Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayIt’s time for another edition of our online critique group. As always, we can’t have a Red Pencil Thursday without our intrepid volunteers, so I’m especially pleased to welcome back an alumnus, Chuck Robertson from Ozarks Romance Authors. If YOU’d like a ride int he RPT hotseat, please check out the details for how to submit your material.

And now on to Chuck’s all important first 500 words:


I’d seen that man before – dead. I rubbed my eyes, thinking it must have been another one of my horrible nightmares, but there was no way I could mistake that shaved head and blond goatee. What the hell was he doing in Bob’s Burger Barn?

Mia: May I suggest a tweak to your first sentence? How about:

The last time I saw that man, he was dead.

It has a bit more punch this way. Also, by using “must have been” you move us farther backward in time. “Thinking it was one of my nightmares” (and nightmares are by definition horrible so no need to say so here) gives us more sense of immediacy.

Chuck: Good points. I’ve been tweaking that first sentence a lot and it will look different before I’m done. The sense of immediacy is also a good idea.

The man walked in the front door and strolled past the soda machine. My heart pounded faster with every step he took. He stopped at my register. My jaw dropped open. He looked a whole lot better with his throat still attached to his neck.

Mia: Since our hero has already seen him, it makes sense that he’s already in the Burger Barn. Just have him stroll past the soda machine. A jaw dropping is a little overt here. I think your hero is trying to hide his reaction to seeing someone he has no reason to know other than in his dream. Trying to mask emotion can heighten it.

Chuck: I see what you are saying about trying to hide the emotion. I will do that.

He glanced at the menu above then looked at me. “I’ll have the Big Burger Combo to go.”

His voice was higher than I would have expected. He was also a lot shorter than I had imagined him, but still a few inches taller than me. I froze, not knowing what to do.

Mia: Cut the ‘would have’ and ‘had’ to pull us forward.

“Did you hear what I said, son?” He leaned in.  A hint of mint cologne drifted into my nostrils.

Mia: I’ve never smelled a mint cologne on a man and frankly I doubt your hero could over the odor of burgers and fries. The DH and I went to 5 Guys Burgers & Fries last night. He could have been completely doused with cologne and I’d still only have smelled grease and salt (which the DH assures me are two unsung members of the Food Pyramid!)

Chuck: I was hoping the cologne would make him seem a little more present, The MC can smell him as well as see him, reinforcing this is not a dream.  I can find a different way.

I cleared my throat. “Sorry.” I guided my shaky fingers over the keypad. The total showed on the screen. “That’ll be seven dollars and twenty-eight cents.” My voice came out as a whisper.

He reached for his wallet. I rubbed my fingers together, waiting to read his name off his card when he handed it to me. Instead, he pulled out a ten dollar bill. My stomach sank.  Who uses cash these days?

Mia: I’d like to see what our hero intends to do with the name, how he plans to warn or protect the man from what he dreams is going to happen to him. It would make it clearer that he is the hero. Right now, he’s coming off as a scared little bunny and I want a reason to like him.

Chuck: I declined to show his intentions in this paragraph for fear of bogging the story down.  It was probably the wrong call. At this point, he doesn’t know himself what he’s going to do, but he has to do something. That I show in a later paragraph, but maybe it needs to be moved up to make him likable sooner.

Mia: Bingo! If I don’t like your protagonist, I won’t get to later.

I cleared my throat.  “Do you have a credit or debit card you can give me?”

He wrinkled his forehead. “Why?  You find something wrong with cash?”

I sighed and handed him his change. “No, Sir.  I guess not.” My gaze followed him as he retreated to the back to wait for his order.

Someone touched me on the shoulder. I jumped and turned around.

“Mark, how many times have I told you to pay attention to the customer when you’re at the register? Hamburgers don’t sell themselves. And why didn’t you try to get him to supersize the order?” The manager’s cigar breath blew into my face. I gagged on the fumes.

Mia: Is there any place where someone would smoke a cigar behind the counter nowadays? Oh, I see that you say it’s his breath, but I didn’t get that on first reading. It pulled me out of the story. Can you give his boss a different bad description?

Chuck: Certainly. I wanted some description that was revolting and allowed my character to use a sense other than sight. It never occurred to me this would take the reader out of the story.

Mia: As mentioned earlier, I think smell is a lost cause in a burger joint. Think about giving the boss a grating voice.

“Sorry, Mr. Asselstein.” Grateful to have gotten by with just a tongue lashing, I faced the counter again. A leather-faced old woman stared at me from behind layers of crusty make-up.  I tilted my head, trying to look past her.

Mia: Good description of the next customer. I can almost hear her saying, “Where’s the beef?”

She pursed her lips.  It was a wonder all that make-up didn’t crack and chip off. “Can I have some service please?”

I couldn’t afford any more screw-ups, so tore my gaze away from the man and forced a smile. “Sure, Ma’am. What can I get you?”

“Give me the Little Burger Combo.  Hold the tomatoes.”

