Posted On April 20, 2012 by Print This Post

Ask An Editor: Theresa Stevens’ Line Editing Series

This month we continue our line editing series with editor THERESA STEVENS

Welcome back, Theresa!

This month we continue our line editing series with an entry that gives us a chance to talk about content editing as well as line editing. Let’s start by reading the full excerpt.

Sienna Edwards loved the feel of power and the roar of the engine right beneath her. She easily moved through the thick Chicago traffic on her beloved Suzuki Hayabusa. She didn’t know of any more powerful feeling in the world than the wind rushing through her long curls and the honks from upset drivers.

Thoughts whirled around inside of her head and as usual were spinning out of control on her birthday. A horrible day to her if she had to be honest about it. Normally everyone got older and that hadn’t been what bothered her, it was the past birthdays, or the lack thereof. Life wasn’t always as peachy as people thought, but she was determined to have fun on this particular birthday, finally being able to spend it with friends that truly cared.

Through the thick fog that settled throughout the city, Sienna could finally make out her destination from a distance. The club Diablo announced itself to the world with glowing red lights and the flashlights that seemed to make it all the way to the sky. Since her and her friends knew the owner, they were frequent visitors. The fact that her kind could also feel completely safe there, only added to its appeal.

With a motorcycle, curbside parking did not take long to find. Before she managed to perch the bike and start walking towards the entrance, Sienna pinned her hair back in a messy bun with a handy chopstick that rested between her breasts.

Glares definitely lingered on her small but endowed figure which had been accented by the tight black leather pants, the knee high stiletto boots, and the tight black V-neck t-shirt that showed the top of her breasts. Men were definitely attracted to her, which she enjoyed, though didn’t let on. After one look from her in their direction and the whole group of guys that stood smoking and waiting to get in, averted their eyes.

“Hey my lady,” the bouncer smiled as she walked up. James, one of her own, knew her since before the bar even opened. The fact that he called her his lady always flustered everyone else. James, being a man easily over six feet tall with muscles that gave Schwarzenegger a run for his money, could definitely be mistaken for a common convict. Tough though he may be on the outside, Sienna knew all too well how a gentle of a soul he could be.  His mate being one to attest to that fact first and foremost. Cutting through the entire line, to a mass of groans and some appreciating whistles, she stood before him.

“Hey James. Not being too mean I hope,” she motioned towards the line before giving him a slight peck on the cheek.

“Nah, you know me. Just wanna build the suspense up a bit,” he smiled wickedly, “but you go on and have fun. Lauren and Sonya area already waiting for you,” he said lastly and turned his attention to the next guy in line causing trouble. No one could get past James especially with his hunter senses.

My first response to this is that it’s inconsistent. Sienna could very well end up being an interesting character, but in this specific moment in time, she’s not as clear as we want her to be. The line editing in cases like this has to start with something more akin to content editing. We have to examine the way the character is coming across on the page, and we have to do what we can to shape her up – but on a sentence and paragraph level rather than on a scene and story level.

Take another look at the first two paragraphs. Look at them separately, and then look at them together.

Paragraph 1:

Sienna Edwards loved the feel of power and the roar of the engine right beneath her. She easily moved through the thick Chicago traffic on her beloved Suzuki Hayabusa. She didn’t know of any more powerful feeling in the world than the wind rushing through her long curls and the honks from upset drivers.

Okay, so (ignoring for the moment the line editing concerns), this is a paragraph about a woman who feels free and powerful on a motorcycle. There’s something uplifting and bold about her in this moment. Because of the repetition in power and powerful, we might decide she’s an ambitious, power-hungry person. Because of the repetitions in loved and beloved, we might also decide she’s a force for good, maybe even big-hearted.

But then we get to paragraph 2:

Thoughts whirled around inside of her head and as usual were spinning out of control on her birthday. A horrible day to her if she had to be honest about it. Normally everyone got older and that hadn’t been what bothered her, it was the past birthdays, or the lack thereof. Life wasn’t always as peachy as people thought, but she was determined to have fun on this particular birthday, finally being able to spend it with friends that truly cared.

This is not the same character from paragraph one, is it? This character is mopey, overwhelmed, maybe a little self-pitying, though she’s trying to overcome it. She has bleak thoughts, which she might be trying to replace with more positive thoughts, but nevertheless, this paragraph is packed with a kind of gloominess. Spinning out of control, horrible day, feeling gypped on past birthdays, life isn’t peachy – these add up to a negativity that seems hard to reconcile with the power-lover from the first paragraph.

