Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayToday we’re doing something a little different. My volunteer is prepublished mystery writer, Lynn Holt. I have very little experience with crafting a straight mystery, but some of my books do have a puzzle for my hero and heroine to unravel. In Touch of a Rogue, Jacob and Julianne solve her husband’s murder which was intended to look like a suicide. And in How to Vex a Viscount, Lucian and Daisy follow a trail of archaeological clues to an ancient Roman treasure.

But I’m going to be relying heavily on the RPT gang to weigh in on this opener, so be sure to leave a comment, suggestion or encouragement for Lynn after the post. I’m also out of volunteers for next week, so if you’ve ever considered taking the hot seat, now would be a terrific time. Check out the details here. I look forward to reading YOUR work.

Sunday is for Suspects

You can’t go home again.

That’s what they say. Sometimes, though when there’s no place else to go, you just sort of flip on the auto-pilot and find yourself heading home without meaning to. That’s how I ended up driving half-way across the country and back into Coldwater at 6 o’clock on a Sunday morning.

Mia: I like the tone. It’s confiding and straightforward. Wondering a bit about the Thomas Wolfe quote. Is it foreshadowing how your protagonist will find home changed and unwelcoming? 

Lynn: Changed yes, but she won’t see it at first. Unwelcoming, mostly no. But I’m wondering if the first sentence is strong enough.   

Mia: We’ll ask the RPT gang. What say you?

Coldwater is a quiet little town tucked into the southeast part of Oklahoma where the Ozarks roll a rumpled blanket of hills and hollows over the state line. It’s one step up from rustic, about a hundred steps down from trendy. And the last place on earth I ever thought I’d live again.

Of course, I never thought I’d ever get anyone killed either.

Mia: Ooo! Good embedded hook. You, my dear, get to be inducted into my Happy Hookers Club.

Lynn: ;-)

It’s too early to pop into my parents’ house, even if I thought I could bear their smothering. Mom needs her “beauty sleep” until seven at least. While Dad might be pottering about in the kitchen, making his execrable, but hell-for-stout coffee, if I tried to slip into the house now, his booming voice of welcome would disturb the dead in the cemetery next door.

Besides, I don’t deserve a welcome.

Mia: I like the short peek into her psyche and her relationship with her parents. Be careful she’s not too self-flagellating. The purpose of the hero/heroine is to provide the reader with a body double of sorts. We want them to try on our protagnist’s life. Make sure the shoes don’t pinch too tightly too soon.

Lynn: Point taken, but don’t you think we need to see that she feels guilt over getting someone killed?

So I tool around the narrow streets, taking stock of the changes in Coldwater since I was home last. There are none.

The lights are on in the Green Apple Grill down on the town square and my stomach rumbles, a reminder that I haven’t eaten since those stale Twinkies in Peoria. I pull up in front of the “hurt-your-eyes” green door. Still no parking meters on the square around our Victorian jewel of courthouse, so I get out, lock my Volvo out of force of habit, and go in. A trio of bells strategically placed over the lintel tinkles as I enter.

Mia: Good collection of details to set the scene without being over-descriptive. You’ve managed to touch on sight, taste, and hearing to place us in the setting.

“Have a seat. Be with you in a minute.”

I can see the guy who belongs to that rumbling baritone. He’s just on the other side of the half wall that separates the kitchen from the rest of the place, but his broad-shouldered back is turned to me. The grill hisses from a quick scrub-down with a damp rag.

Mia: You don’t need to tell us ‘I can see.’ Just describe what’s there. We know whose eyes we’re looking through. Or rather we don’t. Is there a way to get your POV character’s name in sooner?  A little conversation would be nice too, though that’s hard since she’s alone unless she talks to herself.

Lynn: Maybe I could give her a cat in a carrier who’s not too happy with the whole driving across country thing. 

I slide into the nearest booth, hoping they still have Belgian waffles on the menu. My mouth starts to water just thinking about melted butter and powdered sugar. 

“Lacy? Lacy Evans, is that you?”

I look up to see Matthew Taylor peering at me from the kitchen. Superstar half-back, homecoming king, voted most likely to succeed—he was Mr. Big Stuff when we were in high school. Never thought he’d still be in Coldwater, much less behind the Green Apple’s grill.

“Hey, Matt. How’ve you been?”

“Can’t complain. Besides, no one would care if I did.”

I doubt that sincerely. Matthew still has that devastating dimple in his left cheek and a mega-watt smile. He always left a flotilla of broken hearts bobbing in his wake.

Mia: You’ve given us a sense of who Matthew is, but I’m not getting the ‘flotilla of broken hearts’ metaphor. Can you think of something that fits better with Green Apple Grill setting? 

