Editing a scene from start to finish – The Quiet at the End of the World

When The Next Together and The Last Beginning were released, I posted the different versions of a scene in the book as it went through editing from first draft to final published book. You can read The Next Together’s here, and The Last Beginning here. I thought I’d do it again for The Quiet at the End of the World, with a scene from near the start of the book.

I’ve chosen a scene from the start of the book, where Lowrie and Shen watch a helicopter crash into Big Ben. You can read the full first chapter with this scene here on Wattpad.

Published version (Oct 2018)

Overhead, a helicopter thrums as it heads downriver. It must be Alexei Wyatt, on his way back from one of the abandoned cities around England, where he goes to pick up scavenged items in an old army helicopter.

I realise there’s something wrong with the helicopter. It’s tilted at an angle, skittering in the sky like a glass about to fall off a table. It looks like it’s been caught in a gust of wind – but the air is still and calm.

“That doesn’t look —” Shen begins, but before he can finish, the helicopter drops out of the sky. The tail rotor catches on a lamppost on Westminster Bridge, and there’s a shrieking explosion of metal.

I take an involuntary step backwards as the helicopter whirls in a tight circle, swung around by the force of its spinning rotors. It’s thrown across the bridge and into a support beam. Sheets of metal pull away from the cockpit, and I think that surely it can’t keep going, that it must come to a stop soon, but it doesn’t. It swings around in another violent arc and collides with the clock tower of Big Ben. I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

The clock tower explodes, the whole front panel sheering off. The ancient clock face crumples as a rotor blade stabs into it. Bricks fly towards us, and we both scramble backwards through the mud, away from the explosion.

Shen’s hand wraps around my elbow. “Run,” he says, and I don’t argue. He’s always so calm in a crisis, but my heart feels like it’s going to hammer out of my chest.

I’m desperate to look back over my shoulder at the rolling fireball, but I know I’ll trip and fall immediately if I do. Something lunges towards me and I stumble back in shock, tripping and scraping my knee on the ground. It’s Mitch. Spindly metal legs have sprouted out of the robot’s rusted spherical body, and he’s bounding along the sand towards us. He scoops Shen and me into his arms, and then start hopping in long, jolting strides away from the explosion.

I give a little cry of surprise, confused until I realise that his lifeguarding protocol must have been activated by the crash. I’m strangely glad about it, and I hold on tightly. He’s running faster than I could have done.

When I risk a glance over the robot’s shoulder, I see that the fire is spreading from the tower to engulf the Palace of Westminster, filling the air with the crack and roar of brickwork collapsing.

I can’t think. My mind is abuzz with the white noise of shock – that a helicopter crashed in Central London; that it crashed into Big Ben; that we were right there to see it happen.

Mitch climbs a staircase embedded into the concrete embankment and comes to a stop at the top. Still clutching us tightly, his head spins as he scans for more trouble. I wriggle, keen to be free now that we’re a safe distance from the crash, and
Mitch releases us, lowering us carefully to the tarmac.

“I can’t believe–” Shen says, staring at Mitch and then at the fire. “Tamade!” He always reverts to Chinese when he gets upset.

“I know.” My lungs can’t seem to remember how to pull in air. I focus on breathing until my chest loosens and the dizziness stops.

“It’s Alexei, isn’t it?” Shen asks quietly.

I nod.

He closes his eyes briefly, grimacing.

Alexei, our friend. Alexei, who gave Shen and I the best tips for mudlarking, from his scavenging experience. Alexei, whose wife died a few years ago. Alexei Wyatt, who we’ve known our whole lives.

“Do you think he’s…?” I can’t even stand to think about what must have happened to him, in that kind of explosion.

A squadron of emergency response drones is already flying to the building, but they look miniscule next to the growing fire. I can’t see how they’ll manage to put it out.

Shen takes a deep breath, and there’s only the slightest wobble in his voice when he speaks.

“Are you hurt?” He braces his palms on either side of my neck, checking my eyes for pupil dilation.

“I’m fine,” I say, but I let him massage the joint at the top of my spine. His touch is comforting. “Are you?”

All the colour has disappeared from his face except for an irritated patch of pink at the corner of his jaw, where he must have hit the ground. I rub away the small curls of white that it scraped from the skin. His stubble catches on my thumb.

Behind us, the fire is blazing higher and hotter, but to my surprise, half of the emergency drones are flying straight past the crash and heading towards us.

“Are they —?” I ask.

“Yes.”

I let out a heavy sigh. We’re fine. We’re not even hurt. This isn’t necessary. They should all be trying to help Alexei. The emergency response drones swoop in to land, surrounding us in a neat circle. Their laser scanners flicker down our bodies, searching for injuries.

“We’re OK,” Shen says, but the drones don’t listen. They chitter to each other in binary as they cluster around my leg, where there’s a tear in the wetsuit. It must have happened when I fell.

I can’t feel the cut, but red blood shines bright against the fabric.
A mechanical arm appears from one drone, reaching out to clean
the shallow wound.

