Red Pencil Thursday

Mia as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus

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

Click for details on how YOU can be a Red Pencil Thursday volunteer.


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

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.

18 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Why am I always a day late? Perhaps Mia can put a remember Red Pencil Thursday on the loop on Wednesday?

    Paragraph 1- You have a dangling modifier. The phrase “with——-since childhood” should be closer to word it describes. You can start the sentence with it and then use a comma or use it directly after the verb sat. I’d end the sentence with “drudgery of poverty” More dramatic. Reader can learn whose daughter she is later. I don’t think she need to explain the fairy steps in paragraph 1. Explaining it would slow opening down. She can even wait until the old lady disappears. Paragraph 2 is good. New writers always tell instead of show. You’ll break the habit. Mia is correct about physical reaction to being watched. PARAGRAPH 3- “in search of speaker” is unnecessary. Anne can stand and turn slowly. Reader knows she’s looking for the person with the voice. Mia is correct about that line of dialogue. Anne’s reaction and speech should be next paragraph down. PARAGRAPH 4-Seeing fairy or not is up to you. Does the fairy disappear after this or play a bigger role in story? Tone of book? If humorous, Anne can be the only one who sees and speaks to old woman. A spinster who speaks to an invisible person is interesting. Think of the fun you can have with that. NEXT PARAGRAPH: Dialogue climbing the stairs shoud say, “Since you climbed the stairs,you get a wish” Why is fairy impatient? Doesn’t make sense to me. Wizened old woman paragraph is good writing. Anne frown paragraph cut the middle 2 sentences and save for when fairy leaves. “I must be daft” paragraph is fine with me cuz Anne is muttering to herself, not talking to fairy. “Little wishes are for little souls” I’d open with that sentence, then woman points her cane at Anne, and say “take your wish” Definitely NO PROLOGUE unless absolutely necessary, which is not usually the case.

    1. Mia says:

      Sorry, Pat. I always hate to post to the loop before the post goes live in case someone tries to pop over and it’s not available yet. I don’t mind you coming late to the party. That’s why I leave my RPT posts up for a few days. Thanks for leaving your insights for Amy.

  2. Wow. If this were my rough draft, I’d be very pleased with it. I’m pulled into the story immediately by the Fairy Steps premise, and by the What Will She Wish For? hook. Then too, MANY readers will sigh at the lines about reading too many books, and banishing “spinster,” which means you hit the Empathy ball right out of the park.

    Your pacing is forward, but not blazing, which I like. The books that start out with a jumble of action often neglect empathy at its most critical location, and inevitably sag as early as scene two when the chase ends. This opening leaves us lots of room to pick up momentum, while still pulling us into the book.

    Well done.

    One thing to think about: Mia says to show surprise by raised eyebrows or widened eyes. That’s certainly a leap forward from having the character says, “Oh, what a surprise!” (which you do not do), but it’s also a moment for potential genius.

    In the little action tags, try to mine your imagination for those gestures that could ONLY go in this scene, with this character, in this book. We all write scenes with smiles, nods, sighs, eyerolls, nods, and grimaces, BUT when you see those little action cliches, try instead to think of what could only work HERE. (I generally do this in revision more than drafting, and I don’t do it enough.)

    She brushed her fingers over the lichen-encrusted rocks at her back, for surely a structure that had stood since Druid times could anchor her against the shock of the old woman’s proposition.

    Yeah, wordy, I know, but it puts you a bit more into the emotions AND the setting, like a personal expostulation (Merciful Powers! as opposed to WFT!) can put you into character.

    Another little action tag cliche: Anne frowned.

    You don’t need it, because in her internal question, “Had she really???” we get a sense of a creased brow. What could you put in its place that would not work in anybody else’s scene or book?

    She can mutter her personal expostulation, even if she just says it in her head (italics). She can clutch her worn copy of P&P more tightly. She can brush gently at a BUTTERFLY trying to land on her nose. (Butterflies are doomed to be symbolic.)

    She can sneeze, the way she always sneezes when her little brother is trying to tell a bouncer.

    See? Gets you a tiny step closer to the character AND the action and the scene.

    Just a suggestion. This really is a wonderful opening, Madam Author. MANY published stories don’t start as strongly or with as interesting a premise.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Mia says:

      As always, Grace, you nail us all. I’ll have to post “What will work ONLY in this scene” above my computer. And now I’m slinking off to eradicate the action tag cliches from my WIP… ;-)

  3. Hi Mia and Amy,
    Looks like you have an interesting story.
    Glad to see you taking advantage of Mia’s
    Helpful Red Pencil Thursday. Always enjoy reading the good information.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      That’s my other goal for RPT–letting us all learn something by seeing what other writers have done, both good and bad, and applying it to our own work. Thanks for dropping by, Janet!

  4. Marcy W says:

    Today, reading the comments was almost as much fun as reading Amy’s 500 words … this story’s beginning sure got readers’ attention, and that must give you a good push, Amy!
    I like it, too, and agree with all of the comments above — which means you have lots of options here. I’ll add another: what about a short prologue that gives the ‘story’ about the fairy steps? Kind of a village legend, and only children still play the game … and then Chapter 1 can begin with Anne sitting on the steps, as you have it, but it will mean something to the reader. If you make the prologue read as a fairy tale, maybe, ‘once upon a time’ almost?
    Mia’s catches are always so good, and the ‘show don’t tell’ mantra should be written on a sticky note and put where you’ll see it every day, I believe! I especially agree with her about the title: needs more punch.
    Good luck, and let us know when this story is ready to be read, please!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      The jury is still out on prologues. Some editors love them. For some, they are the poison pill. I think it depends on the story and whether the info in the prologue is absolutely essential for readers to have before starting the story or whether it could be salted in throughout the narrative just as effectively.

