Posted On March 16, 2012 by Print This Post

Ask An Editor: Theresa Stevens’ Line Editing Series

Editor extraordinaire THERESA STEVENS is back with with an in-depth example of the line editing process.

This month we continue our line editing series with an entry we are told is YA fantasy.

Chapter One – A Mother’s Sacrifice

We haven’t made it past the chapter heading, and I already have to pause for comment. There’s a tendency with new-ish YA writers to focus too much on the adults and not enough on the kids. Because we’re told that this chapter will be about the actions of the mother, I’m already wondering if this book will fall into that trap. I will be watching as we read for evidence that the young people are the central characters.

Midnight, 30th September, 1509

Serena wanted to run.

This is a little vague. You can run to something or run from something, and these are very different kinds of activities. If I were line editing this for publication, I would make a note requesting the author clarify this sentence by completing the sentence, or perhaps by revising it.

The hourglass stood on the altar stone in the centre of the clearing. A cruel wind sliced through the trees, stinging Serena’s hands and drawing tears from her eyes, but that was a welcome sensation: at least, for now, she could feel.

Good sense of setting and emotion and tension, but I still want to tinker with this. The colon sounds the wrong tone for this kind of prose. It’s too formal. I’m also not wild about that pair of present participial phrases in the middle of the compound sentences. It’s not the trees stinging and drawing, even though the ordinary rules of sentence structure tell us that those phrases modify the trees. It could be read as a cumulative modifier except that the trees still get in the way of our interpretation. I would reference the trees in the first sentence and get them out of the middle of this sentence. So the new paragraph would read,

The hourglass stood on the altar stone in the centre of the forest clearing. A cruel wind stung Serena’s hands and drew tears from her eyes, but that was a welcome sensation. At least, for now, she could feel.

“Take the glass,” the witch instructed. “Turn it once and see that you have controlled time.”

On first reading, it wasn’t clear to me that these instructions were directed at Serena, so I would add the object to the dialogue tag.

It felt like ice in Serena’s trembling hand as she turned it. Beneath its surface, the rushing sands of time slowed to a trickle and were still.

That first sentence lacks the impact it probably ought to have. Despite the hand/cold, it’s a bit disembodied, perhaps because of the two uses of the pronoun it. Also, felt is a weak verb, which is a surprise because most of the other verbs in these two pages are robust and strong. And the sentence feels a bit rushed. We don’t get a sense that Serena believes this act to be momentous because she rushes to follow the instructions without hesitation. And we don’t know the goal of the magic — which is fine at this point, and actually raises the tension level, except that the lack of emotional context from Serena in this instant further undermines that first sentence’s impact.

The solution is to slow down that moment and reel out the details. Ordinarily, I would notate this to ask the author to expand the moment. Just for an example, here is something that might work.

Hesitation would be dangerous. Still, her trembling hands stretched toward the hourglass, more slowly than the witch would like but certainly more quickly than Serena preferred. Her heart fluttered as she lifted the hourglass, heavier than it looked and as cold as the witch’s heart. She turned its icy weight. Beneath its surface, the rushing sands of time slowed to a trickle and were still.

Serena reached into her cloak pocket, reassuring herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside. It was her last hope, but there was no guarantee she could deliver it into the right hands without walking into a trap. Serena swallowed dryly, fighting a wave of nausea at the thought. Such a mistake would cost thousands of lives and rob her of her children… again.

She replaced the hourglass on the sacrificial rock.

I think the actions in these last two paragraphs are out of order. I think she has to replace the hourglass on the altar before she checks the one in her pocket. So I would reverse these two pieces, and I think that single-sentence paragraph makes a nice offset conclusion to the tense actions in the stretched-out paragraph that precedes it.

As to the second paragraph, I’m again troubled by the structure of the first sentence with its present participial phrase. Good writers shun this structure, and with good reason. These phrases are adjectives. This means that they must be used to modify nouns. Adjectives go next to the nouns they modify, which means that this sentence’s structure literally means that the pocket is reassuring. Obviously, this isn’t what the writer intends. Instead, she intends to indicate that the first action (reached) serves the purpose of reassurance. For that reason, I would revise that sentence like this,

Serena reached into her cloak pocket to reassure herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside.

It’s a small change with a big impact, and I would put it in the category of a mandatory grammar change rather than an optional style change. The next sentence in the paragraph flows neatly from this first sentence, though I do wonder if we ought to have some indication about whether the second hourglass is secret. This might not be necessary. In sentence three, I would cut the phrase at the thought, which is redundant. The point of view is deep enough and the action is clear enough that we know Serena is the one thinking, and we can see the causation because nothing interrupts the action of the second sentence and the reaction of the third sentence.

This leads us to the fourth sentence in this paragraph.

Such a mistake would cost thousands of lives and rob her of her children… again.