As I entered the order, I checked the time. The clock showed it was barely past seven. There was no way Mr. Asselstein would ever let me off early, and the man in my dreams would be gone by then. “That’ll be ten dollars and seventy-two cents.”

Mia: Good. Mark intends to do something. We like that. Be careful that even in his menial job he doesn’t just let events wash over him. We don’t want a passive hero. Show his inner struggle to attend to his task when he really wants to find out who the bald man is and how he can help him.

Chuck: Maybe I can move this up so the reader can see him as an actor sooner.

She narrowed her eyes. “That can’t be right.”

Mia: Chuck, this is a huge improvement over the last opening you shared with us for this story. Beginnings are so hard and I’m proud of you for persevering.  That said, I’m going to assign you a book to read. It’s called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s for screen writers, but the principles work for any type of fiction. There are lots of great ideas in the book, but one of the first is that no matter how cool the premise of your story, no matter how much action and adventure you pack into the plot, if we don’t like and connect with the hero, we simply won’t care.

So, in the all important opening you must give us a reason to identify with Mark. He can start timid, but can you please have him want to be bold? Maybe give him a Walter-Mitty-esque fantasy life where he saves the bald guy from the disaster headed his way. You’ve spent too much time on burgers and fries and not enough on what’s really going on in Mark’s head and why his nightmares are so horribly important.

Give me a reason to root for Mark. Right now I want to smack him and say “Grow a pair.” I understand that there will be a growth arc for him during the course of the story, but I need to catch a glimpse of the guy he wants to be if I’m going to get behind who he is now.

Chuck: He shows a pair a couple paragraphs later by running out on his job in an attempt to warn the man (and gets fired doing it).  It appears I should have put that kind of action much earlier. It will definitely be done in the next draft.

Once again, thanks to you and everyone else in the group for contributing your thoughts.

Mia: Thank YOU, Chuck, for letting us all go to school on your work. Making our characters likeable or, in the case of an anti-hero, addictively fascinating is something we all need to work on.


ChuckRoberson1Chuck Roberson’s Bio: As a teenager, I was a big Science Fiction fan, growing up on the works of Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein.  Since graduating college, I’ve worked in technology-based occupations but always wanted to be a writer. I have several published short stories but will not feel I’ve arrived until I get one of my novels published too.

My blog address is:


And now we come to the most important part of Red Pencil Thursday: YOUR COMMENTS! Please weigh in with suggestions or encouragement for Chuck. Thanks so much.

7 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Chuck, I agree with Mary Anne. Your premise of having a teen see a man in real life who is dead in his nightmare is cool.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      It is an engaging premise. You get the feeling Mark’s awful dreams are prescient, which will give him plenty to do trying to change outcomes.

    2. Nynke says:

      I agree, interesting premise! And I love this idea for a first sentence (so I hope you won’t change it too much). But is Mark a teen? I thought he was an out-of-luck thirtysomething… Maybe the old lady could address him as ‘young man’ or something, to bring some of that across?

      Good luck with your revisions!

  2. Thank you,Chuck and Mia. Here’s my take.

    The first paragraph hooked me. A guy who’s supposed to be dead is alive. And this extraordinary situation comes about in the ordinary setting of a burger joint. An effective juxtaposition of the outlandish and the mundane.

    Also, I can easily identify with Mark. You make his thoughts and emotions seem vivid and real. You did a good job of making him a surrogate for the reader.

    One little detail should be cleared up. I got the notion from the start that Mark had actually seen that guy dead—that is, in the real world. There’s a reference to nightmares in the first paragraph, but you don’t exactly state that’s where Mark saw the corpse. It’s not until near the end of the excerpt that you state this happened in a dream. If that’s the case, can you make it plain early on?

    I know it’s hard to get into the first 500 words everything you want the readers to know from the start. When I read a story, I’ll go way past just 500 words to determine whether I want to keep reading. Unless the author does something in the opening scene or chapter that really turns me off. Then I’ll stop right away.

    BTW, do you have a title for this work? If so, what is it? Just wondering.

    Good luck with your writing!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Oh, good catch, Mary Anne. Since I’ve read part of the story before, I knew Mark had seen the man in his nightmare. But someone reading it cold might not pick up on that. This is a time for my Writing Prime Directive: First, Be Clear.

  3. Hi Chuck and Mia,

    I have to agree with Mia’s comments. The opening is passive and Mark is reactive instead of active. I liked your idea about having Mark try to warn the man and in the process he loses his job. Perhaps the older woman could be interrupting Mark’s warnings with ketchup requests instead of placing an order and dragging out this opening.

    I did notice the discrepancy in the burger pricing which took me out of the story. I think you were going to address that issue but ran out of words.

    Also, I hang out with my teen boys and a name like “Asselstein” would make us laugh for the wrong reasons.

    I agree with Mia that this shows more promise than before. We need high stakes and more tension here in the opening, but we also need to like Mark.

    Keep up the good work Openings are tough to nail.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I wondered about Asselstein too. It’s sort of on the nose. Kind of like naming the villain Caligula McNasty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *