Posted On January 20, 2012 by Print This Post

Ask An Editor Theresa Stevens Tackles Line Editing

Good morning! We’re excited to introduce the first installment of our new Line Editing series, where publisher Theresa Stevens and editor Gina Bernal take turns editing the first two pages of a reader-submitted manuscript. First up, Theresa takes a look at Jody Wallace‘s pages.

From TheresaThis month we’re starting something new here with my column. Every other month, I will be evaluating sample pages sent in by readers. If you want to play along, send the first two or three pages of your novel in, and we’ll add them to the queue. This month, we have the first 250 words of an urban fantasy novel. I think you’ll all agree that this opening is already in great shape. But I think we can make it better.

Chapter 1: Bring Out Your Dead (Urban Fantasy)

They had eight hours before dawn and a lot of dirt to shift. Jane propped her Hush Puppy on the back of the shovel blade and pushed, but nothing happened. She swallowed a curse. Rennie didn’t like it when she cursed.

Rennie balanced the big lantern flashlight on her walker as she illuminated the shovel. The night sky sparkled with stars and a half moon, but it wasn’t enough to dig by. “You have to stand on the blade, honey. You don’t have the get-up-and-go you used to.”

“This ain’t my first grave, Rennie. I know what I’m doing.” She wished they’d handled this weeks ago, but they’d been hoping one of their contacts would come through at the last minute. Someone trustworthy. Someone who could keep a secret. Someone who could dig. They were both way too decrepit for this.

“Used to be me who dug the graves,” Rennie said.

“Now it’s my turn.” Jane climbed up on the shovel blade like a tightrope walker, and the tip sank into the ground several inches. A tug and a yank, and several cups’ worth of dirt popped free. Pale brown and tough as saddle leather. She piled it to the side on the tarp.

Rennie sighed. “I wish I could help.”

“You just stand guard and keep my spirits up.” Jane freed another shovel of tight-packed West Virginia dirt. “Good Lord, this ground is hard. Was he this much of an inconvenience when he was alive?”

“More,” Rennie said. “Especially there at the end.”

Okay, the first thing I want to do is rearrange the pieces in those first few paragraphs to raise the tension level. We start with a plural pronoun, they, which keeps us from knowing the point of view character right away. And then we shift into some details about the premise: it’s night, they have eight hours to dig, and they’re properly equipped. Although there’s a ticking clock, the time limit doesn’t feel pressing. Eight hours to dig a hole is probably long enough. There are some indications that the task might not be easy, so it’s not that the opening paragraphs are flat. They do contain some tension. But it’s not as much tension as it could be.

As I was reading, the first line that really sang to me was this one:

This ain’t my first grave, Rennie.

This is interesting because it’s not an everyday kind of utterance. I want to see what happens when we start with this line and shuffle the other pieces in after it. I want to make sure the pov character is immediately identified, and so for the second sentence, we’ll use that action beat that was already in place in the first paragraph. There’s a nice tension between the assertion that she knows what she’s doing and the fact that she can’t budge the shovel. Then Rennie should respond with her line of dialogue, and we’ll use the existing action beat to tag that dialogue. I think that works, and we haven’t had to change a word. All we’ve done so far is shift the bits around.

“This ain’t my first grave, Rennie. I know what I’m doing.” Jane propped her Hush Puppy on the back of the shovel blade and pushed, but nothing happened. She swallowed a curse. Rennie didn’t like it when she cursed.

“You have to stand on the blade, honey. You don’t have the get-up-and-go you used to.” Rennie balanced the big lantern flashlight on her walker as she illuminated the shovel.

So that’s 69 words, and look at all they accomplish. Using almost all dialogue and action and a brief dip into Jane’s thoughts, we’ve established that they’re digging a grave and having some trouble with it. The tension is a bit higher, and it didn’t take long to get there. I’m not crazy about the use of “as” in the final sentence because I think it’s technically incorrect. I don’t think those two actions (balancing and illuminating) are meant to be simultaneous, but are meant to indicate a causal connection. So I might change that last sentence to:

Rennie balanced the big lantern flashlight on her walker to illuminate the shovel.

Now that the opening has a bit more tension, we can build on that foundation. Now we can set the scene with a few more details to ground and orient the reader. Now the use of the plural pronoun will be less likely to confuse any readers because we know who “they” are. We’ll lead into the premise set-up (technically, exposition) with a bit of description. Notice also that referencing the night sky in the first sentence and the time until dawn in the second sentence acts almost like conceptual touchstones, almost like transitions, between the description and the exposition. This is nice and smooth, and again, all we’re doing it rearranging existing pieces.

The night sky sparkled with stars and a half moon, but it wasn’t enough to dig by. They had eight hours before dawn and a lot of dirt to shift. She wished they’d handled this weeks ago, but they’d been hoping one of their contacts would come through at the last minute. Someone trustworthy. Someone who could keep a secret. Someone who could dig. They were both way too decrepit for this.

“Used to be me who dug the graves,” Rennie said.

