Kathryn’s post today is part of the “All the King’s Editors” series, in which WU contributors will edit manuscript pages submitted by members of the larger WU community and discuss the proposed changes. This educational format is intended to 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. 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 for instructions.
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Editing a piece as well-written as today’s submission poses a challenge. Confident prose can make the reader sit back and float along on its rhythmic waves, never realizing that when the trip is done, the ride has left little impact.
This submission, told from the point of view of a dying woman, is about the circumstances of her youngest child’s birth. Death and birth are two of the most inherently dramatic events known to mankind, but also the most common. Not one of us escapes them. In order to make this story worth reading, the writer is charged with bringing fresh perspective to their mysteries.
Put that fresh perspective up front, and it will color everything we read (and the writer writes) from there forward.
There is one line in this submission that perked me right up and raised a question—in other words, it created a hook—but that sentence was placed too late, at the end of the third page. The only thing the writer will lose by moving that line toward the front of the story is the generic nature of her descriptions and a few sideways meanderings. The question it raises, on the other hand, will command this writer’s sentences to rise to the level of story—a specific story, told for a specific reason, from the specific perspective of the only person who can tell it.
As written, it’s unclear to me where this story is going. For our purposes here, I’ve decided to aim toward the torture of withholding a confession until it’s too late, and the freeing effects of thinking it through, nonetheless.
Note: Sentences in blue have been moved intact from their original, struck-through locations.
There’s so much I want to tell you. The others have said their goodbyes, and now you and Imogene have the last watch. My Against shut eyelids, are pressed shut, but I can see the panorama ic view of my eighty years flashing stretches around me, dappled with leading toward the promise s of a vibrant life to come. , and I undulate between these two worlds. My older brother [see addendum to 7] beckons me from beyond and — I tell him, “Confound it, I’m not finished here yet”—and yet my spirit rises.  I hover several feet above the hospital bed and look down on you and Imogene standing over What tethers my withered body to this world is . The knobby fingers of my right hand grasp the flannel of my light blue flowered nightgown. My other hand clutches yours. Y your pinky is crooked like through mine, and a story I should have told you long ago. and your fingers are nimble from playing many tear-filled games of Tetris.  In a few seconds, a moment or several hours, I will pass away. I want to tell you everything There’s so much I want to tell you, but my lips are unable to form the words. My mouth hangs open and crooked, dropping a milky drool of cherry nut ice cream onto the pillowcase.  Air presses through my lungs in rhythmic guttural tones. As you hold my hand, I will share, through each intermittent squeeze, what is now being revealed to me. I fear I’ve waited too long. Like a film in rapid motion I can see the moment of your conception, the dividing of cells, how you grew and swam in the silent ocean of my womb. Waves of flesh, water and blood cradled and cushioned you. Your long flute-playing fingers, your prancing feet—every joint that later gave you hell , were was created and recorded in divine history. You were planned from the very beginning, not just by God, but by me and your father.  Gradually, you became aware of activity beyond yourself ,: the gurgling of my digestion system, the muffled beat of your dad’s polka music. Walter Cronkite’s voice on the news. The faint murmuring of the other children fighting over the last dish of tapioca. During the moon landing s, Imogene sat next to me on the floor and reached up to touch my rounded belly and you felt the shape of her hand on your backside and kicked it with your heel. In the middle of the night when you tap danced against my bladder. , my lower extremities throbbed and I had to get up to take a pee.  On the day y You were born it was on a dark morning and all the kids when your eleven brothers and sisters were home from school for winter break. It was a day that you won’t remember, but it will haunt you for the rest of your life. [hook]
When you were born, I was forty, just as you are now. Your dad and I had decided that eleven kids had been fine for a while, but a full dozen would round out the family nicely. Ultrasounds were not common back then so we didn’t know if you’d be a boy or a girl. “Whatever happens, we’ll get our second choice,” your dad would always say. There were very few things your dad and I agreed upon, but you were one of them besides the doctors consulted, symptoms monitored, and temperatures charted that led to your conception. Even though you believed what the older kids always told you—that you were an accident, a fluke, Mommy and Daddy’s little woopsie—really, you were the only one planned.
In those days your dad often worked sixteen hours a day so we could put all the kids through private school. Every morning when we’d wake up, I’d roll over and say, “Go to work you coward. Leave me here to take care of all these monsters.” He would chuckle, rub his rough whiskers against my face and say, “You’ve been such a good sport, Sparky.”
Your dad often described me as a petite woman with saddlebag hips. Even though he’d tell me I was stupid and not very pretty, to which I never said a word, we both knew, though he never said so, that if he couldn’t get along with me, he wouldn’t be able to get along with anybody. 
