Friday, July 23, 2010

More Parsing Larsson: Querying the Great Beyond

Below is the first page of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Below that is the same page with the copyedits and queries I would have made had it been my job to do so. Below that is a sample rewrite.

The edits are similar to what I do to some of the feature articles I work on. The difference is that, with a full-length novel, no one really has the time to do the detailed, extensive line-editing Larsson’s work requires. (I base that on the first two books in the Larsson’s “Milennium” series, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” which I recently finished reading.) In the book world, most editors would simply reject the manuscript with a note like, “Good story. But the writing’s not quite there.”

Yet an editor acquired Larsson's three manuscripts, and the series became one of the biggest blockbusters in years. (This is where my explanation would go if I had one.) Here’s the page, the edited page, and the sample rewrite.

Friday, April 8

Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. It was just before 1:30 in the morning.

“What? he said, confused.

“Rescue Service helicopter coming in. Two patients. An injured man and a younger woman. The woman has gunshot wounds.”

“All right,” Jonasson said wearily.

Although he had slept for only half an hour, he felt groggy. He was on the night shift in the ER at Sahlgrenska hospital in Gotegborg. It had been a strenuous evening.

By 12:30 the steady flow of emergency cases had eased off. He had made a round to check on the state of his patients and then gone back to the staff bedroom to try to rest for a while. He was on duty until 6:00, and seldom got the chance to sleep even if no emergency patients came in. But this time he had fallen asleep almost as soon as he turned out the light.

Jonasson saw lightning over the sea. He knew that the helicopter was coming in the nick of time. All of a sudden a heavy downpour lashed at the window. The storm had moved in over Goteborg.

He heard the sound of the chopper and watched as it banked through the storm squalls down towards the helipad. For a second he held his breath when the pilot seemed to have difficulty controlling the aircraft. Then it vanished from his field of vision and he heard the engine slowing to a land. He took a hasty swallow of tea and set down his cup.

Jonasson met the emergency team in the admissions area. The other doctor on duty took on the first patient who was wheeled in -- an elderly man with ….

Friday, April 8

Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. (PROBABLY NOT A GOOD IDEA TO START WITH TWO PASSIVES IN THE VERY FIRST SENTENCE. PLS REVISE.) It was just before 1:30 in the morning.


“Rescue Service helicopter coming in. Two patients. An injured man and a younger woman. The woman has gunshot wounds.”


Although he had slept for only half an hour, he felt groggy. (ALTHOUGH? SEEMS TO ME THAT SLEEPING FOR JUST A HALF HOUR COULD BE WHAT MADE HIM GROGGY.) He was on the night shift in the ER at Sahlgrenska hospital in Gotegborg. It had been a strenuous evening. (VAGUE. SHOULD WE THROW IN A DETAIL OR TWO ABOUT THE EVENING AND PERHAPS ABOUT THE HOSPITAL, TOO?)

By 12:30 the steady flow of emergency cases (SEE NOTE ABOVE) had eased off. He had made a round to check on the state of his patients (DELETE “THE STATE OF”) and then gone back to the staff bedroom to try to (DELETE “TRY TO”) rest for a while. (I’VE NEVER HEARD OF A “STAFF BEDROOM.” ANY WAY TO MAKE THIS MORE VISUAL?) He was on duty until 6:00, (DELETE COMMA) and seldom got the chance to sleep even if no emergency patients came in. (WHY NOT? WHAT OTHER WORK WOULD KEEP HIM SO BUSY ON THE GRAVEYARD EMERGENCY ROOM SHIFT?) But this time he had fallen asleep almost as soon as he turned out the light. (“BUT THIS TIME” DOESN’T MAKE SENSE HERE. YOU’RE CONTRASTING A SENTENCE ABOUT NEVER HAVING THE CHANCE TO LIE DOWN WITH ANOTHER THAT SEEMS TO SUGGEST THAT LYING DOWN AND TURNING OUT THE LIGHT IS COMMON AND THE ONLY THING DIFFERENT IS HOW FAST HE FELL ASLEEP. PLS. FIX.)


