A Day Late & a Dollar Short

Red Pencil ThursdayThat’s what my dad frequently accused me of being as I was growing up. This week he’d be right. My Red Pencil Thursday post is coming out on Friday because of a Series of Unfortunate Events involving a setback of my chronic lung condition, a computer in the shop for the 3rd time since May, a fall after hurrying out the shower to answer the phone and finally a pulled muscle between my ribs that practically rendered me immoveable. (Doing better now on all counts except the computer, but somebody stop me. This is so sounding like “The dog ate my homework!”)

I want to thank my RPT volunteer, Brenda Gallaher, for putting her work out there. It’s always a test of nerves to expose your WIP and I applaud her. I hope you’ll take a moment to leave a comment & encouragement. And if you’re a writer, please consider becoming a volunteer. We can’t have these online critique sessions without YOU! Check the details here.

So without further ado, on to Brenda’s WIP:


Magnolia stared out the window at the English countryside as the carriage bumped along the rough road.  She took in a deep breath, held it for five seconds and then released it.  Magnolia was glad to be back in England.  Before the war, her father took her and Penelope to England every summer.  But then the war came and America was torn apart.  Then the South lost and things got worse.  Although her father was a doctor, he was on the losing side, and received a two year federal jail sentence.  He had one year left and insisted that she and Penelope go to England with her uncle and cousins.

Mia: Your first paragraph is a crucial one. You must introduce your protagonist in a compelling way that poses questions in the minds of your readers. So far, Magnolia is passively riding in a carriage and breathing. You’ve not allowed us to form any questions either because you’ve loaded up the paragraph with backstory about her father and how she came to be there.

Look for a way to introduce Magnolia with a little irony, a twist. Something that marks her as unusual. Here’s a snippet from the opening of my current WIP to give you an idea of what I mean:

“Christmastide is no time for such a Friday face, Kat.”

Katherine forced up the corners of her mouth. The frozen smile felt almost natural now. Heaven knew she’d had enough practice. But her sister-in-law Margaret had caught her in an unguarded moment and that would never do. She flashed her teeth, praying no one in her father’s hall would know the difference.

Do you see what I mean about irony? It’s Christmas. Katherine should be happy, but she’s clearly not. We don’t know why, so that raises reader questions. We know she’s good at hiding her true feelings. What secret is she covering up with her cat’s smile? Hopefully, this is enough to make readers want to know more about her.

Think about Magnolia. What is her secret? How does she feel about where she is in her life? How can you hint at those things without giving us an info-dump? 

Magnolia gazed about the carriage they had been riding in for hours.  It was quite beautiful.  The wood was a warm cherry with just the right stain on it to bring out the grain in the wood.  There was a wood working shop on her plantation and when she was a child she loved to go in and watch the men work with the wood.  She would stand there for hours and silently watched as the men turned table legs or fix a chair that had been broken.  If Penelope couldn’t find her, then she would look for her in the woodshop.

Mia: Choosing the right details to include is how a writer advances her story. Ask yourself if these details push your story forward or take it back. 

The workmanship on the wood was as exquisite as the emerald green velvet that lined the seats of the carriage along with gold plated door handles.  The windows that Magnolia looked out were generous and clean.  She smiled to herself at the beauty that was all around her.  For the first time in over six years she felt at peace.

Mia: It’s ok for things to be all right with your protagonist’s world in the beginning, but only for a moment. The story doesn’t really start until there’s an imbalance, a disruption to her peace. Think about starting your story closer to that “inciting incident.”

Magnolia and Penelope sat in the front facing seat.  Her two cousins, Aspen and Willow sat in the rear facing seat with their father.  Aspen shifted in her seat and pushed her younger sister into the wall of the carriage.  “Arrrr…” Aspen whined.  “This has to be the smallest carriage ever.”  She folded her arms and put a scowl on her face.

Mia: Now we’re getting warmer. Magnolia’s world has other people in it. Start your scene with Aspen’s whine. (Quick side-bar on names: Are Aspen or Willow names that would have been used in the Victorian era? They sound more 1970 than 1870 to me. If you’re going to give your characters names that are unusual for their time period you must have a very good reason—like their father works at an arboretum and names his children for his favorite trees. It can work. One of my favorite MM Kaye heroines was named Winter–not a Victorian name. But her mother was sweltering in the heat of British India as she brought her into the world and was thinking of the cool winters of England as she named her daughter with her last breath.) 

