Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayWelcome 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.

If YOU’d like to take a turn in the RPT hotseat, check out the details about how to submit your work here. Thanks in advance. We can’t have Red Pencil Thursday without our intrepid volunteers.

Heroine’s Revenge

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.

Late August
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.

Good luck!

April LaCroixApril La Croix’s bio:

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.

30 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. At this point, I don’t think April should be concerned with anachronistic words. She needs to learn to write a good story. Getting rid of anachronistic words can come later in revisions. April- Don’t sweat the small stuff yet. That will come later.

    Actually, passive is when the subject is not performing the action but the action is being done to the subject. It has nothing to do with helping verbs. example– He is flying home tomorrow. (active verb phrase) He flew home today. (active) Here’s another– The judge carefully instructed the jury. (active because subject judge is performing the action) The jury was instructed by the judge. (passive cuz jury the subject is not performing the action. The word “was” has nothing to do with the verb being active or passive. (Sorry, I can’t help it. It’s the English teacher in me crying to get out.)

    1. Mia says:

      Huzzah for English teachers! I tested out of grammar in the 7th grade, and didn’t have to be in class for the whole unit. But I sort of wish I’d been there for it. Most of what I do is by instinct. I know if something sounds right, not necessarily why it should be that way.

      1. You’d remember if you taught it for 30 years. I can recite the grammar book verbatim.

  2. Alexa- You’d make a great copyeditor. In the old days, the copyeditors would do things like that for the author. I once had one who wouldn’t let me use the term “spyglass” cuz it didn’t come into the dictionary until 50 years later. There are ways around it. I looked up spyglass in the dictionary and then described the spyglass instead of using the actual word.

    Mia- I havce to say. I was laughing at your title “Red Pencil Thursday” When I was a teacher, the dept head told me not to use a red pen on their compositions cuz it made their papers bleed. She (the bitch) was using green. So I kindly pointed out to her that her green pen was puking on their papers. The green looked like what came out of Linda Blair’s mouth in the Exorcist. She didn’t really like that observation, but I kept using my red pen. Is this a free country or what?

    1. Mia says:

      LOL, Pat. Blood or puke, I don’t want either on my papers, but a red mark always caught my attention. In fact, if I’m working through my own stuff and see a problem I’ll switch the color of the font to red to remind myself to come back and fix it! ;-)

  3. Start the story with a change–too much narrative and info dump. You need to weave the backstory etc into the novel like threads in a tapestry. We don’t need lessons on social mores. I disagree with Mia on the name Finlay, but you haven’t done it correctly.I’ve said what a name meant, but it was a child’s dialogue. Later in story you could have heroine at stables thinking “Finlay, her fair-haired warrior” Readers aren’t stupid, they’ll get your meaning. Actually, I also disagree with Mia (sorry Mia) on husbands physically correcting wives. That is only true in theory (like today some guys beat their wives) Yes, it was acceptable in theory but not in practice. In one of my book the hero tells his father that she (the heroine) must obey his orders. The father laughs in his face. Winters are long in the Highlands and does his son want to be locked in a castle from Nov to April with an angry woman. We need to remember that historical people are people. What’s acceptable is the theory, but theory is not practical. Biggest problem is “telling” the story instead of “showing” the story unfold. Almost all authors started with telling instead of showing. But you learn. You see a NYT bestselling author but you don’t see her writing her 1st book several times. I dropped the first 150 pages of my 1st book and started there. don’t get discouraged. You don’t pick up a tennis racket the 1st time and play center court at Wimbledon. Writing is like that… practice, practice, practice.

    1. Mia says:

      As usual, you pinpoint the problems while offering practical solutions.

      It’s ok for you to disagree with me. I encourage it. However, on the matter of treatment of women, we have so many more protections today it’s easy to forget that it was not always so for the women who came before us. If a man beat his wife in earlier times, the law would not punish him (though she might find a way to put a spider in his tea!)

      1. Mia– That is true about today’s protections and historical approval for “correcting” one’s wife. I’m certain that many guy’s did. But, not all. Smart men (hyperbole) would be more practical than that. Because physical wife correcting was accepted, I think we in modern times believe that everyone was doing it.

