Over the past 16 years, Tony has written over a quarter-million words of feedback. He doesn't know how or why. Here are a few recent sample feedback letters, with permission from the students.
This appears to be four excerpts of a longer piece. The first is a miniature picaresque about Rick Lazarus, a literature professor. He runs into his ex-wife at his son’s swim meet, encounters his old mathematician friend Zola at the urinals, attends a music show at some kind of church-bar, and meets an eyeless old man in the basement. The second follows Ron Doubleday, a blind man talking with his friend Horace about a notorious barber pole that pedestrians whang their heads on. The third is a brief inventory of Rick’s office, and the fourth is a second-person soliloquy about loneliness, via the Wittgenstein solipsism of language and an MMORPG, by a character who might be named Joe and might be in solitary confinement.
This is a super unconventional story, so the typical breakdown of plot and character in the critique isn’t really going to hack it. So:
I don’t think there’s any use pretending these pieces aren’t operating under some heavy influence. In its antic stream-of-conscious beat wordplay, kooky character names, and comic tone, the first two sections bear a strong resemblance to writers in the sixties and seventies: Thomas Pynchon foremost, but also Richard Farina, Tom Wolfe, and Tom Robbins. The lineage can be drawn backward to Joyce, and forward to David Foster Wallace, the latter especially in its casual deployment of math / formal logic / philosophy of language, hints of secret cults with zany acronyms, the hairpin turns between high and low tonal registers, themes of addiction and loneliness, and so on. Wallace’s singular influence ends up dominating the final section to the point where it’s practically indistinguishable from his Infinite Jest / Oblivion-era work.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with being influenced, and even if there was, we still wouldn’t be able to avoid it. I say this as someone who wrote his MFA thesis on David Foster Wallace and cut down a 900-page polymath novel down to 380. But unless your goal is to write homage or pastiche, and I suspect it isn’t, there’s some work to be done to get out from beneath those long shadows. It’s not just a matter of the voice, form, or subject matter—it’s all three.
One easy preliminary measure might be to eliminate the superficial stylizations that are so readily pegged to a particular author: Wallace’s off-kilter year names, double and triple conjunctions, notation and shorthand; Robbins’ interjections of “like” and “dude”; Pynchon’s absurd noun-based character names; Joyce’s compounds (especially “scrotumtightening,” which is just a wholesale rip-off from Ulysses).
From there, it becomes trickier. I believe it’s possible to still write about addiction and loneliness, even in Wallace’s style; the problem is when the points made about addiction and loneliness are the same as his. Pointing out that language is isolating and inescapable and constitutes our reality, that too much entertainment can be isolating and morally corrosive, and that these are causes and symptoms of depression that create vicious cycles, that’s all Wallace. As is being driven mad by a logical conundrum. I think the approach here will be to adopt Wallace’s theses as your axioms. So language is isolating and inescapable: then what?
Considering the manuscript on its own terms, apart from its influences, the fact is that this manuscript is going all in on a single aspect of craft, the wild sentences (or sentence fragments). True to the Pynchon style, there’s not a ton of plot, and apart from the final section, the characterization mainly dwells around circumstance, quirks, descriptions of surroundings, and biographical data (absent motivation, backstory, etc.). So most of the burden of pulling the reader forward exclusively on whether or not they’re enjoying what they’re currently reading, sentence by sentence.
And the prose is highly enjoyable—sometimes. The manuscript felt to me like a baseball pitching machine blind-spraying a library, occasionally hitting a classic, but just as often beaning a reader. For every lucid description of a glass picture frame or a blues chord striking like “a bat out of the black heart of a cypress in the bayou,” there’s a span of prose that’s a lot more trouble than it’s worth. One of your biggest revision tasks will be to discipline your voice so that all of the verbal capoeira feels enjoyable and necessary; because when it’s not, when it’s simply clever in and of itself and not serving to develop an idea or character or plot point, it’s probably not doing enough work.
