Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayWelcome 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…

February 1822

“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?

11 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Maurine H says:

    I hope I’m not too late to comment on your first 500 words because I enjoyed reading this short excerpt from your manuscript. For the most part I agree with what has been commented on, with a few qualifiers.

    1. I too loved the “Even a barnacle” sentence and agree with Mia that the following sentence causes it to lose its punch. Also the second sentence in the paragraph says pretty much the same thing as the first and waters down the “Even a barnacle” sentence. You could take what you like best of those two sentences and combine them, then that great sentence would stand out. Example:

    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 from the comforting commonplaces by which she guided her life. Even a barnacle could cling no tighter to a ship.

    I feel the first sentence is still too long, but you could play around with it, cutting words, until it suits you. But you want your “punchline” at the end of the paragraph where it will get the most punch. It also cuts down on the time it takes to read Sibilla’s comment and her aunt’s answer.

    2. I agree with Mia’s removal of “only” in the “His name rivaled” sentence. You do a great job of giving the flavor of the time in the rest of the writing, so when you can eliminate extraneous words, I think it’s a good idea to do so. You have to remember that today’s readers don’t have the luxury of time like readers of Jane Austin’s works or even Georgette Heyer’s books when they first came out. There’s too many other things vying for their attention. I think an editor will probably ask you to remove all those words Mia mentioned, and maybe more.

    3. Your heroine reminds me of Emma from Jane Austin’s book of the same name. She didn’t always act in a perfect manner (or at least, she had imperfect thoughts). Actually, if I had to listen to someone say something 147 times in 2 days, I wouldn’t be inclined to keep polite about it either. I identified more with her making the comment about her uncle’s failure to provide for her aunt than I would have if she had said something sweet. Readers can’t identify with perfect characters very well. A compromise to this situation would be to give her the thought if she doesn’t voice it. Then maybe later when we get to know her better and she is driven to the point of exasperation, she could say it and any reader would probably sympathize. I wasn’t turned off by it because you did say the two women had been cooped up together for two days and her aunt had said “Once you are married” 147 times. We all have our breaking point.

    I enjoyed reading this little snippet and look forward to being able to read the whole thing. Good luck with finding a home for it!

  2. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Jackie,

    Sorry, I’m tuning in late. I missed this post when I checked yesterday.
    I like your story and Sibilla sounds like a fun heroine.
    Just two quick notes. The “barnacle” paragraph between Sibilla’s question to her aunt and her aunt’s response, threw me off track. The beat seemed too long, and I had forgotten the question the aunt was answering. May need to shorten that paragraph or move it, so the dialogue flows.
    Also, Sibilla’s reply to her aunt about her uncle not providing for her seems harsh and reflects badly on your heroine. Could Sibilla be a bit more subtle or offer some sort of condolence?
    I really like your beginning. Great work!

    1. Jackie says:

      Thanks, Barbara, for your suggestions. Sibilla is a bit unlikeable at times, and on purpose — I’m not that likeable at times, either, and I look for a heroine who isn’t always perfect. But I don’t want to alienate readers, either. Walking that line is a difficult balancing act, I’m finding! Thanks for letting me know that you think I slipped too far to one side…

  3. Clair Carter says:

    This is lovely writing. It sets the two characters up beautifully and immediately has the reader rooting for Sibilla. The close confinement of a carriage, the ever-decreasing circles drawn by a gloved hand on the seat: all emphasize how the heroine feels the suffocation of society’s expectations. I would enjoy reading more about this spirited woman and the hero who is worthy of her. Good luck with getting an agent and into publication!

    1. Jackie Horne says:

      Thanks, Clair. I appreciate your encouraging words!

  4. Marcy W says:

    I love your ‘voice’, Jackie, and found myself nodding approvingly when you added back in some words Mia had suggested cutting — they did add to the period feel. I also like the heroine’s name, and the spelling (I’d expect it to be Sybilla). I would like a hint about the reason for her rejection of society’s expectations; even without it, she’s a likeable character. The humor we see already adds a lot to my eagerness to read more of this story.
    I always learn a lot from Mia’s comments, but I think this particular RPT exchange is the best one yet. Both of you ladies are clearly well versed in the history of the period, and with the art of storytelling. Thanks for making me smile, in two different ways!

    1. Jackie Horne says:

      Thanks, Marcy. Sibilla’s name comes from the book/film MY BRILLANT CAREER — have you ever read/watched it? I wanted to name my daughter Sibilla, but everyone in my family hated the name. Now I have the chance to use the name for a different kind of creation, and I’m so pleased…

  5. Barb Bettis says:

    Jackie, I enjoyed your selection very much,and I wish you the best on finding an agent (and editor :). I can’t add a thing to Mia’s comments. In fact, she mentioned a couple of things that, like Karen said, will send me back to my ms to check.

    You mentioned one of my early Regency favorites, Georgette Heyer. Wasn’t she wonderful? She could create some of the best characters.

    Thanks for sharing your story with us.

    1. Jackie Horne says:


      You’re very welcome! Do you have a favorite Heyer? I’m fond of THE GRAND SOPHY and VENETIA…

  6. Karen says:

    Jackie, you don’t know me from Eve, but I’ve judged your story in a contest and then, as now, I really love your writing! I am so glad to see that you are starting the story off in a different place. I’m sure it was a difficult thing to do. And knowing what I know about your hero, I really want to read the rest of this story so I hope one of those agents bites soon:)
    Mia has an eagle eye for those pre-emptive reactions–I should probably check my own work for those. I think you’ve done a great job of showing us the personalities of these characters in such a short time. Good luck with your manuscript!

    1. Jackie Horne says:

      Thanks, Karen! It was difficult, deciding to leave the prologue off and start my story at a different point. But now I have a “deleted scene” that I can put on my web site…

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