Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayWelcome back to another edition of our little online critique group. Our volunteer today is multi-published author Stephanie Queen. Her Scotland Yard Exchange Program novels have gotten rave reviews.  But a good author is never satisfied. We’re always looking for ways to improve our story-telling, so I appreciate Stephanie’s willingness to take our hotseat.

And while we’re on the subject of Red Pencil Thursday volunteers, I’m looking for new ones to step forward. If you’d like our thorough, but velvet-gloved treatment of the first 500 words of your WIP, check out the details  on how you can participate.

The Upstarts

Mia: Love this title!

Joe wore his earpiece out of habit, not stubbornness. Maybe. The place looked the same to him as it always did during an event. He swept his gaze again over the glistening glamour of the room filled to the brim with golden people. The only difference tonight was that he was supposed to be one of those golden people–playing guest instead of security. 

Mia: Your first sentence tells us something about our hero, but the problem is, it’s telling us. Showing is always stronger. You can also tighten up your prose. How about this:

Joe touched his earpiece out of habit. His gaze swept the roomful of golden people. The only difference tonight was that he was supposed to be one of those golden people–playing guest instead of security.  

As he stood alone check-pointing the perimeter, his earpiece chirped to life with the unmistakable voice of his boss. Hell.

       “Guests don’t wear ear pieces, Allario. At least not at my New Years Eve party. Take it out and meet me at the library.” The governor signed off.

       Double hell.           

 Mia: I’d cut stood alone and use check-pointed as my verb. It puts him in motion instead of just standing. I like ‘chirped to life.’ It’s always good to appeal to other senses besides visual.

 He moved without hesitation. As he reached the library door, three women surrounded him out of nowhere.

 Mia: Out of nowhere sounds like they dropped from the clouds. I’d cut it.

“It’s almost mid-night and you’re still alone, Joe. It’s a shame for a tall strong handsome hunk of a man like you to waste a romantic night like this with no gorgeous gal. We need to fix that right away.” Grace flashed her dimple and he felt the contagious effect lift a corner of his mouth in return.

Mia: I get that you want to show us that Joe is hot, but Grace’s dialogue is overkill. No noun deserves 4 adjectives and Joe has received tall, strong, handsome & hunk. Pick one.

You don’t have to say your hero felt. We’re in his POV. It’s implied. Just ‘the contagious effect lifted a corner of his mouth.’

She was his favorite of the three, but he would never admit that to anyone ever especially not to her husband who was the director of the Scotland Yard Exchange Program in Boston.

“How could I be in better company than with you three lovely ladies?” He meant it. He meant his warm smile too. They were all striking. And married to a trio of lucky bastards. He shook his head. They were bastards for having better luck than he did when it came to matching up with the perfect woman, even if he did consider those bastards among his best friends.

Mia: We have a lot of characters to keep up with in a short time, most of them not actually in the scene. Joe, his boss, three women, their lucky husbands…it’s too much for a reader to take in all at once. I’d make it just one woman cornering him, and consider no mention of absent husbands.

Also a word about the vulgar tongue. I have no objection to the word bastard, but by using it three times in quick succession, you’ve diluted its effectiveness.

“Your flattery doesn’t fool me. You’d give your right pectoral for the right woman,” Pixie said. “I see a possibility staring at you from across the room right now.”

She gave him a mischievous smile, the only kind she had.

Mia: LOL for the right pec! But again, this scene would read better with one woman. Three is too many too soon. It’s a good rule of thumb to consolidate secondary characters whenever you can. Your hero’s best friend might also be his dentist, for example. In your case, why couldn’t Grace be the director of the Scotland Yard Exchange program instead of married to him?

Before he could turn to appreciate the possible woman across the room, his boss, Governor Peter John Douglas, known as PJD to friends and enemies alike–showed up as promised. He stepped behind his wife, Madeline and enveloped her in a possessive embrace. She leaned into him and Joe felt a spark of jealousy zip through him for what they had. Shit.

Mia: Is Madeline one of the three women? We aren’t sure because she hasn’t said anything yet. If she’s important to the scene, have her come into it on her husband’s arm.

Jealousy is an unbecoming emotion for a hero. Are you sure you want to take us there on the first page? Now, if he had lost the love of his life tragically, we’d feel for him. If he’s simply envious of his friends, we’re much less sympathetic.

“Afraid I have other plans for our erstwhile bachelor Joe.”

