Sherri Stone, by her own description, is “a social worker by profession. (She is) a writer, unpublished for now and waiting on God’s timing and plan for this.“In the meantime He has provided a critique group to help me polish and hone my skills.”
Further, she has “been writing for several years now, but really got serious about it last year.” She writes that she’s “taking every opportunity to practice and polish my writing skills.”
And I would say her efforts are paying off. This submission has one of the best starts ever! Three short words, but it hooks the reader right away.
See my edit with track changes.
The biggest problem is trying to determine the story’s point of view. Who is telling the tale? It seems Susanna Larkin is and that’s the POV I chose to work with. But the original is written as if Sherri is afraid to inhabit Susanna completely. That’s a distance that needs to be erased.
A secondary challenge is finding ways to characterize Susanna from the beginning. What I’ve done may not be the true character of Sherri’s Susanna, but I want to show ways to easily add in character that Sherri can use when making the character her own.
Finally, there are a few instances of including information the reader doesn’t yet need. A novel’s opening must set the characters in the reader’s mind and get the story moving. Details can help, but unnecessary ones slow momentum.
I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting much in this sample. However, this is only one way of accomplishing what I suggest. Sherri will likely have another, better, idea.
Come and know me better!
Let’s compare two lines. Right after the fab opening in Sherri’s original comes this:
- The command came from hospice nurse Susanna Larkin, somewhere between a hiss and barely controlled laughter.
It sounds like someone else is telling the story about Susanna, but I don’t know who. Right away there’s distance. Turn things around a bit and you have a completely different start.
- Hospice nurse Susanna Larkin tried to make it a command, but the directive ended up somewhere between a hiss and barely controlled laughter.
Now the reader knows that the POV character is Susanna. This was accomplished by attributing action to Susanna. Once she’s established as the POV, Sherri can start to create Susanna by adding in character details. Meanwhile, the reader is in the room with the dead body.
Who is this woman?
I surmised Susanna is a take-charge woman and she’s friends with Elizabeth, who is clearly the flightier one. Note that in the edit we don’t learn Elizabeth’s name at first mention. This is because in that reimagined scene, Susanna, our POV character, would not refer to Elizabeth by her full name. But we do need the full name in there soon.
This provides another opportunity to characterize Susanna. When someone’s in trouble you use their full name, so I have Susanna trying to regain control by calling Elizabeth Ms. Mitchell.
- “All we have to do, Ms. Mitchell, is carry her to the car,” Susanna said in a stage whisper, glaring at Elizabeth to stifle her giggles. “At least we don’t have to dig the grave, too.”
Doing this brings in more dialogue and the chance to get some of the scene setting out of exposition and into the character’s mouths. Remember, your opening needs to get the reader to care about the character. That can’t be done if the reader doesn’t know the character—hasn’t heard her speak.
Is this necessary?
When you want to include a detail, first think: Is this something my main character would think about or talk about in this scene? If yes, i.e., the green burial, find a way to include it that builds the reader’s idea of who the character is.
But if not, i.e., the specific site of the burial and the fact the grave is already dug, delete it. I have no idea if the story goes on and shows us the green burial, or if this is just a funny set piece to introduce the characters, but if Sherri does go on to show us the burial, we can learn where it takes place as the characters approach the cemetery.
See my edit, clean.
Sherri, thanks for submitting this piece to In The Edit. I enjoyed working with it and hope you carry on. Because you submitted, you are now eligible for a 25-percent discount on any of my editorial services.
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). You too can be eligible for a 25-percent discount.
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
Mike thank you for looking at my story. All I can say is Wow! How did you do that? It’s amazing how you can think you’re telling a story cleanly, but forget that some of that comes from already knowing the story in your head. Your readers don’t have that advantage or perspective. I really need to learn how to analyze scenes better. It’s something that is still difficult for me but your changes and suggestions have been so helpful. Thank you so much! It wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it might be! 🙂 Do you have any general suggestions regarding when/how to add a character’s full name? Sometimes that is awkward for me. Thanks.
My default is to go back to what seems like an “avoiding the answer” answer: Serve the story. What works best for the story is what works best. Sometimes you have to play around with different things. Remember, it’s not written in cement until it’s published.
Generally speaking, however, you’ll want to introduce a character’s name pretty close to his or her appearance. Then look at when that happens and determine the best way to make it work.