Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayWelcome back! Get set for another edition of our online critique group. But before we get to that, I’m excited to share a brand new feature on my blog. It’s a subscription sign-up. If you look in the left hand margin, under the navigation bar you’ll see links to subscribe to this blog and have it automatically delivered via Feedburner to a web-based reader or your email inbox! You’ll never miss another Red Pencil Thursday or one of my many giveaways again.

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And now to our volunteer’s all important first 500 words:


Quantum Investigation Division

Mia: Ok, you’ve intrigued me. You’re using an alphabet soup designation reminiscent of CSI, NCIS, etc, but with a twist. When constructing a title, it’s good to use something that seems a little familiar. It sets a tone and is your first hook.

CJ Ragsdale: Thank you! I was thinking something along the lines of the X-Files, so I thought the Q made a good starting letter.

“Who’s he?”  Gillian Cooper gazed through the one-way glass observation window at the guy in jeans and a solid gray t-shirt sagging in a chair.  He needs a haircut, she thought, staring at a medium-length strand of dark hair that fell over his eye.

Mia: Generally speaking we don’t need to say our characters gazed. If we’re in their POV, just describe what they see and readers will follow. How about:

“Who’s he?”  Gillian Cooper asked. The guy in jeans and a solid gray t-shirt on the other side of the one-way glass sagged in a chair.  He needs a haircut, she thought, as a medium-length strand of dark hair fell over his eye.

CJ: I’m really glad you told me that.  It’s something I’ve never heard before.  Guess that’s why it’s good to have an editor.

Jarod Spektor clenched his jaw in his best “official” look.  At six-foot-three, the older man towered over her, but she did not fear him one bit.  “That’s Dillon Cayce,” he said.  “He’s the best psychic in the country.”

Mia: Ok, you’ve introduced 3 characters in 2 paragraphs and we know quite a bit about them. Brava!

CJ: Once again, thanks!

“Psychic?”  She lowered an eyebrow at Spektor.  “Since when does the FBI employ psychics?”

“We don’t.  He’s been contracted by the Secret Service.”  Now both her eyebrows shot up.  “The CIA found him.  They’re experts at this kind of thing.  They ran every test you can imagine—Zener cards, remote viewing, ESP tests.  You name it, he passed it with flying colors.  Blew his competition out of the water.”

Mia: A little too much eyebrow wiggling for me. It sort of pulled me out of the narrative, but let’s see what the rest of the RPT gang thinks.

CJ: Yeah, I have a tendency to write what I see in my mind as far as facial expressions.  I’m not sure how to break myself of that.  I’ve been trying to write more metaphorically instead of literally.

“What the–?”

“I’m getting to it, Cooper.  The president requested we find someone like him.  He’s got a . . . problem–in the White House, and we needed to use unorthodox means to solve it.”

Mia: Psychics and politics. You’re sucking me in. However, a quick word about your character’s names. You have Cooper and Cayce—both beginning with a hard “C”. Tolkien got away with Eomer and Eowyn, but I try very hard not to have two main characters whose names both start with the same sound. It’s less confusing for readers.

CJ: Okay, I will consider that.

Cooper waited, and then said, “Well?  Spill it.”

Spektor sighed.  “It’s a ghost.  The President thinks he’s being haunted.”

Mia: I love it! There are 3 ghosts in Plaid Tidings, my most recent release. Characters who are corporeally challenged are great fun.

CJ: I will have to check that out.  My style is realistic paranormal, which is why I tried to incorporate quantum physics.

“Ha!”  Cooper covered her mouth.  She had not meant to scoff so loudly–it was not professional to laugh at the Commander in Chief.

Mia: You need hyphens in Commander-in-Chief.

CJ: Okay.

“Don’t be so quick to dismiss,” Spektor said, rolling his eyes toward her.  “Ghosts have been reported in the White House many, many times in the past—-by reputable people such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, going all the way back to Abraham Lincoln’s wife, who claimed she saw the ghost of Andrew Jackson.”

