Columns > Published on June 18th, 2014

Edit My Paragraph! Episode Two

Welcome to another exciting edition of Edit My Paragraph!


First this month we have Ethan Yarbrough with the following paragraph:

At this hour the children are just finishing swimming lessons. They team and caper on the sidewalk in front of the snack stand. They buy ice cream bars and red vines and soda pop in cans. They mill around in groups and pairs; the boys push and run and jump and climb; the girls watch and whisper and strut and point. Then the mothers arrive in cars. They pull up against the curb. The children move toward the mothers, climb into cars and are driven away. Then the park is quiet again. Only the sun baking on the sidewalk and the distant rush of cars passing on the freeway. When the crowd is gone, one boy is left standing in the sunshine. He is small. Sarah guesses eight years old. Skinny legs poking out of Mario Brothers swim trunks, blue crocs on his feet. He turns a slow circle, scraping his backpack against the concrete. Sarah pulls her Odyssey from the curb, drives past the boy, up the hill and then does a U-turn in the middle of the street. She comes back toward the boy and pulls up along his side of the street lowering the passenger window and leaning forward to talk as her van rolls to a stop. "I'll give you a ride," she says.

This paragraph starts off great—we get a very strong sense of scene and setting. But there is a bump when we get to Sarah (assuming this is an opening paragraph and we haven’t met her before. Otherwise not all of this would apply.) We don’t know until later who she is, where she is, how old she is (child or adult?), or why she’s there.

The second issue is a minor issue of description: the scraping of the backpack. Is it being scraped against a concrete wall? Or against the concrete sidewalk? If it is scraped against the sidewalk, is it because it hangs that low off his back somehow? Or he’s not wearing it on his back, but holding it in his hands?

The third issue is the U-turn, which is rendered with a bit of wordiness. There is also no indication as to why Sarah offers the kid a ride. Is she looking for a victim? Is she just being kind? I'm going to go with the more sinister assumption for the purposes of the revision, but her actual reasons don't have to be anything big. Maybe she was just sitting in her car on the curb after work and was waiting for the traffic to diminish before leaving and then felt compelled to help the boy. If this is indeed a first paragraph then some hint, however small, can be helpful to the reader.



 

Revision:


At this hour the children are just finishing swimming lessons. They team and caper on the sidewalk in front of the snack stand. They buy ice cream bars and red vines and soda pop. They mill around in groups and pairs; the boys push and run and jump and climb; the girls watch and whisper and strut and point. Then the mothers arrive in cars. They pull up against the curb. The children move toward the mothers, climb into cars and are driven away. Then the park is quiet again. Only the sun baking on the sidewalk and the distant rush of cars passing on the freeway. When the crowd is gone, one boy is left standing in the sunshine. He is small. Maybe eight years old. Sarah watches him from her Odyssey minivan, parked along the curb down the street where she’s been waiting for just such an opportunity. His skinny legs poke out of Mario Brothers swim trunks, blue crocs on his feet. He turns a slow circle, backpack in his hands, dragging it on the concrete. She pulls out from the curb, drives past the boy, does a U-turn and pulls up alongside him, lowering the passenger window and leaning over. "I'll give you a ride," she says.


Next up, Snootyhippo says, “Please edit my paragraph.”

The bag laying between my chubby legs was now speckled with my hot yellow piss. This embarrassing fuckery that was the overnight bag my mother thought a 12 year old should be proud to take to a sleepover. It was see through except for a picture of a smiling, rainbow winged unicorn. That bag was red to an angry bull, my death in a Lisa Frank style unicorn. A beacon screaming 'Kill me! I'll make it easy!'. A license that my peers would use to beat me endlessly not just tonight but for as long as I was legally required to attend school. This was my great white hope, maybe I could avoid Armageddon by just pissing all over it.

Snootyhippo adds: Editing goal is to convey desperation, and the feeling of childhood fear of bullying.

