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Bookish. Publisher at Louise Walters Books. Reader, writer, and editor. Working class gal.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

First paragraphs: Before and After - The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson

OK, apologies, first of all. I said, in June, that I would do another of these before and after blog posts "soon"... well, February isn't soon, really, is it? Sorry! Blame  my crazy workload...

Without further ado, here is the third of my Before and After posts featuring the novels of my authors at Louise Walters Books. This time we're going to look at Helen Kitson's novel, The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson. 



Helen was the second author I signed at my indie press. She sent me this novel via my Submissions inbox and I recognised her name - Helen is an accomplished and acclaimed poet. I was keen to read her novel and after reading, I was keen to publish it. Here are the original opening paragraphs:

It’s curious how a fleeting smell, or a chance association of images or words, can conjure up a particular event so vividly it almost seems possible to relive it – to reach out and touch a remembered scene, a beloved face, a special memory.
            The sender of the letter I held in my hands signed herself Madeleine, and how could she possibly have known how deeply that name would affect me? My best friend, Madeleine Anderson; best friends since our first day at school. Dead at twenty-two; Madeleine – my Madeleine!
           Bewildered, I felt the world around me cease to spin, a jumble of memories tumbling out from a cupboard stuffed with junk: balding teddy bears, cassette tapes with handwritten labels, pens with shattered nibs, yellowed birthday cards, dice from board games long since binned; luggage labels, school ties, smooth pebbles, broken jewellery, pictures torn from magazines. Reminders of people loved, admired, lusted over, despised. Names that no longer meant a thing, others that were invisibly tattooed on the fragile skin of my wrists.
            Not difficult to imagine the grief, the tears, the unctuous if heartfelt outbursts of feeling Madeleine’s death occasioned, along the ‘taken from us so young’ lines. Unfair, tragic, appalling. Mutely I accepted the commiserations, the clasping hands, the condolence cards littered with silver crosses and embossed lilies. Worse for her parents, of course, for like me Madeleine had been an only child. Unlike me, brilliant, brimming with the vague quality called potential. Dead, gone, taken from us, her light snuffed out, at peace with the angels. Et cetera.
            Grief fades, but bombs leave black craters that can never entirely be filled. Weeks, months went by when I didn’t give Madeleine more than a passing thought, though she was never entirely absent. But the letter, signed Madeleine, was enough to bring to mind that well-remembered face, and for too long I remained in my armchair, unable to summon up the will to move, to switch on a light, to eat. The letter in itself was not vastly interesting; similar to others I’d received, in dribs and drabs, over the past twenty-odd years.

Maddie's audio book cover

I loved the voice here: Helen does that world-weary, bleak-ish sense of humour so well. My first suggestion was maybe we should start the novel with the second paragraph. I thought the first paragraph was a bit "throat-clearing", and not necessary. By losing it we also get straight to the letter; straight into the action as the main character has already received and opened up the letter that will change her life.

I made a few further suggestions, as did Helen and our copy editor, Alison - all suggestions shown here in red:

It’s curious how a fleeting smell, or a chance association of images or words, can conjure up a particular event so vividly it almost seems possible to reach out and touch a remembered scene or a beloved face.
            The sender of the letter I held in my hands signed herself Madeleine, and how could she possibly have known how deeply that name would affect me? My best friend, Madeleine Anderson; best friends since our first day at school. Dead at twenty-two. Madeleine – my Madeleine!
Bewildered, I felt the world around me cease to spin, a jumble of memories tumbling out from a cupboard stuffed with junk: balding teddy bears, cassette tapes with handwritten labels, pens with shattered nibs, yellowed birthday cards, dice from board games long since binned; luggage labels, school ties, smooth pebbles, broken jewellery, pictures torn from magazines. Reminders of people loved, admired, lusted over, despised. Names that no longer meant a thing, others that were invisibly tattooed on the fragile skin on the insides of my wrists.
            Not difficult to imagine remember the grief, the tears, the unctuous if heartfelt outbursts of emotion Madeleine’s death occasioned, along the "taken from us too young" lines Madeleine's death occasioned. Unfair, tragic, appalling. My best friend since our first day at school. Dead at twenty-two. hHer light snuffed out, at peace with the angels. Et cetera., et cetera. Mutely I accepted the commiserations, the clasping hands, the condolence cards littered with silver crosses and embossed lilies. Worse for her parents, of course;. Like me, Madeleine had been an only child.; Uunlike me, brilliant, brimming with that vague quality called potential.           
Grief fades, but bombs leave black craters that can never entirely be filled. Weeks, months went by when I didn’t give Madeleine more than a passing thought, though she was never entirely absent from my mind. But the letter, signed Madeleine, was enough to invoke that well-remembered face and for too long I remained in my armchair, unable to summon up the will to move, to switch on a light, to eat.
The letter was similar to others I’d received in dribs and drabs over the past twenty-odd years:

Between us we accepted most of these changes; Helen wanted to keep IMAGINE where I had changed it to REMEMBER. She noted: "The sense here is ‘Not difficult for the reader to imagine’ rather than Gabrielle." Point taken! We reinstated IMAGINE. And this is how these opening paragraphs appear in the book:

The sender of the letter I held in my hands had signed herself Madeleine, and how could she possibly have known how deeply that name would affect me? I felt the world around me cease to spin, a jumble of memories tumbling out from a cupboard stuffed with junk: balding teddy bears, cassette tapes with handwritten labels, pens with shattered nibs, yellowed birthday cards, dice from board games long since binned, luggage labels, school ties, smooth pebbles, broken jewellery, pictures torn from magazines. Reminders of people loved, admired, lusted over, despised. Names that no longer meant a thing, others that were invisibly tattooed on the fragile skin on the insides of my wrists.
Not difficult to imagine the grief, the tears, the unctuous if heartfelt outbursts of emotion along the “taken from us too young” lines Madeleine’s death occasioned. My best friend since our first day at school. Dead at twenty-two. Her light snuffed out, at peace with the angels, et cetera. Mutely I accepted the commiserations, the clasping hands, the condolence cards littered with silver crosses and embossed lilies. Worse for her parents, of course. Like me, Madeleine had been an only child; unlike me, brilliant, brimming with that vague quality called potential.
Grief fades, but bombs leave black craters that can never entirely be filled. Weeks, months went by when I didn’t give Madeleine more than a passing thought, though she was never entirely absent from my mind. But the letter, signed Madeleine, was enough to invoke that well-remembered face, and for too long I remained in my armchair, unable to summon up the will to move, to switch on a light, to eat.
The letter was similar to others I’d received in dribs and drabs over the past twenty-odd years:

Photo courtesy of Laura Laakso - 
celebrating the launch of Helen's book, March 2019

Like Laura, Helen doesn't really need much editing. She writes in a crisp, clear fashion, resulting in work that just needs a bit of spring-cleaning... we did make a few structural changes too, but that's normal in most novels. I'm delighted to say I'll be publishing her second novel, Old Bones, in March 2021. I'm looking forward to editing with her again.

I promise to do another of these before and after posts SOON... we'll have a look at the opening paragraphs of Diana Cambridge's Don't Think a Single Thought.

In the meantime, if you are a writer too, good luck with it, and if you are thinking of working with an editor or getting a critique of your work, I do offer those services. More info here on my website... 

Louise x




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