An Exercise in Editing, or, Why The Hunger Games Makes My Eyes Bleed

From the back cover of THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. The following quotes, from other writers in what one might call “related genres,” are meant to draw attention to the positive features of Collins’ work.

Go ahead. Read ‘em.

Note that each of these quotes, from luminaries and sources including Stephen King (Entertainment Weekly), Stephanie Meyer (OMG she’s OBSESSED), and John Greer (The New York Times Book Review), talks about the plotting and structure of THE HUNGER GAMES.

Not a single one of the back cover comments brings up the question of the quality of the book’s prose. 

There are many reasons this might be the case: the marketing team may have learned that putting quotes about suspenseful page-turners sell more copies and left out things like “Collins’ prose challenges some of the greats of our era with its artistry and subtle evocation of the stresses that authoritarian governments manufacture to maintain control of their populations.” They could have left out, “Her words added an emotional depth and clarity to this packed, well-paced story.” They could have left out lots of things. I haven’t looked up the full reviews.

My personal feeling is that they cherry-picked quotes about pacing because THE HUNGER GAMES suffers from a case of seriously bad writing.

Which brings us to this blog entry. Collins is an author who presumably worked with an editor to get her words to this pointI presume they both considered it publishable. (And charge-for-able). Editors do a lot of different things when it comes to getting manuscripts ready for publication. One of those things is language. And I think both Collins and her editor fell down hard on that front.

My background with THE HUNGER GAMES:

I read chapters 1-4 on my Kindle when @tyyche gifted me a copy. I was at the tail end of two weeks of intensive editing work on Hot Mess, and while I could certainly see why Collins’ story was an entertaining one, the actual quality of the writing made it impossible for me to continue. I said at the time, and continue to maintain, that my guess is the book translates better to the screen than most adaptations. If I ever see the film, I’ll make sure to let you all know.

Anyways, fast forward to the end of May. My roommate’s copy is lying on the kitchen counter and it’s Memorial Day Weekend and after walking past the book a few times, I think, well, maybe I should pick that up and just breeze through it, so at least when people start defending it on Twitter I can come back with a more informed opinion than the one I have now, which is based on reading four chapters of the thing on a Kindle.

There was no way in hell I was going to start reading the book from the beginning again. I backtracked about a paragraph into chapter 4, then continued with chapter five, which was badly written but at least kept moving, then headed into chapter six. It wasn’t until the last page of chapter six that I became aware of a string of paragraphs I probably would have let go through without too much rewriting: page 85 in my edition, from the point where the Avox girl is picking up Katniss’ unitard (UNITARD!) to the end of the chapter. This was the first time that the spare, simple voice beneath Collins’ prose really came out to me, and one of the first times (only 85 pages in!) where I felt like Collins had really hit her stride.

Then it was into chapter seven, and that wasn’t any bloody fun at all.

By this time, half of Twitter had figured out that I was actually reading the book I’d been complaining about for months, and I started getting snarky comments from my co-writer, Eric, particularly because I’d given him such a hard time back when he did the reviews of the first book for The Masquerade Crew. One thing led to another and when I started talking about how what I actually want to do is a top-to-toe rewrite on the entire thing, and I half wanted to do red marks all over a page from the book and show people what my editing process was like, Eric challenged me to do precisely that.

So everything after the break is his fault.

I Critique A Page From The Hunger Games

My Red Pen Exploded On This Page From Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES

 

Now I don’t expect anybody to actually be able to read that, because I write in chicken scratches. But I think it’s important to focus on the amount of red ink on this page. I can *just about* tell what the author is trying to do with her prose, in terms of evoking an emotional response from her audience, but I think there is a lot of room for making this a far more evocative story that does service to the ideas and plotting she’s made room for.

DISCLAIMER: I’ve only just gotten to the travesty of the part-one-part-two break in book, which would be taken out if I had actually edited the thing, because it ads nothing that a chapter break wouldn’t do. So there are a couple questions that are like, “unless this is coming in later.” This is how all my writers get notes from me. You need to know how the reader is reacting WHILE THEY’RE READING YOUR STORY in order to know where the problem points are.

So here’s a translation of how my interaction with a page of THE HUNGER GAMES goes:

1. There is some coffee spilled up there, but what I wrote is: “will immediately bring “girl who played with fire” up – can you be more original/diff phrase?” I might add to that, on later passes, that because Katniss is meant to be such an iconic character, re-using/adapting another phrase from another bestseller is doing a disservice to the story she’s trying to tell.

