Red Pencil Thursday
It’s Thursday. Do you know where your red pencil is?
I 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.
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 http://paoloandfrancesca.wordpress.com
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!