I have three thoughts on this. The first is to ensure that none of the stylings are gratuitous: that the most direct, semantically useful words are being used. The last thing you want is for a reader to burn 300 calories trying to decipher a phrase or passage only to come away with: “Huh. So that’s what he means.” What you want instead is to make readers feel as if the effort was worth it, and that the sentiment couldn’t have been expressed better to achieve a particular effect. This is particularly an issue on [8-15], where I really don’t have a firm grasp of what’s happening at all.
There are a lot of what Wallace calls “puff words” here—verbal contortions, word choices, and archaisms whose only function is to inflate both the length and the diction of the passage. To take just a few examples: “natatorium” instead of “pool” (or nothing at all, since it’s clear from context we’re at a pool), “excommunicated” instead of “discarded.” This is false eloquence—a longer, more obscure word that expresses exactly the same thing is almost never justified except to paint its user as someone who does stuff like that. (Go on YouTube and check out the video “David Foster Wallace on ‘Prior To’” for more on that.) Relative clauses are often needlessly contorted, and unnecessary qualifiers abound: “wholly serendipitous,” or “really,” “kind of,” “very,” and so on. To take an example incorporating these last two points: “A private journal, in which he has written on two or three rather dry occasions hardly worthy of being written about” could easily be “A private journal, recording only three unremarkable events.”
The second is to be sure that your sentence stylings aren’t redundant. Things get rephrased and circled around a lot here: “Seven candles burn. Candelabra. Seven stars. The Pleiades. Seven odalisques bearing placenta mantle,” or “licking slurping ogling dirty mud. Hands knees tongue.” With each repetition, along with the habit of alliteration and homophonic puns (“Hippocratic hypocrites”), there are diminishing returns.
And finally, relevance. I think there’s a deliberate attempt here to throw everything in, to create an impression of teeming fullness, but more often it just feels unnecessary and beside the point, thing-naming for its own sake—this would be another case of Pynchon’s influence at work. There are far too many examples to call out here (that’s sort of my point), but just to take one: when you take a whole sentence to remark on “A dark gray wallpaper of little interest,” that feels like deliberate nose-thumbing at the reader. I could see how you might defend this by saying: But it’s a wry self-aware joke about the very excess of the prose! This might work academically, but to this reader it just feels like the story is deliberately wasting my time. It brings down the perceived relevance of the prose: we start to feel as if the writer is stuffing in details and leaving it to us to tidy up.
Style also pertains to perspective. The perspective in each section is presumably attached to the POV characters—things start getting crazy as Rick does drugs, access to thoughts and knowledge sets and dialect are constrained to the POV character—but several things confound this. First is the fact that there are lots of conspicuous shared tics between the sections: the offhand use of “anyhoo” and “googrease,” the compounded words, the heavy rhyme and alliteration, the mathematical notation. There are also a number of repeated structures, like what I’m told is called a “bare role NP modifier” (“Rip Killiman, consummate salesman” vs. “Caspian Zola, defrocked mathematician”). Taken together, the sections feel like expressions of the same consciousness, when their stark formal differences seem to suggest that you’re trying to distinguish them.
The story also breaches POV, especially in Ron’s section: by remarking on things in Ron’s section that he’s not supposed to be able to see, like the colors of the barber pole (and sometimes even acknowledging it—“Killiman’s body appears to have eaten the booth he’s seated on. Not that Ron can see any of this”). The POV also veers between first- and third-person on [10-11], and between SAE and AAVE dialects. I know these transitions can be done, technically; the question is why they need to be, and whether it’s worth jarring and confusing the reader for it.
—I didn’t buy that a math professor hasn’t heard of Godel’s incompleteness theorem. And the theorem’s non-obscurity also makes me think it shouldn’t be explained the length it’s described on .
This is a smart, funny story about a woman who’s convinced an intruder has entered her den, and her mental response to it. It’s an entry in a genre I’ve come to think of as “paranoid phenomenology,” which can be found in stories like Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall,” Poe’s “The Raven,” and the stories of Julie Hecht, Nicholson Baker, and especially my friend Bennett Sims, who writes horror- and genre-tinged stories almost exclusively of this sort. It’s almost not at all about plot or conventional character development, but about rationally articulating a psychological response to an ambiguous scenario or stimulus, and all the psychological leaps, detours, and tangents that accompany it. It’s left deliberately unclear whether the phenomenon is real, so that there’s a sort of trifocal effect: is it a hallucination that projects the narrator’s anxieties, an actual intruder, or just a straight-up ghost?
