Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayWelcome back to another online critique group. I’m happy to report that a number of writers have stepped forward to offer the first 500 words of their WIP. So we’re set for the next few weeks of Red Pencil Thursday, but am always looking for new victims…I mean volunteers! If you would like to take a ride in the RPT hotseat, check out the details on how you can submit your material .

Our volunteer today is Vikki Vaught, a historical author. My thoughts about her work are in red, Vikki’s responses in blue. I hope you’ll add yours in the comment section!

Kathleen’s Scandalous Baron

Mia: Since this is a period piece you need something more than merely Kathleen. Miss Kathleen will telegraph the type of story you’re offering more clearly.

Vikki: I see what you mean. I like adding Miss to it. Miss Kathleen’s Scandalous Baron it is. This is a sequel to another completed MS, Anissa’s Perilous Journey. That title will need to change also. I tend to like three word titles for some reason.

Even though it was still a bit cold, Kathleen Hawks enjoyed the beautiful Devonshire beach. It reminded her of the seashore back at home in Baltimore. Walking the beach had always been something she enjoyed immensely and continued to enjoy here. Devonshire had a stark beauty and she found the moors nearby, intriguing.

Mia: After my rules against over-use of exclamation points and words ending in –ly, not starting with the weather comes next. Honestly, I’ve heard editors make jokes about weather openings.

Vikki: I’ve had misgivings concerning this opening. I never even thought about it opening with the weather. How boring is that? I wanted the reader to understand how much Kathleen loves the beach, but this really doesn’t get that across. I’m now thinking about having her at play with her niece and nephew.

Mia: Will there be any tension in that opening? Something unique about her relationship with the kids? You need to show Kathleen’s life is in some sort of imbalance or will become so very shortly.

Shivers of anticipation raced through Kathleen. She was going to London for the season. Since her brother’s wife, Anissa, was with child and due any day, Adam and Sylvia, the Duke and Duchess of Barrington had volunteered to bring her out. The only concern Kathleen had about this was how her betrothed would feel about her dancing and having a good time with other gentlemen. After all, going to parties and balls was what a season was all about, and of course, dancing was part of it.

Mia: This is all important information, but with the exception of the shivers, you’re telling, m’dear, not showing. The shivers show us how Kathleen feels. Is there someone who could walk the beach with her? While you don’t want to use dialogue as an info-dump, it is possible to engage your readers and help them connect with your heroine through her words instead of yours.

Vikki: I’m going to work this into the conversation with either her mother or Anissa. I do want to mention this is a very rough draft and the MS is not finished. I wrote this last year in the month of November for NaNoWriMo and wrote well over 50,000 words in less than a month.

Mia: I’m so impressed that you were able to create 50K shiny new words on a MS in such a short period of time. I enjoy rewriting. It’s the initially pushing the story out that’s harder for me.

William Jones had started courting her last spring, and Kathleen fell head over heels for him right away. The night before she’d left for England, William asked for her hand in marriage. Her brother, Alex, hadn’t wanted to give his permission. Kathleen had only been seventeen at the time, but he finally agreed, with the understanding that they wouldn’t get married for at least a year.

Mia: This is backstory. Does the reader absolutely need to know this at this point? Drop your readers into the middle of the action, into a surprising circumstance and let them scramble a bit to keep up.   

Vikki: Again, I will work this into a conversation a little bit at a time. I have another MS where I took out the first 3-4 pages and dropped the reader right into the action. I now have a contract on that one with Secret Cravings Publishing. That book should be released in January 2014.

Mia: Congrats on your sale!

It had been senseless to wait as far as Kathleen was concerned, because she knew her own mind quite well, thank you very much. After all, she was now eighteen, and she would love William forever. Alex could be so old fashioned about some things, and he’d always been over protective. While she loved both her brothers, she felt stifled by their good intentions.

Mia: Have you ever written an argument between Kathleen and her brother? That might be a much better way to show his concern and her feistiness.

Vikki: I like that idea. That’s a distinct possibility.

