Here comes the editor

By Zoë Spencer

I’ve spent a lot of time lately editing other people’s work as we prepare to publish the Pankhearst sampler, Cars And Girls. Unlike L and T, I have no experience of editing so I’ve been learning as I go and probably not contributing very much except my eagle eye for a typo. However, I have become absolutely convinced of the value of the process. It doesn’t only improve the manuscript. It also helps you become a better writer.

I thought it might be interesting to look at the editing of my own story, 500, to see how I have been able to improve it – hopefully – with the help of the other girls. So that’s what this possibly very boring piece is about.

WIP – Cover Star: Helena Kenzo Rey.

My first draft opened like this:

Two bulky men in expensive suits flanked Emily as she hurried out of the white stucco townhouse. They ushered her towards the black Mercedes Benz. Its lights were on but the engine wasn’t running. Her dress rode up as she slipped into the backseat. Black car. Black dress. A flash of elegant black silk clad thigh. Neither man noticed. They were too busy watching for threats.

Matthew Adams was waiting inside the Benz. More bulky and even better tailored than his colleagues, Matt was head of security for Emily’s family’s firm. The smile on his fleshy face said he had enjoyed the view. She grinned and slid across the seat towards him.

“I never could get the hang of getting into a car without giving the cameras a little something-something.”

In the current draft, it now reads:

Two bulky men in expensive suits flanked Emily as she hurried out of the white stucco townhouse. They ushered her towards a Mercedes Benz. Her dress rode up as she slipped into the backseat.

A black car. A black dress. A flash of elegant thigh clad in expensive black silk.

Neither man noticed her legs. They were too busy watching for threats.

Matthew Adams was waiting inside the Benz. Bigger than his colleagues and even more exquisitely tailored, he had been her father’s chief of security. The smile on his fleshy face said he had enjoyed the view. She grinned and slid across the seat towards him.

“I never did get the hang of getting into a car without giving the paps a little something-something.”

So what changed? And why?

The Mercedes Benz is no long described as black when first mentioned. That’s because the colour was repeated on the next line. In one revision, I described it as “waiting” but then I slapped myself upside the head and took it out because it was obviously waiting so there was no need to say it.

In the first version, the Benz has its lights on. It was pointed out to me that this might attract attention when the whole point of the scene is to make a safe getaway. So lights out.

Taking the next lines down to a paragraph of their own and adding the indefinite article, I think, stresses the visual and improves the rhythm. Taking me from this:

Black car. Black dress. A flash of elegant black silk clad thigh.

To this:

A black car. A black dress. A flash of elegant thigh clad in expensive black silk.

I also reworded the flash of thigh after one editor pointed out that it was the thigh that was elegant, not the silk.

My original description of the character Matt Adams read:

Matthew Adams was waiting inside the Benz. More bulky and even better tailored than his colleagues, Matt was head of security for Emily’s family’s firm.

I changed this to avoid my previous deliberate repetition of bulky and also to introduce Emily’s father and the fact that something has happened to him.

Matthew Adams was waiting inside the Benz. Bigger than his colleagues and even more exquisitely tailored, he had been her father’s chief of security.

And then I changed one word in my first line of dialogue – substituting “paps” for “cameras” – in order to express just a little more of Emily’s attitude and background.

Skipping past a number of minor tweaks related to rhythm and logistics – the route through London – the next change that taught me something was moving the phrase “Emily broke the silence” – which has nothing to do with breaking wind:

Jonesy eased the big car away from the kerb and began to guide them through Belgravia. They were heading, she assumed, towards the Cromwell Road.

“Well, this is cozy.” Emily broke the silence.

In that first draft, you have to read past her little joke to realize it is Emily who is reading. Now to me, that’s no big deal because I read quickly and always have one eye ahead of the “cursor”. But I do agree with the editor who slapped my wrist for this that the revised version is better.

Jonesy eased the big car away from the curb and began to guide them through Belgravia. When they turned west onto Pont Street, Emily broke the silence.

“Well, this is cozy.”

All of these edits have been minor enhancements that improve but do not significantly change either the flow or the story. The last one I want to mention was more significant.

In my first draft, when Emily and her protectors have boarded their getaway jet, I wrote:

Emily strapped herself into her white leather armchair and peered out through the oval window into the dawn.  Jonesy and the Mercedes were already pulling away.  There was no one else to be seen but she knew they were there. The rising sun cast long mysterious shadows. The fir trees lining the airfield became accusing fingers on the grass.

The jet was stationery on the runway when Matt Adams reappeared. “May I join you, your ladyship?”

“I’m not a lady, Matt. And don’t be silly, of course you can.”

“But your father was a lord?”

“A viscount.” She knew Adams knew this. He was trying to distract her. OK, she’d play along. She accentuated her pristine blue blood accent. “I’m the Honourable. Emily. Maltravers. If you really must. But honestly, I much prefer Em.”

“Then Em it shall be.”

“Good.” They smiled at each other. He’d been calling her Em since she barely reached his knee. “So what’s going on?”

“Our pilot filed a flight plan for Geneva. He’s filing an amendment right now. We’re going to Bergamo instead. If Edbrooke knew you were flying out this morning, well … there’s no way he could move his men to Lombardy in time.”

Although she nodded in approval, Em was much less confident than Matt seemed to be. Edbrooke would find a way.  He always did.

The problem with this is that it’s awful. It’s not a natural conversation between two people who have known each other forever. It’s a crass attempt to shoehorn backstory into a plot that should be moving forward. Two of my editors pointed this out rather more politely so I moved the exposition to somewhere much more suitable and rewrote the offending section:

Emily strapped herself into a white leather armchair and peered out into the dawn through the oval window.  The Mercedes was pulling away.  There was no one else to be seen, but she knew they were there. The rising sun cast long mysterious shadows and the fir trees lining the airfield became accusing fingers on the grass.

The jet was stationary on the runway when Adams reappeared. “May I join you, your ladyship?”

“I’m not a lady, Matt. And don’t be silly, of course you can.”

The big man sank into the chair opposite and sighed. “This is one of the best things money can buy.”

He was right, but Emily wasn’t in the mood to celebrate her wealth. “So tell me, what’s going on?”

“Our pilot filed a flight plan for Geneva. He’s submitting an amendment right now. We’re going to Bergamo instead. If Edbrooke knew you were flying out this morning, well … there’s no way he could move his men to Lombardy in time.”

Although she nodded in approval, Emily lacked Adams’ confidence. Edbrooke would find a way.  He always did.

Obviously, I think all these changes have improved my manuscript – if you think differently or have other suggestions to offer, please go right ahead. I have a very thick skin. I also found that the act of reviewing my editors’ comments and suggestions also prompted me to see my writing with fresh eyes and find further opportunities to fine tune it.

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