Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil Thursday

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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.

Azazel’s Mark

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.

Jeanie Viola RyanJean 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.”

Find Jean on Facebook , and her website.

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?



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29 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Beth says:

    Good stuff!!! I enjoyed reading your opening–and congrats again on getting an offer on your manuscript! I look forward to reading more!!
    Beth W from MRW

  2. Hi Jean – I think your opening has impact, and I really like what I’ve read. :) I am not an expert by any means, and I’ve only written two paranormal stories, so please feel free to use whatever helps and disregard the rest!

    I’m so sorry for your recent loss. When my Dad passed away, I was numb for the first six months. Grief hits everyone differently.

    There are still times when I hear a song that reminds me of him (he loved to sing) and I cry…he’s been gone 12 years. Everyone feels grief differently and what one person might feel or remember about a loved one another person won’t. For some scents are the trigger, for others, a person, place, thing, and yet others, music a particular song or group that will remind them of a loved one that they lost.

    As the New Year approaches, I can’t wait to take down our Christmas decorations and put out flowers because that’s what my grandmother always did. :)

    Sharing the same color eyes can be very disconcerting for your heroine, because at odd moments, she could be looking at her reflection, but see her dead brother looking back at her. I think this is great!

    You asked about a gesture: maybe raking a hand through her hair, rubbing a finger across one eyebrow or down the bridge of her nose.

    You mention that once you are in the military, you are always in the military…maybe mention that when you talk about the blue shorts and West Point. Non-military people will appreciate the info.

    Congrats on the offer for the first book in your series! This is wonderful news!

    Good Luck!
    C.H. Admirand

    1. Jeanie Ryan says:

      Thanks. I like the finger down the bridge of her nose. it’s playful and comforting at the same time. I also like the idea of a song triggering memory. I’ll use that later on.

    2. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks so much for your insight, CH!

  3. Marcy W says:

    Can I just say a general “ditto” to the above, and save myself the typing? I too like the premise, and the character; agree with getting to the action sooner, the phone call from a friend early on (dialogue always better than narrative), think you’ve got a really good grip on showing emotion (using all the senses is a good rule of thumb, and you’re checking them off pretty fast) … and I’m eager to read the rest of this story, so congrats to you about finding a buyer, and yippee for us readers, too! Thanks for sharing, and keep writing :-)

    1. Jeanie Ryan says:

      Thanks. I’ll let Mia know when the book is pubbed and she can let people know where to get it.

      1. Mia Marlowe says:

        I’m always happy to spotlight Red Pencil Thursday alumni who’ve gone on to sell. Of course, you sold before you got here, but the principle still applies. ;-) Let me know and I’ll help you spread the word!

  4. Hi Mia and Jeanie,
    I always enjoy these critiques.
    Looks like a good story.
    Why does she hesitate to wear the clean blue shorts? It reads like she is getting attacked in the present. But the shorts piece looks like she might have been previously assulted?

    I am assuming the brother was a suicide? If so this brings so much overwhelming grief and self searching and guilt and anger at the person who died and anger at yourself. Why? What could I have done to stop it? How did I miss the signs? Why did this person do this to ME?

    The thumb circliing is a natural thing many people do unconciously when thinking. Habit. It would only be sensual if he was holding the woman’s hand doing that.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I thought it read as if the thumb circling was something her brother did to her as a comforting mechanism. Which is why I threw up a red flag about it.

      I didn’t get that the brother committed suicide. Wonder if that’s the case…

      1. Marcy W says:

        Yeah, if it was suicide, then quite a few things need changing, IMO. That brings up quite different feelings and questions from “usual” grief (sorry, but I do have experience here)… I definitely did not get that vibe.
        As for the thumb circling, it does seem just a tad much for siblings, but I’ve known some who are that close. It seems that this pair was indeed that close, given her continuing grief after a year’s passage of time, so I think it’s okay.

    2. Jeanie Ryan says:

      The brother died in Iraq, a bullet to the throat. She then drops out of West Point and her retired Colonel father thinks it’s because she can’t handle the thought of death. What it really is is she can’t fight for a country who would lie like that (WMDs) and put soldiers at risk for no good reason. The conclusion is her finding a new cause to fight for (against the bad vamps/fallen angels)

  5. Barbara H says:

    Jean, I don’t have anything to add, except that your story sounds intriguing. Good luck with it. And “Congrats” on the offer!! I always learn so much from these session, just by reading all the great comments.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Always good to see you here, Barbara!

  6. I read paranormal but don’t write it, so take anything I say with a boulder of salt. One line struck me as “eeeuuww.” “Something that green shouldn’t be so dead.” Ever seen a week old sheep carcass in summer? Dead things go through a truly oderiferous green phase under certain conditions.

