Red Pencil ThursdayIt’s not often I get a volunteer’s excerpt that has so little room for improvement, but I have to admit, today’s selection is just shy of perfection! Can you still learn things from it? You betcha! I love getting to point out the good stuff and you can bet I’ll be taking some of the principles we glean from Lindsey Louck’s first 500 words to use for my own writing.

If you’d like a chance to ride in the RPT hotseat, please check out the details and send in your material. We can’t have Red Pencil Thursday without YOU!


Mia: I love one word titles. This one is evocative, telegraphs a life moving forward and yet raises questions. Just what a title is supposed to do. Good job.

Lindsey: I’m happy you like it! The original title was A Boy and Her Scratch, but it received some mixed reviews from family and friends. Sail better captures the theme of this story, I think.

In the three years since I’d become addicted to iron, only six items have rushed down my throat by mistake. Most of those accidents were during the early days of college when I hadn’t yet accustomed myself to the nudist colony called my dorm and early morning fire drills. I swallowed the sixth piece, an iron washer to be exact, on the day I became a fugitive.

Mia: Color me intrigued. It’s always interesting when the protagonist has something unique about them which puts them on the edge of human experience. A compulsion to eat things that aren’t actually food, a disorder called pica I believe, certainly qualifies. What this opener signals to me is a heroine who has an imbalance in her life—something that will be explored further in the special world of your story. The fugitive bit is a great example of an embedded hook—a tantalizing tidbit of information that draws your readers forward.

Lindsey: Like probably most writers, I struggle with the opening paragraph and giving it that special oomph to keep readers reading. I’ve rewritten this one countless times, but I feel it sets up the main character and at least some of her struggles nicely.

A soft shudder rolled under my feet, a welcome sensation even though it chased tingles up and down my legs. Bright lights tracked across the floor-to-ceiling windows, shimmering through the snowflakes that clung to the glass. Deep blue ink had poured over the sky hours before, a reminder that I’d been sitting here all day. I stretched my legs out in front of the red circular benches that dotted the Waiting Room as feeling pricked its way back into my limbs.

Mia: Whoa! We aren’t in Kansas anymore. I love the details you’ve chosen to share with us about your special world. A tiny movement beneath her feet that the heroine welcomes and the feeling pricking back into her legs engage our tactile senses, something that is often neglected. As writers we tend to focus more on the visual and let our readers’ other senses go begging. The only thing wrong with your ‘Deep blue ink’ pouring over the sky is that I didn’t think of it first!

Lindsey: LOL! This actually used to be my first paragraph, but it felt like something was missing before it.

Mia: The something missing was a way for us to bond with your heroine, which you fixed brilliantly.

“Now docking the Nebulous passenger cruiser and the—” a soothing robotic voice said over the loudspeaker, but a nearby wailing child drowned her out.

The Sky Dock, nicknamed the Waiting Room by me for obvious reasons, was the tallest building in the city and shaped like one of those ancient staples on elongated legs. Passing ships that were on the smaller side could dock under our feet for a short length of time to trade passengers or drop off and pick up cargo.

Mia: Again, the judicious selection of a few unique details paints a vivid picture of your heroine’s world. And because we’re in first person POV, I don’t even miss dialogue—something I usually crave in the first 500 words of a story. Since we’re in the heroine’s head, we’re having a very intimate conversation with her as we view her world through her eyes.

I normally write in 3rd person because I like to explore multiple POVs throughout the story, but 1st does have the advantage of creating an immediate and intimate bond between the reader and the protagonist. I notice you chose to use past tense, Lindsey. Have you experimented with present tense? So many YA novels and a good many literary ones use it.

Lindsey: I’ve written a couple stories in present tense, but I don’t feel I’m very good at it. My sentences tend to become too short and choppy for some reason in present tense. I’m sure it just takes some practice.

As for first person, that’s the only POV I can comfortably write in. Eventually I’ll crawl out of my comfort zone and attempt third person, but first person allows my character to tell me their story. My job is to just transcribe everything they say!