Mia: Only one “many” please. Repetition of a word usually dilutes its effectiveness.

CJ: Sounds about right.

“So, what—-the president gets a little spooked at some noises in the middle of the night and we have to investigate it?  This is how they spend our taxes?”

“It’s not just the president.  The first lady also reported seeing Abraham Lincoln standing in the Blue Room as clear as day.  And they both said they felt like they were being electrocuted at times-—it’s causing some real psychological stress.”  Spektor put his hands on his hips.  “At the very least, we have to convince the big guy that everything is okay-—we need him focused on running the country.”

Mia: So the ghost is Abe Lincoln? That’s an interesting choice for a poltergeist, but there’s no connection between him and electrocution. Should there be a relationship between the ghost and the phenomenon POTUS & FLOTUS are experiencing? And wouldn’t Spektor call the president POTUS instead of “the big guy?”

CJ: I do establish a link between them later.  And I’m not sure, that sounds about right, but as I have never worked in such a position, I was guessing that someone so close to the president would have a more cozy term of endearment.  There’s a lot in my story that would be better if I could interview a secret service agent first-hand.

Mia: The Secret Service has a code name for each person they protect, but your characters aren’t Secret Service. POTUS stands for President of the Unites States and is commonly used by government types. Likewise FLOTUS (First Lady…) NO ONE get cozy with the president, even if they’ve known him/her forever. It’s part of respecting the office.

Cooper folded her arms.  “So why am I here?”

“We need you to make sure this guy is not a con man.  Ever hear of Jeanne Dixon?”

Mia: You have a logic problem here. Spektor has already named Cayce the best psychic in the country. You need to qualify his previous pronouncement if he doesn’t believe Cayce is legit.

CJ: Okay, this is what I was trying to explain in the following paragraphs.  The psychics who worked with Reagan were supposedly really good, but there was speculation that they used their powers in corrupt ways to influence the president and his wife, even influencing Reagan’s policy choices.  That’s the kind of corruption the secret service would be trying to prevent here.  

“Wasn’t she a famous psychic?”

“Yeah–she advised many famous people, including several presidents.  Don’t get me wrong—she was probably the real deal.  Even predicted the assassination of J.F.K. years before he became president.”

Cooper felt the corner of her mouth involuntarily curl into a smirk.  Spektor continued.  “But she became a problem when she made way too many important decisions for high level players.  Had the Reagans wrapped around her little finger, until they started using a different woman—-an astrologer named Joan Quigley.”

Mia: All this is great research about the role psychics have played in past administrations, but it’s starting to sound like an info-dump. Is there a way for you to salt all this in later on? I’m anxious for the story to move forward. I’d like Cooper on the other side of the glass confronting Cayce directly, not getting a mini-lecture from her boss.

CJ: I got the same impression.  So I did try to break it up a little more here (after I submitted it to you), but I probably still need to chip at it a little more even now. 

Mia: This story has a great premise and I’d love to see where you take it. Good luck!

CJ: Thanks! Hopefully I will find a publisher soon (after making the fabulous revisions you suggested, of course), and then you will be able to find out where it goes.  Thank you for taking the time to review it.

Mia: You mentioned in your email a projected word count of 12,000. This makes QuID a short story, not a novella. Generally, publishers are looking for at least 25K for a novella, 80-90K for a novel. Mysteries are sometimes in the 60K range. I’d encourage you to expand this to at least novella length. I’m not sure what the market is like for shorter works.


 Writer Bio

CJRagsdaleC.J. Ragsdale is a behavior analyst with training in behavior science and behavior management.  Previously an attorney, she also has a bachelor’s degree in environmental chemistry.  She brings her prior experiences into her works, which consist of a middle-grade science fiction novel and a series of short stories in the genre of paranormal with a touch of romance, both unpublished as yet. Find CJ at and

Your Turn!