    And I think you’re starting off with too much backstory and internalization. You don’t have to tell us this is her bro, you don’t have to tell us she left West Point. You have to get to “running from grief” and into the action, that’s all. Donald Maass says leave back story for the back of the book, hold it back so long and hard it becomes a revelation. Not saying you have to do that, but neither do you need as much as you have.
    Love the symbolism in the details, would like a specific scent somewhere. “Reeked” is not a scent. Davey’s Old Spice, the dry cleaning scent of the uniform, the stale, apartment air doing battle the lavender sachets hanging from the door knobs… Scent anchors us in the old brain, which can’t tell the difference between memory, fantasy and reality. You want to take the reader there early and often.
    Great beginning, keep it coming!

    1. Jeanie Ryan says:

      I’m a huge fan on Don. I’ve heard him speak four times, one of which I got to talk to him before. He has a new book coming out this year. I already have all his craft books and even his autograph.

      Her days as a soldier aren’t backstory. As any member of the military or anyone associated with them will tell you, it’s part of who you are. In this case, you can take the girl out of the army, but you can’t take the army out of the girl. In the next chapter, through the hero’s perspective you will see how this is demonstrated in her life.

      I don’t see how not telling it’s her brother will improve the story. The big reveal isn’t her brother died, but how that affected her, namely the real reason she left West Point. She has told no one and tells the hero at about the half-way mark.

    2. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Grace. YOu put your finger on a number of important things here. Backing off on backstory is always a good idea.

      Your scent suggestion is golden. It pulls up our memories like nothing else.

  7. My big brother died a few years ago. I remember many different moments from our childhood on. But the ones that touch me most are the times he was my hero, defending me from the neighborhood bully. And also the times he teased me. Perhaps the character can imagine her brother making fun of her for crying or for being indecisive when she’s picking out her running clothes.

    1. Jeanie Ryan says:

      Thank you for your suggestions. If I don’t use them here, I will pepper them throughout the book.

    2. Mia Marlowe says:

      I’m sorry your loss, A.Y.

  8. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Jean,

    I liked your opening. Congratulations on your book deal. This is an interesting premise.

    I agree with Mia that shortening your first sentence will add impact. I also think maybe a quick call from a friend and her refusing to go out would help set the time frame of the scene. I was under the impression that her brother just died, not that it was the year anniversary. Some of this information could be relayed to the reader in the phone call.

    Life situations that would recall someone who died would be hearing a song that they liked, seeing a piece of clothing that they used to wear (and now you wear), or if they were a singer, tapes of their music, voice etc.

    All in all, I thought this was an emotional beginning. Great characterization.

    1. Jeanie Ryan says:

      I think if I add the one year old newspaper, it should show it’s the anniversary and not something that happened recently. I could also say the yellowing newspaper. What do you think sounds better?

      Thanks for the compliments. Above my computer is a quote by Stanislavkii (everyone should read his stuff. It’s about acting, but it applies to creating any character). “Craft is always secondary to the truth of emotional connection.” My goal in this opening was to create that emotional connection.

      1. Barbara Britton says:

        Yes, adding that the paper is one year old will help set the time of his death. Is it tattered from her looking at he obit so much? Ink smeared? Is his picture there so she can note the eyes piercing her from the page?

  9. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    I like your story–it sounds intriguing. Not knowing where it goes after she is attacked, this may not be a doable suggestion, but I wonder if starting it when she’s attacked might be better–more action. Or as Mia suggested, start as she’s refusing the friend’s invitation and then get her out the door quickly. Congratulations on your offer–sounds like an exciting series.

    1. Jeanie Ryan says:

      I like the idea of the phone call. I think I’ll put it right after the second paragraph. Then it shows her character that she’d rather be alone than go out and make merry with her friends.

      When she is attacked she kicks serious butt, almost to the point of killing the guy. Little does she realize this is part of a plan for the hero to gain her confidence. The initial plan is for him to rescue her, but when she starts to wail on the other bad guy (they are immortal fallen angels/vampires), the hero realizes he can gain her trust more by preventing her from doing something she couldn’t live with, namely killing the other guy.

      1. Mia Marlowe says:

        I think the quicker you get to that action, the better, Jean.

  10. I don’t have any suggestions, but I enjoyed reading this Red Pencil Post. I always looked forward to reading Jeanie’s stories in the FF& P’s critique group and I’m learning a lot from Mia’s suggestions.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks, Mia. Glad you dropped by.

    2. Jeanie Ryan says:

      Thanks Brenda. How are your stories coming?

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