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All the King’s Editors — David Corbett

This post is part of the ‘All the King’s Editor’ series, which is the brainchild of WU contributor Dave King, in which WU contributors will 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 will hopefully generate useful comments on what changes work, which may not work as well, and in either case why.

The posts will appear on WU ~twice monthly. Dave will assume the lion’s share of the burden, with one of the other editors taking over at least once a month.

Each participating editor will have a unique approach, and speak only for him or herself.

If you’re interested in submitting a sample for consideration, click HERE [1] for instructions.

* * * * *

Hi, everyone. David Corbett here. I get to be the first to present in this new format, where select WU contributors edit manuscript pages that have been submitted for editing. (Yes, I do professionally edit manuscripts [2].)

Bear with me/us, for we’ll be working out some kinks in the process.

First, I’m going to to present the work with my line edits. Deletions will be marked with strikethrough; additions will appear in red. Where I think I need to, I will try as best as I can to explain/justify/make excuses for my suggested changes. These explanatory sections will appear in an indented and italicized insert after the section in question.

Finally, at the bottom, after the line-edited text, I’ll have some additional remarks concerning other changes I would like to see on a developmental level.

We’re keeping the authors anonymous, to protect the innocent.

Okay, ready? Here are (what I assume are) the opening pages of Prophets’ Tango.

* * * * *

For the lucky living, the night was ripe. with all the degrees and possibilities of true love or common lust; anything might happen. It was the year of the Tiger—Nixon was running scared, Ted Bundy was just getting started, and the tallest buildings in the world opened down on Wall Street.

Everyone who was underage in Connecticut was welcome in New York, and with all All the doors of the Stateline bar were open wide to the night, and the place was packed. Everyone who was underage in Connecticut was welcome in New York. The smoke-laden air inside pulsed out into the heat hot and humid ity of the fecund darkness, only to get and sucked back inside with a tinge of marijuana. There was a A furtive ly urgent commotion drew attention to in a dark corner of the parking lot. Fighting or fucking, it wasn’t clear, and didn’t matter. Payoffs kept the cops busy elsewhere, and April was in a hot hurry to be July.

The amplified sounds of a rock band complete with horns hushed all the night creatures around the ramshackle country bar for a hundred yards in every direction. The music held sway over all, from those in the worn, holey denim to the spandex and polyester crowd up from the city, and no one could resist the urge to move to the beat. Payoffs kept the cops busy elsewhere. The band, consummate crowd-pleasers, smoothly moved from rock to disco to funk and blues, with occasional stops at country and doo-wop along the way. A jukebox loaded with the top forty was on standby and no one could resist the urge to move to the beat.

Tonight, the revelers would include a woman with no heart and a man with no soul.

Anna perched on a stool at the bar working diligently at drinking herself into a place of mental safety. so she could join in the fun without being assaulted by the rioting mental scatter of the other patrons. While fishing for money in the depths of her purse, she found a dusty, travel-worn pill — small, greenish, the  embossed markings illegible. She shrugged and washed it down with the last swallow of her third tequila sunrise. Que sera, sera.

A syrupy warmth flooded through her body, the noise and jagged energy of the crowd receded, and she sat up straight and took a long, deep breath. that lifted her even taller in her seat. Thirsty with the sudden heat, her eyes scanned the top shelf. Wary of the change in her demeanor, the bartender said, “Honey, if you are going to you’re gonna be sick, please take it outside.”

Anna smiled in slow motion, licked her lips, and focused on him with devilish intensity.

“Thank you for the concern, barkeep sir, but I’ve never felt better and another one of your masterpieces,” she held her glass up like Lady Liberty’s torch, “will crown my evening, if you don’t mind. Double the cherries and,” she spread her last ten singles across the bar top, “please, keep the change.”

Suz stood beside Anna, her back to the bar, watching the crowd of dancers drifting back to their tables. She spoke over her shoulder to the bartender.

“Go ahead and blitz her. Looks like I’m driving tonight, anyway.”

On the far side of the room, across the scarred dance floor, Jack had grown bored with the rowdy conversation and laughter at the crowded table. He tilted his chair back on its hind legs, idly testing to see if, after hours of partying, he remained was still physically capable of dueling with gravity and winning.

The trick, he’d learned heard from a circus tightrope walker, was to relax from the center of your being outward. Quiet your mind and your body would find the way. For a string of enchanted seconds, he floated, arms spread at the perfect point of balance. He was ready to flap his wings and fly when the band started back up, drums and guitars grabbing his pulse, his focus. His chair wobbled and one of the girls shrieked, “Jackson, you’re gonna fall on your ass!”

