Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil Thursday

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Writers wrestle with all sorts of issues as they craft their stories. One of the thorniest is POV–point of view. When I was just starting out, I blithely assumed I could leap from head to head, zooming in close, then scrolling back for a “God’s eye” view with hardly a blink. The effect was dizzying.

And not in a good way.

If you write in first person, the problem is solved. You’re firmly in one character’s head. You can only see what they see, know what they know. If you use third person, you have choices, but it’s best to limit them. The longer we peer through someone else’s eyes, the more we relate to them, which is exactly what you want your readers to do with your protagonists.

Our Red Pencil Thursday volunteer, Annie Talbot, presents us with an opener that begs the question, “Who’s head should we be in anyway?” I hope you’ll weigh in with your thoughts at the end of the post! Our online critique group is only as strong as all the minds gathered around my cyber-kitchen table. So, pour yourself a cup of coffee and lend us your thoughts.

The students of Miss Prentiss’s Seminary for Young Ladies agreed on one thing. Miss Sophia Prentiss was imperturbable.

Mia: Nice start. Sets a definite tone Regency readers will recognize and respond to.

Annie: Thank you!

Pranks on younger students resulted in cups of tea in her study and conversation about respecting others and building relationships that would benefit oneself and one’s husband in the future. Miss Prentiss always said, “Cooperation brings collaboration; condescension yields resentment.”

Mia: Rather than telling us this, is there a way to show your Miss Prentiss in action?

Annie: Possibly. The purpose of this scene, really, is to introduce Sophia, magic, and the school. The next two scenes are deep in her POV, with the fourth in Fletcher’s (the hero). So my choice was to use omniscient POV here and to share how she is perceived as quickly as possible.

Mia: Is Sophia Miss Prentiss’s given name? Note: In this comment you see the peril of a name ending with ‘s’. Your manuscript is likely to be filled with hissing. I try to avoid names ending with ‘s,’ but sometimes my characters insist.

Those committing more serious infractions were treated sternly. Yet Miss Prentiss always made sure to remind them that they could do better and that she relied on them to redouble their efforts. “A young woman’s reputation depends on her good sense and self-control,” she’d say. “It must be mindfully constructed and carefully maintained.”

Mia: Perhaps a serial offender is waiting outside Miss Prentiss’s study, squirming in her seat and reliving past lectures. This would mean more to the reader than this omniscient POV recounting.

Annie: I’ll give that a try. I hadn’t wanted to use another character’s POV before I dove into Sophia’s head (next scene), but I may have to.

Mia? In that case, dive into Sophia’s now so we can bond with her. Show her in action.

Only the overt use – or hidden abuse – of magic would draw Miss Prentiss’s ire. “Magic,” she told them, “must always be subtle and only used for good. If one uses it to harm or coerce another, one doesn’t deserve to possess it.”

Mia: Bingo! You’ve got me now. Magic is involved. Can you move it even closer to the beginning?

Annie: I wonder… hmmm.

Mia: Have her giving a demonstration of light magic when she is interrupted by Emma.

More than one student had found her magical abilities muffled temporarily as a result of misbehavior. And there were rumours of one young lady whose expulsion from the Seminary had been accompanied by the permanent crippling of her magical abilities.

Mia: Yikes! Miss Prentiss has a dark side. Again if this were being filtered through the eyes and mind of one who’s waiting for her judgment, it would be more engrossing.

Annie: Yes, she does.

Note: Chances are a publisher will Americanize your spelling of rumours. I’ve tried repeated to use grey instead of gray, parlour instead of parlor, etc, but to no avail. If you’re writing for an American audience, you’ll likely have to give up British spellings. But it never hurts to try!

Annie: I know. But I’m more afraid of my British betas than the publishers! (I’m only half kidding there.)

Through it all, Miss Prentiss maintained an air of calm control. There was nothing, her students believed, that could seriously ruffle her.

Which was why, when Emma delivered a calling card to Miss Prentiss in the middle of a conversation with the eldest students about the morning Times, the girls were shocked to see their much-respected headmistress pale. Blink. And then draw a deep breath before rising.

Mia: Is Emma our heroine or Miss Prentiss? The distant POV has me wondering. We’re in the nebulous collective head of all the students at the academy. If you could firmly anchor us in one, it would help pull us into the story quicker.

Plus, the calling card is obviously the inciting incident, the signal that the well-ordered world of Miss Prentiss is about to change. This too, needs to happen as close to the beginning as possible. In fact, it may well be that your story starts here with all the info about Miss P’s imperturbability and magical prowess salted in later.

Annie: I’m making notes for my re-work!

Her tone was calm, though, when she asked Mariah Trumball to lead the discussion and make notes on each girl’s participation. Neither her voice nor her fingers trembled when she handed the card back to Emma, saying, “Please ask Sir Joseph to wait in my private sitting room. I shall join him in five minutes.”

“There’s another man with him, miss,” Emma informed her. “He’s younger, and he didn’t give a card.”

Miss Prentiss raised her eyebrows at this breach of decorum.

