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The Editor’s Clinic: Context is All

If you want to learn how to write more effectively (and if you’re reading this, I assume you do), the hardest lesson you face is learning how everything else you learn fits together.  Context controls everything.  Techniques that work in one situation won’t work in another.  Change one aspect of a scene and you wind up rearranging everything around it.  The kind of juggling you have to do to keep up can be mind bending, and it’s hard to learn it from articles because you can’t talk about specific context in general terms.

That’s one reason we started the Editor’s Clinics – so you can see how editorial changes work in their natural habitat.  This month, we’re going even further.  For last month’s clinic, I edited a passage assuming that it was the opening scene of the novel.  Turns out I got that wrong – the author contacted me to let me know that the passage comes from the middle of the book.

She’s also provided some additional context on the story.  Dusty got a job on Pat’s ranch and brought Jaelle, his sister, with him, hoping she would be hired as well.  Instead Pat, the wealthy owner, was so taken with her that he planned to marry her.  Dusty, for his part, has been either solicitous of Jaelle (usually when people are watching) or controlling (when they’re alone).

Then Pat is shot while out hunting.  One of the men who was with him has been arrested for the murder.  But Bianca, a rookie with the RCMP and one of the first people on the scene, doesn’t believe he did it.  (Jaelle was also there that day, but her horse bolted at the shot and she doesn’t know what happened to Pat.)  Bianca is running her own investigation and getting to know Jaelle to learn some background.  She’s also slowly and genuinely befriending Jaelle, who after the isolation on the ranch welcomes the kindness.

So, with that background, here’s the new edit of the passage.  I know it’s a bother, but I’d encourage you to compare it to last month’s version.  And you can see clean copies of both versions here.

Dusty would be mad, Jaelle was sure of it. He would never let her go somewhere alone with a cop.  That’s why sShe hadn’t told him of her plans.  Besides because she wasn’t sure Bianca would show up. Why should she?  Jaelle was nothing to Bianca.  [1]Besides, she instinctively knew he wouldn’t have let her go. Those first months in Houston, after she came to live with him he wanted to know where she was and who she was talking to every minute of her day. She had to give up the few friends from school that she’d kept in touch with. It had been okay then, because she was crazy about Dusty and excited at the prospect of being part of a family. He was just very protective, she had told herself. That’s how real families are, she thought, since she had never been part of a real family before. Yes, she thought, Dusty will be mad when he finds out I’ve left the ranch with the cop. For now, she just looked out the car window and tried not to think about what would happen when she got home.[2]

So she was a little surprised when Bianca rolled up to the ranch house door in her Subaru, trailing a cloud of dust behind her.  Bianca gave her what looked like a friendly wave and a ‘hello,’ and ten minutes later, they were out on the paved county road heading toward Jasper.

So yYou’ve never been to Jasper?” Bianca asked. “Pat never took didn’t take you there?” asked Bianca.

Jaelle shook her head. “Pat pretty much just wanted to stay at the ranch. He said he had enough of restaurants and crowds when he was at work in Edmonton, and when he came to the ranch, he was right where he wanted to be. Most days he wanted to go rideing out to the lake or to check on the cattle., s  Sometimes he went hunting with Dusty.

“Really.  Was anyone else with them?”[3]

“Sure, different hands went along, sometimes I’d go, too.  But I didn’t get out much.” A few times we went into Valemount or Prince George but there’s not much to do in Valemount and Prince George was just for shopping.”

“And your brother? He never took you for a day trip?”

“Not to Jasper. If he had to go pick up stuff in Valemount or Prince George, he’d take me, sometimes. Usually after shopping we’d have lunch at McDonald’s or somewhere fast.”

“Jasper’s a neat place to visit. You’ll enjoy it.” Bianca offered her another one of those friendly smiles, then turned her eyes back to the road. “I’d go stir crazy being stuck on the ranch without a job. You must be a very strong person to have stood it for so long.”

Strong? Jaelle had never thought of it that way, and she didn’t consider herself a strong person. She wanted to become a strong person, and she thought she could maybe do it someday.  become one, bBut she also thought that living on the ranch for a year without rebelling in some way?  That was weakness, not strength.  was a sign that she was weak. All those hours alone in her room, she dreamed of breaking out, being free, but she may as well admit it.  She’ had given up control of her own life to a man. Not to Pat.; although Pat had wanted to turn her into someone that she wasn’t and didn’t want to be, but he was gone so much he wasn’t scary.  No, it seldom at the ranch that it wasn’t oppressive. She hadn’t felt afraid of Pat. The man who controlled her was Dusty.

Dusty had played her. We are family.I will look after you. We’ll be a team. Life will be wonderful if you stick with me. But life wasn’t wonderful and they weren’t equal players on the team. [4]

“Have you ever been to California?” she asked. They had just passed the turn-off that went south to Valemount and were heading east toward the Alberta border.  It was the furthest Jaelle had been from the ranch in a year.  “Have you ever been to California?”

Bianca stole another look at her. “No. I grew up in Quebec. Easterners go to Florida, not California.”

“Me neither.” She sighed. “What’s in Jasper?”

“I thought we’d go to the Lodge, have some lunch, maybe do a short hike.”

“Hike?” Jaelle was glad she’d worn her Reeboks. She felt stupid. What had she imagined doing on a day trip in the Rocky Mountains with a female Canadian cop? Going out with her friends in Houston usually meant going to a movie or hanging out at the mall, maybe seeing a band if there was one they could afford. This wasn’t Houston. Jasper wasn’t a city. It wasn’t even America. Things were different here.

“Is that okay?” The cop obviously had sensed Jaelle’s lack of enthusiasm.

“Sure.” She couldn’t afford to piss off the first female friend she’d made since shemoved here.  Even though Bianca wasn’t necessarily a friend, she was the closest Jaelle had gotten.  smiled weakly, then to make sure she wasn’t offending Bianca, she nodded energetically and added, “Sounds great.”

But it didn’t sound great. For the past year, she’d seen almost nothing but mountains and trees, and she’d often seen deer and moose and bears crossing the fields at the ranch. Now here they were, going to a park to look at mountains and trees, deer and moose and bear.  that was famous for its views of mountains and trees and wildlife. She honestly was ready for high rises, concrete and city lights. But Bianca had been kind to her and that was more important to her right now so she was determined not to show her disappointment.

That first time they’d talked, sitting outside the ranch house in Bianca’s car, they had talked more about Pat. Now, on the road, Bianca started asking herself, like she was really getting to know her.  questions about her past. What classes did you like in school? Why didn’t you graduate? Did you ever think about going to college? At first, Jaelle didn’t say much.  kept her first few answers short and vague. Was this an interrogation? But Bianca seemed really sincerely interested in her, and even suggested she was selling herself short, that she had a lot more potential than she gave herself credit for. It felt good.

Then she got back into what sounded like cop stuff.  “You and your brother didn’t grow up together? How did that happen?”

“No clue.  I was a baby when I was put in foster care. I haven’t a clue what happened.

“Does Dusty remember you?”

“He’s only four years older than me. He doesn’t really remember much of anything, either.”

“Hang on.  He must have known he had a little sister if he came looking for you. Did he search for you? How did you manage to connect?”

Jaelle told her about them  “He was sitting beside me each other in the probation office and . “He thought there was something familiar about me. You know, we’ve both got dark hair and eyes. He was sure we had the same background.”

“Background? You mean, parents.”

Jaelle hestitated. Shit. How could she answer so it wouldn’t sound stupid, so Bianca would stop asking questions about it and go back to just being a friend. “No. Yes. Sort of.  He’s pretty sure we had the same parents but we don’t have it in writing, if you know what I mean.”

“But you have the same last name, right?”

“Well, sort of. The DFPS — that’s the so-called Protective Services — their documents said my last name was Amante.”

“Amante. That’s a pretty name. The way you say it, it sounds Italian. In French, amante — the e at the end is silent — means lover. A female lover.” Bianca was quiet, busy concentrating on the road as she pulled out to pass a semi that had slowed down on a hill. “But his last name is Freeman. And you told the Sergeant your last name is Freeman, too. Didn’t he ask to see your ID?”

Jaelle looked out her window. Another mountain. More trees. “I’m pretty sure Dusty showed him my ID. It says Freeman.”

“So you changed your name to Freeman?”

“It was too complicated for me. Dusty helped.” She could tell Bianca was looking at her funny, and now that she said it out loud, the whole story did sound kind of strange.  S, so she looked the other way, out her side window, until Bianca’s eyes were back on the road.

“All right, sSo why were you on probation?”

Jaelle sighed. “Shoplifting. It was a teenage thing. All my friends were doing it.”

“And Dusty?”

“He stole something from a parked car.”

“Another teenage thing?”

“Sort of. He had this friend who was Romani. Gypsy, you know? They hung out together. Did stuff, you know?

“Probation-getting stuff?”

“Yeah.  This friend told him that it was okay for Romani to steal. God gave them the right, because a Romani blacksmith made the nails when Jesus was crucified, but he didn’t give them the nail that was supposed to go through Jesus’s heart.”

Bianca just nodded, looking ahead, her face serious. It made Jaelle feel uncomfortable. She cursed herself for was talking too much. “I don’t believe it myself, because I didn’t grow up in that culture. But Dusty is sure we’re Romani, both of us.”

“Both of you? I’m confused.  Am I getting this right?  He thinks your parents were Romani but that he might not really be your brother?”

“He is my brother, okay? I just didn’t grow up with the same last name. I don’t know. Anyway, about the Jesus thing. I guess it made them feel better about stealing stuff. The Romani people, I mean.” Jaelle really needed this to just go back to friends talking.  decided she’d said enough. “Okay, now you tell me something about you. You grew up in Quebec. Don’t they all speak French there?”

 

NOTES:

 

  1. Since they’ve already met, and since their emerging relationship is one of the threads you’re developing, I thought it woudln’t hurt to get Jaele’s take on the relationship at the head of the scene.
  2. Since we’ve already seen Dusty and Jaelle together, and watched their relationship in action, we don’t really need this recap.  If you would like to work the information in, you could have Jaelle tell it to Bianca.  That way you would be able to show Bianca’s reaction, and perhaps Jaelle’s relief at actually saying some of this out loud.  That would make the background information part of the present story development.
  3. Since the growing relationship between Bianca and Jaelle is important at this point, we should see the moment when Bianca actually shows up.
  4. This sounds a bit more interrogation-ish.
  5. If Bianca were investigating the shooting, I think this would get her attention.
  6. Again, we’ve seen her and Dusty together

 

I’ve gotten into my reasons for some of the detailed changes in the notes.  But instead of talking about the overall difference in approach, I’m leaving that as an exercise for you.  (Yes, I know, it feels like homework, but you came here to learn, right?)  Give me your take on the difference in the comments, and we can kick it around.

As always, if you would like to submit your work to the clinic, the submission guidelines are here.  And if you submit a key dramatic scene from the middle of the work, don’t forget to include the context.

 

About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer’s Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer’s Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.


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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.