Excited chatter erupted, which thankfully smothered the Christmas carols I’d heard on repeat for the last however long I’d been here. People stood and gathered their belongings. I had only me. I craned my neck over the crowd of travelers, but the icy blonde guard at the other end of the long room hadn’t made a move to open the doors. But once she did, I’d see Pop and my sister Ellison again after ninety-three days.

Mia: Good way to place us in the calendar year. The sense of being alone in a crowd is deftly done. I like that the guard is female. You always seem to slip in an unexpected twist.

Lindsey: Thanks! :)

Much as I wanted to stand and position myself to throw my arms around them, I couldn’t. The baby sitting on her mom’s lap next to me had her chubby fingers wound through the chains twisted through my hair. She blinked up at me with a pair of dazzling blue eyes while she stuck a fistful of iron into her mouth with a big grin. I smiled, at both our similar tastes and the thought of seeing my family again.

Mia: If the baby is on its mom’s lap and it has your heroine’s hair & its embellishments in its little fist, the protag’s hair must be super-duper long. Like hanging below her bum cheeks long. Is that accurate? It’s the first detail that yanked me out of the story. Also, is there a way to reword the second sentence so you don’t have an echo of the word “through?”

Lindsey: Yep, her hair is long, so maybe putting the word ‘long’ before ‘hair’ would help make that clearer. I’ll do that!

Her mom started to rise, and when she noticed who her baby was attached to, she jerked back. Her gaze snagged on every piece of metal I wore: the long, delicate chains spun through my hair that hung past my ass, the tight leather corset with metal spikes running down the sides (not to mention the ladies spilling out the top), the belt with six inch thorns, my steel-toed boots. Yes, I wore pants, but they didn’t count because they were one of the few things I owned not made of iron. I didn’t mean for my clothes to growl ‘I will eat your children,’ but judging from the look on the woman’s face, I might as well have gnawed off an ear already.

Mia: Well, that answers my previous question. However, as a mom, I have doubts about this one not noticing who was next to her. When my kids were little, I was the hyper-vigilant type and your heroine might have made me change my seat on the bus. That said, what a brilliant way to sneak in a vivid description of your protagonist—and one that made me laugh at the end, which mitigates her fierce appearance beautifully. I wonder if you could make the mom distracted by a cellphone (or whatever personal communication devise is common in your story’s world) so it makes sense for her not to have noticed the heroine right away.

Lindsey: That’s an excellent point! Maybe the mom could be distracted with her Mind-I, which is like a smart phone implanted in the brain. Or maybe she could have another child with her who is throwing a temper tantrum. Hmmm…

Mia: What a total pleasure this opener is to read. This is how it’s done, boys and girls. Lindsey has dropped us into the heroine’s world and made us scramble to keep up, giving us just enough information to keep moving forward. She’s set some great embedded hooks. Her heroine has a unique situation what with the pica, the wardrobe that screams “go away” and her hinted at fugitive status. Lindsey’s carefully chosen details bring her world to vibrant life in a minimum of words.

I cannot wait to read more. Please tell me this story is coming out soon!

Lindsey: Thank you so much, Mia! I really appreciate it! I hope to have this story spit-shined and ready for release by October. It has some spooky elements to it that would be perfect for that time of year!

LindseyLoucksLindsey R. Loucks works as a school librarian in rural Kansas. When she’s not discussing books with anyone who will listen, she’s dreaming up her own stories. Eventually her brain gives out, and she’ll play hide and seek with her cat, put herself in a chocolate induced coma, or watch scary movies alone in the dark to reenergize.

She’s been with her significant other for almost two decades.

Check out Lindsey’s website:
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Ok, gang! A critique group is only as strong as the minds gathered around the kitchen table. Now it’s your turn to share some suggestions & encouragement for Lindsey. Please weigh in on Sail!

Welcome to another online critique group. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, pull up a chair around my cyber-kitchen table and help me dissect the first 500 words of our volunteer’s WIP. We’re working on a faerie tale today, but good writing principles apply to any genre. I hope, in addition to helping our volunteer with her story, you’ll find some take-away’s for your own work.

Red Pencil Thursday

Click to learn how YOU can be a Red Pencil Thursday volunteer!

