On the heels of the previous post on editing lessons, Howard Oberg asked me to provide "some examples of bad vs. good." In Howard's own words: "As a noob writer sometimes I don't even know crap writing if it hit me in the face." I asked Howard if he'd like to serve as a lab rabbit in this exercise. He agreed: "A chance to be humiliated before the masses. Sure, why not." We sealed the deal with coffee, and below you will find the opening to Howard's short story Cortonia—first the unedited version, then the edited version (with my comments), then a mini editorial letter, the kind I usually send to my clients. Here we go. (Howard, breathe. It's okay. I won't kill you. YET.)
"CORTONIA" BY HOWARD OBERG (ORIGINAL)
“Good morning Daniel. It’s time to get up. The temperature outside is 42 degrees. Today’s forecast is for partly cloudy skies and a high of 64. I have already warmed the house to 72 degrees and your coffee is brewing.” Daniel rubs his eyes and sits up. “Thank you Cortonia”
Daniel picks up his Personal Assistant Device off his night stand and checks his messages. “Cortonia, leave another message with my mother that I will attend Johnny’s Birthday party. I wished she would get a decent PAD so that it would let her know when I leave a message.” “Yes Daniel. And Daniel, I need to install a new patch. It is marked urgent, may I proceed?”, says Cortonia’s disembodied voice. “Uh, no. Do it later.” “Of course, later.” Cortonia responds.
Daniel gets up and heads to the bathroom. He does his business then walks over to sink and begins brushing his teeth. A small female avatar appears in the corner of his bathroom mirror. “Daniel, don’t forget you have that big meeting with your boss today. This could be the day when you get that promotion you deserve. I recommend your gray suit with your red tie and light blue shirt.” Daniel mumbles, “Um, hum.”
Daniels takes a shower then begins dressing in his dressing room. “Daniel, I ordered you some milk, you were almost out. I also sent your new girlfriend flowers to commend your three-month anniversary. See seems to be the needy type, not like Marsha, your last girlfriend. She was much more stable.” Daniel pulls out a pair of shoes from his closet. “And she slept around. A lot.”
Read the full story here (so my suggestions and edits below make sense).
"CORTONIA" BY HOWARD OBERG (EDITS IN BOLD, COMMENTS IN ITALICS)
A soft, mechanical chime enters Daniel's dream. (SETTING IS MISSING. You have to establish the genre and the voice of the story right away, as well as who's the main character, what's happening to him/her and where. I have invented a sentence here, so rewrite in your own words.)
“Good morning, Daniel," says Cortonia's disembodied voice. (You're introducing the second character, so we need to know who it is. He? She? Who is she? Let us know right away.)
Daniel stuffs his head under the pillow. (DIALOGUE MISSES CONFLICT. You started dialogue. Several problems with it. First, only resort to dialogue when you can't describe the action without it. Less is more. Then, stick to the rule of action/reaction. She said something. He has to respond. Where is the conflict? You're dumping a chunk of speech on our heads, and we're bored. Make him groan with frustration. Show us conflict.)
"It’s time to get up," the voice drones on. "The temperature outside is 42 degrees. Today’s forecast is partly cloudy skies with a high near 64. I already warmed the house to 72 degrees. Your coffee is—"
"Oh, just shut up already." Daniel waves his hand to turn Cortonia off and sits up, rubbing his eyes. (CONFLICT IS MISSING. I have added this as a conflict, and as a way to position the relationship between the two, and to introduce conflict. It's still weak, because we don't know Daniel's motivation for not wanting to wake up.)
A small red light blinks on a black, plastic cylinder that hovers an inch above the night stand. Daniel swipes Cortonia out of the air, unrolls it into a flat screen (DESCRIPTION IS MISSING. What does she look like? What does the device look like? I added my own here, but you'd need to rewrite.) and checks his messages.
Messages scroll down, pulsing blue... (AGAN, DESCRIPTION IS MISSING. I'm not going to add my own here, I'll leave it to you. But imagine you had a camera and saw your story through a camera. We'd want to see this screen to know what it looked like.)
Daniel's finger pauses on the message typed in all caps: ANSWER YOUR MOTHER. He sighs. (Remember, action/reaction. Also, CHARACTERIZATION IS MISSING. We need to know more about Daniel. What's he like? Whom does he love? Hate? Who loves him? Hates him? And who is the bad guy in this story? Who is the conflict with? We still know nothing. If it were a novel, you could get away with delaying it, but in a short story conflict must be introduced in the first few sentences. So, I'm inventing an idea here—maybe the conflict is with his mother? But no, that would be wrong. The protagonist and the antagonist should be introduced right away. Example from Stephen King's The Gunslinger: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." So is it Daniel and Cortonia?) "Cortonia, tell my mother I'm coming."
"Coming to what, Daniel?" (Adding conflict.)
"To Johnny's birthday party, what!"
