Red Pencil Thursday

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

It’s been a while since I had a victim…er, volunteer for RPT, but today our online critique group rides again!  I can’t stress my appreciation for our volunteers enough. It takes courage to put your words out there and invite the world to weigh in.

However, Red Pencil Thursday is a pretty safe venue. The goal is always to help writers think in new directions and for all of us to apply what we learn here to our own writing.

If you’re not a writer, please don’t feel you can’t comment. Readers often raise the most salient points! So be sure to share your thoughts with Melissa Limoges, our intrepid volunteer. And if you’re a writer, check the details for how YOU can get into the hotseat. I’d love to take a look at your work.  

My Reckless Love

Lady Arabella de Perci of Penswyck grimaced at the forty feet or more looming below her and expelled a harsh breath. “Cursed hell.”

Mia: I love the juxtaposition of her being a lady while the first words out of her mouth are decidedly unladylike. Arabella is one of my favorite names too. I used it in A Duke for All Seasons for my heroine, Arabella St. George.

Melissa: I really love the name Arabella, and I didn’t particularly want her to be too much of a Lady. J

Without a doubt, this was the daftest plan she’d proposed in the entirety of her score of years. The daring task seemed sensible when she plotted her escape with her maid, Maggie, days before. Nevertheless, wedged against the wall of her family’s castle, clutching a makeshift rope of knotted gowns and bed linens, she had to admit her grand design to flee terrified the bleeding life out of her.

Mia: Sometimes too many words can get in the way of the story. Let’s see if we can tighten up this prose. See what you think of this—

Her daring plan had seemed sensible when she plotted with her maid days before. Nevertheless, wedged against the wall of her family’s castle, clutching a makeshift rope of knotted gowns and bed linens, her grand design to flee terrified the bleeding life out of her.

It’s not important for us to know she’s 20 or that her maid’s name is Maggie. You have us on the edge of a 40 foot drop. That calls for a brisker pace.

Melissa: That is a lot tighter and reads much smoother. Great suggestion. I have the tendency to be a bit too descriptive.

In spite of the frigid night air, perspiration seeped from Arabella’s scalp and rolled down her face and neck. She wiped the sleeve of her smuggled linen shirt across her forehead and shifted her bare toes against the chilled stone. One hand at a time, she released the rope to stretch her stiff, aching fingers, drying her damp palms on her trew-clad thighs.

Mia: I’d cut ‘seeped from Arabella’s scalp and’. I’m a little unclear on why her fingers are stiff and aching at this point. She hasn’t started climbing down yet, has she? Plus ‘released the rope’ means she let go of it. I think you can be clearer about what’s happening.

Melissa: Ah, okay. I see I didn’t really make it clear that she is, in fact, in the process of climbing down from the start. I’ll need to rework this area. 

Wind ripped through the forest beyond the bailey wall, creating a barrage of whistles and howls. Coupled with her terror of heights, the daunting noise wrecked her concentration. She shut her eyes in an effort to dismiss the distraction and focused on the rapid thump of her heart echoing in her ears. She’d never reach the safety of her uncle’s keep if she didn’t get a hold of herself.

Mia: Not every noun deserves a modifier. ‘Whistles and howls’ is enough without telling us that the noise is ‘daunting’ as well.  I think you mean ‘curtain wall’ instead of bailey wall. The curtain wall is the outer wall of a castle. The bailey is the open space it encloses.

Melissa: Ha, yes, curtain wall. Makes sense now, but for the life of me, I couldn’t quite find the right name at the time.

After several deep, reassuring breaths, she reopened her eyes and fixed her attention on the sapphire gown between her fists. You must do this. It’s the only way.

Arabella floundered on the next step, and her bare toes slipped on the moss-covered, craggy stone. Pain shot through her foot, eliciting a wince. She scrambled against the stone and managed to regain her foothold. The persistent, burning sting brought tears to her eyes, and she bit her bottom lip to stifle a cry. Damn but her slippers had made the task easier. Alas, both of them had fallen to the ground not long after she’d crawled from her tower window. No time to lament the loss, she’d endure the injury until she found a chance to tend it once the Scottish border lay behind her. Braced against the wall, she resumed her miserable, painstaking descent to freedom.

