Red Pencil Thursday

It’s Thursday. Do you know where your red pencil is?

Red Pencil ThursdayI met my intrepid volunteer in Atlanta at the RWA convention last month. She’s a new writer, working on her first manuscript. You know the drill. Sophia was brave enough to put her words out here and we must be brave enough to offer new ways for her to think about her work. If YOU would like to a turn in the RPT hotseat, please check the details for submitting your work. I look forward to hearing from YOU. We can’t have Red Pencil Thursday without our volunteers and currently my queue is empty!


Francesca Garancini blinked twice, then clawed frantically through her Bottega Veneta hobo trying to find her sunglasses. The late winter sun was bright in Istanbul, but she had the added complication of having to contend with a growing swarm of photographers advancing towards her. She donned her big black Tom Ford sunglasses just as she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a red Porsche parked in the lot. With the paparazzi hot on her heels, she started running towards the car.

Mia: The opening sentences carry heavy freight. You have to introduce your protagonist and telegraph what sort of story you’re going to deliver. You’ve set a fashionable tone for us in your first paragraph, dropping the designer names and the exotic Turkish location. We feel for Francesca, being hounded by the paparazzi. Good job. But let’s see if there are ways to tighten your prose.

If she’s clawing through her purse, do you need frantically? Clawing sort of implies panic to my mind.  And how about streamlining the 2nd sentence like this:

The late winter sun was bright in Istanbul, but it paled before the growing swarm of photographers advancing towards her.

Also, why have her start running when she can just run?

Sophia: Agree, agree, agree!  I have a problem with overuse of adverbs (frantically) and helping verbs (started running), and they’re the kind of tic I just gloss over.

“Francesca! Francesca!” Some of the photographers were Italian, it seemed, camped outside the hospital waiting for news of Paolo Romaldo. Francesca was terrified that they recognized her so easily. Romaldo, meanwhile, was still inside the hospital, in traction, his left leg broken in two places during the previous day’s match with Galatasaray. He was most recently a Juventus midfielder, and, as Francesca dolefully acknowledged, her now-ex boyfriend.

Mia: Terrified at being recognized seems a bit over the top. Frustrated or annoyed maybe. If you really mean terrified, it takes this story into romantic suspense. Is it?

Sophia: No, you’re right—she’s not really terrified.  I’m just over-dramatic.  She’s concerned about being recognized—the photographs could ruin her relationship with her family, humiliate Paolo (who is an international sports star), and break up the marriage of the man in the red Porsche.  The stakes are high, for sure, but it’s not life and death.  Is there a word that conveys a sort of frantic frustration?  That’s probably what I should be using.

Mia: Ok, RPT gang. What word should Sophia use here?

She was running at a steady clip towards the Porsche but even so, the photographers were able to keep pace with her. Thankfully, she saw the man behind the wheel start the car and peel out of his parking spot, hanging a tight u-turn in her direction. She gripped the handle of the passenger door and propelled herself inside.

Mia: I’m betting a fashionista like Francesca is hampered by her Manolo Blahniks. Would she tug them off and run barefoot?

Sophia: Maybe?  But she may also be so accustomed to wearing them that she can maintain a decent speed.  It would certainly be more dramatic if she abandoned her beloved shoes in the parking lot—I like that idea!  Heightens the tension of what she’s willing to give up.

Mia: When you tighten your narrative, use descriptive verbs and specific nouns to cut extra modifiers and delete unnecessary details. Here’s an example:

She bolted toward the Porsche but the shutterbugs kept pace with her. The man behind the wheel swung a tight u-turn in her direction. When he screeched to a stop beside her and threw open the passenger door, she leaped inside.

Sophia: These sentences are much more streamlined—I can see how words like “Thankfully” are just throwaways.

“I can’t believe you waited for me,” she said breathlessly to the man beside her.

He gripped her shoulder encouragingly. “I’d wait as long as I had to,” he replied. He took his hand from her shoulder and shifted gears, speeding out of the hospital parking lot, leaving a trail of photographers in his exhaust.

Mia: I really want his name at this point. In the confines of a small car, gripping a shoulder might be awkward. How about her forearm? You don’t need ‘he replied.’ The action is a substitute for a dialogue tag. Also, we don’t need to be told he moved his hand from her. It’s implied when he starts shifting gears.

Sophia: “He replied” and “She said” are horrible habits I have.  And I’m always unaware of whether the action is clear to me because I know it in my head or if I need to explain (oh-so-thoroughly) what’s happening.

