Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayThe beginning of any story is a delicate time. An author has to introduce her characters in a memorable way, set up the major conflicts and hit the ground running. It’s a lot to ask of 500 words, but that’s about how long you have to hook your reader or risk having them lay your story aside. Today on RPT we tackle an excerpt from Clair Carter with motivation problems.

My comments are in red. Clair’s responses are in blue. Please add yours to the end of the post! A critique group is only as strong as the minds gathered around the table. We’re counting on YOU!

Veiled Passion

Do you think the navel jewels are too much?”  Sammy’s fingers scrabbled nervously through the tub of stick-on gems.

“You’re asking the woman in the Cleopatra wig?” Lisa looked up from applying make-up at the makeshift ‘dressing room’ mirror and snorted.   “Sammy, I think they’ll have their minds on other things – or their eyes at least.”  She arched an eyebrow in the direction of Sammy’s breasts, plumped up and prominently displayed in a tight-fitting sequined bikini-style top.

Love You’re asking the woman in the Cleopatra wig! But Lisa has extremely talented eyebrows if she can make them arch in a direction other than up, down or meeting above her nose. It’s her gaze that is directed at Sammy’s breasts. Can you rethink that sentence?

LOL – although my eyebrows are quite wayward, I take your point. She dropped a significant look in the direction….perhaps.  I think looks and gazes and glances etc are quite challenging to write without getting repetitive.

Sammy groaned and shook her head.  She couldn’t believe she’d allowed her PA to talk her into putting on this harem get-up.  Okay, so Lisa was more than a PA.  She was a good friend, a much-needed first line of defense at Lyman Evans and, worse, she knew where the bodies were buried.  So appearing at Lisa’s husband’s Company Fundraiser was a favor she owed, sort of.  But even so… did she have to go and choose a costume that exposed so much of her body?  A body whose charms she usually kept well-hidden in professional, understated workwear.

I’m having a bit of trouble imagining a boss doing this sort of favor for her PA. It would be more believable if the two women were on equal footing at work. The reference about where the bodies were buried makes it sound as if Lisa is being coercive. If that’s the case, we’re disposed not to like her immediately and it makes us wonder about the heroine’s intelligence if she’s allowing herself to be forced into something she doesn’t really want to do.

You hit the nail on the head. This whole first chapter had ‘issues’ of that nature.  I have had similar relationships at work, even with bosses, but I am clearly in a small minority (and have had unusual bosses!)

She began to pace the room, the beads on her virtually transparent skirt susurrated tantalizingly.  “I should have insisted on one of my own dance outfits.”

Ok, she’s a dancer too? Is Sammy leading a double life? Buttoned up lawyer by day, exotic dancer by night? If so, why is she nervous?

The dancing is middle eastern and part of her cultural heritage – she dances at family events in culturally appropriate clothing, but not usually in ‘public’ or in westernized, ‘hollywood-ized’ belly dance gear.  Not clear at this stage, but becomes so later. Although obviously this is something else that doesn’t work if it is confusing for the reader.

In that case, giving her a middle eastern name would help clear up reader confusion. Taking a little time to explain these differences now would change how I perceive her.

Also, you might want to think about another word besides susurrated. It’s a perfectly good word, but whispered says the same thing and won’t send readers scurrying to their dictionaries. Obviously, you have a terrific vocabulary, but be careful that your word choices don’t yank the reader out of the story.

Agree – I wanted that sound that pebbles make on the shoreline when they’re being sucked back, but it doesn’t work!

Lisa capped her lipstick and shimmied so that her coin belt jingled.  “And I would have over-ruled you.  I’m running this show.”

“You’re a power-mad, control freak. Lisa Camilleri.”

Comma before her name, not a period.

“Hark at the kettle calling the pot black.”

I like the byplay between the two of them. Makes me feel their friendship.


Lisa laid a reassuring hand on Sammy’s arm which was trembling with the fear of stepping out onto that stage in front of those people in this outfit.  The confidence she felt performing for family events had deserted her completely.

She performs at family events? Everything up to this point says she’s about to shake her tail feathers in a skimpy outfit big time. I’m confused.

See note above. It’s all to do with her culture, and that will form part of the conflict, as she is very much operating outside her family’s expectations.  But this scene needs totally rewriting to eliminate the confusion, I agree.

“Relax.  You’ll be a knockout.  And once you’re out there you’ll have a ball.”

“You do know if it weren’t for your charity I’d never do this in a million years, don’t you?”

