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How character clues can add layers of unspoken detail

by Sue Brown-Moore
Line editing lesson by Sue Brown-Moore using Treading Love by Deb Lee

Today’s Line Edit Lesson features an excerpt from author Deb Lee, whose tagline is “Come for the snark, stay for the heart”, and the story segment we’re about to explore definitely hits that mark.

Treading Love doesn’t have a release date just yet—or even a cover—so you’re getting an early sneak peek!

As we work through the story sections, keep an eye on the bolded parts. Those are the parts I’ll comment on and revise.

I’m sharing this excerpt and sample of line edits with the permission of the author, Deb Lee.

Line editing tip - characterization

These are the opening lines of the story:

Thou shalt not murder.

A list of things I’d rather be doing at this very moment:

1. Getting a Pap smear from Old Dr. McGee, the town vet.

2. Enduring a root canal sans any novocaine.

3. Reliving the day I was dumped in the middle of a junior high school dance.

The start of Treading Love is catchy and punchy and tells us a fair amount about what to expect from the story.

The very first line, “Thou shall not murder”, catches the reader’s attention. Whether the story involves actual murder or is simply snarky is still a mystery, and that’s a fun hook to keep readers engaged.

The first list item, “1. Getting a Pap smear from Old Dr. McGee, the town vet” is a clever clue about the narrator’s gender. Since the storyteller references a pap—an experience many women dislike and dread, and one which is exclusive to the female gender—we can assume the character is female.

List item #3’s reference to a junior high dance is also a character clue. Unless the event was particularly traumatic, an adult character would probably have experienced more recent (and memorable) embarrassments and regrets. This phrasing implies the story’s target audience is Young Adult and that this character is probably in her mid or late teens (early twenties at the oldest).

Line editing tips: Assumptions are risky

Right from the start, the author has done a great job of catching the reader’s attention, hinting at her target audience, and subtly introducing some unspoken traits of the story’s main character. Let’s take a look at the next passage.

If Sadie Hamilton had known the sixth commandment was so hard to keep, she’d never have vowed to honor it. Who’d have thought ‘thou shalt not murder’ would be the difficult one? Especially when it came to her lovingly-suffocating family.

However, when her family decided to throw her a surprise thirtieth birthday party and invited everyone—and that meant e-v-e-r-y one—Sadie could have used a little warning. Maybe she’d have thought to wear a real bra or maybe throw on a little eyeliner. Perhaps she’d have run a brush through her hair. But Sadie had been at Kingston Recreational Center, the building she’d recently bought from her dear friend Frank Kingston, managing some of the pre-renovation demo.

So, when her brother rolled up code-three, an Oscar-worthy panic painted across his distraught face, Sadie hadn’t hesitated dropping her clipboard and jumping in.

The line about the Sixth Commandment caught my attention. I worried the author would expect readers to intuitively understand the biblical reference, but the follow-up sentence neatly addresses that concern. Since not all readers will be familiar with the Ten Commandments from the Christian bible—much less remember which one is #6—this is a good detail to weave in, and it’s incorporated in a tone that supports the already established snark and dry humor of the heroine.

My next concern was, “Should I know what a Code 3 is? And is it important to the characters?” There are some situations, especially when a story is told in deep perspective, where sticking to specific lingo and vocabulary adds to characterization. But here, since the story has just started, we’re safer adding in a little extra context.

For those of you who, like me, are not familiar with a Code 3, here’s a Wikipedia reference:

Code 3 Response, which is used in several countries, particularly the United States, to describe a mode of response for an emergency vehicle responding to a call. It is commonly used to mean “use lights and siren”.

Knowing the phrase “Code 3” is related to emergency responders helps me better understand the new character that has just been introduced, Sadie’s brother, and what’s happening in this scene. A quick revision to this phrase would clear up any potential confusion and reinforce the surprise party scheme. Assuming Sadie’s brother is a policeman, the revision might look like this:

So, when her brother rolled up in his black and white—sirens wailing, lights strobing, and an Oscar-worthy panic on his distraught face—Sadie hadn’t hesitated to drop her clipboard and jump in.