And now on to Mary Anne Lander’s…

“Angharad’s Frog”

Mia: The title telegraphs that this is a fairy tale. That’s good. You’ve begun as you mean to continue. However, if my mom were reading, she’d stop right now because she wouldn’t be sure how to pronounce “Angharad.” I understand the desire to use names that give a unique flavor, but be careful you don’t choose something too inaccessible. Is there another Welsh name you could use that wouldn’t be as much of a challenge?

Mary Anne: Yes, I could. Maybe I will. But right now allow me to note that nowadays unusual names don’t bother me—and, I’d wager, a lot of readers, excluding your mom—for two reasons.

First, if I want to find out how to pronounce a name (or any word), I can do so quickly and easily by googling it.

Second, much of today’s fiction, including some very popular works and the film/TV adaptations thereof, is loaded with unusual if not weird names. Just my opinion, but “Angharad” doesn’t see so strange compared with “Katniss”,”Voldemort”, or “Khal Drogo”.


The worst day in the lives of Stephen Meredith and Angharad Morgan began as their best.

Mia: This opener is strong because it offers a twist and raises questions that keep the reader moving forward. Good job.

Just as the sun cleared the hills surrounding Cwm Rhondda, Stephen took leave of his master and fellow apprentices. He hurried from the carpenter’s shop to the grandest house in town. No sooner had he closed the yard gate behind him than he beheld Angharad, weeding the herb garden.

Such a sight she was, the fairest woman in Pontardawe. In all of Wales, in Stephen’s eyes. A beauty the plain and much-mended gown of a housemaid could not disguise.

Mia: Your word choices and sentence structure all still fit the fairy tale mode. Is this going to be a short story? I think it would be hard to maintain this voice for a full length novel. Again, bear in mind that some readers will be put off by the unusual spellings of the place names. Are there Anglicized versions you could use?

Mary Anne: Well, maybe I should replace “Cwm Rhondda” with “the Rhondda Valley”. But I don’t think there’s another name or spelling for “Pontardawe”.

And yes, I plan on making this a short story. Maybe 7,000 to 8,000 words. I know the fiction market is geared toward novels, not shorter forms. That’s why I’m thinking about gathering several short fantasy romances into a collection and self-publishing it. After it’s been thoroughly edited, of course. There’s already enough indie stuff that obviously hasn’t been.

Angharad beamed once she sighted him. When she smiled, no matter what else was happening to him, Stephen felt all was right with the world. And this morning, all was right anyhow.

Mia: Let’s tighten this a bit. How about…

When she smiled, no matter what else was happening, all was right with Stephen’s world.

And I don’t think you even need the last sentence in that paragraph.

Mary Anne: Okay.

They embraced and kissed. He said, “Darling, I have the best news. My master has finally consented. He said that with my apprenticeship nearly over, there’s no longer any reason for us to put off our wedding.”

Mia: I’d move the He said tag to after “best news” in order to break up his dialogue. That way, readers sort of skip over it. Putting it up front seems overly stiff and intrusive.

Mary Anne: Okay.

He could scarcely breathe, let alone speak. His beloved was a veritable Amazon in might.

Mia: This was a surprise. If she’s a brawny gal, we need to know at first sight. I had her pictured as the typical fairy tale heroine—dainty and frail. Since this is not the case, the reader needs this info up front.

Mary Anne: Will do.

Once he caught his breath, he added, “We can have the first banns cried next Sunday. Unless that’s too soon for you.”

“This very moment wouldn’t be too soon! And my master and mistress will be so happy for me. They’ll give us all the help we need.”

Mia: Do we need to know her master and mistress will be happy? The first 500 words is pretty valuable real estate. Only put the most essential things there, things the reader must know in order to move forward.

Mary Anne: I guess it can wait. But since all this is happening in a specific social context, and her employers play a role in the plot, it can’t wait too long.

She laid her head on his chest. Stephen played with the auburn curls her mobcap could not contain.

Then Angharad said, “Darling, I don’t want to spoil this moment. But we must be practical. What will we do about the one matter that might pose a problem?”

“Nothing will. I swear by all that’s holy.”

