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All the King’s Editors–Sarah Callender

This post is the next in the ‘All the King’s Editors’ series, the brainchild of WU contributor Dave King. In this series, WU contributors edit manuscript pages submitted by members of the larger WU community, and discuss the proposed changes.

This is intended to be an educational format, and we hope this exercise will generate useful comments about the proposed changes–why the editorial suggestions do or don’t work. Each participating editor will approach a submission in a unique way, and speaks only for him or herself.

If you’re interested in submitting a sample for consideration, click HERE for instructions.

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Hi friends. First of all, I’d like to applaud the brave submitters. It takes courage to submit work for feedback, especially in this public forum.

You’ll see what I have added or moved (in red); the strikethrough shows what I have deleted. While it looks like I deleted and added significant sections, it’s really that I moved sentences around. This writing is really tight as is.

The Submission:

Maggie sets her wine glass down and sweeps a handful of rose petals off the table and into her palm. The rose bush, which blankets the pergola, has been dropping petals all evening. They litter the white embroidered tablecloth, and form drifts around the half-dozen empty wine bottles. When they fall into the flickering votive candles, they sizzle and send plumes of black, acrid smoke into the dark night. 

Maggie holds her palmfull of petals toward her sister and raises her eyebrows. “How about a crown?” 

When Justine doesn’t protest, Maggie yanking her sister’s chin face toward her begins arranging She arranges the pale pink petals in a circle on her sister’s Justine’s crown of dark hair.

“Just like when we were kids,” Justine says. “You were always the crown-maker.”  The rose bush, which blankets the pergola, has been dropping petals on them all evening. They litter the white embroidered tablecloth, and form drifts around the half-dozen empty wine bottles. When they fall into the flickering votive candles they sizzle and send a plume of black, acrid smoke into the dark night. 

Maggie smiles, focusing on the task. “Right. Because you needed something pretty.”

When she and Justine were younger, people used to say they could be twins: the same hair, the same high cheekbones, and the same long, thin nose. But a babysitter once told them that while Justine was pretty, Maggie was beautiful, a statement Maggie took as a universal truth. She assumed Justine took it that way as well.

Note: I’m curious about Justine’s facial expressions, posture, etc. Can you give the reader some idea how Justine, a grown woman, feels about having her sister arrange a petal crown on her head? 

I’d also like to see, right away, who else is at this table; I assumed it was just the two sisters. Could Lizzy and Sonia say or do something during the crown-making to reveal their presence?

I love the imagery. The fragrant, pink petals that–surprise–also create black smoke plumes? Perfect. If we scratch the surface of this family, all is not so rosy! 

As Maggie fusses, flattening one petal and turning another, she notices Justine‘s eyes scanning scan the table. Most likely, Justine’s looking for a bottle that still contains wine.

They have made it through their father’s five-year memorial dinner on a river of small talk and personal updates without any fights. Maggie recounted her vacation in Fiji with her business mogul boyfriend, opting to include details about where her new business mogul boyfriend took her to a their villa with the a private beach and a staff of three. Lizzy grudgingly told them about a bike ride she did from Portland to San Francisco. Their mother, Sonia, talked about a painting class she’d been taking. And Justine bragged about her kids—Lucy won a gymnastics championship and Theo is was reading Harry Potter, a book far above his grade level.

Note: I was a little jostled by the change in POV in this excerpt. I tried to tweak the text here and there so we remain in Maggie’s head. If you go that route, you might add another few snippets from Maggie’s POV so the reader has a few more insights regarding Maggie’s feelings about Justine or Maggie’s role in this family. For example, did Maggie try not to roll her eyes when Justine bragged about her kids? 

“I had forgotten you were such a perfectionist,” Justine says. “Think you’ll be finished by midnight?”

Maggie leans back in her chair and tilts her head, appraising Justine. The petal crown highlights the gray hairs threaded through Justine’s curly hair. Maggie shakes her head. “Sorry,” she says. “I was wrong. You’re too old to be a princess.”

