Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil Thursday

Click image for details on how YOU can be a Red Pencil Thursday Volunteer!

Writing in a corner is one thing. Putting your work out there for God and everybody to read is gut-check time. I’m always thankful for the courage of my weekly volunteers for our online critique group. Today we have another member of CTRWA in the hotseat. Meet Mariette Miko and her contemporary/fantasy.

My suggestions are in red. Mariette adds a bit in blue later on. I hope you’ll share your insights with us in the comment section! And if you’re a writer, consider being one of our volunteers!

A SMALL TOWN NAMED CHESTER

Mia: Is the town the most important thing about this story? This title could be a travelogue, not a work of fiction. Granted, there have been place names used as titles. I’m thinking of Michener’s monumental works: Hawaii, Chesapeake, Alaska, Texas…you get the idea. However, in his books, the setting was the unifying theme. Is that the case in your story?

A Mecca for artists and lovers of art, Chester , Connecticut was aglow with sparkle, color, and light. A magical little town in Eastern Connecticut with the River Pattaconk running along its Main Street studded with lovely boutiques of various and sundry offerings tempting passers-by. It was glistening, bedecked for the holidays, even the lamps wore festive garlands of pine, holly and winterberry.

Mia: Again, this sounds like a magazine article opener. Starting with setting is sort of like starting with the weather. It’s only ok if your protagonist is a meteorologist. Remember the best hook a writer can set is an emotional one. While your writing is vivid, it doesn’t evoke a response. We need a person, someone through whose eyes we can see this town.

Jeff Johnson drove slowly down Straits Street , entering Town Center . Ironically enough, it was a curvy little street, winding past splendid Colonial homes with cheerful winter evergreens dressing their doors and window boxes. They stood like age-old sentinels guarding the road into town.

Mia: The prose is all lovely, but how does what he sees make Jeff feel? Is he returning home and not welcome? Does he recognize the houses? Know who lives there? Give us some emotional content to pull us in.

And in each mullioned window, the quintessential New England holiday sign: a single candle burning, unifying all.

At the intersection Jeff hesitated: should he visit the cemetery first, to the left, or should he join the wassail revelers, to the right.

Mia: The wassail revelers were a surprise since Jeff is the only person you’ve mentioned up to this point. Let him see them first, then wonder which way to go.

A history and genealogy buff, Jeff had come to explore Fare Thee Well Cemetery, but found himself entering a winter wonderland of holiday celebrations and hijincks.

Mia: Hijinks is spelled without the c.

The Annual Holiday Night Festival was in full swing in the town of Chester . The local paper, The Valley Courier, promised a multitude of delights: Boy Scouts were lining the streets with luminaries; Saint Lucia Girls strolled around offering fresh-baked cookies, Chester Rotarians had helped the children hang their handmade decorations on the town Christmas tree, Garden Club members had festooned with garlands lampposts, windows, doors and window boxes.

Mia: If we’re in Jeff’s POV, you can only share what he knows. He seems surprised by the festival so you can’t mention what the local paper promised if he hasn’t read the article. By pulling back into omniscient POV, you’re removing us farther from the hero you hope we’ll identify with. An engaging character keeps readers reading. Let us get to know Jeff. You can describe what’s going on around him, but make sure the narrative takes his tone, reflects his personality. The style you’ve established is only appropriate if he’s a travel journalist.

It would give him a chance to study faces, lots of faces, a boon to his career as an actor. You never knew when a smile, a grimace he’d observed years ago would suddenly come to him in the middle of a dialogue and fit right in.

Mia: Yes! Now we have some context, some way to make sense of the world around our protagonist! Move this sort of revelation much closer to the beginning. Change You to He to start the 2nd sentence.

So, it was settled. I’ll walk around first, Jeff decided, then realized with a small jolt that he’d lost control of the wheel momentarily and the car was turning left, after all, heading toward the town’s historic graveyard.

Mia: Underline I’ll walk around first since this is Jeff’s direct thought. It signals to a copy editor that the text should be italicized in the final print.

Just as well! Jeff Johnson was usually more interested in cemeteries than in public gatherings of any sorts. Headstones darkened with age would regale him with the past, gradually opening up their secret musty little drawers, revealing, always, unexpected thrills.