Mia: OK, now I know she’s dangling along the side, but the last I knew she was standing at the precipice having a bit of a rethink about this plan. Sometimes, we authors have a scene in our mind so clearly, we don’t realize that our vision isn’t being translated clearly into our readers’ mental theaters. That’s why my Prime Writing Directive is “First, be clear.” Why not start the story with one of her slippers tumbling to earth below her and you can place her without ambiguity in mid-descent?

Melissa: Your Prime Writing Directive is such a sound piece of advice. And you are absolutely right. I can see the scene clearly in my head. However, working it out on paper is much different. I also think you had a wonderful idea to begin the story with the loss of one of her slippers. To be honest, it never occurred to me to go in that particular direction, which would make more sense and probably clear up any confusion with her placement on the wall. I’ll have to play around with this beginning a bit and make her exact placement and actions obvious to the reader from the beginning.

With each bit of distance gained, a fount of bitterness deepened. Her thoughts lapsed to the villainous bastard who’d landed her in this repugnant position. Sir Geoffrey Ross. The man’s horrid name was enough to ignite a blistering inferno of rage inside of her. The fiend’s desire to obtain wealth akin her family’s was no secret, though she never conceived he’d resort to rape, murder, and imprisonment to achieve his goal.

Mia: This is a bit of an info dump while your heroine is in a precarious position. How about if you have her curse him for driving her to this desperate action, but leave some of the other info about his less than stellar deeds and character for later? Part of an author’s job is to tease her reader into continuing to read on by creating questions with little info hooks scattered through the prose.

Melissa: Another great point. Because of the position she is in, she does need to continue moving and not stall with too many reflections.

Her fury, along with the need to avoid discovery, bolstered her confidence and she descended the fragile line with haste. Once Ross arrived on the morrow, there would be no other chance to flee. She refused to willingly enter a marriage decreed by the king to the new Lord of Penswyck. In all likelihood, the imminent result of such a union would be her death.

Mia: You’ve certainly raised the stakes of the story here. Her life is in jeopardy if she weds Ross. And you have a gift for description. With very little tweaking, My Reckless Love is off to a roaring start.

Melissa: Hurray! Thank you so much for all of your helpful feedback and insight, Mia. Honestly, I feel a bit more optimistic about My Reckless Love now. You’ve given me some wonderful suggestions to work with. I feel confident that I can improve on the beginning and shape it into something more attention-grabbing for the reader.

Thank you so much again, Mia. I really appreciate you taking the time and effort with my first 500 words.

Mia: My pleasure, Melissa.

  Melissa’s Bio:

Melissa LImogesI was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, and I’ve always been an avid lover of history. European history, in particular. Once I began reading romances, I fell head over heels with historicals. Recently, I combined my two loves to write my first novel, My Reckless Love.


Now it’s YOUR turn! What suggestions, corrections, or encouragement do you have for Melissa? And remember, I’m always on the look out for the next Red Pencil Thursday volunteer!


52 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Ella Quinn says:

    Now that you’re all done with the structure, I’m getting out my OED and knowledge of Regency dress. The term bleeding is an anachronism, not having been used until the later part of the 19th century. Also check your footwear. You don’t give a year, but if it was during the midieval period there would be a tie or strap of some sort on dress shoes and generally woman wore a type of half-boot during the day.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Note to self: No bleeding prior to late 19th century. At least not in this context. Thanks, Ella.

      One of the things I like to do as part of my pre-writing is sort out my characters’ closets. If I can put together two or three fictional outfits from top to toe, they’re ready to get through their day.

  2. Cora Blu says:

    This post was timely and helpful. Tightening my writing before I submit to an editor is always my biggest fear.
    I appreciate your suggestions and although I don’t write regency, my favorite genre, I’m applying them to my work.

    Cora Blu

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I’m so glad RPT was a help to you. That’s sort of the point, Cora. I hope you’ll consider becoming one of our volunteers in the future. I’ve had writers at all levels take the hotseat, from unpublished aspiring to NYTimes bestsellers.

