Month: August 2023

  • Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life

    Narrative devices in Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life.

    Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life.

    Story of Your Life is a 1998 Nebula-winning science fiction novella, later adapted as the film Arrival. Written by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life takes a less than exciting idea – variational principles in physics – and transforms it into a moving story about a linguist encountering aliens, intimately woven around her own relationship with her daughter.

    It also addresses linguistics and the question of what we would do if we could see the future.

    Would we still make the same choices?

    Would we still have free will?

    What does it mean to remember the future?

    Structurally, the story plays out as a loop, beginning and ending in the same place. The main plot is a chronological sequence interspersed with future events deliberately shown out of order.

    As a result, the story’s structure represents the language of the aliens, whose perception of time is different from humans.

    WARNING: While this post deals primarily with technique, narrative devices and how they’re used to explore the themes of the story, SPOILERS may be present. I have not described the plot in detail, but read on at your own risk!

    Author Ted Chiang

    Ted Chiang is not a prolific author. And in spite of the success of his science fiction stories, he has never had a novel published, and each story takes a long time to write.

    He’s not concerned with a large body of work. Rather, he dives deep into the subject matter of each story, researching, making notes, before he even begins to write.

    In the case of Story of Your Life, he spent five years immersing himself in the field of linguistics before starting the novella.

    Interestingly, Chiang told one interviewer that he doesn’t start writing a story until he knows how it ends. He writes the ending first.

    Once he knows the final destination of the narrative, he can then build the rest.

    The beginning of a story is usually the second thing he writes. In Story of Your Life this particularly makes sense because the ending and beginning are so intimately connected.

    Chiang also writes key scenes and then fills in other scenes after that. In filling in, he might go back as well as forward in the narrative. It’s not a chronological form of story telling.

    Again, this style is particularly evident in Story of Your Life.

    The novella likely benefits from this approach because it fits with one of the central ideas of the story. The heptapod written language involves the aliens knowing the whole structure of their complicated sentences in advance. This connects to their perception of time, which is not linear or sequential.

    Chiang adopted a similar technique for this and other stories. He has to know his destination before he starts writing.

    Story premise

    A linguist is recruited to help the military and scientists communicate with aliens whose ships have appeared above Earth. The aliens are called heptapods. Communication takes place through the use of ‘looking glasses’ which allow the linguists and scientists to see the aliens.

    The narrator Louise is matched to work with a physicist, Gary. Because for humans to hopefully learn about alien technology and their understanding of physics, they first of all have to establish communication.

    Weaving through the story of learning the heptapod language are ideas about linguistics and how language affects human cognition.

    Additionally, it becomes apparent that the heptapods don’t have a linear understanding of time. Through learning the heptapod language, the main character starts to see the future, including the daughter who is not yet born. This raises questions about free will.

    The Heptapods

    The aliens in the novel are barrel-like with seven lidless eyes circling the body. They don’t need to turn round because with eyes on all sides, they have no front or back in the human sense.

    They have two languages – spoken and written. Initially, Louise tries to deal with their spoken language (Heptapod A). But progress is difficult.

    Realising they likely also have a written language (Heptapod B), she finds more success here, though it will take time to learn even the basics.

    The novella raises the issue of how to communicate in a completely new language, with no common foundations.

    But Heptapod B is also very different from human languages in the way it uses case markers and rotation to denote meaning.

    As time goes on, Louise learns more of the written language, which begins to impact the way she sees the world. Specifically, the way she sees time.

    And it becomes obvious that the heptapods themselves likely see time in a very different way from humans. As less sequential.

    The story explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that a person’s thinking and perception are affected by the grammatical and verbal structure of their language.

    An obvious example would be the many Inuit words for different types of snow. Most people in other climates have a more simplified perception of snow, and an easier way to describe it. Either because they don’t encounter snow as often, or their survival doesn’t depend on being able to identify the different types.

    In the story, by learning a non-sequential language, where the end point is already known, Louise starts to see her own life non-sequentially. Hence, she knows her daughter’s life from beginning to end, before she’s even born.