Red Pencil Thursday really only works when YOU share your thoughts too. Now’s your chance to help out CJ with comments, suggestions and encouragement. I hope you’ll take a minute to weigh in with your opinions. We value them!

PS. You can still leave a comment on Theresa Romain’s A Girl’s Gotta Eat post for a chance to win her Season for Surrender. So after you leave a comment here, be sure to pop over to my previous post!

22 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. CJ Ragsdale says:

    Okay, I’ve had a lot of people suggest I make this into a novel, and I understand why. My thinking was that I would make it into a series of short stories, because I want people to get hooked on the characters and eagerly hop into the next one, kind of like what Conan Arthor Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes. It may be hard to sell to an agent or a publisher, but if people got addicted to the plot and the type of stories, and with short attention spans and e-readers nowadays…Does anyone else think this is could work?

    Oh, and I planned to have a story arc connecting the individual stories as well.

    1. CJ Ragsdale says:

      I meant Arthur Conan Doyle, my bad. Too bad there’s not an edit option. Or is there?

    2. CJ: Are you thinking of the serialized fiction available on These are self-published works that appear chapter by chapter. I haven’t read any yet, but your project might be right for this format.

      I can think of one big advantage serialization has over the usual way to publish a novel. If the author publishes the work in short installments, and receives feedback from readers, they can let the writer know what is and isn’t working. The rest of the novel can be adjusted accordingly.

  2. Chuck Robertson says:

    Hello, CJ. I’d like to share with you some online comments that came to me as I was reading, then give you an overview at the end. It’s all opinion, take or leave as you see fit.


    I agree with Mia, the title looks interesting in itself. I’m curious to see what it’s about.

    Why does ‘he needs a haircut’ have a tag? What about ‘She stared at a medium-length… He needs a haircut. ‘

    or, maybe just ‘Jarod Spector towered above her.’ I think giving his exact height slows the story down.

    The para beginning ‘We don’t He’s been…’ looks good to me, except for the sentence ‘Now both her eyebrows shot up’. It’s her action embedded in his speech. To me, it belongs in its own para. Let’s see if the others agree or not.

    Maybe instead of ‘Cooper waited and then said, “Well? Spill it.” the sentence can be better put as ‘Cooper waited. “Well, Spill it.”

    instead of ‘Spektor said, rolling his eyes…’ how about ‘Specter rolled his eyes toward her. “Don’t be so quick to dismiss…’

    maybe ‘ “But she became a problem when she made way too many important decisions for high level players’ would be better as ‘ “But she became a problem when she made too many important decisions.” ‘ less is more


    I think you have a great idea, I’ve never heard a story about the President being haunted. I do wonder, however, if there’s enough of a threat to the characters if Lincoln is the ghost. He’s always been portrayed as a good guy. How can anyone be afraid of that? Unless, maybe he’s giving the President warning about some event.

    It seems odd the Secret Service would be involved in the paranormal. To me, that’s more the realm of the CIA. They are sinister enough to be involved in that.

    You may want to go with a different name for the MC than Gillian. People of my age will remember the television series The X-Files. The female lead was Gillian Anderson and this could be distracting to this paranormal story.

    All that said, I think you have a great concept going here. What I like is it’s original. There is so much room for a Paranormal mystery, a Thriller, or a whole lot in between.

    – Chuck

    1. CJ Ragsdale says:

      Thanks, Chuck, all good suggestions. And you got it right with Lincoln, he’s giving a warning. And I’m staying silent about the name Gillian–I don’t want to admit anything. :)

  3. Hi C.J. and Mia,

    You have an interesting premise here, C.J. and ghost stories are always popular.

    I agree with Mia’s comments on avoiding similar names and avoiding discussion dialogue in an opening. We have trained readers to look for action.

    My comments center on dialogue. My CP points out when I use “said” instead of putting in an action beat. So…

    Spektor said, rolling his eyes becomes Spektor rolled his eyes (no said).

