Red Pencil Thursday

As I was growing up, my dad frequently accused me of being “a day late and a dollar short.” Well, he’s almost right this time. Sorry my Red Pencil Thursday post is going up with half the day gone. In my defense, I’ve been hip deep in my current work-in-progress and popping over to Lucy Monroe’s Online Reader Retreat this week. (I’ll be there this evening at 9 pm EST at her Hospitality Room if you’d care to chat live!)

Red Pencil Thursday

Click image for details on how YOU can be a Red Pencil Thursday Volunteer!

But for now, we’re focusing on Allison Cosgrove’s excerpt for Red Pencil Thursday. Remember, the strength of our critique group is in the creative minds gathered around this cyber-table. I look forward to hearing YOUR thoughts in the comment section.

Dragon Twins

A loud noise startled Jade out of a slight doze. As she straightened up in her chair, she glanced at the clock on her bedside table across the room. Eleven thirty-five.

She looked back at her desk and the textbooks that covered it. The crust of the half-eaten sandwich that Wei-Lee the family housekeeper brought to her just started to turn. She estimated she could not have been more than a half an hour.

Mia: A curling sandwich crust is a unique detail. You’ve piqued my interest. Instead of explaining who Wei-Lee is, can you show us? How about:

The crust of the half-eaten sandwich started to turn. Wei-Lee would scold her for not eating it right away. For a housekeeper, she was pretty bossy.

This way we know who she is and a little more about her relationship with Jade. Is there a word missing in the last sentence? Seems like you need ‘asleep’ after been.

Allison: Oops! I did edit out that word! Guess I need to add it back… otherwise we might start thinking our dear Jade is a clock the way that sentence is worded! ;-)

And as for Wei-Lee I see your point. I will have to rework that and the paragraph below.

Another crash came from the direction of the kitchen. What on earth was Wei-Lee doing at this time of night that would make that sort of a racket?

She was just about to get up and find out when the door to her room flew open and two almost identical Asian men burst into her room.

Mia: You’ve used Wei-Lee’ name more often than Jade’s. We need to identify with our heroine and her name helps us do that.  

Is Jade Asian? If so, would she think of them as Asian men or just as men? Identical, huh? Are they the DRAGON TWINS?

Allison: Good point she may not think of them as anything other than men. Never actually thought of it that way! Ha!

She barely had a chance to cry out before the men grabbed her. She tried to lash out with her feet at the men. However, all she did was knock more of her text books onto the floor as they tried to pull her towards the door.

Mia: When you write quick action, your prose needs to reflect it. Use sharp, short sentences and cut out any words that soften or slow the action. Like this:

 Jade barely had a chance to cry out before the men grabbed her. She lashed out with her feet. All she did was knock her text books onto the floor as they pulled her towards the door.

“You are coming with us.” one of the men said his voice thick with a Chinese accent. “You can come the easy way or the hard way the choice is yours. Either way you are coming with us.”

Mia: I’m not familiar with a Chinese accent. What is it like? Sharp? Clipped? Guttural? Give us a more specific adjective than ‘thick.’ Also, since they are determined to take her, I don’t see them giving her a choice of going easy or hard. Wouldn’t they want her to keep quiet more than anything? 

Going with them?! Jade’s mind screamed.

Mia: My publishers request that I underline any text that’s supposed to be internal dialogue. If Going with them?! is Jade’s direct thought, I’d underline it so the copy editor will know it should be italicized. However, every house has different rules for this.

Allison: I never knew that! Thanks for the heads up!

“There’s no way I am letting you take me anywhere!” she yelled. She continued to struggle for freedom.

Mia: Heather Osborn, editor for Samhain, says “Every time you use an exclamation point, you kill a kitten.” Now occasionally, the cat has to die, but before you do it, ask yourself if there’s another way. If you leave ‘she yelled’ in, you don’t need the ! Just put a comma after anywhere and the ‘she yelled’ supplies the emphasis.

‘Struggle for freedom’ seems too generic. Give us specifics. Did she try to yank her arms free? Elbow one of the men? Twist in their grasp?

Allison: Eeek! Not going to kill kittens… ever. ;-) Great advice.

As for the line “struggle for freedom” line, I think in my attempt to avoid sounding overly dramatic I have ended up with a generic sentence.   

The men must have thought that she was going to go willingly as they were not holding her as tight as they should have been. This time she lashed out and racked her nails across his cheek. This caused him to release her arm in order to protect his face.

Mia: I haven’t seen anything that suggests she’d come quietly. Doubt her assailants thought so either. Can Jade do something, say something that distracts them enough to allow her to lash out?

Allison: How I missed this I’m not sure but you have a point, she needs to do something here.

Mia: As authors, we can see everything that happens with perfect clarity. The trick is to transfer it to the right words so the readers sees, smells, hears, feels everything we do.