    But because her daughter will die tragically young, this raises the question of whether Louise could or would change the future.

    Does free will exist? Even though she knows the outcome, she is still compelled to move towards it.

    The use of tense and point of view

    The story is told in first-person voice, from the perspective of the central character, Louise. She starts from the point just before her daughter is conceived.

    The novel also ends at this point, circling back to the beginning.

    This present appears in present tense. From there her narrative looks back (past tense) to the arrival of both the aliens and those who recruit her to her new role communicating with the alien heptapods.

    But she also remembers the future with her daughter who won’t even be born until after the aliens depart. When Louise remembers the future, she does so in future tense:

    I remember one day during the summer when you’re sixteen...

    Note how she’s also addressing her daughter. The passages remembering the future appear in second person/future tense.

    It’s soon revealed however that she never gets the opportunity to tell her daughter the story of her life. Louise knows in advance that the right moment will never come.

    We learn near the beginning of the story that her daughter dies in an accident.


    The first thing to note about the novella’s structure is that the sections set around the heptapods and the language acquisition issues are told in chronological order, in contrast to the future memories which are jumbled up.

    The main plot relating to communicating with the heptapods is somewhat heavy in ideas and theory.

    It’s not always the case, but some of these scenes are drier than those looking to the future.

    Scenes with the unnamed daughter bring light, emotion, and more humanity to the story.

    Chiang has balanced these elements well, leading to a solid structure and pace.

    The flash forward scenes weave in and out of the main narrative and while Louise tells us at the outset how this story ends, what packs the emotional punch at the end is seeing an entire life in fragments.

    It’s already clear that this story begins and ends in the same place.

    So what about the rest of the structure? If we were to adopt the structural breakdown that KM Weiland talks about in her book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, the structural points might be broken down as below.

    The resolution of the novel circles back to the opening hook. We learn on the second page of the story that spaceships have arrived. That’s definitely part of the opening hook. On the second last page of the story those ships depart and the final scene returns to the present, just before the daughter’s conception. Exactly where the story started.

    If we look to the inciting event being about 12.5% into the narrative, that would fit with Louise’s first sighting of the heptapods through the ‘looking glass’ devices. She has already been recruited to communicate with them near the beginning/opening hook. This is also where she starts working with Gary, and their working relationship will heavily impact her future.

    The first plot point (25%) introduces the logograms and the beginning of the writing system that will change the perception of any human who learns it.

    The first pinch point (37.5) reveals the nature of Heptapod B, a language with a grammar in two dimensions. A full fledged graphical language. Louise has made a breakthrough with the written language.

    Meanwhile the midpoint introduces Fermat’s Principle of Least Time where a ray of light takes the fastest route through water. After trying and failing to engage with the heptapods on physics, this is the first breakthrough. This is a variational principle. Gary is the one who explains it.

    The next structural point has the two of them discuss this principle and how it means the light ray has to know ahead of time where it will end up before it can choose the direction it will take.

    This strikes a chord with Louise who has already seen the heptapods write in real time. They too need to know in advance the direction the strokes in their complex logograms will take.

    Around the second plot point or 75% mark there is a question of whether it’s possible to know the future.

    The existence of free will seems to suggest otherwise.

    Yet Louise sees an object in front of her that will cause her daughter a minor injury in the future. Louise still feels compelled to reach for it and buy it. It feels right and instinctual.

    The 88% mark introduces subject of gift giving between humans and heptapods. By this time, thanks to learning a non-sequential language, Louise knows what will happen, just like the heptapods. She is merely playing her part and saying her lines as the story moves towards its conclusion.

    The military and government have their hopes that some new technology will be handed over. For them this would be their ultimate goal, the climax of the interaction which runs up to the resolution.

    For Louise, the gift is the knowledge of the future, not to mention her daughter who is an indirect consequence of the alien visitation. She will also start a relationship during this period.

    And so the story moves to its conclusion, circling back to the beginning.

    If this all sounds very dry, it’s because I’ve left out the more personal subplots that also tie in. In case you want to read the story yourself. Plus the thematic elements and linguistic breakthroughs are what actually happens at these percentage points.