More powerfully than the music, he felt the invisible caress and heard the intimate whisper that had lately been calling him back from the edge, back to life.

When she was alive, Hope had been a lady of the night. Tall, dark and elegant, she was beautiful and self-educated, wise beyond the narrow scope of her world in New Orleans. Born to the trade and After after the great war Great War but before the depression Depression brought the country to its knees, she never doubted her calling, thinking was born to the trade and thought well of herself and her sisterhood, just as she . She never questioned why her spirit lingered after her body had failed. She just knew instinctively she had was on a mission.

Samuel Archer Fortune, muscular and compact and the color of a white peach, had been an apprentice woodsman from western Massachusetts. He was only seventeen when he was killed by wondering ‘Why?’ when everyone else yelled “Run!” It happened on his last day felling trees for the railroad down in New York state, right before he intended to enlist ing with the Union Army. His mother,  was grateful for the time being to know that he’d been buried decently where he died, nonetheless intended to . In time, she could rebury him when time permitted in the family plot with the rest of the ancestors. Many of the local boys who’d gone to the fight would never come home, lost in the maw of war forever, and laid to rest God alone knew where.

Death had taken them both Hope and Samuel by surprise when they were young and still optimistic. The two spirits now stood in that the Stateline’s open doorway shoulder to shoulder, oblivious of the patrons who, equally unaware, passed right through them as though they were no more than with the drifts of smoke. Although Hope stood a head taller, Sam was a formidable presence, dense with unused physical strength. So far, Hope had no way to know if Jackson Jude Bell—ladies man, hooligan, drug dealer and holy assassin—would be her last connection with the living.

“Are you telling me that she is your first assignment?” Hope said.

“I don’t even know what you mean by that,” Sam replied, bewilderment in his voice.

“Her,” she pointed her sharp chin towards Anna. “The one with the big caboose over there on the end stool with the big caboose.”

Sam studied Anna like he was appraising a heifer at an auction. She shimmered in the light of his gaze. “I have an affinity for her that I don’t understand,” he said wistfully. Then he shook himself. and spluttered, “Is this what being dead is all about? Am I a peeping ghost? What happened to my eternal rest?”

“Oh, child. What ice house have they kept you in?” Hope looked to the ceiling, beseeching help. “What ice house have they kept you in?” It was very strange, him being so inexperienced. Yes, yes,” she soothed, “this is your job now.” She closed her eyes and tried to come up with the most basic explanation for him. “This is your job now. Can you read?”

“Of course,” he said, folding his muscular arms across his chest. He was dressed in heavy brogans, wool trousers, and a rumpled, brown linen shirt. His thick blond hair looked goat-chewed rather than barbered. “Just because I’m a provincial don’t assume I’m illiterate.” He was dressed in heavy brogans, wool trousers, and a rumpled, brown linen shirt. His thick, blond hair looked goat-chewed rather than barbered.

Hope stifled a smirk. “Easy, easy brother. I was just thinking about something I read on a sign somewhere. It said, ‘Protect and Serve’. Well, that’s what we’re here for, but I’ll warn you, it’s no easy job when they pay so little attention.Looks to me like your girl is as dumb as a post as far as you’re concerned.” She thought about how long it had taken her to get Jack’s attention, and he still ignored her half the time. “Looks to me like your girl is tuned to a different channel as far as you’re concerned.”

Sam squinted across the room to see Anna raise her empty glass to the bartender. He scowled. “She’s inebriated. They all are! These times are steeped in sin. This must be my punishment.” he said, hanging his shaggy head.

Hope almost felt sorry for him. “You’ll have to get over that judgment thing. Not your place, you know.”

“Can they even hear us?” he asked, desperation creeping into his voice.

“Sometimes, but not with their ears. We have to show them things. Help them feel things. Make them see what matters. I’m Hope, by the way. ” She heaved a sigh. “ Looks like I’ll be showing you the ropes too.” She heaved a sigh. A woman’s work was truly never done.

Sam looked her up and down, a guarded appraisal. “How did you come to be that color?” In the tinted colored lights and gloom of the club, her skin gleamed like a polished eggplant.

Hope looked at him like he’d grown a third eye. “God, but you’re a rube. Don’t they have coloreds in — where did you say you were from?”

“Danford, Massachusetts,” he replied, as if it was someplace that mattered.

