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Marginal Notes

Editor's Clinic

There's a limit to what you can learn about writing from reading about it.  Yes, articles can explain techniques you can use or point out traps you might fall into.  They can help you see some aspects of your writing more clearly.

But when you try to put all this advice into play, you find that everything is connected to everything else.  Changing one character's voice can affect how other characters react to him or her, which could change the direction of your plot.  Describing a setting in more detail might color the mood of the scene, so that the dialogue no longer seems to fit quite so well.  Even a mechanical change like how often you paragraph can increase your pace and affect the amount of detail you need to include.

Which is why Writer Unboxed has developed this new feature -- the Editor's Clinic.  We're asking brave volunteers to submit a few pages from their work in progress. (This initial example is from a client, used with his permission.) Then I or one of the WU editorial stable will work our magic and post the results here.  And this gives you a chance to see how editors apply writing advice in its natural habitat.  It gives us a chance to get away from the theoretical and get real.

If you'd like to give it a go, you can send a sample of your work (no more than five pages) to dave@davekingedits.com. You're welcome to submit even if you're not a regular Writer Unboxed reader.  Feel free to include any questions you might have about the passage, and we'll try to get them answered.  And please feel free to join in the discussion -- it;'s often the best part of the article.

And here's the opening sample. The narrator, April, is being stalked by Josh, someone she used to know.  Richard is the current boyfriend.  The notes appear at the end.

The next morning, she called Jim Langford, one of the lawyers she’d been close to during her brief legal career.  “Does Josh Elsmere still work there?” she asked.

“Hardly,.” hHe laughed[1]. “He hasn’t been here since 2001, when his wife raised such a big fuss about his sleeping with some woman in the office.”

"His . . . wife?"

“Yeah. She wrote the lead partner a letter and called him on the phone. She even came into the office and raised a big fuss in the lobby. Started shouting how we could pretend to be such an upright firm when one of our lawyers was running around on a wife with a baby at home.”   He laughed again. “Took the big boys about five minutes to cut Josh loose. They didn't like him much to begin with, and they really don’t like that kind of controversy.            “  [2]Never did find out who that woman was,.

April realized she'd stopped breathing and took a slow, deliberate breath.  She knew the anger would come, but now was the time for shock.  [3]

Then when there was only silence at the other end of the phone, “April? You still there?”

“Yes,” she said in a quiet voice. “Jim, I am so ashamed. I never knew he was married—“

“You?  It was you? were that woman!”[4]

Yes, but pPlease don’t tell anyone. I am so angry and ashamed. [5]  That slimy creep told me he was divorced!”  then louder and angrier, The shock was wearing off now.  Saying it out loud helped.  “We never had an freakin' affair, Jim. Just a couple of lunches and a one-night stand, which I never meant to happen and have regretted ever since.  That Bastard!  [6]

"Slow down," Jim said.  "Why are you asking about him, anyway?"[7]

“I stopped seeing him right after that night. He got really angry about that. I guess he still is,” and s She told him how Josh had been following her.

He really is a That's a whole new level of creepiness,” Jim said. “I think there’s law that might help you. I’ll check it out and get back to you….D And don’t worry, April. I won’t tell anyone about any of thisof your involvement.”

An hour later he called. There was an anti-stalking statute on the books. The penalty was jail time, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

“I’d love to put that jackass in jail,” she told Richard when she got home. “But I don’t want to file a complaint until I’ve confronted him face to face! [8]I want to watch him squirm.


1.  You can't laugh a word.

2.  No reason this can't be a single paragraph.  In fact, readers know April is going to react, and the longer paragraph can create a little tension by holding off that reaction for a moment.

3.  Then you need to show her reaction through interior monologue.  She's just learned something critical.  Let readers into her head while she does.

4.  Note that you can make your dialogue sound more authentic by leaving bits out.  She doesn't have to answer his question.  Simply have her jump ahead to the possible consequences.

5.  You don't have to tell us this.  Her dialogue, and the added interior monologue, make it clear.

6.  Show the dialogue escalating.

7.  Jim needed to react.  And his reaction shows just how intense April has become.

8.  I tend to save exclamation points until the character is physically shouting.