    While you don’t have to hit these points, they are useful in analysing a story’s structure. Most of all, they are a good reminder that something needs to happen/change every so often.

    You cannot have long scenes and chapters where nothing happens.

    And when things do happen, they should be building on one another, as they do in Story of Your Life.

    Chiang’s structure and language/physics plot develops nicely to its conclusion, weaving together with the more emotional and personal story of Louise and her future daughter.

    Finally it all comes together in the resolution.

    The question of free will

    Since I didn’t write this post as a general review of the novella, I don’t want to get too much into themes. However, I did want to address the issue of whether free will is possible when you know the future already.

    One reason for addressing this is the very structure and narrative choices the author has made illustrates why Louise does not attempt to change the future, even though she knows the outcome.

    Normally, the idea of knowing the future so you can change it deals with something simple – you have an intuition/dream not to get on a plane because it will crash. If you believe this intuition, your choice doesn’t just extend to whether you save your own life, but whether you try to stop the plane from taking off.

    The problem is you don’t have the whole story of why the plane is in danger. You have an end prediction, with little to no context.

    In the case of Story of Your Life, sometime after she begins learning Heptapod B, Louise starts to see flashes of the future with her daughter. Even before her daughter is conceived, she has seen the whole of her daughter’s life.

    She has also felt the love and maternal bond she will have for this daughter, and she can see that in spite of knowing how her daughter’s life ends, it’s all still worth it.

    She is compelled to live out her fate. Just like the heptapods who enthusiastically interact with the linguists even though the aliens know everything the humans will say and do in advance. Knowing the future doesn’t seem to dampen the heptapod’s interest. In fact, going through with the action formalises it. Which relates to something else that comes up in the story – speech-act theory.

    Ted Chiang’s use of future tense scenes, interwoven with the main plot, makes Louise’s future with her daughter the most vibrant part of the novella.

    It also perfectly illustrates why Louise, having considered the question of free will when you know the future, still carries on the path that will lead to her losing her child.

    Because, as the novella shows clearly, Louise already knows and loves the child before she’s even conceived.

    No wonder she feels compelled to act out this future, with all the joys and sorrows she knows lie ahead.

    Like Fermat’s Principle of Least Time and the beam of light passing through water, Louise already knows her destination.

    What lessons can we learn from this novella?

    While point of view and tense are things all fiction writers deal with, they are usually not used to reinforce a theme or display an idea – certainly not the way Chiang used both in Story of Your Life.

    It’s certainly true that both can be approached in a more utilitarian way.

    In which case your safest bet would be third-person POV/past tense. This is a largely invisible combination that does not draw attention to itself and which is less likely to annoy readers.

    Alternatively, you can use first-person POV and past tense – another safe combination.

    You can certainly change tenses and points of view within a narrative, but there needs to be a good narrative reason.

    In Story of Your Life there are very good reasons.

    Likewise, Chiang’s particular method of putting together a story – starting with the end, then the beginning, then filling in the rest, will work for some people, but not everyone!

    In conclusion, it’s always worth looking at how a classic story has been constructed and why the author has chosen certain narrative devices. Especially an award-winning adapted novella that still impresses after a quarter of a century.

    Other related blog posts

    How editorial feedback changed Interview With the Vampire.

    How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby.

    When publishers drop the ball.

    Looking for feedback on your own story?

    Whether you’re writing a shorter narrative or a full novel, an objective eye and developmental feedback can give you useful insights into how to polish your final draft(s).

    I offer different options – report only, or report plus margin comments. You can check my services page below to see what’s available or let me know if you have custom requirements.

    Click here for my services page.

  • Historical Novels Review

    Historical Novels Review

    Historical Novels Review

    The Historical Novels Review is a quarterly publication you receive when you subscribe to the Historical Novel Society. Since historical fiction is one of the genres I edit (and write), I decided it was time to sign up.

    As a member, you have the ability to add your own directory entry. Even if you’re not published yet. You can also add an entry if you’re a blogger or reviewer, etc.

