Red Pencil Thursday


Check out my artistic hero in STROKE OF GENIUS

I’m a sucker for an artistic hero. There’s just something about the creative spark that makes a man doubly appealing, IMO. I feel so strongly about it, I thought I’d forego our usual RPT image to share my inspiration for Crispin Hawke (hero of Stroke of Genius, one of my vintage Emily Bryan reads)  Whenever we travel, I haunt the art museums and if I can visit an artist’s home (like the Rembrandt house in Amsterdam) I’m completely entranced!

So I was tickled to discover that our Red Pencil Thursday volunteer, Gail Ingis, has created an artistic hero! As always with my critiques, my comments are just one person’s opinion. However, the advantage in volunteering for RPT is that Gail will receive YOUR insights as well when you leave a comment for her.

Thanks for joining our cyber-critique circle of writing friends!


May 1863

He could feel the rush of blood swell his fingers. Albert Bierstadt’s stomach burned with queasiness, his heart pounding in his ears. In spite of being at his work, the work he craved, he could not get the imminent, important trip off his mind. The mid-afternoon sun beat down on his back. The heat melted through his clothes like a liquefied butter spread. He grabbed the lapels of his black morning coat, pulled the coat off and plunked it to the ground.

Mia: Albert’s definitely excited. Good use of visceral sensations to show it. However, any time you use feel or felt, you run the risk of telling, not showing. It removes us from the action by a degree and we want to get up close and personal with your character. How about this for the first sentence:
The rush of blood swelled his fingers.

It seems more immediate and demonstrates that less really is more. You might also want to trim the 3rd sentence like this:
In spite of being at the work he craved, he could not get the imminent trip off his mind.
You don’t have to tell us the trip is important. The fact that he can’t stop thinking about it shows us it is. Did they have butter spread in 1863? While you’ve used it to give us a vivid description, it seems like a modern product to me.

Gail’s rewrite: The rush of blood swelled his fingers. Albert Bierstadt’s stomach burned with queasiness, his heart pounding in his ears. In spite of being at the work he craved, he could not get the imminent trip off his mind. The mid-afternoon sun beat down on his back. The heat melted through his clothes like liquefied butter. He grabbed the lapels of his black morning coat, pulled the coat off and plunked it to the ground.

Albert perched over his easel, brush in hand. He poised at arm’s length, squinted his dark eyes and viewed his work with great vigilance. The rampant craving for his art, his work and his life’s ambition, ranked first. Sweat dripped down his paint-smudged face, he made no attempt to brush it away.

Mia:I know it’s tempting to try to squeeze in a description of your hero, but if we’re in his POV, he wouldn’t think of his own eyes as dark (unless he’s doing a self-portrait!). Also, you can show or you can tell, but readers don’t like it when you do both. Sentence 4 is telling. The last sentence shows the depth of his commitment to his work. I’d cut one or the other.

Gail’s rewrite: Albert perched over his easel, brush in hand. He poised at arm’s length, squinted his eyes and viewed his work with great vigilance. Sweat dripped down his face, he made no attempt to brush it away.

His attention focused on the landscape before him and his work in progress. Mountains, blanketed with spring’s early greens and soft earthy browns, climbed high into the sky. Below, the fresh spring cut its way through the valley lush with flowers in colors of pink, yellow and purple. He paused for a moment to look and listen to the sounds of nature, of bird songs, bees and butterflies, and bald eagles souring overhead.

Mia: While this is a vivid description, it slows the pacing to a crawl. Readers will be moved by Albert’s emotional commitment to his work, which you’ve already established. I’d find this more compelling if he was having trouble with the piece.

He smeared his brush through the slick oil colors on his palette. Albert attempted to capture the essence of the Catskill Mountains. He took a step back to study his canvas. His eyes wavered back and forth between the scenery and his work. He had been painting for the better part of the afternoon and was delighted with the outcome. He knew the landscape was more mesmerizing than his work, but he thought he had done it justness.