Looking up at the sky, Kathleen noticed the sun was fully out. She needed to return to the house or she’d miss breakfast, and her stomach was letting her know that wouldn’t be a good idea. Kathleen made her way up the steep path, leading back to the house. Some women might find the path too steep, but Kathleen had been climbing trees and riding since she was very young, keeping her very fit. Besides, Kathleen preferred being on the move. While she enjoyed reading and needlework at times, her greatest joy was being outside, communing with nature and riding her horse.

Mia: If she had a friend beside her huffing and puffing, Kathleens good health and fitness would be evident. And if her friend castigated her for unladylike activities like tree climbing so much the better.

Vikki: I wanted the reader to know she’s always full of energy. I’ll figure out another way to do this. I’m sure that would come across if I add the children into the scene.

Kathleen quickly made the climb and ran into the house and up the stairs without even losing her breath. Fortunately, today’s fashions didn’t need a corset most of the time. Once Kathleen entered her room, she rushed through her morning ablutions and headed down to the breakfast room.

Mia: If this is the Regency, you’re right about her not wearing a corset. Stays supported a woman’s breasts, but didn’t restrict her waistline. However, the narrow column dresses restricted the length of women’s strides. She’d have to lift her skirts to run.

Vikki: I’m having to move this back to 1803, since I ran into a problem with the year for the first MS. I’ve looked at fashions from that time period, and all the dresses look loose around the hips and legs. However, Kathleen is a bit of a hoyden, and she’d definitely pick up her skirts and run.

Upon entering, her mother, Georgia, looked up and smiled. “Did you enjoy your walk this morning? I don’t know where you find the energy. Oh, to be young again!”

Mia: I think you have a dangling participle there. The way this reads the mother is the one doing the entering. 

Vikki: Definitely. Thanks for pointing that out.

Kathleen laughed as she went to the sideboard and filled her plate with coddled eggs, bacon and toast. “Ma, you’re not old, and you’re still very active. You know you enjoy a brisk walk as well as I do, just not as early as I like them. Where’s Anissa this morning?”

Mia: Thanks for letting me take a look at your work, Vikki.

I like Kathleen. She’s energetic and straight-forward. But I’d like to see her in a more unique situation to start your story. The fact that she’s an American gives you a chance to play up her “fish-out-of-water” qualities. (You might take a look at the beginning of my Stroke of Genius for an example. The first chapter is here on my website. My heroine is an American heiress in search of a titled husband.)

Where to begin a novel is a question with which authors always wrestle. Is she going to have a disagreement with someone soon? Start there. How does she meet the hero? Another good jumping off point. I’ve lopped off over 12 pages from the beginning of a manuscript before. It was important for me to write those pages. I needed to learn more about my characters and I was sort of “clearing my throat” before the story got started.

Vikki: Thanks, Mia. This really helped. I was definitely not satisfied with this opening and will be doing major re-writes on it. Just as you said, sometimes you need to write this stuff out to help you get to know your character better, but it doesn’t need to be in the book. I appreciate your time. I will certainly check out Stroke of Genius.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVikki Vaught started her writing career when a story popped in her head and wouldn’t leave. Over the last three years, she’s written 6 historical romances and is presently working on her seventh. As an avid reader of historical romance, she’s a romantic at heart. Vikki loves a “Happily Ever After”, and she writes them in her stories. While romance is the central theme of all her romances, she includes some significant historical event or place in all her novels.

Vikki lives in the beautiful foothills of the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee with her beloved husband, Jim, who has the patience of a saint. She attended the University of Tennessee and St. Leo University and has a degree in Business Management. For many years, Vikki worked for large corporations in team management, but she finds writing much more enjoyable. While she still has a day job, it gives her ample time to devote to her craft.


OK, now it’s your turn. The real power of Red Pencil Thursday lies in your input! What suggestions, comments or encouragement do you have for Vikki?


