Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil Thursday

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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.

TWITTER: @serenabellbooks


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?

22 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Lynn R. says:

    Hurray! Someone else who likes the personification of the sweat!! I really, really liked those two sentences. They were what hooked me in, too. I’m not totally sure why, but most likely they appealed to my sense of the absurd. Besides, I must admit, I’ve done that same exact thing myself!

    And as for having Ethan mussed when he comes to the door, since you plan on moving the cooking up to reflect that, I have only two words for you: Pasta Sauce. Yep, a red pasta sauce. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has gotten splattered when removing the lid from the pot, and the sauce burps and you’ve got red spots all over that brand new cream-coloured silk blouse?

    The main thing in the description, when you get to his clothes, he’s got to be wearing a light-coloured shirt, otherwise the pasta sauce is useless.

    Good luck with it all!



  2. Maurine H says:

    The title immediately hooked me and made me want to see why he/she might belong to someone illegally. I may be alone in this, but I liked the begging the sweat not to soak through her shirt. It made her different, a bit quirky. The problem with that is if she isn’t a quirky character, this will feel out of character and make the reader feel the author misrepresented the heroine. My favorite line of the whole passage was “The drop of sweat mobilized several of its friends and they pooled at her waist.” This one sentence tells me a lot about the heroine and what type of story this will be. Like I said before, if she’s not quirky and this isn’t a humorous story, then it would probably be better to change it. No matter which way you go with it, you’ll have readers who will enjoy the story.
    I too struggle with how much information the reader needs in order to sympathize with my characters and how much is too much. I do think we need to know more, but when you explained her background, I became more confused. That is, how could she have gone through school from kindergarten and her illegal status not known? In order to start kindergarten, you need a birth certificate and social security number–even twenty years ago. I suppose she could have been home schooled and gotten by that way, but SSNs are needed for almost any business transaction today–signing a lease on a house or apartment, getting utilities, etc. Everything. I’m concerned with how that will be handled. If she only arrived recently, I could see these being avoided by her staying with friends or legal family members. Of course, I’m clueless as to how illegal aliens manage to stay undetected, so maybe this is another thing you would have to explain for the reader.
    One way you could make your alpha-appearing doctor more beta–put an apron on him. An alpha man wouldn’t wear one, but a beta would. It could be a plain one like those men don when barbequing.
    All in all, I think you have an intriguing story and I would read on to see what happens with the two. Good luck with it.

  3. Serena Bell says:

    Thanks so much, Ashlyn! This made me happy. I was kinda hoping for that reaction with the “She hated getting paid” line. I may still have to mess around a bit to deliver on it quickly enough, but I won’t throw it away without giving it some more thought.

    I’d read a LOT of historicals and hadn’t really found my favorite contemporary authors yet at the point at which I wrote this opening–hence the sort of Scottish warrior description Ethan has going on. :-) The whole description is getting tossed out, and I think I now have a much better sense of where to go next with it.

    I’ve had a great time here on RPT! Thanks so much Mia and everyone who chimed in!

  4. Ashlyn Chase says:

    HI Serena,

    First of all, don’t feel bad if your descriptions are not as poetic as Mia’s. She’s a seasoned veteran and there is a difference between contemporary and historical inner dialog.

    Next-Don’t you dare change this line! “There was, in reality, only one thing she hated about the first day of a new job.

    She hated getting paid.”

    It’s what hooked me. I often give the reader a quick “huh?” moment, as long as it’s easy to figure out. They like putting two and two together…as long as they come up with four! And between your title and the blurb in which I’m sure you included her alien status, it’s an easy leap.

    Now, the only thing Mia didn’t catch that might be a problem (it was for me) is calling his hair a mane. It doesn’t sound like a contemporary term to me, and it suggests wild lion-like length and fullness.

    I like the opening though. I’d continue reading.

  5. Serena Bell says:

    Thanks, Marcy! Unfortunately, the alternate beginning isn’t on paper, otherwise I’d post it right this second and let you all take a shot at it. (Although I did toy with two other beginnings that I ultimately didn’t use–one drops you into the story at the exact moment Ethan is preparing to pay her for tutoring, but that was technically challenging because that was also the moment they first saw each other, and that was a LOT to manage; the other involved Ana running into a medical emergency that took her to the ER with a child and introduced her to Ethan first in his doctor role rather than his dad role). My sense is that if I took a different approach entirely, I’d probably start you off with Ana dealing with one of the many ways that her life is complicated by her status. That would let me give you some backstory on the immigration right off the bat. And then I’d have a symmetrical scene with Ethan dealing with his issues with his son. And then I’d have a meet scene. Which of course is fraught in its own way, because delaying the meet scene for 10 or 15 pages seems to be a pretty unpopular choice in publishing at the moment!

  6. Marcy W says:

    Whenever the comments on RPT are long and detailed, I know the story is touching hearts and minds … love it! Mia’s suggestions are spot on, IMO (as usual), and several of the commenters have great ones, too. You mention having another beginning in mind … I’d kinda like to see that, too?! Perhaps doing another in a different way would give us more info … and turn into a third way that would incorporate the good things about both?? Might be worth a try. The first few pages are SO important, I often think writers must put 90% of time and effort into the first three chapters, and the rest takes only 10%. — I like the timeliness of this story, and can see that I’m going to like Ana, but our hero isn’t coming across well — Jennifer J’s idea of having him answer the door a little mussed is a great visual, and appeals a lot.
    Good luck with this, Serena, I think you’ve got a good thing going, and am eager to read more. Thanks for sharing :-)

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Yes, we do agonize over the first three chapters and in my case, they’re never quite done till my time is up and I have to send in the story. When I read, I want to be hooked by the first three chapters. Then I can settle into the story confident in the knowledge that I’m in the hands of an author who knows her craft.

