bonmot’s complete dismissal of the threat from underground on 97, I’m surprised that he doesn’t make any move to amend that reaction once he’s seen the manifestation of (or at least the carnage caused by) the mushroom creatures for himself on that “most terrible of nights.” Seeing a change in opinion from him, however slight, could be a really good way of alluding to some of the life-changing/lasting effects of that night.

–There is clearly an indication in Sirin’s afterward that things get very strange in the few years between the Afterword’s writing and its publication. I suspect you might cover what happens in other Ambergris stories, but I don’t think you make enough use of it here: for example, is there a possibility that the reason why Duncan is rushing away is because he wants to either stop, or witness, the Gray Caps’ next crusade? Do the changes have anything to do with Duncan’s theory that they’re about to bring the machine aboveground? If so, wouldn’t Sirin mention anything about how, oh, a cataclysmic disaster was presaged in this book and that perhaps he feels a tad bit guilty for not letting anyone know about it earlier?

–You’d specifically asked me what I thought about the afterword. Honestly? I had no problems with it (at least on the first three readings). I think most readers are accustomed to Afterwords and will take Janice’s last words to be the true ending, and be able to hold onto the emotional resonance of this moment without it being dampered by Sirin’s closing comments. I think this afterword will further illuminate things that went on in the text, but certainly not detract from them.

VI. “Unresolved” Issues

Here are two issues that I am still of a few minds on, and that I wanted to get your first impressions on before making any definite pronouncements:

–I’ve found it interesting to think of Shriek as Janice’s Apology for Duncan and his work (a la Plato for Socrates), in which she is trying to teach us to accept Duncan’s madness by gradually unveiling that he may be less mad than we initially think he is, which would help explain her insistence on shifting the bulk of the blame for him going over the brink over to Mary (i.e. using her to explain why he keeps going underground over and over again, given what he’s put himself through by doing so the first time). This notion is fairly well-supported by the text as it stands, but it may pay to explore this a little further: for example, I’ve slightly amended the mention on page 29 that she “probably couldn’t ever understand him fully without going where he had gone” because it makes her seem too accepting of the notion of going underground at a point where she would probably still be terrified; whereas if she holds off on accepting this until later in the text, it becomes much more believable that she came by this acceptance naturally.

–I’ve been reading this with an eye to the fact that it employs at least four levels of storytelling, up to three of which could be in play at any given time: Janice as observer, at many different ages throughout different points in the book; Janice as narrator, at the age at which she is writing the Afterword; Duncan as commentator; and Sirin as editor, since he has cleaned up and possibly put his own spin on the book as a whole. Have we given enough thought to how playing up these various perspectives could potentially enrich the text? For example: when Duncan first returns from underground, the younger Janice resists believing in the starfish, but the older Janice, who has seen so many strange things since then, would have no trouble accepting it. Think carefully about how to shade such episodes so that they reflect both (or all) viewpoints are reflected, which could possibly result in an extra layer that could slip by on first reading but pop out on subsequent reads.