Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil Thursday

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Knowing where to begin a story is sometimes the toughest decision an author makes. When I wrote Erinsong, my editor lopped twelve mortal pages off the beginning–pages I had lovingly crafted, designed to beguile my readers into the world of my Irish heroine and her 9th century life. But no, my story actually begins when Brenna and her sister find the body of a Northman washed up on Donegal Beach. Then they discover he’s still alive.

On Red Pencil Thursday today, my volunteer, Jean Viola Ryan, is facing a similar dilemma. See if you think she needs to move the beginning nearer to the inciting action. I so appreciate my volunteers and their willingness to “take their bath in public.” This is Jean’s second visit to our online critique group. She’s helping all of us think about our current WIP and where the beginning really should be.   If YOU’d like to be part of RPT, please check out the details and send your materials in today!


Things that change your life should be on the front page of the newspaper, not relegated to the obituaries. Pubic apathy had reduced Davey’s death to just one more in a long list of casualties who died for one thing…a lie. Four years later and things had only grown worse.

Mia: Oops! I think you meant “Public” instead of “pubic.” My own typos never fail to amuse me. Glad to see my fingers aren’t the only ones that slip on occasion. Still like that first sentence. However, the next two seem a little nebulous. The lie is a good hook but we don’t know what you mean. Can you make it clearer?

Jean: The lie is the Iraq war and it isn’t revealed why she dropped out of West Point until later in the book when she tells the hero.

My other classic typo was he could “poop” her head off like a dandelion.

Mia: LOL! The lie comment is still too fuzzy here to have an impact. Remember the Prime Directive of Prose: First, be clear. If you can’t state it clearly, save the ‘lie’ for later.

Elizabeth threw the scrapbook she had lovingly created of Davey’s career across her bedroom. It hit the wall to the left of the door with a smack and fell to the ground. The army seal on the front stared up at heaven, much as Davey must have.

Mia: If I remember correctly, Davey is her brother. I don’t get that here. Based on your words, he could just as easily have been a lover.

Jean: Do you think it is important here that we know who Davey is other than someone important to her? It wouldn’t be hard to throw something in that shows he’s her brother, but are those more unnecessary details?

Mia: I think it’s very important that we know he’s her brother, not a love interest. The grief is no less, but it’s different.

A scream was ripped from her gut. Tears clouded her vision, and she squeezed her eyes shut. She was not going to start crying again, dammit.

Mia: Remove was. You don’t need it. Generally speaking, verbs without helpers make for stronger prose. Scream seems a little over-written. If a person screams, they are really in extremis. I’m sensing that she’s frustrated and deeply sad. Would a sob work just as well?

Jean: I’m not sure sob is active/strong enough. Elizabeth is a kick ass girl. Sobs seem to make her too passive or girly. She’s also very angry.

Mia: Still think scream makes her seem a little unhinged. What about the rest of the RPT gang? Any thoughts?

The lump in her throat called her a liar.

She took a deep breath and squeezed her fists until her nails bit her palms. Enough moping. Where there was life, there was hope. That’s what her mother had always said.

“I’m sorry,” she told the heavens, hoping her mother could hear her.

Mia: Good way to let us know she’s lost more than one person who is important to her without coming out and saying it. That’s showing, not telling.

Jean: Thanks.

She grabbed her running shoes from under her bed and laid them on the bright pink flowed quilt Nana had made. It so wasn’t her, but she wasn’t sure what was anymore.

Her black hair was still a smidgen too short to pull back so she threw on a red Nationals baseball cap. Now all she needed was her iPod waiting for her by the door, in the black arm band she strapped on.

Mia: The second sentence is a little awkward. Try it this way:

She strapped her iPod into its black arm band and ran out the door.

Jean: Thanks. It didn’t sound right to my ear, but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.

Mia: Sometimes simple is best.

She headed for the canal. The city lights reflected in the dark water mirrored the stars in the heavens. She retied her shoes, not that they needed it. Kneeling to tie her shoes was like praying. If only she had something to pray for. With a heavy sigh she stood up.

Note from Mia: Jean’s next response is in response to my later comment about where to begin this story.

Jean: What if I started the story here, with her tying her shoes? It isn’t as strong an opening line, but I love the idea of her kneeling being like praying, but her having nothing to pray for. I’m having a tough time balancing getting into the action fast and creating details that draw the reader into the story. I want to create a character the reader cares for before I put her in danger.

Mia: I like the juxtaposition of kneeling to tie her shoes and kneeling to pray. That’s the sort of synthesis that pulls me in. You may be onto something here.

With her first step, her father’s voice intruded in her head.

Hey! Hey! All the way,

We love to run every day.

If I were President and had my way,

There wouldn’t be a fat man in the Army today.

She stuck in her ear buds and cranked up her iPod. That was its purpose, to drown out the cadences that had formed so much of her life. The Foo Fighter’s new album was just as good to run to. She hit the pavement as Dave Grohl’s pounding guitar and driving vocals filled her head.

Mia: Cut that was its purpose. How about just

It drowned out the cadences that had formed so much of her life.