OK, now we have a motivation for the heroine doing something she doesn’t want to do. Any way to move this up and make it stronger?

Good idea.  I could open with it.

“I do.  And it’s just one of the many reasons why I love you.  Just close your eyes and think of all the lovely money you’re raising for the Centre.  After everything they did for mum.  Dave is so grateful.  We both are.”

“And you swear that no one out there will know who I am?”

“Why would they?”  Lisa soothed.  “It’s just Dave, the other partners and a load of drunken corporate lawyers with their WAGs.”

“Because you know what it would mean for all my hard work at Lyman if word ever got back to Robin Neville and the rest.  And with the new boss arriving any day I can’t afford to hand them something like this on a plate.”

We’re back to wondering about her intelligence again. You can make a character do something that’s counter to their own interests and we’ll buy it if you motivate strongly enough. There has to be an overwhelming reason for her to take this risk and you need to show us what that is. Otherwise, she’s like a teenager in a slasher movie heading down to the creepy basement for no apparent reason…

Yes, I agree.  I am forcing a situation for dramatic convenience. And because I wanted to write the scene that follows LOL!

Sammy shuddered.  She’d not actually seen the new head honcho in the flesh yet.  But Dominic Sanborn’s ruthless reputation went before him – he wanted heads to roll in a bid to drag the company back on track.  Some top personnel had already gone and everyone was worried about their job.  And Sammy had enemies in high places.

Just a punctuation thing. Split the third sentence into two instead of using the -.Is Dominic the hero? It would be cool if he was since you’ve set up an adversarial situation already.

Yes Dominic is the hero and this is how she meets her new boss, performing in a completely ‘out of character’ way as a favour to a friend.  It’s too unlikely and that’s what set this chapter up to fail I think (among other things!)

I’m having a bit of a problem with your heroine’s motivation at this point and you need to be careful that her stronger willed friend Lisa doesn’t outshine her. A secondary character can steal a scene or two, but don’t let her overshadow the heroine while we’re being introduced to her.

I have a great weakness for strong secondary characters.  And I like multiple characters and multiple points of view.  I sometimes wonder if romance is what I should be trying to write because of these tendencies!  I like romance, but I like a lot of plot as well, if that makes sense.

You’re very good at this!  You quickly got to the heart of why this doesn’t work and I think that’s a real skill.  I felt quite ambivalent about this whole novel – I dragged those 50,000 words out kicking and screaming and it shows in the flawed characterization and motivation.  I’ll keep on keeping on and find the story I really want to write. Thanks so much for finding the time to look at my work, Mia.  Good luck with the sales for the wonderful Touch of a Thief.

Clair, you have a lot going for you, not the least of which is your teachable spirit. The willingness to rethink, rewrite is the difference between a published author and an aspiring one.  And just to assure you that you are not alone, let me share that I laid aside 300+ pages of my first “training wheels” manuscript once I realized it was hopelessly flawed.

Clair Carter’s bio: Married mother of two living in the north west of England and working as a researcher.  Won a couple of writing contests in my teens but put aside childish things to work ‘in the real world’.  Now happily back to Plan A – writing and writing in the hope of improving and improving…until I get published!

It’s your turn to weigh in. Can this manuscript be saved? I think so. Help Clair find the right motivation to make this scene work!

26 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Jackie says:

    “Do you think the navel jewels are too much?” Sammy’s fingers scrabbled nervously through the tub of stick-on gems.

    Fun opening lines! Hone them a bit, and you can use them to get across Sammy’s character, as well as to get your reader laughing. For example:

    “Don’t you think navel jewels might be a bit too much?” instead of “Do you think the navel jewels are too much?”
    suggests reluctance on Sammy’s part, reluctance that she’s not quite willing to give direct voice to…

    Also, I wanted to know whether those fingers had scrabbled through a tub of stick-on gems before, or whether this was a new experience for her. Does she think them tacky compared to the jewels she wears when she dances for her family? Or does she not wear jewels at all when she dances then? Is she amazed/disgusted/turned on by/annoyed by the way that Americans exoticize her culture’s dancing? You could begin to suggest her attitudes about these important issues with a brief tag to her nervous fingering.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      It is hard to overestimate the importance of first lines. Here’s a favorite opener of mine from Deanna Raybourn’s SILENT IN THE GRAVE:

      To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.

      It’s a brilliant teaspoon-sized sample of the voice of the protagonist, Lady Julia Grey. How could anyone not want to read on?