I really dig the narrator’s voice, which is all at once rationalistic, insightful, self-deprecating, and occasionally playful (“Anxiously anticipating catastrophes is the only way to prevent them from happening”)—the more you can push that, the stronger the story will be. The only real style advice I’d give is to avoid the tic of redundant circling around the same points:
- "every nerve straining to hear aural confirmation of the man’s presence”: here you don’t need “aural confirmation of” because it’s implied in “straining to hear”
- “It was a sound you couldn’t get used to, one that never faded into white noise. It was like a child hitting your face with your own hand and yelling, stop hitting yourself”: not only does this one restate the same detail, the last sentence takes way too many words to get across an analogy that isn’t all that precise.
- “His voice sounded near my left ear, like he was speaking right into it”: why not “He was speaking into my left ear”? Probably because you wanted to enhance the effect of ambiguity, but there’s a difference between ambiguous and waffly
For a story that strenuously upholds its ambiguity, the ending felt pat and closed-ended: the one dude we could possibly suspect of being the intruder, Paul, is the intruder; all the pleasant uncanniness and ambiguity gets dispelled, and it’s sort of like ending the story Then she woke up, and found it had all been a dream. I mean, let’s say that it’s possible that the figure she sees as Paul is actually a hallucination / ghost, which is supported by the strange unworldly descriptions of him—that his hand has no weight, that his face was like “a face in a dream.” The message is still a little too easy to parse: “her anxieties about her relationship with Paul have manifested psychosomatically / supernaturally, and at last she’s ‘looking at them,’ instead of ‘ignoring’ them.” (I know, if you’ve read “The Mark on the Wall,” then you’re probably thinking ummm but doesn’t Woolf tell us exactly what the mark is? Like most effects in fiction, it works for reasons very specific to that story—the punchline is that, after going on a mental rampage about war and art, it’s just a fuckin’ snail. I always thought that was a bit cheap.) What we want is an ending that leverages the themes and concepts that come before it without sacrificing all the great tension and meaning that’s attached to the ambiguity.
The risk of stories that eschew plot and exposition is that the reader might come to the end of it like, Well, that was a bunch of random details about nothing in particular. You certainly can write a story that focuses mostly on mimetically depicting thought and consciousness, and forming connections between disparate elements in your characters’ lives, but you have to make it all feel like it’s all absolutely necessary to the greater understanding of the story. Right now it’s not quite hanging together; some of the tangents feel like they’re just in there as bits of color, when it’s crucial in a short story, especially one this short, to compress as much stuff in each line as possible. I’m thinking of the passive-aggressive battle with the downstairs lady, the repressed sexual-abuse dispute, her penchant for spoiling the ending of books, and the ex-girlfriend. What do these things all have in common? Well, for one thing, they evince a masochistic streak, which is also displayed in her decision not to scream or do anything, and her big line toward the end (“I don’t care whether I live or die”). They also indicate a feeling of being simultaneously unworthy and resentful of Paul. You’ll want to avoid the most conventional endings—that this set of musings leads to a Joycean epiphany or a “You Must Change Your Life” crisis or a wabi sabi moment of stillness.
Here we have a short vignette of a couple: the boyfriend has just boosted $5K from the museum where he works, and the two of them spontaneously plan an escape to Cuba until the cops arrive; in what he surely considers a heroic gesture, he takes the rap for the crime he committed.
The core of this story is the dynamic between the couple: the man is a reckless, sentimental, possibly manic renegade—or someone who wants badly to act like one—who is prone to schemes and joyrides. The narrator is along for the ride, and what’s most interesting is that she seems simultaneously skeptical of her lover’s dangerous delusions of grandeur, but helpless to their charm and romance. In this it reminds me of one of my recent favorite movies, Victoria, and other outlaw-couple movies like Raising Arizona and Drive, not to mention the first episode of Cowboy Bebop. He has successfully pulled her into his fantasy, and it’s not hard to see how; I mean, this is a guy who can get his girlfriend off while driving. She’s trying to decide not whether to join in, but to what extent she should condone it, and how to do so without losing herself. It’s very telling that she’s the one who cracks the safe, with seemingly no effort, the moment she takes her own approach and stops following his.
