Red Pencil Thursday
Sharpen your red pencils. It’s time for another online critique. My volunteer today is Serena Bell, a pre-published author of contemporary romance. Serena is doing everything right to position herself to be noticed by an editor. She has a well-organized website to feature herself and her manuscripts plus a really inventive Twitter length romance hashtag going called #Snaplove!
But today she gets 500 words instead of 140 characters. My observations are in red. Serena’s are blue and we’re counting on you to add yours in the comment section.
Mia: I like this title. Obviously there is some skullduggery afoot in this story.
SB: Thanks! I’ve mentioned before how much I love brainstorming titles, right?
A trickle of sweat ran down Ana’s side, and she begged it silently not to soak through her shirt. She’d rung the doorbell of the big suburban colonial, and now she waited for her new student’s mother to answer the door.
Mia: She might hope she doesn’t sweat through her shirt, but I don’t think she’d plead with her own perspiration. That stopped me and since it’s your first sentence, it’s something you might want to revisit.
SB: Excellent point. Will do.
Her stomach hurt. There was a dull throb behind her eyes. It was always like this—every time, every new student she tutored. Other people liked getting new jobs. They liked meeting new people and tackling new challenges. Sure, some people were shy, but Ana bet that no one hated the first day of a new job like she did. To be fair, it wasn’t the whole first day she hated. She enjoyed meeting each new student and discovering just what trouble they were having with Spanish, and she relished figuring out how to help them. She loved tutoring. It was just—it was only—
Mia: You’ve done a good job of sliding me into Ana’s shoes. Her discomfort is visceral and I find myself squirming with her.
SB: Thank you!
There was, in reality, only one thing she hated about the first day of a new job.
She hated getting paid.
Mia: Ok, now you’ve lost me. The point of most jobs, unless you’re an independently wealthy volunteer who helps people for the love of it, is to earn enough to provide the necessities of life for yourself and your family. This stirs up some questions and, it may just be me, but I’m not finding a way to identify with Ana. You’ve set this in the suburbs where the people behind the nice colonial door can surely afford to hire her, so why doesn’t she want to get paid?
SB: This was my attempt to introduce her conflict, which is that she’s illegal. But if it raises too many questions too early, I can hold off—or try to make it clearer.
The front door of the house swung open.
“Oh!” Ana said, before she could stop herself.
The man standing there looked startled too. “Something wrong?” he asked. “You’re Ana, right?”
Mia: I always called my children’s teachers by Mr. or Ms. Teacher’s Last Name. If he knows her well enough to use her first name, why is she surprised to see him?
SB: All he knew was that a woman named Ana Travares was coming to tutor his son, because they’ve arranged it by email. But this may be too much for the reader. Your confusion is very helpful in showing me that I’ve left too much mysterious.
Mia: Glad my confusion is helpful. :-)
She nodded dumbly. The drop of sweat mobilized several of its friends and they pooled at her waist. So much for a dry shirt. So much for a decent first impression. And now she was standing here like a total idiot, staring at him.
Mia: Again, I’m not a fan of personifying sweat. Is there another way to say this?
SB: Definitely. And maybe I need another indication of nerves besides sweat here, since I used sweat earlier.
She had not been expecting a him. He was supposed to be her student’s mother.
What had made her think that? Only the fact that it was always the mothers who answered the door, who made the appointments, who paid her—
She was not going to let herself think about getting paid now. She was going to say something intelligent.
Mia: Ok, I’m a little slow today. She’s worried about how she’ll be paid because she’s in the country illegally, isn’t she? If she’s not a native English speaker, you might telegraph this by peppering in a few (very few) Spanish words in her observations.
SB: Yes, that’s why. And I can put a Spanish word or two in to help with that (I do, later in the chapter), or even be slightly clearer earlier about WHY she doesn’t like getting paid.
Mia: That would help since she definitely wants to get paid, but the method is always dicey given her illegal status. You do realize some readers will not be sympathetic to your heroine once they realize her situation. However in fiction, we can justify almost any action with strong enough motivation. I hope you’ve given her very compelling reasons for skirting immigration laws.
He got there first. “I’m not who you thought I’d be,” he observed, his mouth betraying a hint of amusement.
Was it too late to leave? If she turned around now, and ran, would he come after her? Only the knowledge of how much she needed the cash kept her pinned in place. “I was expecting you to be a woman,” she admitted.
“Hmm,” he said. That was it. Just “Hmm.”
Mia: I don’t think it’s necessary to emphasize Hmmm by saying That was it. Just “Hmm.” I’d cut it.
Serena: Will do.
