A Special Red Pencil Thursday

Uncle RickThis week’s online critique session is dedicated to my dear Uncle Rick who left this world on Dec. 1st. He is mourned by his beloved wife, my three cousins (whose hands are shown here with his), two brothers & a sister, numerous nieces & nephews and two unborn grandbabies. And me. He was a wonderful man who positively impacted the lives of all who knew him.

He was an accomplished journalist and I always thought he should have gone into broadcast journalism. He had the looks and the voice (not to mention the hair!) to make the Ron Burgundies of this world go crying to their mamas. But he loved the printed word. He served as editor of the Washington Post, the Des Moines Register and numerous other papers over the course of his career. He ended his days as a professor of journalism at Drake University. Here are some of his “writing rules” as shared by his students:

  • Nothing can be “completely destroyed.”
  • The “Lion’s Share” means everything.
  • Nothing can be “very unique.”
  • Instead of “in order to,” write “to”, just “to.” Don’t use 3 words when 1 will do.
  • If you don’t enjoy reading a paragraph you’ve written, no one else will either.

I know my Uncle Rick would approve of what we do here on Red Pencil Thursday because we’re all about trying to improve the writers’ craft. If you’d like to take a ride in the RPT hotseat on a future Thursday, please check the details for how to submit your material. Now we turn our attention to Allison Merritt’s first 500 words:

Springfield, Missouri–1882

Paralee Blake didn’t think of herself as a violent person, but when she heard the laughter coming from her father’s jail cell, she had murder on her mind. Her face burned when she glanced at the deputy escorting her to release Daddy John. It wasn’t her first walk through the jail to bail him out after he was caught gambling, but it didn’t get easier.

Mia: I love this opening. You’ve placed me in the middle of the action, in an emotional situation. I’m already firmly on Paralee’s side and feel her embarrassment. I’m ready to walk in her shoes for a while. Brilliant.

Allison: Thanks, Mia! She loves her father, but he’s a real trial for her sometimes.

Daddy John was visiting with his cellmate and didn’t notice her until the deputy slid his key into the lock and the barred door swung open. He slapped a hand on his knee and grinned her way.

Mia: I’m seeing a lot of ‘and’s. See if you can chop some of these long sentences in half.

Allison: Great idea! I do catch myself overusing ‘and’ a lot. I can already see how they’ll be punchier without the conjunctions.

“There she is now! Right on time. Told you she’d come for me.”

Her father’s grizzled gray hair stood on end and he smiled, revealing a few gaps in his teeth. With effort, he lifted himself off the bench attached the wall before leaning heavily on his cane. Some of Paralee’s anger faded when she thought about him sleeping on the hard bench. It wouldn’t have been forgiving to his twisted leg.

 Mia: Since I lost my beloved Uncle Rick, I’ve been hearing him whisper to me as I write. One of the things he says most often is “Do you really need that adjective?” Grizzled and gray strikes me as too many for hair. If you use specific nouns and descriptive verbs your writing will be tighter and stronger. Also beware any word that ends in –ly. I go through and highlight them in yellow trying to limit myself to no more than 2 a page.

Allison: You’re right, I do a search for the ly’s. Sometimes they sneak past me though.

“Let’s go, Daddy.” She gestured for him to hurry.

“Wait, girl. Don’t rush. There’s someone here you’ve got to meet.”

She gritted her teeth. Daddy John could entertain a wall, so it came as no surprise that he’d made a new friend in jail. Her gaze slid past him and landed on a man half-hidden outside the ring of light the lanterns provided.

Mia: Love ‘Daddy John could entertain a wall.’ That tells me all I need to know about him. How about tightening the end of the sentence to ‘outside the ring of lantern light?’

Allison: Great tip! Sometimes I get wordy!

“Miss Blake.”

He stepped forward, standing side-by-side with her father though he was several inches taller. Thick dark brown gleamed under the golden light. He smiled, revealing dimples. Under dark brows, his eyes were green as glass bottles, so striking Paralee blinked and squinted to make sure she wasn’t imagining the bright color. She stiffened as she recognized him.

Mia: Think you’re missing ‘hair’ in the 2nd sentence. Otherwise we’ll wonder ‘thick dark brown’ what? Also, you have a word echo. You used dark again in the 4th sentence. 

Allison: This is why I have critique partners. Except…none of them has seen this yet. For shame, Allison. LOL.

Ben Darling continued to smile as though she’d won him as a prize.

A few scuffs marred his polished black boots, dust coated the knees of his black britches, and he had a grass stain on his right shoulder. His emerald waistcoat hung open in a casual manner, though his overcoat seemed to be missing. Despite his good looks, she backed away.

Mia: Smart girl. He’s trouble. But the allure of the bad boy is a staple of romance. You’re setting up this premise well.

Allison: I love a reformed bad boy!

Everything about him indicated he was the reason her father had ended up in jail this time. Ben was a gambler and they were all the same. Fancy clothes, good manners, smooth tongues as they talked gullible men out of every last cent.

Mia: You’ve done a masterful job of sharply drawing all your characters, which is a good trick in 500 words. I know who each of these people are.

She didn’t return his smile. “I’m afraid we have to go. We have work to do this afternoon, Daddy. Mr. O’Dell is bringing a wagon full of corn, remember?”