The week before you came, he was called away on a business trip. His clients in Michigan wanted to review his designs for that machine, you know, the one that puts those adhesive tabs on orange juice cans. He’d postponed his trip waiting for you, but you didn’t come. His clients called again. He put them off. You didn’t come. They called again, prepared to drop the deal and find a new designer. I was the one who encouraged him to go. After all, I’d done fine with the other eleven. By now, I told him, I was an old pro. Everything will be fine. No need to worry.
The day after he left, I became extremely tired and took naps that lasted for hours even though I slept well at night. My morning coffee didn’t help. It was all I could do to throw bag lunches together, pour milk over bowls of Quisp, and toss the piles of dirty socks into a bucket of HiLex. After a few days your grandma came and stayed in the blue room on the first floor so she could be close by in case I needed her. To you, Grandma would always have hair like steel wool, a Dowager’s hump and gnarled hands that gave out Brach’s caramels as generously as spankings, but truth is, she was your guardian angel. 
Annie and Imogene moved upstairs with the older girls in the flamingo colored room. The boys had the big green room except for Jimbo who slept in the hallway beneath the big picture of Jesus. Later when you slept in the hallway you never told me you didn’t like having Jesus stare at you, his bleeding red heart circled by a crown of thorns poking into it like barbed wire. If I’d known how much that picture frightened you, I would have taken him down long ago. 
When Grandma arrived,
immediately, order came to the house. No one argued with Grandma. They scrubbed the walls that had smears of Velveeta cheese. They wiped the soup splattered counters and all the floors and took a knife to the dried bubble gum on the underside of the dining room chairs. No one argued anymore about whose turn it was to do the dinner dishes, take out the trash or shovel the sidewalk. E veryone, even the older boys knew that you were a special baby. , the one we’d been planning, the one we expected, and they all Everyone dug in and prepared for the little prince or princess arriving soon. Even though you believed what the older kids always told Later, they’d tell you that you were an accident, a fluke, Mommy and Daddy’s little woopsie— really, you were the only one planned. but never in front of Grandma. On the day you were born it was a dark morning and all the kids were home from school for winter break. It was a day that you won’t remember, but it will haunt you for the rest of your life.
[Material to save for end:] There were very few things your dad and I agreed upon,
but you were one of them besides the doctors consulted, symptoms monitored, and temperatures charted that led to your conception. You were planned from the very beginning, not just by God, but by me and your father.
- Consider some bit of action that starts a ticking clock. This confession should feel urgent.
- I’m not sure that the Tetris detail is germane to your readers’ orientation to this story. With a more careful build, you could use it to foreshadow, i.e., “You always were consumed with how things fit together.”
- Why does the narrator have ice cream in her mouth if she is seconds from death? To tolerate this kind of gross detail would require that I first care a bit more about the character and her dilemma. Instead, perhaps add a detail or two that grounds us in the setting in a way that reveals character. Are they in a nursing home? Hospital? Bedroom at home? Does her son have her favorite ice cream by her bed in case she wakes up, and it’s melting, or has Imogene dragged him there against his will? How can you show us how the son feels toward his mother?
- If I’m guessing correctly where you are going with this, it seems that with this line you are giving away your piece’s conclusion. Hold back.
- Let the reader fill in some details. Even men know what happens when their bladder is kicked.
- These details derail the narrative that has been building so far. Is this about the mother’s abuse? Perhaps simply mention that she has wide hips well-suited to childbearing?
- This is the first whiff of conflict in a story about a woman who seemed to handle having 11 children just fine. It perked me up to think that perhaps it was her 12th child that tipped this mother over the edge; that perhaps she fell apart, and only this crotchety grandmother held her together enough to manage. “Crotchety grandma as guardian angel” is the fresh perspective I’m looking for. Maybe that is her confession: she wanted this child, but hadn’t foreseen the way she would fall apart. Maybe she complained all the time and that deviled her youngest son, who believed he was an “oopsie.” Maybe she was even abusive toward him because she wasn’t in her right mind, and wants to confess her weakness because he’d always been planned and wants him to know it. Whether this is so or not, plant some foreshadowing that points toward story as opposed to mere recollection. Addendum: If this is the direction you are moving in, consider changing “my older brother/him,” in green, to “my mother/her.”
- Add detail that the youngest had to sleep in the hallway later, when the mother feels powerless to effect positive change in her life, and show how Grandma changed things. We would expect that at the end, she is able to communicate her love to her youngest on in a profound way, and be released to the light.
I may have taken this story in a direction the author didn’t intend. That’s always a possibility when doing a developmental edit, but I hope I’ve driven home my point: a short story should launch fast enough that within three pages we have a better sense of its central conflict. Hook us with a fresh perspective and you will earn yourself a reader.
Have you written about birth and death? What fresh perspective have you brought to the illumination of these commonplace mysteries?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!