21 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. I agree with most of what Mia said. This is going to be more general than I usually do. You have no tension. Too much info. Keep backstory and info out of beginning. For unmarried maidens, the Season was not about parties and balls. The Season meant husband hunting. The richer the better. Forget NaNoWriMo. Writing is not a race. Work at your own pace and learn the craft. Concentrate on quality, not quantity. If you learn your lessons, you can write a book destined for a big print publisher (which was the only game in town when I started) You are “telling” the story instead of “showing” it unfold. I’m not trying to be mean. I cut the 1st 150 pages of my 1st ever novel and it sold to Dell Publishing.I would restructure this whole beginning. I would have heroine about to enter her 1st ball of the Season, and toss info in much later.. Think of what she is feel, how are the other debutantes going to react to this American upstart. That is more exciting to me than walking on the beach.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Finally, someone who shares my opinion on NaNoWriMo. While I do stretch myself to hit a daily wordcount when I’m under deadline, I still edit as I go so that in a pinch, I could send the manuscript in the moment I type THE END. The idea of scrambling to slap up 50K words without the kind of two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance I usually do with my work boggles my mind.

      Everyone has their own process and if it works for you, great. For me, it would be an exercise in futility.

  2. Vikki, I think you and I might have similar processes. The first draft is where I discover the story. The prose isn’t polished, half the scenes might be from the wrong POV and poorly constructed, the other half will suffer either white room syndrome or talking heads. The hero’s horse will change names, and it’s a hot mess.
    But it’s what I have to do to find a starting version of the story.

    Now, to add to the insights offered above: To me, in a romance novel, the most important job of the opening pages is to establish a connection between the reader and the protagonist. That’s just plain hard to do with tell writing, and hard to do when no other character in the story is on the page to relate to your protag. Those factors are what tell me this isn’t where you story will start in its final form.

    Hoard that backstory like it’s your last peanut butter and jelly. Never answer a question before the reader asks it. Show don’t tell. Readers skip description far sooner than they skip dialogue….

    I’m sure all of those old rubrics plus a few more will reshape this rough draft into a true gem, so get polishing!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Excellent points, as always, Grace. I’m going to cross-stitch your “Hoard that Backstory” comment on a pillow and keep it where I can see it when I’m writing!

    2. Vikki says:

      Thanks, Grace. I value those words of wisdom. I do tend to want to give too much away too soon. That’s something I’m working on.

  3. Thank you, Vikki and Mia. Here’s my take on this excerpt.

    Most important criticism first: the story has promise, but I think it starts at the wrong point. I’m no fan of the way many novels start nowadays, with a scene of graphic violence, graphic sex, or both. A nice bit of drama will do. At least for readers like me.

    What drama? Consider the protagonist’s situation. In order to hook me into the story, he or she should be deeply involved in a situation I find interesting. Or better yet,fascinating.

    Therefore, the best way to open a work of fiction, IMHO, is by writing a scene that pertains directly to this situation. And includes some drama—which usually means a conflict, a discovery, a surprise, or a turning point.

    You know your protag’s story better than anyone else. Therefore, if you consider this approach to crafting fiction, I’ll leave it to you to determine what her situation is and to decide how to fashion an opening scene out of it.

    Though I’ve seen only the first 500 words of your manuscript and know only a little more about the story based on your comments, I can see lots of plot possibilities. For instance, if I recall correctly, relations between the US and the UK during this period tended to be pretty dicey. Does this play into the story?

    Is there a potential issue in the source of the heroine’s family’s wealth and position? Are they considered parvenus?

    If the heroine is a free-spirited hoyden, accustomed to the rougher environment on the other side of the pond, she’s likely to have a hard time fitting into high society in London. Or be considered a suitable bride for an aristocrat. Again, lots of possibilities.

    Another topic: I’m interested in names, and to me they really matter in a work of fiction. And in my humble but informed opinion, “Kathleen” seems out of place for an upper-class American girl in the early 1800s. I seriously doubt this name would turn up anywhere in this period outside of Ireland.

    Having said this, I must acknowledge that it’s a widespread practice among historical romance writers to give a female character a name that’s common or fairly so nowadays, but would be out of place or period in the setting of the story. So clearly this practice doesn’t bother most readers, writers, or editors.

    Still, you might consider my point. If you’re not too enamored of “Kathleen”, would you consider renaming your heroine “Catherine”? Or, if you prefer to refer to her by a diminutive but stay authentic, “Kate” or “Kitty”.