They have made it through their father’s five-year memorial dinner,  on a river of small talk and personal updates without any fights. Maggie recounted her vacation in Fiji with her business mogul boyfriend, opting to include details about where her new business mogul boyfriend took her to a their villa with the a private beach and a staff of three. Lizzy grudgingly told them about a bike ride she did from Portland to San Francisco. Their mother, Sonia, talked about a painting class she’d been taking. And Justine bragged about her kids—Lucy won a gymnastics championship and Theo is was reading Harry Potter, a book far above his grade level.

“Thanks.” Justine shakes the petals from her hair and gives her sister a weak punch in the arm. “And Yyyou’ve become a mean genie in old age.” She shakes the petals from her hair.

Note: Would you consider adding more detail about Justine’s physical or verbal reaction? Maggie’s comment is a zinger, and I like to think Justine would have more of a reaction.

Maggie almost laughs. A mean genie? A decade teaching third graders for a decade has robbed Justine her of adult vocabulary and left her unable to fire off a decent witty comeback. rusty with witty comebacks 

“As least Justine got to be the princess,” Lizzyie says from across the table. She glowers at Maggie through narrowed eyes caked with that ridiculous Goth makeup. “You always turned me into animals and made me bark like a dog, or oink like a pig.” This is why LibbyLizzy hates returning for these dinners. She’s compelled to relive and repeat the complaints from her childhood that she thought she’d fled from by moving across the country.

Note: I tweaked and cut some details to keep us in Maggie’s head.

“Right,” Maggie says. She raises her hands and wiggles her long, ringed fingers like she’s casting a spell. “I controlled you with my magic.” Maggie raises her hands and wiggles her long, ringed fingers like she’s casting a spell.

“Genies are supposed to grant wishes,” Lizzy says, “not control people.” Lizzy says.

“Girls!” Sonia raises her voice. “You are’re acting like you are still little children.”

Ignoring her mother, Maggie leans forward and points at Lizzie.“Oh come on … sometimes I made you a guard. A very important job.”

“Sure. I guarded a wine bottle—your magic abode.” Lizzy nods at the empty bottle beside Maggie’s full glass of wine. stretches out the word as if it’s distasteful. “Looks like it’s still your special power.” She rolls her pierced lower lip into her mouth, sucking on the silver ring that’s just as ridiculous as Lizzy’s black makeup. and nods at the empty bottle next to Maggie’s full glass of wine.

“Enough!” Sonia throws her hands up in the air, her gold wedding band glinting in the candlelight. Maggie and Justine exchange looks. She reaches for Lizzy, the youngest of the family, the one who is always sour. “I was the youngest too, Lizzie, and my brothers always made me do the craziest things. Don’t be so sour. It’s nothing personal.

Sonia reaches for Lizzy, her youngest daughter, the one who is always sour and squeezes her Lizzy’s arm.

“If that’s true,” Lizzy says, her mouth knotted, “why didn’t you stick up for me?” Lizzy turns away, and a curtain of hair falls forward and covers her face.

“Oh, sweetheart.” Sonia sighs.  turns away, allowing a curtain of hair to fall forward and cover her face. “It was so long ago.” She wracks her brain, trying for the millionth time to pinpoint what happened in Lizzy’s childhood to cause her to be so unhappy. For the millionth time she comes up empty. “Girls—what about a happy story about your dad?” Sonia tucks a stray lock of pure white hair into her loose bun.

Note: I would love to see a brief glimpse into Maggie’s feelings about her mother. There’s so much great tension already; I can’t wait to experience more! I also look forward to learning more about Sonia’s role and her feelings about this event (i.e. is she still sad about her husband’s death? Was she ever? Does she still wear his wedding ring, or is she remarried?). 

Maggie reaches for a wine bottle at the far end of the table, and splashes an inch of wine into Justine’s oversized glassemptying a bottle she pulls from the far end of the table. “Do you remember how Dad would beat his chest and jump out of the bushes pretending to be a dragon when we played Lost Princess?”