      1. Serena Bell says:

        The book I’m writing now (my third) is the first book where I think I’m giving the beginning its due. At first I felt like I was wasting time and stalled out because I kept going over and over and over the meet scene and that had never happened to me. I’d never gotten stuck like that. But then I realized I was probably just finally paying enough attention to something I should have been slaving over all along. Now I think I can go back and give the first three chapts of the first two books what they deserve.

  7. Serena Bell says:

    Ooh, mussed. We love mussed. He does end up cooking in the scene that immediately follows. Maybe I’ll just have him start sooner.

  8. How about he comes to the door a little “harried” — like with flour on his hands/shirt or soap-sudsy hands….. something to intro the Hero would make him seem more Beta to me. Of course you can still make him broad shouldered etc etc, but no laughing silently at her as Mia said. I just think meeting the hero a little mussed makes him more approachable and in my mind, less Alpha. Great job!! :)

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Great idea, Jennifer. Why should the heroine have all the angst?

  9. Serena Bell says:

    Thanks for the suggestions, Barbara. I think (as ever) I’m still learning how to get everything that’s in my head onto the page. I’m going to work on showing both Ana’s inherent confidence AND her always-there fear that she’ll be found out … and I’m going to try to do a better job of bringing to the surface that Ethan is sympathetic, professional, and invested in Theo’s success. I think all that stuff comes out over the first several chapters, but the reader needs to know it all much sooner!

  10. Serena Bell says:

    Thanks, Karri! I’m going to think about how I can get the information about how Ana came to break the law into the book earlier …

  11. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Serena,

    I liked your opening, but I think you can make your characters a bit more likable. Ana may have first greet jitters (we all do with firsts), but if she has been tutoring for awhile, I don’t think she would be so unhinged as you make her out to be. Could we make her jello on the inside but strong latina on the outside? She has been in the US for 20 years now.
    I can see she’d be expecting a woman if her e-mail correspondence was with a woman (you bring that out) but I don’t think the dad being there would be a prolonged shock. I recently drove my son to an ACT tutor and about half the parents that came into the office were men. In the suburbs, two career families have to juggle driving duties.
    Your hero totally lost my sympathy when he laughed at Ana–how rude. The red-gold mane also didn’t seem like it would fit a professional Dr. I would have the dad be concerned about his son’s Spanish issues. I taught Spanish for a semester at my son’s school when the teacher had to leave mid-year. I am in the suburbs and I can tell you kids struggled in Spanish who switched schools and never had Spanish before (verb conjugations are tough) and there was a prevalent “Why do I have to learn Spanish, why can’t they learn English” sentiment that set kids back. Have the dad more involved in his son’s academic life–most parents that hire a tutor want their kids to succeed. The dad’s interest in Spanish success and Ana being the tutor for his son, will build a bond between them. Both have the same goal, verdad?
    I like Mia’s suggestion about sprinkling some Spanish words in Ana’s thoughts so we can get a sense of her ethnicity and struggle.
    I really like your premise and think with a few tweaks, this will rock as an opening.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thoughtful comments, as always, Barb!

  12. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    Wish I had spell check on these posts! Sorry.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Karri, remember that prior to Mr. Webster, an intelligent person could think of two or three good ways to spell anything and was expected to do so.

  13. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    I like the premise of this story as you explained it. I think the information about what she is an illegal needs to be in the story soon so that we can sympahtize with her quickly. I like the idea of your hero (again as it was explained) and agree that the first description should show that more. I like the tone of your writing and look forward to reading the rest of the story.

  14. Serena Bell says:

    Thanks, Nan! Glad the nervous tutor inside-her-head worked for you. I like “prayed”–it gets out of personifying the sweat (and maybe tells us a little something about her relationship with the universe :-)). And those are helpful suggestions on the description. I was doing some writing yesterday after I read Mia’s advice on description and I found it really helped me think outside the “physique” box.

  15. Nancy says:

    First of all, I’m probably one of the few who likes being in the heroine’s head here getting that first bit of information. She is so full of self doubt at the beginning, that strive to be perfect in appearance and the idea that the father appears rather than the mother would certainly throw me off kilter as a former teacher and now a tutor. Good job.
    While we don’t beg body functions to work or not.. we do think about it.. so lets see here. What about prayed. I get the feeling its like a student on her first day of school.. so A trickle of sweat ran down Ana’s side, and she prayed it wouldn’t 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. She wondered if her student felt as nervous as she did. First day jitters she reminded herself.

    I really chuckled when she opened the door and saw him. I agree too when it comes to his description. Let us see the hesitation in his eyes when he sees her. Maybe he is impeccably dressed. His crisp white shirt doesn’t cling to his body trapped by the perspiration underneath. But the look in his eyes signaled almost relief that she had come. As my critique partners tell me… Remember the eyes are the windows to your soul Use them to reflect, to see beyond, and to describe.

    Can’t wait to see how this ends. Good job.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks for your insightful comments, Nan.

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