    Cooper waited, and then said, becomes Cooper leaned on the window ledge, (or some other action) “Well? Spill it.”
    Same with your Spektor sighed, start with the dialogue and put in tag of how he said it or his body language. This will keep the reader informed of who is speaking and tighten your dialogue.

    It would be helpful to start with some action, but I would recommend focusing the action around your main character.

    This story sounds like fun. Keep up the good work.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Good catch, Barbara. I missed the overuse of said instead of giving action to substitute for a dialogue tag.

    2. CJ Ragsdale says:

      Hmmm, for some reason I did that to begin with, and it looked unclear to me, so I kept adding “saids” for clarity. I guess I need to give my readers more credit.

  4. Thank you for your excerpt, C.J.; and Mia and everyone for your critiques. Here’s my take.

    First and foremost, I dig the premise of a ghost in the White House. And how the President and First Lady react, and what the Secret Service and the FBI do about it. Might be the ultimate spin on “Ghostbusters”. The White House is haunted. Who ya gonna call?

    But if this were my story, and of course it’s not, I wouldn’t start it with an FBI agent and her supervisor discussing the situation and the specialist from outside they need for the task. If a work of fiction opens with a scene in which two or more characters talk about a situation or event, but nothing interesting actually happens, it tells me this is going to be a very talky story. Not my favorite manner of presentation.

    Instead, I’d open the story with the First Lady getting spooked by the ghost. She encounters him/her/it (I’m not sure which personal pronoun would work best with this restless spirit) and the experience really scares and upsets her.

    Why the First Lady? Why not the President or one of the First Kids? Or a White House servant or a Secret Service agent?

    When the story opens, it’s crucial for the reader to relate to the figure through whom they’re supposed to experience the situation and events. The President has too much power to invite reader identification, at least this quickly. If one of his children sees the ghost, readers might assume this is YA fiction (I assume it’s not).

    If the witness is someone who happens to work in the White House, but plays little if any part in the subsequent narrative, the writer misses a golden opportunity to involve the reader with a focal figure from the get-go. Plus we must consider the fact that a character who’s one of the hired help won’t evoke much of an instant emotional response in readers.

    But the fact that the character is the First Lady would. Even if she never turns up again in the story, her position would immediately resonate with readers on an emotional level.

    They can bring to the table their knowledge of and reactions to actual First Ladies. The glamour and mystique of this iconic position, the huge media presence and cultural impact—all would work to the writer’s benefit.

    And if I’m right about my assumption that this project is romantic suspense, a great way to hook the reader is to open with a woman in jeopardy. Or a really weird, disturbing experience.

    A few picky comments about names. I read that book Ruth Montgomery wrote about Jeane Dixon, and as I recall that’s the way she spelled her name. Just one “n” in her first name.

    Finally, the title. “QuID” doesn’t work for me. Or, I suspect, lots of readers. What does this acronym mean? We haven’t the faintest. Therefore we can’t relate to it. Can you pick one we can?

    Good luck with your project!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      If CJ did a scene with FLOTUS and a ghost, it would have to be a sort of prologue since the First Lady wouldn’t be recurring character and unfortunately prologues have fallen out of fashion. It’s an intriguing idea, but I’m not sure about it.

    2. CJ Ragsdale says:

      I may agree with you, but as it turns out, the main focus of the story is about this agent, and I build her up in the following pages to get readers more interested. But they could probably be talking less to start out.

      1. CJ: I suppose our different approaches stem from a different focus. With you it’s apparently character. With me it’s plot. That is, I believe that to do a good job of creating characters, a fiction writer must do a good job of creating a plot.

        Yes, I know romance is supposed to be a character-driven genre. But one exception to the rule won’t hurt anyone.

        Anyhow, it’s your project. You know it and your literary aims better than anyone else. No law says you have to follow anybody’s advice. Least of all mine.