Mia: Now wait a minute. If you lost control of your wheel and were forced to go another direction, would you think Just as well? I’d be panicking big time. Make sure Jeff has reasonable responses to what happens to him. With the proper motivation, any action can be made to seem reasonable, but we need to know why he’s so nonchalant about his car taking charge suddenly.

Also, bear in mind that we like protagonists who are active, who make their own choices for good or ill, rather than being swept along by outside forces. If this sort of thing happens to him often, we need to see his acknowledgement of it. His acceptance of allowing himself to be led by a mysterious force could be part of his character. In that case, it would be his decision to follow where he’s led.

Even on a magical night like this–bundled-up people strolling, gingerbread cookies offered by earth-angels, and an eager crowd gathering for the grand finale: a sing-along around the town’s majestic Christmas tree for the tree lighting ceremony.

Mia: You’ve backed us up here. He’s already left the lively square. Don’t take us backward unless he’s wrestling the steering wheel to get there. Besides, you haven’t shown that he has reason to know the details of what’s coming at the festival.

Instead of being part of it all, here he was, alone, among ancient tombstones, watching spellbound a misty form rising, the prettiest pale blue mist, and in the center of it a face unfolding into view: eyes dark and haunting, with a look caught between sadness and joy. Is it joy into sadness or the other way around, he’d pondered silently. The gaze totally arrested him, even his heart skipped a couple of beats before it resumed its rhythmic pounding. Especially since the mirage began to glide closer and closer.

Mia: Now we’ve hit the meat of the action. Jeff meets a ghost. This is where your story really begins. Or possibly at the point where he loses control of his steering wheel. There was a time when authors could luxuriate in pages and pages of  “Ordinary World.” Now readers want to jump into a story in medias res (in the middle of things). Push your opening as close to the “Inciting Incident” (the real kick off of the adventure and ushering your protagonist into the special world of the story) as possible.

Framing the face a loose Victorian hood, velvet trimmed it seemed, gathering at the neck in a satin bow, and from under the hood tendrils dark and curly, falling onto the pale, pale face.

Mia: I’m not a really astute grammarian, but this doesn’t seem like a proper sentence to me. More like a collection of clauses. I think the culprit is all the –ing verbs. How about this:

Framing the face a loose Victorian hood, velvet trimmed, gathered at the neck in a satin bow, and from under the hood, tendrils dark and curly, fell onto the pale face.

Angela James, editor for Carina Press, says “Not every noun deserves an adjective.” No noun deserves the same adjective twice. Repeating pale doesn’t make it more effective.

The apparition was not ascending from one of the graves, Jeff noted with interest, but from the space between two tall snow-capped spruce trees in the distance. The face slowly emerged, turned its gaze on him and cast its spell.

Mia: With interest? Does he habitually see spirits that he can be so blasé about it? If so, that’s fine, but we need to know so we understand why he’s so calm about something that would cause a laundry emergency for most folks.

You’ve raised a lot of questions, which is a good thing, but what we really need in this opening is a deeper sense of who Jeff is and why he’s headed to a graveyard. Character is the key. Make us buy into Jeff’s goals and we’ll follow him anywhere. Description of setting is one of your strengths, but take care it doesn’t overpower character development. Bear in mind that my comments are a smorgasbord. Take what you like and leave the rest. Happy writing!

Mariette: Thank you so much! Smorgasbord or not, I’ve taken all your comments and suggestions to heart simply because: you’re right! Again, thank you for your time and expertise. I believe a re-write is due for my hero.

Mariette’s Bio: I worked in publishing in New York City for several years, received a Masters degree at New York University, which was followed by thirty years as a psychotherapist. I wrote a bi-monthly column, called The Little Things, for Shore Publishing Community Newspapers in Guilford, Connecticut, for two years, and self-published a memoir, GATHERING ROSES, THORNS AND ALL. Writer’s Digest’s comments regarding my memoir: “This is fine, fine writing. It is tone-perfect and a joy to read.

Mia: And now it’s your turn! What suggestions and encouragement do you have for Mariette?