The nuance in the new version above tells the reader that her brother is a police officer of some sort without saying it outright or using potentially confusing terminology.

Ideally, we want to give enough context that a reader can guess a term without having to think about it. Anything that takes the reader out of your story space risks them not returning.

Line edit tips: List logic matters

Moving on to the next section of the story, we’ll focus on a pesky grammatical construct that can be tricky in its simplicity: the list.

Yet, when they arrived at their mom’s house, what she got was an ambush of epic proportions: a surprise birthday party, a slew of people, and a prickly tingle from a sudden onset of rosacea.

In a list, items should be presented with some sort of theme or connecting thread. It’s not uncommon to see lists that group together unrelated terms and phrases, but that can leave readers confused.

While all of the list items are related to “ambush”, their setup is incongruous. The first item, the surprise birthday party, already implies the existence of the second (a slew of people). When I think about a typical surprise party, I get images of a group of well-wishers hiding in a darkened room until they can jump up and yell “Surprise!” The second list item doesn’t really tell the reader much about the storyteller since we already know there are probably a lot people there.

Instead, what if we looked at that second list item as an opportunity for characterization? I don’t know much about Sadie at this point, but for revision’s sake, I’m going to assume she gets stage fright and doesn’t like being the center of attention. The revision of our problematic list might then look something like this:

Yet, when she arrived at their mom’s house, what she got was an ambush of epic proportions: a heart-stopping choir of “Surprise!”, a serious case of the shakes, and a prickly tingle from a sudden onset of rosacea.

With the change to the second list item—from “a slew of people” to “a serious case of the shakes”—the scene implies that Sadie is not enjoying her surprise, a mindset that is supported by the next few lines in the story. I also took the liberty of revising the first list item, “a surprise birthday party” for more story context. Why simply tell a reader something when you can show it?

The final list item—“a prickly tingle from a sudden onset of rosacea”—introduces an interesting character detail. While front-page placement is excellent if unexpected redness is a reactionary condition the heroine will have to deal with throughout the story, I’d suggest changing it to something character- and situationally relevant if it’s simply added for humor and won’t make a reappearance later in the story. Else, this detail may feel like a false lead.

Line editing tip: Avoid adverbs

For this next section, I’m sharing a direct screenshot of the manuscript I edited. As you read through this passage, note the words highlighted in blue and think about why I marked them and what changes you might make.

The blue highlights in this section demonstrate where the prose gets a little wordy, particularly with adverbs. Let’s see what happens when we remove and/or rephrase the blue parts and rephrase the lines.

Yes, each of the thirty candles, their evil little flames taunting her.

This change was a simple one. By removing the adverb “mercilessly” and expanding the adjective “lit” into “little”, we’ve cleaned up the prose for better flow while retaining the snarky tone of the original line. Moving on…

“Make a wish, Auntie!” Sadie’s niece Harper was a ridiculously cute six year old who had no shame about her love of sugar. That child eyed the cake like a starving wolf about to pounce on a poor baby zebra.

In this revision, I got a little more creative. Fiddling with dialogue tags can lead to new phrasing inspiration when you’re considering multi-line changes. By removing the tag and rolling Harper’s appreciation for the cake into a more direct statement, we’ve made the sentence much easier to understand. The less energy a reader has to expend, the faster they can read, and the faster a reader moves through the story, the more of it they’re likely to stick around.

I hesitated over changing the wolf-zebra line, since it’s not really a child-friendly analogy, but ultimately kept it in my revision since I don’t yet know much about Sadie. This is the sort of detail I’d come back to later, after reading the rest of the story. If Sadie is some sort of animal specialist (or even if she just loves nature documentaries), this line is good early character development. But if she’s not, and nothing else about her trends toward any sort of interest in animals or violence, I’d recommend replacing this analogy with something more character appropriate.