“Now it’s my turn.” Jane climbed up on the shovel blade like a tightrope walker, and the tip sank into the ground several inches. A tug and a yank, and several cups’ worth of dirt popped free. Pale brown and tough as saddle leather. She piled it to the side on the tarp.

So far, all we’ve done is shift things around to change the impact on the reader. But now, at this point, we need something more. We’re supposed to be in Jane’s viewpoint, and though the pov is technically correct so far, this is the point where we need to get a little deeper. I want to know what it feels like inside Jane’s body and mind right now. Does she feel a sense of victory that she broke ground? Or does she feel that the several cups of dirt is a trifling amount for the effort? We get description and action, which is great, but we want description and action that will really lock us into her perspective.

This can be accomplished in subtle ways. We don’t need to beat the reader over the head with extensive information about Jane’s experiences here. Think of it instead as signals or clues, things the readers can use to piece together the context. Look at the verbs. Do they carry emotional connotations? Climb up — that’s a good, active verb, but it carries only a very weak connotation of success or achievement. (Think about the ways climb is used — climb to the top of the heap, climb the ladder of succees, etc.) That connotation isn’t supported by the concept of tightrope walkers, so even though it’s a good image, I might be looking for something more evocative there. If we want to emphasize her uncertainty about whether she can break ground, we might use balanced instead of climbed. If we want to indicate her frailty, we might use perched. If we want to signal that the climb is performed with determination and will succeed, we might change the tightrope walker for another image. A simple change like that can add some depth and context in a way that will lead the reader to a new understanding of the text without dragging on and on about it.

I also have the urge to insert some internal reaction between the blade’s entry and the tug/yank. Maybe even a single word — Yes! to indicate a sense of victory or pride — would do it. And then I want another internal reaction after the saddle leather. Again, it doesn’t have to be length, but we do want to indicate something of her emotional state. If she’s feeling determined, she might think something like,

Didn’t matter. She’d be tougher. She had to be.

Or, if we want to signal something about how overwhelmed she was feeling, we might use something like,

It surely would be a long night.

The point is not to belabor a point, but to give the reader a character’s interpretation of the action in small, incremental ways. We might add words, but we don’t want to add a lot of words. Just enough to deepen the character perspective.

When we put it all together, we might end up with something like this:

“This ain’t my first grave, Rennie. I know what I’m doing.” Jane propped her Hush Puppy on the back of the shovel blade and pushed, but nothing happened. She swallowed a curse. Rennie didn’t like it when she cursed.

“You have to stand on the blade, honey. You don’t have the get-up-and-go you used to.” Rennie balanced the big lantern flashlight on her walker to illuminate the shovel.

The night sky sparkled with stars and a half moon, but it wasn’t enough to dig by. They had eight hours before dawn and a lot of dirt to shift. She wished they’d handled this weeks ago, but they’d been hoping one of their contacts would come through at the last minute. Someone trustworthy. Someone who could keep a secret. Someone who could dig. They were both way too decrepit for this.

“Used to be me who dug the graves,” Rennie said.

“Now it’s my turn.” Jane mounted the shovel blade as cautiously as a bullrider in the pen, and the tip sank into the ground several inches. Yes! A tug and a yank, and several cups’ worth of dirt popped free. Pale brown and tough as saddle leather. Well, it was a start. She piled it to the side on the tarp.

Rennie sighed. “I wish I could help.”

“You just stand guard and keep my spirits up.” Jane freed another shovel of tight-packed West Virginia dirt. “Good Lord, this ground is hard. Was he this much of an inconvenience when he was alive?”

“More,” Rennie said. “Especially there at the end.”

We started with 254 words and we ended with 261 words, but I think the new version feels faster and more engaging. The bits I added to the breaking-ground paragraph might not be the right bits. The author might want different emotional cues there, and that’s fine. She should use what she likes, not what I’ve suggested. The point is to provide cues that work in the context and allow the reader to bond with the pov character.

It’s a good opening, yes?

***

Theresa, thank you for the great feedback on Jody’s pages! RU CREW, did you learn something from Theresa’s line edits that you can apply to your own opening scene?

Author Ed Gaffney (aka Suzanne Brockmann’s hubby) joins us on Monday to discuss screenwriting vs. novel writing. Be sure to join us!

***

Bio:

Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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24 Responses to “Ask An Editor Theresa Stevens Tackles Line Editing”

  1. Theresa – excellent post! I loved how you focused in on the line that jumped put at you and started from there. Great way to make sure you start at the right place.

    Posted by Robin Covington | January 20, 2012, 5:33 am
  2. Thanks, Theresa! This is exactly how I learn best. A huge thanks to Jody Wallace for sending in her pages!

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | January 20, 2012, 5:53 am
  3. Wow. Great stuff here!

    I loved how just moving the “grave” line to the opening made such a big difference. Small changes, big results.

    Thank you to Jody for allowing us to use her work and to Theresa for a wonderful edit.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | January 20, 2012, 7:33 am
  4. Thank you, Theresa. Like Tracey, this is also how I learn best.

