Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil Thursday

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Welcome to another Red Pencil Thursday online critique! I have some fantastic news to share. Jamie Pope, one of our RPT alumni, has sold the manuscript we worked over here on my blog in a 3 book deal to St. Martin’s Press. (At the risk of killing a few kittens, let me add a string of excited !!!) Congratulations, Jamie. I look forward to hosting you here when your debut book hits the shelves.

Our volunteer today is Casandra Lewis. She has a clean, crisp voice and she follows the Prime Directive of Prose: First, be clear. Yet, she offers us a chance to examine a question writers must always ask themselves: How much do I reveal and how soon? Is it possible to hide too much from readers?


Mia: Your title has to be your first hook. It should create questions in the readers’ minds that demand answers. This one does suggest a state of urgency, but I’m wondering what sort of story it’s telegraphing–historical? western? suspense?

Desperation drove him here. Dr. Ira Rosenthal was his last hope. When he pulled up to 915 Plymouth Court, he didn’t park; he merely pulled alongside the curb and allowed the car to idle as he fished through his pockets for the doctor’s card.

Mia: I’d scotch your first sentence and start with Dr. Ira Rosenthal was his last hope. It packs more punch. I also broke up the first paragraph into smaller bits. Readers like white space, which is why dialogue makes for a fast read. If you start out with such dense narrative, it may seem daunting.

“Nine – one – five Plymouth Court” he read aloud. He sat in the car for several minutes looking at the nearly dilapidated building, then at the card and back at the building. Eventually, he parked the car. He trudged over to the building, stood on the stoop and looked up at it once more. Then he slowly climbed the crumbling stairs and entered the greystone building that decades of neglect had robbed of its beauty and character.

Mia: I broke up your big paragraph again here. While I’m glad your character is speaking, he’s repeating something the readers already know—the address. Eliminate it one place or another. However, I want him to say something. Hopefully something that shows me something unique, different or surprising about him. It’s always tricky to start with a solo protagonist. Can he be on the phone with someone as he pulls up?

He navigated his way through the dark, dank hallway until he discovered the elevator. Reluctantly, he stepped in; the doors struggled to close. The elevator, ascending at a snail’s pace, made an odd creaking noise as it moved between floors. As the elevator doors opened, his pulse quickened. He pulled his handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his clammy palms as he made his way down the poorly lit hall in search of the doctor’s office. Butterflies fluttered in his stomach as he reached for the doorknob.

Mia: When an author starts her story, her first job is to hook the reader on her protagonist. Readers need to buy into his situation and begin to root for him. In order for readers to be able to do that, we must have a reason to care. We need to identify with him. Since we don’t know his name or his problem, it’s hard to generate any emotion for him, hard for us to empathize. You’ve spent a lot of time setting the scene. Is it more important for us to be creeped out by the surroundings than for us to discover who this man is?

That said, I like the showing details of him having a handkerchief (an unusual thing for modern men. Seems to indicate a fastidious personality.) and clammy hands. Beware of the overused butterflies.

He was shocked to find the waiting room so crowded. Not surprisingly, the room was nondescript. It had been furnished with a single objective, functionality. No attention whatsoever had been paid to style or comfort. Aside from its lackluster appearance, there was a faint odor in the room that was both unpleasant and unfamiliar. He slid into the only vacant chair. It was uncomfortable. The back was too straight, the seat too narrow and it had a slight wobble to it.

Mia: The room was nondescript, yet you spend the next few sentences describing it. I suggest you give us less about his surroundings and more about him.

The environment did nothing to calm his frayed nerves. As he looked around the crowded room, he discovered he wasn’t the only one struggling with anxiety. He observed fidgeting, profuse perspiring and distressed facial expressions among some of the other patients. One gentleman was actually biting his nails. Ed had not seen anyone bite his nails since his high school days many years ago.