2. “says mischievously” goes, to be replaced with “replies.” My justification: “(If we don’t know he’s a bit of a rebel by now, we need to rewrite/re-look-at some of his earlier scenes and portrayal of his character.)” I.e. she’s using an adverb that, if we’re doing our job right so far, should be completely unnecessary. Note: if the author really wanted to emphasize just how mischievous Cinna was at this moment, I think I’d encourage her to find a way of visually expressing that, rather than just taking the lazy route of “mischievously.” My point is, there are better ways to communicate the idea than the words she’s using allow for.

3. I’m changing the comma to a colon in the line where Katniss and Peeta congratulate each other. Because, colon.

4. “as quickly as possible” – “Lazy/vague” (this is something writers start hearing from me pretty quickly as an abbreviation for a lecture on finding ways to uniquely express their ideas, or when I can tell they just wanted to get things out of the way. I understand needing to get an idea out, but this is why we rewrite. (If this post is a hit, who knows, maybe I’ll start a series on work of my own and how I edit/rewrite it).

5. From “The stress of the day” to the end of the paragraph, I feel like the author is missing an opportunity. My comment, “This feels thin, we’ll discuss later,” is because it’s a longer discussion than fits in the margins of the printout. But my basic issue with this section of the paragraph is that I don’t feel Katniss’ stress, I don’t feel her being worn out, and her crying wearing her out and being the one particular thing that wears her out doesn’t really ring true to me. Even if she’s not typically an emotional person, most people I know feel *better* after a really good cry, not worse. So there’s something between what the author wants to communicate and what I’m getting, as a reader, and I want to talk to her about that.

6. “Weird transition,” I write between “behind my eyelids” and “at dawn.” I continue with “Sounds continuous, but there’s a time break. Maybe play around with it?” The best on-the-fly editing suggestion I have is some kind of “And then…” trailing off moment (since she already says she’s drifted off with the flashing lights – does she mean they’re a dream, or those funny tetris shadows you get behind your eyes sometimes?) and then a more solid break at the beginning of the next paragraph: Instead of “At dawn, I lie in bed for a while…”  One implies that she’s been up all night, while we’ve already been told in the previous paragraph that she’s drifted off, so that doesn’t make sense. Instead, my suggestion to the author would be that she play up the more cinematic quality of her writing by doing the literary equivilent of a hard cut: “Dawn. I lie in bed for a while…”

7. Swapping “A day off, at home.” to “At home, a day off.” The rhythm is better.

8. New paragraph where she thinks, “I wonder if Gale is in the woods yet,” because we’re shifting from that moment where she’s contemplating waking up to a moment where she’s recalling her past, and also because I say so.

9. “I think of Gale without me,” she’s gotten the lazy/vague tag again on the word “think” as well as “without me.” My question? “Doing what? Existing? Hunting, you say later, but even saying “doing all this and who knows what else” will help the rhythm.” As written, the line doesn’t give the reader enough time to digest the pause of what’s taking place, the shift going on in Katniss’ head.

10. New paragraph at “Both of us”

11. Instead of “pair,”: “Team? Or is this an evolution that you’re going to develop?” (This comment comes with a reminder of the above disclaimer, and the note that this is how I actually edit my authors’ work. I look at editing and rewriting as a very collaborative process. I like to think that’s part of why my work succeeds at what I want it to do.) Basically, I want the writer to know that she might be missing an opportunity here, but also that I understand that if she’s going to grow something else in later, why it may be a logical choice.

12. “bigger game” – “specifics.” Another variation on “vague/lazy”.

13. Her next sentence is a mess. I’ll type what she has, then I’ll type what my editing suggestion would be:

“But also in the littler things, having a partner lightened the load, could even make the arduous task of filling my family’s table enjoyable.”

Rewritten/edited suggestion: “In the littler things, too, a partner lightened the load. Having Gale’s help went so far as to make the (??) task of filling my family’s table enjoyable.”  Looking at that edit, I’d actually edit it further:

“In the littler things, too, a partner lightened the load. Having Gale’s help made the (??)  task of filling my family’s table enjoyable”

You’ll note the double question marks. I’ve given the author a separate note on that, because now we have a word usage problem:

Arduous 

ar·du·ous/ˈärjo͞oəs/

Adjective:
Involving or requiring strenuous effort; difficult and tiring.
Synonyms: hard – difficult – laborious – tough – toilsome – severe

Cheers, Google.

Now it’s not that arduous is, what we call in copywriting, “factually incorrect.” There is no doubt in my mind that it is indeed involving or requiring strenuous fefort, difficult and tiring.”

But part of the reason we rewrite and edit is to make sure that we’ve found the best possible choice for the idea in our brain that we’re trying to get into our reader’s brain. This is why it’s important to read a lot as a writer, so you know the words you have available to you, but it’s also why it’s important for editors to work with authors to find the word that fits exactly what the story benefits most from having communicated.

