In The Edit: Clarice James

In these posts, with the author’s permission, I look at their work pre-editing and post-editing—and at what I did to improve the piece. The idea is to catch a glimpse into not only the editing process, but the relationship between editor and author.

Clarice James

Today we have another 2011 Operation First Novel finalist, Clarice James, In The Edit. Clarice’s manuscript, Party of One, tells the story of a widow coming to terms with her new life. In this sample, which comes from Chapter 4, the protagonist is dealing with some pretty heavy emotional baggage.

Clarice handles this well. The emotions she shares seem real and, as a spouse who worries excessively about losing my wife, I was able to relate even though a man.

Clarice’s edit

See Clarice’s original.

I found three main areas to focus on in this sample:

  1. Extra words (always and forever)
  2. Enhancing the emotion/drama
  3. Over-making the case

Read my edit with track changes in place.

Trim, trim, then trim

If you’re a regular reader of these In The Edit posts, you know I always cut words. This is a key self-editing skill every author needs to learn and internalize. In most cases, with a few allowances for style and voice, if you can cut a word, do so.

Shorter sentences are powerful. They keep the reader moving and engaged in the story. An occasional long sentence of exceptional beauty—one that needs every word in it—offers the reader sweet, satisfying variety.

For instance, in paragraph 5, Clarice has her protagonist describing what life without a loved one is like by showing how the protag relates in everyday situations. It’s a powerful idea and it works. But there are extra words.

“Do you really believe your bad day at work compares with the fact that my husband is dead?”

In that sentence, I added really because it helped show the character’s state of mind, but I deleted at work and that because the previous sentence indicated the location and because that can almost always be deleted.

Dramatic intensity

While this sample already contains strong emotions, I thought there were ways to enhance them. In this scene, because Clarice chose to write it as her character talking in general (when this happens to you, then you experience this), it distances the reader just when you want to draw them in.

What I think works better is to have the protagonist share this section from her own point of view. This requires changing the focus from you to I. In other words, instead of A friend complains about her job and you outwardly sympathize, but what you think is… we get Now, when a friend complains about her job, outwardly I sympathize, but inside I’m thinking…. This makes it much easier for the reader to empathize with the character and gives the character more authority.

This is a significant change in approach. If I were really editing Clarice’s book, I’d want to chat with her about it to hear why she wrote it the way she did.

I get it, I get it

Writers have this passion for telling things in threes.

  • “Orlando loved Ginny. He loved her with a passion at once natural and unnatural. His love exceeded the mere bounds of human love and approached the divine.”

Instead of simplifying:

  • Orlando loved Ginny as a man, but also as a brother in Christ.”

It’s a natural fact that humans like threes, but sometimes we use the trick too often and rob it of it’s power or end up writing as Mr. Obvious, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination.

In Clarice’s sample, she did this while trying to get across her protagonist’s mental state of mind following her husband’s death. First she had the co-worker complaining about the day she had at work. Then another co-worker shared about the movie she saw. Finally, the example of the waitress asking about the salad.

It seemed like too much. I changed it to come from the protagonist’s point of view, but after that it really screamed “too much!” to me. Of the three examples, the salad seemed the least evocative so I cut it. Now, combined with the point of view switch, the other two examples have more power.

One last note: You’ll see in yellow highlight where I ask Clarice a question. Her answer to that would affect the edit going forward from that place.

Read my edit clean.

Clarice, thanks for coming Into The Edit with me!

If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to opusmle (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). If I use it, you’ll be eligible for a 25-percent discount on any editing services.

On Thursday, we’ll look at another self-editing writing tip. See you then! Then on Saturday, drop by for a quick writer’s quote and to share what that quote means to you.

Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line


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