    The society’s website features many book reviews and articles, as well as ‘What’s on’ news.

    If you want to check out the reviews you can click here.

    If you want to check out features and articles you can click here.

    The August 2023 edition of the magazine has 62 pages, including the back cover. The cover is glossy, with smooth inner paper on the interior. The text of the articles and reviews inside might be a little small for some readers. However, articles are also available online.

    Writing alternative history

    One interesting article is All Possible Worlds: CJ Carey and the “What If” of Alternative History by Douglas Kemp. CJ Carey is the writing name of Jane Thynne. Her novels Queen High and Widowland are predicated on Germany winning WWII, with the UK under occupation. It’s now the 1950s and the main character, Rose Ransom, is working both for the occupiers and the resistance.

    Through his article Douglas Kemp explores not just the world of Carey’s novels, but the differences between normal historical fiction and alternative history. While the former requires more attention to facts, the latter might create new timelines, yet there still needs to be internal consistency. The alternative world still needs to make sense and retain its own credibility.

    Ageism against new older female authors

    In another article, Kathleen Jones writes about the ageism women authors face from agents and editors, particularly in relation to debut novelists. The article was triggered by an event held during the recent Historical Novel Society Conference. A member of the audience asked a panel member if age was a barrier to an agent taking on an author over fifty. The literary agent on the panel admitted that editors will check out authors online, even if their age isn’t revealed by the agent, and that age can be a barrier.

    This naturally outraged many older women present and the topic would come up among them over the course of the rest of the conference.

    Of course women face particular barriers when it comes to an earlier debut. In addition to other careers, they are often carers to children, or elderly relatives.

    The article goes on to point out the number of older women recently shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

    As Kathleen Jones says in her article, there are advantages as well as disadvantages to being an older debuting author – such as more life experience. Jones believes things are looking up in the publishing industry. Certainly, when most of the reading market consists of women over 45, those same readers should be able to find more new voices from their own generation.

    If you want to read the article you can click here.

    You can check out the society website here. You’ll find other articles, as well as reviews, the society’s Facebook group info, local groups and events.

    Check out some IndieCat reviews of historical novels

    And you can also check out my review of one of my all-time favourite historical novels, A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel here.

    I’ve also written about Joan Lindsay and her novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, also an historical novel published when the author was in her seventies.

    I also looked at some of the developmental choices Diana Gabaldon made in the first Outlander novel.

  • How editorial feedback changed Interview with the Vampire

    How editorial feedback changed Interview With The Vampire.
    How editorial feedback changed Interview With The Vampire

    Interview with the Vampire is one of the most famous vampire novels in history, easily ranking with Dracula and Carmilla as a milestone in the genre. It was a novel that not only changed the life of its author Anne Rice, but also the genre itself. This post looks at the background to the book, its writing, submission process, and how editorial feedback changed Interview with the Vampire, leading to Anne Rice switching to the ending readers know today.

    WARNING for spoilers relating to the current ending of the novel versus the original ending. Anyone who has not read the book, seen the film, or heard the story should stop reading now.

    Also, this blog follows on from the previous post where I looked at Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and how it changed after editorial feedback from his editor, Max Perkins.

    The first draft of Interview

    It’s part of literary folklore (though also true) that Interview started as a short story. Anne reworked this story a few times and you can read a version of it in The Vampire Companion, listed in the reading material at the end of this post.

    In late 1973, she returned to it, developing it further so that it became a novel she famously wrote in five weeks. She wrote long into the night, her husband learning to sleep with the light on. Sometimes he slept on the couch.

    Rice wrote at night, researched at the library during the day, and also drank. She was still in the throes of grief after the death of her young daughter Michelle from leukaemia.

    For most of her writing life, Anne would identify more with the villain of her first published novel – Lestat. But at this point in her life, she was more wedded to the dark pessimism, guilt and grief of Louis, who suffers the loss of his brother early on, the loss of his mortal life, and the loss of his daughter-companion later.