  3. Sorry I was later to chime in. ‘Twas a long day at work.

    I really just wanted to thank you all so much for the suggestions, kind words and encouragement you ladies offered me today. Words can’t express just how grateful I am. I’m rather under confident with my writing, but I actually feel like a confident writer today. With all of your advice, I’m sure I can write a great opening now. Thank you so much again, each and every one of you.

    1. Marcy W says:

      YAY … isn’t it fabulous what a group (even virtual group) of women can do for each other?! Melissa, you’re on the receiving end this time — and another time, when you need or want it — and we’ll always find ways to encourage and help each other. That you feel more confident now makes me so happy, and even more eager to read more of your story. And thanks again, Mia, for hosting this fun ‘hen party’. :)

    2. Mia Marlowe says:

      The deep dark secret is that most writers feel under confident about their work. I’ve even heard that “La Nora” believes she turns in crap to her editor, which of course is untrue. I think it comes from the fact that we put so much of our hearts into our stories. They are tangled up with who we are.

      I’m sure you can do this, Melissa. If Red Pencil Thursday has give you anything, I hope you’ll take away that writing in an ocean and we’re all just bobbing around in the shallow end, looking for ways to delve into the deeps.

  4. Mia, I’m in awe. I’ve happily bookmarked your site. Great job, Melissa. I can’t wait to read more of your book one day.

    1. Thank you so much, Sheri. Mia is fabulous. Truly, the advice offered her today is such a huge help.

    2. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks, Sheri! I hope you’ll come back often.

  5. Barb Bettis says:

    Hi Melissa,
    What great feedback offered here today. I’ve made notes for myself, too.:)

    You have some very nice description, and you’ve really set the stakes for Arabella. We all know she’s got to hurry before Sir Villain arrives. As for backstory–I have a problem with that myself, so I can identify :)

    Sometimes the way I have to decide how much description or backstory to use is to imagine what I’d be thinking or doing in her place. If I wouldn’t bother with that thought as I was dangling from a line of clothes and bedding, then I’d slip it in later.

    You know the first thing that popped in my mind when I read about those things knotted togeter?—I sure hope all those knots hold. :)

    Keep going Melissa. You’ve got an exciting start.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Backstory is a seductive swamp for writers. We know everything about our characters, every delicious little secret, every hidden motive. It’s such a temptation to let it all spew out. But we need to hold back, all the while tossing out teasing little hooks, to draw our readers in.

      1. You are so right. That is one of my issues, especially since this is my first novel. I have a hard time gauging when to insert bits of backstory and when to save it for later.

    2. Hi Barb! I think I’ll be printing everything on this page out for sure. :)

      That is a great piece of advice. Definitely lends to a deeper POV.

      And I also think it’s funny you mentioned the knotted clothing. I wondered if someone else might be curious about that too.

      Thank you so much for your suggestions and kind words.

  6. Maurine H says:

    Thanks for sharing your beginning words to My Reckless Love. I was also intrigued by the contradiction of a lady’s first words being very unladylike. It tells me she’s not your conventional historical woman and I can’t wait to read her story. Also makes me wonder what her hero’s going to think of her, lol.

    Being afraid of heights myself, the task being “sensible” would not have been my assessment. More like insanity. I would have to be very desperate and feel I had no other options to get me out on that castle wall. The fact that she’s willing to do something that terrifies her tells me that what she is trying to escape is worse than her fear of heights, so like others have said, Sir Ross’s horrid deeds can be told later.

    Does this take place at night in the dark? If so, I would think the closing of her eyes would work because she wouldn’t be able to see any less than what she could with her eyes open. I would be tempted to keep mine closed if I thought I wouldn’t be able to see how high I was from the ground. And I would definitely do this in the dark when I can’t see how high I am. Is her maid waiting for her below or is she even escaping with Arabella? If she is below, perhaps Arabella can tell herself the maid will catch her if she falls (even if she knows logically this is not realistic–you tell yourself all kinds of lies when you’re scared witless).

