Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayIt’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.

Now it’s YOUR turn. Please leave your comments, encouragement & suggestions for Alexa!


44 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Barb Bettis says:

    Oh, my, Alexa, what wonderful advice you’ve received. I wanted to congratulate you for taking that first important step–actually beginning! Writing is hard work, learning the craft is ongoing.

    As for showing not telling–I came across a great Mark Twain quote recently: “Don’t say the old lady screamed; bring her on and let her scream.”

    You’ve done a terrific job of creating your family and fixing each member in the hierarchy of ‘characters.’ Now perhaps you can decide just how much of that information is essential for the reader to know right away. Save some details to weave throughout the story, to keep the reader wondering.

    Best of luck as you continue writing.

    1. Mia says:

      Priceless Twain quote, Barbara. Thanks for sharing!

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comment. I will definitely be weaving instead of dumping, showing instead of telling. Sometimes I wish my favorite novels came with a blooper section! Wouldn’t that be interesting?!

  2. To Barbara Britton– Your comment on smiling made me ‘smile’. My 1st book had everyone “chortling” or “smiling”. Even when I now write, I find myself reading a scene and ask myself “Why the f—k is everyone smiling? All those smiles get crossed out.

    1. Mia says:

      Made me smile! ;-)

  3. This is a long one. #1 too much info and too many names. verbs need to be active, not passive. If you must start here why not start with something like ‘I should have bought stock in Starbucks.” (for the gallons of coffee he drank) A sentence like that pulls the reader into the story. If I picked this book up and read the 1st paragraph, I would put it back on the shelf. Your 1st sentence, paragraph, page need to hook the reader. I always think of a hand coming out of sentence #1 and grabbing the readers collar and yanking them right into the book. The beginning of your story doesn’t do that.
    #2 You are “telling” versus “showing” the story happen. Let the scenes unfold.
    #3 Consider the character’s backstory a mystery for the reader. Drop bits and pieces into the story, not everything up front
    DO NOT FEEL BAD! All beginning writers make the same mistakes. You are in good company.
    #4 NO prologues, memory sequence, dreams. Consider those death to your story. A prologue sHould only be used when necessary, which is not the case here.
    #5 A big problem with this opening is lots of narrative and dialogue between characters delayed. All this info is boring. be boring later in the book and then we’ll tell you how to avoid sagging middles. Also, too many characters are introduced for beginning scene.I wouldn’t begin a book with all those characters at once.
    #6 DO NOT QUIT! ( I wrote my 1st book 5 times. The 1st draft was all “telling” with some dialogue but I knew that was not going to make the grade. I rewrote the book 4 more times but it sold to Dell Publishing. If someone had read the 1st draft of my 1st book, he/she would never believe I would ever get published. I now have 18 to my credit. SO DON’T GIVE UP)
    Concentrate on a new beginning, followed by “showing” versus “telling”
    Writing is learned in layers. You don’t pick up a tennis racquet the 1st time and play center court at Wimbledon. Good luck!

    1. Mia says:

      Good catch about too many characters in the first 500 words. We need that time to bond with the protagonist. Introducing so many other people all at once keeps us from doing that.

      And absolutely, the best advice is always DON’T GIVE UP! I remember hearing Debbie Macomber tell about asking an editor how she could improve her first manuscript. The editor said, “Burn it.” That sort of cold response might have caused some writers to quit. Fortunately for all of us who love her work, Debbie was made of sterner stuff and kept at it.

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comments. I have a lot of rewrites in the future. :)

  4. Laurie Evans says:

    Great job! There are some great suggestions, here. Beginnings are so hard. I’ve rewritten my beginning several times.

    1. Mia says:

      I spend more time polishing the first 3 chapters than the rest of the book because they’re just that important.

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comment. I am learning that the beginning is the hardest. I read an article recently where an author mentioned that she wrote the second half of the book first so that she knew where the beginning needed to start.

  5. Chuck Robertson says:

    Hello, Alexa. Below are my personal observations about the story so far. I have presented my observations in blocks reflecting the places Mia broke up the story for her comments.

