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The Editor's Clinic: The Limits of Editing

One of the comments in last month’s Editor’s Clinic suggested that the piece I worked on should have been rewritten once or twice before the editing commenced.  (Incidentally, I’d encourage you to go back to that discussion.  At the time it went up, I was working to get ready for Christmas – a crunch time for an organist – and didn’t have the chance to join in the discussion right away.)  The comment raises the question – how much can an editor do?  How much is worth doing?

I revisit the question this morning.  The sample scene below does contain a number of problems that writers without a lot of experience run into.  The writer is easily distracted by information that readers don’t yet need – like the details of the shop’s cash register system.  It’s hard to follow Sarah’s internal state – in the auditorium, she seems both shy and furious simultaneously.  And the author puts distance between Sarah and her readers in a lot of little ways – awkward interior monologue mechanics and cliches, for instance.

But most of these problems are the sorts of things you run into because you can’t judge how your story is coming across to your readers.  That particular skill only comes with a lot of experience.  In fact, one of the most valuable things editors and beta readers bring to a story is a set of fresh eyes.  Any writer who’s first starting out is unlikely to spot these problems without a little outside help.

Underneath these problems is a lot that makes the work worthwhile.  The tension between the stuck-up members of the Historical Society and Sarah gets started right out of the gate.  The moment when Sarah walks out of the meeting is very nicely done.  And Miss Stella tends to light things up when she shows up in the shop.

Even though the piece could have been stronger to begin with, the best way to make it stronger is to edit it as it is.  I’m pushing the writer as far as I can take her.  If all goes well, she’ll take what I’ve done and push herself even further.


“I refuse to have such an unskilled woman represent our organization.  She has no formal training and claims those children’s books as art.  She’s nothing more than a ranch hand that married money.”

Sarah Stone had simply wanted to huddle [1]

“Morene, we are holding a Wonderland Tea Party.  Isn’t that is a children’s book?”  Miss Stella held her gaze on the Historical Society president.  Murmurs broke out across the meeting room as Morene Montgomery turned a deeper shade of purple.

A mixture of anger and hurt welled up in Sarah as she tilted her hat brim to cover her face.  She had slipped in on the back row of the meeting just as the members of the Santa Marie Old Towne Women’s Historical Society.  [2]  Actually, she hadn't even wanted to do that much, but  began taking their seats.  Sarah was not a member and normally avoided the monthly hen’s nest.  This time, however, Jewel McLane, aka Miss Stella, prodded her to attend.

Now she wanted to charge up the aisle and throttle Morene Montgomery.  A ranch hand who married money?  That witch!

The restaurant owner had been after Sarah to join the Historical Society since she and her husband opened the Brush and Plume, but Sarah did not fashion herself a society woman.  She refused Miss Stella’s invitation again just yesterday, but she’d felt guilty and decided to attend at the last minute.  And what a mistake that was. [3]

Miss Stella stood up,  to reveal her buxom figure clad in hidden beneath a 19th-c Century day gown.  “Morene, we're holding a Wonderland Tea Party.  I believe that's a children's book that's considered art.  And Sarah Stone has more talent than any of those so-called artists Janell showcases at the museum.  She’s talented, and her shop is one of the main attractions on the boardwalk.  Her art would be perfect for the charity auction.

Janell Davenport, the director of the Santa Marie Museum of Fine Arts, snapped forward in her seat.  “We showcase some of the finest artists in West Texas - all of whichwhom have formal schooling in the arts, including myself.”

And unlike Sarah.  She'd had about enough of this hen party of rich women with useless fine arts degrees and way too much time on their hands.  She would   tried to think of ways to escape now if she could do it the meeting without being seen, but she knew she would only draw attention to herself. [4]

“I will not have her representing this organization.,” Morene said again.  When the help didn't understand her, she probably just repeated herself, but louder.

Miss Stella turned her back on Morene and faced the rest of the audience.  “I believe the bylaws say any member can make a motion to bring an idea to a vote.  I motion we commission Sarah Stone to paint the Wonderland artwork for this year’s auction.”

A lady in the row in front of Sarah seconded the motion.  She recognized the woman, -- Lydia Sanchez, and was surprised to hear her speak up.  Lydia was always so quiet and timidThe one who said almost nothing  at the Brush and Plume’s monthly mystery book club meetings.

Stella raised her hand.  voice, “Those in favor . . . raise your hands.

[paragraph added] Many of the attendees raised their hands.  The ones who didn't Sarah tilted her head enough to see a number of women who looked disgusted at the thought, though.

“Against?” called out Morene called.

[paragraph added]  The angry women shot their hands into the air.

“What about you?”  Sarah realized a woman from the next row was talking spoke to her. [paragraph removed] Lydia turned, “Sarah?”

Sarah felt the blood rush to her face as all of the women turned.   to stare.  N  But she was not one to let the world see her squirm.  She stood., she composed herself and said, “I’m not a voting member.  Let me know what you decide,.Sshe paused,.aAnd then I’ll let you know what I decide.”

[paragraph added] With that, she stood, squared her floppy straw hat, and walked out of the museum’s meeting room, past the information desk, and out the door.

