Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayToday the main message for our online critique group seems to be: Show. Don’t tell.

It’s a common mistake and one that can creep into our writing while we aren’t paying attention. I appreciate Emma Swan, our volunteer, for letting us all go to school on the first 500 words of her WIP. My comments are in red. Her responses are in blue. A critique group is only as strong as all the people sitting around the cyber-kitchen table. Please add your thoughts in the comment section.

Weekend Escape

A title is your first hook. It’s your promise to the reader of what sort of story they’re going to get. This seems to indicate a light-hearted fluff sort of piece, but notice I’m not committing to that assessment because the title is a bit vague. It could be a story about a prison break. What are you trying to convey?

I can see your point. This novel will be a romance/thriller and the title comes from what happens toward the end of the book; I will consider other possibilities so it is more appealing to the reader.

Ding. The bell rings, signaling for the men to shift positions; the whole process reminds me of herding cattle. The middle aged, balding man sitting across the table gives me a wink, stands up, and moves on to tell the next woman in line his three minute life story. I shudder to think of who comes next.

I like starting with the bell’s sound, but then you tell me it rang. Let’s stick with showing. Cut The bell rings, signaling for the men to shift positions; and you’ll have a stronger opening with no diminution in clarity. Love the three minute life story.

Thank you for pointing out how much I did this! I will work on showing and cutting the repetition.

We all do this. A lot. It spools off our fingers like the print version of a verbal tick.

When will this end? My gaze shifts to Sarah, my best friend, and I can see a small crease forming in-between her brows and her usual smile is absent from her face.

Could she mouth When will this end? to Sarah? I’d like for her to connect with her friend here. Cut My gaze shifts and I can see. You don’t need to tell us your POV character can see something. We’re looking through her eyes already. Just show us like this:

‘When will this end?’ I mouth to Sarah, my best friend. A small crease forms between her brows and her usual smile is absent.

I removed from her face because there’s no place else her smile could be. Before you smack your forehead a la “I coulda had a V-8,” let me assure you I’ve made the same mistake lots of times.

That is a great suggestion, thank you. I can see the scene in my head, and one of my weaknesses is skipping details that would be interesting to the reader.

Speed dating was her idea in the first place. Sarah is a hopeless romantic and this is the result of her quest for the perfect man – something I simply do not believe exists. I know she sees us riding off into the sunset with our princes, but I live in the real world. How many relationships do I know that lasted through the tough times; maybe one or two? Definitely nobody in my family. Even my grandparents are divorced.

Succinct way to let us know where her head is. She’s a cynic, but still hopeful or she wouldn’t be even  be there. Good job.

Thanks! ;-) That is what I was hoping to convey.

I sigh and think it would be nice to go home to a warm embrace that doesn’t involve slobber and dog hair. Someone to meet me at the door, to feel strong arms wrapped around me at night, a per-

Like the seeing bit, you don’t need to tell us she thinks something. We’re in her head. We know she’s thinking. Put a period after sigh and start the next sentence with It would be nice…

“Hello? Hey, you there?” The suddenness of the man’s voice snaps me back to reality and I notice him sitting across the table. I wonder how long he has been there and remember that I am in the middle of a speed-date thing.

“Oh! Crud, I’m sorry… I was, umm, lost in thought.” I shrug and try to give a small laugh hoping he finds it cute, not ditzy. “Hey, I’m Rebecca. What brings you here?” I reply, realizing I must sound like a complete idiot. What brings you here, really?

I find her cute, not ditzy. Mission accomplished.


He shoots me a quick smirk and butterflies race through my stomach, forming a knot in an instant. He reminds me of a movie star, with his wavy, brown hair, hints of blonde here and there highlighting his sky blue eyes, and if that wasn’t enough, the dimples in his cheeks could make any woman melt. I am blown away that someone with his looks is here speed-dating. I figured only fat balding men came to these things.

Butterflies in the stomach are pretty trite. Bet you can do better. Is there a simile you can devise that will tie in with the forming a knot part of the sentence? Blond without an e is correct if you’re talking about a guy.

Careful. She’s sounding a little shallow. We want to like her. She can be incredulous that an A-lister is slumming amid the cattle call of speed dating, and maybe  wonder what’s wrong with him on the inside or if he lost a bet, but I’ve met some fat bald guys who are absolute princes. We don’t like it when guys judge women solely on their looks, so it makes me a little uncomfortable that your heroine is doing it.

Taking another look at this, I can see where I need to make some stronger analogies. Thanks for pointing that out. I was just reading about blonde/blond and learned that recently.

Good point, I don’t want to do anything to cause the reader to dislike her, she is the one character in this story the reader should love throughout. I will re-write this paragraph.

“Well, I’m here trying to meet someone nice, but I can tell your not interested so I’ll just move on.” He gets up to leave and I feel a rush of panic; this gorgeous guy is leaving because I cannot get my head out of the clouds long enough to speed date.

