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Marginal Notes

The Editor's Clinic: Drawing Readers in with an Intimate Point of View


This morning’s Editor’s Clinic, the opening pages of a novel, follows the protagonist, Sylvie, as she sinks into a panic attack triggered by seeing her third-grade daughter picked up by her soccer coach. It’s a sharp opening, tense in its own right and implying a dramatic backstory — why should seeing Coach’s innocent play trigger that kind of panic?

As you can see, most of the editing I’ve done has been aimed at amplifying these strengths. I’ve cut a fair amount of repetition, to keep things focused and flowing, and have introduced a couple of bits of interior monologue to make it clearer that the attack is triggered by her daughter.

I don’t always avoid the other parents at my daughter’s soccer games, but it’s too hot today to put on my pretend extrovert mask. Twin trickles of sweat drizzle down the backs of my legs and I swipe a sweaty hand down my calf, slick skin meeting slicker skin.[1]

Why iwas Coach Mack swinging that little girl? Up and around. Uup and around. L long skinny limbs flailing, baby hairs glinting in the sun, flailing like a minute windmill stuttering to life.[2] He should pPut her down. It was time for warm-up drills, not a carnival free for all. [3]

A group of third-grade girls, indistinguishable in their long ponytails and baggy, green soccer uniforms, circle Coach Mack acrosson the other side of the soccer field begging for a turn. Their shrieks and shouts mix with the screech of gulls trolling Lake Michigan. I can’t spot her at this distance, but Cassie must be among them. [4]

I’m having trouble The muggy air makes it hard to takinge in a full breath. It must be the muggy air. On a day with thick, moist air this saturated, I need giant maxi pads to soak up the humidity.[5] But why are my teeth chattering, the staccato knocking making a ticking sound in my brain?

Other parents, hugging and talking chatting in small clusters on the sidelines, seem oblivious to what Coach Mack is doing’s antics. Before I can get their attention, a loud, drawn out tire screech from a car skidding up Lake Shore Drive drowns my words. [6]

When I turn back to the field, Coach has set one girl down and reaches his thick hands toward another, the sun crowning him like an ancient god.

Cassie. My vision blurs at the edges, and I squeeze my eyes shut.

Tiny pinpricks of heat tingle around my lips. My throat constricts and I can’t force enough air in my lungs. Strangled from the inside. Can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t think. The ticking sound pulses my brain.

Stop, please stop. [7]

A hand touches my elbow from behind. I yank my arm away and turn to face a mom whose name I can’t remember. The woman, chinless and shiny, flashes an oversized greeting card in my face and asks me to sign my name. Some sort of end-of-season thank you for Coach Mack. Her voice clogs in my ears like waves of sound pounding through a drum.

Then she drops the card. “Are you okay, Sylvie? You look so pale. Are you sick?” the mom says. “It’s probably this humidity. I’m surprised we don’t all have heat stroke.”

I nod and hunch over, elbows on knees. Anything to stop her talking. Shiny circles of yellow and white light dance behind my eyelids.

More voices. “Someone get her some water.”

A mom hands me a damp water bottle, her fingers cool on my skin, her breath a mixture of cigarette smoke and mint.[8] The tang of bile rises in my throat. For a second, I count the beads of sweat dotting her forehead and try to focus, but then a familiar squeal stabs my ears. I push the mom’s hand away and point toward Coach Mack’s circle. Keep those filthy hands away from my baby.!”

Coach Mack slides his long fingers under Cassie’s armpits and lifts her high, high in the air. Her spindly arms and legs pinwheel and her two-sizes-too-big shorts balloon like an undersized parachute, every toss of her golden ponytail a stop-motion montage in my brain. [9]

“Put her down,!” I bellow and lurch forward onto the field. My wedge heel sinks into the boggy grass, and I tumble to my knees. “Leave her alone.”

I rip off a muddy shoe off my foot and hurl it the wedge at Coach Mack. It smacks the ground ten feet from his broad back and nearly hits little Betsy Turner in the neck. At least that gets the other parents’ attention.

I pull off my other shoe and run toward Coach and his posse. Running, running, faster than my legs have moved in years. The ticking in my ears speeds up, keeping pace. I smell grass and burnt wood and a fleeting drop of bleach in the hot breeze circling my throat. I’m coming, Cassie.

The other parents are on the move as well, across the soccer field with me now, but I get to Coachhim first. I clench my teeth and ram my full weight into his side, knocking him off balance and throwing both of us to the ground. Cassie slips out of his arms and hits on to the field with a thud, then She and her friends scream and Cassie scoots backward on her butt, crab-walking away from him. Thank god sShe’s not hurt. Thank God.

Coach pushes me off his chest and we scramble to our feet, a tinge of sweat lingering in the air between us. “Run, Cassie, run,” I scream. A palpable longing to crush something outside and inside of me grips every tendon in my body. I lift my knee and jam my knee it into his crotch. “Never, ever again.”

The ticking in my ears goes silentreleases.

When Coach doubles over, moaning and thrashing, I grab for his neck ready to scratch and bite the nearest body part. Instead But two muscled, hairy arms yank me away. Reinforcements, thank god. I’m not in this alone.

Mandy Carpenter’s mom and dad kneel on the ground next to Coach Mack and whisper to him, surely telling him to keep his disgusting hands off their daughter.

While other parents contain Coach Mack, I turn toward Cassie. Her features contort into fear and disbelief. All joy and delight have drained from her face, replaced by raw fear.shock and panic. Her eyes narrow, her mouth melts into a grimace.

That son of a bitch.

I pitch toward Coach again, but Ella Carter’s dad juts out his arm, blocking me, and it registers. These parents aren’t backing me up. They’re keeping me away.

“Sylvie, are you okay?” Matthew’s finally at my side. He grips my shoulders and I melt into his chest.

“Keep your crazy wife the fuck away from me,” Coach Mack yells.

Ex-wife. Ex. [10]

NOTES:

  1. 1.You might consider showing Sylvie in a better mood at the beginning. It would give readers a chance to get to know her before the panic sets in, and would make the transition into the attack sharper and more dramatic.
  2. 2. The windmill metaphor distracts from the otherwise sharp details. Besides, windmills don’t really stutter to life.
  3. 3. I’d keep the interior monologue in the third person, past. At this point, you want readers solidly inside Sylvie’s head, following her as she sinks into the panic attack. You create a better sense of being in her head if there’s no clear line between what she sees and what she thinks.
  4. 4. Focus her attention on Cassie from the beginning. It prepares readers for the eventual explosion.
  5. 5. I think you’ve established the humidity well enough. Besides, would she focus on her need for maxi pads, or on the oddity of her teeth chattering?
  6. 6. The car screeching is an odd distraction.
  7. 7. By this point, readers are used to being in her head, and the panic attack is underway. So this kind of internal dialogue adds to the tension rather than undermining it.
  8. 8. Nice, sharp details.
  9. 9. Things are breaking. Keep it moving.
  10. 10. This final three-word paragraph, like the panic attack itself, hints at a dramatic situation already underway. You’re not simply giving readers an exciting moment. You’re giving them a story.