Pushing and deepening this dynamic will be the main task of your revisions. The thing that didn’t feel right to me was that they’d been together for a long time (“all these years”) but that this seems to be the first evidence of truly unstable behavior that’s affected her life. The story takes on a much different significance based on whether he’s put her through this kind of trouble before (in which case you’d think she would see what was coming, and wonder why she puts up with it) or whether this is the first time he’s really crossed the line (in which case, why’d it take so long, and why now?). I’m not really asking for extended flashbacks or a laundry list of examples of his past behavior—that’d be too neat and probably cumbersome. I’m more interested in expressing the circumstances and consequences of their past relationship through the present. A famous example of this would be Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” which submerges the whole history of the couple’s frivolous, pleasure-seeking lifestyle; another good one is Elizabeth Tallent’s “No One’s a Mystery.”
Now, how do we do that? We find ways to charge what’s in that bedroom with more significance, starting with the safe. As a literal symbol of security, it does risk becoming a little blunt and heavy-handed, though that wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the word “safe” weren’t in the title. I want the stuff in that safe to be more carefully chosen, because it represents the things he cares about enough to protect. (Things he doesn’t care about enough to protect include: himself, his relationship.) Right now the earrings mostly express that he might’ve been goth at one point; I sort of dig the keys—his means of escape is in a place he can’t get to—but it’s still not getting to the core of the character for me. I can’t really suggest what you should put in there, but whatever it is, it needs to be telling. Also, while he’s away, you might consider having her discover stuff in there that he doesn’t necessarily want her to see, or that she wasn’t expecting to find. (Maybe even steal it?)
The other thing I’d have you focus on is the sense of a dynamic shifting between them. This story is only superficially about a guy getting arrested after going too far, but it’s really about the narrator getting a new perspective on what she’s fallen in love with—what happens when the romantic fantasy of crime and liberation meets the fact of what he is actually doing for her, for all his bluster. Right now the ending is a little anti-climactic and unsurprising. If the whole relationship is an “attempt to meet somewhere in the middle of our bad habits,” just where do they meet?
To that end, I’d like her to be more active, to complicate things for him, rather than just gamely enable him (picking the lock, helping him pack). This doesn’t necessarily mean she has to play the wet blanket to his idealism, it just means that we need to feel her role in relation to him develop as the story progresses. It begins with his confidence unshaken—this guy really believes he’s committed a revolutionary act by snatching a stack of cash from his job. And it ends with him equally unfazed; he blithely takes for granted that she’s going to be waiting for him when he gets out. By the end they’ve literally exchanged clothes; I want to see how the bond between them itself becomes inverted, in an unexpected way. Of course you’ll still want to avoid all the expected, too-easy ironies: he betrays her; she betrays him; she takes the rap for him.
Final note on style: you have a bit of a habit of muddling some of the images and metaphors:
- “a slippery, purblind attempt to meet somewhere”: the problem is that the two modifiers are applied to an abstraction, with a not-very-concrete result
- “I liked that he assigned value to things to protect them from future catastrophes”: this describes his habit of keeping things in the safe, but it’s sort of backwards—he’s protecting things that he’s assigned value to.
- “sticky grinding of leather jacket against leather seat”: can leather “grind” against leather? Can grinding be sticky?
- “The rain sounds smooth and unbroken, like one long pane of glass sliding down the windows”: so, I see how rain could look smooth and unbroken like a pane of glass, but not how it could sound smooth and unbroken.
- “bright blue eyes buoy my gaze like a warm infinity-shaped pool that still holds me even after it overflows and fills the room, even after it absorbs the pane of rain”: now this one’s a mess. The specific mention of the infinity-shape makes it sound like you’re analogizing the shape of his eyes, but eyes are two discrete pools; and the metaphorical pools are absorbing the metaphorical pane of rain to fill the literal room? There’s a way to do this rich, extended metaphor correctly; you just need to untangle it.