He heard the sound of the chopper and watched as it banked (WHERE IS HE? SEEMS AWFULLY CONVENIENT THAT HE CAN SEE BOTH THE STORM ROLLING IN AND THE HELIPAD.) through the storm squalls(THAT WAS FAST) down towards the helipad. For a second he held his breath when the pilot seemed to have difficulty controlling the aircraft.(WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT DID HE SEE?) Then it vanished(UNCLEAR. EXPLAIN.) from his field of vision and he heard the engine slowing to a land. He took a hasty swallow of tea (KIND OF WEIRD THAT A JUST-SLEEPING MAN HAD SOME TEA HANDY. ALSO, SHOULDN’T HE BE SCRUBBING UP OR SOMETHING?) and set down his cup (ON WHAT?)

Jonasson met the emergency team in the admissions area.(DETAILS?) The other doctor on duty(DETAILS?) took on the first patient who was wheeled in(MIGHT BE BETTER IF WE DID THIS IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER: FIRST THE PATIENT WAS WHEELED IN, THEN THE DOCTOR “TOOK ON” THE PATIENT, BUT FIND A MORE SPECIFIC ALTERNATIVE TO “TOOK ON”—an elderly man with ….


Here is a rough sketch of how I suspect other authors might have approached the page:

April 8

Nurse Helga Olsson placed a firm hand on the sleeping doctor’s shoulder and shook him gently.

“Chopper coming in,” she said. “Two patients. An injured man and a woman with gunshot wounds. They’ll be here in five minutes.”

Dr. Sven Jonasson sat up and looked at the digital clock on the steel surgical tray that served as a nightstand. It was 1:28 a.m.

He felt groggy. He had only slept for half an hour on a cot in the small room next to the doctors’ lounge. It had been a rough night. Sahlgrenska Hospital’s ER had treated two stabbing victims, a couple of broken bones, and a peanut allergy reaction so severe Dr. Jonasson had to insert a breathing tube in the patient’s bloated neck to save her life.

By 12:30 a.m. the emergency cases had eased off. Dr. Jonasson made a round to check on his patients then went into the small room and lay down. He had fallen asleep almost as soon as he turned out the light.

He stood and watched nurse Olsson leave, then he walked to the window and looked out over Dorn Bay. A flash of lightning illuminated the water and he could see the torrents moving in. Within seconds, rain was lashing the window.

He heard a chopper and watched as it slowly came into view over the water. It banked through the storm squalls toward the helipad at the north end of the hospital grounds. Suddenly, the copter dropped about thirty feet, then it wobbled back and forth. Dr. Jonasson gasped and then held his breath as the chopper leveled and headed toward the helipad, where it landed safely.

He reached for the cup of tea he’d left on the makeshift nightstand and took a sip. It was cold and milky. He grimaced and set down the cup.

He arrived at the emergency room the same time as Dr. William Sorli, a skinny, wide-eyed intern who had been working the ER for about six months. They watched as a breathless EMT wheeled in the first patient—a crumpled old man who …

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Unknown said...

Ha! This is great.

Unknown said...

Wow. I read through the original and found very few errors. Then I read your suggested rewrite. So much better!

One small question: Shouldn't "eased off" be "eased up" (or maybe "fallen off")?

Thanks for sharing your process. Very helpful.

June Casagrande said...

Thank you! And, yes, it's hard to see big-picture problems in a piece. For example, I can get so focused on the passives that I can forget to ask: Why do we have this guy saying that the helicopter is coming in the nick of time? Can't you just tell the reader about the storm coming in and the chopper struggling and let him decide whether it's the nick of time?

Another thing I didn't notice: Yes, "eased up" or "fallen off" definitely would have been preferable (in my opinion, anyway). So hard to catch it all!

kidicarus222 said...

This was validating to read. I read the first book and thought it was a good page-turner, but oddly written. Sure, it was a translated work, but it still seemed to take too many words than necessary to get its points across.

But I'm curious: Given that Larsson died before the books were published, would they have been edited? He wasn't around to participate in the usual give-and-take that happens with authors and editors, so would they have been more lightly edited so that what got published was sure to match his original intentions?

