Reading like a Writer – what makes editors unhappy?
Actually this week it is reading like an editor because I am looking at Dawn Laker’s critique of Empress Orchid, a historical novel by Anchee Min. Dawn is half of Plot Bunnies Pro, a critiquing and editing service based in Brighton. Her blog post is an excellent illustration of what editors look for and the kind of pitfalls writers should work hard to avoid.
Here’s the blurb of Empress Orchid from Amazon to give you some background information.
To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor’s wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate facade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousands of concubines will stoop to any lengths to bear the Emperor’s son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse around her, and that she will be its last Empress.
Anchee Min was born in China in 1957 and worked as a film actress. In 1984 she went to live in America. She has written six historical novels and two memoirs.
There were quite a lot things that made Dawn unhappy and I’ve just picked out two. You really need to read her post in full to have a good understanding of how editors read a manuscript.
Dawn was not keen on this paragraph. Can you work out why?
“I was walking among the thousands of girls selected from all over the country. After the first round of inspections the number dwindled to two hundred. I had been among the lucky ones and was now competing to become one of Emperor Hsien Feng’s seven wives.”
Dawn had three complaints:
1) As the narrator opens with ‘I was walking,’ the rest of that paragraph and perhaps even the following one should continue with that scene
2) Time Leap – in a few words the thousands are reduced to 200
3) Another Time Leap to the ‘now’ of the story where the main characters is competing against an even smaller number.
If Dawn has her hands on the manuscript it might read something like this:
“Having been among the thousands of girls selected from all over the country, I was pleased to be among only two hundred who had been chosen to go on to the next stage. Now, the number had dwindled still further, to seven, and I was competing to become one of Emperor Hsien Feng’s wives.”
I think the revision not only flows better than the original, but the meaning is also clearer. In the next example though I freely admit that I probably would not have spotted the error…
“The house and grounds had once been used as a vacation palace for the emperors.”
Dawn says that the phrase ‘for the emperors’ suggests more than one ruler at any one time. This is how she would have phrased it.
“The house and grounds had previously been used by successive emperors as a vacation palace.”
Have a look at the rest of Dawn’s edits. She’s not criticizing the author for whom English is a second language but rather Bloomsbury her publishing house and in so doing gives the rest of us an insight into how editors battle against sloppy writing (and the crimes we sometimes commit ourselves.)
photo credit: Mal B via photopin cc