Lynn: Good idea. I’ll work on that.

“What can I do you for?” he asks.

“Coffee, and—please, God—waffles,” I say. They aren’t listed on the plastic covered menu affixed to the wall.

“For you, anything.”

That was Matt Taylor’s gift. He made you feel special. The only trouble was, he made everyone feel special.

Mia: Jock, dimples and the man cooks. Be careful you don’t make Matt too perfect.

Lynn: In the next couple paragraphs he steps around the half wall and Lacy learns he lost his left leg from the knee down in Iraq.

Mia: A wounded warrior. We love him even more. Now I need to ask the RPT gang a question because this is out of my field of expertise. Is the pacing right for a mystery? So far we know that Lacy feels responsible for someone’s death, but we haven’t seen any dead body or even any inkling that there is a mystery attached to that room temperature person. What do you think?

Lynn Holt’s Bio: After being an avid reader for years, Lynn is trying her hand at her first mystery. She’s a wife, a mother and die-hard Castle fan. Join her each Wednesday on her blog as she shares her journey to publication.

27 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Pat Grasso says:

    Perky author’s voice is good. Almost there publishable. However, you tend to overwrite BUT SO DO I. What you’ll need to do when you finish is revise so you are deleting what is unnecessary. Makes the writing tighter.

    (example: “you just sort of flip on the autopilot ……. without meaning to . I would delete those last 3 words. See what I mean?

    1st sentence is not strong enough. You’ve BURIED your killer 1st sentence (which is superb) The beginning of my book would be “I never expected to kill anyone” It grabs the reader and yanks him/her into story. You owe the reader no explanation of that sentence. They will need to read on to find out. I’d make the 1st full para “People say you can’t go home. (and then what you’ve already written about autopilot etc.

    Para #2 I would make the 2nd sentence the 1st sentence (Coldwater is one step up from…..) That is a wonderfully simple apt description. Then I’d rewrite what you have 1st and make it sentence 2

    para#3 Too much info in too few sentences. I would delete the smothering info cuz you can show that when she does go home. SHOWING IS BETTER THAN TELLING

    next 2 paragraphs (I’ve lost actual number) good action and description. Love the bells tinkling over the door. I can hear them as I type this.

    I would not give the heroine a cat for the sake of getting her name out. That is one more thing you’ll need to worry about. Besides, she turned the car homeward without thinking. Cat in carrier case implies planning. (At least it does with my cats. I plan more for getting them in the carrier case than the Allies did for D-Day)

    Can’t you just say…. “be with you in a minute” and then have the guy turn around and say “lacy? is that you sentence?

    Description of Matt— superstar, homecoming king, most likely to succeed implies tons of broken hearts. (Maybe hers???)

    PACING is good. In an amateur sleuth mystery the author needs to set up the sleuth. In a police procedural the crime is right up front (usually) cuz the police detective is the sleuth

    1. Lynn Holt says:

      Wow. I really appreciate this dissection of the first 500 words, Pat. You nailed me on the over-writing and you’ve given me plenty to think about and rework. Thanks so much.

    2. Mia Marlowe says:

      Pat, you’ve demonstrated the real strength of my little online critique group. We never know who’s going to pop by and drop a handful of gems into all our laps. An amazing critique! I’m going to take these principles and give my own WIP another hard look. Thanks from all of us!

  2. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Mia and Lynn,

    Lynn, what a wonderful opening. The pacing was nice and I liked how you popped description into the paragraphs without bogging down the story.

    It does seem that when she meets Matt the story turns less mysery-oriented and becomes more of a romance. The tone of “I don’t deserve a welcome” is pretty severe. If she is the reason someone got killed, she really isn’t a cold-blooded killer. I was going to mention the possibility of Lacy wanting to talk to her dad about death, if he was a war vet from Vietnam. If Matt is a vet, then she can have a thought about the “mystery/death” when she sees Matt’s leg.

    This is an amazing start to your story.

    1. Mia says:

      HI Barb! It’s always good to see some of the RPT regulars.

      The “I don’t deserve a welcome” stopped me short too, but then if I was responsible for someone’s death, I might be looking for ways to punish myself too.

    2. Lynn Holt says:

      I would say there are some romantic elements in my story, but I plan to keep Lacy vacillating between Matt and Daniel, another fellow she knew from before, throughout the series. Daniel is with the sheriff’s office so he’ll be a help to her in her sleuthing and Matt hears everything that’s happening in town at his diner, which is also valuable.

      Thank you for the idea of Lacy talking to her dad about death. I don’t think I’ll use it in the first chapter, but that could be a rich conversation later on.