Mia: Hooray! You slipped in your protagonist’s name! Hello, Ed. I wish you’d done it in the first paragraph, but don’t despair. In my first manuscript, I waffled on for several pages before I named my hero. I would spare you the same problem.

You don’t need to say he looked or observed. Just describe the fidgeting and we’ll follow provided you’ve placed us deeply enough in his POV.

He tried to busy himself by retrieving his email on his Blackberry. He saw the words, but could not process their meaning. He shrugged almost imperceptibly and slipped the device back into the left inside pocket of his tailored suit coat. He reached for one of the well-worn magazines on the table nearest to his chair, “Golf Digest.” It was eight months old. Before he could find an article worth reading, he heard his name, “Mr. Richards, Doctor will see you now.” He approached the receptionist’s window and then disappeared behind the hospital gray door. Ed made his way through the narrow hallway, and turned into the second door on the left as the doctor’s assistant had instructed him.

Mia: I wish there had been at least one word that leaped out at him on the Blackberry, something that gave us a hint at what’s wrong. Readers love to guess at what’s coming but you have to give us more to work with.

“So, Mr.-,” Dr. Rosenthal paused and glanced down at his notes, “…Richards,” the doctor continued. “What brings you in today?”

Mia: I’d love to know what’s eating Ed, but even more than that, I’d love to know him. Just for fun, go back and highlight every sentence that deals specifically with your hero. Even in sentences where he’s trudging or walking, the emphasis is on setting, not him. You’ll see how little insight you’ve given us into his character or his problem. Now I’m not one to denigrate beautifully described settings and you’ve done a lovely job with it, but what does the description mean? Unless you can relate the setting more closely to your character, show us how he feels about it or how it illustrates what’s going on inside him, save it for later after we love the hero.

Casandra: Thank you so much for taking the time to give me such a thorough and thoughtful critique. Frankly, I agree with everything you’ve written and have begun to consider how best to implement your suggestions.

In brief, the story is about a lawyer who is handling the most important case of his career while facing a personal crisis. The main storyline focuses on his handling of the case, but his personal struggle is the underlying story. Initially, it was my intention to include the excerpt I forwarded to you in the prologue and then have the big reveal (as relates to his personal struggle) in the epilogue, but someone advised me that editors and publishers don’t like prologues and epilogues. In any event, whether in the epilogue or the final chapter, it is my intention to reveal his problem at the end of the story. As a result, one of my challenges has been to determine how to elicit empathy for my protagonist without revealing why he has gone to see Dr. Rosenthal.

Mia: O. Henry made a career of ending twists that stood his work on its head, but those were short stories. I’m not sure keeping Ed’s underlying problem a secret for the entire novel is sustainable. Especially if he’s trying to find a solution for it.

Casandra’s Bio: Casandra Lewis is a licensed attorney and has been working in the legal field for more than twenty years.   She’s always had an interest in writing, but only recently decided to pursue it seriously.  At least five of her nonfiction pieces have been published and she hopes to become a published fiction writer in the very near future.

Mia: Ok, now it’s YOUR turn to weigh in on Casandra’s opener. And if you’re working on something, let me encourage you to step forward to take the hot seat in a future Red Pencil Thursday. Without our volunteers, we have no critique group. Your courage in putting your work forward will not only help your own prose, you’ll help others. Check out the details for how YOU can become an RPT volunteer.

10 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Casandra says:


    Can you shed any light on whether or not prologues and epilogues are discouraged?

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I think it depends on the story. By definition, a prologue is “telling” to some extent. It’s a backstory dump, which is always frowned upon. If there’s a way to salt the information you need to convey in with the action of your first chapter, that’s preferable. Another tack to take is to make your prologue the first chapter. That way you can make the action feel like it’s happening NOW even if there’s a lag of several years between chapters 1 & 2. Make sure the info in your prologue is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL for the readers to know up front. That means they won’t be able to make sense of the story without it. If they can winkle out the plot enough to follow you without it, leave it out.

