Workshop Notes on the Manuscript From That Big Glowing Kid With the Beard

Dubious and far-fetched ideas.
Oct. 23 2013 10:30 AM

God’s Workshop

Terrific first draft, but the female characters need some work.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

First, I just want to point out that this was a terrific first draft. It’s clear that you put a lot of time and effort into writing these five books. And the very fact that several of your classmates have expressed a willingness to fight to the death in the name of your manuscripts suggests that you’re certainly onto something interesting here.

A few thoughts to consider as you work on your revisions: It’s great that you took Professor Weinberg’s advice about using specific details to heart. And you have some terrific descriptions in these pages, especially when you’re going over the instructions for building the Tabernacle—I didn’t even know you could make curtains out of goat hair! Still, at times I can’t help but wonder if all of the specificity becomes too much of a good thing. For example, you start Leviticus with seven consecutive chapters on how to sacrifice unblemished animals in your holy name, whereas I think one chapter might very well do the trick.

Love, love, love the Noah chapter. My only concern is that there’s an awful lot of “telling.” Is there a way to do more “showing” so that we can see Noah experiencing 40 days and nights on a boat with two of every living beast on Earth? That had to have been crazy?! Like, where did they all go to the bathroom? Have you read David Foster Wallace’s essay about the cruise ship? Really good/sad. I’m not saying you should copy that, but I think it might help if you gave it a quick read.

Also, please don't turn me into a pillar of salt for saying this, but I think the rainbow at the end of the chapter is a bit, well, clichéd. I would either just lose it altogether or maybe come up with some other sign of your eternal covenant with Noah.

Speaking of forming covenants, Exodus is a real page-turner. Pharaoh is such a wonderfully conflicted character. That said, at times I didn’t quite find him sympathetic. I don’t think we need to love Pharaoh, but I think we do need a way to at least relate to him. Is there another more fun side to Pharaoh? What are Pharaoh’s hobbies? How does he spend an afternoon when he’s not forcing his Israelite slaves to toil under the desert sun?

What else? I know Professor Weinberg praised your lack of sentimentality, but I found myself looking for a little more emotional depth in some of the characters. Like, in Genesis, when Simeon and Levi convinced the men of Shechem to circumcise themselves and then came back a few days later and slaughtered all of them while their penises were still healing. Did they ever feel bad about that? Is there maybe a more quiet pain that settles in between the circumcising and the slaughtering? I keep thinking about how Alice Munro would handle that moment.

As for your voice, you’re usually such a compelling narrator, and yet when you turn to the first person, you can be, a bit, um, preachy. I get that that’s sort of what you’re going for, and that you want to strike fear into the hearts of your readers so they won’t start bowing down to Canaanite gods, and so on, but I think it’s just a little much. Would it work to make the Ten Commandments more like strong recommendations? Also, while you can count me in the part of the class that appreciates your inspired anachronisms—you killed me with “thither”—you do sometimes get a little carried away. One “begot” is great. One hundred “begots” ... not so much. Sometimes it’s okay to just say, “Mehujael was the father of Methuselah.”

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That reminds me, have you ever thought about changing the time period? I’m not positive it would work, but it could be interesting to place all of these characters in a more contemporary setting. Like, if Noah were a little more modern, you could easily tap into the dystopia/apocalypse craze. At first when Noah lived to 950 I was worried you were getting into some kind of zombie crap, but then I realized it was just another of your post-postmodern games. Speaking of which, I, for one, love that you turned the whole thing in on a scroll.

Oh, and not to get all PC on you, but there seems to be an awful lot of raping in this draft. And, let’s be honest, you haven’t exactly earned the good will of your female readers with the whole making Eve out of one of Adam’s rib business. A rib? Really? You make so many strong choices in your writing, but I really don’t think that is one of them. Nor is it necessarily the strongest choice to insist upon spilling the blood of homosexuals. Unless you want to spend all of next semester in sensitivity workshops with a bunch of frat boys, I would definitely take that part out.

Anyway, this is definitely a good start. A few more drafts, and I think you’ll have something you could probably send out to an agent.

Sam Apple teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Schlepping Through the Alps and American Parent.

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