Mia: Now we’re moderately in Miss P’s POV which is more engaging. You’ve let us feel her extreme self control in not betraying what the calling card means to her as well as let us know she can still gently reprove a social faux pas.

Annie: Sophia will always reprove a social faux pas.

“My study, then, please, Emma. And ask Cook to prepare a tea tray. I’d prefer that you bring it, rather than John. They’ve already met you.”

Mia: Miss P is limiting the number of people her callers meet. Curious. Raises questions in my mind, which is a good thing. This is a very gentle embedded hook. (Congratulations, Annie. You are an honorary Happy Hooker!)

Annie: Why, thank you!

The girls were shocked to see Emma meet Miss Prentiss’s eyes directly for a moment. Understanding hung between the two women before each turned to her own business, Emma to her errand and Miss Prentiss to put away her papers before taking her leave.

Mia: And now we’re back in the “hive mind” of the students. I encourage you to rethink who would have the most entertaining take on these events and make that person your POV character. Let us look through her eyes. Try on her life. That’s why we read.

Annie: I’m really going to have to give that a lot of thought. My main POV character will be Sophia, with Fletcher second. Maybe Mariah… she’s going to be an important character.

After the door closed soundlessly behind her, the girls sat quietly for a moment before exploding into excited babble.

“What was that about?”

“Who is Sir Joseph?”

“Ladies,” Mariah interjected. “Miss Prentiss has asked us to—“

“Could he be a lost relative?”

“A suitor?”

Mariah sank into Miss Prentiss’s chair and allowed the speculation to rage as she composed notes on a calm, intelligent, and entirely imaginary discussion on the latest news from the Peninsula.

Mia: Imaginary discussion! Oh, I like Mariah. Is she our heroine?

Annie: No, it’s Sophia. But if this is successful, Mariah will have her own book, down the line.

It wouldn’t do to disappoint Miss Prentiss. It wouldn’t do at all.

Mia: There are lots of excellent elements here. I think once you settle the POV issue, this story is going to take off!

Annie: Thank you! This is extremely helpful!

Bio: Annie Talbot spent her formative years in the Philadelphia suburbs, but has recently decided to reinvent herself and has moved her entire family to a tiny town in Central Illinois, where they share a large Victorian house with five cats, one yellow dog, and Annie’s enormous vegetable garden. Her passions are reading, writing, and semicolons (not necessarily in that order). She is presently working on a magical historical romance, with other projects (a steampunk romance and an urban fantasy series) on the drawing board.

Mia: Now it’s your turn! Please share your insights with Annie. I know she’s anxious to hear from you.

How to Distract a Duchess

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And while we’re talking about sharing your thoughts, let me offer a heartfelt “Thank you” to those of you who have posted a review of How to Distract a Duchess, or any of my books, on Amazon or B& Word of mouth is still the most powerful endorsement an author can receive and I appreciate it very much.

If you haven’t left a review, there’s still time to post your honest appraisal of my work. You’d be surprised how much impact YOU can have on whether other readers decide to give me a try.

19 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Nynke says:

    Hi Annie,
    I agree with the other commenters: I really like your premise! Magic must create some really interesting tension in a closely buttoned-up society. I can’t wait to read more!

    I also like the idea of showing this scene through the eyes of one student/assistant, but I think there’s a risk: as a reader, I tend to assume that the first person in whose POV I am will be the hero or heroine. Whenever it turns out it’s not, I get a little disappointed and frustrated, because I’ve become emotionally invested in someone I’m going to say goodbye to again, and I feel tricked.

    I guess it can work if you really keep the focus on Miss Prentiss and don’t let the POV emote too much or too long. Or maybe there are other tricks – I don’t really know!

    (oh, and yay for using semicolons!)

    1. Annie Talbot says:

      I agree with you completely. It’s why I elected to begin in omniscient. I wanted to show how Sophia was perceived, so that what comes after ia a real departure.

      However, I see the difficulties of omniscient POV, and I’m considering beginning with Sophia, now. I really like the suggestions I’ve received here, and I’ve added them to my notebook, so that when the time comes to revise, I’ll have them.

      Thank you very much!

      (Oh, and semicolons rock!)

    2. Mia says:

      Good point, Nynke. We do tend to assume the first “voice” we hear belongs to the protagonist.

  2. Marcy W says:

    Hi Annie, and thanks for sharing the start to what seems to me to be a sure bet for the top of my ‘to read’ stack!
    I like beginning with a quote from Miss P, but what about using ““Magic,” she told them, “must always be subtle and only used for good. If one uses it to harm or coerce another, one doesn’t deserve to possess it.”” instead? “she told her Seminary for Young Ladies students” instead of ‘them’, of course. That introduces her voice, which is wonderful, plus the issue of magic. Yhen you could continue in either her POV, or one of the students’ … who is, perhaps, woolgathering in class, recalling the times she’s been lectured by Miss P … and then is brought sharply to attention by the arrival of Emma with the calling card, which starts the real action and mystery.
    I really like it; I immediately get a full picture in my head of Miss P, her school, the students, Emma (who may be a maid, but is clearly more than that) … it all works. I can’t wait to read more!