The warm sun felt good on her back to Sarah as she walked back to the Brush and Plume.  The Museum of Fine Arts was a few several blocks away from Main Street and the boardwalk, but she it was a path Sarah had run many times.

She kept her pace brisk, working off the adrenaline, until she reached the enormous antique door of her shop.  Its rich red color usually brought a smile to her face, but today’s events stole any previous joy the day had given.  [5]  The rusty bells tinkled above it the door as she pushed it open

[paragraph added]to find Maddie, her assistant manager, wasstanding behind the counter at the vintage cash register ringing up assisting two customers.  Abbie and Mildred, two spinster sisters who regularly bought the mysteries, and occasional romances, that kept the Brush and Plume in business.  Exactly the antidote she needed after the institutional insults she'd just sat through. Sarah’s husband, Tyler, had tried to convince Sarah to install a computerized register, but she insisted on keeping everything period correct.  She did give in to his ingenuity, though.  Just below the counter, out of sight, sat an advanced computer system equipped with credit card functionality, email lists, and digital receipts.  The best part about the whole setup was the circuit wiring that connected the old register to the modern system.  While Sarah and Maddie pecked away at the old keys, the computer below kept track of sales.  The girls had only to punch a few buttons below the counter to change the inventory. [6]

Sarah circled around the counter and to greeted the two silver-haired women. “How are you two lovely, young ladies today?”  The duo ventured in to indulge in mystery seasoned with a little romance on a regular basis and had earned the title of  “classic” customers from Sarah and Maddie.

The taller of the two Mildred patted her cheek.  Thanks for that, darling.”  She puckered and blew an air kiss.  “  Abbie and I dropped in to pick up a few books for our trip.”

“And just where do you think you’re going?”  Maddie teased.

The other lady spoke up, “Mildred talked me into taking one of those cruises for old folks," Abbie said"I just hope they don’t ID us.", or they might find out we’re just spring chickens!”  The two widows were good company for each other, and their laughter was infectious.

“Well, you two have fun and try to stay out of trouble.  We expect a full report when you get back in town.  And remember, pictures, or it didn't happenof course.”  Sarah packed each lady’s books in their respective Brush and Plume totes -- all she had given her regular customers got one at Christmas time.  Mildred had embroidered each of their names above the logo.

[paragraph added]  The ladies said their goodbyes and waved as they walked out the door and onto the boardwalk.

Moments later the door of Brush and Plume flew open.  Miss Stella blasted through the entry and crossed the floor in a rant before Sarah or Maddie had time to say a word.  “Sarah, don’t you even listen to that old witch.  She and her little group of snobby, wanna-be-high-society snits have no business running oura Historical Society."

"Hello, Miss Stella," Sarah said.

Miss Stella stalked toward the counter.  "Yeah, hi.  You left too early.  You’ve got plenty of people backing you who think your talent is amazing.  You left before the real fun started.  Janell tried to explain the difference between fine art and what you do.  More than a dozen members of the audience put herold Davenport in her place!.  It was beautiful to watch.

“What happened?” Maddie said.  gave Sarah a puzzled look.

“Nothing.”  Sarah She pulled off her the floppy straw hat, tucked it under the counter, and gave Cowboy a little pat.  Before Prior to Stella’s entrance, the middle-aged corgi had been stretched across his daybed, asleep., but n  Now he cowered in a small ball, unsure what was causing Stella’s behavior.

“Nothing?" Stella said.  "Those witches tried to block us from using Sarah’s art for the Wonderland Tea Auction.”  Stella always had a way of moving her body to reflect her attitude dejour, and today’s attitude was fiery-hot.

“It’s not a big deal.”

“Oh yes it is!.  Janell doesn’t have a lick of talent, and she’s knocking you.  You’ve got more skill in your pinkie toe than her whole pitiful entourage has, even if you wrapped them all up into one.  And Morene.?  That woman’s just nasty.”  Stella squinched her nose and threw it in the air to mimic the women from the art gallery.

Maddie chimed in, “I can’t stand "Morene?" Maddie said.  !"She treats me like illiterate hired help, and I don’t even work for her.”

Stella continued, “Jealousy is what it is," Stella said.  "Jealousy running pure down to the bone.  I’m sorry you had to hear them, but I wouldn’t trade cash money for the look on Morene’s face when you gave your little speech and marched out the door.”  [7]


    [1] You can get away with a free-floating dramatic statement at the head of your scene.  But you need to establish the point of view quickly, preferably through a reaction to the statement.

    [2] Besides, you need to show her reaction through interior monologue.  I had to read the passage twice before i realized the opening line referred to her.

    [3] We don't need to know this at this point.  Focus on the emotions of the scene.

    [4] Note how this makes the point of view more intimate.  Instead of telling your readers she's thinking of ways to escape, show her doing the thinking.

    [5] Keep the action moving.  And show her reaction through her dialogue and action.

    [6] This is interesting, and shows something of the relationship between Sarah and Tyler.  But now is not the time.  She's coming down from the conflict.  She wouldn't be thinking of her cash register system.  Bring this out later.

    [7] How did the vote go?  This would be a good place to mention it.