She took the chance and ran out the bedroom door and down the stairs. She hoped to find Wei-Lee or a something she could use to defend herself against these men.

Mia: Delete anything that slows the action at this point. Took the chance is unnecessary. Hoped to find doesn’t feel desperate enough to me. This seems like a moment for internal dialogue. Something like: Where’s Wei-Lee? Or She’d give anything for an iron skillet or something like that since she’s headed for the kitchen.

Allison: Show not tell. I have problems with this sometimes.

Mia: You are not alone. ;-)

She could hear the men running down the stairs after her. She looked back over her shoulder. They were only a few feet behind her as she raced through the house trying to get to the kitchen.

Mia: Generally, you don’t need to tell us your heroine sees, hears, feels, etc. We’re in her POV. Show us what’s happening and we’ll follow. Here’s a chance to make use of descriptive verbs. How about pounding instead of runningGlanced instead of looked back?

She was almost to the kitchen when another man stepped out of the doorway directly into her path. He was Asian like the rest what grabbed her attention the most was the knife he was holding. Red liquid dripped from it onto the tile floor below.

Mia: Mark Twain said it’s not what’s in a book that makes it successful. It’s what’s left out. He meant we should always write tight prose. Here’s how I’d cinch up this paragraph:

Another man blocked the kitchen door, the knife in his hand dripping red onto the tiles.

Less usually is more.

Allison: I love Mark Twain J And I love what you’ve done with that particular paragraph!

She had caught the man off guard and ducked around him and into the kitchen where she was stopped short by the sight of Wei-Lee. The housekeeper laid stiff on the floor of the kitchen in a slowly spreading pool of blood.

Mia: I’m doubting she’d be able to catch a guy with a knife off guard. Something needs to distract him. Is there anyone else in the house? If not, can the phone ring or an alarm go off? The housekeeper can’t be stiff yet if the blood is still spreading. Rigor mortis doesn’t set in till 3-4 hours after death.  

Allison: There are moments when I wonder which side of my brain I am working with. I swear there are two parts sometimes and both sides try to speak at the same time. It’s rather annoying when both bits of thought end up in the same sentence. I am not entirely sure I meant to have her stiff but was thinking of a long dead body at the same time as writing a just dead body.

A hand on her shoulder tried to spin her around. At the same time, her reflexes drove her forward and she jumped over the housekeeper’s body. She dove for the cordless phone sitting on the counter behind her.

 Mia: A reflex is reactive and Jade is being proactive here. Adrenaline is propelling her. Cut behind her. I think you mean behind the housekeeper, but it’s confusing.

Allison: Yes I do. Yes you are right. ;-)

Without looking she started to dial 911.

Mia: How about another descriptive verb? She punched 911.

You’ve got an exciting beginning, but I think it’s too much too soon. Where to begin a story is one of the more important decisions a writer makes. It’s good to start with the inciting incident, but give us a reason to care about Jade before you throw her into danger. Think about every disaster movie you’ve ever seen. Does it start with the ship sinking? No. It’s all about the characters and their Ordinary World. We have to care about the people involved or the disaster itself isn’t enough to keep us engaged. 

Good work. Keep writing! (Oops. There goes a kitten.)

Allison: You have brought up a whole bunch of great points. Loads of food for thought when I go to rework this part! Thank a million! (There goes two more! Oops three…)


Allison Cosgrove was born and raised in a suburb of Toronto, Ontario. A married mother of three daughters, she works in accounting by day and creates her own worlds by night. She enjoys spending time with her husband and daughters hiking in the woods or sitting by the fire reading a good book. She has had the love of reading and writing detective mysteries from the age of twelve but it has only been since the birth of her youngest that she has gotten serious about crafting some of her own works for others to enjoy. She credits her family and friends with being the driving force that has given her the strength to breathe life into her books. Link to her other work.

Now it’s your turn, my lovelies! What suggestions or encouragement do you have for Allison?

14 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Whew! Just getting back here after a hectic day! Thank you everyone for the time and effort you have put into your comments. I sincerely appreciate the advice.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks for putting your work out there, Allison. We can’t have RPT without YOU and other brave souls like you.

      1. I see it as a benefit really. I mean no one is born knowing everything. We have to learn and grown as people and in this case as authors! I am still learning and love having input from other people :)

  2. Barb Bettis says:

    You’ve had excellent suggestions here, Allison. I can’t think of anything to add–but I did want to sympathize a little.

    What Mia said is true, and we hear it a good deal now–show the protagonist in a point of normal life to identify with him/her before the danger kicks in. So many of the TV shows, as well as movies, do that.

    Trouble is, we’ve also been told in many cases to start with the action to hook the reader, so it’s a dichotomy. We want to start with an exciting hook, but we also have to provide enought info about the protag. so that the readers will care about her/him.