You’re not your in the first sentence.

Thanks, I missed that.

Like I see and I think, I feel is telling. Show us. A rush of panic hits my gut.

Head out of the clouds is another trope. Can you think of a fresher way to say she’s mentally AWOL?

Absolutely, I can do better! Great suggestion, and as before, thanks for pointing out how much I used telling instead of showing. I appreciate it.


“Wait! Please don’t leave. Can we just start over? What’s your name?”

“David.” He gives me a look and I can’t tell what it means.

What sort of look? Even if she can’t tell what it means, you need to give your readers a chance at deciphering him. In fact, readers enjoy being one step ahead of the characters sometimes.

Good suggestion, thanks.

“Yeah, we can start over.” He tells me after a long pause and then he flashes me that mega-watt smile again and I am done for.

I’m liking him a lot. Please tell me he didn’t lose a bet.

“You don’t seem to be into this, is this your first time?” he asks.

Put a period after the first this to divide his speech into two sentences.

Thanks for the grammar reminder again. ;-)

“Is it that obvious?”

Emma, you’ve got a clean, spare voice that’s very appealing and fits your chosen genre well. Good work!

I cannot thank you enough for your time and comments. I am very new to writing and it is helpful to see where I can make adjustments for growth. I will take your suggestions and ideas into account and welcome any other comments your followers may have.

Emma’s Bio: I have loved reading since I was a small child; that love has turned into a passion for writing as well. I am a network engineer by trade, but when the technical part of me is done for the day, the creative side emerges. The characters I have created have and do bring me much joy; my hope is that they can do the same for others.


Now it’s your turn to offer helpful suggestions to Emma.

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8 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Nynke says:

    I really liked this and I definitely want to read more. Good luck with your writing, Emma, and thanks!

  2. Hi Emma

    I don’t really read much first person, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this piece.

    I don’t think I can add much more than Mia has already around the telling, but I would perhaps try to make her reaction to seeing him more. What you have is very similar to reeling off a list of attributes. For instance-

    “What brings you here…”

    My words get stuck on my tongue as he gives up the most bone melting smile. Wow! What on earth is a guy like him doing at a speed dating night? Thank you, thank you, Sarah. Movie star meets action man. A face that draws you in until you’re hypnotized by eyes of sky blue etc etc

    Good work! I want to read more.

  3. Barbara Britton says:

    Oops! Sorry for the typos. I’m running out to pick up my son!

  4. Barbara Britton says:

    Emma, this opening is so fun! I have a smile on my face and I’m definitely reading on to see what happens–nice work on hooking me.

    I agree with Mia on the ‘showing us’ her feelings and I like he comment on her mouthing “When is this done.”

    The liked the pacing, too. Good job!

  5. Kat Duncan says:

    Hm…showing seems to be tougher to do when you write in first person. At least I would find it tougher.

    Emma, you have an interesting situation here with the speed-dating scene. It seems as if you are trying to do two things at once: introduce this female character and put her in the situation of failing at speed dating because she’s not into it. Kind of hard to do because to show this she needs to be “in her head” at the same time she’s “in the moment”.

    Blending these two is not impossible, but it’s tricky. In the excerpt the balance is tipped toward the “in her head” side, which feels more like telling. After you work through Mia’s excellent suggestions, you might want to tip the balance the other way just to see whether it works better.

    It means having to trim the introspection sentences down to the barest minimum and make sure they get sprinkled into the right spots in the dialogue, but you’re already good at that, for example “embrace that doesn’t involve slobber and dog hair”. I love that image! Mia describes it as a “spare voice” and I think that’s a perfect description of your unique style. I also sense that you have more of a humorous voice than this piece showed off. I’d love to see more of that also. Best of luck with your writing!

    1. Mia says:

      Such a valid insight, Kat. 1st person really does slant toward telling. Since I use 3rd person past tense, I hadn’t tumbled to that.

  6. Great comments, Mia. You’re right on, every time. And Emma, in this tiny fragment, you grabbed my interest. I wanted to know what happened next–which means, flaws and all, the fragment succeeds.

    Now, my two cents: Smirk. My dictionary defines “smirk” as “smile in an irritatingly smug or conceited way.” In other words, it’s a smile that reveals character flaws in the one smiling.

    I see “smirk” used incorrectly so frequently, I sometimes wonder if it’s meaning has changed. But I suspect the real reason for it’s misuse is reliance on the MS Word thesaurus.

    Advice to all newbies: never trust MS Word. Get yourself a good thesaurus, and even then, if you’re not sure of a word’s definition, look it up.

    1. Mia says:

      Words to live by, Mary Margaret. I’d add this: If you have to find the word in the thesaurus, it’s probably not a word you should have used.

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