That was when she first looked at him. Really, thoroughly looked. To do it, she had to lift her chin quite a bit. He was easily over six feet, lean, with broad shoulders—definitely male. He had a thick mane of red-gold hair and green eyes. He was—
Mia: IMO, a first description of the hero should be more than a catalogue of physical attributes. I want some details that go to character in his outward appearance. Here’s how I handled it in Touch of a Thief:
Quinn’s even features were classically handsome. His unlined mouth and white teeth made Viola realize suddenly that he was younger than she’d first estimated. She doubted he’d seen thirty-five winters. His fair English skin had been bronzed by fierce Indian summers and lashed by its weeping monsoons. His stint in India had rewarded him with riches, but the subcontinent had demanded its price.
His storm-gray eyes were all the more striking because of his deeply tanned skin. They seemed look right through Viola and see her for the fraud she was—a thief with pretensions of still being a lady.
Readers get a sense of how Quinn looks, but I’ve also invited them to bring their imaginations to the party. What do you want to convey about your hero in this paragraph? What do you want readers to feel about him?
SB: I love your description of Quinn.
Great question about what I want to convey. I’m not sure how much of this I can hope to get across but: That he’s a pediatrician, with some of the authoritative manner you’d expect from a doctor but also a warm, likeable presence. That he’s uneasy in his role as dad. That he’s a little shy and very kind (definitely a beta hero). That he’s very different from the men she typically meets, who are working-class and mostly Dominican.
Mia: I’m not getting any of that yet. Your description of him seems more like the typical alpha, all male all the time. Look for something in his appearance or demeanor that is a demonstration of his kindly beta character.
He was silently laughing at her. Just his eyes. His very beautiful eyes.
Mia: Laughing at her like this, albeit just with his eyes, seems more challenging, more alpha-ish to me. It’s also an example of telling not showing. You tell us his eyes are beautiful. Instead, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you could reveal more about Ana by showing what she finds beautiful about them. Maybe their green color stirs up a little homesickness in her for the lush greenery of her homeland…
SB: Good point. It’s commentary on how non-visual I am that I need to think for a bit about what she DOES see. Probably color (green) and the warmth/kindness aspect. I struggle mightily with physical description.
Mia: What are your heroine’s first impressions? Go for how he makes her feel.
It was not likely that anyone had ever mistaken Dr. Hansen for a woman before.
“It’s always the moms who email me,” she said, a little defensively.
“Makes sense,” he said kindly. Too kindly. It unknotted the pain in her stomach and made her want to cry. Which would be the final straw. She just wanted to get the heck inside, meet her new student, get the job done, get—
She gritted her teeth. Miles to go before she could relax.
Mia: If Ana is a latina, I don’t get that from her speech patterns. We hosted an Ecuadorian exchange student for a year and he was very unhappy that in during that time he didn’t lose his accent. He still made use of Spanish grammar when constructing his English sentences at times and occasionally he’d call something by the wrong name. (Our family still refers to squirrels as “radishes” because he did once! LOL.) We assured Fernando that Americans find English spoken with an accent to be very charming.
Of course, I may have misconstrued everything and Ana is not an illegal with an accent. However, from your excerpt, I can’t be sure either way.
SB: Within a few pages, Ana will explain that she’s been in the U.S. since kindergarten (twenty years ago) and that her English is as good as her Spanish, if not better. She was the youngest of three siblings to come here, and the timing of their arrival made a huge difference in their experiences—the two older siblings still have accents and are way more comfortable speaking Spanish. As a result, she’s caught between two worlds. (We later find out she’s illegal as a result of a mistake made only a year or two after she arrived—but trying to remedy that now would be next to impossible, given the climate around immigration.)
Your point about this passage still holds, though. There’s a lot that’s ambiguous, mysterious, or not well-explained, and it may be tough on a reader (especially an impatient reader, like an agent) to assimilate all that at once. I’ve thought about a completely different opening, one that would make all this much clearer, more quickly, without so much cageyness and mystery. And you’re reinforcing my suspicion that that’s the way to go!
Mia: Just remember my Prime Directive: First, be clear. It’s ok to salt your prose with hooks (tantalizing snippets of info that raise questions and spur a reader forward). In fact, I think it’s required, but readers hate to be confused.
BIO: Serena Bell has been a journalist for fifteen years and is the recipient of an American Society of Business Press Editors award. She spent two years reporting on bilingual education and immigration, the inspiration for her first romance novel, Illegally Yours.
Now it’s YOUR turn to weigh in on Serena’s excerpt. I think it’s worth saving. How do you suggest she go about it?