 Mia: Dialogue is tricky. Make sure it rings true. Have you used ‘erstwhile’ in conversation lately? Also, make sure we know who’s saying this. There are so many people in this scene, I need a tag.

“He doesn’t even get a midnight kiss?” Grace the die-hard romantic sweetheart sounded disappointed on his behalf.

Mia: No need for you to tell us she’s a die-hard romantic sweetheart. Her words show she’s a romantic.

“No kiss, but he does get a flight to London. And a mission with the royal protective service.”

He didn’t know if it was the flying or the being out of the country that caused his heart to triple beat, but he stayed cool and returned the steady gaze of the governor.

Mia: Yay! We have our Call to Adventure within the first 500 words! And the Refusal of the Call in the next sentence. Our hero is about to step out of his Ordinary World and into the special world of the story. The Refusal is important because if there’s no tension in accepting the change, there’s no risk. For more about this type of story structure, check out The Hero’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It’s based on the work of Joseph Campbell and is predicated on the idea that there are certain elements in story-telling to which we are hot-wired to respond and the wise writer tries to make sure she hits them.

        “Don’t tell me the royals ran out of men to watch out for their assets.” He thought he carried off his reply with his usual understated sarcasm, but PJD raised a brow.

Mia: I wouldn’t have my hero analyze his own reply like that. Action guys don’t, as a rule. They say what they think, however they think it, devil take the hindermost. 

“This is a special assignment calling for an outsider to protect a damsel in distress, right up your alley.”

Joe said nothing and refrained from taking a deep breath. He even smiled without clenching his teeth. Joe hated flying. He figured if God wanted him to fly, his pockets would be filled with fairy dust and his name would be Peter Pan.

Mia: LOL. I can’t wait to find out why the big bad security guy is afraid to fly. You’ve done something smart here. You’ve given your hero a weakness. We like him better for it, but I think I’d limit it to flying instead of also including a fear of leaving the country. When the time comes, it’s also smart to give your villain a strength or a narrow streak of unexpected kindness.Thanks for letting me comb through your opener! Stephanie: Great comb-through!  Thank you so much!

I get what you mean about all the characters and I’ll definitely need to work on getting them in better–they’re all from previous stories and part of the “series world” so I can’t change who they are at this point.

But since you’ve helped me whittle down the wordage, I’ll probably beef up the characterization of the others a bit–somehow.

I really appreciate your eyes on this. 

Mia: My pleasure, Stephanie. Romantic suspense is a hot section of the romance market and I wish you all the best!

Stephanie Queen Bio:

Stephanie Queen lives among the hills and dales of New Hampshire where writing happy, snappy romances takes most of her time. But you can sometimes find her watching UConn football and basketball games. Right now, she’s busy writing her next book, of course. You are invited to visit her website to learn more at Connect with Stephanie Queen on Twitteror Facebook.


Now it’s your turn. Please share your insights, comments and suggestions for Stephanie. You are the strength of Red Pencil Thursday. Writer or reader, we look forward to hearing from YOU.

12 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. I agree with Kris Kennedy about all those beautiful etc people. We all have our personal bad writing habits, like overwriting. The trick is to revise. You can’t imagine how many smiling faces I delete on the first revision. In my younger days, chortling got deleted. I haven’t written a chortle in 20 years.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Chortle is a wonderful word, but it has fallen out of favor. Another word I love that’s also a bit rare now is ‘ensorcelled’! I confess that I did find a way to use it in Plaid to the Bone, my Scottish novella coming this September!

  2. Hi Stephanie– Pat Grasso here.
    I pretty much agree with most of Mia’s thoughts. Too much clutter and too many characters for first 500 words. You overwrite (like me). The trick is to revise, revise, revise. Mia’s referral to The Hero’s Journey”… That book always comfused the heck out of me. Are you going to NEC conference???

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Unfortunately, no. I won’t be at the NEC conference because I’m gearing up to head for the Romantic Times Convention in Kansas City the day after the NEC conference. I wish I could do them both, but I had to choose one.

  3. Thanks Kris, Marcy and Barbara! I appreciate your insights! Especially the notion of a monochromatic emotional feel. Very interesting take!

    I’m going to finish the ms and then go back to the beginning–as usual–and I’ll definitely be keeping all your helpful comments in mind.