There are two issues here. The first, and more minor, is that the ellipsis is being used to provide cadence. This is not a good use for ellipses, which ordinarily should signal either missing information or a trailing off of dialogue or interior monologue. This kind of emphasis ellipsis, much like scare quotes, multiple exclamation points, and emphasis capitalizations, is acceptable in modern, casual communication such as social media posts or emails between friends. In a book set in the 1500s, though, it sounds a too-modern note. And even in a contemporary-set book, you’re better off using diction to create cadence. So I would cut the ellipsis. Even a period would be better.

The second issue with this sentence is that we now know Serena is an adult, old enough to have children of her own. As it stands now, we understand her to be the main character because we started in her pov. We understand that her main problem is that she has been separated from her children, and this ritual is meant to get them back. This is reinforced by the next two paragraphs.

“Alasdair,” the witch continued, “you, too, must control the passing of time.”

Serena glanced at her husband; his eyes, like hers, were wet. He turned the glass and set it down again. Then his hand found hers, and their fingers intertwined as they embraced this final, physical memory together. In marrying him, she had bound him to this fate. She wore her guilt like an open wound.

She’s married. Her husband is going through this ritual with her. She feels guilt about whatever she did to land them in this situation. And that semicolon in the first sentence should be edited out, but I’m no longer focused on the line edits now because I’m facing a bigger concern. This might not be a suitable story for this genre. YA books ordinarily don’t take adults as protagonists. It’s possible that this scene is a prologue of sorts, and that the action will shift away from Serena and to a more suitable protagonist. But if that’s not the case, then my advice to this writer would focus more on the substantive concerns than the line editing concerns.

Nevertheless, I would describe this piece as competently written. If I were reading this as a submission, at this point, I would pause reading to check the synopsis. I would be looking for specific evidence that the book becomes more genre-appropriate after this first scene. If I found that evidence, I would be inclined to keep reading because the line editing concerns are fixable. The story has a good sense of tension. The scene is set well. The pace is generally good. It’s not a bad piece at all, and the changes we’ve made are minor.

Putting it all together, we get,

Chapter One – A Mother’s Sacrifice

Midnight, 30th September, 1509

Serena wanted to run far from the coven in their dark robes.

The hourglass stood on the altar stone in the centre of the forest clearing. A cruel wind stung Serena’s hands and drew tears from her eyes, but that was a welcome sensation. At least, for now, she could feel.

“Take the glass,” the witch instructed her. “Turn it once and see that you have controlled time.”

Hesitation would be dangerous. Still, her trembling hands stretched toward the hourglass, more slowly than the witch would like but certainly more quickly than Serena preferred. Her heart fluttered as she lifted the hourglass, heavier than it looked and as cold as the witch’s heart. She turned its icy weight. Beneath its surface, the rushing sands of time slowed to a trickle and were still.

She replaced the hourglass on the sacrificial rock.

Serena reached into her cloak pocket to reassure herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside. It was her last hope, but there was no guarantee she could deliver it into the right hands without walking into a trap. Serena swallowed dryly, fighting a wave of nausea. Such a mistake would cost thousands of lives and rob her of her children. Again.

“Alasdair,” the witch said to Serena’s husband, “you, too, must control the passing of time.”

His eyes, like Serena’s, were wet. He turned the glass and set it down again. Then his hand found hers, and their fingers intertwined as they embraced this final, physical memory together. In marrying him, she had bound him to this fate. She wore her guilt like an open wound.

***

Do you see why Theresa made the suggestions she offers here? If you have any questions, post them in the comments below.

On Monday, JENEL LOONEY and SHERIDAN STANCLIFF discuss outsourcing business tasks. Join us! Enjoy your weekend, and have a Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

***

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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27 Responses to “Ask An Editor: Theresa Stevens’ Line Editing Series”

  1. Theresa – Thanks for a an awesome post. it helps so much to see if broken down into manageable chunks.

    Robin

    Posted by Robin Covington | March 16, 2012, 5:43 am
  2. Theresa – I love the way line edits make a good a story even better! You’ve made me curious – do you write fiction yourself? If so, is it harder to see where things can be tightened on your own stories?

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | March 16, 2012, 6:51 am
    • Yes, I am a published author under a pen name, but writing is pretty far down my priority list. I tend to focus first on editing and teaching. But when I write, I find the line editing much easier to manage than the plotting. We all have our weaknesses, and mine is a tendency to get lost in the weeds shortly after the midpoint!

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | March 16, 2012, 8:51 am
  3. Morning Theresa!

    Wow, what a difference that makes. And it’s all just little snips and bits, but definitely brings a different feel to the read. This kind of sentence “cloak pocket, reassuring herself” is one I write A LOT….bad carrie.

    Thanks for a GREAT post Theresa!!!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | March 16, 2012, 7:34 am
    • Carrie, those -ing phrases crop up frequently with new writers. And even with intermediate writers! I advise people to use the “replace” tool to change the font color of all “ing” letter combos to a bright color. It will catch a few rings and fingers that don’t count, but it will also help you spot (and revise!) the participial phrases.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | March 16, 2012, 8:55 am
  4. Good morning! I love how just reworking what is already there makes such a difference.