“I imagine they were here for Paolo,” she said, turning back to look out the rear windshield at the receding pool of paparazzi.

“But they got something even better,” the man commented grimly.

Mia: How about a short description of him instead of a dialogue tag?

Sophia: We are probably curious about what he looks like!  Maybe he pulls a pair of Persol sunglasses over his hazel eyes in an all-too-late attempt to evade recognition.  Or maybe he twists his wedding ring…

Mia: Oh, yes! If he’s wearing a ring we definitely want to know it.

“What do you mean?”

“They got you getting into my car. They may be bottom-feeders, but don’t think for a moment they aren’t clever enough to put two-and-two together. The Italians know who you are. The Turks know who I am. Between both sides they’ll have a hell of a story tomorrow.”

She stared out the window. The view was bleak: bare branches like dark fingers in stark relief against a cold white sky, dingy grey buildings with dirty windows. She felt slightly sick, and pressed her cold fingers against her temples. “I don’t know what to do, Selim,” she said to him, never turning from the window.

Mia: End this paragraph with Selim. It’s obvious she is speaking and since she turns to him in the next paragraph we don’t need to hear that she didn’t in this one.

Sophia: Thank you.  Annoying tics!

He laughed, and it shocked her; his laugh was hearty and genuine, and her entire body tensed against it. She turned to him sharply.

“Why are you laughing?”

“Because you’re so serious,” he said, still chuckling, though more softly. “Don’t you understand? There’s nothing you can do. This is the way life is.”

“It’s over with Paolo.”

“And I’m sorry for him,” Selim said, “but I’m happy for myself.” He reached across for her hand. “And you’ll be happy, too. I promise you that.”

“You think it’s that easy? I can just walk away from Paolo Romaldo and take up with you like nothing happened?”

Mia: Is Paolo a made man or something? Why is it difficult for her to change boyfriends? Of course, with Selim wearing a wedding ring that throws up all sorts of roadblocks. You’ve made me ask a number of questions which is precisely what you want to do! A strong start.

Sophia: Part of the conflict in this story is Francesca’s desire for privacy despite her love for powerful and highly visible men—she’s drawn to them for the same reason that threatens to wreck her relationships with them.  [PS: I love the idea of Paolo being in the mafia!  He is, after all, from Naples…]

Mia: Personally, I love unusual settings, but I may be in the minority and I don’t know reader expectations for contemporary romance. I hope contemp readers will weigh in on this. Would this story play better in NYC or Istanbul?

Sophia: I’m also curious about this question—I assume that everyone loves to read about exotic foreign places, but I had an agent give feedback to the contrary.

 Mia: It’s the same issue with historicals. There’s a reason there are so many Regency set romances. Readers love them and as my wise agent, Natasha Kern says, “Readers want what they want.” And I’ve heard editors say if an author wants to be published in historical romance, for pity’s sake, set the story in England or Scotland. But I’m not overly good at heeding that advice. After all, my latest release, Silk Dreams, is set in 11th century Byzantium (the ancient version of your contemporary Istanbul!)

Since you live in NYC, you have the advantage of being able to set your story in a fabulous city that readers always love with authenticity. But let’s hear from the RPT gang on this issue as well.

Sophia Macris


SHORT BIO: Sophia Macris lives in New York City, where she is an executive at an international fine jewelry company.  Her first taste of writing success came in 2003, when she took second place in the Harvard Advocate’s Short Story competition with “The Legend of Johnny Valuable”.  She blogs at

Mia: It’s your turn, dear reader. Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy day to offer Sophia some encouragement and suggestions! YOU are the heart of Red Pencil Thursday!

21 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Though I realize that just because a sports reference or designer’s name doesn’t evoke a strong mental image for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for other readers, many editors discourage name-dropping for the simple reason that fashion trends and sports dynasties go in and out of style, but books are forever. Today’s expensive luxury brand or sexy championship contender may be tomorrow’s passé look or perennial cellar-dweller. Often, editors prefer authors to use such names sparingly, and instead describe the appeal in more general terms that allow readers to supply their own ideal–instead of “Bottega Veneta hobo,” for example, you could write “costly Italian handbag” or “chic designer bag.” (I know, the standard advice is “show, don’t tell,” but trendy references like the names of specific designers–or songs or TV shows or celebrities–are an exception.)

    That said, I love the way you plunge the reader right into the action. Aside from feeling a bit lost due to the unfamiliar sports references, I enjoyed the glamorous setting.