    I have trouble with deciding what details are necessary to place the reader in my stories, too. I think a lot of writers do. I like how you interspersed detail with action. This helps to cut the descriptions. Also, instead of using several adjectives or adverbs to describe something, you can use only one. For example, “clutching a makeshift rope of knotted gowns and bed linens”–omit “makeshift” because “knotted gowns and bed linens” tells us the rope is makeshift and is more descriptive. Or “stiff, aching fingers”–decide if stiff describes them better than aching or if aching is better.

    You can hasten the pace by writing shorter, punchier sentences. Then to slow it again, write longer, more descriptive sentences.

    I like the end of the passage by stating this was life or death. It gives the reader something to worry about. It also raises more questions, which you want. I’d love to read the rest of this. I agree with Mia that it’s a good start and only needs a little tweaking. Great job!

    Sorry to be so long-winded.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful reply, Maurine. You’ve raised so many good points. This just proves what I always say about Red Pencil Thursday. The critique group is as strong as the minds gathered around. Thanks for sharing your fresh perspective!

    2. Hi, Maurine. Ah, her hero. I don’t think he really knew what to do with her at first.

      I really felt the same about closing her eyes as well. I suppose it came from my reactions to things. Generally, if I’m overwhelmed, I will close my eyes in either exasperation, worry, anger, etc. Gives me a minute to block things out and get my head on straight.

      Thank your for your suggestion about cutting certain adjective and adverbs. That’s a handy way of deciding which to cut as well.

      Ha, I’m always long-winded. I suppose that shows in my writing. :) Thank you so much for your advice and kind words. It means a lot.

  7. Marcy W says:

    Great to have RPT back! Thanks Melissa for sharing and asking for feedback … always helpful but can be a bit hard on the ego. I have little to add to all of Mia’s suggestions (if I didn’t want her to keep writing, I’d say she’d be a great editor!) and the other comments above — but want to encourage you to keep writing! I can tell that you ‘see’ the scene clearly in your mind, and just need to keep going till we see it the same way. I can agree with the comments about wordiness, it being one of my failings, both spoken and written :), but just put all those words down and then get rid of the extras later. Now, get Arabella down to the ground, I need to know how she gets to safety!! :) Thanks again.
    Mia, in your comment just above to Laurie, you mention a paintbrush … have you finally dipped one into a bucket of pain and applied it to a wall???? :)

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Well, no. I still have white walls in the condo, but I do fill them with colorful prints and paintings. I am however, planning on completely repainting our home in MO once we move back there next year.

    2. Hi, Marcy! I agree that Mia is a fabulous editor. Thank you so much for your kind words. That really means a lot to me.

  8. Laurie Evans says:

    Thank you for sharing! I like the sound of this story. Thanks for the analysis, Mia (and others in the comments.) These suggestions are helpful to this newbie writer.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Glad you dropped by, Laurie. I popped over to your Handyman blog. I admire DIY-ers so much, but can’t emulate you. Anything more complicated than a paint brush is beyond me.

    2. Thank you so much for reading it, Laurie. These suggestions are wonderful and completely priceless to me.

  9. Kris Kennedy says:

    Umm, wow, I had a lot to say. Sorry about that. It looked shorter in the comment box. LOL

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Don’t you dare apologize. After reading your comment, I’ve taped a sticky note to my computer that reads “hard-packed punches” to remind myself to be specific and spare.

      1. Kris Kennedy says:

        Oh, I’m so glad! Thanks Mia. I’m no master at it, which is why I can remember to dispense the advice: I’m constantly repeating it in my head. LOL

        What a wonderful opportunity you provide for us all with your Red Pencil day, Mia. Thanks!

      2. I did as well, Mia. :)

  10. Kris Kennedy says:

    Hi Mia & Melissa~

    Oh, so brave, Melissa! It’s hard to have your stuff out there being analyzed, even if analyzing is the whole reason you put it out to begin with. :)

    I think Mia and you really nailed down the important stuff, including pruning & tightening her reflections about Sir Geoffrey. That helps not only pick up the pace, but as Mia said, makes the reader ask questions, such as, “What the heck did this Sir Geoffrey guy do to make her climb down a castle wall?”