“Shouldn’t you be putting out the fire?” I ask. It’s hardly a life-threatening injury. I’m worried the same can’t be said of Alexei.

The final version sets up a lot of action. It establishes the characters – Lowrie, Shen, Mitch – and their relationships to each other. There’s a hint of physical connection between Lowrie and Shen; a confused lack of knowledge of Mitch, the robot’s, actions. There’s also the shock of a helicopter crash – and the fact that they know who must be in it, because there are so few people. Also, the fact that the bots fly to help Lowrie and Shen instead of Alexei.

So, let’s see how much of that I managed in the first draft. Here’s the scene from the first draft, which was called Who Remains (a pun on ‘human remains’. I’ve bolded the sentences which made it into the final book.

First draft (July 2017)

Overhead, a helicopter thrums as it heads downriver.

I become aware that something’s wrong with the helicopter overhead. It’s tilted at an angle, skittering in the sky like a glass about to fall off a table. It looks like it’s been caught in a gust of wind – but the air is still and calm.

I watch it. The helicopter is twisting dangerously close to Westminster Bridge.

“That doesn’t look-” Shen begins, but before he can finish, the tail rotor catches on a lamppost, breaking off with a shrieking explosion of metal.

His hand comes out to me as I take an involuntary step backwards, even though we’re far enough away to be out of danger.

The helicopter starts whirling in a tight circle, swung around by the force of its spinning rotors. It’s thrown across the bridge, tearing a gauge in the tarmac as it goes. Sheets of metal pull away from the cockpit, and I think that surely it can’t keep going, that it must come to a stop soon, but it doesn’t. It swings around in another violent arc and collides with the side of Big Ben.

The clock tower explodes, the whole front panel sheering off in the helicopter’s path. The ancient clock face crumples as a rotor blade stabs into it. Bricks fly towards us, and we both scramble backwards through the mud, away from the explosion.

Shen’s hand wraps around my elbow, pulling me to my feet.

“Run,” he says, and I don’t argue. His voice is calm. He’s always so calm in a crisis.

I’m desperate to look back over my shoulder at the rolling fire ball, but I know I’ll trip and fall immediately if I do. The rocks and debris move under our feet, but somehow, we both keep our balance.

I can hear the crack and roar of brickwork collapsing, even from here. When I risk a glance, the fire is spreading from the tower to engulf the Palace of Westminster.

I can’t think. My mind is abuzz with the white noise of shock – that a helicopter crashed in Central London; that it crashed into Big Ben; that we were right there to see it happen.

We climb the staircase embedded in the concrete embankment, two steps at a time. My calves are screaming by the time we reach the pavement. I turn to watch the fire spreading, leaning on the wrought iron railing.

“I can’t believe–”

“I know.”

“Did you recognise the helicopter?” I ask quietly. We know almost everyone with a helicopter in London. We know everyone in London, full stop.

“No. It all happened too fast.”

I wonder if there’s even a chance that the pilot survived.

A squadron of emergency response drones appears, flying to the building to fight the growing flames. I strain my eyes, trying to make out the path we took along the riverbank, to see how close we were when the explosion hit. The tide has sunk our footprints back into nothing.

To my surprise, the drones fly straight past the crash and head towards us.

“Are they-”

“Yes.”

I let out a heavy sigh. We’re fine. We’re not even hurt. This isn’t necessary.

The emergency response drones swoop in to land, surrounding us in a neat circle. Their laser scanners flicker down our bodies, searching for injuries.

“We’re okay,” Shen says, but the drones don’t listen. They surge in on my leg, chittering to each other in binary, and I realise there’s a tear in the wetsuit and my leg has been cut. It must have happened when I fell. I can’t feel it, but the red shines bright against the fabric.

 A mechanical arm appears from one drone, reaching out to clean the shallow wound.

“Shouldn’t you be putting out the fire?” I ask, pushing away the arm. It’s hardly life-threatening. I gesture towards Big Ben, which is leaning dangerously to the side, flames curling up its length.

So, as you can see, a lot of the original phrasing stayed the same. But there are a lot of changes going on in the background. Mitch didn’t even appear in the first scene – his introduction used to happen later on, and it was a lot less dramatic and memorable.

In the first draft, there’s also not much concern for the person flying the helicopter – Lowrie is more worried about Big Ben. They don’t know who might have been inside, which implies the population of London is a lot larger than the small community of the final draft, where they know immediately who it must be.

The nice moment of concern between Lowrie and Shen where she rubs his jaw isn’t here yet, either.

So, how did we get from start to end, here? That’s all down to the power of my editor. Here’s the suggestions she made to the scene. Most of them were accepted, but not all of them.

Line edits (June 2018)

edits1

edits2

edits3edits4edits5edits6

edits7

Some minor things changed here which aren’t included – Mitch went from they/them to he/him, Martin changed to Alexei.

Hopefully this was interesting, if you’re a writer!

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