Red Pencil Thursday
It’s time for another online critique group. My volunteer is Alexa Kyler, an army wife! I so admire and appreciate the people who serve in our military and the families who support their brave choice. Alexa has made a brave choice today too. She’s sharing that all important first 500 words of her WIP and letting us all go to school on it.
Each week I’m preaching to myself as I give my suggestions. Writing is an ocean of things to learn and I pick up new things all the time. I look forward to your comments as much as my volunteers do, so please be sure to share your thoughts!
It had taken eight long years of no sleep and lots of caffeine but he was finally done, a year early too. Michael Frederic “Cale” de George Junior was now in possession of a Doctorate Degree in History from Princeton University. He thought Dr. Michael Frederic de George, Jr., PhD, sounded pretty awesome – No – Dr. Cale George. That sounded better.
Mia: Numbers tend to yank me out of a story, so I googled yours. According to the American Historical Association, it takes an average of 8 years to earn a doctorate in history. Therefore, Cale didn’t finish a year early. But beyond that, this opening doesn’t grab me by the emotion hook. What can you have Cale doing that will pull me in? Also, would he drop the ‘de’ before his last name even to make his name ‘awesomer’?
Alexa: I was reading up on History Doctorates and my research found 5 years for doctorate after the BA. That was awhile ago though so I would of course check that before publishing. The last name “de” drop was just for convenience but I can see how that would be too confusing.
His friends had teased him mercilessly for choosing history as his doctorate but it was his passion. He loved learning about the past and the secrets it held. He loved old dusty books and dark stuffy bookstores full of forgotten treasures. He loved showing people these secrets, telling the stories of times past.
Mia: Bingo! But you’re telling, m’dear. Show him in his element surrounded by those books. Let him be searching for something specific. Could he reach the desired book at the same time as another bibliophile and have a tussle over it? Might be a good way for him to meet the heroine—or the villain, if they’re after the same thing. A story needs tension and nowhere does it need more than in the opening. So far you’ve been giving us backstory, show us Cale in action NOW!
Alexa: These first couple pages should probably be in another chapter, in bits and pieces.
Of course, no one knew the real reason for his obsession. No one knew that he knew his family’s secret. And he wasn’t going to tell anyone, not even his siblings.
Mia: Now we have a legitimate hook, but you’ve buried it. Lead with the family secret. Not that you should give the details to us at this point, but let us know that it’s Cale’s driving force.
Alexa: I have a prologue written out. A memory sequence from when Cale was a child where he overhears an argument his parents have. I think it would help with the hook.
Cale walked up to his childhood home in Aspen Hill and smiled. He loved his childhood home. It wasn’t too big but it had been big enough for 8 kids. They thought they were going to surprise him with a party to celebrate his doctorate. But his sister Stacie couldn’t keep a secret from anyone. Of his seven siblings, Stacie was the one to always spill the beans when pressured, even when not.
Stacie was a social butterfly. She loved being the center of attention. She was sweet, happy and cared about everyone and everything. She was tall and petite with bright blue eyes, brown hair with natural red highlights and always had a smile. She was studying to be a kindergarten teacher.
Her twin, Katie, on the other hand, probably had more secrets than every government agency combined, which was probably a good thing since she was looking at enlisting in the military as a military intelligence officer after college and then the CIA. She looked identical to Stacie but they were complete opposites. Katie was shy, quiet and hated being noticed. She observed, saw everything and didn’t miss much.
Mia: These paragraphs are character sketches. They belong in your writer’s bible (a list of characters & important details you need to keep track of), not in the main narrative. This is valuable information, but it’s for you. You need to know these things about your characters at this time. Only give your readers as much as they absolutely need to move forward. Take a peek at the opening of Plaid to the Bone. I don’t explain who the people are. I simply drop readers into the middle of the action and they learn what’s going on as the characters move forward.
Alexa: I am a detail person and love too much info when I read but I can see how that shouldn’t dumped in the first chapter.
Mia: That attention to detail will serve you well, Alexa. It’s a matter of learning when to ladle out the info and when to withhold it.
Cale paused, took a deep breath and opened the door.
“SURPRISE!” At least 50 people yelled as he walked into his parent’s home.
“What?! A surprise party for me? I had no idea!” He exclaimed with as much fake surprise as he could muster.
“Oh, stop! You knew we would do this,” Amy de George laughed. “Everyone knows Stacie shouldn’t have been told!”
Mia: Again, we have the problem of no tension. Now if he had gone there expecting the surprise party and mysteriously no one was there, you’d have a hook.
Alexa: The tension comes in the next part, with his heroine. I should probably start with that scene and then move to him at work where his passion for history comes out.
Mia: Figuring out where to start the story is so important. I think your scene with the heroine sounds like a great beginning.
He hugged his mom as she laughed. His mom was tall for a woman, had lightly graying blonde hair and soft brown eyes. She was a little plump but she had eight children. She was very active and was hardly ever seen sitting down.
Mia: Reminds me of my mother-in-law. She was always doing something. I had to fuss to get her to sit down long enough to eat with the rest of us. However, you’re telling again. Show Amy frenetically doing and we’ll have a truer picture of her in our minds.
“It’s so true!” Stacie laughed good-naturedly. He hugged Stacie, then Katie; they were never far from each other even at twenty-three.
“My son is a Doctor!” Mike de George Sr. shouted as he dragged Cale into a hug. His dad was just above average in height but was robust with a big chest and wide shoulders.
Mia: The point of Red Pencil Thursday is to give writers a chance to think about their work in new directions. In your case, Alexa, I’d like to talk a bit about the difference between showing and telling. There’s a time for each in a story, but in the beginning especially it’s important to show your protagonist in an active situation. Readers like to be included in the storytelling process and by presenting your character in action—doing something, in dialogue with another, facing a problem—you give readers a chance to draw their own conclusions about the hero/heroine. Think about the sort of situation that would, in the words of Tolkien’s Faramir, allow your hero to “show his quality.”
So in showing, your character is interacting with his world and those around him. Telling involves “author intrusion.” It means you’re slipping in a capsule of information the reader needs in order to understand what’s at stake.
I like Mike & his family. If we could feel his concern about how the secret threatens his loved ones up front, you’ll pull us right in.
Alexa: I am glad you like my characters so far. Good characters are just as important as a good storyline. I know I have a lot of work to do on this story. Thank you for reviewing my first ever story.
Mia: You’re so right. Romance is character-driven fiction. Keep up the good work. My first ever story richly deserves its place with the dust bunnies under my bed. I call it my “training wheels” manuscript because I had so much to learn about the writer’s craft.
Alexa’s bio: I grew up in Alaska but not how you would think. I am a city girl. I don’t have a love of being outdoors but loves living in the picturesque Alaska. I married my high school sweetheart a year after I graduated. My husband joined the Army and we started our family right away. We have 4 amazing sons and live the Army life. Now that they are getting older, I am starting to indulge in my childhood dream of writing a novel. https://www.facebook.com/
Now it’s YOUR turn. Please leave your comments, encouragement & suggestions for Alexa!