They operated the only mill on Wilson’s Creek. Business was slowly picking up and every second away from the mill cost them money.

Mia: Point of logic: If they have the only mill, wouldn’t business be pretty good by default? Now, if the mill had been in disuse and they’d just now got it going again, it might take a while for word of mouth to spread. Or perhaps it’s the beginning of the season. Whatever you write has to make sense or you risk pulling readers out of the narrative.

Allison: While I was writing another book set in the same area, I was reading about weather disasters in the 1880s. They had a terrible drought the year before this, so I imagine the business was slow as the farmers regrouped and prayed for a better year.

Mia: A brief mention of the drought as the reason for the slow down and we’re good then.

“Perfect.” Daddy John looked between them. “You’ll get your first lesson in grinding meal today, Ben.”

Paralee’s heart sped up. “What do you mean? You hired him? I don’t think we can afford another worker right now.”

Mia: This is a great beginning, Allison. I love the characters, love the premise. I can clearly see where you’re headed with this story. So ready to read more! Let us know when it’s published.

Allison: Thanks for having me, Mia! It was great getting your thoughts. Hopefully I’ll get this one finished and off to my editor in a few months!

Now it’s YOUR turn. Do you have suggestions or encouragement to offer Allison? Or, in honor of my Uncle Rick, would you share a ‘writing rule’ that’s helped you improve your prose? Remember, you don’t have to be a writer to have a helpful insight. We welcome reader comments too!

Allison MerrittA life-long love of reading turned Allison Merritt into an author who writes historical, paranormal and fantasy romances, often combining the sub-genres. She lives in a small town in the Ozark Mountains with her husband and dogs. When she’s not writing or reading, she hikes in national parks and conservation areas.

Social media links– Blog – havenovelwilledit.blogspot.com
FB – facebook.com/allisonmwrites
Twitter – twitter.com/allison_merritt
G+ – gplus.to/AllisonMerritt


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13 thoughts on “A Special Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Thank you, Mia and Allison. First my critique: I think this project has promise. The bit about introduing the hero when he’s in jail really snags my attention. You vividly characterize the three figures in this excerpt.

    Okay, that’s the good news. For the other kind, the first sentence struck me the wrong way, on two counts.

    When you introduce your heroine in such a mood, I can’t help but think she has serious anger issues. A major obstacle to my identifying with her.

    Also, why would anyone laugh in jail? I wasn’t intrigued, just confused.

    Moving on, that bit about a “ring of light” sounds wrong. You can talk of a sphere of light—not the same thing; but probably not here. That would sound kind of highfalutin’ for these folks.

    I’m pretty sensitive to names, probably more so than most readers and writers. One of my pet peeves are names out of period or place. I have a hard time imagining a frontier woman in the 1800s named “Parmalee”. The practice of using surnames as given names for women didn’t become common until well into the 20th century.

    Yes, I realize lots of romance writers give their heroines anachronistic names. Therefore it can’t possibly bother most readers or editors. Still, I think I should mention this.

    Now for what Mia requested. What’s the best advice for writers I’ve come across? Hard to choose, but it might be a quote I ran across in a writers’ magazine (sorry I can’t recall who said it): “Think of a book you’d like to read, but which hasn’t been written yet. Then write it.”

    1. Allison says:

      Hi Mary Anne,

      It’s not so much as she has anger issues as that she’s been to retrieve her father from jail on more than one occasion. They tended to have pretty strict laws against gambling in Springfield in the late 1800s, so it’s not even that her father’s a drunk–although he was drinking–but they were running out of money and she was angry and worried about getting him out of jail again. In 1881 they had a terrible drought and a lot of families were struggling with money issues in the area.

      As for her name, I tend to be extremely picky about names. I pulled this one off of behindthename.com’s list of 1000 Most Popular Names between 1880-1889. It ranked 664. :) Hope that clear some things up. Although, I will admit, Paralee tends to be pretty cranky about the whole situation when she learns Ben’s coming to stay with them.

      1. Allison: I stand corrected. Say,do you have a title for this novel yet? Good luck!

  2. Chuck Robertson says:

    Sounds great to me, too. I love how you’ve already discussed that she has a somewhat unusual relationship with her dad.

  3. Hi Mia and Allison,

    This is a great opening. I don’t have anything to add to Mia’s comments. You have built wonderful tension in these first paragraphs, Allison.

  4. Your writing’s great, as always, Allison. Can’t wait to read this one!

  5. Kris says:

    This reads quite well, Allison! Love the fact that he’s been getting her daddy into trouble, not that daddy needs any help. And now he’s going to be in her space every day? Perfect. :)

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      And don’t you love the name Daddy John? Makes him sound like an endearing scoundrel. He and Ben Darling will make life interesting for Paralee.

  6. A.M. Buxton says:

    Great opening, Allison! Sounds like a great read.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Doesn’t it? I had trouble finding things for her to consider fixing.

  7. Allison says:

    Thanks so much again for having me, Mia! It was a lot of fun.

  8. Barb Bettis says:

    Hi Allison and Mia! Great beginning, Allison. I’ve always loved your writing and this start just shows how good it is. I don’t have a thing to add to Mia’s comments, although I do agree with her on ‘and’s’ and a few of the ‘ly’ words (though there aren’t many). Can’t wait to read the whole thing!!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Barbara. I always appreciate your comments.

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