    1. Mia says:

      Excellent ideas, Marcy. You understand so many of these writerly issues. When are you going to start your WIP?

      1. Marcy W says:

        I understand them because I’ve learned them from you, Mia! You know how much easier it is to see things in others’ work, or issues, or life, than in one’s own … I think that’s my gift — where the actual writing is yours, and Grace’s, Barbara’s, Annie’s and so many others.

    2. Annie Talbot says:

      Hi, Marcy!

      That is an excellent idea!

      And thank you for your feedback on what works, too!

  3. Maurine H says:

    I like the premise of your story. What young wife hasn’t wished she could use a little magic to get her house in order? I agree that the magic element should be mentioned closer to the beginning–like within the first few sentences. Then as readers, we will know what kind of book we are reading.

    I agree with what has been said about the POV, but I think you could have it in Miss Prentiss’s POV and show all the students’ perceptions mentioned here subtlety though the student’s reactions and dialog. Incidentally, I think Miss Prentiss is the perfect name for a finishing school proprietress.

    I think you have a great start to a very interesting and unique story. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Hi Maureen. It’s not that I dislike Miss Prentiss as a name. The problem comes whenever you have to use a possessive. In one of my earlier works, I had a heroine named Valdis, and I was so wearied of seeing all the hissing “s’s” by the time the story was finished, I vowed not to have another character with an s on the end of the name.

      Unfortunately, sometimes characters refuse to be renamed and don’t care if the “s” inconveniences me.

      1. Maurine H says:

        Mia, I know what you were saying about the name and the hissing. I should have elaborated. I think it’s such a good name that I would put up with the hissing. It may even go well with the magic, lol. Besides, if Annie is careful, she could work around some of it. I have the same problem with my current ms–I didn’t notice it until I read it aloud, which I highly recommend doing by the end of the first draft if not sooner– but my character insists her name ends with an S.

    2. Annie Talbot says:

      Thank you, Marine!

      I’m thinking I’ll revise this as soon as I’ve completed my first draft. You all may see this again! (If Mia permits resubmissions, that is.)

      Sophia insists that her surname is Prentiss. So I’m afraid we’re stuck with hissing.

      Thanks so much for your kind feedback!

      1. Mia says:

        I think everyone would enjoy seeing your final version, Annie.

  4. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Annie and Mia,

    I liked this premise as well. It is fun and unique.
    I do have to say that the opening had too much telling for me to be invested. I would rather be in Miss Prentiss’s head. Have Miss Prentiss trying to keep decorum this day with a mischief maker needing straightening out, callers coming unannounced, and maybe a bit of magic needed to order the classroom. We would get a sense of her character and there would be opportunity for dialogue. I liked what Mia said about bringing the magic closer to the opening sentences.

    What a fun opening you have.
    ~Barb Britton

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      You’re right, Barb. Telling keeps the reader at arms’ length. Showing pulls us in close. A judicious mix of action and dialogue is the best recipe for an engaging beginning.

    2. Annie Talbot says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the premise! I like playing with magic, and the Napoleonic era gives many different opportunities for it to be used in interesting ways.

      Yes, I think I’m going to have to abandon the omniscient POV in the beginning. I’m sure the right scenario will present itself after I’ve completed the first draft and am tackling revisions.

      Thank you!

  5. WHAT a lovely voice you have, and what a unique story idea. I was nodding my head to most of Mia’s comments except one: I’m not sure you want to lead with the note arriving. Your first, first, first job is create reader empathy, and a note arriving may not serve that end as well as the alternative Mia suggested: A gentle dressing down to the school’s brilliant miscreant, perhaps for…. (you might reveal this in paragraph one) trying to put rabbit ears on a cranky old tom cat. In the student’s POV, you show us how kind and isolated (lonely?) Miss Sophia is, how wise and patient, how she almost succeeds in not smiling when she regards the cat now resembling a scowling rabbit with cat ears… and then fixes him with a snap of her fingers.
    The lyricism and repose of your opening lulls the reader into thinking we’ll just trot along for a few more paras, and then WHAM: And then the note.

    The is a Regency with some whimsy, I think you can go for a bump, set, spike that might take us clear until page 2 (!!) to get to the inciting incident itself.

    Using a student’s eye view of things to open would let you share little things like how quietly pretty Sophie, and what a stranger to her environment notices about her sanctum sanctorum.

    But it’s your story. You write it how it works for you, and best of luck. This is a WONDERFUL premise and you’re off to a terrific start.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful insights, Grace! The bunny/cat ears conundrum had me giggling.

    2. Annie Talbot says:

      Thank you so much for your lovely feedback! I know I’m going to have to solve this problem, and I’m fairly certain that it’s going to be the first thing I do after I’ve completed the first draft.

      I may steal your poor, lop-eared kitty, if I believe my own cats would forgive me.

      I do have a problem with using the POV of anyone other than the hero or heroine to begin a romance. I’m too bound to the conventions of the genre, I know, but I expect the first voice I “hear” will belong to the central character of the novel.

      So for me, the choice is either to begin omniscient or to be in Sophia’s head.

      Again, thank you for your encouragement and kind words! I really appreciate it!

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