This is a very interesting scene and it has the potential to reveal a lot of character. There are two potential issues with this passage. The first is that of context and setting, and the other is that of voice. As to the first—note that there is no indication in this paragraph as to where we are or who might be around. When I first read this, I pictured her sitting on a school bus or somewhere with kids around. I thought maybe she’d just peed all over her bag unintentionally, and the bag was ugly to boot, so she was about to get teased. But then it seems that she peed intentionally, and it was unclear if she was alone or at home, school, or somewhere else. Peeing on it out in public or at the sleepover seems like it would only make the problem worse. So for the purposes of revision I’ll assume this is happening at home before she leaves in an effort to not take the bag with her.

As to the issue of voice—this can be tricky, and you are welcome to completely disagree with me because I don’t know the bigger picture—but most twelve-year-old girls don’t use the words “fuckery” or “piss.”  With language like that, I’d expect her to be some rebellious, tough kid who’d beat anyone who messed with her. It clashes with the notion that she is supposed to be desperate and afraid. Narrators who talk this way often read like they’re narrating with their arms crossed. This can be fine if that’s what you’re going for, but it can also distance a reader and makes your narrator more confrontational than vulnerable. On the other hand, it can offer good contrast if this narrator does crack her hard exterior later on.

Revision:

My mother thought a chubby twelve-year-old should be proud to take a see-through overnight bag embossed with a rainbow-winged unicorn on a sleepover. But there was no pride in Lisa Frank. Mom might just as well send me into a bull pen with a red cape. Five minutes before time to leave, I took the bag in my room, lifted my skirt and kicked off my underwear. Squatting over the bag I peed a hot, yellow stream all over the unicorn’s cutesy face. I’d have to blame it on the dog. Dad would swat the dog with newspaper and make him yelp, but it was that or face Armageddon.


Grigori also says, “Please edit my paragraph.” You people are too polite:

My eyes won’t open but now I can see. The only thing keeping me clinging to slimmest thread of consciousness is the screaming. It tears through my nearly empty rat hole of an apartment, rising over the blaring industrial metal that my pimp likes to fuck to. The bedroom door vibrates in time with the music, shuddering from each blow as he hammers it from the inside. My pulse is crashing in my ears and his words are coming too fast. Is he pleading? Is he threatening? I can’t tell anymore.
 

Grigori says: I'm trying to tighten it up. I'm aiming for despair, regret, disorientation, anger, etc. It's the opening paragraph for a semi-dystopian story idea.

There’s some very descriptive language here, which is great, but the biggest issue I have with this paragraph is lack of context. It is unclear what is going on, so as a reader, it can be difficult to ascribe meaning or emotion to what’s being presented. When we’re told the music her pimp likes to fuck to is playing, I assume they might be fucking right then, especially when it’s followed with the door vibrating in time with the music. Hammering the door from the inside makes it sound like he is indeed in the room with her, but perhaps she is outside the room? I’m going to assume she’s somehow in the hallway and he is inside the bedroom for the purposes of revision. I will focus on grounding the scene—who is where and doing what.

Revision:

My eyes won’t open. Only my pimp’s screaming keeps me clinging to the slimmest thread of consciousness as I lie in a broken heap on the hallway floor. He beats his fists against my closed bedroom door from the inside, and his voice tears through my empty, rat-hole apartment, rising over the blaring industrial metal he likes to fuck to. My pulse crashes in my ears and his words come too fast. Is he pleading? Is he threatening? I can’t tell anymore.


That concludes this edition! Feel free to discuss these edits and make other suggestions in the comments.

And if you have a paragraph or short passage in need of editing, post up to 300 words of prose in the comments below, together with a brief description of the editing goal and any relevant contextual information, and you may be chosen to have your paragraph edited next time!

About the author

Gayle Towell’s stories have won the 2013 Women’s National Book Association writing contest, the 2014 Willamette Writers Kay Snow fiction award, and have been published in Menacing Hedge, Pif Magazine, and the Burnt Tongues anthology among other places. Her novella Blood Gravity was released through Blue Skirt Productions in September 2014. Gayle is the founding editor of Microfiction Monday Magazine and cofounder of Blue Skirt Productions, an artists’ collective. For more information, visit gayletowell.com.

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