She sighed. “Dearest, you know what I mean.”

He kissed her snow-white forehead. “You worry too much.”

Mia: Snow-white is pretty trite. I know you come up with something fresher.

Mary Anne: I thought of ivory, but for someone like Stephen that might be a little highfalutin’.
Maybe I should just avoid an adjective.

Mia: You can’t go wrong by leaving out adjectives. Descriptive verbs and specific nouns make for much stronger prose. Mark Twain said “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.” 

“I fear you don’t worry enough. When I think of what Mistress Rhys might do to win you back—“

Stephen quieted her with another kiss. “How can she when she never had me?”

“She thinks she did. That talk about how you and her are fated to be together.”

“That’s all it is, talk. If she chooses to believe it, ’tis no concern of mine. Or yours.”

“But if she’s half as powerful a witch as she claims to be—-“

Stephen laughed. “A witch! Surely you don’t believe such drivel. This is the eighteenth century!”

Mia: This seems like a lot of pinging back and forth without advancing the story much. See if you can cut to the chase a little quicker.

Mary Anne: Okay. Maybe “. . . Are fated to be together. And if she’s half as powerful . . . .”

# # #

Eleanor Rhys stared at the scene unfolding in her scrying bowl. So it had finally happened. Stephen and Angharad would be wed. The young man Eleanor had loved beyond reason, for whom she had worked her most powerful magic. For whom she was fated.

“So my dear Stephen. You would spurn the mightiest sorceress in the land for a housemaid. You think you can toss me aside like a piece of rotten timber in your shop? What a fool you are! And a fool needs to be taught a lesson.”

Mia: I’d like a hint of why a powerful sorceress is head over heels for a carpenter’s apprentice. Right now it makes no sense. He’s such a powerless fellow, he can’t even wed without his master’s permission. My preference for alphas is showing, but I’m not alone in liking powerful males. Can you give us a glimpse into why Stephen is such an incredible catch?

Mary Anne: Yes, I can, though I’m tipping my cards a bit. Eleanor is not in love with Stephen despite the fact that he’s poor and powerless. She’s in love with him because he’s poor and powerless.

She’s a total control freak. She wants someone she can boss around. It’s the same thing we see nowadays when someone rich and famous, who could easily find a partner on his/her social level, picks a nobody.

There are plenty of penniless young fellows Eleanor can select from, but Stephen has three other assets, at least in her eyes. He’s handsome, he’s charming, and he’s naive. He can easily be manipulated. Among other things, his conversation with Angharad in the opening scene reveals (I hope) that whereas she has an abundance of good common sense, he doesn’t. He sees only what he wants to see, at least in this situation. She senses trouble coming; he can’t. In short, I’m setting him up for a fall.

Why would Stephen prefer a housemaid to a powerful sorceress? Despite his faults, he can sense something is terribly wrong with Eleanor and the kind of love she offers him. He can’t analyze this intellectually, but he can feel it in his gut.

In terms of worldly rewards, Stephen would be a lot better off with Eleanor. But he doesn’t love her. He loves Angharad. He can tell instinctively that in the ways that really count, she would be just as good for him as Eleanor would be bad for him.

But he’s sure going to pay for his choice!

Mia: And here I was thinking he must be the secret heir to some magic beans or something and that’s why Eleanor wanted him. Just goes to show there are as many ways to write the same story as there are writers.

That’s why we want YOUR opinion! What suggestions/encouragement do you have for Mary Anne?

MaryAnneLanders1Bio: Mary Anne Landers loves to read, write, and play with her furry children, aka cats. She lives in a small town in Arkansas. She digs history, science, mythology, and folklore, all of which shape her fiction.


Red Pencil ThursdayWe have a volunteer for RPT. Huzzah! It’s Catherine Wolffe, author of western romance. We had a little bit of a miscommunication. Usually, my volunteers just add their responses to my critiques. It gives them a chance to explain why they made the writerly choices they did. However, Catherine re-wrote her opening based on my feedback. I think you’ll enjoy seeing the metamorphosis.