    A. The first para does not hook me as a reader. While it’s an accomplishment to get a PhD, it’s not particularly exciting to the reader.

    B. As Mia says, it’s telling instead of showing.There are good opportunities to write scenes about His friends teasing him for his choice of passion. Even if there were a scene about that here, however, I personally do not see how it could have value as a hook.

    C.Family secrets are always interesting. I find this one particularly interesting because he tells no one, even his siblings. It makes me as a reader wonder why.

    D. These paras may describe interesting characters, but with only tellling the story itself is not particularly interesting. However, I do see potential to write interesting scenes about his interaction with these characters through showing.

    E. Finally some showing. I think the line about Stacie should not have been told shows a little about the family dynamics, but there’s still not enough action here to hook a reader.

    My overall thoughts are there should be a hook at the beginning. What is threatening Cale that would make good conflict? What is at stake for him? Also, His family provides an interesting background for a story, but there is no story here. Also, we still to not have a reason to root for Cale. I think you need to front-load the story with something exciting at the very beginning and present the characteristics of his family in little doses as the story unfolds.

    I know my criticism is sharp, but you really shouldn’t feel bad about it. We’ve all been where you are at some point and know how you feel. In fact, I was where you are now a couple weeks ago. Putting my story on the chopping block helped give my opening the breakthrough I was looking for. Just pick yourself up off the canvass and take what you’ve learned here to help you write the opening your novel deserves.

    You have the raw material for a good story, you simply need to rearrange it so as to present it in a form that will interest the reader.

    1. Mia says:

      Thanks so much for that detailed critique, Chuck. You raise some great points, particularly the need for a stronger hook. And I’m so glad to hear that RPT was beneficial to you!

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comments. I definitely need to show more and rearrange my storyline. I have been going back and forth on how much of the secret to reveal at a time. I’m thinking about revealing the secret in the first chapter but not introducing the protagonists until after the first chapter.

      1. Alexa Kyler says:

        Wow, that came out wrong. I should have waited until the morning to respond. Ignore that last sentence. I meant to say that I thought about revealing the secret in the first chapter but wanted to introduce that protagonist first. I don’t like when the mystery is halfway given away in the beginning. That’s what it feels like when I try to use the secret as the hook. I will figure it out though.

  6. Marcy W says:

    Alexa, you’re a brave woman — raising four boys while living the roving military life, and putting your first writing ‘baby’ out there for comments!
    I get a good picture of Cale, so that’s a plus in so few words; and I really like that you’ve shown how happy Cale is when with his family. It makes sense that he’s worked so hard for his PhD in order to research the family secret. — I also like to know details of the characters in a book, but this “info dump”, as Mia calls it, really is too much info all at once. As you said, it’s details that can be included in the next few chapters, sprinkled here and there to deepen our understanding of Cale and his character, and maybe to show some tension between one or two family members and the heroine? Don’t not use that info, just use it differently.
    As we see with every RPT, the very beginning of a book has to draw in the reader, and what I’ve learned is that always requires either vivid action or dramatic tension of some kind, as well as enough info to make me care about the hero/heroine. I can sense that your story is going to be a good read, if you can just hook me at the start. Good luck, and let us know when you’ve got more to show us . . . thanks for sharing. :)

    1. Mia says:

      And thanks for sharing your insights too, Marcy. As a discerning reader your take on things is very important. After all, without readers, we writers are just trees falling in the forest with no one around.

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comment. I am glad you were able to grasp what I was trying to convey; Cale’s pride in his accomplishment, the drive behind his choice of degree even if the secret hasn’t been revealed, his love for his family. That is what I wanted the reader to get right off the bat but I buried it in the info dump.

  7. Sarah R. says:

    Alexa, As a fellow mom to four boys who has just returned to the writing dream as well, I wanted to let you know I am rooting for you.

    I don’t have anything to add that hasn’t already been said. I just come over here every Thursday to glean the advice of others. Good luck with your story.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I have two daughters. I was so relieved when we had girls because I was afraid I wouldn’t know what to do with boys!