  2. Sorry I’m a day late. Couldn’t take the time yesterday. Here goes:

    I’d cut the blink twice and clawed frantically. All that together was too much. Your sentences are too long. You don’t need to cram everything into a sentence. Short sentences == fast pace. Longer sentences =slowed pace, good for love scenes.

    I would delete the names of designers and sports references. I had no clue (stopped me cold) what Bottega Veneta was. Ditto Tom Ford sunglassses. If you had said “Jackie O” glasses which ==big, black dark can’t-see-my-eyes glasses, then I would have known. Especially using these names at beginning of the book.

    “started running” is not a verb phrase with a helping verb. Helping verbs are: is, be, am are, was , were,do, does, did, may,, can, might, could , must, shall, will, should, would. (Yes, I can also recite the whole 9th grade English book… with examples)

    Basically, you are overwriting which everyone is guilty of at some point in their careers, even if they won’t admit it. I know that I overwrite sometimes but that’s the reason God created revisions. If you know you overwrite, when finished you go back and delete.

    Again, I had no clue about Galatasaray and Juventus midfielder.

    Terrified is used for serial killers and ghosts (LOL) reluctant, annoyed.. something on the level would be good.

    I was thinking about those shoes too. I assumed she’d be wearing stilettos. I doubt she’d take them off. Manolo B (whatever the designers name is) I read that designer name in another book and thought the author had created a name for a designer. Until… I went to hairdresser’s and saw the shoes in a magazine. Oops.

    “he said” and “she said” are not horrible habits. You need them. But we need names first.

    Again, no clue about those Persol glasses. Can you use “avaitors” or something.

    You like the Mafia from Naples? I have distant cousins (never met them) who are mafia from naples. Scicily ( I know I spelled that wrong) is the birthplace of the Mafia though. Naples is a good choice. Had a friend who vacationed there and said it was a wild, wild place. Probably cuz they love in the shadow of Vesuvius which could go off at any moment.

    RE: Location. I say WRITE THE BOOK YOU WANT” You may start a trend. For every Natasha Kern there are others who would say (if your book is good enough) great location.

    I would really like Sophia to rewrite this and then send back to red pencil Thursday. I guarantee the results will thrill her.

    Sophia… do NOT get discouraged. Keep writing. We (published authors) made all the mistakes you did.If we can do it, so can you.

  3. Mia Marlowe says:

    Good call about sentence length. Generally speaking, the quicker the action, the shorter the sentences should be.

    1. Sophia. says:

      I struggle with sentence structure–a lot. thanks for the call-out and suggestions!

  4. Chuck Robertson says:

    To begin with, I found the writing very good. There were no obvious errors or questionable entries. I found the pacing good and the character voices strong.

    The one area I might suggest changing is to vary the sentence length to avoid monotonous reading.

    I like the exotic opening and the paparazzi. It’s interesting.

    I think Selim picking Francesca in the Porsch is a good attention getter. As a reader, I want to know more about these people and why having them together is so newsworthy.

    As a reader, I would like to know more about who Palo is. He seems important. Also, I would like to know who the people are in general. What is it about Selim and Francesca that makes them famous?

  5. Hi Sophia and Mia,

    I like the exotic location. It’s not a deal breaker for me.

    As expressed above, I don’t care for the Porsche driver being married (if he is the hero). I would also like a hint that Francesca knows him before she jumps in his car.

    I am not a soccer fan so the soccer club names threw me off a bit. Maybe simplify the wording–rival team, etc.

    I want to feel sorry for Francesa. Is there something in her past that makes her hate the paparazzi? A Princess Diana incident?

    It sounds like you have an adventurous story. You started out with a lot of action which kept my interest. Way to go!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      The fact that she sprints toward the car tells me she knows the driver, but I think you’re onto something here, Barb. A deja vu moment involving a disastrous paparazzi incident Francesca was involved with would make her panic so very understandable.

      1. Sophia. says:

        I should make it clearer that she recognizes the car and its driver. her fear of the paparazzi is both historical and also foreshadowing of disaster to come. I’m so glad you used “panic”, Mia, because that’s exactly the feeling I want to convey. I’ll try to work that in somehow.

  6. Sophia. says:

    thanks everyone! I appreciate all the feedback about the “exotic” setting…this story is split between Italy and Turkey, with a couple of other European hot-spots tossed in.
    regarding the married man: would it change your opinion if he’s not the hero? because he’s not…
    thanks again!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      That would help me a lot. I was all set to label Selim a scumbag even if he’s hot and in a Porsche. I hope your next scene goes back to Paolo in the hospital then because we need to fall in love with your soccer player.