    The novel’s frame narrative introduces the interview and the location – San Francisco. In fact, Anne had previously accompanied her poet husband Stan to a small radio station on Divisadero Street. Now the vampire would occupy such a space, telling the story of his life to an interviewer.

    Though Anne lived in San Francisco at the time, through the novel she returned to the city of her childhood – New Orleans – richly describing climate, flora, streets, quarters, and the interiors of houses.

    The novel tapped into her own history and recent bereavement, though she didn’t analyse it at the time.

    Another influence on the novel was Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, particularly in relation to Louis learning to become a vampire.

    She read Carmilla but could not finish Dracula which showed vampires as more alien and animalistic. The 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter was more in line with her vision of vampires as tragic, with a conscience and the ability to suffer.

    She broke with many of the usual genre tropes so that her vampires could see their own reflections, touch crucifixes, enter churches.

    It was important that while they represented something magical in their immortality, the vampires themselves could see no evidence of something greater than themselves – namely, God or the Devil. This strengthens the existential angst for a character like Louis.

    Finishing and submitting the first draft

    After five weeks of furious writing, Anne finally finished the first draft of more than three hundred pages. In her diary she wrote:

    It is just before four a.m. Monday morning, January 14 (1974), and I have just finished my vampire novel – 338 pages. Even as I write this the flaws occur to me. Perhaps I’ll go in and add something terribly essential. But right now I want to enjoy the moment of being finished… I am too excited about it to say anything humble or modest. I feel that even the writing of this entry is important. I dream, hope, imagine that this will be my first published work. I feel ashamed of nothing in it – not even what I know to be flaws. I feel solidly behind it as though Louis’ voice were my voice and I do not run the risk of being misunderstood.

    Before she showed the manuscript to anyone, she sorted out the flaws in the ending. But that ending was very different from the present one.

    In the meantime, she showed the novel to her husband. His first thought after finishing it was, “Our lives have changed.”

    On the other hand, a writing group failed to appreciate the opening thirty pages, their comments unproductive.

    When she sent the novel to someone who worked in film, he suggested she change the title. She didn’t take his advice.

    She then sent the novel off to publishers and received many months of rejections.

    Finally she ended up with two interested agents at the same time. She chose Phyllis Seidel and in October 1974 she received the news that Knopf would pay $12,000 for the hardback rights. This was six times the average for a first novel.

    Anne’s new editor Victoria Wilson did want some changes – minor changes. She brought up something that is not uncommon in manuscripts.

    The editorial feedback

    In her editorial letter, Vicky Wilson wrote, “I think you were tired at the end. The end sort of peters out.” While other people who read the novel didn’t feel the same way, Anne felt that Vicky was right. The story calls for a tragic ending, and her energy had given out before she could properly conclude it.

    It’s not uncommon for authors to be exhausted by the end of a draft. This can mean the ending is weaker or ends in the wrong place. The beginning can often be stronger because the author has more energy and motivation at that point. They are only at the beginning of the long marathon of writing a novel.

    But what was the original ending?

    The original ending

    The novel up to Louis and Claudia going to Paris is pretty much the same as the published draft. But there is no Theatre of the Vampires. There is no climactic fire. There is no Madeleine. Lestat never appears, suggesting he likely died in the fire in New Orleans.

    Instead, the Paris vampires live in an old mansion in the Faubourg St. Germain where they throw balls, recite Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, and drink animal blood in crystal glasses, served from a cauldron. Elderly human servants attend to them, humans who hope to become vampires one day.

    Louis assumes the vampires are Satanic, leading him to hope they might have some answers to his existential questions. But Armand, the oldest of him, has no knowledge of either God or the Devil. This discussion still essentially exists in the published novel.

    There are other scenes that don’t appear in the final draft, or which have been adapted. A girl is feasted on at the house in the early draft, while this takes place in the Theatre of the Vampires in the final version.

    There’s a scene where Armand and Louis look out from a tower room to the Paris skyline beyond. Louis still suffers despair. He cannot stay with the Paris coven. They are too conformist and rigid in their rules. In Armand, he finds “the vampire of my dreams” and they go off together to wander the world. They’re still together by the time of the interview.

