Red Pencil Thursday
When I sang professionally, I was frequently invited to take part in public Master Classes with acknowledged operatic artists. I’d sing my aria before an audience of opera buffs and other singers. Then the expert would pick my performance apart, ask me to redo certain passages, tell me how to make it better–all before a packed house.
After 30 minutes or so of grilling, I had another chance to get the aria right before a group of people who knew exactly where the pitfalls were and were listening to see if made the corrections.
It was rather like taking my bath in public.
But the value to my development as a singer was immense. I learned so much from the artists who shared their experience with me.
Red Pencil Thursday came about because I thought other writers would be helped by a modified sort of online Master Class. I don’t pretend to be a writing expert. That’s why I invite my author friends to drop by and why I depend on YOUR comments, dear reader. It takes courage for an aspiring writer to put her work out there, so please weigh in!
An Unexpected Wish
Mia: Your title is your first hook. A good one can make readers do a double take, laugh, wonder and, most importantly, pick up the book. This one doesn’t quite have the punch I’d like to see.
Anne Townsend sat atop the stone Fairy Steps, her hands folded in her lap, with the perfect posture ingrained since childhood. The village of Beetham sparkled in the late autumn sun. Smoke rose from chimneys, visible now that most of the leaves had fallen. In the solitude of the stone steps she could escape the drudgery of poverty and just be the daughter of a baronet.
Mia: I love the way you’ve “shown” me Anne’s buttoned up personality with her posture. However, you went on to “tell” me she was poor. How about if she picks at her worn cloak and wonders aloud at her threadbare gentility?
Also, I’d rather learn more about those fairy steps than the village and the colorful leaves.
Amy: Good point. I was trying to set the stage.
Mia: We can mentally fill in a village and fall foliage fairly easily. We don’t know what the fairy steps are. Writing is all about making choices about which details to include and what to leave up to the reader.
The spinster daughter. Vile word.
She picked up a twig from the steps and waved it over Beetham. “I hereby decree the word ‘spinster’ be stricken from all manner of speech.” She laughed softly. “Furthermore, the word shall be stricken from every document in my fair kingdom!”
Mia: A lovely bit of whimsy. I like Anne already.
“I’ve been reading too many novels,” she whispered. Leaves danced on the breeze as she spoke. She frowned and glanced around. Someone was watching her.
Mia: Ok, how does she know that? Does her scalp prickle? Did she hear something?
Amy: Telling is a struggle for me in case you haven’t noticed. I’m making an effort to catch these.
Mia: It’s something with which all writers wrestle and there are times when telling is the correct course.
“Speak your heart’s desire, my lady.” The voice had an odd sound to it; neither male nor female, young nor old. Anne leapt to her feet in search of the speaker. She turned slowly and peered into the woods. Her heart thudded in her chest. “Who’s there?”
Mia: Anne’s dialogue should be in a different paragraph.
I’m having trouble picturing this. How high are the steps? How far away is the voice? Is she hearing it with her ears or is it in her head?
Amy: I struggled with this and have gone back and forth. Would she see the fairy or not? Not sure which is best.
Mia: Now is when we unleash the power of RPT. OK, gang, please weigh in!
“You climbed the steps properly, you earned a wish,” the voice replied with a touch of impatience.
“You’ve been watching me?” She glanced down and the stairs. Should she bolt? She moved to the edge of the path away from the voice.
Mia: What’s wrong with this sentence?
She glanced down and the stairs.
It’s so easy to look at our work and see what we intended to write instead of what’s actually on the page. I recommend reading your work aloud. It makes you go slower and you’ll catch more of this type of error.
Amy: Editing my own work is a challenge. Great idea to read aloud.
A wizened, bent old woman with a twisted cane shuffled out of the trees at the foot of the stairs and grinned up at her, flashing a few yellow teeth. “Don’t be afraid, my dear. ‘Tis only me. I watched you climb. You have earned a wish. What shall it be?”
Anne frowned. Had she finally succeeded in climbing the Fairy Steps without touching the walls? She’d climbed them so many times she didn’t think about it anymore. “Good heavens, I’ve done it!”
Mia: Instead of couching it in a question, I’d rather you explained how the Fairy Steps were supposed to work in a straightforward manner. And why the frown? If you want a physical reaction, surprise is more easily seen in raised brows or widened eyes.
Amy: Good advice.
“Your wish, my lady? Jewels? Fame? A husband, perhaps?” Those last words spoken with a knowing hiss.
Anne felt her face heat. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you in the village?”
Mia: We’re in Anne’s POV. You don’t need to tell us she “felt” anything. We feel what she feels. Just “Her face heated” will get the job done.
The old woman cackled and shook her head but said nothing more.
“I must be daft,” Anne muttered. “One can’t wish for any of those things.”
Mia: Shouldn’t it be “You must be daft?”
“Nonsense and bother! Of course you can. Wish for anything, my lady. Wish grandly.” A gleeful wicked light gleamed in the old woman’s eyes. She lifted her cane and jabbed it toward Anne. “Little wishes are for little souls. They are not for the likes of you. Now wish. You are wasting my time.”
Mia: Love “Little wishes are for little souls.” However, remember what Angela James, Carina editor, says: “Not all nouns deserve an adjective.” You’ve given “light” two of them. Pick one.
“One moment, please.” The old woman seemed harmless enough, but she’d not waste a wish on a husband. Emotions should be involved in selecting one’s mate. Wishes didn’t take that into account. She’d not have a man who didn’t love her. Worse would be one that was bewitched by magic. “As if magic really exists.” She mumbled to herself.
Mia: I like that you didn’t use dialogue tags (i.e. she said), but since you start with “The old woman,” I thought she was the speaker at first. If you begin the sentence with “Anne wouldn’t waste a wish on a husband” there’s no confusion.
Thanks for letting me take a look at your work, Amy. It reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Boyle’s His Mistress by Morning. Her heroine wishes on a magic ring to be loved by the man of her dreams. Unfortunately, she wakes to find she’s his mistress, not his wife! It’s a great twist. I’m anxious to see how Anne’s wish turns out to be a surprise.
Amy: Mia, thank you for doing this. I really appreciate your insight.
Mia: My pleasure!
Amy Pfaff has been writing since elementary school. She started with poetry and soap operas on snow days with her two sisters and a tape deck. Stories and the people who inhabit them have always whirled around in her head. After taking a break to raise two boys and establishing a career in information technology, Amy started writing again and hasn’t stopped. Her Regency romances feature landed gentry and small villages with a magical touch.
Mia: Now it’s YOUR turn! Please leave your comments, encouragement and suggestions for Amy.