And remember, if you’d like a ride in the Red Pencil Thursday hotseat, please check out the details about how to submit your materials. And now on to…

Secret Salvations

Mia: The “salvations” in this title hints that it may be an inspirational romance. Is it?

Catherine: Not in the sense of religious. Salvation in this title refers to these young men’s struggle with their coming of age in a difficult time. The battle to save those they care about and themselves. The Comanche raids on Mexico occur in the fall of 1846. Seth and Charles’ lives will be impacted by this war.

Shooter Creek Ranch
Tyler, Texas 1846

Mia: I like the indication of time and place.

Wide-open spaces loomed before him. Alone, eighteen-year-old Seth Loflin rode the trail, one as familiar as his name. Restless and hungry, but for what he couldn’t say, Seth traveled over Loflin land. A man didn’t have to ask where he was when he headed west out of Tyler, Texas. He passed through the Shooter Creek Ranch, the largest ranch in east Texas and one of the three largest in the state.

Mia: Can you give us a specific landmark for Seth to see instead of “wide-open spaces?” Maybe the curling ribbon of Shooter Creek, or a lone stand of pines on the horizon?

He scanned the terrain with a vague sense of annoyance. As far as the eye could see belonged to his father, Earl Loflin, a man as hard and unforgiving as the ground under the hooves of Seth’s horse, Sarge. He loved this land and never wanted to live anywhere else except Texas. Shooter Creek Ranch had been his home from birth. But lately, something was missing. Glancing at the sun dipping low in the western sky, Seth ran a hand over his chest, just under his heart where a certain longing festered. Putting a name to the yearning did no good. He’s discussed the matter with Maggie, the housekeeper and Loflin boys surrogate mom since the death of their maw some eight years back. She’d told him in her best Irish brogue, ‘You’ll be finding the answer when the time is right, lad’. Jake Long, Shooter Creek’s foreman and Seth’s mentor said basically the same, ‘You’ll find what you’re looking for without trying. Give it time’. Time! Time to pack away the craving he couldn’t identify. “Jake’s right. I’ll stumble on this thing, whatever it is.” Leaning in, he gave Sarge an affectionate pat on the neck. “Right boy?”

Mia: This paragraph is a big name dump of characters who are probably important, but since they aren’t physically here, why do we need to hear from them? Maggie and Jake don’t belong in this scene. It’s hard for readers to keep track of so many characters all at once. The first 500 words are so important, think about whether we need to know his horse’s name at this time. Also “maw” means the open jaw of a voracious beast. I think you mean “ma.”

In response, the bay nickered heartily.

“Besides, there’s always work to do.” He sighed, glancing off into the trees. Work kept the longing at bay during the daylight hours but in the wee hours of the morning when nothing stirred except the wind in the trees, he’d wake feeling empty and alone, as if he waited for someone, perhaps to share that sliver of time with before the cock crowed and a new day dawned on the world called Shooter Creek Ranch. Running his fingers through the thick mat of dark brown hair, a sigh escaped. “Let’s go, boy. No use in wallowing in it, is there?”

Mia: When we first meet our hero, we want him to have an imbalance in his world, a problem that will propel him into the special world of the story. I’m not sure this vague longing is enough to launch Seth. You hint at a rough relationship with his father. That can make a young man strike out on his own.

Also a word about POV. We are seeing the world through Seth’s eyes. Would he think of his own hair as a thick mat of dark brown? No. He’d just rake his fingers through it.

Sarge’s magnificent chocolate brown head rose quickly as he jerked his mane from side to side. The horse, always responsive, always obedient, picked up the pace. Soon they were trotting down the path leading back from the creek. The pleasure of the ride didn’t last long. The air filled with scents unfamiliar yet pleasing to his nose. Putting pressure on the reigns, Seth maneuvered Sarge into the trees lining the creek. His heart skidded to a halt with the sight before him.

Mia: Oh, I hope not a halt. Let’s have his heart do something else or this will be a very short story. ;-) Your descriptions are vivid but watch the overuse of adjectives. Not every noun deserves one and you’ve given “head” four of them—Sarge’s magnificent chocolate brown. Don’t tell us the scents are unfamiliar. Describe them. We want to smell them too.