Now. My feeling, as an editor, is that “Arduous” does not include an element of satisfaction or joy, and I feel like in those first horrible chapters, Kat did feel an element of satisfaction/joy in her hunting skills. She certainly has pride in her ability to fill her family’s table. So “Arduous” strikes me as wrong. The words I’ve suggetsed in my chicken scratches are things like “Sisyphean” and “grueling,” though now I’m definitely leaning toward looking for a word that’s more like Sisyphean.

“But Rachel! Sisyphean is such an awesome word! It refers to Greek mythology and that king who has to push the rock up the mountain then it keeps slipping out of his hand and he has to start over! It’s about tasks that can never be completed and require monstrous effort on the part of their doers! It’s perfect for what Katniss is actually undergoing, which is this long-lasting need to keep food on her family’s table at a subsistence level! Plus it brings a whole bunch of cool connotations with myth and heroes and blah blah blah blah blah….”

Ah, but we have a problem. I don’t buy for two seconds that Katniss knows what Sisyphean means, and she’s narrating the book, so we can’t use it. (My suspicion is that the publisher’s target audience might not have market tested as being as up on Greek mythology as many of my readers, which is also a perfectly valid reason not to use a word.)

So we’re not going to use Sisyphean. But we can keep looking. Because we care about this work and we care about making a good product that is not only entertaining. Let’s google lookup Sisyphean:

sis·y·phe·an/ˌsisəˈfēən/

Adjective:
(of a task) Such that it can never be completed.”

Blah. No exact synonyms. So let’s think a bit. How can we work with this paragraph/sentence so that the hopelessness of the idea of Katniss being able to feed her family, and what that takes out of her and how Gale lightened her load, can be expressed in a way that pinpoints the exact nature of her struggle? We’re going to work from my “revised” edit of the sentence, which I’m changing again now:

“In the littler things, too, a partner lightened the load. Having Gale’s help made the (arduous)  task of filling my family’s table enjoyable”

A lightbulb goes off: Can we just cut “arduous” altogether? And now I realize that I’ve spent twenty minutes trying to find a perfect word when this, as with my earlier comment about our knowledge of Cinna’s personality, is an answer entirely based on whether or not the author has done her job of making us understand, earlier in the novel, how having to provide for her family has effected our heroine.

So that would probably be my first recommendation to the writer: Cut the word, and we’ll work on making sure people understand, by the time they read on page 85 that having Gale along helped her with her struggles, just how much that would have meant in her struggle. If the author genuinely doesn’t believe the audience will appreciate that, at this point, then this isn’t where the rewriting needs to take place. Now, let’s compare:

Original: “But also in the littler things, having a partner lightened the load, could even make the arduous task of filling my family’s table enjoyable.

Edited: “In the littler things, too, a partner lightened the load. Having Gale’s help made the task of filling my family’s table enjoyable.”

14. My next note is an asterisk. “I thought back to the time before Gale” – NOT these words, but this could be a significant beat in the story. This bleeds into my commends on the paragraph as a whole, and I ultimately decide that the issue here is that she isn’t letting the entire paragraph breathe enough. THIS is where we can feel Katniss’ relief, as she and Gale develop their relationship in this and the following pages. Now, I’m not saying Katniss can’t be shell-shocked from her extremely traumatic life – that’s a valid characterization choice, and one that an author is free to make – but the deadness that results from that kind of trauma isn’t coming through for me in Katniss. By her own account, life was harder for Katniss before Gale’s arrival, but in the paragraphs where she describes meeting Gale, we get no sense through either pacing or word choice about the way her feeling shift. I don’t think this services the story, and I think it can be written better. From “It was a Sunday in October” (which should be its own paragraph), I want the writer to go back and do some rewriting to bring out the emotional side of Katniss’ experience of meeting Gale – one person in the book outside her family who we understand she is close to and understands implicitly – and what suddenly realizing there was someone she could rely on brought to her.

 

This, my friends, is why I struggle with reading THE HUNGER GAMES.

Not because I think the ideas are bad, not because I don’t think the characters have potential, but because I feel like I’m reading somebody’s lazy second draft. The structure and pacing and plotting are there, but there’s been no effort to bring a sense of craft, respect for work, or respect for language to the work, as far as I can see.

It’s also part of why I’m looking forward to seeing the film. So far, I haven’t even watched the trailers. But my instinct is that once living, breathing actors start inhabiting the parts Collins has created (and this doesn’t surprise me, since learning she was also a TV writer for Clarissa Explains It All), the motivations and specificities of the characters will be brought out by the actors’ interpretations of the events she’s provided. But that’s another conversation for another time.

 

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