      I’m so glad you feel RPT is useful to you, Sarah. All along my writer’s journey I’ve been helped by others. This is my way of giving back a little. Thank you for stopping by and sharing.

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comment. And also thank you for the supportive cheer. Good luck to you too.

  8. Vikki says:

    Thanks for sharing, Alexa. It’s so hard to put your work out there for everyone to see, but so worth it. I love anything to do with history so I can relate to your character, but I do feel that you should probably start as he goes into the house for the party. Also I was scratching my head at the tall and petite part. Good job and keep up the writing. This experience is a great learning tool.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks, Vikki! I love it when Red Pencil Thursday alums come back to pay it forward with suggestions and encouragement for the next victim . . . er, volunteer! ;-)

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comment. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and heard petite used for thin or slender often. My mistake. This has been a great, nerve racking experience! I have no regrets.

  9. Hi Mia and Alexa,

    Kudos to you, Alexa, for getting any writing done with four boys.

    It is always difficult knowing where to start a story, but think about what change is coming into Cale’s life. If it’s the heroine, start with her. But remember, having an argument is not necessarily tension.
    I would like to see more focus on Cale, and him alone. Too many secondary characters in the opening pages can confuse the reader. Also, watch the exclamation points in your dialogue. Use them sparingly or not at all.

    I noticed the repetition of smile. That is another word that should be used sparingly,
    unless you can describe it to me: Christmas-morning smile, I-thought-you-weren’t-coming smile.

    You have an interesting main character. Start with what is going to happen to him that will change his life forever.

    All the best to you. Thank you for your sacrifice for our country.

    1. Mia says:

      Reading your work aloud is a great way to catch repetitive words. The ear snags what the eyes miss.

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comments. I will definitely be editing this a lot. Like I mentioned in another comment, I did not edit before I sent. I didn’t want to lose my nerve. I really need to find someone to help me edit and proofread. I just haven’t admitted my new hobby to any of my friends or family yet, except my husband. Unfortunately, he works from 4am to 9pm most nights so he cannot help me. :

      1. Mia Marlowe says:

        Never asks someone who wants to continue to sleep with you what he thinks about your work. You need a totally unbiased set of eyes. Is there an RWA chapter near you? That’s how I find my critique partners.

        1. Alexa Kyler says:

          Good point, Mia. Thank you. The nearest RWA is an hour and a half drive, one way. I wish there was one closer. I am hoping there will be a closer one when we move in the summer. We still don’t know where we are going yet, just that we are supposed to be done here.

  10. jen says:

    I see mia found 8 years as an ave. That sounds totally right. After BA.

    1. Mia says:

      So that gives us an approximate age of 30 for Cale.

  11. jen says:

    I agree with all the comments here. I wanted to pass along some info about the number of years to the PhD, which, btw, is how most PhDs refer to it (in the US anyway, like, “I have a PhD in history” rather than “doctorate,” though that’s not completely uncommon). Most PhDs start counting from grad school on. So your character would probably not include his BA work in his count. Also, 5 years is quite fast, so if he did it in 5, that would be very impressive. The *real* aaverage is seven years, despite what university departments tell you on their webpages! If he got funding from his program, so he didn’t have to help a professor with her/his research or teach undergrads while he was pursuing his dissertation, then 5 years is rock star. 4 Is mega-rockstar, almost inconceivable. Good luck taking your work forward!

    1. Mia says:

      As someone with only a BA, may I say I’m in awe of those who continue to pursue advanced degrees and add substance to the body of knowledge in their chosen field.

      Guess if I was on Big Bang, I’d fall somewhere between Howard with the MA and Penny, the community college drop out. ;-)

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comments. I did a lot of research for this a couple of years ago when I first started this story. I spoke to a professor with a PhD in history. I asked many questions and asked about different scenarios. This was based on one scenario and I didn’t give all the details yet but was assured that it was possible.

