Friday, June 10, 2016

The De-Pantsing of Jay Greenstein

I've mentioned my nemesis Jay Greenstein before.  Anytime someone posts something for critique, he gives slight variations of the same speech about how they haven't learned to write in school and they need to study the teachings of Dwight Swain.  This despite that it has done nothing for him.  

I finally decided to put him to a little test.  So I created another name and make a few routine posts with it through Memorial Day.  Meanwhile I typed up a section of Dwight Swain's The Transposed Man.  Then a couple days after Memorial Day I baited my trap by posting it.  Read it for yourself:
Chapter 1 4

They called the place the Moon Room. A replica of Luna, as seen from Earth, hung like a dim gold crescent against the deep blue of the artificial sky. Stars twinkled, and an aromador brought subtle fragrances of forests and streams and wind-swept hills. A thread of faint, languorous melody sighed and rippled on the climarizer’s gentle breeze.

I gulped a vidal, then ordered spiked loin of rossa, seared in lorsch, with doralines from Mars and a salad of Ionian tabbat stalks.

It was good food. The rossa measured a full two inches thick, deep pink straight through, the fibers so tender from the infradation that my fork sliced them like a knife. The quince-tinted tabbat stalks—not one longer than a tarosette—had been gathered at the peak of their delicate flavor.

I ate slowly, savoring every mouthful.

Afterwards, there was thick Venusian ronhnei coffee, then more vidal. This time I didn’t gulp it.

The cycle was over now. The long, dim room began to fill with other patrons, couples mostly. I leaned back, rolling the tear-shaped glass between my hands, watching them idly as they took their places.

A woman, alone, paused momentarily at the threshold. She was taller than most, sleek-lined with her hair swept up and around in a style I’d never seen before. Stepping inside quickly, out of the opener beam, she disappeared into the shadows. The chromoid street door whispered shut behind her.

I caught the waiter’s eye, tapped my empty glass. He nodded and headed for the bar.

A hand touched my elbow.

I came round with a jerk. The teardrop glass rang against the table.

“Oh, did I startle you, darling? I’m sorry…”

It was the woman—girl, rather, I saw now—with the unique coiffure, the one who’d paused in the doorway.

She sat down beside me without waiting for an invitation.

Seeing her at closer range, I understood why she’d picked such an unusual style for her hair. Even in the dimness, it shone and rippled—thick, rich, tawny.

She smiled at me and moved her chair around a little closer. “Please try to forgive me, dear; I know I’m late. But they had a sale on hair brooches at a little place over near my unit, and you know how I love that kind of thing. Just look at the one I picked—the sets are real fire rubies!”

She slipped a clip out of her hair; handed it to me.

The pattern was one of interlinked zeros.

“Nice,” I said. I pushed back my chair. “Shall we go?”

“Oh, can’t I have just one vidal?” The girl was half smiling, half pouting.

Even pouting, she was pretty.

The waiter picked that moment to come back. I gave the girl the vidal.

She sipped it slowly, still smiling. There was something about her smile…something that reminded, me of Maurine. I said, “Hurry up. We’re late already.”

She drained the glass without a word; rose in one smooth, graceful motion.

We left the Moon Room.

Outside the street was narrow. It ran between buildings so tall that down here at ground level we stood in deep shadow, crushed down by the sheer bulk of looming spun-doloid walls. The stars overhead were pale splotches against the sky. Even the air seemed heavy.

The girl tilted her head. “Which way?” Her eyes were wide, and the corners of her mouth twitched as if she were having a hard time trying not to laugh.

“To the Quiverna,” I said.
It's not terrible, but it's not great either.  His use of the semicolon seems pretty wonky.  Someone else pointed this out:  "I leaned back, rolling the tear-shaped glass between my hands, watching them idly as they took their places." The antecedent for them, they, their has to be hands, which is nonsensical.

Apparently the editor never noticed that.

Later that night (far sooner than I'd have thought) Greenstein fell right into my trap:
This reads as if written by someone skilled in writing for academia or journalism, It's clean, accurate, and fact-based to the point where the sentences could be labeled, fact #1, fact #2, etc. And it all is being explained by a dispassionate offstage voice.

Look at a few lines from the viewpoint of a reader, who has only the context the words seem to suggest based on that reader's background, not the image in your head.
They called the place the Moon Room.
This is, clearly, the voice of the narrator, who, as yet, may or may not be the protagonist. They're telling me that an unknown "they" called a place with unknown function, "The moon room." And the voice goes on to describe things the reader, who is waiting for the story to begin, doesn't give a damn about because we can neither see the things being mentioned, or know why it matters.
You're thinking cinematically. And because you hold the vision of the place, its purpose, and its role in the plot, the words call up image, ambiance, emotion, and backstory, all stored in your mind. So as you read, the video plays and the story lives. But what about the reader? For them, the words call up image, ambiance, emotion, and backstory, all stored in your mind. And since you're not there to explain…
I gulped a vidal, then ordered spiked loin of rossa, seared in lorsch, with doralines from Mars and a salad of Ionian tabbat stalks.
As yet, we don't know where we are in time and space. The protagonist is an unknown, so far as age, character, background and more. And we have not a clue of what's going on. Given that, why would the reader care what the protagonist ordered, or how he or she enjoyed it? As yet, the story hasn't begun. You're opening the scene as you would on camera, with the protagonist eating, to establish place and ambiance. But listing what was ordered and how it was enjoyed is data, not entertainment.