    Would it be possible for us to have just a little bit more time with Jade after she awakens before the abduction attempt, when she maybe picks up her books and we know if they’re high school or college books (must be college the way she fights); why she’s tired when it’s still early; why only she and the housekeeper are at home alone or maybe even some clue about her life, etc., that’s going to give us some inkling of why she’s been abducted.

    One or two of those points can be tucked in phrases, so they wouldn’t have to be long, drawn-out sentences.

    Oh, well, here I am, going on and on, so I’ll stop. But I have every sympathy with you on trying to decide the point of entry into your story. From what you’ve shared with us so far,however, it’s going to be an exciting read.

    Good luck.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I guess the trick is to show the character in their Ordinary World in an extraordinary light. The point is to help us identify with the protagonist, so if your heroine is going to save a cat up a tree, now’s the time.

  3. Marcy W says:

    Allison, I’m caught enough to want to know more about Jade, and why men want to abduct her, but I agree with Mia that this may not be the place to start. By focusing on the action and making us feel the danger and urgency, you’ve not left yourself space to tell us why this is happening. We know more about Wei-Lee than we do about Jade.
    A few picky things: in the first paragraph, use commas to make a sentence flow more smoothly: …Wei-Lee, the family housekeeper, … That phrase tells me some things, and I wonder if they’re true: that Jade is young (still living at home), and that the family is well-to-do (have servants). That actually may help me understand why she’s being abducted, though I might need another clue.
    “The men must have thought that she was going to go willingly as they were not holding her as tight as they should have been. This time she lashed out and racked her nails across his cheek. This caused him to release her arm in order to protect his face.” — This paragraph has several problems, for me. First sentence is too long, and as Mia said, we need a clue about her having given them reason to think she was being compliant. “This time” stopped me cold … as opposed to what time? I don’t think that helps; again, shorter, and use more action verbs. Just “she suddenly lashed out. . .’ is better. Also, ‘racked’ should be ‘raked’, I think?? And the phrase “caused him to” is another of those wordy bits that needs to go.
    I really understand the wordiness, as that’s one of my problems, too … hmmm, is this ‘comment’ getting a little long? :) IMHO, it’s better to just write, get it all out, and then go back and be ruthless about slashing away the unnecessary stuff, tighten up the verbs, use only the modifiers that really help the reader sense the scene. My guess is that you could rewrite this scene in about 300 words, making it more exciting, and then have 200 words to give us backstory or a better sense of who Jade is.
    Good luck, and thanks for sitting on Mia’s ‘hot seat’!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Your comments are never too long, Marcy, because you always have such insightful things to share.

      Totally agree about getting the story out and then slashing your prose without pity. I managed to carve 3K off ONE NIGHT WITH A RAKE, my latest manuscript after you saw it Marcy. It was all the better for being a bit leaner.

  4. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Allison and Mia,

    Thanks for sharing your WIP with us today Allison. I agree with Mia’s thoughts on shortening the action sentences for more power, and also giving us a glimpse of Jade’s life before she is attacked. Actually, when I did RPT a few years back, I needed to slow down a minor assault scene and let the reader learn to like my character before she was put in harm’s way. I learned that from Mia.

    I have a couple of minor things that jumped out at me. The bedside table across the room should be by the bed (or it’s just a table).

    If the men burst in quickly would she really have time to assess the men were identical? Maybe that could come later.

    The men seem too wordy to me. I would think they would say “Come” or “Shut up”

    Mia brought up the asian word. It is repeated a few times. If Jade is asian, I don’t think she would identify them as asian but maybe by a country or region. If she isn’t asian, then maybe describe the men once or have Jade recognize an accent.

    I think you have an interesting story here. Keep up the good work.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks, Barbara. As always, your comments are spot on. I missed the table placement. It’s always good to have a mental room arrangement. I’ve been known to sketch out floorplans for the great houses where my story’s action takes place, just to keep my characters from running into each other or having rooms accidently migrate from floor to floor.

  5. Debbie says:

    Mia, I love your Red Pencil critiques, but you always give such great suggestions that I can’t think of anything to add without being redundant. All I can think to add would be “sound” details – the struggle seems to be muted – and to use present tense verbs for “immediacy”. “She had caught the man off guard” could be “She startled . . .” and Mia already provided the 911 example.

    Allison, I am so impressed that you are not only writing but actively honing your craft while working two full-time jobs as an accountant and a mom. Disclaimer: No actual kittens were harmed in the creation of this post.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks, Debbie. I enjoy doing them and probably learn more than my volunteer. Excellent point about using verbs that are more immediate. I’ve never tried actually writing in present tense, but I suspect the sense of immediacy is why so many authors (YA and Romantic Suspense particularly) are going to it.

  6. Thanks so much Mia for this wonderful opportunity!I look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts! (there goes another kitten…..)


    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks for stepping up to be a volunteer, Allison. It takes courage to put your work out there! (Please note: Only virtual kittens are killed by exclamation points.)

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