        Hope your story will get published. It already sounds like a cool read!

  5. Marcy W says:

    Hi CJ … this sounds like a fascinating story … I have a feeling that as a short story, it’ll leave readers wanting more, so Mia’s suggestion that you consider a novella or novel is a good one, IMO.
    I definitely agree about the importance of names. As a reader, if names confuse me or don’t match the character, it takes some of the pleasure out of it for me. I agree about the two “C” names, that’s easy to change and make for easier reading; but I don’t mind Dillon and Gillian, for some reason. And I’d guess that her name might be shortened to Gill, at least by some people? What I do find interesting is Dillon’s surname: Cayce. I immediately connected to Edgar Cayce, the famous psychic, and wonder if this is deliberate — and if not, a heck of a coincidence, so I’m guessing there’s at least a backstory about this character.
    As we say every Thursday, the first two or three chapters are the most important, and hardest to get right, of any book. I think you’ve got a good start here, and with the combination of political intrigue, paranormal, and historical — I’m very eager to read more! Thanks for sharing, good luck.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I thought about Edgar Cayce too and figured there must be some connection. Did Cayce have any offspring?

      1. Wikipedia: “Cayce became engaged to Gertrude Evans on March 14, 1897 and they married on June 17, 1903. They had three children: Hugh Lynn Cayce (March 16, 1907 – July 4, 1982), Milton Porter Cayce (March 28, 1911 – May 17, 1911), and Edgar Evans Cayce (February 9, 1918 – February 15, 2013).”

        Yes, Edgar Cayce’s youngest child died just eight months ago.

    2. CJ Ragsdale says:

      Oh, so glad you asked about Cayce’s name. I reveal later on (with some humor) that he’s a direct descendant of Edgar Cayce.

  6. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    This is a really neat story set-up. I don’t normally read much paranormal, but this sounds interesting. I like the way you’ve written Gillian so far. She sounds intelligent and confident.

    I’ll weigh in on the name choice as well since character names are a big deal to me when I write. (I agonize over them almost as much as I did naming a real person, my daughter!) I liked “Gillian” as soon as I read it, but when I read “Dillon” my first thought was that it was too close to “Gillian” with both having double “l,” a short “i” sound and ending with “n.” Just my two-cents worth.

    Good luck and I look forward to reading more.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I so did not catch that similarity in Gillian and Dillon.

      To help with naming contemporary characters may I suggest the Social Security website? Believe it or not, they have tabulated the most popular names by decade going back to the 1880s (Our tax dollars at work!) Anyway, if you know the ages of your characters, figure out their birth year and check out the names listed on this site.

      1. Karri Lyn Halley says:

        I use that website a lot. I also used it to make sure my daughter’s name wasn’t too popular!

      2. CJ Ragsdale says:

        Wow, thanks–that is a fabulous resource to have

  7. Really intriguing concept! I agree with Mia…a little too much info-dumping up front, and a little too much facial expression (I do the same thing, for what it’s worth…am always deleting eyebrow references). You do flip back and forth a bit and seem to try a little too hard to create the cool concept of the White House being haunted to the point where POTUS is asking for help. It’s a great concept…let it ride without going into the history of ghostly complaints, I’d say.

    I was a little distracted with the odd name-spelling: Jarod Spektor could be simply Jared Spector. Dillon instead of Dylan, Cayse instead of Case… As someone with an uncommonly spelled name, I’m hyper-aware of it in fiction and found it a little distracting. It may be just a personal preference for me.

    All that being said, I think it’s a great concept, and with a little tweaking, would be fantastic. Good luck!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks so much for your comments, as always, Kristan. I’m also guilty of writing too much smirking, grimacing, eyebrow lifting and weirdly creepy smiling. (Pat Grasso made the point about too much smiling very eloquently a couple weeks ago and it’s stuck with me!) We need to leave a few things for readers to fill in and facial expressions may well be one of them.

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