Red Pencil Thursday
Welcome to another edition of my online critique group. Pour yourself a cup of coffee. Put up your feet and prepare to offer my volunteer, Jean Viola Ryan, your opinion about her first 500 words.
We do a critique of the beginning of a story because it’s such a delicate time. There’s so much that needs to be accomplished in those critical opening sentences. An author has to introduce the protagonist, set the mood, hint at the conflict and grab the reader with a strong hook.
Let’s see how Jeanie accomplished those goals.
Mia: Good title. It clearly says paranormal to me.
Things that change your life should be on the front page of the newspaper, not relegated to the obituaries, but Davey’s death was just one more in a long list of casualties who died for one thing…a mistake. Elizabeth grit her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut. She hadn’t been there when her brother had died, but his lifeless eyes haunted her. Something so green shouldn’t be so dead. Looking in the mirror was torture. She shared the same eyes, only hers were red rimmed from crying. She threw the paper across her bedroom.
Mia: I really like your first sentence, but I think it’s too long. If you put a period after obituaries and divide the sentence, it’ll pack more punch, IMO. I’m also a little confused. She wasn’t with Davey when he died, but she evidently saw his dead eyes somehow? The Prime Directive of prose is “First, be clear.” Be intentional about what you want to convey here. I like how you showed her frustration and grief with action rather than just telling us about it. Good job.
Jeanie: Thanks for where to break the opening sentence. It felt unwieldy, but I wasn’t sure how to fix it. I’ll work on making things clearer. It’s one of my weak points .You are right. I need to include more details about Davey. I think I could see his eyes so clearly since he and Elizabeth share them, and I can see her clearly. More details will make him more real and her storyline is about her coming to terms with his death.
“Buck up, soldier.” She took a deep breath and squeezed her fists until her nails bit her palms. Davey had always hated seeing her upset. The only thing that could undo his steely demeanor was her tears.
Mia: I get that she’s talking to herself, but I wondered at first. It took me a bit to realize she’s the soldier. You want to raise questions in your readers’ minds, but you want them to wonder what’s going to happen next, not what’s happening right now. It pulls them out of the story, so I’d insert ‘she ordered herself’ after “Buck up, soldier.” Really good visceral details (fingernails biting her palms) that show how upset she is. Kudos.
Jeanie: Thanks for the compliment. I think she needs a vocal cue to go with her dialogue. That will help the reader know she is talking to herself.
“I’m sorry,” she yelled to the heavens. “I’m trying, really I am.” She looked down, her hands clasped in her lap. Her thumb made circles on the back of her hand, like Davey used to. He’d always known when she’d needed comfort. It was like they were twins, even though he was five years older.
Mia: I don’t have a brother, so I don’t know if the circles on the back of her hand is normal, but it seems more like something a lover would do. A little too intimate for a sibling. If she’s in mourning, why is she alone? If she had a friend or relative with her, she could be talking to them instead of herself and the heavens. It’s a really tough start to have a character by themselves. We need to see them in relation to others.
Jeanie: Does anyone have any suggestions on another gesture she does to console herself, something she does without even thinking? At this point she needs to be alone. She isn’t the kind to show her grief to anyone. She even backs out of going with her friends because it’s the anniversary of her brother’s death. She won’t be alone for long. In another page she is attacked when she goes running.
Mia: Oh! It’s been a year? This grief felt pretty fresh to me. Since you know she turned down a chance to go out with her friends, why not show her having a quick conversation with one. You can get plenty of internal dialogue to explain how and why she’s feeling tucked in between actual dialogue.
Tears clouded her vision, and she squeezed her eyes shut. She was not going to start crying again, dammit. The lump in her throat called her a liar. She needed to get out of there, do something, anything, to blot out those eyes. She grabbed her running shoes from under her bed and laid them on the bright pink flowered quilt her grandmother had made her. It so wasn’t her, but she wasn’t sure what was her anymore.
Mia: I’d start a new paragraph with The lump in her throat …. It’s a reversal and deserves a little more weight.
Her fixation with his eyes disturbs me a little because I don’t know why she’s honed in on this one thing. When I’ve lost someone, I remember so many things about them. I search my memory, pulling up every detail I can. I don’t remember ever focusing on one aspect of them. And when I find something that reminds me of them (as your heroine’s eyes remind her of her brother’s) I take comfort in that thing. It’s like a link with my lost love one. I need more info to know why his eyes are haunting her.