"Yes, Daniel." There is a tinge of irritation to Cortonia's otherwise even voice. (Again, adding conflict. Every line of dialogue must be in conflict with the next line of dialogue, and the next, and the next. Every line the first character speaks has to get a response from the second character that the first character doesn't expect. Every single line. Yes, I know. That's why writing is hard.)
"And Daniel, I need to install a new patch. It's marked urgent. May I proceed?" (WORLDBUILDING IS MISSING. What patch? Why? Description and reason are missing. Also, we're a few paragraphs into the story, and we have no idea what day it is, what year, what city or country or planet. Nothing. Is Daniel human? And who is Cortonia? Just an AI in a screen? Or something more?)
"Do it later." He flings the screen toward the night stand. it curls up in the air and assumed it's hovering position. (ACTION IS MISSING. So he's been sitting in bed for a while now. Give him something to do. Move him. Otherwise we'll get bored out of our minds.)
"Yes, Daniel. Later it is, Daniel," Cortonia responds stiffly and turns off. (Adding conflict.)
Daniel pays her no mind. He gets up and heads to the bathroom. (POV ESTABLISHMENT IS MISSING. So, this should be in the very beginning, but sometimes you can get away with starting omniscient and then switching to 3rd person limited. But we need to know what POV this story is told from. Daniel's? Cortonia's? So far it seems it's from Daniel's POV, but it's not strongly established. So I added some of it in the opening line. But when it comes to his description, here is where you can strengthen it, so we know for sure. Also, what does his house looks like? His bathroom? And is it a house? Or a flying saucer speeding through space?) He urinates (be specific, don't resort to generalities), tucks himself in (is he wearing pajamas? is he naked? can he see himself in the mirror? is there a mirror?), and brushes his teeth (with what? some high-tech toothbrush that also checks his cavities?).
Cortonia appears in the corner of his bathroom mirror (what does she look like? how can you show her reluctance to serve him after he was rude to her?).
"Daniel, don’t forget about your meeting with Mr. Gray at 2 p.m. in the Mountain Room (be specific: names, ages, time, place...and let us figure out he's the boss, don't make us suffer through an infodump). I recommend your navy suit with your orange tie and a green shirt." Cortonia smiles evasively. (Conflict! Where is the conflict? She is pissed at him, so make her recommend to him the wrong combination of clothes.)
Daniels takes a shower then begins dressing in his dressing room. (NO!!!! Shower? Dressing??Where is the conflict? Who is the bad guy? What's the danger for Daniel? I just threw up my hands. At the shower line. This is a non-story, and by now you've lost me as a reader.)
A MINI EDITORIAL LETTER
Here is my verdict: You're introducing conflict way too late.
WITHOUT CONFLICT THERE IS NO STORY.
By the time you let me in on the conflict, I don't care about it. You have to slam it into my face in the first opening lines. There are great twists at the end, but absolutely no foreshadowing. Nothing to hook me. And that comes from lack of plotting. First you have to know the ending of your story, then you work your way backwards to the beginning, seeding plot turns along the way.
One way you can fix this is by chopping off the beginning and starting where the conflict really starts. And you know where that is? Where you introduce Cortonia's rival, Sara. So you could start your story here (I edited it a bit from your original version to suggest an introduction):
Daniel reclines in the driver's seat of his speeding car, going through the papers for his meeting with Mr. Gray.
On the dash an avatar of a woman (what does she look like?) appears. "Yes, Daniel," she says in a dull, disembodied voice.
"I'll be switching to a new personal assistant next week. I think her name is Sara. Please download all my personal data to the cloud so that Sara can access it after the switch.”
The car begins to slow down. (See? Conflict right away!)
"Cortonia? Is there a problem?"
Bingo. You got us interested. If you add to opening a bit of setting (the car is speeding up in the mountains), and a bit of characterization, and a line or two that shows Cortonia's irritation with Daniel as well as some backstory showing the relationship between them (avoid dialogue "on-the-nose"), you got us hooked. We know she is driving the car. We are now on the edge of our seats. What will she do?? But then this means you'll have to rewrite the climax...I better stop here.
I hope this was helpful. I could write a whole treatise on how to make this story better, but then my blog will explode, I will die, and you all will get splattered with my gore. Not pretty. So. If you have questions, holler. And comment, of course.
And, dearest Howard? I hope you're still breathing. Thank you so much for letting me publicly butcher, I mean, edit your story. Please take a deep breath and know that YOU ARE DOING GREAT. You're writing, and that means you'll learn how to get better with every story. Just never ever stop, and learn your craft. It's really the only way to go (that's what I'm doing, too—not like I know much, either, still learning). And never give up. Never ever give up. You have a great sense of wit, and the storytelling is there, it's just buried under all those words that got in the way. So. Breathe in. Breathe out. AND KEEP WRITING.