The woman was most mesmerizing creature he’d ever seen. Her jet-black hair hung to her waist and her skin, reminded him of a creamy praline, the kind they sold in New Orleans on the street corners. Would she taste as sweet and creamy on his tongue?

Mia: Bingo! We have found the true opening of your story. Put Seth in this moment at the very beginning. It’s an inciting incident, something unexpected and bound to result in a more definitive response that “vague longing.” What Seth does when he meets this woman will show us more about him and his character than his horseback musings. Plus you can incorporate dialogue much sooner.

I confess that I had to lop off 12 pages from the opening of Erinsong before I found the beginning. I was “clearing my throat” for a bit, but it wasn’t wasted effort because it helped me get to know my characters’ inner motivations. I needed to know them at the outset. My readers didn’t.

Thanks so much for volunteering, Catherine. I like the world of Shooter Creek and I’m sure your readers will too.

And now here is Catherine’s revised opening:

The morning air filled with the scents of sandalwood and lilac. Drawn to the curious smells, Seth maneuvered his bay into the trees lining the creek. His heart skipped a beat with the sight before him.

The woman was most mesmerizing creature he’d ever seen. Her jet-black hair hung to her waist and her skin, reminded him of a creamy praline, the kind they sold in New Orleans on the street corners. Would she taste as sweet on his tongue?

Water swirled against her thighs as she exited the creek with the help of several attendants. Unaware of his presence, she trailed a long, slim finger through the water, giving the lazy current a steady ripple. Her graceful back curved slowly into a trim waist, which flared into agilely rounded hips above lithe thighs. She looked relaxed, as if she were enjoying her bath. Tall and regal, her stance reminded him of royalty as the other women helped her up the bank.

Disappointment set in immediately as they cloaked her body with an oversized blanket. Still undaunted, but wanting a better view, he urged his horse forward. Seth maneuvered Sarge between the low-lying limbs of the Mesquite trees, lining the banks of Shooter Creek. Careful not to disturb the leaves littering the ground, he worked his way closer. Still, Sarge managed to snap a stick beneath his hoof.

The women’s dark heads jerked up as they went on alert, searching the trees for an intruder.

One called out in Comanche, “Who’s there?”

Caught but still determined, Seth slid nimbly from Sarge’s back and stepped into the clearing mere yards from the bathers.

The magnificent creature with the coal black hair didn’t shy away. Half covered in the blanket, she only stared at him. The nudity a white woman would hurry to conceal proved no concern to this marvelous dream-come-to-life. The perplexed, yet curious glaze she pinned him with stole his breath. Her eyes were as green as the bonnie banks of Maggie’s Ireland and almond shaped in her lovely golden face. A sultry mouth of warm rouge formed an ‘oh’ as she allowed her gaze to travel over him. He didn’t anticipate the effect such a perusal would have on his libido.

Seth’s dick twitched in his pants. Where had she come from? So many questions flooded his consciousness that he lost his voice.

Before he regained his speech, the women hurried the maiden out of sight, the sound of native voices floated back in their wake.

Compelled to discover her name, Seth gathered Sarge’s reins, leaping into the saddle. His intention to follow proved short-lived when three tall, muscled warriors blocked his path.

Speaking Comanche, Seth tried to communicate with the Indians.

“My name is Seth Loflin. This is Shooter Creek land, which belongs to my father, Earl Loflin.”

The tallest warrior’s gaze traveled over Seth slowly before replying. “The People are camped nearby. My uncle, Chief Lone Eagle seeks the deer that water here. He comes in peace.”


Catherine: Okay, I think I like this much better!  I began with his discovery of the woman.  See if this is better.  I tend to get excited and forget something important when I have a new idea, so ask for anything I may have left out.

Mia: We’ll let the RPT commenters weigh in on the two beginnings. Ok, gang, what do YOU think?

Catherine's booksIf you’d like to try some of Catherine’s published works, here are the links:

Casey’s Gunslinger

Wolfen Secrets

Waking Up Dead

The Lady in the Mist

Comanche Haven

The Lady in the Mist Sample

A Dance in Time

Darlings of Paranormal


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