  7. Marcy W says:

    I greatly enjoy ‘exotic’ settings, and seek them out, so that’s a plus for me. However, I’m not a sports fan, so “midfielder for Juventus” means nothing to me … I can guess, from context, but too much of that and I get bored and feel left out. We all have our little blind spots, don’t we?!
    I like the pace and feel of this beginning; it draws me in and I can feel some of what she’s feeling — though I agree, tighten that up some, and show me what she’s feeling … sick to her stomach, blindingly angry, whatever. Also agree with comments about the married-man scenario … tell us quickly why we should care about this relationship, or you’ll lose us. But a race in a Porsche thru the streets of Istanbul to lose the paparazzi … that’s an attention-getting beginning! :) I want to read more, definitely.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Now I know what’s bugging me. You nailed it, Marcy. I need to see what she’s feeling. She seems more upset by the paparazzi than by her break up. Did she love Paolo? Is she dying a little inside even if she’s the one who called it off?

      Can you give us more of a peek inside her feelings, Sophia? Remember, an emotional hook is the strongest one a writer can set.

      1. Sophia. says:

        aaaand that makes perfect sense. even if she’s in shock, when she’s staring out the window and feeling sick she’s got to be thinking / feeling something.

  8. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    I don’t seek out international settings, but I know there are plenty of them out there. I also have trouble with the married man thing, but it depends on how quickly we get the information on why. If the characters are vacuous rich people the married man thing bothers me more. I’m betting they aren’t vacuous or you wouldn’t be writing about them, though. This beginning definitely makes me want to read more because you’ve set up enough questions to keep me interested without being lost.

    I have those crutch words, too. “Just” is my worse one, so at the end of a day’s writing I do a search for “just” and eliminate most of them. It’s just easier than stopping myself from writing it. Ha!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I’m drawn to unusual settings, but that’s just me. (Just again, LOL!) The opening with paparazzi, a Porsche and a possible Princess Di sort of chase seems very cinematic and creates a sense of motion and urgency.

      We want to be dropped into a story where something is happening, but I’m wondering if we also don’t need something to make us feel empathy for our heroine. Something to make us want to try on her Jimmy Choos and not have them pinch too badly.

  9. Zoe York says:

    I’m glad that Mia brought up location! I love love love international settings. Don’t shy away from setting it in Istanbul, but know that changes your potential reader base. I’m not a category romance expert, but I’ve read a number of Harlequins set in the Middle East, for example.

    Turkey bridges Europe and the Middle East, and with Selim in a Porsche and Paolo playing for Juventus, it sounds like your story does as well. I’m intrigued!

    Knowing your crutch words and writerly tics will help you in the self-editing process. Make a list of things that have been flagged. Simply naming them for yourself will give them visibility as you write, but the list is most useful for doing a find and replace search. My own list includes “shrugged” and “eyes”, because, I use “he shrugged” as shorthand in my first drafts, and really, I need more in some of those spots. “Eyes”, because half the time I mean gaze. But the list also includes standards like “-ly words”, “and then”, “very”, etc.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I think we all have those versions of throat clearing that come through in our writing. I make good use of the Control F function myself.

  10. I love exotic locations, and Istanbul definitely caught my interest. I’m not wild about affairs with married men, however. That’s an instant turnoff for me. It may be less of a problem with other readers, though.

    Instead of looking for a single word to label her frantic frustration, how about showing us what she’s experiencing? Physical sensations, thoughts–maybe give us a hint of why this is more than the usual annoyance of a celebrity hounded by paparazzi.

    Thanks for sharing. You have a promising start here!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Ditto on the married man thing for me, SD. However, if you remember your Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester had a mad wife in the attic. So it might depend upon the state of Selim’s marriage. But a relationship with a married man is dangerous ground to tread for a romance writer, for sure.

      1. Zoe York says:

        Rings don’t bother me – in a romance novel, I trust that the path to a HEA will be found, and that doesn’t generally include a married man. So if the hero IS married, I’m pretty patient waiting for the explanation as to how that’s going to work out.

        Done well, it can be awesome conflict – because that’s a huge barrier to the HEA.

        Of course, if there isn’t a HEA, and it’s really an affair, that would make me throw the book across the room. ;)

    2. Zoe York says:

      “Francesca was terrified that they recognized her so easily.”

      I agree with S.D.’s suggestion – switch this sentence out for one that shows us her visceral reaction, and then gives her reaction. This sinks the reader deeper into Francesca’s point of view.

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