  2. Clair Carter says:

    Thanks very much Marcy. And I would like to echo your remarks about Mia. I was gobsmacked (another Britishism for you all there!) at how quickly and astutely she managed to find many of the problems with the whole 50000 word ms in a 500 word opening. This has been such a useful experience and really encouraging (I admit I was quite scared. Everyone should try it! Thanks very much to all of you for taking the time to offer such constructive criticism. I hope I’ll be able to give back in my turn.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Stop, Clair. You’re making me blush! ;-)

      Red Pencil Thursday is a labor of love for me. I’ve been helped along the way. I want to pay it forward.

  3. Marcy W says:

    What great suggestions and comments! Mia, you’re so good at critiquing yourself, and clearly attract blog readers who’ve got a lot of savvy themselves. Clair, I agree with all of the above, and want to add my voice to those who say to keep on trying. This is a good start to an intriguing story, and is definitely salvagable. I like the idea of starting with two good friends who are both strong women, and your dialogue is very good, makes the scene easily visualized. I don’t have too much trouble with them not being peers at work; in fact, I like the idea that they can be close friends outside of the workplace … that’s something women can do that most men can’t, I think. I’m eager to see how their friendship continues to have a place in this story. Thanks for sharing, Clair, and keep writing!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      My blog attracts a lot of saavy readers too, Marcy. You, for example, have been known to expose holes in my work that I could drive a Mack truck through! (In case anyone doesn’t know, Marcy is my beloved beta reader!)

      1. Marcy W says:

        Never holes THAT big, Mia … at the most, you leave little holes that just need a patch or a bit of darning :-) …

  4. There is so much wit and humor in this scene–I really enjoyed your voice, Clair!

    I agree with the above comments about simply shifting the order of some of the dialogue–that could help a lot with understanding your heroine’s motivation. Also, I think you could cut this:

    “Because you know what it would mean for all my hard work at Lyman if word ever got back to Robin Neville and the rest. And with the new boss arriving any day I can’t afford to hand them something like this on a plate.”

    If she’s dancing for a charity, with prominent people in attendance, it might be embarrassing if she’s recognized in a skimpy costume, but it certainly wouldn’t be a career wrecker. If it could be, then she probably wouldn’t agree, even to help a friend.

    One way around this, if you still want to communicate her worry, could be something like this: “She’d not actually seen the new head honcho in the flesh yet, but she knew–with a man like that, you had to make a perfect first impression or you’d be out on your ear.” I haven’t had a lot of coffee yet, but you get the idea. :) Then just continue on with your paragraph.

    Another quick thing you might add is the nature of the charity, so we can feel Sammy’s connection to it. Is it for a cause that’s very dear to her, and that’s why she’s willing to put on an embarrassing outfit?

    These are all minor changes! I think you have all the pieces here for a fun story, and a dynamite confrontation between the hero and heroine. Good luck!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Naming the charity is a good idea. Does anyone else remember that movie CALENDAR GIRLS? A group of middle aged women bared it all and made a lot of money for cancer research. They took some heat, yes, but they had a strong motivator, especially since one of them had lost her husband to cancer.

      If Clair shows us Sammy’s visceral connection to this charity that would really strengthen her motivation to dare whatever she needs to in order to help.

      1. Clair Carter says:

        Thanks Theresa and Mia. That would really go some way to patching the yawning hole in the motivation. It could even work in other areas of my story. I had her reluctance to commit down to a faithless boyfriend who went off to work overseas and expected her to drop her career and go with him. Then quickly married someone when she didn’t join him there. Perhaps a better reason would be the death of a fiance through an illness which this charity is raising research funds for. Hmmm. Possibilities for resurrection are clustering in the wings :-)

  5. Nancy says:

    You know the pot and the kettle black didn’t bother me. I did feel it was formal and once I caught the comment about being English I understood. It is a different manner of speaking. I’m afraid we’ve relaxed a bit. I think you’ve got a great beginning. The suggestion of moving things around putting that opening sentence of
    “Relax. You’ll be a knockout. And once you’re out there you’ll have a ball.”

    “You do know if it weren’t for your charity I’d never do this in a million years, don’t you?”

    Then give the deeper emotion behind it. Add those personal movements so we can “FEEL” the characters. You’re doing great. Do keep up. This is a good story. I wanta see how it ends!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Feel is the operative word, Nancy. There is no stronger reader hook than emotion. If we can feel Sammy’s nervousness, experience this all with her, we’re more likely to stick around for the whole ride.