    Thanks for a great post and to the b reader for submitting!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | March 16, 2012, 8:02 am
  5. My guess is that we’re coming up on some sort of reincarnation/re-set/re-do plot where the heroine will be a teen. The majority of the book may be in a YA voice. However, I guess it does make you question if a dramatic scene with adults, and a married couple no less, is the best first page for a YA audience? I don’t know! I don’t read a lot of YA. Hope the author finds all this useful!

    Posted by Jody W. | March 16, 2012, 8:48 am
    • It’s possible, Jody. That’s why I would check the synopsis, but we don’t have a synopsis here. I think this could work as a first scene if the rest of the book is more geared toward the YA market. It just depends on the rest!

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | March 16, 2012, 8:57 am
  6. Hi Theresa,

    Editing does bring more out of a story. You make it look easy.

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day Eve,

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | March 16, 2012, 8:48 am
  7. Theresa -

    Thanks for another great column. I don’t think I overuse participle phrases, but this is a good reminder to look for them as I edit.

    And thanks so much to our reader who submitted this scene!

    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | March 16, 2012, 9:17 am
    • There’s no hard and fast rule about how many PPPs are too many, and the truth is that sometimes these are the correct phrase to use. But my sense is that if they crop up more than once in five or ten manuscript pages, that might be too many.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | March 16, 2012, 11:44 am
  8. I’ll second that! If this story should sell one of these days, I hope she’ll come back and let us know!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | March 16, 2012, 9:31 am
  9. Great suggestions and line edits. I, too, have a tendency to use participial phrases and have to go back and edit most of them out during revision. I think your “to reassure herself” edit worked. I just wish it were always that easy. I know I usually check my “to” construction sentences, as well, to make sure I’m not indicating intent instead of showing action. i.e She reached out, closing the door. (grammar issues) She reached out to close the door. (but did she close it?) She closed the door.

    Posted by Deb S | March 16, 2012, 11:32 am
    • Deb, you’re so right! One of my routine checks includes eyeballing all the actions in a sentence, whether from verbs or from verbals like gerunds and participles. A lot of action words can make the sentence a little sticky or even confusion. It’s never bad practice to cut out a weaker verb like “reached” and focus on the stronger verb like “closed.”

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | March 16, 2012, 11:41 am
  10. Hello Theresa!

    This is very helfpul.Describing action sequences are my weakness.
    My question is a little outside of the scope of today’s lesson, but how long does it take you to do a line edit for a 70K word ms?

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | March 16, 2012, 5:07 pm
    • Jennifer, there are so many variables that can influence the answer to that question! First, I would need to know the condition of the manuscript to evaluate how much line editing it might need. Then I would have to evaluate my schedule to try to predict when I would get to it, in light of other commitments. Right now, I’m running a little over a week behind schedule (other work commitments have me tied up like a pretzel — we lost two people from my teaching team and I had to absorb a portion of their classroom work), so I’m not booking anything until I get ahead of the schedule. And I’m booked through the end of April as it is.

      That said, for most ordinary 70k manuscripts, in most ordinary scenarios, I would complete it in about a week from the time I start it.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | March 16, 2012, 8:29 pm
  11. Theresa – Thanks so much for responding to our questions. I always learn a lot when you visit!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | March 16, 2012, 10:31 pm
  12. I have a ya novel, first draft which I would like edited in about 90 days. I ‘m in no rush. How does someone hire you and get in your schedule.

    Posted by Kimberly | March 18, 2012, 10:00 am
  13. Information about my rates, endorsements, contact information, etc., is available at this site:
    http://theresastevens.wordpress.com/

    Posted by Theresa Stevens | March 19, 2012, 9:02 am
  14. present participial phrase – those things drive me crazy. I’m really good at writing them and my editor is really good at pointing them out and suggesting I remove/modify them.

    thanks for a great post.

    Posted by Daryl Devore | March 27, 2012, 7:31 am
  15. This was a great post! Thank you for taking the time to break it down.

    Posted by Martha Ramirez | March 27, 2012, 1:26 pm
  16. I’m a freelance editor working in isolation, so I rarely see how other editors work. Although I have never edited fiction, I found this both fascinating and helpful. Therese, I’m definitely going to take your advice to use the replace tool to highlight all the instances of “-ing”. Great tip!

    Posted by Wendy Monaghan | April 6, 2012, 9:22 pm
  17. Theresa: I just came across this site (and post), and I think it’s an absolutely fantastic initiative to show people what sorts of decisions are involved when editing fiction. You have explained things very well and given a great insight into the editing process on the whole. Thanks!

    Posted by Stickler Editing | January 31, 2013, 10:02 pm

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