Mentioning another Dave here is confusing. Drop Mr. Grohl here. You don’t need to name him.

Jean: Thanks. again, this was something that felt awkward, but wasn’t sure how to fix.

Her strides started out slow, a nice jog to warm up. Her breaths were deep and even. The cloak of night brought with it a freedom she never felt in the gym.

As she sped up, the night air caressed her. Chilly DC nights were gone. She glanced to her sides. Unlike the gym where she worked, no one ogled her.

She was far from a brown bagger, but the way guys stared at her you’d think she was a supermodel. She laughed. Supermodels couldn’t kill you with their pinkies. Davey had made sure she could defend herself. He would have made a damn good Green Beret. She picked up her pace until she was running at full speed.

Mia: I got to this point and had to go back to remind myself of the heroine’s name. Use Elizabeth more often. I know in a few more paragraphs something exciting happens, but that only makes me feel you’ve included a lot of little details that really don’t matter up to this point. I think you need to rethink where your story starts and it starts when a strong hand grabs her shoulder. Give us a couple paragraphs to get her out of the house and running and launch us into the real action. Even Elizabeth’s angst over her brother’s death can come out later.

Sometimes it takes a few pages of a writer “clearing her throat” in order to find out where the beginning really is. Save this material. It’ll be good to salt in later.

Jean: As I said, I’m having trouble with balancing details and action. The story is about her dealing with her brother’s death and finding a purpose now that she dropped out of the military. The story sentence 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: Let’s see what the RPT gang thinks.

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.

Mia: Happy Dance Warning! Jean 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?

20 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Nynke says:

    Hi Jean,

    I’m a little late to the party, but for what it’s worth, I have 2 suggestions:
    -“A scream was ripped from her gut”: would something like ‘she wrenched out a (heartfelt) groan’ not work better? Angry, frustrated groans seem to work well for kick-ass women who don’t want to cry, in my experience ;)
    -“pink flowed quilt” – do you mean ‘flowered’?

    And congratulations on the offer and good luck with the rest of the writing process!

    1. Mia says:

      Good suggestion, Nynke. Yep, I bet she meant ‘flowered.’

  2. I agree with Maurine’s suggestion to keep the first paragraph, then jump to “She headed for the canal.” I love the military cadence that runs through Elizabeth’s mind–it shows the reader she comes from a military background.

    Also, this is a bit of a nit-pick, but “Unlike the gym where she worked, no one ogled her” literally means that she’s used to the gym (the brick-and-mortar building) ogling her. I think it needs to be “unlike in the gym” or “unlike the gym members.” It’s a case where readers will know what you mean, but having to pause, however briefly, to make the mental correction keeps them from becoming immersed in your story.

    Congratulations on receiving an offer!

    1. Mia says:

      Congrats, Alyssa! You caught a dangling participle. Those sneak up on me sometimes.

  3. Congratulations on the book deal, Jean. Wonderful news. I really like the premise of this book–sounds like an intriguing, suspenseful story. What potential for conflict–for her as a member of a military family, a military person herself, to become so disillusioned that she actually quits.

    I do agree about the reflections and details that keep us from the action (things I have to work on all the time in my writing).

    You were wondering about an entry point into the story–what about starting with her running? The rhythm of her shoes hitting the pavement can trigger the thoughts about the cadence she longs to forget. Or they can snap like a sniper shot and Dave would have…. Then she can go into the freedom of running in open, etc. The backstory can be woven in later.

    I didn’t get the brown bagger connection with the rest of that particular sentence,either.

    Oh, I did have a comment about your story line: with the comma after “drop-out,” the sentence implies Abel is the drop-out.

    Thanks for letting us look at your beginning.
    All good luck with this book and with the series.

    1. Jeanie Ryan says:

      Thanks. I like the rhythm of her running. That will really draw the reader in.

  4. Marcy W says:

    Wow! So many things swirling in my mind … First, Jean, congrats on coming back to RPT. It shows both your courage, and the fact that it’s a helpful thing for Mia to do.
    Second, I’m again impressed by the comments; very different ideas and impressions, and all have their own validity. For you, Jean, I hope it’s all good grist for the mill, and not as confusing as I think it might be for me! :-)
    And third, I strongly agree with Grace Burrowes’ suggestions. (Not a surprise, since I love her writing.) I like her idea for a beginning, but most importantly, agree that this current version isn’t it, yet. Your heroine is clearly a woman of action, so showing us that part of her first seems vital to me; her motivation can come a bit later.
    My other thought is that I was surprised when I read your ‘one sentence description’ to find this is a paranormal. I know it’s hard in 500 words, but I hope that comes in soon, because that’s going to change how I see her. — I like your writing, this second excerpt shows me how hard you’re working on it, and I’m eager to read more. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Jeanie Ryan says:

      Thanks. The heroine doesn’t know it’s a paranormal. The reader will find that out in the second chapter when we get to the hero’s POV.

      Everyone’s comments are very helpful.

      1. Marcy W says:

        Ah, that makes sense, and makes it more intriguing, that she doesn’t know she’s living in a paranormal world! Forgive me for being so impatient! I should know by now that if I just wait a bit, I’m often rewarded by great little surprises :-).

  5. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Jean and Mia,

    I remember this piece from before. I liked your heroine then, and I like her now.

    On second read, starting with “Elizabeth grabbed her running shoes…” may be the better opening. We are into the action–fast and furious. I really liked the army mantra. It gives us a clue into who Elizabeth is and to her background. You also hint at her brother’s demise mentioning he would have been a super Green Beret.
    More details about her brother’s death could be peppered in later.
    I had a hard time with the “brown bagger” reference too. Wasn’t sure what that meant. Also, check the Foo Fighters. They are yesterday’s news and by the time the book comes out, may not be top 10 at all. Is there a popular singer who is pro-military like Toby Keith but alternative or rock?
    Congrats on the book deal. That’s awesome.

    1. Jeanie Ryan says:

      Brown bagger is term my friends used for people who are so ugly they should wear a brown bag.

      I think I’m going to start with her tying her shoes. hopefully a great opening line will come to me later.

  6. Mia,
    I just love your advice, especially your Prime Directive of Prose: First, be clear. I’m trying to apply it to my own work.

    Again, I’m impressed by the emotion and empathy you put into your scenes. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I have the Prime Directive taped to my computer!

    2. Jeanie Ryan says:

      Thanks. I learned a lot at the Mudpuddle.

  7. Maurine H says:

    I love your first paragraph, especially the first two sentences. (Incidentally, my typos make me laugh out loud. I love that you have a sense of humor about them.) I agree with Mia that the reader should know immediately that Davey is her brother and not a lover, sweetheart, etc. You could indicate that by inserting it in the public apathy sentence: “Public apathy had reduced her brother Davey’s death four years ago . . .” I added “four years ago” because “things” in the last sentence is too vague to help the reader get a grasp of your story.

    Also, you could cut “one thing” from the second sentence to make it stronger. I disagree with Mia about making “the lie” clearer at this point, but I’m a mystery/romantic suspense reader and like the get-to-the-action intros. I would guess at what the lie was–it’s a mystery to be cracked–and would keep turning the pages to see if I was right.

    I have to agree with Mia on the scream. It makes her seem too melodramatic and I don’t think that’s how you see your heroine.

    You lost me with “she was far from a brown bagger.” All I could think of was that she takes her lunch to work, but couldn’t get the connection to her running at the gym.

    My thoughts on where to start? Keep the first paragraph, then skip to “She headed for the canal.” I do like the part about kneeling being like praying and think that is another opportunity to slip in some of her feelings about her brother’s death. Put her out there running, already clothed and listening to her iPod. I don’t know a lot about them, but I get the idea that the way people listen to them is with ear buds. Do you need to include that part? I do like the bit about her father’s cadence and tells me he was military. I like how you added that detail. I agree with Mia that we don’t need to know who the singer is or the song. Anything will do to drown out her father’s voice.

    About your concerns that the reader cares about your character before you put her in danger: One thing I’ve learned from reading lots of romantic suspense/mysteries is that if she’s in danger, we’ll care about her.

    Your writing is concise and pretty tight. Your premise is interesting and from what I’ve seen so far, your heroine seems strong and caring. I would want to read on to see what happens to her. I wish you great success with this story.


    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks, Maureen. One of the things I love about RPT is the broad cross section of reader experience everyone brings to the table. As a myster/romantic suspense reader, you know more about the expectations of the sub-genre than I do.

    2. Jeanie Ryan says:

      Thanks. The revelation of what the lie is is a big deal to the story. Her father thinks she’s a coward, but really she has problems fighting for someone who would lie and disregard soldiers. The resolution is she becomes a soldier in another type of army (fighting the villains).

  8. First, hats off to Jean for coming back for more. Second, I’ve had to cut whole, entire, complete CHAPTERS in the interests of finding the beginning. Best advice I’ve heard on beginnings: The story starts when everything changes.
    I don’t think this is your beginning. For one thing, it leans heavily on tell writing and Back Story Hints. Save the backstory (like you propose for why she dropped out of West Point)for the back of the book, where it can land like a revelation.
    And you are absolutely right, in romance-ish fiction, job one is to create a character first, one we can have empathy for. Because Elizabeth is mostly reflecting here, I can’t see her behaving in ways that make me LIKE her (see/action is show, internal reflection is often tell). I’m sorry for her loss, but I don’t like her yet. If you open with her jogging, pausing to pet the blind beggar’s dog or toss Fido the piece of cheese she always carries for him, then in the next sentence have the assault start, you can show character, hint at backstory, and get the book moving from page one.
    Opening scenes are like a Rubik’s cube: You keep flipping the balance of action, backstory, character, romance, setting… until you want to pitch the draft against the wall.
    Don’t give up. There’s good stuff here.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Brilliant advice, Grace. Thanks so much for dropping by.


    2. Jeanie Ryan says:

      Thanks for your help. I like the Rubik’s cube analogy. I used to throw mine on the ground, pick up the pieces and then solve it by putting it back together.

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