Red Pencil Thursday
Welcome to another RPT! Pour yourself a cup of coffee and settle around my cyber-kitchen table for another online critique group. Readers and writers are both encouraged to chime in here. My volunteer, April LaCroix, is a new author who’s hard at work on her first manuscript.
Mia: Your title needs to set the tone, raise questions, and telegraph what sort of story you’re planning to deliver. I’m not sure this one creates the hook you’re looking for. Take a look at bestselling books in your genre to get some ideas of what works. Be aware of “hot buttons.” When I submitted Sins of the Highlander, my editor was thrilled because I’d hit two of them. (It must be a good title because an erotica author ripped it off. Unfortunately, you can’t copyright a title.)
April: I agree. Picking the right title for me I think was one of the harder parts of the story.
Mia: I have some material about choosing a title in my My Husband Married a Hooker workshop. I should lift it out and use it for a blog post here sometime when I don’t have a volunteer.
Argyll, Scotland 1297
“Ballocks,” Sophia cried out after pricking her finger with the needle again. This had been her third time having to repair her blue and green arisaid. She had ripped it on a tree branch last evening before while racing her horse up and down the rocky hillside. How she loved her horse. He was fast and strong and as white as fresh fallen snow, at least when she wasn’t taking him out running in the mud and muck. Since the day she saw him she knew he was meant to be a warrior horse. So she gave him the name that was most fitting, Finlay which meant the fair-haired warrior.
Mia: I love it when a heroine says something unexpected. However, I wanted someone to hear her and be shocked. You’ve fallen prey to a common writerly failing. You’ve frontloaded your story with background information which isn’t necessary at this point. The goal is to drop your readers into the action and feed them just enough info to let them scramble to keep up.
Nice use of ‘arisaid.’ You provide enough context for us to guess what the item of clothing is without baldly stating it. Then you did the exact opposite with Finlay’s name. Ask yourself if knowing what her horse’s name means is important enough to include in the very first paragraph of your story.
April: I really like the suggestion of moving Berta’s character to the first paragraph. I think if I develop it more I can have a lot of fun with how Berta will react to Sophia’s disobedience and wild nature. Berta actually comes in right after the last paragraph I sent but it would be an easy transition to start with both women already in the room.
Mia: Don’t be afraid to cut the opening. Here’s a little confession. I cut 12 mortal pages from the beginning of Erinsong. I was simply clearing my throat for a while, but it wasn’t wasted effort. It helped me get to know my characters better, even if I’m the only one who ever knows what Brenna and her sister talked about for those 12 pages.
At the top of the hillside was her favorite place. She could see a far distance of her beautiful countryside that looked over the rolling green hills, the sheep grazing below and her home Duntrune Castle. Going out riding was not the only reason she sought out to leave the keep. More than anything Sophia loved any and every opportunity she had to be alone. Over the past several months her father had invited suitors for her to meet in hope that she would agree to marry one of them. She was already one and twenty and her younger sister Nessa had already married last year. It was not a love match but they had gained a strong ally with the Dundas clan. Nessa believed that she would learn to love Laird Robert Dundas overtime. She was always boasting on about how good looking she thought he was and she was so anxious to be a lady of her own keep. Since Sophia’s mother died when she was ten she had helped her father take care of the keep as well as her sister. Sophia was the rightful heir to the MacCallum clan as her father had no sons. Taking care of her clan was her responsibility and she would not abandon them nor let an outsider in to lead her people.
Mia: This paragraph is another info dump. If you give Sophia (which is not a Scottish name, BTW) someone to talk to, you can sprinkle the important stuff into a conversation which will engage readers more than a block of narrative. In the next paragraph you introduce Berta, an outspoken servant. She’d be perfect for Sophia to chat with over her sewing, especially if Berta was scolding her because she’d known her since she was small and constantly oversteps the line between servant and master. Every scene needs tension and that’s what’s wanted here. Take a minute and write some dialogue between the two women. That’s where a character shines.
Fact check: Could a woman be a clan chieftain during this time period? If so, please send me a link to the reference. I suspect if a man has no sons, his brothers or nephews would be next in line. However, I’m willing to be educated if you can authenticate this.
Sophia knew she was fortunate that her father did not force her to marry like some other clans did. Her parents had a love match and since her mother’s passing her father believed that his daughters had the same right to love as well. Sophia on the other hand did not see marriage as practical. She did not want to be a part of some political game and was not ready for the responsibilities that came with being a wife, especially the bedding. She had heard stories of how painful it can be from Berta her maid, but the other women in the kitchen spoke about how enjoyable they thought it was. Sophia thrived on her independence and did not want that taken away. She did not need a man’s protection; she had her horse and her bow and she could best any man with her skill.
Mia: There seems to be a bit of a contradiction here. Her father wouldn’t force her to wed, yet her sister’s marriage is not a love match. Think about what your want to convey here.
A common criticism of historical romance is that it’s merely a costume drama—characters with modern inclinations and sensibilities in corsets or kilts. It’s harder to really dig into an era and discover how people thought about themselves and their world. In the 13th century, a woman’s best hope was the protection of a good man’s name and sword arm. And if your heroine bucks the prevailing wisdom of her day and shuns marriage as “impractical,” you need to motivate her decision with some strong, persuasive reasons. Did someone she know die horribly in childbed? Is her sister’s marriage abusive beyond what was normal? (Remember during this time period, husbands were expected to physically correct erring wives as if they were children.) If she has bow and riding skills it’s probably because her father wanted her to be a son and raised her accordingly. However, if her mother died when she was young and she took over the duties of a chatelaine at the age of 10, I doubt she’d have much time to hone those masculine skills.
I understand the urge to create a kickass historical heroine, but it’s tricky. Remember, they burned Joan of Arc, partially because she wore male clothing and was a better general than most men.
But a writer can do anything in the world of her story so long as it’s adequately motivated. You have some good bones here. Think about what forces shaped Sophia’s character, then figure out a way to present her to us in action or dialogue that makes us buy into her unique situation.
April: Mia, thank you for your sound advice and suggestions. As this is the first time I have written a full length novel, I understand that I still have a lot of learning to do in regards to perfecting my writing as well as educating myself more about the specifics of the era. Again, I appreciate and am honored for the opportunity to be a part your Red Pencil Thursday Blog!
Mia: My first novel still keeps company with the dust bunnies under my bed. I call it my “training wheels” manuscript. It will never sell, but I don’t regret the time I spent on it. Writing is both an art and a craft. You need that indefinable spark of a fabulous premise or fascinating character, but a writer must also learn the nuts and bolts of good storytelling and effective prose. Check the bottom of my Workshop page for a list of recommended books about the craft and business of writing.
I live in a small town in central Minnesota with my husband and two cats (we are working on the baby thing! *:) happy).
I am a recent college graduate and work as an Account Manager in a direct mail and marketing company. My passions are researching genealogy, history and traveling.
Mia again: Now it’s YOUR turn, m’ dears. When I first began writing, I was amazed at the open-handedness of other authors and their willingness to share what they knew with others. Since then I’ve discovered that readers have worthwhile insights to offer as well and because they are our target audience, we ignore them at our peril! Please leave your helpful thoughts, comments and suggestions for April.