    2. Clair Carter says:

      Thanks Nancy. I find the ‘deep emotional’ stuff one of the steeper parts of my learning curve. I am really hoping that it will click with practice. It is my secret fear that it actually is a deeper failing that won’t alter…but I will only find this out after many months and years of writing…Like old age, writing’s not for sissies, is it?!

  6. jen says:

    I think the pot calls the kettle black, not the other way around. Is there a reason you reversed it? That pulled me out of the story.

    I like your voice and I like the premise! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Sometimes it’s good to shake up an old saw with that sort of turn about. Keeps it from feeling trite.

    2. Clair Carter says:

      Pure accident I think Jen. I’d like to say it was a clever literary device, but I think it was just sloppy editing on my part. Thanks for the comments!

  7. Sandy says:

    I agree with Karri, just adding a line or two in your heroine’s pov can help clarify the motivation for the reader. It’s exactly what I was going to suggest.

    I think Mia is right on with her comments, too. Your story can be saved very easily.

    What does WAG mean? It’s the first thought I had when I read that line.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Snort! I thought like PA, WAG was some corporate acronymn that would become clear to me later.

    2. Clair Carter says:

      Thanks Sandy. You’ve all given me food for thought. WAGs is British tabloid press terminology for Wives and Girlfriends. It’s generally used as a collective noun to describe the glamorous appendages to British premier league footballers! It’s common usage among British women who like to read celebrity magazines and – hopefully – romances! My story is set in London so it would fit in that context. I’ve got so much from US romances, I like to offer a few Britishisms back!!

  8. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    As a dancer myself (mostly ballet, but a little Middle Eastern in there at one point), I like the idea of the hero seeing the heroine the first time when she performs. To keep us from thinking she isn’t too bright, maybe the third paragraph could be where she thinks that she wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for the importance of raising money for the charity. Maybe a personal, family connection to the cause. Perhaps that’s where she could ruminate on the fact that her family would be surprised at her costuming versus the fact that they would be so proud she was raising money for the charity. That might also be a good time to let us know when and under what circumstances she usually dances. I’d really like to read the scene where she dances and he sees her!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Karri–You’ve hit upon an important point. One of the strongest character traits we respond to in a hero or heroine is self-sacrifice. If it’s clear that Sammy is doing this for the benefit of others from the get-go, we’ll understand why she’s willing to brave something that may end up costing her dearly.

    2. Clair Carter says:

      Hi Karri. As a fellow dancer, you can probably understand why I was so keen to get onto my next scene LOL! Some of the publisher’s feedback I got said that they thought Sammy’s character was out of step – being both buttoned up and sensual. While I took on board a lot of what the publisher said, I really couldn’t get this. I’m pretty buttoned up myself – but when I dance, especially in costume, something takes over and I sometimes scare myself! I behave a lot more sensually because I’m a performer at that point, and absorbed with the music and the moment, not Clair Carter, working mum and shy writer. That’s what happens to Sammy. I would be interested to know if you felt that too. Or maybe I’m just a total anomaly. I really loved writing my dancing scenes – they were very stimulating ;-)
      The charity motivation angle is perfect and something I would need to strengthen in rewrites – thank you for this tip.

  9. I love Claire’s voice! Claire, you’re already adept at using dialogue to advance your story. Maybe you could add a line or two of dialogue to explain Sammy’s dance background? Lisa could say something like, “Why are you so nervous? You dance at family gatherings all the time,” and Sammy could answer, “I dance in modest, traditional [nationality] costume for doting aunts and grandmothers who’ve known me my whole life. It’s not the same thing,” or words to that effect). Also, I could tell you were British as soon as the acronym “WAG” popped up. It’s not a word most Americans will recognize, since we tend to use terms like “significant others” or “dates.”

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Excellent suggestions, Alyssa. In just a few words, you’ve explained a lot about the character’s background and reservations.

      1. And I just realized I misspelled Clair’s name (twice!). My apologies!

        @Sandy: WAG is British tabloid shorthand for “wives and girlfriends,” used especially to refer to splashy types like footballers’ (i.e. soccer stars’) wives.

    2. Clair Carter says:

      Alyssa that was so kind of you! At this stage of my writing development, I’m grateful for every bit of encouragement! The dialogue you suggested is just great. If I resurrect this manuscript I will go with it, as it is so simple but neat. Thank you!

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