    Meanwhile Claudia has embraced the Paris coven, fitting in where Louis does not. While the truth comes out about her attacking and likely killing Lestat, the other vampires decide he deserved it. The punishment in the final version leads to a dramatic climax. In this earlier version, Claudia is welcomed and joins with other vampire children to terrorize the priests and population of Paris.

    There is more to this older draft, and you can find an outline of it in Katherine Ramsland’s The Vampire Companion, which is listed in the reading material at the end.

    The attraction of the first draft’s ending might be evident to anyone who understands that in the child vampire Claudia, Anne Rice had immortalised her own daughter. “Claudia” was Michelle’s nickname. In granting Claudia a happier ending, she might have left her alive at the end of the book, but the overall happy ending wasn’t what the book needed.

    According to Anne, “The ending wasn’t right. It just didn’t reach it’s cathartic pitch. In fact it didn’t really have an ending, so I went back and rewrote it, and then it had a horrendously different ending.”

    The rewrite

    Anne admits she didn’t really re-read the first half, only skimming it. Instead, she threw out the last hundred pages and spent ten weeks writing the new scenes and researching new material. She worked twelve hours a day. The novel’s world was growing and expanding and she was swept up in it once more.

    This brought the manuscript up to 530 pages. It was far more than what her editor had asked for.

    With the novel now having new scenes, plot twists, and a different tone and ending, the risk was that the publisher might not like it.

    It was no longer the manuscript they’d bought.

    But Vicky Wilson was delighted.

    Later, Vicky and the editor-in-chief at Knopf told Anne that when authors are asked to revise, they don’t usually address most of the feedback. Some things are revised, but “they get very little back. There isn’t much more an author can do, and they know that.” (This was the mid-70s.)

    Lessons from Interview with the Vampire

    It is absolutely true that authors can run out of steam before they reach the end of their book. I have seen numerous manuscripts where the ending petered out.

    But this is fixable.

    It’s worth remembering that Anne Rice sent off an early draft. Some writers take longer and write a few before they submit it anywhere.

    It’s certainly better to polish a manuscript over time, taking break periods where necessary.

    It’s important to recuperate and return to the manuscript with more energy and objectivity.

    Feedback from others also helps. For some, this will be writing groups.

    Anne Rice didn’t find her contact with writers in this scenario as helpful. She had a poet husband who was supportive, but ultimately her own instincts told her to hold to her vision where necessary.

    That same instinctual understanding of her characters and story told her how to fix the ending.

    Her novel went on to become a classic of the genre. One that would change the vampire novel forever.

    Reading List

    Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

    Prism of the Night: A Biography of Anne Rice by Katherine Ramsland

    Conversations with Anne Rice by Michael Riley

    The Anne Rice Reader edited by Katherine Ramsland

    The Vampire Companion: The Official Guide to Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles by Katherine Ramsland

    Looking for editorial feedback yourself?

    Whether you’re a beginner writer or you have more experience, editorial feedback offers a fresh insight into your characters, plot, story structure and more.

    There are different levels of feedback. I offer an Opening Chapters Developmental edit, a Manuscript Critique, a Beta Critique (a bit shorter and cheaper than a Manuscript Critique), or a full Developmental Edit.

    If you have any custom requests, feel free to contact me at or you can check my services page link below:

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  • How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby

    How developmental editing feedback improved The Great Gatsby.
    How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby

    When Scott Fitzgerald heard his first novel This Side of Paradise was accepted, he immediately quit his job (repairing the roofs of railroad cars), and ran down the streets, stopping automobiles and friends to tell them the news.

    His novel had been accepted by the traditionally conservative New York publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons. And although Scott had sent previous drafts of the novel to Maxwell Perkins there, acceptance of This Side of Paradise marked the beginning of a professional relationship that would last for two decades.

    Soon F. Scott Fitzgerald would become the voice of a generation – forever associated with the Jazz Age and flappers.