Sunday afternoon update: I don’t normally do this, but Mariette asked if I’d post her revised version of this opener taking my comments into consideration. Here goes:

A SPELL IS CAST IN CHESTER, CT

Jeff Johnson was torn. He had two lively obsessions: acting and genealogy, and at the moment he was faced with two splendid opportunities to pursue both, and only one night in which to do it. Lucky for him, it was always about the story, so often his twopassions intertwined.

His stint as a prize-winning singing cowboy at the Norma Terris Theater in Chester had ended. Tomorrow morning he would surrender his rental car and take Shoreline East bound for New Haven, there to be exchanged for Amtrak, taking him all the way to New York City, where his next role was awaiting.

Just in time! He had had enough of singing about prairies and rodeos and wayward sweethearts and was ready for some hearty ragtime, his favorite music, at least while he was down-timing between the two roles.

Rehearsal was starting in a week, so not much time for his own kind of entertainment, but then such was an equity actor’s life: you went where the role took you.

One way or another, he was going to enjoy his last night in this lovely New England town. The local paper he’d read with his breakfast muffin, the Valley Courier, promised a multitude of delights: Boy Scouts were to line the streets with luminaries for the night’s festivities. Saint Lucia Girls were to stroll around offering fresh-baked cookies, For several days now, driving through the center of town occasionally, Jeff had noticed Chester Rotarians  helping children hang their handmade decorations on the town Christmas tree, and saw that Garden Club members had festooned with garlands of pine, holly and winterberry old-fashioned lampposts lining the sidewalks along Main Street.

Hours later, the Annual Holiday Night Festival was in full swing as Jeff drove slowly down Straits Street, entering Town Center. Ironically enough, it was a curvy little street, winding past splendid Colonial homes with cheerful winter evergreens dressing their doors and window boxes. They stood like age-old sentinels guarding the road into town.

And in each mullioned window, the quintessential New England holiday sign: a single candle burning, unifying all. His own little cottage in Virginia was always lit up for the holidays, and Jeff felt pangs of longing for it now.

At the intersection Jeff found himself entering a winter wonderland of holiday hijinks, deciding at last minute to join the strolling wassail revelers to the right, instead of toward the left, to explore Fare Thee Well Cemetery’s ancient tombstones to his heart’s content.

Being in a lively crowd would give him a chance to study faces, lots of faces, a boon to his career as an actor. He never knew when a smile, a grimace he’d observed years ago would suddenly come to him in the middle of a dialogue and fit right in.

Catering to his sweet tooth, those promised gingerbread cookies sounded tempting as well.

So, it was settled. I’ll walk around first, Jeff decided, then realized with a small jolt that he’d lost control of the wheel momentarily and the car was turning left, after all, a mysterious force in charge, heading toward the town’s historic graveyard. Clearly, one of the Invisible Ones was at work, and based on prior involvements he trusted them, changing direction. Spirits could switch tracks on him, open a new path serendipitously, and he’d have to change plans. He was never sorry he did so without questioning. They seemed to know him better than he knew himself, yet without fail got to know himself better by allowing them to take the lead from time to time. Just short of reckless he’d been known to have an impulsive streak in his bones, so changing his mind last minute was no problem. It made him totally unpredictable to others, and fine-tuned his charisma.

“Grand-pappy, was that you?”  he called out and chuckled, not expecting an answer. Jeff had lived with the refusing-to-depart wayward spirit of his great-great-grandfather in their pre-Civil War cottage in a small town near Richmond, Virginia, and was no longer surprised by any sudden changes in his daily routine.

Just as well! Jeff Johnson was usually more interested in cemeteries than in public gatherings of any sorts. Headstones darkened with age would regale him with the past, gradually opening up their secret musty little drawers, revealing, always, unexpected thrills.

Like at this very moment! Alone among ancient tombstones, he watched, spellbound, a misty form rising, the prettiest pale blue mist, and in the center of it a face unfolding into view: eyes dark and haunting, with a look caught between sadness and joy. “Is it joy into sadness or the other way around, “ he’d pondered silently. The gaze totally arrested him, and his heart skipped a couple of beats before it resumed its rhythmic pounding. Especially since the mirage began to glide closer and closer.

Framing the face a loose Victorian hood, velvet trimmed, gathered at the neck in a satin bow, and from under the hood, tendrils dark and curly, falling onto the pale face.