So what is the character’s dominant mood in this moment? The reader won’t know because the text hasn’t told her. The character could be exhilirated from the ride, or she could be the determined-to-be-cheerful sad girl from the second paragraph. Because it’s unclear, the reader will have a harder time bonding with the character. So the first step here is to figure out what she’s really thinking and feeling in this moment, and stick with it. The character might be complex enough to feel everything currently on the page, but that kind of complexity is best developed over the whole text.

Next up, paragraphs 3 and 4 – which I won’t repeat here – focuses mainly on the fact of travel to a destination. It’s my standard practice, when an author presents a first scene with travel details, to cut most of this run-up material and start at the moment of arrival. Some editors might let this kind of short leading material to stand, but I usually won’t. The moment of arrival is almost always going to be more interesting than the moments of travel, and the descriptive details can be blended into the actual arrival. So I would cut most of what’s in these two paragraphs, though some of the details might be seeded into the rest of the scene.

One option might be to start with the moment she parks the motorcycle – that way, you still get the motorcyle into the text – and go from there. Establish her dominant mood in the first paragraph, and don’t dilute it with material that doesn’t support that mood. For the purposes of demonstration, I’m going to choose “determined to have fun” as her dominant mood in the revised excerpt below.

You can use the conversation with James to bring out the fact of her birthday, and some of the other details can be salted in along the way, too. But you don’t need to explain a lot at this point. Your goal is to hook the reader and build a quick bond, and a little bit of mystery will help with that.

Just for an example, I’m going to take a swing at this. But this is for demonstration only. I’ll use your words as much as possible, but I’m going to trim and tighten quite a bit so that the focus is on the action and interaction.

Sienna Edwards perched her beloved bike, a Suzuki Hayabusa, next to the curb and walked toward the club entrance. The club Diablo announced itself to the world with glowing red lights and the flashlights that seemed to make it all the way to the Chicago sky. Sure, she came here all the time, but tonight was different. It had to be. With a determined little sigh, Sienna pinned her hair back in a messy bun with a handy chopstick that rested between her breasts.

The group of guys that smoked and waited in line lingered on her small but endowed figure which had been accented by the tight black leather pants, the knee high stiletto boots, and the tight black V-neck t-shirt that showed the top of her breasts. Men were definitely attracted to her, which she enjoyed, though didn’t let on. Not even tonight, not even when her one and only goal was pleasure. She cut through the entire line to a mass of groans and some appreciating whistles, until she stood before the heavily muscled bouncer.

“Hey, my lady.” James, one of her own shapeshifting kind, had known her since before the bar even opened.

“Hey James. Not being too mean, I hope.” She motioned towards the line before giving him a slight peck on the cheek.

“Nah, you know me. Just wanna build the suspense up a bit.” He smiled wickedly. “But you go on and have fun. Lauren and Sonya area already waiting for you. They tell me it’s your birthday.”

“Yes, and for a change, I thought I’d have a fun birthday. You could say I’m determined.”

“Uh-oh. And we all know, what my lady wants, my lady shall have.”

 

See, now the premise has been established. It’s her birthday. She is approaching it as a task to be accomplished: Have fun on my birthday, for a change. We don’t know why she has this attitude, but at this point, any explanation would slow down the pacing of the narrative. So skip the explanation. Establish the facts, and get the scene moving. Use James to throw in some details, and get to the interior of the bar more quickly. You can keep the sexual interest from the men in line because that accomplishes two purposes: it gives us a little bit of character description, and it establishes the fact of her sexual power. We lost a small sense of her love of power when we cut the paragraph about riding the motorcycle, so this reinserts it in a different way.

The revised opening has a clearer emotional content and a faster pace. I think it works better, don’t you?

***

RU Crew, do you have any questions for Theresa regarding her suggestions? 

On Monday, Jessica Scott tells us how an Army company commander became a romance writer. 

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

  1. I agree completely with your changes. I’ve just finished judging a couple of contests, and beginning at the right point with the biggest impact was a problem for several of the entries.

    That said, I find that I myself sometimes need to write the travel or the setup events just to get them in my head to keep things straight. I have been known to inflict these pages on my critique group, who invariably tell me the whole thing is boring. They are correct, of course, and I move those paragraphs to another “junk” file and get on with the real story.

    The trick comes in recognizing the problems myself.

    Happy writing!

    Posted by Ann Macela | April 20, 2012, 7:05 am
  2. Hi Theresa,

    As a writer, what are the best ways to sharpen editing skills?