  3. Marcy W says:

    Hi Lynn (from another Castle fan) and thanks for sharing. It took a few paragraphs for me to adjust to the present-tense first-person voice, but then I liked it a lot. I think Mia’s question about pacing is a good one; again it took a second reading before I settled into it, and then felt right at home in Lacy’s head. There’s no urgency yet, and I assume that will come fairly soon, but I think the contrast between this beginning and whatever throws her into more heated action will be helpful.
    The “sometimes though” sentence is fine, IMO, just needs a comma after ‘though’, and then the rhythm is good.
    Thanks to Kris Kennedy for her explanation of ‘too much sugar’, as I was vaguely aware but couldn’t put my finger on it. You describe beautifully, but there is a bit too much of that in these all-important first 500 words. Do please use it a lot later, it’s good stuff. “…where the Ozarks roll a rumpled blanket of hills and hollows…” is really gorgeous (even if I didn’t live in another part of the Ozarks, in southern MO).
    Kris’ points about her ‘smothering’ parents are well taken, too. Well, all of Kris’ points are good … her suggested wording (START … END) is great — love those short punchy sentences.
    I look forward to seeing more of this, Lynn — you’ve got me hooked already into Lacy’s story. And I think planning a seven-book arc is fabulous, so don’t let anyone put you off that understanding of the story you’re telling! :)

    1. Mia says:

      I’m so glad you popped by, Marcy. You always have something insightful to share. I know what you mean about the first person/present tense. Since I write third person/past, it seemed a little disconcerting to me too, but I know it’s popular with YA and literary works. As I understand it, the idea is to provide a sense of immediacy.

      Is it common for mysteries, I wonder?

    2. Lynn Holt says:

      Thank you for your comments, Marcy. If it took you two readings to feel comfortable, I must be doing something wrong.

      I wonder if Lacy needs to feel panic leaching away when she comes into town, or maybe still have a bit of residual fear left over from the place she’s fleeing. There are so many things to think about…this writing biz is harder than it looks.

  4. Andrea Simone says:

    I don’t write mysteries, but I do read them. I think the pacing is fine so far, though pretty soon we should be hearing about the mystery. Does it come out in the dialogue with Matt? Or in her thoughts as they talk? Something along those lines would be appropriate. I liked when you said how the trouble with Matt was he made everyone feel special. I assumed this was going to be a flaw for him and that got my interest. I really like the descriptions overall, but I think I’d pull back on them just a bit. Some of them are a little wordy. I think the Ozark sentence could be reworded. Love the next line with the one step up from rustic. Overall this is really good and I like the voice. I would definitely keep reading! :)

    1. Lynn Holt says:

      There are actually two mysteries–the supposed suicide of one of Lacy’s high school friends, which is introduced in her conversation with Matt and the death of her source back in Boston, for which she feels responsible. She’ll solve the suicide which actually turns out to be a murder in this story and the other one is the over-arching mystery that will go through the whole “Days of the Week” series I’m planning. I know. Sort of grandiose to lay out 7 books, but I figure go big or go home.

      I’ll work on the wordy bit. Thanks, Andrea.

    2. Mia says:

      I should read more mysteries so I’d know more about them. I’m anxiously waiting the next Deanna Raybourn Lady Julia Grey novel, but those don’t really qualify me to comment on contemporaries. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Andrea.

  5. Mia Celeste says:

    Yep, this post is going into my folder of Mia’s Red Pencil Pearls as a keeper. Thanks for helping me become a smarter reader and a better writer.

    1. Lynn Holt says:

      Thanks for your comment. Glad to be a “keeper.”

    2. Mia says:

      I popped over to your blog, Mia. My DH is the punster in the family, but I’ve got to admit, your post made me smile. ;-)

  6. Chuck Robertson says:

    I love the character’s voice. This passage really sets a mood and background. As a reader, I feel like I’m there.

    One very picky thing: “Sometimes, though when there’s no place else to go…” struck me as a little awkward. I think it’s the though next to the sometimes. There again, that’s me. Maybe most other readers wouldnt’ know or care.

    1. Mia says:

      I see what you mean, Chuck. Maybe ‘But sometimes when there’s ….’ would work better.

      Never apologize for being picky. It’s what we writers have to be. ;-)

    2. Lynn Holt says:

      Thank you, Chuck! I’m excited that you used the “L” word about Lacy’s voice.

      Think you’re right about the awkward bit. I’ll take another look at it.

  7. Hi, Lynn & Mia! I loved the excerpt and concept…thought the writing was very solid and beautiful. I think that the person she killed would be very much in the forefront of her mind, even as she admires Matt…maybe something like, “I wonder if he’d be smiling at me if he knew about the etc. etc.” I actually liked the flotilla of broken hearts, but are we to assume he’s a womanizer, or just that women fall for him to no avail? I worry that he’s a little too perfect, too, because he’s not as interesting if he doesn’t have character flaws.