“Never heard of it.” She sniffed and tossed her shawl higher up on her shoulder. Was he trying to annoy her?And Well, never you mind what color I am. Men paid big money for my time. We’re all the same inside where it matters, cher.”

It was clear to her that Sam had no idea what she was talking about. He had surely been a virgin when the widow-maker stove in his head, likely only rarely acquainted with his right hand, sin that it was and all. His blue eyes, wide in his snubbed-nosed, ruddy face, were tracking every pretty girl in sight, but the tracks all led lead back to Anna.

Hope watched him out of the corner of her eye, wondering at his purpose, and then it came to her. “That was you with her in Boston and again outside that juke joint, am I right?”

Sam blushed and looked down at his feet, but then his gaze shifted back to Anna with a fierceness that surprised her.

“I was glad to do it. She needed me.” His voice softened. “She knew me. I thought I was dreaming.”

Oh, brother. He’s in love with her. No wonder she’s so screwed up. Hope understood the problem all too well. The music began. She elbowed him gently and said, “Pay attention now, it’s time. You just watch. Let her fall into it.” It was not the most auspicious time or place, but Hope took what she could get. Besides, she , and surely had no say over scheduling.

Perfectly high, a little drunk, and no longer concerned about the border between the two conditions, Jack was drifted ing away from the loud overlapping conversations overlapping around the table. full of acquaintances and customers. Hope glided up beside him, leaned a long thigh against his upper arm, and rested her hand on his bare shoulder.

Come on, Jack. Heed me now. She breathed a chill sigh onto his gold earring. He turned his head toward the cool wisp of contact and saw Anna sitting at the bar, her backside to him, her hair tumbling down her back in an unfashionable horsetail, feet bare, sandals shucked to the floor under the stool.

Hope whispered to Jack from her heart, hoping he would hear her this time: That’s right cher, there she is. Go on now. Go get her.

Hope stood tall, let her gaze linger on Jack’s face for a moment, then glided back through the crowd on the dance floor to stand beside Sam.

* * * * *

Preliminary thoughts: This writing reveals a strong and distinctive voice, with a good command of language and tone, and the story setup is intriguing.

I’m concerned about the point of view (POV), because it feels a little loose on deck. It starts in omniscient (which is handled reasonably well, no mean trick), then briefly visits Anna, then Jack, and finally settles into Hope’s POV for a reasonably long period. It returns to Jack with “Perfectly high, a little drunk…” but then quickly reverts once again to Hope, who closes out the section. This feels a bit like head-hopping. Also, the predominance of Hope’s POV begs the question — why not present the entire introduction from her perspective, and then use multiple third person (instead of a drifting omniscient ) for the rest of the book? (If this writer were my client, I’d raise this issue with her.)

My line edits tried as much as possible to further emphasize the writing’s strengths. As you can see, I largely kept my changes to deletions (where I thought the language got needlessly wordy or over-descriptive).

I also deleted some of the clutter around the dialogue, which normally only repeated what was already implicit in the dialogue itself. (Note to author: trust your dialogue.)

Finally, I moved certain phrases and sentences around to maximize their impact. In places, the original text merely accumulated details, rather than letting them build toward a strong impression. I also felt the logic suffered in certain places due to this less than optimal placement of details.

All of those changes, however, are relatively minor. Once they were made, even though the text was stronger, it still seemed that something remained missing.

The problem, in my opinion, is the introduction of four main characters in a very short amount of time. It helps that they’re paired off, but the exchange between Hope and Samuel so clearly dominates the opening, especially given the uniqueness and strength of Hope’s voice, that we’re left wondering about Jack and Anna, who feel slight by comparison.

Adding to that problem is the fact that the introduction informs us that Anna “has no heart” and Jack “has no soul.” But does the rest of the section confirm that, let alone develop it? Does Anna seem heartless, or simply a bit of a sloppy drunk? And though we learn Jack is a “holy assassin,” which may explain his lack of a soul, he seemingly sits among friends, since he’s at a crowded table, and someone calls him by his name, and acts more like a doofus than a killer.

In short, Anna’s heartlessness must be conveyed more convincingly, as does Jack’s lack of a soul. Right now those qualities feel like something the writer introduced for effect but then failed to develop in any meaningful way. I wouldn’t belabor their introductions much longer than they currently are, but I would create scenes that clearly show those two extreme traits — heartlessness, soullessness — so that we see clearly the challenges that Hope and Samuel face.

What do you think? What do you consider the writing’s strengths? What changes would you suggest? Where do you disagree with my changes, and why?

About David Corbett [3]

David Corbett [4] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [5], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.