Red Pencil Thursday
Welcome to my online critique group. I have to admit that my volunteer today intimidated me a bit. Jackie Horne is a college professor with three academic non-fiction books under her belt. But bless her heart, she’s got a teachable spirit and was willing to take her bath in public in order to help other writers.
As always, my comments are in red. Jackie’s responses are blue. Help me make this a valuable experience for her by offering your comments and suggestions at the end of this post. Thanks!
A Man without a Mistress
Mia: Interesting title. Does it mean he will not be ruled by the woman in his life or that he will not betray his spouse?
Jackie: Actually, the title refers to a vow the heroine makes to her three brothers, who are trying to marry her off, never to marry a man who has kept a mistress (unlike them!). Does it refer also to the hero? That is one of the mysteries that the heroine (and the reader) must puzzle out…
“You’ll feel differently, my dear, once you are married…”
The Honorable Sibilla Pennington sighed, tracing smaller and smaller circles with a gloved finger on the tufted velvet of the carriage seat.
Mia: You’ve mastered English understatement in these elegantly crafted sentences. We have a clear picture of a wellborn, well-moneyed miss who’s not happy about her choices. I love the symbolism of her world growing smaller and smaller along with those circles.
Jackie: Thank you! And when I wrote about the circles, I wasn’t consciously aware of the symbolism. Amazing how the unconscious mind manages to work in tandem with a writer’s conscious intentions…
Mia: Lots of the best moments in fiction happen accidentally. “The Honorable” indicates that Sibilla is the daughter of a viscount or baron, however it is only used in writing—when addressing envelopes or setting place cards at table—never in conversation. Since we are in her POV, she would not think of herself as “the Honorable.” I like using the designation, but if you want to be absolutely pure to historical usage, you should save it for a dinner party or when she receives a letter.
Jackie: I think I’ve read a few too many Georgette Heyer novels, books in which the narrator includes such honorific titles when she introduces her characters. Heyer’s narrators feel more distant, more like a separate person commenting on the action, whereas in my ms., the narration is focalized through my heroine’s point of view. So yes, it would be more historically accurate to cut “the Honorable” (or would that be “Honourable”??), and I will do so.
One hundred and forty-seven. One hundred and forty-seven! Yes, Mrs. Allyne, her mother’s kind but loquacious aunt, had uttered the phrase “Once you are married…” one hundred and forty-seven times during their journey from Lincolnshire to London.
Mia: Lovely. You made me smile while I felt Sibilla’s frustration mounting. You’ve set us up for a witty comedy of manners.
Jackie: Thank you!
Mrs. Allyne typically attached the phrase “you’ll feel differently” to her words about matrimony, as if once Sibilla had exchanged spinsterhood for the married state she would suddenly sprout a halo and wings (or perhaps an entirely new temperament?) and meekly embrace the platitudes that slipped with such ease from her aunt’s lips. Could Theo truly believe this tediously talkative woman would be a suitable chaperone for his sister’s second attempt to debut in London society?
Mia: If I have to take a breath while reading a sentence aloud, I think about whether it can be divided. I’d cut (or perhaps an entirely new temperament) from this very long sentence. Or you might use it to create two sentences, like this:
Mrs. Allyne typically attached the phrase “you’ll feel differently” to her words about matrimony, as if once Sibilla had exchanged spinsterhood for the married state she would suddenly sprout a halo and wings. It would take an entirely new temperament for her to meekly embrace the platitudes that slipped with such ease from her aunt’s lips.
Jackie: Yes, one of my weaknesses as a writer is crafting overly long sentences. Thanks for the tip about reading a long sentence aloud to test to see if it needs dividing. I think I will address the problem by cutting the parenthetical aside.
Mia: Also, there’s a slight ambiguity in POV in the last sentence of the paragraph. Since we’re in Sibilla’s head how about:
Could her brother Theo truly believe this tediously talkative woman would be a suitable chaperone for her second attempt to debut in London society?
Jackie: At first, I didn’t see the pov ambiguity, but after rereading the sentence a few times, I think I do. Did it make you think for a moment that you were in Theo’s mind? Your suggested change eliminates any possible ambiguity quite well.
Sibilla fought down her temper, willing herself to reply in a civil tone. “Surely, Aunt, many people, married or no, prefer London to the country. Do not you yourself make the city your home?”
During the few short days it had taken to travel from Lincolnshire to the metropolis, Sibilla had quickly come to understand the futility of attempting to move her aunt an inch away from any of her closely-held opinions. Reasoning or cajoling, argument or ill-humor—nothing Sibilla tried had pried her aunt away from even one of the comforting commonplaces by which she guided her life. Even a barnacle could cling no tighter to a ship than could Mrs. Allyne to her inanities. And so her aunt’s answer could hardly surprise, even though it surely might exasperate.