The apparition was not ascending from one of the graves, Jeff noted, intrigued, but from the space between two tall snow-capped spruce trees in the distance. The face slowly emerged, turned its gaze on him and cast its spell.

10 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Gerri Brousseau says:

    Hi Mariette,
    I agree with Mia. I think starting us with the car sliding toward the vision in the grave yard smacks up side the head and gets us right into the thick of things. Although your descriptions are very lovely, I think getting to the action quick is key. You can give us a glimps of the quaint town later, perhaps. I would really like to see the rewrite and hope Mia will run it. Thanks for having the guts to do this.

    1. Gerri, thanks for your comment. I’m not quite ready to begin with Jeff sliding toward a graveyard vision, but the rewrite does begin with his dilemma, as to which way to turn. It amazes me to realize how many different ways one can set up a scene, with different emotional impact each time.I SO recommend this experience to you–and to everyone!
      If I may suggest, don’t think of it as having guts or not having guts, but simply: how can I make it better?

  2. This is pressure I love, it’s exciting and challenging!

    By the way, I also trust children’s reactions. My favorite one is from my teen granddaughters: “Awesome, Grammie!” That’s when I know I got it just right.

  3. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Mariette,

    Wow. Your setting takes me back to my home in Connecticut. Your description is a delight, but I agree with Mia, there is too much of it. I like to hit the setting right away in my books, but I use one or two sentences and away we go (I write YA).

    I would like to see Jeff Johnson brought up sooner as he is your hero. Even starting, Jeff Johnson drove slowly…. (and I think he would have to with traffic).

    I’m assuming the ghost/spirit is going to play a big role in your book, so I would amp up the scene where Jeff meets her. Shorten your sentences, zing up the verbs, and throttle this guy, so it draws us into the story. Maybe he can use his acting skills to put on a brave front.

    You have an interesting story. Start at the action and we won’t want to put it down! And okay, now I’m in the mood to go Christmas shopping.
    Nice work!

    1. Barbara, thank you for your suggestions. Your thoughts are a mini-workshop for me, I’m learning so much. It’s incredible to realize how many different ways one can approach telling a tale. I’m new at this experience, so I hope Mia will print the revised version I sent her this morning. I’m rather pleased with it, but I just may end up trying several other ways of rewriting it. What the heck, right? It’s all good practice, and good fun.

      Re Christmas shopping, I advocate my own little home town, Guilford. It’s on the shoreline, and we have fabulous boutiques, my favorite one being Ella where She Shops, right on the Green. It’s an enchanting town, and a new movie was filmed here a week ago, Great Hope Springs, with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones–so exciting!

      1. Barbara Britton says:

        Mariette,

        Openings are one of the hardest things to do in writing. There is a lot of pressure to “get it right” and only in a few paragraphs. I satrted the opening to my fourth book and showed it to my sons. They were like, “We don’t get it”, so back to the drawing board (and I used more setting).

  4. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    The whole time I’m typing I’m thinking cemetery is spelled wrong, but do I stop and check–no. Sorry!

    1. Karri Lyn, that’s one of the words I always check, since I’m never sure about it!

  5. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    Your descriptions are lovely and really evoke a sense of place, but I agree that starting the story in the cemetary would draw us into the interesting parts quicker. If Jeff stays in this town long (and I assume he will since “Chester” is in the title), I imagine you will have a chance to use some of the descriptions from the beginning of your excerpt later. I’m intrigued as to why he is so nonchalant about a possessed car and a ghost. By starting the story in the cemetary, the first 500 words will take you farther and hopefully explain his attitude to us. I’d love to know more!

    1. Karri Lyn, thank you for your input I actually rewrote all of it, mostly according to Mia’s suggestions. I hope all is in the right order now, and all is explained. What an amazing experience to make something I thought was quite good, so much better! I learned a lot through this simple little exercise. I may try to rewrite it from the cemetery, but I liked starting it with Jeff’s dilemma. This is actually his last night in the town of Chester. Chester is important because this is where he catches a first glance at his future lady love, who ultimately moves to Jeff’s town in Virginia–of all places! And, she hasn’t even met him yet. It’s all due to the machinations of Invisible Ones. Do I make myself clear as mud?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *