Red Pencil Thursday
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.
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.
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.”
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?