Ah, novels. They hold so much promise, don’t they? The cover and blurb draw us in, we pay a few bucks and dive in…. maybe there’s a table of contents with named chapters, maybe not. Maybe there’s a dedication: “To Billy Boo, faithful cat, damn that car…” it all draws us into a world created by an author.
We hit page one. We’re excited. We want to love this.
Page one might sing, or it might…. gurgle like water running down a drain. Like this (page one of #livenovelediting project, Jesus Stole my Lighter by me):
Chapter One: Looking at Van Gogh’s Old Pad
Water ran off Sabine’s hair down her calves. It ran in cold rivulets. Protesting against the August heat that suffocated everything in pungent waves. Up in the apartment where Sabine lived with Laurent, the smell of drains soaked into the threadbare rug, velvet couch coverings and the sheet on the bed. It infused through the cotton pillowcases and invaded the plain towels. It sniffed out Sabine’s simple wardrobe despite the perfumed sachets she’d planted amongst her clothes to mask the stench. She began to rinse her golden hair with cold water, repeatedly for the feeling of release it gave. Paris in August, she thought, is like something rotten disturbed after a spring of decay. And everyone sane leaves the city to its festering fun and escapes in all compass directions. Except us, Sabine sulked, can’t afford that. Can’t even afford nice toilet paper.
She twisted the taps to a dying trickle and squeezed her hair’s length in her hands. She could hear Laurent crashing about in the lounge. Creating his usual cacophony of noises. His heavy feet pounding the wooden planks, clumsy crash of crockery into the overflowing sink. Fridge and cupboards banging when he’d look for things that sat under his crooked nose. Then the softer sounds would join in, like the tinkling of his paintbrushes in a glass of water. Or spitting and gagging sounds when he’d accidentally drink from the dirty paint water instead of his wineglass. The hiss of expiring half-smoked cigarettes into an empty can. Chewing noises on any snack he’d found, an overripe peach or hunk of bread and cheap paté. Now all fell silent. Sabine could picture the situation clearly, Laurent would be standing with his hand on hip, feet wide apart, his lean stomach jutting forward, head held high, before his latest masterpiece. It was the customary pose of decision making. He would be sucking on a cigarette, squinting. Deciding if he should throw it out the window, paint over it or drag it out, still wet, to dinner for his friends’ critique. She was carefully towelling her extremities when she heard Laurent pound to the window, open the latch, swing it wide open and call out in French something she could translate into, ‘Hey Jesus, come and see my painting!’
Oooh. So much to say about this.
There are the usual editorial no-no’s: Don’t start sentence after sentence with gerunds, eg. Protesting… Creating… Chewing…. Deciding…. Cut the crazy amount of fragment sentences, unless you are Hemingway, eg. The hiss of expiring half-smoked cigarettes into an empty can. When introducing your main character, please make them a tiny bit likeable, ‘Except us,’ Sabine sulked, ‘can’t afford that.’ (I’m already over this girl and she’s barely out of the shower! Cue a Psycho scene or something!) Avoid stereotypes with your characters, eg. LAURENT is one walking hash of a French artiste. Smoking, drinking wine, painting crap. Please. Avoid passive everything…. eg. we get a powerful scent of a Paris heatwave but that’s about the only thing I like in these two opening paragraphs… and I decided to make this a Christmastime Holiday novel, so that already has to go.
So, basically, this is a bad beginning.
It’s hyperbolic and overly melodramatic, too.
If I were really editing this, I’d take it from the top with my client and ask him/her what genre they’re writing, what books they like and admire, ask them to tell me what their book is about, and let’s assume the author wants full editing, so that means we start with a developmental edit (or story edit, or content edit). This is not copy-editing, where you tighten sentence construction, weed out errors and faulty grammar, fix typos and get the punctuation straight. Oh, no. Story editing is your editor reading the entire manuscript to tell you where you went wrong and where you whacked the ball out of the park. You can expect a load of comments within the manuscript and/or 5-10 pages of detailed, single-spaced editorial notes on characterization (yes, even in non-fiction such as memoir), structure, point of view, tone, story / narrative, research bits & pieces, frequent writing hiccups (e.g., Dear Author, you use passive verbs every second sentence.), and suggestions on how to fix the plot holes, inconsistencies, story pits, deep dark holes you’ve dug for yourself and so on.
A client asked me the other day if I ever tell an author their writing is shit.
No, of course not! I might very gently suggest that they really focus on a), b), and c) though. I give them a flashlight and a way out of the tunnel. Otherwise, it’s just a critique and writers get enough of them from writer groups. No, an editor has to tell you what’s working and not working with a gameplan to set you off on a painless, beautiful revision knowing what to do.
Except I’m tempted, with this masterpiece to tell myself the Author that is it, sadly, shit.
Here’s what I (the Editor) would say to myself (the Author). Let’s cut “Chapter One: Looking at Van Gogh’s Old Pad” and start the story where Sabine goes on the Ferris wheel and spins into an alternate reality. In fact, before that, my dear, let’s look at Sabine’s character, Laurent’s – do you still want Laurent in the novel because he’s kind of coming across as a bit of a caricature – and Vincent’s characters to understand what and how the plot will move forward driven by them as characters and their actions and reactions. Because, honestly, this premise of a Canadian chick being all hot and bothered by her artist, weird boyfriend and switching to a parallel reality – it still needs to happen to these particular people for valid reasons and in a way that propels the three of them into a real story that’ll move and engage readers. Sabine isn’t gaining my empathy so far. But let’s do this book!!!!
Okay, I’m being glib to keep you reading this blog post. I don’t communicate with my author clients like that. Well, maybe my über-cool client in Dubai, she rocks, and I could say that sort of thing to her. But most writers want to hear valid suggestions and a lot of positives before they can accept to let go of what’s not working and trust that good stuff will follow. Everyone likes to hear that there’s at least something to love about their bookbaby – of course! That’s natural.
Therefore, the positives I (the Ed) would highlight to myself (the Author):
- excellent sensory description – right down to the gagging on paint water, not wine
- great evocation of space
- there’s a rhythm to the prose as if something external to Sabine the narrator is orchestrating stuff – atmosphere is hard to create, this has atmosphere
- I’m intrigued to know what Laurent painted – this is page one so a reader will give you a few pages or the first chapter to hook them, but we’ll want a hook to come soon, is the painting a hook???
- I get a sense of Sabine straightaway and love that you don’t have her look in a mirror to describe her physically because of the close 3rd person narration you use
- it’s great that by paragraph 2 we know that Jesus, of the title Jesus Stole my Lighter is an actual guy in the story, not part of the magical realism thing
You see? Editors see everything as beautiful and beyond redemption at the same time.
In my next post I’m going to go wide angle and explain the story structure of this poor, flawed, caricatype-stuffed novel and give you an abridged developmental edit of it so that you – and myself (as Author) can see how this baby needs to be reedited!
Please shout out in the comments what you think of these two opening paragraphs. Do you agree with my flailing of the prose or think it kinda has something?