Line edit tips: Extra touches matter

Let’s finish up this lesson with this final look at the next section of Treading Love.

“Yeah,” crooned Jace. “What’s the one thing your heart desires?” His smile was one part sincerity, nine parts sadistic enjoyment. If one thing could be said about Sadie, the limelight was not her forte.

She shot him a glare, reminding him his birthday was in three months, and payback was nothing her size ten cowboy boot and an appointment with a proctologist couldn’t fix.

“You want me to blow out your candles? I’m good at it. Right, Mom?” Harper dropped her head back, looking for Sadie’s older sister Juniper to agree.

“The best.” Junie winked.

At first, I wasn’t sure who Jace was. I initially assumed he was another child at the party, since the story just focused on six-year-old Harper, but Sadie’s thoughts about Jace in the next paragraph are decidedly more adult. Since the earlier part of the scene didn’t name her brother, I assume he’s Jace. The problem with this setup is that I had to read through this and the next full paragraph before I connected the character to the name, and it took me out of the story. A simple fix would be to add his name into the earlier introduction:

So when her brother, Jace, rolled up…

Copyediting note: Use commas around his name if he’s her only brother, no commas if she has more than one brother.

The last line, showing Harper drop her head back, is nicely phrased. It’s easy to picture little Harper standing in front of Juniper and having to crane her gaze back and up in order to see her mom.

With the changes I recommended above, here’s what the line-edited first two pages look like (changes in bold):

THOU SHALT NOT MURDER.

A list of things I’d rather be doing at this very moment:

1. Getting a Pap smear from Old Dr. McGee, the town vet.

2. Enduring a root canal sans any novocaine.

3. Reliving the day I was dumped in the middle of a junior high school dance.

If Sadie Hamilton had known the sixth commandment was so hard to keep, she’d never have vowed to honor it. Who’d have thought ‘thou shalt not murder’  would be the difficult one? Especially when it came to her lovingly-suffocating family.

However, when her family decided to throw her a surprise thirtieth birthday party and invited everyone—and that meant e-v-e-r-y one—Sadie could have used a little warning. Maybe she’d have thought to wear a real bra or maybe throw on a little eyeliner. Perhaps she’d have run a brush through her hair. But Sadie had been at Kingston Recreational Center, the building she’d recently bought from her dear friend Frank Kingston, managing some of the pre-renovation demo.

So, when her brother, Jace, rolled up in his black and white—sirens wailing, lights strobing, and an Oscar-worthy panic on his distraught face—Sadie hadn’t hesitated to drop her clipboard and jump in.

Yet, when she arrived at their mom’s house, what she got was an ambush of epic proportions: a heart-stopping choir of “Surprise!”, a serious case of the shakes, and a prickly tingle from a sudden onset of rosacea.

Ten minutes later, Sadie found herself held captive at her mother’s kitchen table sporting one of those paper cone party hats that’s sized for the under-seven crowd, about to blow out the candles on her cake. Yes, each of the thirty candles, their evil little flames taunting her.

“Make a wish, Auntie!” Sadie’s niece Harper was a ridiculously cute six year old who had no shame about her love of sugar. That child eyed the cake like a starving wolf about to pounce on a poor baby zebra.

“Yeah,” crooned Jace. “What’s the one thing your heart desires?” His smile was one part sincerity, nine parts sadistic enjoyment. If one thing could be said about Sadie, the limelight was not her forte.

She shot him a glare, reminding him his birthday was in three months, and payback was nothing her size ten cowboy boot and an appointment with a proctologist couldn’t fix.

“You want me to blow out your candles? I’m good at it. Right, Mom?” Harper dropped her head back, looking for Sadie’s older sister Juniper to agree.

“The best.” Junie winked.

My goal in this edit was to identify the feel of the narrator and understand the target audience of the story, then tweak it just enough to polish the areas that might distract a reader out of the journey.

What do you think of the changes? Do you have any questions about the line-editing decisions I made?

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