  5. Amy Pfaff says:

    Ok. I’m still having a fangirl moment over Kristan Higgens reading my writing.

    Thank you all for your input. I really needed this feedback. I’m looking forward to digesting this all and making some changes.


  6. Hi Mia and Amy,

    Amy, I really like your opening. It’s magical and fun. Mia makes some excellent points, as always.

    I do think you should briefly explain the Fairy Steps in the beginning. Perhaps Anne could be excited that she finally made it to the top without touching–a childhood challenge. If Anne is expecting a reward for conquering the steps, then the appearance of the older woman isn’t so shocking.

    I liked your bold, elderly fairy character. Her dialogue with Anne gets us off and running.

    I did pick up the “and” flub. In that paragraph, you say bolt which I thought was a bit contemporary. Using run would be fine with me.

    Keep up the great work. You have an interesting opening. I hope Anne wishes for something special.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Terrific suggestions as always, Barbara.

      Just to make sure about the use of “bolt” I checked Etymology Online, my go-to site for word origins. It says bolt was used in the sense of “to leave suddenly” in the early 19th century, so Amy is ok here.

  7. I love this setup. A Regency with a little fairy magic sounds like a lot of fun.

    My main advice is to make sure you’re consistent with Anne’s attitude toward the fairies. I had trouble at different points telling whether she believed or not. For example:

    Why did she choose to climb the fairy steps that day? You tell us she’s done that often, trying not to touch the walls so she’ll earn a wish, but it doesn’t seem like she had any of that on her mind that day. Is it something she did as a child, back when she foolishly believed that fairies were real? And now it’s just a secret place where she can be alone, away from the problems of being the impoverished daughter of a baronet?

    When she first hears the voice, she’s startled and afraid. Is she afraid of physical harm from an ordinary human, or is she already thinking it might be a fairy? You said you were debating whether she should be able to see the fairy or not. If you want to create a magical atmosphere, you might have the fairy streak around, impossibly fast and not quite visible. Something she’s not sure she really saw.

    Then the old woman appears. What does Anne think? Does she know this is a fairy? Or are her fears calmed because it’s just an old woman?

    The old woman tells her she’s earned a wish. Anne expresses surprise that she’s finally climbed the steps properly, but it’s hard to tell what she’s really feeling. Does she believe she’s just earned a wish? How does she feel about that? Or does she think this is just a crazy old lady? Anne seemed to take it all in stride, which made me think she believed in fairies so completely, it was hardly surprising to have one appear and offer a wish. That made it confusing for me when she later doubted the magic.

    At the end, she seems to go back and forth between believing and not believing. One moment, she’s thinking the woman is daft, then she’s debating how to use her wish, then she’s thinking magic isn’t real. That made it hard for me to get a grasp on what Anne was thinking and feeling.

    Beginnings are so difficult, but with just a little tweaking this will be fantastic! Thanks for letting us take a look.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Excellent catches, Sharon. I love the idea of the fairy manifesting first as that flash of something you’re not quite certain is real, then settling into the guise of the old woman.

      The whole point of RPT is to give writers new ways to think about their work and you’ve certainly given Amy plenty to chew on.

  8. Hi, Amy! I agree with Mia on the Fairy Steps, which is such a lovely concept. I was a little unclear on the poverty/daughter of a baronet…these seem contradictory, so I think a little explanation is necessary. For a minute, I thought she was pretending to be the daughter and was in fact just a working class person.

    The writing is just lovely. I felt like I knew the heroine pretty well, but I also think we jumped into the fairy bit a little too fast. I wanted to know more about Anne before I had to enter the “suspension of disbelief” moment. The idea is very sweet and whimsical, but I wanted to root for Anne a little more, feel her loneliness (and poverty, maybe) before the fairy appears to grant her wish.

    Thanks for being brave enough to post this, Amy! I think you have a lot of talent!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Hi Kristan! Thanks so much for dropping by. (For those of you who weren’t able to be in Atlanta to hear Kristan’s speech at the RWA convention, let me just share that you missed a phenomenal chance to laugh, cry and believe once more in the transforming power of love!)

      I agree about grounding us more in Anne’s situation before we launch into the “woo-woo” elements. Unfortunately a title and a fortune didn’t always go hand in hand, so it is possible that she is well born, but not well moneyed. Her father may have made bad investments or gambled away the family’s wealth. If she were trying to think of ways to help him, we’d like her even more for thinking of others instead of pitying herself. Then if a foundation for the fairy steps has been laid, wishing would come naturally. Just a thought…

  9. Amy,
    I have participated in Mia’s RPT a few times! She’s wonderful!

    Mia is spot on…we need to know about the Fairy Steps. Not just how they look, but the story behind them, the myths, the promises they might hold.

    I think you have some great bones with this story and I too look forward to finding out what Anne wishes for.

    Don’t be afraid to play with the pretty words :D

    Best wishes and keep up the good work!

    Suzan Tisdale

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Suzan. I’m always looking forward to your next Scottish story!

      1. I love you, Mia! :D It still blows my mind that you talk to me, let alone read my first 500! :o) Yes, I’m star struck. (giggles)


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