      Epilogues are something else. They are part of the falling action or ‘denouement’ readers seem to need, especially if the end of the story is action-filled. It gives them a chance to peek into the HEA a while longer.

      1. Casandra says:

        Thank you for all of your help.

  2. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Cassandra,

    I have to agree with Mia and Karri Lyn, there is a lot of setting and not much about Ed. I did feel the setting was well done but you could prune and condense it for a faster pace.

    You did a nice job of building tension. Help us glean what is wrong with Ed by dropping hints.

    On a picky note (since I was just at the doctor’s office today), Ed didn’t check in, but the nurse calls him by name.

    You have intrigued me. Pare this down and enlighten me more about Ed and I will keep reading.

    1. Casandra says:

      Hi Barb,

      Thanks for your coments. I think I addressed many of your concerns in my earlier replies, but you did raise two new issues. First, you spoke of pacing. That is something that I know I need to address. Someone pointed out that in my genre (legal thriller), the pace needs to be brisk. I definitly plan to pick up the pace.

      Also, thank you for being so perceptive. You are the first person to point out that I forgot to have Ed check in.

      Thank you for all of your encouraging remarks as well. I hope my rewrite will “keep [you] reading.”

  3. I think Mia is spot-on–there’s a great deal of emphasis here on setting but very little on character. Though I can picture the building perfectly, I have no idea what your protagonist looks like beyond that he’s wearing a tailored suit. Is Ed a family man or a player, an optimist or a pessimist, a smart-ass or an earnest do-gooder? It’s impossible to tell when the only dialogue he has here is repeating the address of Dr. Rosenthal’s office. The more attention you pay to bringing your hero to life, the more invested readers will be in his story.

    Also, how long is the full story? As Mia points out, keeping an important detail secret until the end may work in a short story or a novella, but it’s tough to keep readers dangling for an entire novel. If you want to reveal Ed’s problem at the end, and if his handling of the case is the main storyline, I think it’s a mistake to place so much dramatic emphasis on the mystery problem in your opening scene. Consider treating it as a subplot and/or simply foreshadowing it as the main storyline unfolds. Otherwise, you’re pulling a bait and switch, suggesting the story is going to be about Ed’s difficult personal struggle but then withholding the essence of his problem until the story is all but over.

    I think those are pretty easy fixes, really. Like Karri Lyn, I’d love to read more.

    1. Casandra says:

      Hi Karri Lyn,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. I think your points are well taken. I’ll have to reconsider the structure of my story.

      I appreciate your very constructive criticism. Also,I am greatly encourged by your remark, “I’d love to read more of this story.” Those are very exciting words to read. Thank you!

    2. Casandra says:

      Hi Alyssa,

      Thank you for reading my excerpt and offering your insights. I found your comments very helpful.

      As I indicated in my initial response to Mia, I agree that I need to shift the focus to the charachter. In fact, I have already begun to rewrite the beginning of the story in a way that reveals more of Ed’s charachter.

      I also agree with your bait and switch point. I have been struggling with that for some time. Your remarks and the remarks of others confirm that it is an issue that requires my immediate attention.

      Finally, your comment “I’d like to read more,” is truly music to my ears.

      Thank you

  4. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    I agree with Mia–I could hardly make it through 500 words wondering what his problem is. I’d go crazy through a whole novel. As a matter of fact, I’m going to keep checking back in the comments, hoping to get a clue today.

    Your descriptions are great and I’d happily read them all later in the story. At the beginning of stories I’m frequently guilty of skipping adjectives and descriptions to get to the meat of the story to decide if I want to keep reading.

    I’d love to read more of this story.

    1. Casandra says:

      Hi Karri Lyn,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. I think your points are well taken. I’ll have to reconsider the structure of my story.

      I appreciate your very constructive criticism. Also,I am greatly encourged by your remark, “I’d love to read more of this story.” Those are very exciting words to read. Thank you!


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