    Posted by Mercy | January 20, 2012, 7:48 am
  5. Oh this is good. I work better visually.

    Posted by Marcie R | January 20, 2012, 8:25 am
  6. Morning Theresa!

    Excellent! Great explanations as to why you did what you did, and the difference it made. Wow! I’m definitely reading that again!

    Thanks so much both to Theresa and Jody!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 20, 2012, 8:32 am
  7. Thanks, Theresa! Maybe this is the WIP I need to work on next. Suddenly I feel more exited about it :)

    Posted by Jody W. | January 20, 2012, 9:02 am
  8. Hi Theresa,

    It never ceases to amaze me what a difference another set of eyes can make. The story was good, but the suggestions will make it better.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | January 20, 2012, 9:08 am
  9. Please tell me this book is published, or about to be – I want to read it! You’re right, it was good to start with, but now it sings!

    Wow, you can come play at my house anytime! I can see why people hire freelance editors.

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | January 20, 2012, 9:56 am
  10. Morning, T –

    It’s amazing how looking at your work through someone else’s (especially a great editor’s) eyes can really bring the writer renewed excitement about her work. Also – to be able to recognize what’s good about the existing material.

    Maybe I need to be your next guinea pig. Oh, yeah, I will be soon :-).

    Kels

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | January 20, 2012, 10:29 am
  11. Hi Theresa,

    I liked Jody’s beginning, but after the changes, it is much more evocative with a terrific first line. I’m hooked. I want to read this.

    Thanks for being the guinea pig, Jody. And thanks, Theresa!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 20, 2012, 3:16 pm
  12. Today I’ve been away from my computer, but I’ve still been thinking about this blog. Here’s a question Theresa et al can toss around if you want: I’ve heard from various industry sources (none of which I can remember specifically, so let’s call it “them”) that starting with an unusual line of dialogue is getting to be overused. What are everyone’s thoughts on that in general or in the context of the piece here? I’m not saying I prefer my original opening or Theresa’s idea, I just thought it might create discussion.

    Posted by Jody W. | January 20, 2012, 3:30 pm
  13. It is something I generally advise against, Jody, but in this case, I think it works. You know the old saying about how the exception proves the rule? This is the exception. Most dialogue openings are badly done — flat dialogue, or confusing dialogue, or unattributed dialogue — but in this case, it works. In the first 28 words, in action and dialogue, we knot they’re digging a grave and having some trouble with it. We understand something about the characters just from the way they act and speak.

    But yes, ordinarily, I shy away from dialogue for a first line. It’s one of those things that is hard to do well, and it became trendy for a while, and so we were inundated with terrible dialogue openings.

    Theresa

    Posted by Theresa Stevens | January 20, 2012, 3:39 pm
  14. If this were on-screen, the first thing you’d notice is that the characters are two old girls trying to dig a grave…but the reader doesn’t know this until they’re half way through the segment.

    Tell ‘em upfront–first line–and you hit the reader with the (cracker of an) image, and show the biggest problem facing the characters (their lack of strength)

    How about:

    If they weren’t way too decrepit for this, they might be getting somewhere.

    This ain’t my first grave, Rennie. I know what I’m doing.” Jane propped her Hush Puppy on the back of the shovel blade and pushed…etc

    Posted by Jim Corwell | January 20, 2012, 4:01 pm
    • But this isn’t on screen, and we authors don’t have to try to pretend we’re writing film. Film has different concerns than narrative prose. Also, you’re assuming the film would open with a particular kind of wide shot, when it could just as easily open with a tight shot of the foot on the blade and the dialogue spoken over it. So I think what you’re really saying is that you want the age of the characters established in the first line rather than in the first several lines.

      One of the main concerns in narrative fiction is point of view, and opening with the line you suggest will dilute the pov by relying on the plural pronouns. So the sentences would need to be revised to unmuddle the pov there. It could work, but really, it’s not necessary. Their ages are made clear very quickly as it stands.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | January 21, 2012, 1:58 pm
  15. Fascinating and very helpful line editing in action. A big thank you to Jody Wallace for submitting her pages for this session. Theresa, I really appreciated the way you broke down your process.

    Posted by Julia Phillips Smith | January 21, 2012, 9:40 am
  16. I’m in awe of the thought process that went into editing this piece. Thank you for the learning opportunity!

    Posted by E. Newmeyer | January 24, 2012, 8:27 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Romance University now has a weekly feature wherein you can submit your first 2 pages to be critiqued by an editor: Ask An Editor Theresa Stevens Tackles Line Editing […]

  2. […] of background people in novels—the empty world syndrome. And editor Theresa Stevens shows how minor changes in the line editing phase can deepen and strengthen your scene, using a real sample to show […]

  3. […] Theresa Steven and Gina Berna, hosts of Romance University “Ask An Editor,” are tackling a new series in their column on line edits.  All writers have to do is submit the […]

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