Note: What’s is Maggie’s goal here? Is she the peacemaker who always smoothes things over? Does she miss her dad? Is she creating a distraction by changing the subject? Is she egging them on? Is this a happy, fun memory of their dad or a dig at Justine?

“Why did he do that?” Justine asks. “That’s what a gorilla would do, not a dragon.”

“He was like a bull more than anything else,” Maggie says. “The way he would charge across the lawn and the kids would flee in all directions.” She smiles and twists a curly lock of hair around her finger. Maggie’s hair is fashionably cut, longer in the front. People used to say she and Justine could be twins when they were younger. They have the same hair, the same high cheekbones and the same long, thin nose. Maggie’s features are sharper, though, more defined than Justine’s. A babysitter once told Justine that while she was pretty, her sister was beautiful, a statement Justine took as a universal truth. And people do always notice Maggie. They watch her when she walks into a room, as if when she orders coffee, or buys a magazine or pulls money from her wallet, it’s more interesting than when other women do those same things.

“By the time I was really old enough for those games,” Lizzy says, “Dad was too tired to come out and play.” Lizzy complains. She’s sucking again on the that silver ring again.  that pierces her bottom lip. Justine wants to tell her to stop it, as if she were one of her own children.

“That’s not true,” Sonia protests.

“One time,” Lizzy says, “the one time I remember—we were hiding during a game of sardines, and he jumped out and scared Johnny Burton so badly he peed his pants.” Lizzy says.

“Johnny always was a wimp.” Maggie smirks.Maggie smirks. “Really?” Wait a minute—I thought it was you who peed your pants.”

Lizzy shakes her head, her dyed black bob and blond roots swinging from side to side. “No. Never,” she says, “not even when I was littler.” Lizzy shakes her head, her dyed black bob with its blond roots swinging from side to side. Maggie is always trying to get a rise out of her but Lizzy finds it impossible not to stand up for herself. “Never,” Lizzy repeats, “even when I was littler.”

She’s still the littlest littler than them thinks Justine. As they’ve gotten older, the seven years between them continues to feel significant. Maggie’s She’s not sure if it’s Lizzy’s boyish frame that makes her look a decade younger than 33 or if it’s her style—the piercings, makeup and in her lip and eyebrow and the snake, butterfly and bird tattoos that adorn her arms, legs and back.

Note: I tweaked this previous paragraph to keep it in Maggie’s POV.

“You never remember anything the way it really was,” Lizzy says to Maggie.

“I could say the same for you,” Maggie replies, an edge to her voice that makes their mother sit up straighter.

Overall thoughts and questions:

  1. The scene-setting is fantastic in this excerpt (which I assume is the start of the story). Each sentence feels natural and effortless, and the musical, lilting syntax complements the depth of this family’s dynamics.
  2. Would you consider multiple, limited third person POV rather than more of an omniscient POV? I have found this post helpful in understanding the pros and cons of omniscient narration vs. multiple limited third person narration. For me, staying in one character’s head for an entire scene makes it easier for me to connect with the characters.
  3. Along those lines, as a reader, I always appreciate knowing which character’s quest I will be following most closely. With the multiple perspectives in the same scene, I am not sure which character is the protagonist. It’s always comforting for me to know the answer to this question: Who and what is this story about?

As a newer writer, I worked with a great editor who I met at a writer’s conference. Thirteen years later, I still remember one note he made in the margin: “Sarah. This is the first interesting sentence of the chapter.” That particular sentence was on page three of the chapter. After reviewing his feedback, I summoned the courage to ask the question I believed I needed to know: Should I keep going? 

Should you, brave writer, keep going? Absolutely yes. Keep writing. Keep crafting. Keep developing. 

WU’ers: What are your thoughts about the switches in POV? Can you share a strong example of a novel that has multiple, limited third person POV? And what about verb tense? I like the present tense, but I’m curious about others’ opinions. Any other gentle questions or feedback you might offer this brave writer?

About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.