    I would definitely keep reading this! I loved her conundrum and feelings about being back home. Very well done!

    1. Mia says:

      Welcome, Kristan. How lovely of you to drop by, m’dear. I even forgive you for keeping me up past my bedtime with your latest, The Best Man! Fabulous as usual.

    2. Kris Kennedy says:

      Lynn, I really like your strong, unique voice! As a reader, I feel I’m in competent hands, which let’s me sink into the story.

      The only thing I thought of is that a little sugar goes a long way. :) If every line is turning little cartwheels of idiosyncratic expression, they become noticeable, and can even be a bit tiring. What you have here is very nice, and not problematic, but I toss it out in case it resonates with any other feedback you’ve received.

      I really like Kristan’s idea of “I wonder if he’d be smiling at me if he knew about…” and I have no problem at all with the opening line–it works for me, mainly b/c her follow-up line was so engaging.

      I think the pace is solid. I guess it could be ramped up, but she’s such an engaging narrator, I’ll stick with her for awhile. :) But I think you could bring the death into the immediate scenes a little more, such as by having her thoughts/observations of the immediate moment tie back into the death. Like how Kristan suggested.

      I don’t think you need a cat carrier–personal taste, but I’m okay with not knowing the protag’s name until Matt says it. If you want to get it in earlier, you could do it in ways other than having her talk to a cat. Those sorts of scenes are often so clearly set-up scenes, and reduce tension.

      Maybe a simple little change something like the following would address several of the issues mentioned: get her name in earlier; keep the death at the forefront of the scenes; and remove anything that could be seen as self-pity:

      START “…his booming voice of welcome would disturb the dead in the cemetery next door.

      The cemetery. Where dead people were. Dead like Rodney Second was now dead. Because of me.

      Who’d ever have thought Lacy Evans would become an accidental killer? END

      (Obviously, I made up the name Rodney Second, & everything else. :) I have no idea who’s dead, or why, so you’d make it fit, & in your voice.)

      Fwiw, and this is *totally* me but…I felt a little taken aback when she called her parents ‘smothering.’ She hasn’t even seen them yet, and she’s the one going back to them for, well, whatever she’s going for (I’m guessing comfort, a place to stay/regroup/get info, etc). But sleeping till 7 a.m. isn’t all that late (I hope! :)) and a big, hearty welcome from a man who loves you doesn’t seem so terrible to me. Embarrassing, sure. :) But if she’s in the position of supplicant in any way, I don’t know if you want to inadvertently paint her as ungrateful or cold.

      A simple change could mitigate it: “It’s too early to pop into my parents’ house, even if I thought I could bear their hearty, loving affectionate smothering” or some such would soften the observation with affection, which makes almost everything okay. ;)

      Best with this, and all your stories, Lynn!

      1. Kris Kennedy says:

        Okay, I swear, next time I swing by Red Pencil Day, I will be more brief. Sheesh, Kris.

        1. Mia says:

          Are you kidding me? This stuff is golden, Kris! Thanks so much for taking the time to really dig into Lynn’s work. This is the real benefit of Red Pencil Thursday. The volunteer gets input from some of the best creative writers in the business. And you, m’dear, are amazing!

      2. Lynn Holt says:

        Wow. Some really good things to think about. Thank you, Kris. Will take the “sugar” thing to heart, but it is part of who Lacy is. She may be a trained journalist, but Coldwater is still in her DNA.

        About her parents. It’s not so much what they do as how they make her feel. She doesn’t feel like an adult in their house. Her dad still wants to fix things for her from the strange knock in her Volvo’s engine to the death of her source back in Boston. And her mom is always trying to remake her in the image of the cover of Vogue, but that’s not Lacy at all.

        Guess it’s kind of hard to get all that in in 500 words.

        1. Kris Kennedy says:

          Lynn~ LOL on always feeling like a kid in her parents’ house. I have a lot in common with your protag.

          You know, I think you could just say that. “It’s too early to pop into my parents’ house, even if I thought I could bear feeling like a kid again, in need of being fixed. Especially when I did need fixing.” or some such. I think it was just the word ‘smothering’ in the absence of any details to support it, except a boisterous dad who would be so happy to see her he’d wake the dead. Like you say, hard to do everything in 500 words! :)

    3. Lynn Holt says:

      “Very solid and beautiful.” I think I’ll have to tape those words on my refrigerator. Thank you, Kristan. I’ve admired your work for a long time, so your comments mean a lot.

      Matt does have some flaws. He’s already been married twice, so he has some serious commitment issues. Serial monogamy is his modus operandi, because he’s afraid to let anyone really close. He moves on when they try.

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