“That doesn’t mean you need to push me into the wall.  My arm hurts,” Willow whined back as she rubbed her elbow.

Mia: ‘Whined’ is a unique enough word that you shouldn’t use it twice in such close succession.

Uncle Mike picked up his walking cane from the carriage floor and knocked on the roof.  The carriage slowed down and then stopped.  The driver jumped from his seat and opened the door.  “Is there a problem, Sir?”  He had a rich English accent, almost an educated accent.

Mia: Is the driver truly an educated man or does his accent merely sound that way to Magnolia’s American ears? An American miss in England is a “fish out of water” story. Everything seems out of place to her, when in reality, she’s the one out of her element. Think about ways you can play this up.

Her uncle answered, “The young ladies are restless.  Would it be a problem if we stopped for a little while so that they may stretch their limbs?”

Mia: Huzzah for the use of “limbs!” A Victorian gentleman would never have said “legs” before ladies, even if they are related to him, unless he wished to shock them. Is Uncle Michael (for a historical, I like the more formal Michael instead of Mike) irritated to be gallivanting around with 4 unattached females? Look for ways to add conflict to your scene. Conflict=Story.  

“Yes, of course, Sir.”  The driver responded and stepped back as he opened the door wider.

Aspen placed her hand into the driver’s hand.  “You may help me down first.”  Magnolia could hear the snobbery in Aspen’s voice.  The driver helped her down.  Again he offered his hand to Magnolia.  She smiled at him as she accepted his help.  He then helped Penelope and Willow down from the carriage and Uncle Mike followed on his own.

Mia: Too many words spent on unimportant material. It can be replaced with something as simple as: They all clambered out of the coach after Aspen, who always had to be first at everything.

The point of Red Pencil Thursday is to give authors some new directions to think about in their work. I hope I’ve given you a few things to chew on here. Happy writing!

Brenda: Mia, thank you for the feedback.  Yes, what you have said does make sense and it does help.  It gives me things to think about on how to make changes that will make my story better.  Thank you for having me as your guest this week on Red Pencil Thursday.  Along with the your comments and comments from the beta readers I am sure my story will improve immensely.  Thank you for your time!

Mia: My pleasure, Brenda.

Brenda: A note on the use of Mike, it is told later in the story that his father was also Michael and he is so used to being called Mike that he doesn’t think he could ever answer to Michael.

Magnolia was named for all of the blooming trees on their plantation.  Her mother and her cousins’ mother were best friends so she followed with tree names for her girls, also explained later in the story.  I was told not to put everything at once in a story, to spread out information.

Mia: Well, that explains a lot and you can certainly make those names work then without going into detail right up front. I wish you could have seen my first manuscript. I waffled on for pages without naming my hero once. I did however reveal the name of his horse!

Brenda GallaherBrenda Gallaher’s Bio: I wrote my first book at 13 and it was awful.  Tried again at 20 and it was better, but too busy to really work on it properly.  I was in college and had joined a sorority so life was busy for me.  I have thought over the years to write again, but never made the time for it.  Now that I’m unemployed I have the time and I write.

At the present time I have finished the third edit on my historical romance and it has been sent off to three beta-readers.  I am hoping to get the feedback I need.

I am single, in my mid 50s and love to tell stories.  I like to do a whole book in my head and I’m a big genealogy geek.  I have a cat named Malachi and at the present time we live in Utah although I am from Mississippi originally.

Find me online at: brendabirchgallaher.blogspot.com , www.twitter.com/celticmaid , & www.facebook.com/brendabirchgallaherauthor.

Mia: Now is when the magic of Red Pencil Thursday really kicks in. We’re counting on your comments & suggestions for Brenda. Thanks in advance for weighing in.

10 thoughts on “A Day Late & a Dollar Short

  1. Thank you for all of the comments ladies. I will take them all into consideration as I go about my editing of my novel. I appreciate the help.


  2. Hi Brenda and Mia,

    I hope you are feeling better Mia. You had a rough day or two. Brenda, thanks for volunteering for RPT.

    I agree with Mia that there is too much backstory in the first few paragraphs, but you are not alone in this. I judged the historical category in a contest recently and saw lots of description of carriages and hills. Best to limit this wordage in the opening.
    I like Uncle Mike’s frustration and the fighting siblings. Perhaps Magnolia has a skill to quiet them down…a magic trick she learned from a carpetbagger or she can mimic voices. Add some special skill or trait to Magnolia to make her stand out and grab the reader’s interest.
    Keep up the good work. All the best, Brenda.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Hi Barbara! Thanks for dropping by. You always have such good ideas. I like the idea of Magnolia having a special way with her relatives.