  4. Stephanie Queen says:

    What’s an “arisaid”? I got hung up on not knowing and thinking I was missing something. I love historical heroines who buck the tide and loved the opening “Bullocks”, but agree with Mia about the long narrative of background information and found myself skimming to get to the promised action.
    Wish I had more to read!

    1. Mia says:

      An arisaid is a long length of fabric that’s pleated and belted into a skirt and shawl-type garment–sort of the feminine version of the belted plaid. I guess I was thinking just realizing it was an article of clothing was enough. Clearly not.

  5. BROOKLYN Ann says:

    I definitely agree with Mia’s advice. I must also add that I more commonly see it spelled, “Bollocks.” A few more tips are to cut back on using the word “was.” It makes the narrative read too passive. (I’m still wrestling with this)

    1. Mia says:

      Yes! Eliminating helping verbs always strengthens prose.

      1. Though 99% of the time I agree with you, Mia, I think helping verbs (i.e., “was” and auxiliaries such as those used to form the past perfect, like “has” and “had”) have gotten an unfairly bad rap in recent years. Sometimes the auxiliary verb has nothing to do with passive construction, and everything to do with verb tense. There’s a big difference in meaning between “She was crying when he came back” and “She cried when he came back.” Neither sentence is passive, but without the “was,” the sentence switches from indicating ongoing action (progressive tense) to implying cause and effect. Writers shouldn’t be afraid of helping verbs if they make the meaning clearer.

        1. Mia says:

          Bingo. I stand corrected!

  6. Alexa Darin says:

    Hi, April. This is just picky, but when I read the part about Sophie’s description of her horse and how “he was white as fresh fallen snow, at least when she wasn’t taking him out running in the mud and muck,” it struck me that “mud and muck” might not have been recognized at the time of your story (Scotland 1297)…so I looked it up in my Dictionary of Etymology. It seems that “mud” did not appear (as a noun) until 1340, and “muck” (as a noun) appeared about 1250 (to mean manure). But if used as the sense of make dirty, its first recording is 1832. Like I said, it’s just a picky thing, but a reader who really knows her stuff might pick up on it.

    1. Mia says:

      I like to use Etymology Online to check whether a word might have been in use during a particular time period.

      That said, we have to balance our use of historically accurate language with the needs of a modern reader. If we have a red alert anachronism, that’s one thing. One of my bugaboos is “mesmerize” because the word comes from Dr. Mesmer who lived in the 18th century. If the story is set before that, using it will pull me right out of the narrative. But we have to use words readers understand and relate to as well. Hamstringing ourselves by eliminating common words like mud and muck seems unnecessarily burdensome. Just my opinion. Others are free to disagree.

      1. I write regencies (historicals set in Great Britain in the early 1800s) and, as Mia says, I think the important thing is balancing accurate language with clarity and good writing. I don’t use anachronistic language if it’s easily avoided, but if a word is the strongest (sometimes the only) way to express an idea and not a glaring historical error, I give myself permission to use the clearer word. Since April’s story is set in 1297, I don’t think there’s any way she could avoid anachronistic language. Most romance readers would find Chaucer slow going, after all, and he was writing in the 1300s.

  7. April says:

    Thank you everyone for your wonderful suggestions to help improve my story. When I started writing it I was super excited. As I am still in the learning phase, help like this means alot. I have already begun editing the first chapter with the suggestions you provided!

  8. Laurie Evans says:

    Thanks for being so brave! I haven’t had the courage to send in anything yet. I’m new, too, and beginnings are SO hard. I agree with Mia that you could add some dialogue, that will help the opening scene.

    1. Mia says:

      If you decide to trust me with your work, Laurie, I promise to treat it with respect. Also nothing is posted here before the volunteer has a chance to look it over.

  9. Hi April and Mia,
    Looks like you have an interesting story, April.
    I liked the Finley meaning where it was placed. It worked with why the horse was named that. If it had ended with Finley, there would have been a gap. Taking me out of the story. And down the path of who was Finley and why is that a warrior name?
    April,thanks for sharing.
    Mia,these Red Pencil Thursdays are helpful.
    Thanks for reminder to ORA in Springfield,

    1. Mia says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Janet. I’m looking forward to being with the ORA gang again when we move back to MO next year.