Unknown said...

It's really interesting to compare the original lines from the book with your 'edit and suggestions' version.
Although I know it's probably outside your purview here, I would also be very interested in a comparison between the original Swedish and the published English translation - I think that would hold greater clues as to some of the choices made (and/or left unchanged) in the English text.

June Casagrande said...

That's a really good question, Drew. I don't know how the author's absence would affect the editing process. I would guess that it would result in a better edit, because the editors wouldn't have to accommodate the views of someone with limited writing skills. But, really, I have no idea what it's like in the head of an editor who has three unpublished manuscripts and a deceased author.

June Casagrande said...

Rascally: You'd probably be interested in this post by Neal Whitman:

He and some other linguistics types were speculating about whether some Larsson word choices were Larsson's or the translator's. And guess who joined the discussion: the translator! Anyway, my problem with Larsson's writing isn't so much his word choices as his information choices. The details he chose to focus on and the details he chose to ignore seem consistently to be the wrong calls.

Here's a sentence from page 11, describing emergency workers responding to a scene at which the protagonist has taken a bullet in the head (gray matter exposed and all):

"The helicopter crew and two paramedics had proceeded in a routine and professional manner."

Think of all the details and drama he eschewed in favor of "proceeded in a routin and professional manner." That's 100% the writer.

Mallory said...

wow, i really see what you mean in your revision. His writing is clunky. But I can't help it, I still love those books!

June Casagrande said...

I'm reading the third one and it's making me really, REALLY appreciate the first one. Forty-five of the first 50 pages are just different cops talking. And he never tells you where they are!

One chapter begins something like:

"Officer SoandSo was concluding her deliberations. The Salandar incident had been ...." (Goes on for a while about her thoughts.) 'We should consider whether there were accomplices involved,' she told her colleagues. 'Is Goteborg investigating the Nieman involvement?' one of her colleagues asked."

And I'm sitting there thinking: What colleagues? Where is she? Who the hell is she talking to? Did "deliberations" mean a debriefing of the whole department in the police HQ war room? Can you be any less specific than "involvement" or "incident"? What the hell is going on?

The writer never told us where she was, who was with her, what she was doing, or even what was meant by "deliberations." I can't believe that ended up in print that way!

On the other hand, they sure are selling a lot of books, huh? (Including to me.) Baffling.

(Note: I'm at work, so the above quote is a rough excerpt from memory. I didn't get it verbatim, but I believe I did it justice.)

Mallory said...

yeah the third one was my least favorite, it took me a while to get into it (I'm sure for exactly the reasons you're describing!). I am excited to see the American version of the first book. With David Fincher directing and Daniel Craig as Blomqvist, it should be good.

June Casagrande said...

Daniel Craig is a great idea. And knowing that will help me picture him better as I try to get through the slow first part of "Hornet's Nest."

Still meaning to see "Dragon Tattoo" Swedish version. I'm a little afraid of seeing such rough subject matter on screen. But I probably will anyway.

____ said...

This was so refreshing! Thank you for sharing!

And don't be afraid: the Swedish movies are wonderful!

June Casagrande said...

Thank you, Genna! (And good to know about the movies!)

Anonymous said...

This article is brutal but hilarious! I'm certainly going to be a regular visitor to your blog now!

June Casagrande said...

Thanks for sayin' so! There's a little more Larsson writing analysis here

and here

Unknown said...

While your edits make sense logically, I think you've lost the sense of place that Larsson has. I've lived in Göteborg (no extra g as in your text--perhaps that's a typo from the book but I doubt it) and have visited patients at Sahlgrenska and even conducted interviews there. You can't actually see the sea from there, but I suspect the original Svenska was something like "mot havet" which means more like "in the direction the sea is in". Dorn Bay is a particularly egregious example of yours as it's in California and doesn't even sound like a Swedish place name. Plus, the whole point of the story is not about the doctor's environs, rather that Lisbeth and Zalachenko are being taken to the same hospital, same floor, and both still alive. We all know what hospitals are like, who cares to read through details about it? I don't. I want to know if Lisbeth is going to rally and kill Zalachenko or vice versa and I want Larsson to get to that point as quickly as possible.