Jeanie: I like this suggestion. She is very real to me (I made a character collage of her before I started. She’s Jodie Foster with some changes). I need to do the same with Davey. I am fortunate not to have lost anyone close to me until recently, so thank you for explaining what it’s like.
She opened her nearly empty bottom drawer. It was past laundry day, so the only clean running shorts were the dark blue ones from her nearly four years at West Point. She stared at them, reaching out to touch them only to pull her hand away. Hell and no. There was no way she was ever putting those on again. She should throw them away or at least donate them, but she could no more part with them than she could the pristine uniform hanging in the back of her closet.
Mia: Not a happy soldier then. I wonder at her calling herself that earlier. I really like the way you’ve imbued the things in her surroundings with extra meaning—her grandmother’s quilt, the running shorts, her pristine uniform—to show us more about who Elizabeth is.
Jeanie: Thank you. In another page the action really picks up (she’s attacked). I was nervous about starting so slowly, but I really wanted the reader to know who Elizabeth is so they care about her when she’s attacked. I hoped I was drawing the reader in and not boring them.
It was too warm for sweats. Gone were chilly DC nights. She rummaged around in her hamper. At the bottom were her yellow ones. Such a cheery color was at odds with her mood. Besides, they reeked. Same with her black ones. If she wanted to go running, dark blue it was.
Mia: The sentence structure ‘Gone were…’ is too passive. Elizabeth is a girl of action and directness. Say it plainly. The chilly DC nights were gone. Again, brilliant use of color and objects to give us insight into her mood. ;-)
Jeanie: Thanks. I like that you know she is a girl of action and directness.
She tried to pull her black hair into a pony tail, but it was still a smidgen too short. All she needed was her iPod. It was waiting for her by the door, still in the arm band she strapped on. She looked around her apartment and could see Davey sitting on the couch, surveying the place, even though she’d moved here after his death. She really needed to get out of there now.
Mia: Most of the time, when we “see” our lost loved ones, it’s more that we catch a fleeting glimpse of them from the corner of our eyes. At least, it’s been that way for me. I could believe this more if she thought she saw him, then didn’t when she jerked her gaze toward him. I get that this is a paranormal story. With those parameters, I think you can be more explicit with what she experiences that’s outside the norm.
Jeanie: As I said before, I haven’t lost anyone until recently, so I appreciate you describing how it is. Would anyone else care to share how it’s been for you. I like the fleeting glimpse. It is more powerful.
Mia: Intriguing beginning, Jeanie. There are some solid elements of good prose here.
Jeanie: Thank you for doing this. I’ve been working on showing emotion.
Jean Viola Ryan’s Bio: Jean Viola Ryan is an active member of RWA, including the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal chapter as well as Maryland and New England chapters. When she doesn’t have her nose buried in a good book or isn’t living in the paranormal worlds she creates, she moderates workshops for Savvy Authors and the Muse Online Writers Conference.
When asked why she’s lived up and down the East Coast, she explains, “My husband is in the Coast Guard, and he tends to guard the coast.”
The book is Azazel’s Mark and the series is The Mark of Abel. It is
paranormal romance. The tag line is: One of the last female
descendants of Abel, a West Point drop-out, must sacrifice everything
to save her estranged military family from the fallen angels
responsible for Abel’s death.
Mia: Happy Dance Warning! Jean shared that she just received an offer for the first book in the Mark of Abel series! Woot!
Would you like to be a Red Pencil Thursday volunteer? Check out the details!
Now it’s YOUR turn. What suggestions or questions do you have for Jean?
I’m thrilled to share that MaidenSong (my debut title) is now available for your Kindle or Nook for a budget-pleasing $2.99! If you missed this story when it was first published in 2006, here’s your chance to live Bjorn and Rika’s sensual adventure. Check out an excerpt from Maidensong for a love story where more than hearts are at risk. Enjoy!
“From Scandinavia to the Byzantine slave markets, this steamy love story calls to mind the great mistresses of the genre: Small, Henley and Mason. Filled with forbidden love, betrayal, redemption and hope.”—RTBookReviews