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Marginal Notes

All the King's Editors: Pace and Point of View

Last November I introduced a new feature at Writer Unboxed -- the Editor's Clinic, where I and other WU editors line-edit and comment on a sample submitted by readers. It's a chance for readers to see editing in its natural habitat.

Even if you're not a regular reader of Writer Unboxed (though, why wouldn't you be?), you're welcome to submit a sample to the clinic. Just email five pages or so to me, and I'll put it on our list of submissions. Sooner or later, I or one of WU's stable of editors will edit it and put it out there.

And in the meantime, here is this month's Clinic entry.

I hate sirens. E, especially at night.,††Whenever I hear one,†slicing through the silence like, sharp as a scalpel. Whenever I hear the screech of an ambulance, I make the sign of the cross. My mother taught me that. ďItís a silent prayer,Ē she†my mother always said. I can't help but always wonder what awful event the ambulance is rushing toward, triggered a frantic call to 911 and if my prayer made a difference.

But, Iím shaking too much at the moment to make the sign of the cross.Because tonight, I'm the eventand right now, the gesture feels pathetic, inadequate. [1]

I look down at the red stream of blood. Itís life itself. My heart might explode with fear, with regret, with grief.

The EMT speaks urgently over the radio. ďBP eighty over sixty80/60 [2]; pulse one-twenty120The EMT speaking so urgently into the radio is wearing a His nametag.I can't make out what it says, even though I'm close enough to clearly see the letters.† They just don't come together into words.† That can't be good.reads ďAiden Strauss.Ē

The other EMT, the†one working to stop the blood flowing from the wound in my belly,†[3] is older, I think.† B, but maybe itís just the shaved head. I watch his every move as he inserts a needle for an IV, connects a bag, and thumps the line to make sure the clear liquid is flowing. My teeth chatter uncontrollably.

ďThis should help,Ē he says, his expression flat, serious. I think he's trying says it as much to assure himself as much that heís doing his job well as to comfort me. Itís not working.He's really not doing either.

Aiden again announces over the radio ďSeventy over fifty,70/50.Ē the younger guy says.† I want to tell him that canít be right; itís too low, but my tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. Tthe words refuse to form.

The bald one stands, then lurches as the ambulance makes a sharp left.; hHeís too tall for this tiny box careening down the street. The ambulance makes a sharp left turn and he lurches forward. Righting himself, he pulls a zippered bag from the crowded shelves, tears it quickly opens it, [4]†and grabs something. Heís on autopilot, working from muscle memory. But this is my first time.

I expect him to pull out an ampule of something, anything to stop the hemorrhaging, but heís ripping open packages of gauze sponges.ótTo soak up the blood that wonít stop flowing, dripping on the floor, a gruesome marker of the crucial window of time thatís closing.[5]

†††† Jesus! No!I wish I could make the sign of the cross.† Iím not ready for this. Iíll never be ready.

ďTell me wWhat . . . youíre doing.Ē Iíve found my voice, but itís so weak., I donít recognize it as my own. Iím helpless, at the mercy of their medical knowledge and good judgment. [6]

The two of them exchange a look that makes my throat constrict and my silent tears turn into convulsive sobs.

AidenThe young guy opens the Plexiglas partition and shouts, to the driver. ďETA?Ē I had forgottennít even thought about the person behind the wheel, whoí was just as responsible for our wellbeing. A womanís voice comes across loud and clear,

ďLess than ten.Ē† A woman's voice.

AidenYoung guy places his hand on mine. ďWeíll be there soon.Ē† Bald guy is still sopping up blood.

I feel faint. I take a desperate, shaky breath and try to distract myself by focusing on my surroundings. It smells like a hospitalóantisepticóa preview of whatís to come.

I mumble a fervent prayer that I make it wonít be robbed of this precious life before we get to St Davidís. My fingers are icy cold, my breathing shallow. A black mist that I can't stop seeps into my brain.

and sSeconds before my eyes close, Aidenyoung guyís voice cuts through the mist. ď65/45Sixty-five over forty-five


Most of the changes Iíve made have been to control the pace so that it focuses readers more intently on your two key moments Ė the discovery that the narrator is bleeding out in an ambulance, and the moment he or she passes out.† So Iíve compressed the first paragraph a bit to get to the revelation more quickly, then tightened things up a bit through the middle, after the revelation is out, when you want to keep things moving forward.

I also wanted to adjust the way the narratorís state of mind develops.† For most of the piece, you create an effective contrast between the focus on mundane details Ė the EMT's baldness, the smell of antisceptic -- and the seriousness of the situation.† But the sudden explosive prayer mid-scene seemed out of keeping with this contrast.† It might work if the panic kept increasing after the prayer, but the narrator seems to settle back into a less panicked state of mind, paying attention to the driver's gender.† Besides, I think you can make a greater impact if you keep your writing understated.† This is a case where less is more.

One final note: I took this piece because I had a chance to bring some unique personal experience to the editing.† Ten years ago next September, I had a heart attack that literally stopped my heart halfway across the front yard, while they were wheeling me to the ambulance.† The paramedics got me restarted twice on the way to the hospital, so I know what it feels like to be at that point where your brain isnít getting quite enough oxygen.† Thatís where the failure to read the nametag came from.


  1. †1. You want to make the transition from the setup to the payoff suddenly, catching your readers by surprise.† Don't linger on the sign of the cross.
  2. 2. And once you've made the reveal, get straight to what's happening in the ambulance -- the blood pressure reading is nicely dramatic.† Also, given that you later start a sentence with a BP reading, it seemed less complicated to write the numbers out from the beginning.
  3. 3. Once you're past the reveal, you can give the blood more impact by tucking it into a subordinate clause.
  4. 4. Right now, you want strong verbs rather than weak verbs propped up by adverbs.
  5. 5. No need to embellish the blood.† It's shocking enough as it is.
  6. 6. Given the narrator's inability to talk earlier, this seemed a bit too articulate.† Also, we can see that he or she is helpless.