June Casagrande said...

Names inserted were placeholders. "Dorn Bay" was no different from "Nurse Helga Olson" -- just made-up stuff in there as examples.

Like you, I'm not a big fan of details describing physical layouts. But Larsson was frequently negligent in setting scenes -- so a little bit about a cot here and window there, I believe, makes the writing far more professional. And as staff bedrooms with windows overlooking both the sea and helipads are uncommon (if existent at all), I think it required explanation.

Cinderellen said...

Your edited version was a little girly - but I do take your point that Larsson's writing was not the best. I wondered myself if it was Larsson or his translator who thought (in the second book) a person peering out of the shrubbery in the Caribbean might be hiding behind a rhododendron. Nothing could be less tropical.

June Casagrande said...

Ha! You're right about the Caribbean imagery! During that part, I was too busy marveling at the dialogue:

Lisbeth (who just learned a hurricane is coming): What do I do?

Bartender woman: Hurricanes aren't things to be played with, Lisbeth.

(Thanks, lady.) : )

And re the rewrite version, I didn't see any way to bring the page up to professoinal quality by merely editing it, which is why I presented that as a "sample rewrite" done as "I suspect other writers might approach it." It's definitely no longer in his voice. And yup, I guess I do write kinda girly!

Alec said...

Nicely done! Although I'd also argue that Larsson's real issue isn't his prose, but his plotting. All the time spent rewriting these few paragraphs would have been much better invested in crossing out entire pages (or chapters) of unnecessary padding, at least in the first novel. (At least a third of that book, especially at the beginning and the end, could have been cut with no loss to the reader.)

June Casagrande said...

You're right. There was so much that could have been cut. In one of the books he spends about a page and a half listing, by name, Ikea pieces purchased by Salander. Cutting sure would've helped there.

Dory said...

Being a substantive & developmental ed myself. . .I'm WELL aware of the effort & time it takes to vet out on MANY levels.

Of the hundreds of writers I've worked with in my 40 year career, it was rare to find any who actually understood the different types of editing.

And I suppose IF you'd wanted to spend the time to go over again what you initially 'suggested' [g], you'd find even MORE areas that need 'fixing'

Nice to know another ed who takes their work seriously....

Now, have you built up the thick skin along with a smile that couches detachment?

Good job,
High fives to you. . .

June Casagrande said...

Funny you should ask about the thick skin. I worked in community news for years, where writers and editors take a lot of guff from readers about errors/shortcomings both perceived and real. You develop a thick skin really fast in that biz -- or at least the appearance of one.

Yet somehow, after years in that business, I emerged with a skin about as thick as an overripe tomato. I figure either I'm immune to becoming immune, or else all the other mushy tomatoes I worked with were faking it, too.

: )

Dory said...

Should have mentioned what you probably know: Larsson's books were translated here in the US...

It would have meant more $$ to have them vetted for US market. And who would've done the re-writes? ;)

June Casagrande said...

Hmmm. You have a good point about rewrites. The only way to preserve an author's voice is to have him do the rewrites. But, obviously, that wasn't possible because he was already dead.

Which leads me to the question: I wonder how much the books could have been improved by chopping alone. That is no (or minimal) insertions of new info, just streamlining inefficient sentences and chopping out unnecessary passages. That would be a challenge for even the best editor, but it'd be really interesting to see how much this kind of chopping could improve the books.

Of course, now that the $$ thing you mention is no longer a problem for the rights holders, I'd be happy to do the rewrites ...

: )

Dory said...

The author's 'voice' was corrupted the moment the translater put his hand to the ms.

I haven't read the book, yet, but from reader's reviews, I get the impression that it's a love it or hate it, read.

ONE reason may be that some folks read every word vs. those who scan.

I suspect that cutting out anything that doesn't progress the story, compacting info dump or threading it with dialogue/action would enhance the author's voice.

