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Marginal Notes

Editor's Clinic: Focus on What's Important

This month we’re once again looking at an opening passage. The situation certainly tense enough – a woman with two small children facing up to her need to escape from a physically abusive husband. And the author makes skillful use of her techniques to create that tension – note how the narrator, Nikki, is sensitive to every time Jake touches her.

But the author also gets in the way of the drama of the situation in a couple of different ways. So take a look at the editing and judge for yourself. I’ll offer my own comments below.

As always, you’re welcome to submit your own work to The Writer Unboxed stable of editors. You can find the guidelines here.


The house lights dimmed. The curtain lifted. [1] He Jake still hadn’t arrived by the time the houselights dimmed and the curtain lifted. If he would only stayed away, Nikki might would have a chance to gather her strength, to think. She nuzzled Seth’s baby fine hair as he cuddled on her lap, his small hand twisting her long brunette hair for comfort.

The opening chords of the “Sugar Plum Fairy” played, and on stage, her pretty little daughter, Kasey, led the four to six-year-old girls, all dressed in sherbet-colored tutus across the stage. AThe girl in the lime tutu turned the wrong way, and dear Kasey stepped out of line to push her back into place, quickly returning to her spot to continue the routine. She had Jake’s outsized confidence.

Then For a moment Kasey paused, frowning, followed quickly by a smile that lit up her Kasey’s face and . Sshe waved to the side of the auditorium. Nikki followed her gaze, and tThere was Jake stood with his white Stetson in hand, leaning against the wall, white Stetson in hand, wearing a silly grin as big as Texas. He threw their daughter a kiss, Tthen cast a devilish smile at Nikki, like nothing out of the ordinary had happened when taken place as she was rushinged to get the kids dressed.

Kasey’s group finished, and Jake excused his way down the row of seats. [3] As he passed in front of the women, they smiled, as if enjoying a glimpse of his butt in tight Levi’s and his broad shoulders in a white western shirt. He wore a practiced casual look with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his caramel colored hair combed David Beckham’s style with loads of product. At one time, she’d been proud to be on his arm. She, the tom-boy prosecutor, chosen by the spectacularly good-looking cop.

JakeHe rode the cushioned auditorium seat down to a sitting position and. Appearing happy with himself, he wrapped his arm around her shoulder. His breath smelled of minty Scope overlaying and not quite hiding a layer of and Captain Morgan rum. “How’s my pretty wife?”

He didn’t really care. If he did, he would change back to the man she married. [4] “Glad you made it for Kasey.”

“Of course I’m here. Why wouldn’t I beWhat were you thinking?”

She’d love to tell him, but it wouldn’t make a difference. Nothing did. He even quit couples counseling saying it was just pick on Jake time. Her best friend,

Lex Ann, sitting next to Nikki on the other side, rested her hand over Nikki’s hand and squeezed. Nikki had no idea how she’d have made it so far endured except for Lex Ann.

Jake leaned forward, resting his hand on Nikki’s knee, but his hand lost its hold and skidded off. He‘d had more than one Captain. laughed, a bit too loud, “Hi, Lex Ann, Brodie, what a great night.”

TheA knot of older ballerinas walked on stage. The lady in the row in front of them turned. “Shush.”

Jake smiled at the womanapologetically and squeezed Nikki’s hand, like they shared some joke. Like it wasn’t just two hours ago that he’d They shared nothing good these days. He didn’t even have remorse for earlier tonight when he pounded on the bathroom door as she watchedso hard the wood splintereding at its hinges, fearing he would break through, Like she hadn’t hugged Kasey in a corner of the bathroom, praying the door wouldn’t give. Like Kasey hadn’t been screaming, “G go away Daddy!”.

And that was when she realized. It was time. It was past time. She couldn’t delay any longer, but he couldn’t know until she was gone.[5]

But it would take planning, work, time. And he couldn’t know anything about it until she was already gone. So she patted his hand and forced a smile, as if she were in on the joke.

The audience applauded, startling her back to the present, and she joined in. She clapped wildly as if she’d enjoyed their dance. Brodie, Lex Ann’s husband, blew his best ballpark whistle.

After Jake finished applauding, he draped returned his arm around to her shoulder again, and . He squeezed her in something part faux a sign of affection or and part possession. It was hard to tell these days. She no longer cared.

TMadam Elise, the ballet instructor thanked the audience and dismissed the girls. They ran to their parents, Kasey leading the pack. She climbed on Jake’s lap, kneeling as, her vibrant blue eyes, staringed into his of that same vivid hue. Kasey had obviously forgotten about the bathroom tonight’s incident. , sShe always did, b. But who knew what kind of marks he was leaving behindfor how much longer? “Did you like it Daddy? Did you?”

“You were great kiddo. In fact, so great I’m taking you to Dairy Queen.”

Kasey squealed in delight and gave him a big kiss. Then she jumped off his lap and took her mother’s hand. “Mommy, did you like it.”

“You were magnificent.”

Jake pulled Kasey back beside him and leaned across Nikki to get Brodie and Lex Ann’s attention. His hand once again wound up on buttressed upon her knee. “Hey guys, how’s DQ sound?”

Nikki’s stomach knotted knowing what was comingthe scene that awaited. Jake claiming drink didn’t affect him like it did others, insisting he drive everyone in his new pickup. HerShe refusing to ride with him in his condition. He unbending in his Him refusingal in turn to ride shotgun in a soccer mom’s SUV.

Lex Ann’s two daughters arrived. Brodie said, “You girls were fabulous. How about ice cream to celebrate?”

Their faces ignited with joy. “I want a blizzard.” The older said, “Strawberry shake.” Brodie saluted his lieutenant, half in jest, they’d been friends since junior high, but as of yesterday, Jake had become his boss, chief of criminal investigations.

Brodie put on his Stetson. “Move on out girls, DQ awaits.”



  1. 1. Lead with the fact that he’s not there. It would be what Nikki is most concerned with, and it alerts readers to what’s most important in the scene.
  2. 2. Having Kasey go through more than one emotion is a bit distracting.
  3. 3. Don’t frontload your story with description. I think the “devilish smile” actually gives readers enough information about Jake to more or less picture him accurately. You can’t pull off a devilish smile unless you’re good looking and know it.
  4. 4. Interior monologue is an excellent way to show how your narrator reacts to stuff, but you don’t want to interrupt the dialogue too often.
  5. 5. Note that this kind of sounds like she’s both realizing for the first time that she needs a plan and that she already has a plan in place.

The first thing I’ve tried to do with my editing is to loosen up the language. It’s often more formally structured than it should be, with a bland vocabulary and an almost academic voice. “. . . appearing happy with himself . . . “ “They shared nothing good these days.” “. . . buttressed upon her knee.” These are the sorts of awkwardness that jump out at you when you read the passage aloud.

I’ve also tried to cut some of the information that the author is packing into these first couple of pages. Granted, it can add to the sense of danger to know that Jake is a police officer and is now the boss to Nikki’s best friend’s husband. It emphasizes his power over her life. But at this point, I think that what’s going to suck readers into the story is being in Nikki’s head at this moment. And she doesn’t really have any good reason to think about Jake’s profession now.

Finally, I’ve tried to clarify a bit just what her situation is. It’s certainly clear that she needs to leave and that her life is at risk. But it’s not clear just what flavor that risk comes in. Are readers experiencing the moment when she first realizes that she has to completely upend her life and confront her dangerous husband? Or are they with her as she struggles to hide a secret plan, already in place, until she can put it into action? Either is dramatic, but the author needs to pick one and hit it a bit harder. I’ve chosen the “moment of truth” version, but your mileage may vary.