Editing the First Scene

Author’s note: This blog post is going to be a little longer than I normally aim for because I am going to show you a before-and-after editing pass and explain the rationale of my changes.

Pre-edit text (and I apologise for punishing you with it).

Though regarded by some as a tyrant, none can fault Regent Senay Abey’s economic prowess. Under his control the Ethian region with its large fertile plains and rolling hills became known colloquially as ‘the farm‘; producing forty percent of the planetary food supply. This abundance propelled the region into an economic and political powerhouse.

On his one hundred and second birthday Regent Senay Abey abdicated the Regency to his eldest son, Baslios Senay. Two years later a tragic horse-riding accident killed the Regent, leaving Menas Senay, his younger brother, the legitimate Regent-Successor.

Menas Senay’s claim to the Regency was disputed by several prominent families, who rejected the election results. Sensing the future, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to neighbouring regions as Ethian plunged into a bitter ten-year civil war that tore the region apart.

The people, infrastructure and environment were put through the indiscriminate meat-grinder of war. In acts of hatred and desperation the warlords used scorched-earth tactics and decimated the population through ethnic cleansing.

Ten years to the day of his elder brother’s death, Regent Menas Senay’s forces captured the final insurgent stronghold. He declared that peace had been restored and prosperity would be next.

Economic recovery would prove to be more elusive than the enemy had been. A decade of war had left Ethian’s infrastructure destroyed, its heavily indebted economy ruined and the psyche of its people brutalised.
From ‘Planet Drasius: Regions of Prosperity and Turmoil’

Low-hanging clouds blocked the light from the stars and a thick drizzling rain gave the night an inky-blackness. The only source of light was the vehicle’s headlights and visibility was a mere half-block. Lining both sides of the road were row upon row of dilapidated grey factories and warehouses. Though physically untouched by war, economic conditions had closed them. These buildings, like the people were an empty shell ageing toward death.

The police car coasted slowly toward the sleeping homeless man whose legs were poking out from between the two industrial bins.

“He chose the wrong street to sleep on tonight.” the driver commented as he chewed gum.

“I doubt he consciously made any choices that would leave him sleeping on any street. Bad decisions have a way of accumulating.” His partner replied philosophically.

“Oh, I didn’t realise I was riding with a Professor tonight.” The driver said, tipping his hat in mock-politeness to his partner, “Let’s just get this done and get back to the warmth of the station house.”

The passenger nodded and lowered his window, grimacing at the cold wind and rain that came in. The car slowed further and then pulled up as it reached the homeless man. The policeman extended his arm, pistol in hand and shot the homeless man twice in quick succession, hitting him in the shoulder and the head. The muffled sound of the silenced weapon didn’t travel far.

And now, the edited version

“The Ethian region was once an economic and political powerhouse. That changed after the accidental death of Regent Baslios Senay, when several prominent families rejected election results favouring his younger brother Menas Senay. Sensing the future, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to neighbouring regions as Ethian plunged into a bitter ten-year civil war that tore the region apart.

The people, infrastructure and environment were put through the indiscriminate meat-grinder of war. Ten years later Regent Menas Senay’s forces captured the final insurgent stronghold.

Military victory would prove easier than economic recovery: a decade of war had left Ethian’s infrastructure destroyed, its heavily indebted economy ruined and the psyche of its people brutalised.
From ‘Planet Drasius: An Essay on Prosperity and Turmoil’

Low-hanging clouds blocked the light from the stars and a thick drizzling rain gave the night an inky-blackness. The only source of light was the groundcar’s headlights and visibility was a mere half-block. Lining both sides of the road were row upon row of dilapidated grey factories and warehouses. Though physically untouched by war the collapse of the economy kept them idle. These buildings, like the regions populace were an empty shell ageing slowly closer to death the passenger thought.

The groundcar coasted slowly toward the sleeping homeless man, his legs visible between two industrial bins.

“He chose the wrong street to sleep on tonight.” the driver commented as he chewed gum noisily.

“One bad decision at a time… decisions have a way of accumulating.” His partner replied philosophically.

The driver tipped his hat in mock-politeness,

“Oh, I didn’t realise I was riding with a Professor tonight. Let’s just get this done and get back to the warmth of the station.”

The passenger nodded and lowered his window, grimacing at the rain blown in by the cold wind. The groundcar slowed further and then pulled up as it reached the homeless man. The policeman extended his arm, pistol in hand and shot the homeless man twice, hitting him in the shoulder and the head. The muffled sound of the silenced weapon didn’t travel far. To Serve and Protect the policeman thought grimly.

Context
The placement of this chapter is after the initial ‘hook’ of the story, but given that it is the first scene of the first chapter it still needs to have a hook-like quality; and what you just read doesn’t fit that bill in my opinion.

First up: Sidenotes
I’m not sure what the correct terminology for them is, so let’s call them sidenotes. Frank Herbert’s masterful Dune series uses sidenotes; at the beginning of each chapter you get a tidbit of information. For example:

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.

– from “Manual of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan

The first time I read Dune I enjoyed the sidenotes as added flavour. It was almost like the deleted scenes on a DVD; bonus content. So when I first started writing Vengeance Will Come it was my intent to have a sidenote at the start of every chapter. Some might be long, some might be a single sentence. Later I read a post from person who detested them on the basis that they severed the reader from the pace and direction of the plot. This viewpoint caused me to look at them in a new light, and I’d have to agree; in my more recent reading of Dune, I noticed myself skipping them entirely. After this realisation I decided to use them sparingly.

And now as I re-read my first scene I realised that what I was actually doing was a big-information dump, which is not kosher. What I had done was set a 239 word hurdle before my reader. If you want to get to the story which you’ll enjoy, you have to get through this first. Not clever. So it was time to bring out the word-pruning shears.

Honestly, I considered removing the sidenote in its entirety. Perhaps the darlings are looking at me too deceptively, but I couldn’t remove it all. I feel that it is a very effective stage-setting piece, which I would be hard-pressed to get through to the reader in any other way. What I have done is cut the length in half – hopefully lowering the hurdle by half also.

To describe my changes:

  • Kept aspects which are important to the plot (the war, refugees, poverty and a sense of a once-successful region now greatly diminished).
  • Removed much of the detail, instead summarising the information more.
  • Removed hooks placed there for a possible prequel (the abdication, means of death of Baslios Senay and ethnic cleansing). Those details are superfluous to this story, so needn’t be there.
  • Removed the mention of Regent Senay Abey (the father of Baslios and Menas) — the reader doesn’t need to know this, and it will only serve to confuse them. (I tried to also remove Baslios, but I couldn’t make it feel right).

Finally: The Scene

I didn’t make too many changes to the actual content of the scene. To describe my changes:

  • I altered the dialog between the two passengers in the car so that it was less complex and easier to read. I considered chopping out the dialog as unnecessary, but it does play nicely to the whole theme of the plot: decisions accumulate.
  • I purposely attempted to conceal the fact that this was a policeman doing the execution, as I wanted to make that a bit of a shock to the reader. Hence why I highlighted it in the final sentence.
  • By changing the word vehicle and car to groundcar it alerts the reader that there will be spaceships (although I haven’t settled on that descriptor yet).

I’d love to hear your feedback about this revised version. Is it better? Would you change anything else? Would it get you to turn the page?

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