  12. I love this family, Alexa! But I agree with Mia…I’m not sure what this story is going to be about, and what the character wants. What I’ve found myself is that when I “tell” something, the information is usually shown later on. It’s almost like I’m doing it for my own purposes, to clarify it for myself. Give the reader credit for being able to get this stuff through the characters’ actions.

    I love the idea of the family secret, and I even love the smug pride the hero feels at his achievement. Good work, and keep it up!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Agree, Kristan. A lot of what I write in the first pass is for me. It’s my way of discovering the characters & their story. But then it’s important to pare things down to the bare threads to keep the story moving along.

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comments. First, I am having a huge fan girl moment right now!! Kristan Higgins read my work! :) Okay, moving on. I realized before I sent this off that the show not tell comments would rule the day. I literally read Mia’s blog for the umpteenth time and made myself send this off without any touching up beforehand. I knew if I waited, I would lose my nerve! I am very glad I did it, no matter what the response has been.

  13. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    I’ll bet you’re both right about starting with the next part when he meets the heroine. If you must start in this part, maybe start with the surprise party and let the dialogue tell us he just received his doctorate.

    I think it will be interesting to have the story begin with the hero instead of the expected heroine. And I agree with Mia that the characters sound interesting. Good luck!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I start with my hero’s POV about as often as I open with my heroine–10 out of 21 times. As with any scene I write, the character with the most interesting internal dialogue, the most at stake, gets to carry the POV ball.

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comment. Since the story is going to be about the hero’s family secret, I didn’t think starting with the heroine felt right. I love that Mia writes from both POV in her writing.

  14. Thank you for your excerpt, Alexa; and Mia for your critique. Mia has already addressed most of what I can say, but allow me to add a bit.

    Though I don’t claim to speak for all readers, for me a work of fiction must feature a protagonist I can relate to who’s deeply involved in a situation I find interesting. Therefore, IMHO the best way to open a story is by showing the protag dealing or (temporarily) failing to deal with that situation.

    But in your excerpt, I can’t tell what Cale’s situation is. Clearly it has something to do with a family secret. But that’s not enough information. What exactly is going on?

    Also, though you reveal quite a few facts about Cale and his kinfolk, there’s little that really grabs a reader. This one, anyhow. So I have a problem relating to these characters. One aspect of a character that really hooks me is much better than a lot of aspects that are just so much irrelevant info.

    Some of the details don’t ring true. For example, Stacie is described as “tall and petite”. Huh? She can be tall or petite, but not both.

    Another detail: you describe identical twin as being complete opposites in every way except appearance. Okay, that’s a popular motif in fiction. But in real life, identical twins tend to be similar in personality and behavior. I don’t know how realistic you want your characters to be, and there might be a good reason for overriding strict adherence to reality. But there you have it.

    Finally, and then I’ll shut up, there’s the matter of Cale’s motivation to earn a doctorate in history. Obviously this plays a role in the plot or you wouldn’t have mentioned it at the very start of the story. I can understand him doing so out of a fascination with the past and enjoyment in uncovering its secrets. But you state that this in turn comes from Cale’s obsession with a family secret. Again, I have to scratch my head. I just don’t see the connection.

    Hope this helps!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      When Alexa described her character as petite I bet she meant she was slender though tall.

      It reminds me of my friend Nynke in the Netherlands. After we met in person for the first time, she said she was surprised by how “tiny” I was. What she meant was short. No one but Nynke considers me tiny! ;-)

    2. Alexa Kyler says:

      Thank you for your comments. I have a couple protagonists but don’t have them show up for a little while in this first draft. I will consider bringing them in a lot sooner. I did mean slender for the petite. The twins are actually based on real twins that I went to high school with. They were identical in looks, down to the same birthmark but very different personalities and ambitions. They did have the same mannerisms, style, taste in music, etc. As for the PhD in history, that that choice plays largely into the base plot/mystery.

      1. Alexa Kyler says:

        Oops, I just edited myself. Antagonists not protagonists. That’s what happens when replying in the middle of the night! LOL

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