In the film version, in the space between eyeblinks we would know the place, the protagonist's gender and place in their society, the room's ambiance, size, customers, and more. A glance at the protagonist's face and we know his or her mood, we see mannerisms, the character's opinion of the food and the place, and much more. And we do that in the time it took to read the first two sentences.

My point? You cannot use the techniques of cinema in a medium that does not reproduce either sound or picture. So the reader can't hear the emotion in the narrator's voice. They can't see the things being mentioned. And, they're waiting for something related to the story to happen. But the woman doesn't interact for 255 words, which means we've read the first, and more then half the second manuscript page and not a damn thing has happened.

I'm absolutely certain you weren't hoping to hear something like this. Who would? But it's not a matter of good/bad writing, or talent. It's that your current tool-set is inappropriate to the needs and limitations of our medium, a fixable situation.

Without sound or picture, we need to give the reader an emotional experience via other ways. We can't show the action visually, but we can go where film can't, into the protagonist's head. By making the reader know the scene as that protagonist does, in real-time, complete with their evaluation of it, their needs and imperatives, and their resources, the reader will "see" from the protagonist's viewpoint. And that's what's missing.

The woman, who appears to be a stranger, calls him "dear," and he reacts to that neither internally nor externally. Nor does he ask why she chose him, or speculate on that. Nor do they exchange names, or enough conversation for the reader to have a clue of what the other person wants, or expects to happen. He tells her they're late. For what? He knows what's going on. She apparently does, too. Probably everyone in the place does. But the reader, the one who you wrote this for, has not the slightest bit of context. And fair is fair. They are the paying customer, after all. Why not let them in on the secret? In the film version, the hair clip evokes a response that speaks volumes. Perhaps he nods when he sees the pattern, or raises an eyebrow. You and I react to what has our attention. Can the protagonist seem real if they don't?
- - - - - -
So the problem, boiled down, is that you're explaining story points to a reader who came to you to be entertained, and doing it because you're missing the specialized knowledge and tricks of the trade the publishers expect to see in use. They expect us to write emotion-based prose, not fact-based. They a expect character-centric, not narrator-centric viewpoint. The short version? You're telling when showing would be far more exciting.

So first, you need to get into the protagonist's viewpoint, and in the moment that character calls now. First person defines which personal pronouns are in use. But that is a very different thing from being in the protagonist's viewpoint. Having a later incarnation of the protagonist seem to be the storyteller is not placing the reader into the scene as the character, because the narrator lives in a different place and time from the action, so they cannot appear on stage with the protagonist.

Take a look at this article. It's a condensation of a very powerful way of showing the reader what matters to the protagonist as they live the scene. Not only does it place the reader there, it forces you to see the scene as the protagonist, and think about how they would react, given the situation, their personality, and their needs. Without that, it's too damn easy to make the protagonist smart when smart is needed, and toss away that characteristic when the plot needs him dumb.

Play with the technique till it makes sense. I think you'll like the result. And check a modern novel that made you feel as if you were living the story as you read it, to see how that author made use of the technique.

And if it make sense, and seems worth pursuing, I agree with the man who wrote the article. The book it was condensed from should be on every writer's bookshelf, because it's filled with things like that. Many of the articles in my blog are based on that book.

Sorry my news wasn't better. But I thought you would want to know. You have the chops, you're just missing a few tricks. So hang in there, and keep on writing.

Jay Greenstein

Yup, he gave his hero Dwight Swain the same "pep talk" he gives everyone else.  He essentially told Dwight Swain to study Dwight Swain.  Hang in there and keep on writing is great advice...except Swain died in 1992.

Not only did this give me considerate Schadenfreude, but also it proved my point.  This guy knows jack about writing.  All he can do is repeat the same crap ad nauseum no matter who writes it--not even if it's the "respected professor" he reveres.  And yet he smugly looks down on people like me for just reading stuff and giving our opinions because we haven't been published by big houses or got a teaching job somewhere.  (Neither has he done either of those but it's OK to him if you're parroting someone else who has.)  This emperor definitely has no clothes.

That's why it's always important to take critiques with a grain of salt.  Even advice that might sound wise could be coming from an idiot who just gives the same carbon copy critique to everyone.

As for Greenstein, his response was of course to double-down.  Oh, well, this was written in 1953 and writing technique is completely different.  Back then they wanted telling instead of showing.  Um...really?

Then he tried this gambit:

Something interesting that you missed. In the first line of my critique I noted, "This reads as if written by someone skilled in writing for academia or journalism." So his writing was so professional that I noted that as line one

Except right after that he said:

It's clean, accurate, and fact-based to the point where the sentences could be labeled, fact #1, fact #2, etc. And it all is being explained by a dispassionate offstage voice.

Does that really sound like a compliment to you?  It's a backhanded compliment at best.  This is like when someone gets caught on film and then tries to say it's not them.  Dude, you're busted.  Just deal with it already.  Maybe start trying to think for yourself.

Which is another point.  Never be such a slave to a philosophy that you become completely blind to the rest of the world.  In this case, a fool who loves the teachings of Dwight Swain so much that not even Dwight Swain can live up to them.  It's pretty sad.  And also funny--for me at least.  Bwahahahahahahaha...


  1. He actually tried to defend himself? That is SO funny.

  2. Classic! I was wondering where this guy gets off telling other people how to write. If Patterson, King, Koontz, or the like offers a writing suggestion, it's probably a good one, but this no-name guy? Why would I ever take his advice? People are so full of themselves...

  3. Wow, that Greenstein guy sounds a bit like an asshole.

    By the way, I haven't seen X-Men yet so I'll wait to see it before reading your post (trying to avoid spoilers).



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