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All the King’s Editors–Heather Webb

Welcome back to All the King’s Editors, our regular feature in which one of Writer Unboxed’s stable of editors line-edits a few pages that has been submitted.  This gives you a chance to see editing advice applied in its natural habitat. If you’d like to contribute a sample to be edited, click HERE for instructions. 

Remember, editing is as much art as science, and your take on the passage may differ. If so, feel free to join in the discussion at the end, but above all, be kind.

 

Reims, France 1790

 

Her Grandmere’s gnarled knuckles engulf my fingers as she counts out each stair carved into the chalk crayere, one hundred and thirty-nine steps, not one more, or one less.[1] The strong fishy smell of whale oil burning in her Quinquet makes me sneeze and for a moment the flame dims and all goes black. [2] , mMy bare toes curl into the cold stone for balance. Then the wick flickers back to life and she tugs me forward.

“I know it’s you, Barbe-Nicole. It has to be you.” Grandmere mumbles in the silence, her opaque eyes glassy and determined.[3] White gold waves blanket her frail shoulders and reach down to her round middle.[4]

Why must it be me? [5] My insides squirm like a nest of baby mice, terrified Maman will hear us and lock Grandmere in her room again. When she woke me, ancient wrinkles accentuated by the light of her smoking lamp, she clapped her hand over my mouth before I could squawk, and wrapped me in a robe[6]. I didn’t  don’t think about slippers, so terrified and thrilled, as I sneaking past my parent’s suite, through our cavernous Ponsardin Hotel, while the rest of the household slumbered.[7] Maman warned me to stay away from her mother Grandmere,; Grandmere she hadn’t been herself the past year[8].

But the spark in her bright eyes lit a portal to the past,; her fantastical stories of Marie Antoinette, her midnight sojourns through the crayeres, her constant testing of my inherited talent, as she called it. Even if Maman was is right, and she Grandmere has had lost her marbles, she willwould always be my Grandmere, the one who believes I am special.[9]

As we reach the bottom of the cavern, smells of oak barrels swollen with wine fuses with the chalk and the green smell fragrance of moss which covers the wine bottles like a blanket [10]. The ancient smell permeates my nose, enervating my sinuses, clearing away my sleepy fog. Goosebumps prickle across my chest and my toes curl into the chalk floor, like a mountain lion ready to spring[11].

Grandmere sets the Quintet on the rough-hewn table, the flame flickering on clusters of grapes she’s lined up, [like before, purple nosegays of sunshine, rain and soil] [12]. I search her wizened face for a clue, but there is no hint in her clouded eyes. She ties a blindfold around my head and nerve-endlings sting inside my nostrils. I sneeze again, cringing.

“Don’t peek.” Her voice sounds as brittle as the nuns at St. Pierre les-Dames.

“You think I’m cheating?” I lift the blindfold and Grandmere pulls it back down.

She places a small cluster of grapes in my hands and brings it to my nose. The vibrant smell of sun and earth and fruit dances a quadrille on my senses.

“Pear and vanilla,” I say. “And touches of Hawthorne?”

She huffs and replaces it with another bunch.
Opening my mouth, I draw the aroma into the top of my palate, smoky like a gypsy campfire.

“Grilled toast and coffee.”

Her soft harrumph means she’s pleased with my answer. The next grapes she hands me are sticky and soft.

“Chocolate cherries, but I’m cheating, now. I can tell by touch they are Pinot Noir from the south slope where we picked yesterday.”

 

Notes:

  • There’s a lot that’s working in this piece–lovely descriptions, intrigue, and it opens with action. It’s got a sense of foreboding and great tone. I’m also immediately interested because I’m a sucker for stories set in France–and I also happen to be working on a book, myself, about a parfumeur. Score!
  • Sensual description is a great way to build a world and to create evocative imagery, but be careful. Too many phrases and sentences of this sort of description–particularly in an opening, but at any time, really–can feel like purple prose. I don’t believe this piece shows purple prose, but there are a couple of places where adjectives or descriptors could be pruned to make way for a stronger sentence, and, more importantly, a clearer image.
  • Opening lines should be grabby and succinct and above all, clear. It’s legit to start mid-action for sure, but if a writer chooses this format, it needs to be clear who is doing the action. You also typically want to lead with the protagonist, not a secondary character. I do believe this line could be stronger.
  • Though I quite like the premise and the angle of this opening–the grandmother stealing her granddaughter away in the middle of the night to teach her forbidden things–I would have liked to see the actual hand over mouth, pulling the girl from bed, heart-thumping, as they descend into the cellar.
  • Overall, this is a strong sample that just needs some tightening here and there, and a little care with tense and pronouns.
[1] In general, I recommend against opening a book with pronouns instead of names, proper nouns of some kind, or even nouns referring to people (the man, the little girl, etc.). It makes it difficult for the reader to discern what’s happening and to whom, as well as in whom we should place our loyalty (the protag). The other issue I’m having, is there is an “as” clause which sets up two actions happening at once–and we don’t even know who these people are. Also, do the number of steps matter that much to the characters or plot? It’s a bit convoluted.

[2] Too many adjectives in a row. I’ve also added “the flame dims” for clarity. I had to reread those two sentences to see what you were getting at. You don’t want to give your reader any reason to reread or be jarred from what is happening.

[3-4] Just tightening to keep the pace moving swiftly and fluidly

[5] My addition isn’t necessary but it does add nice clarity as well as a heightened sense of tension

[6] This sentence is a little cluttered with too many clauses. I think it’s the description of the wrinkled face and lamp that are throwing the sentence off. Also, I think a modified version of this action/sentence would make a terrific opening hook!!! Maybe try an opening line that’s something like this:  A hand clapped over my mouth and my eyes flew open in the dark. From there, you could build the tension beautifully as it would be more immediate and urgent, and it would be much clearer what is happening. As written, this bit about the stealing from bed reads more like “backstory”.

[7] I eliminated “so terrified and excited” because it threw off the grammatical balance of the sentence and again, cluttered it. Also, it’s “telling” us how she feels rather than “showing” us through her body language. You already mention squirming insides and being terrified two sentences before. If you want to reemphasize that here, give her a pounding pulse or racing heart, etc.

[8] Cleaned up some pronoun confusion

[9] Most of this paragraph is written in the past tense as backstory. To make it more immediate, it should be in present tense. Again, it dials up the tension considerably and puts the reader more directly in scene.

[10] Moss covering the wine bottles is a nice detail, but this last clause is giving the sentence a run-on feel. I’ve clipped it for pacing. You could rework this to include the detail, certainly. Also, you’ve used “blanketed” in the first paragraph to describe Grandmere’s hair. Repetitive

[11] We’ve seen toes curling into the floor in the first paragraph. Repetitive

[12] This blue text is confusing and doesn’t seem to go with the rest of the sentence. Did she line up other grapes and and soil and these other things? In other words, her Grandmere has tested her on many different scents before? Clarify

 

About Heather Webb

Heather Webb is the international bestselling author of historical novels Becoming Josephine, Rodin’s Lover, The Phantom’s Apprentice, and Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of WWI. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was a Goodread’s Top Pick, and in 2017, Last Christmas in Paris became a Globe & Mail Bestseller. To date, Heather’s books have sold in multiple countries worldwide, received national starred reviews, and have been featured in print media including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, and more.As a freelance editor, Heather has helped over two dozen writers sign with agents, and go on to sell at market. She may also be found teaching craft courses at a local college. When not writing, Heather feeds her cookbook addiction, geeks out on history and pop culture, and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world.


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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.