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | April 20, 2012, 7:09 am
    • First, stay open to new ideas, even if it means something you love needs to be tossed or changed. That mindset is critical, because the minute you think you’re on top of it all is the minute you stop growing.

      Then, practice, practice, practice! Work on other people’s manuscripts, if they’ll let you, because that will help you train an objective eye. Make multiple editing passes, starting with big-picture details and narrowing down to the details — once for character, twice for plot holes, third time for pacing, fourth time for paragraphing, fifth time for sentence structure, etc. If you focus on one thing at a time, though, it will help you become more adept in that target area.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | April 20, 2012, 8:36 am
      • The one thing at a time is fabulous advice! I’m going to try that. I usually spend a ton of time trying to do it all at once a page at a time. Might be a better process to do five passes of each page and focus on just one thing on each pass.

        Aha moment of the day!

        Posted by Adrienne Giordano | April 20, 2012, 9:06 am
        • It’s the best method, especially when you’re tackling something that needs extra attention. As you get more comfortable with different aspects of editing, you’ll also find it easier to combine, say, paragraphing and sentence mechanics into a single pass. And when you have tricky scenes — big turning points, subtle emotions, loaded imagery — you can break it down even further into even more passes. It’s all in what you want to focus on — put your attention where the manuscript needs it!

          Posted by Theresa Stevens | April 20, 2012, 10:30 am
          • The multiple editing passes is brilliant advice. I usually get lost in the wordsmithing and do so much of that, everything else takes a backseat.

            Thanks Theresa, as usual so much to learn here.

            Sonali

            Posted by Sonali | April 20, 2012, 12:16 pm
      • So glad to hear you say this, Theresa. I’ve been doing the one thing at a time process with my recent editorial suggestions. I started with the easy stuff (anything I could “accept” in Track Changes), then I went onto answering clarifying questions, and now I’m tackling character/plot issues. It’s helped me stay focused.

        Posted by Tracey Devlyn | April 21, 2012, 7:34 am
  3. Morning Theresa!

    Wow, great job! The pacing change is just amazing! I’d actually quit reading the first submission because I lost interest, but the redo went zip zip zip!

    That gives me great ideas for my WIP! =)

    thanks!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | April 20, 2012, 7:12 am
  4. Another great line edit! I just went through a similar exercise with my opening chapter and I’m still amazed at how just rearranging the words makes such a huge difference.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | April 20, 2012, 7:57 am
  5. I have a spare room, Theresa – want to move in? I think I need an editor living here, to read over my shoulder when I write and whap me over the head. I KNOW I’ve done these same things. I’m taking lots of notes!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 20, 2012, 8:35 am
  6. I forgot to toss a bouquet to the brave author who submitted this. I look forward to reading the rest of the story one day soon!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 20, 2012, 8:37 am
  7. Thanks, Theresa. Your post comes at an opportune moment. I’m about to dive back into the contest world and just read the first chapter of my manuscript. Eek! Too long, not enough tell, too much show.. Much head banging and reaching for the Starbucks employment page ensued. Walked away, came back and started snipping, okay hacking away and six long pages are now three definitely improved. You’re so right, we can’t be so in love with our words we aren’t willing to sacrifice them for the greater good. Your post points out additional areas I need to deal with and I’m going to add your process of editing one thing at a time.

    Posted by Yasmine | April 20, 2012, 9:22 am
  8. First, thanks to our reader who submitted this piece for line editing. Your bravery makes better writers of us all!

    Theresa – I never fail to learn something from you. I really want to use this multi-pass process when I edit the MS I’m currently drafting. But how the heck can I keep from getting bored senseless reading it that many times? LOL

    Kels

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | April 20, 2012, 9:46 am
    • One option is to take short, frequent breaks to keep the blood flowing. I use a kitchen timer — 25 minutes editing, five minutes up and moving (usually cleaning something! amazing how much cleaning can be done in five-minute spurts!). The trick is to use the breaks to do something that pulls your head out of the manuscript without getting it wrapped up in something else. Your goal is to stay fresh by getting physical, not to use mental energy on other things during those breaks.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | April 20, 2012, 10:37 am
  9. Aahh . . the dreaded question of where to start the scene. I have that question all the time and I think was an excellent example of how to pinpoint it.Thanks!

    Should we, as writers, do multiple passes focusing on first content editing and then line editing? What is the best method to hit it all?

    Posted by Robin Covington | April 20, 2012, 12:07 pm
  10. These revision ideas definitely hone the pacing! Thanks to both the author and Theresa for giving everyone a glimpse into the editing process.

    Posted by Jody W. | April 22, 2012, 10:28 am

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