  10. Hi April and Mia,

    I like Sophia. She is a sassy heroine. I have to agree with the other ladies that there is too much backstory in the opening paragraphs. We learn more about the horse and Sophia’s sister than we do about Sophia.

    Moving dialogue to the opening will speed your pacing, create white space, and interest your reader.

    I have been doing a lot of editing lately, so your “filler words” popped out at me. I forever write sat down when I only need the word sat. Here is a short list of fillers in your opening: cried out s/b cried,taking him out s/b taking him, last evening before s/b last evening, sought out s/b sought. Just taking out little words will help tighten your prose.

    Openings are very important. Mia is an expert at openings. Her advice will make your writing shine.

    Thanks for letting us share in your story. I recently finished my fourth book and it was the only opening I nailed from the beginning.

    Keep on writing!

    1. Mia says:

      It does get easier as you master your craft, doesn’t it, Barbara. At least, I find I recognize my mistakes quicker! ;-)

  11. I love the idea of pre-writing! I think I’d love this book, because it has all the elements I love in historicals. That being said, you start off with a fun hook of her swearing (and I agree, someone should hear her). But then you immediately flashback to several different events: riding the horse, seeing the horse for the first time, her sister’s wedding, her mother’s death, etc. You lost me with that, because while the first sentence was great, you immediately took me out of the moment. Backstory is tricky (and something I love dearly)…my rule for myself is “make sure the reader already loves the character before you tell what happened back then.” The reader should be DYING to know about the past. If you can weave the backstory into conversation, it’s so much more natural…maybe if Sophia said, “I’d never survive an arranged marriage. Leave that to Nessa. She’s always been the perfect sister, after all.” (or something much more graceful and appropriate)

    Anyway, the concept sounds great, and good luck! Keep at it!

    1. Mia says:

      Excellent points, Kristan, and thanks for taking time out of your writing day to offer encouragement to a new writer.

      You’re so right. We should make the reader beg for the backstory. Grace Burrows is a master at stringing out readers about her characters pasts.

  12. Ashlyn Chase says:

    Hi there, April! (Love your name, btw)
    I’m Mia’s critique partner, so it’s fair to say I’m in agreement with her advice so far. Forgive me for lumping a few more constructive criticisms on top.

    My concern is with the flow. You have some repeated words (and Mia will tell you I point those out in her mss too.) Specifically: “He was fast and strong and as white as fresh fallen snow…” (and, and, as, as) Can you tighten it a bit? Give us one ‘and’ plus one ‘as’? See what I did there? I changed one word ‘plus’ and voila–no repeat.

    Here’s another bug-a-boo I used to harp on Mia about…overly long sentences. “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.” Can you break it into two punchier sentences? Also, be careful how you word things. Yes, you want it to have an authentic flavor, but not if the readers think they’ve spotted a typo!

    With that, I’ll admit I’m not the historian in our partnership. But it helps to know the ‘average’ reader might not follow along as you hope they will.

    Stick with it! We were all new once. Like Mia, I had a ‘learning experience’ manuscript, but after many rewrites I sold it to a publisher.

    1. Mia says:

      Thanks for weighing in, Ash.

      Now you all see why I depend on her insights. She keeps me on my toes (and cutting my rambling sentences down to size!)

  13. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    It’s been my experience that Mia is right about the common writerly failing of too much backstory. I still go on and on telling everything that ever happened to my characters, describing the setting in excruciating detail, enumerating every quality and problem with each character. Then I print it all out, save it as a document called “backstory” and start the real story. I just need to get it out of my head and then I’m good to go.
    None of what you’ve written is wasted effort. You need to know it all now even if we don’t. I think the idea of starting with Berta in the room is a great idea. You said she was in the next paragraph. I’d like to see the next 500 hundred words to see where Sophia goes from there and I’d like to know about the other two times she had to repair her arisaid. Good luck!

    1. Mia says:

      You’re so right, Karri. We need to do some “pre-writing” to get a handle on our characters. Have a conversation with them. Interview them. While your folding laundry, mentally ask their teachers what horribly embarrassing thing they did when they were a kid. The author needs to know these things. Whether or not the reader ever does is another question entirely.

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