    And Maxwell Perkins would go on to work with Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, making him possibly the most famous and influential fiction editor in history.

    Scott’s last letter to his editor, Max Perkins, was dated December 13th 1940. Scott died later that month from a heart attack. His final novel, The Last Tycoon, was left unfinished.

    The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel. It was preceded by This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned and followed by Tender is the Night. Additionally, his Jazz Age short stories solidified his reputation.

    Maxwell Perkins

    Perkins was exceedingly gifted at inspiring an author to produce their best work. While he could help with structure, think up plots and titles where needed, Perkins had a credo: “The book belongs to the author.”

    He also long avoided the spotlight believing that editors should be invisible, both for the benefit of the author and the public. To be visible could erode trust in the work or the writer involved.

    If you have a Mark Twain, he said, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare.

    But in Fitzgerald Max Perkins was dealing with a perfectionist. Consequently, there was less advice needed compared to some others. Nevertheless, as well as dishing out support, cheques against future earnings, and exchanges on other up and coming authors, Perkins would also give editorial feedback.

    In this blog post, I’ll specifically deal with his editorial commentary on the original draft he saw of Gatsby. Perkins would later say of the novel, his favourite Fitzgerald novel, that it was “as perfect a thing as I ever had any share in publishing.’

    What to call the third novel?

    Correspondence between Perkins and Fitzgerald shows Scott trying out different titles for the book. Some of these titles seem distinctly odd now: Trimalchio in West Egg is perhaps one of the least strange. Other suggestions included:


    Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires

    On the Road to West Egg

    Gold-hatted Gatsby


    The High-bouncing Lover

    Under the Red, White and Blue

    While Scott worried over the title and was still fond of Trimalchio, this choice did not go down well with most of those at Scribner’s. And although The Great Gatsby ultimately won out, Scott felt the title wanting in some way.

    The editorial feedback

    There is a Cambridge edition of the early Gatsby manuscript, titled Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby. It also contains notes and two letters from Perkins. The value of this draft of Gatsby is in seeing what differs from the final version.

    For anyone particularly familiar with Gatsby, there will be obvious changes. However, the novel that most people know is still very much there.

    Previously, the novel Fitzgerald was writing was far longer, but he removed a lot of material. There is a long story called Absolution that was cut from the Gatsby narrative. By the time the first draft arrived on Perkins’ desk, the manuscript (Trimalchio) was very similar to the end product.

    Maxwell wrote back to Fitzgerald full of enthusiasm. Dear Scott, he wrote, I think the novel is a wonder. He goes on to say it has vitality and glamour.

    He brought up the issue of the title, which no one at the publisher liked but him. This letter was brief since he intended to take the novel home and read it again, before writing his impressions in full.

    His second letter was a bit longer, but it did not amount to what might be a modern manuscript critique. This is partly because Fitzgerald had already cut a lot out of his novel and shaped it before sending Perkins the first draft he saw. This was Scott’s third novel, so he knew what he was doing and was already a perfectionist.

    Perkins opens the second letter with, “I think you have every kind of right to be proud of this book.” He goes on to praise the use of a spectator narrator in Nick Carraway, which gives the readers more perspective on what is happening than the characters at the heart of the book. The eyes of Dr Eckleberg also look down on events.

    When it comes to actual criticisms, Perkins makes only a few points. He was not a very hands-on editor with Fitzgerald. He never wanted to impose his own vision and he was dealing with an exceptionally talented writer.

    The criticisms make perfect sense and while tiny in number, they do make an important difference.

    First of all Scott had worried that there was a slight sagging in chapters six and seven. Perkins agreed with him but didn’t offer a suggestion other than to say he knew Scott would come up with something to fix the pacing.

    Describing Gatsby

    One major difference between the first draft Perkins saw and the published version relates to the scene where Nick first finds himself looking at Gatsby.

    He was only a little older than me – somehow I had expected a florid and corpulent person in his middle years – yet he was somehow not a young man at all. There was a stiff dignity about him, and a formality of speech that just missed being absurd, that always trembled on the verge of absurdity until you wondered why you didn’t laugh. I got the distinct impression that he was picking his words with care.