Mia: Love the “Even a barnacle” sentence. However, it loses its punch because of the sentence that follows it. You’ve fallen into the trap of telling, then showing. You tell us what she’ll say and then she says it. Cut And so her aunt’s… and you’ll have your readers smiling with you.
Jackie: Yes, good suggestion.
“Oh no, Sibilla, no! Think you I chose Bloomsbury of my own?” her aunt replied, choosing to focus on the objection she might refute rather than the one she could not deny. “After the pleasures of Shropshire? But alas, the Lord did not see fit to grant us a son, one who might inherit dear Mr. Allyne’s estate…”
Mia: There’s a little echo here in chose and choosing. I’d change one or the other.
Jackie: Yes, getting rid of choosing and making “focus” into the verb would both eliminate the repetition and tighten the sentence: her aunt replied, focusing on the objection she might refute rather than the one she could not deny.
Sibilla had no wish to hear more about “dear Mr. Allyne,” his name having rivaled only “when you are married” for the frequency of its occurrence in her aunt’s conversation. “Ah, if only Mr. Allyne had seen fit to settle a proper jointure on you, aunt! The pleasures of Shropshire might not now be beyond your grasp,” she replied, forcing a solicitousness into her tone that did little to mask the impertinence of her words.
Mia: Period instead of comma after “dear Mr. Allyne.” Then you can drop having in the next sentence. Helping verbs lend themselves to weak construction. Try:
His name rivaled “when you are married” for frequency of occurrence in her aunt’s conversation.
Jackie: Yes, I take your point about the weak verb construction. You also took out “only” and “for the frequency of its occurrence.” I added them back in, for they sound more period to my ear: Sibilla had no wish to hear more about “dear Mr. Allyne.” His name rivaled only “when you are married” for the frequency of its occurrence in her aunt’s conversation.
Mia: Only is one of those pesky little filler words I end up cutting in my own work. Along with just, simply, that, very…and a host of others. They take up space and don’t always contribute to the meaning.
But even marked ill-breeding, it would seem, could not ruffle the placid Mrs. Allyne. “Ah, how you show that you have never been married, my dear! Wives must, of course, regard their husband’s decisions with respect, for it is a husband’s duty to protect his family. Men are far wiser than the merest woman. Adam did come before Eve, after all…”
Mia: Here again you’ve told us Mrs. Allyne’s reaction before we see it. I’d cut the But even marked… sentence. It reads cleaner without it.
Jackie: Would moving it to the end of the paragraph help? Or would you want it gone altogether?
Mia: Maybe using it in place of a dialogue tag after the “Ah, how you show…” sentence would be better. I’m very curious about why Sibilla rejects commonly accepted wisdom for her time. In 1822, the Regency was over. Conformity was the era’s little black dress. One of the finest compliments one might give a debutante was to call her a “pattern” sort of girl, meaning that she adhered to standard conventions religiously. If a character struggles against societal norms, there has to be a compelling reason. I’d really love to see a hint of it in these first 500 words. It would give me a reason to cheer for her and identify with her.
Jackie: You definitely hear more about Sibilla’s somewhat unconventional upbringing later in the novel, and I don’t want to give too much away too soon; I want readers to have questions, questions that make them want to read more. But a little hint about her background here might be needed to help the reader feel for her.
I chose the 1820s for the setting of my novel not only because of the political reforms that were being hotly contested at the time (Catholic emancipation, the first reform bill expanding the franchise), but also because it seemed an interesting period gender-wise — post-Regency, but before the consolidation of Victorian domestic ideology in the 1830s, a period when multiple visions of femininity were in play. When you write “Conformity was the era’s little black dress,” are you thinking of the Victorian era in general? Or does your comment about being a “pattern” sort of girl refer specifically to the 1820s?
Mia: I was thinking Victorian in general and you’re right in saying the 1820’s were a transitional time. However, your Mrs. Allyne is the spokesperson for the prevalent views and I think she’d be happier if Sibilla was a “pattern” sort. But we’re very happy that she is not!
This is a strong start, Jackie. I’d definitely read on. Where have you submitted this?
Jackie: Thanks! I just finished the book’s final chapter late last month, and as this is my first novel, I am currently in search of an agent. Got my first rejection last week — does Red Pen Thursday do query letters??
Mia: That is an honor I dream not of. Maybe I can talk to one of my editors or my agent about what they like to see in a query letter and do a post on that sometime.
Jackie: Thanks, Mia, for your comments. As a former editor myself, I know both how difficult, and how rewarding, it is to give constructive feedback to other writers. I appreciate your insights and suggestions!
Jackie’s Bio: A former children’s book editor, Jackie C. Horne has taught graduate and undergraduate classes as an assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College. She has written and co-edited three academic books and many scholarly articles, but this is her first foray into fiction writing.
Ok, now it’s your turn! What would you suggest for Jackie’s work?