Sunday, July 1, 2012

An Open Letter to Jack Kerouac

Previously apppeared at Pig in a Poke
See also A Recent Interview with Jack Kerouac, An Open Letter to Tom Wolfe, An Open Letter to Dave Eggers, An Open Letter to JK Rowling, An Open Letter to Cormac McCarthy


Dear Jack,

Thanks for responding to my ad on Craigslist. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to trade work with a fellow wordsmith of your caliber. We writers are often left to our own devices, locked in our little holes, typing away, and too often we lose touch with the great wide world around us. It's so wonderful to exchange ideas with a talent near to my own.  It is my sincere hope that we might both use this opportunity to improve our skills.  You may be new to this game, but as a veteran of writers' workshops, I promise to offer only the most constructive criticism that I know you will be able to absorb and use to your benefit.  And don't you worry about criticizing my work.  I've developed a pretty thick skin in the year or two that I've been writing. My work is pretty advanced, but if you do think of any criticisms, don't hesitate to spell them out.




Now. On to your packet!

I'll start with something positive. On the Road is such a great title, and so fitting considering the subject matter. Too often, beautiful prose is lost due to poor titling. I once read a book called Watership Down that I thought was about the sinking of a ship, but it turned out to be about a bunch of rabbits.  Talk about false advertising!  Another book I’ve read was called A Brief History of Time.  I spent almost two years reading that thing, and I didn’t even understand it.  Anyway, since most of your book takes place “On the Road,” your title works perfectly.

Now, while you're great on titles, the names of your characters leave something to be desired. For example: Dean Moriarty. I don't know what it is about that name. Yeah, I do. It sounds made up. And so does Sal Paradise, and so does Carlo Marx. You may not know this, but there really was a person named Karl Marx. He was Russian, I believe. The thing to remember is, if your character's name sounds too much like a real name, people might begin to associate the two. Do you really want one of your characters to be thought of as Russian?

I hope you don't mind, but I've taken the liberty of making a few suggestions that might work better. Instead of Sal Paradise, why not call the narrator Alf Butterman? It's original, but at the same time it's easy to imagine that someone with that name actually exists. Instead of the obviously fictitious Dean Moriarty, try Stinky Erikson. For Carlo Marx, just go with something simple like Buck Johnson. If you make these simple changes, I promise you, your chance of people remembering your characters will increase exponentially.

This brings me to another point. Some of the material seems a bit dated. It's hard for me to imagine modern day young people so infatuated with jazz music. I think hip hop or alternative rock might work better. I doubt there are many young people around who know who Miles Davis is. To be honest, I had to look him up myself.

Also, and I hate to say it, but I think you need to put some more thought into the plot.  Frankly, not much happens in this book. The characters just sort of drive around. I found myself wondering, “What would happen if Sal and Dean (Alf and Stinky) robbed a bank or something?” Then they would have an excuse for being “On the Road” since the cops would be after them. Anytime you have this much of the story taking place in a car, you really need to throw in a few chase scenes to keep the reader interested.

Now, I don't want it to sound like I'm being all negative. There really is some beautiful writing here, though I think the style leaves something to be desired. It's important to remember that ninety percent of good writing happens during revision. At times, I got the feeling you were just typing whatever popped into your head. I don't think I've ever seen so many run-on sentences in my life. What's your hurry? Once Alf and Stinky drive across the country, they're just going to drive back again. Why not slow the pace a bit. Punctuation is your friend. Use a period now and then, and don't forget about the semicolon—there's a reason they include it on your keyboard, or typewriter in your case.

That reminds me. I've never seen such a professional looking manuscript. If I didn't know better, I'd say you ripped the front and back cover off of a published book. How did you get that aged look? I searched the aisles but couldn't find that faded yellowing paper at OfficeMax. Let me know where I can find some.

Anyway, I sincerely hope that you're not taking any of these comments too personally. I honestly believe there is a wonderful writer inside you just waiting to pop out. I think after you read The Elements of Style a few times, people are going to start taking notice of your work. I also hope that you are not too intimidated by the novel that I will be sending to you under separate cover. I won't go into a plot summary now, but I spent many hard hours on Meet the Tootersons, and when you read it, I really think some of my comments are going to hit home. That reminds me, it was hard to make out the return address on the envelope your manuscript came in. It looks like Heaven (Ave?), but there's no street number or zip code. Is it New Haven, Connecticut? Anyway, I need more information. Hopefully you'll remember to check this website.

In conclusion, I'm looking forward to hearing from you and I'm very anxious to hear your comments regarding Meet the Tootersons. Please get back to me ASAP.

Your Fellow Wordsmith,


Purvis McGrew