Mia: Personal pet peeve: wandering body parts. His gaze wavered, not his eyes. Also you’ve set him up as passionate about his work. I doubt he’d be satisfied with the thought that his work wasn’t as mesmerizing as the original.

Gail’s rewrite: He smeared his brush through the slick oil colors on his palette. Albert attempted to capture the essence of the Catskill Mountains. He took a step back to study his canvas. Damn, I think I need to rework the whole mountain. He mixed the turpentine into his sienna, and jumped back as it splashed onto his clothes and shoes. He pushed the biggest brush he owned onto the canvas and moved it up and down vigorously. Gone, what he worked on for the last few hours, gone. He blew out the air stuck in his throat and dropped his arms to his side.

Although it was early May and the sun was strong, the mountain air was cool. A slight breeze blew off the surrounding lakes and river. In the distance, Albert could hear the rushing waters. He was aware the long winter and heavy spring rains caused the water to be higher than normal. In his mind the brookside added more beauty to the painting. The water view, probably once demure and inconspicuous, was central in his work.

Mia: Because you haven’t given Albert anyone to talk to, you’re spending too much time on setting and on the painting. Characters are what pull readers in. We want to know their hopes, their fears, their secrets. Consider adding another person to this scene. Dialogue moves a story along and is a great way for us to get to know your characters.

Gail’s rewrite: Louis Mignot his good friend and colleague watched Albert destroy a great start to a great painting.

“My friend, what happened?” Louis said.

Albert, sucking in his breath blurted out, “I messed up. Did you see the distortion?”
Louis remarked “No, I could not see any distortion, it was a great start.”
“Well, it is too late now Louis. I have to start all over again.”
Albert clenched his fist, grabbed his brush ………

Albert allotted himself one week to paint the heights and sights of the Catskill Mountains. The four days he enjoyed as a guest at the Catskill Mountain House had gone by too soon. His plans were set to depart for his journey to the new west the second Monday from this day, his second trip across the continent. He planned to study and sketch the lifestyle of the Indians, the depths of the mountains and wild boars, he remembered, in abundance. He had often toured Europe and the northeast in America to do his painting. At last, he was about to embark on his dream journey. He missed much the first trip, recording only imagery. When last he was west looking up to the majestic mountains and wondrous waterfalls, his stomach filled with sensations of tightness. His sketchbooks were his way of records.

Mia: Is a week enough time to complete a piece in oils? I know water colors are quick and unforgiving, but do oils require some drying time between layers?

Gail: Yes, oils can dry overnight if I mix in my Alkyd oils. It is possible to finish in a week, or even overnight. It depends on how many layers too. Right now I am doing a retrospective on Coney Island, where I spent my teenage years. Lots of layers, but my final layer is the wettest. It really depends. However, there was no Alkyd until the 20th century. In the 19th century paints were handmade and were thinned with turpentine. So as the layers were built using less and less turp. Turpentine acted as a drier. You can paint many layers but the artist must have an awareness of what causes mud. In response to your “unforgiving watercolor,” I have been doing watercolor for 40years, and have lots of tricks to get it to be forgiving.

Ok, now we know what Albert’s adventure is going to be, but what is his conflict? He wants to go and he’s going. He wants to paint beautifully and he does. Unless we have a sense of imbalance, there’s little to propel a story forward. Hard as it is, we authors have to be cruel to our characters. We have to throw up roadblocks and knock them back as often as we allow them to advance. I’d be pulling for Albert more if he had a smidge of self-doubt. Does he ever fear that he won’t be able to do justice to his subjects? What are the stakes in your story? What will happen if he fails? What is his reward for success? We need to see a glimmer of Albert wrestling with those questions in your opener.

Gail: I think all that can and should be arranged. Roadblocks are in Albert’s immediate future.  I have a couple of questions. Is my opening sentence in the right place? And is it strong enough to propel interest?

Mia: Excellent questions. I think your opening would be stronger if you start with the painting accident. The closer you can get to something that allows your character to show emotion the better. Thanks so much for letting me take a look at your work, Gail. I look forward to learning what happens to Albert.