    Those kind of questions make us turn the page and *want* the answers, rather than having to endure an info-dump before the author gets us back to the story. ;) A curious reader is a page-turning reader.

    Like Nicola, I think the tighter and more Anglo-Saxon you can be in your word choice & descriptions throughout this scene, the better. This was one of the hardest things for me to learn. I write medievals too, Melissa, :), and I think in an effort to world-build, girls like us can sometimes do too much. Or maybe I should just speak for myself. :)

    It could be personal taste, but there were places I thought tightening would really serve you. For example, the line:

    “She shut her eyes in an effort to dismiss the distraction and focused on the rapid thump of her heart echoing in her ears. She’d never reach the safety of her uncle’s keep if she didn’t get a hold of herself.”

    I’d think you could cut “in an effort to dismiss the distraction” and have a more clean, powerful moment.

    And the line: “Her fury, along with the need to avoid discovery, bolstered her confidence and she descended the fragile line with haste.”

    Words like “descended” and “bolstered” are nice, but they’re thick, thoughtful words, maybe not the ones you want for a girl in the midst of an escape. Hard-packed punches of highly specific details that show how the character is interacting with her world can do the job more powerfully. And in an action scene, phrases like “with haste” can paradoxically slow the pace. Sometimes it’s better communicated by verb choice. And she also doesn’t feel confident so much as desperate (understandable!)

    So something like, “Fury and fear made her scrabble down the roped bundle of her best gowns as fast as she dared, hand over fisted hand, her bleeding toes scraping the stone wall,” might more powerfully communicate speed, desperation and physical distress.

    Those are just some thoughts that may or may not resonate. As everyone here has said, you’ve got a strong woman in obvious peril, taking irreversible action, right at the start of your story. That’s strong storytelling–good job!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Excellent suggestions for ways to tighten the prose, Kris. And you explained so well why less really is more in a crisis. Thanks so much!

      Melissa, I’d suggest your read some of Kris’s medievals to get the true flavor of the time. She’s a master at building that world gone by.

      1. Kris Kennedy says:

        Aww, thanks, although I would return the compliment, Mia.

    2. Ha, yes, it was a bit hard to put myself out there this way, but it has been a terrific opportunity.

      You are right. I did feel as though I needed to lay the description on a bit heavy with it being medieval. And your suggestions are fabulous. Definitely a lot tighter, faster paced and conveys more of the necessity for her to get off the wall immediately.

      Hard-packed punches. Yes, that will be added to my checklist. :)

      Thank you so much for your advice, suggestions and kind words. I really am quite thrilled at the moment.

      1. Kris Kennedy says:


        I’m so glad if anything I contributed was helpful! Mia has set up a wonderful opportunity here–I’m happy to participate.

        You’ve done a great job setting up a strong stakes and a take-action protagonist. Those are some of the most important ingredients in crafting a fun, exciting story.

  11. Melissa, so glad you volunteered! This story is off to a ripping good start. I already like Arabella and sympathize with her plight and admire her grit.

    I’m wondering where the maid is. Is Arabella alone out here? Or is the maid either still up top or down below urging her to hurry? Is Arabella daring enough to go alone? If the maid is in either place, she could serve to help Arabella “get a grip” by urging her on or warning her.

    Mia, that prime directive to be clear is so important!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Oh, good catch, Helen! If the maid is leaning out of an upper window making sounds of distress, it not only engages another of our senses, it gives Arabella someone to talk to if only hiss at her to be quiet.

      And thanks so much for posting a link to my blog from yours!

    2. That prime directive is such great advice. Thank you for your feedback, Helen. Ah, the maid. :) I touch on her a bit later. So glad to hear you can sympathize with Arabella already.

  12. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Mia and Melissa,

    I’m so glad RPT is back. Thank you Melissa for offering up your opening.

    I agree with Mia’s comments. I noticed a lot of words were spent detailing the slipper loss. This slowed pacing. Mia’s idea to start with the loss of the slipper and show her descent would speed the opening along.