      It is true that the problem of backstory is rampant and not just in aspiring authors’ manuscripts. It’s a failing I have to constantly guard against. As writers, we have to know everything about our characters and it’s such a temptation to share all those cook things. But we must resist and ladle out our H/h’s secrets with a very small spoon.

  3. Brenda, thanks for putting your words out there. Looking at other people’s writing always leaves me with things to think about regarding my own.

    Mia has raised lots of good points, and all I can add is that I LIKE a beginning that isn’t crammed full of activity–chase scenes, bombs going off, sweaty sex, and strange creature running across the stage bellowing in Latin–because as writers, I think those opening pages have two big jobs. First, we need to establish at least one of our protags as empathetic. Mags could give up her forward facing seat for her whiney cousins, share her last biscuit with them, start a game of I-spy (Victorian version?), or otherwise grab some like from the reader. The second job the author has, is to establish forward momentum on the dramatic arc. As Mia says, planting questions is an excellent way to do that.
    Why is Mags in England? Why does she (in one detail) show an expert’s understanding of walnut stains? Why do her younger cousins laugh at the way she pronounces a certain word? Why won’t anybody look her in the eye when her father’s name comes up?
    If we like Mags enough, we’ll turn pages to find those answers, and as the pages turn, you can ramp up the pacing on the dramatic arc. By then, we’ll like Mags enough to stick with her as the external conflict gets airborne.
    Had you instead started us off with a racing coach, we might not care enough about the people inside the coach to follow it twenty miles through the countryside.
    One other thought: If the coachman is going to carry some dramatic or character weight, give us a single detail of his appearance to go with his cultured voice. The more time you spend describing a character, the more the reader will know that character is important to the story.

    Best of luck!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      It’s always such a pleasure to have you drop by, Grace! You’re absolutely right. An author’s “job one” is to create a protagonist with whom readers can identify.

      I just finished reading Save the Cat. It’s a screenwriter’s book, but it has some valuable lessons for novelists too. The basic idea in Save the Cat is making the hero/heroine appealing by having them do something decent (like saving the cat, or in Magnolia’s case, giving up her forward facing seat to her whiny cousins) in the opening of the story. This is especially important if the H/h is otherwise not loveable at the beginning.

  4. Charlotte says:

    Love the name Magnolia – I spent ages looking for a tree name for my daughter we settled on Elana in the end (from the Hebrew for Tree).

    It’s sad we can’t expound on names these days, like Laurence Sterne or Victor Hugo.

  5. Marcy W says:

    Brenda, good for you for staying with your dream of writing! I agree with all of Mia’s comments (being fairly smart, I usually do) … and sympathize with you — I so often want to give people all the details of things I know and can see clearly. I love your descriptions, as they sharpen my ‘view’ of the carriage, for instance — but agree that it’s too many words for the beginning. Needs more action, and interaction between all those characters; for example, I’m not clear on who they all are and why the four girls have been foisted on Uncle Michael. If I’m going to care enough about our heroine to read her story, you’ve got to give me a reason to do so right off the bat. You’ve put us in time and place well — her father is in prison because of the Civil War — but my first question was ‘then how does she have money to travel to England’? Odds are her father’s money and property have been seized or lost during the war. Maybe leave those explanations for a little later; staying in the moment at the beginning of a story seems to work better.
    Your descriptive talents are very good … learning to sprinkle them through your story and, as Mia says, use them to move the story forward, is the key.
    Thanks for sharing … I’d like to read more!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks for your insights, Marcy. You’re always bang-on. The money angle hadn’t occurred to me. Her father’s estate probably would have been forfeited. Perhaps Uncle Mike is launching his nieces in society so they can find husbands, in order absolve himself of the need to support them. If that’s the case, the trip to England takes on added desperation since no one wants to be a “poor relation,” dependent on the largess of the extended family.

    2. Marcy, it is found out later in the story that she has her own money and that they didn’t lose their plantation. They were one of the few plantations that did not use slave labour. The two younger girls are daughters of Uncle Mike and that’s explained later also. I will be making changes and am glad I did the RPT. She made some god suggestions.

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