Gail Ingis Bio:
Gail is known as a “Renaissance Woman” for her varied accomplishments. Her name is accompanied by the appellation ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) which is earned through education and experience. She is a professor of history of architecture & interior design, photographer, artist juror, writer, design critic, and founder of the nationally accredited Interior Design Institute.


Now it’s YOUR turn to offer Gail your encouragement and suggestions. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

9 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Jeanne Miro says:

    Hi Gail,

    When I was reading your discription of Albert’s surroundings it brought me back to my childhood and spending time with my father fishing in the Adirondack Mountains. I immediately identified with Albert’s sturggles to try to capture the essence of his surrounding. When you introduced his friend Louis Mignot I felt that something was left out. Why was Albert there and what is his connection to Albert besides being his friend? Is he also a painter? Is he an outdoorsman? I needed a reason for him to be there and more about their relationship and how it might have distracted Albert’s concentration and if so why?

    I’m just a reader not a writer or professional so these observations are just from a “normal” readers point of view.

  2. Gail Ingis says:

    I am so fortunate to be part of this group of wonderful writers. Thank you Joy for your input, always welcome. I am looking forward to rewriting. I am pleased to introduce a new character at the beginning to interface with Albert. Two artists bantering, right up my alley. I will have to send Louis back to the hotel for an appointment with a new client b/c space is needed for Albert to save Rosalie from a watery demise. Thank you.

  3. Joy Smith says:

    Your descriptions are so vivid! I agree with Mia on the opening sentences. If you omit the word “feel” and make Albert’s reactions immediate you will”show”. Also, there is too much of a good thing. Conflict will keep the reader turning pages. You can insert dialogue to break up the inner thoughts by perhaps, having Albert talking to himself-maybe expressing distress over a color that isn’t right. Can you bring in the female protagonist sooner? As you edit, be sure to save to anther file any blocks of ext, as you might find another spot for them as the novel progresses. Keep at it. You are doing wonderfully! Joy

  4. Gail Ingis says:

    Thank you Barbara. I appreciate your valuable input. It will be fun making it work straight away.

  5. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Gail,

    You intrigued me with Albert and his unease in the first paragraph, but as Mia said, the three paragraphs on the Catskills and his painting style halted the story and my interest.
    You have set up an interesting adventure for Albert with the wild frontier, Indians, etc., so hint at some danger. We will want to take the trip with him if he is in peril, lovelorn, or involved in a scandal. I would hint at what conflict is to come very soon in your opening.
    It used to be said that agent’s looked at the first five pages of a story, but now I hear you better hook them in two pages or less.
    Condense the setting in your opening and get to Albert’s actions sooner, and we will want to go on this adventure with Albert.
    This sounds like a fun story and you have the credentials to pull it off.

    1. Gail Ingis says:

      Thanks Karri. I absolutely enjoyed Mia’s fab critique and yours as well. I appreciate all the input. Thanks.

    2. Mia Marlowe says:

      Donald Maass, literary agent and author, is a proponent of the 5 page hook, but you’re right. We need to hook early and often. Novel pacing is much quicker than it used to be. Readers like to be dropped into the middle of the action and don’t seem to mind trotting to catch up with just enough information to keep reading.

      I recently read THE CORRECTION and while I generally disliked the book, the opener was a deep POV of a woman’s frenetic movements around her house as she hid evidence of the secret she was keeping from her husband. I was exhausted by her but it kept me reading.

  6. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    Very vivid descriptions. I wish Catskill Mountains had come up a little sooner so I would have a more accurate mental picture of where we were. I made up my own picture, then had to change it and sometimes that’s hard. I’m interested to know where the story goes from here.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Sometimes, it’s good to surprise a reader by shaking up their mental picture. I did it with the opener for Distracting the Duchess. The first line is “I’m going to have to shorten his willie.” No, my heroine isn’t a Victorian Elaina Bobbit. She’s a painter concerned about perspective. Obviously that bait and switch was for comedic purposes, but you’re right. Usually, a reader doesn’t want their mental picture shaken up.

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