Maybe sometime in the future we can share / debate all the elements of editing.

ON that note, I wish you a very pleasant evening and thank you for allowing me to participate.


Kay said...

Thank you! I'm glad someone agrees those books are choppy, poorly-detailed shite.

June Casagrande said...

Thanks, K.

The more I think about this, the more aware I am of the contrast between the first book and the next two. The first one is definitely more polished, leaving me to wonder whether his editors were thrown off by his death -- i.e. they didn't know how to revise a book without the help of the author and, knowing they'd sell, just published the rough drafts.

missprism said...

Your editorial queries are legitimate, but the original is better than the rewrite. The rewrite lacks concision. Plot and rapid forward motion is more important for a thriller than a lot of color. This reads as tortured overkill.

June Casagrande said...

Funny. Overkill is exactly the word I used to describe the fact that Larsson took three opportunities to tell us the doctor was groggy. Yet didn't once mention there was a window in the room or how that cup of tea got there.

Just as bad as telling us twice that a chopper was coming in ("was expected to land" and "chopper coming in").

To me, repeated information is overkill. Adding detail, on the other hand, is not. That's just what professional writers do.

John Cowan said...

Disclaimer: I haven't read Larsson and I'm not likely to, because I dislike the genre. I haven't seen the movies either.

Most of your comments boil down to "Show, don't tell", and that's a fetish. Not only that, it's a particularly 20th-century-American fetish that the rest of the world's literatures pay no attention to. Narrative point of view isn't just a film camera manque, it's what a storyteller has to say. "I'll make my report as if I told a story," begins one of my favorite books in the whole world, and a story is just what it is, the same as "The Three Little Pigs", only immensely more sophisticated. The notion that people don't want to hear good stories well told (and I make no claims at all for this one in particular) and have to be shown everything, as if at a puppet show, is just absurd.

A few notes on your other notes: Staff bedrooms are common in hospitals and are routinely used by doctors pulling overnight shifts when, in fact, nothing is happening. Existing patients can keep you quite busy even if no new patients arrive, as they improve, get worse, or die. Saying "He knew that the helicopter was coming in the nick of time" is quite different from saying "The helicopter was coming in the nick of time": one is about what the character realizes, the other is about what the narrator tells us is going to be the case.

And your rewrite reads like a Dan Brown opening; was that what you had in mind? If so, it should have begun "Renowned emergency physician Dr. Sven Jonasson" or "Blonde, well-developed nurse Helga Olsson, and the pilot should have crashed the helicopter into the sea, killing everyone aboard except himself.

June Casagrande said...

Actually, I agree with your underlying premise: "Show, don't tell" is taken way too seriously. One of my favorite books begins with, "This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast."

But just because "show, don't tell" isn't a rule doesn't mean that it's completely lacking wisdom. It's excellent advice for certain writers who have a hard time bringing scenes to life - e.g. Larsson.

It's just like the advice "avoid adjectives." The two Dan Brown-esque passages you gave are classic examples of the wisdom behind that. Yet, I bet you'd agree that, as a blanket rule, "avoid adjectives" is ridiculous. (A fetish, even?)

Both these bits of advice are training wheels for writers who need them. And Larsson needed them.

He was writing in a genre closer to Dan Brown's than to Kurt Vonnegut's. He was aiming for that very standard. Yet he couldn't reach it!

Larsson had a serious problem with bringing scenes to life. He's exactly the type of writer who inspired the "show, don't tell" mantra.

I don't believe that writers should "show, don't tell." I believe that some writers need to learn how to show instead of telling. Then they can show and tell in a professional way. That's not fetishizing.

Re staff bedrooms: If they're common and most readers know that, well, that's exactly the type of reply a writer would make to a query. Then the editor and writer together would make the call about whether the average reader should be expected to know this. But that's the copy editor's job: to act as a reader and point out such things. Since you tell me now that staff bedrooms are common, there's a good chance this query would not have resulted in a change to the manuscript.

And, if readers' image of hospital staff bedrooms customarily includes an ocean view and a good view of a helipad, that query would have been rejected as well.


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