    After that, Gatsby is distracted by his butler and leaves.

    Readers familiar with Gatsby will remember a more memorable description that more clearly outlines his youth. Perkins pointed out that Tom Buchanan was so well described that he’d know him if he met him on the street. By contrast, “Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim.

    While much about Gatsby is a mystery, Perkins felt that he should be described in as much detail as the others.

    Perkins adds that two people at the publishing house thought Gatsby was older than he was, even with the statement that the man was only a little older than Nick.

    In a later response to Perkins, Scott admitted that he himself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in (the nature of his business). He’d originally thought this was okay, but it was of course one of the problems Perkins picked up on.

    Here is the final version that Scott came up with:

    He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.

    Gatsby’s business

    Another point Perkins made related to the mysterious nature of Gatsby’s business. He clearly had a business relationship with Wolfsheim but the reader would still be puzzled by all his wealth.

    It wasn’t that Perkins wanted Fitzgerald to go into detail about the source of his money. But he thought the reader would wonder about it and that it would make sense to drop in hints here and there “that would suggest he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

    Perkins went on to say that the total lack of an explanation “through so large a part of the story does seem to me a defect.” Even the suggestion of an explanation would do. The details of what Gatsby is engaged in didn’t need to be outlined, including whether he was an innocent tool of someone else or not. But there did need to be more evidence of his activities.

    In his response letter (which can be read in Dear Scott/Dear Max), Scott said, “Gatsby’s business affairs I can fix. I get your point about them.

    And indeed in the next draft he does drop in more evidence of mysterious business activities that do not in any way undermine the mystery of Gatsby himself. The reader can fill in some of the remaining gaps themself.

    In a later letter Perkins (in Dear Scott/Dear Max) brought the subject up again, referring to the fact Gatsby was supposed to be a bootlegger – a little bit here and there about the bootlegging might be what’s needed.

    Gatsby’s biography

    In the earlier draft, the story of Gatsby’s background appears in chapter eight. Perkins felt that the way it was given to the narrator departs from the narrative technique in the rest of the book. Elsewhere, “everything is told, and beautifully told, in the regular flow of it, – in the succession of events or in accompaniment with them.” Dumping the backstory where it appears in the earlier draft interrupts the flow of the novel. Perkins thought it better to sprinkle the information bit by bit through the course of the narrative.

    In a later letter to Max, Scott listed his changes – that he’d brought Gatsby to life, accounted for his money, fixed up the two weak chapters (six and seven), improved his first party, and broken up the long narrative relating to Gatsby’s history.

    The outcome

    Although Scott still dithered over the title of the book – mentioning Gold-hatted Gatsby in a March 1925 letter – he also felt that Trimalchio might have been best after all. But it was The Great Gatsby that appeared in bookstores on April 10th 1925.

    Scott’s letters to Perkins show his nervousness, fear, and foreboding. He worried women wouldn’t like the book because it had no important woman in it. And he thought the critics wouldn’t like it because it dealt with the rich and “had no peasants borrowed out of Tess and sent to work in Idaho.

    He also worried that he wouldn’t sell enough to cover his debt to Scribner’s since they had often loaned him money in advance.

    Even on the day of the release, Scott was picking over the faults he could still see in the novel. Nevertheless, he considered the first five chapters and parts of the seventh and eighth to be the best things he’d ever done.

    Unfortunately, sales did not take off as hoped. The fact the book was around 50,000 words and therefore shorter than what the trade preferred did not help. At least two big distributors reduced their orders considerably at the last minute.

    Scott reflected that the title was only fair, “rather bad than good“. And he still considered the lack of an important woman character to be an issue since “women control the fiction market at present.”

    In the end, the book would establish itself as one of the greats of modern American literature and cement Fitzgerald’s reputation. But it didn’t happen overnight.

    Reference material

    Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby – The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by James W. L. West III

    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald- Perkins Correspondence – edited by John Kuehl and Jackson Bryer (out of print so check eBay)

    Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg

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