Anatomy of an Edit

Why couldn’t someone show me how to rewrite my story exactly the way it should be? Here’s how I did it for another writer.

Screen grab from my computer

I’m trying to develop a new paradigm.

Last week, I received a request to beta-read the opening chapters of a book by a U.K.-based aspiring novelist. Having now learned from the masters, I decided to rewrite his first two pages, to show him how, in my opinion, he might make his story more compelling.

  • My rewrite.
  • Comments explaining my general reaction and why the edits were made. Note: although I added details and dialogue, the edited manuscript is 300 words shorter, 694 from 976. I hope these examples, in this format, are helpful to you.

Here are the original opening paragraphs of Chapter 1, “The Invisible Man.”

Alcohol. On its own, it’s nothing remarkable: a few hydrogen atoms and one of oxygen held together by a couple of carbon bonds. A glassful left alone simply evaporates, leaving behind nothing but a very clean glass. Having said that, add a flame, and it can burn down the entire street. Even worse, add a human. My father was an alcoholic. My mother was one, too, and we’ll come to her presently. But let’s begin with my father’s story.

The opening paragraphs, edited:

Albert Jones knew all about her. He knew her name was Kate Daniels, that she lived at Fourteen St. John’s Street, that she was twenty-four years old and was born on the fifth of March. He knew her phone number, her hobbies, that she was unmarried and had no children, that her next of kin was her mother, Sally S. Daniels, a hairdresser in Dorset.

My comments:

Your story is engaging and appealing. However, it reads like a memoir or nonfiction magazine article. I suggest deleting the first paragraph. It’s a much stronger opening without it. Avoid generalities. Add characters’ names and a few telling details. The paragraph I deleted is nicely written. Consider saving it for the intro or jacket blurb.

The next two paragraphs of Chapter 1, original:

He, too, was single and had no children, and as far as he was concerned, this was grounds enough to pursue her. But there was a problem. It seemed he was invisible. Rarely did a day go by when he wouldn’t pass her in an office or corridor somewhere, and whenever this happened, he would adopt his cheeriest smile and make a point of giving her a pleasant nod of acquaintance, but she would pass him by without so much as a glance. No eye contact, no return smile, just a young lady with a perfectly painted face and in a pencil skirt and high heels passing with a sense of professional urgency in the opposite direction, always in the opposite direction. And this happened day after day for almost a year until my father convinced himself he was devoid of form and would visit the men’s room and stand before a mirror to confirm he did, in fact, have a reflection after all.

The next two paragraphs of Chapter 1, edited:

He, too, was single and had no children, and as far as he was concerned, that was grounds enough to pursue her. But there was a problem. Hardly a day went by when she didn’t pass him in a corridor, high heels clicking. Every time he saw her, he’d adopt his cheeriest smile and give her a pleasant nod of acquaintance. But she never gave him so much as a glance. No eye contact, no return smile, just the young woman with the perfect face in the pencil skirt and high heels walking past, in the opposite direction, with a sense of professional urgency.

My comments:

In general, the writing is wordy, with too much telling. Let the facts reveal themselves through the characters’ actions and words. Think carefully about your descriptions. ‘Perfectly painted face’ might suggest that Miss Daniels is a hooker rather than a corporate professional. There are too many long sentences. A few short, punchy sentences can liven up the style and add to the suspense. Break up your paragraphs, too. You told me that this story is pure fiction, not a memoir. I suggest changing every mention of “my father” to “Mr. Jones” (or another name you choose). You might want to reveal that the character is ‘your father’ closer to the end of a subsequent chapter, when it’s a surprising turn for the reader. The first paragraph, which I deleted, stated that the book is about alcoholism. Instead, insert details about bottles, glasses, sips, names of beverages and cocktails — the reader will figure it out very quickly.

The next three paragraphs, original:

And then came the Christmas party, a huge affair in which everyone and their nearest and dearest were invited. Director, graduate, or messenger, it mattered not; you were to come and bring anyone who mattered to you with you. My father went alone.

My comments:

Let Miss Daniels speak! Don’t just say that they had “a brief, one-sided conversation.” Let us hear it, including her single-word answers. Think hard about what Mr. Jones and Miss Daniels would say to each other in that situation, and use those words to reveal their characters. No need to describe Miss Caruthers here. This isn’t about her — yet.

The next three paragraphs, edited:

And then came the firm Christmas party, to which everyone and their nearest and dearest were invited. Director, graduate, or messenger, it mattered not; you were to come in your finest and bring everyone who mattered with you.

The last paragraphs in the chapter, original:

Before long, she noticed another man. She called out to him, raised a hand, and rippled her fingers. Unsurprisingly, he broke from his group and started towards her.

The last paragraphs in the chapter, edited:

Her eyes began roving around the room.

My comments:

Between chunks of dialogue, describe what each character is doing at that moment. You can include interior thoughts, italicized, in the present tense.

The author’s response:

Ellen, you’ve shown me the vast scope for improvement that’s required to bring this manuscript up to a professional standard. It’s clear to me it’s far from finished and there is a great deal of work yet to done (which is embarrassing because I’ve already submitted it to ten different agents — no wonder they’ve been in no hurry to get back to me.)

My career is designing and writing about design. Here, I can write about lots of things. My short fiction attempts to capture and evoke past moments in time.

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