    Hope this helps!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      You’re right about needing to make sure the names fit the period and station of the character. I love to use this Regency Name Generator. They’ve taken first names & surnames from period source documents and scrambled them into a random matrix. It’s a great resource.

    2. Vikki says:

      Thanks, Mary Ann. I’ll have to think about the name. And you’re right about the times. In fact, I’ve had to take this story back seven years because of the conflict leading up the War of 1812.

  4. Vikki says:

    I appreciate everyone’s suggestions. As a writer, I think I’m too close to where this story is going to see things objectively. That’s why feedback like this is so helpful. I want to thank Mia for giving me this valuable opportunity. I encourage other writers to take advantage of this.

  5. Chuck Robertson says:

    Everything seems written pretty well, but as a reader I would have trouble finding something in the story that would interest me.

    The first four paragraphs or so I find to be uninteresting. They are basically telling of the backstory.

    Finally some action takes place in the fifth para and after. She’s walking to breakfast, which is not particularly exciting but at least we learn something about her character. Also, she speaks with her mother, giving the reader to read something about that character as well.

    Still, the action is not particularly exciting. There is some rich potential in the backstory to draw from. If you were so show a scene from that backstory, or perhaps have her argue with her mom, it might be interesting enough to hook the reader.

    1. Vikki says:

      Thanks, Chuck for your comments. I’m going to use them. I wasn’t satisfied with this opening and needed some help.

  6. Vikki says:

    I really appreciate all the feedback. I can’t wait to dig in and make these changes. The scene where she meets her baron in Hyde Park my become the new beginning. I’m going to play with this a bit, or a lot. I’m like Mia, I enjoy the re-writing process quite a bit.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I like that idea, Vikki.

  7. Hi Vikki and Mia,

    I’m in agreement with your comments, Mia. I enjoyed your writing, Vikki, but we need some excitement to hook us into reading 300 pages.

    In Robert McKee’s “Story”, he writes that the inciting incident “radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.”

    That being said, you could have Kathleen go against her boyfriend’s wishes and steal away to London, or she is shipwrecked on her way to London, or some other incident that throws her life off course.

    Congratulations on your sale. You’re amazing having six books under your belt.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      You’re right, Barbara. There used to be a time when readers would allow authors the luxury of basking in our protagonist’s Ordinary World for much longer. Now, they want the story to begin on page one. Something unexpected needs to happen. A strong emotion cord needs to be yanked. Something funny, sad or surprising needs to occur. We need a reason to care enough about the main character to propel us forward.

  8. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    I think Mia’s comments are right on target. You wouldn’t believe the number of story beginnings hiding in my closet. I’ll delete them from the computer, but I can’t bare to throw them away. We lived in the “foothills of the Smoky Mountains” for a year and vacationed there forever. As a child in Florida, we hurried up there whenever it snowed and absolutely loved it.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I don’t throw anything out either, Karri. I tend to keep my deleted scenes for cannibalization later or as cautionary tales for myself!

      1. Vikki says:

        Thanks, Karri for your comments. The opening is so critical and it has to hook the reader immediately. This first 500 words does not do that. I grew up in his area, but moved away in my early adult years. I didn’t appreciate the beauty of the mountains until I moved back in 2004 and re-explored them.

  9. Congratulations on your sale, Vikki! I agree with Mia; you’re dumping a lot of info on us right away. It’s a natural tendency, sort of like, “Once you know what’s going on, dear reader, we can get into the real story.” What I’m guessing is that all this information comes out more naturally later in the first chapter or two.

    As a reader, I always look for some kind of compelling emotion in the first few lines…fear, yearning, that sense of being stuck. I want to know right up front what this character’s issues are, or what kind of person she is. I wasn’t really sure what your heroine’s issues were.

    All that being said, your writing is very smooth and lovely. Good luck!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Spot on, Kristan. Emotion is the strongest hook a writer can set.

    2. Vikki says:

      Thanks, Kristan. Your feedback is invaluable to me. As I stated this is a very rough draft, and I need to dig deep, so the reader gets a better sense of who Kathleen is as early as possible.

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