Good morning! Welcome to another installment of our Line Editing series, where editors Gina Bernal and Theresa Stevens edit the first two pages of a reader-submitted manuscript. Today, Gina determines if this scene starts in the right place and carries enough dramatic weight.
In my previous post, I focused on how streamlining and tightening your prose can strengthen your writing. Line edits provide an opportunity not just to tweak the technicalities of writing but also to do some specific line-by-line content editing. When reading closely and objectively, ask yourself questions like: Is a specific action getting across the message it’s trying to convey? Am I relying too heavily on backstory for explanation? How can I give a particular sentence more dramatic weight (or in Gina-speak “oomph”)? And, perhaps most importantly, is the scene and/or chapter both moving the plot forward and starting in the right place?
Let’s take a look at our example…
Eliza Baxter had not survived the past four months to be daunted by the jeers of two hatchet-faced guards.
“Ey, would you look at this fine bit o’ muslin?”
“Hullo love, fancy a bit of leg-over once we make the high seas?”
Already, I’m intrigued by this seemingly unsavory situation the heroine is in and the mention of the “high seas.” Though, for effect, I would suggest opening with the dialogue and scrapping one of the two guards’ comments. Dialogue, when concise, direct and strong, often packs more punch when setting the scene.
She had shivered against Newgate Gaol’s underground stone walls, kicked brazen rats, and stopped her ears to the delirium during the typhus outbreak.
She had crouched in a dank corner of her cell, breathing through her sleeve to evade the miasmas that killed with a relentless efficiency, and reviewed her options. Until she decided or rather, accepted.
In these two paragraphs, the author loses me a bit with the list of all the indignities Eliza has suffered. Her past sufferings should be hinted at while still keeping the reader focused on the present. Also, what options was she reviewing? Someone who’s spent months in a cell with rats seems to have run out of them.
There had never really been a choice once she stepped into the Hunt’s carriage and traveled to London last May. Escape was the only alternative to-no don’t think of it. She couldn’t get much further than where she was now going.
Ah-ha, a mystery. I’m curious to know who the Hunts are and how they may have contributed to her current situation. However, the interrupted thought “Escape was the only alternative to—” isn’t used to its best advantage. The author could possibly be suggesting that there’s an option the heroine would rather rot in a cell than consider—an improper proposal, perhaps?—but there is not enough to go on to make that suggestion clear.
I’ve had just about enough. She dodged between the suggestive stances of the leering guards; their breath stained with the odor of stale gin as she stepped onto the gangway. And it’s not even started.
Instead of viewing masterpieces at the grand opening of the new National Gallery, she had blinked into the daylight streaming though the high courtroom windows of the Old Bailey. A judge with the same unhappy mouth as her father picked his nose. The jurors had whispered through the false charges. One dozed but woke in time to help deliver the sentence. Guilty. The thirteen other hollow-eyed prisoners knew what she was only just gleaning. All paths for a desperate woman eventually pass through the blackened archway of the Newgate Gaol.
Her sentence was read. The gallows.
Just as quickly her sentence was commuted. Transportation to Parts Beyond the Seas.
As she was escorted down from the dock, a few whistled bars rose up from the throng clustered in the balcony. The cheerful tone belied a menace that rendered her bones to jelly. The Grand Old Duke of York, He had ten thousand men, He marched them up the fields and then He marched them back again. She couldn’t find him in the crowd but her suspicion was confirmed. Jeremiah Hunt was indeed behind this.
Before the fatal trip to London last spring, she had never ventured more than thirty miles from her family’s small parsonage in the downlands of South Hampshire. Now here she was sailing for the backwater of the British Empire. Australia.
Here, my thoughts about revision changed from polishing this scene to restructuring it altogether. Aside from the technical line editing concerns, these paragraphs proved the most problematic because they bring up the question: does this scene start in the right place? The fact that a flashback takes up almost half the original word count says no. The drama of this court scene has overtaken the initial opening on the ship’s gangway and, to me as a reader, is much more interesting in both action and details. Perhaps that is the true beginning of this story.
Taking this into consideration, if we were to rework the book’s opening, it might look something like this…
“Hang the whore!”
Eliza Baxter had not survived the past four months crouching in a dank, rat-infested cell to be daunted by faceless jeers from the courtroom gallery.
I’ve had just about enough. And it’s not even started.
She blinked into the daylight streaming though the high windows of the Old Bailey. The thirteen other hollow-eyed prisoners awaiting their fates knew what she was only just gleaning. All paths for a desperate woman eventually pass through the blackened archway of Newgate Gaol.
She’d come to accept her lot. There had never really been a choice, not since she stepped into the Hunts’ carriage and traveled to London last May. Prison, though harsh, proved a better alternative to Jeremiah’s—No, don’t think of it.
A judge with the same unhappy mouth as her father picked his nose. The jurors whispered through the false charges. One dozed but woke in time to help deliver the sentence.
Her sentence was read—the gallows—and just as quickly commuted.
Transportation to parts beyond the seas.
A nervous laugh scratched her dry throat. All the times she’d dreamed of escape… She couldn’t get much farther than where she was now going. Before the fatal trip to London last spring, Eliza had never ventured more than thirty miles from her family’s small parsonage in the downlands of South Hampshire. Now here she was, sentenced to the backwater of the British Empire. Australia.
As she was escorted down from the dock, a few whistled bars rose up from the throng clustered in the balcony. The cheerful tone belied a menace that rendered her bones to jelly.
The Grand Old Duke of York, He had ten thousand men, He marched them up the fields and then He marched them back again.
She couldn’t find him in the crowd, but her suspicion was confirmed. Jeremiah Hunt was behind this.
Granted, without knowing the full details of the plot, I made up a lot of the backstory implied here. This is simply a rough sketch of one way the scene could unfold. The author, who better knows her story and characters, could further enhance it with descriptive details to clue the reader in on the physical and mental toll the heroine’s experience has had on her, or dialogue and narrative that further enlighten the reader’s understanding of the situation—what she’s accused of, etc. In fact, I’d strongly suggest this in order to beef up the bare bones I’ve come up with.
Overall, the goal of this close line-by-line read was to identify not only places to polish the writing but also to root out and fix any weaknesses in the scene itself. Do you think that was accomplished?
RU Crew, what do you think about Gina’s suggestions? Can you apply some of Gina’s tips to your own scenes?
Thank you to Gina for the valuable feedback!
Gina’s Bio: Gina Bernal has over eight years of publishing experience in both editorial and marketing/sales. She is currently a freelance editor for Harlequin’s digital imprint, Carina Press, for which she is actively seeking romance of all subgenres and heat levels, urban fantasy, and suspense/mystery novels with strong female leads. Gina loves books that make her laugh, books that make her cry and books that do both. She’s a sucker for tortured heroes, badass heroines, unusual settings and classic themes with new twists. She holds a B.A. in History and Literature from Harvard University and resides in the Boston area.
You can follow her on Twitter @GinaBernal
- Editor Gina Bernal Tackles Line Editing
- Ask An Editor Theresa Stevens Tackles Line Editing
- Behind the Scenes: Editing
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for May 4 – 11, 2012 – C.J. Redwine, Cris Dukehart & Gina Bernal
- Ask An Editor: Theresa Stevens’ Line Editing Series