    Stephanie Queen

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Pressing ahead to finish the manuscript is so smart, Stephanie. Often we get hung up on the first few chapters and can’t push the story forward. Once you type “The End” you can go back and change anything, knowing you’ll have a finished product that works very soon.

  4. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Stephanie and Mia,

    I really liked your voice Stephanie.

    I do have to agree with Mia on the abundance of secondary characters in the opening. I lost track of what woman was saying what. And having three women fawn over Joe makes him seem like a player. Not an endearing trait for me.

    Also, would a man’s man know about fairy dust? More Iron Man I would think, than Peter Pan.

    I like that the mission is given at the start of your chapter and that there is mystery surrounding Joe. Good intrigue.

    Nice job on this opening.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Barbara!

      Think I’ll disagree with you just a little. I chuckled at the Peter Pan bit. And since he’s afraid to fly, it makes more sense to me for the flying reference to be a little ridiculous instead of manly like Ironman.

      Also, it seems to indicate that the reason he fears to fly may be rooted in his childhood.

  5. Marcy W says:

    Hi Stephanie and Mia, and thanks for the 500-words (always seems too few to me) teaser. This sounds like a great story, and Mia’s suggestions really tightened up the beginning. I agree with everything she said (’cause I’m smart!) and would add that I found a lack of punctuation a bit troubling. Try a few more commas, or cut some sentences into two. The way I find best to figure this out is to read your manuscript aloud … you’ll naturally take a breath where a comma should go, or if you need a breath in the middle of a long sentence, break it up. I think for your action-filled story, shorter sentences will work better anyway.
    Kris Kennedy’s comment about the scene feeling ‘monochromatic’ is a really good one. I didn’t know how to say it, but that’s how it felt to me, too. I’m an outsider looking in at this glittering party, and it looks like a movie set … that doesn’t draw me in, even if I want to help our hero feel less ill-at-ease.
    I do like that he’s not fond of flying … since that’s one of my phobias, it sure makes him more sympathetic to me! :)
    Eager to read more — thanks for sharing!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      The lack of punctuation may be my fault, Marcy. Stephanie copied and pasted her opener into an email and my browser added a bunch of html cursing. When I deleted that garbage code, I may well have taken her punctuation too.

  6. Kris Kennedy says:

    Hi Stephanie & Mia!

    I really liked your opening paragraph, Stephanie, and Mia’s tightening made it even stronger! You girls are a good team.

    I agree with Mia about introducing too many secondary characters, especially all at once, and in groups. As Mia said, I wonder if you need them all in this opening scene? Even if they’re from earlier stories and you can’t change WHO they are, you probably don’t need them all here. Instead of trying to how to beef them up, for tension it might be better to just leave them out of this scene unless they directly and consequentially affect the trajectory of the plot.

    It may be entirely personal taste, but I felt like everyone was beautiful, friendly, and likeable. As a result, the scene might have been just the tiniest bit two-dimensional. Or maybe monochromatic is a better word–everyone has the same emotional ‘feel’ to them.

    This is really common when working within a series–you want to populate the world with the familiar characters, & if they’re all previous (or upcoming) heroes and heroines, it gets difficult to make them anything less than awesome. ;) But it can also make the story less compelling.

    I’d say you can cut anything that doesn’t add tension in your opening, even if it means leaving out characters. Treat it like a totally new story, with no characters you feel beholden to include, and the only point is to grab the reader by the throat and not let go. ;)

    So, I really, really liked the opening 3 or so paragraphs. They were terrific at building tension. I was thinking,”Who is this guy who can’t stop being security? And why is he supposed to be a guest here, where he seems to feel he doesn’t belong?” Then his boss called him, which was both amusing and intriguing. Yay! Then . . . it all kinda petered out when the 3 beautiful women appeared out of nowhere. Nothing really happened there that built a sense of tension, except perhaps the line about the twinge of jealousy Joe felt when the govenor came up. If that was the only reference ot jealousy, it would work for me as a tension raiser–we know Joe wants more than he has right now. But otherwise, I think you can build more tension in here.

    So, just a couple thoughts. I really liked the opening paragraphs, and the idea of a man more comfortable doing his job than being at a party. Fab romance hero potential!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Kris, I have mentally earmarked your comment about tension and will give my own WIP another look with this in mind. In the first 500 words particularly, it’s important for writers to hook their readers. This can be with humor, emotion, tension of all sorts, a tickle of fear, or a strong character’s unique voice, but we need to hook them with something.

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