    I agree that detailing Sir Geoffrey’s sins was a bit of a laundry list. Inferring rape took me back a bit. Did he rape Arabella? It kind of had an “ick” factor. Save his debauchery for later and hint at his evil ways in the beginning.

    To close the eyes, or not to close the eyes, that is a question maybe others can chime in on. I don’t like heights and I would keep my eyes open to make sure I got down the wall safely. Maybe there is another reaction you could use to show her fear.

    This is a fun and suspenseful opening. I would keep reading. Great job!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I’m with you, Barbara. Closing my eyes would not be an option. As other physiological ways to show fear, perhaps she has to stop to control her breathing for a bit when she loses the slipper and wait for her heart to settle before she moves on.

    2. You are absolutely right, Barbara. I appreciate your feedback so much. Honestly, it’s a tremendous help to me. Thank you so much.

  13. Hi Melissa and Mia! Melissa, thank you for sharing your writing with us. One of the first pieces of writing advice I was given was to hook the reader by getting straight into the action and you certainly do that here.

    My earlier books all have way too many adjectives and adverbs in them. These days I’m a great fan of straightforward writing (by which I mean clear and tight rather than basic!) Like Karri Lyn I think it’s worth looking at all your descriptions and paring them down. You want enough to give flavour and atmosphere but not so much that they distract from the action.

    I also agree with Mia that after the first couple of paragraphs, some of the additional detail slows the pace down a little. It’s essential at the start of a story to keep that pace up and drop little bits of information in as you keep the action going. I particularly like the way you did this with the hint about crossing the Scottish borders. That intrigued me.

    I loved that you hit us at the end of the extract with the fact that this is a matter of life and death for Arabella. That really grabs a reader’s attention and makes them want to keep turning the pages. Best of luck with My Reckless Love!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Hello Nicola! I’m so pleased you could pop by today. (Ok, folks, if you think you hear a bit of a gushing fangirl moment, you’re not wrong. Nicola is one of my favorites!) Thanks for your thoughtful insights. I’m sure Melissa is going to be thrilled.

      One of the things I try to remember is to use specific nouns and descriptive verbs in my prose. It helps cut down on the need for modifiers and speeds up the pacing.

      1. Thanks, Mia! It’s a pleasure to be here (and you know I love your books too!). I’ve got a lot of great writing craft advice here myself today. It never hurts to stand back a bit and think about how we write. I think it’s lovely to be able to help new authors but it’s also a way to learn. Thank you!

      2. You are absolutely right, Mia. I can’t tell you how excited I am now. So many wonderful writers here. Perhaps I’m a bit sad, but I really have a huge, cheesy grin on my face right now.

    2. Thank you for the suggestions, Nicola. With all of your help and advice, I think I can really dive and work on tightening the description. I appreciate your advice and kind words.

  14. With the changes Mia has suggested, this will be a fantastic opening. I enjoy your writing and would love to read this!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Sharon, I had to pop over to your blog and I see that, like me, you’re a Downton Abbey fan. I’ll be on the look out for the “Mummy’s curse” in Season 4, LOL!

    2. Thank you, Sharon. I swear I have a huge grin now. :) I appreciate you reading my first 500.

  15. Maria says:

    This sounds like a very interesting story. I like your descriptions, Melissa and I can picture what is happening. I look forward to reading more about this story and what happens next!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks for your encouragement, Maria!

    2. Thank you so much, Maria. I really appreciate that. :)

  16. I enjoyed your beginning and it makes me want to read more. What more could you want from a beginning?

    I have a tendency to be too descriptive also. When I first started writing I would write whatever descriptions entered my head, then I would go back over a section and take out all adjectives and adverbs (in a separate file, of course). Reading it both ways showed me where I had used too much description and where I needed to put some back in. Over time it became easier to do it that way the first time around and I actually came to enjoy seeing that tight writing rather than all the description I originally loved!

    Looking forward to reading more.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I’ve heard some writers color code their work so they can see at a glance how many adverbs they’re using for example. If your page is full of -ly words, it’s time to do some trimming.

    2. Hi Karri! So glad you enjoyed the beginning. That’s a fantastic tip. Thank you for sharing that with me.

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