Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayWe’ve had experienced authors with New York Times bestselling titles under their belts. We’ve had brand new authors working on their very first manuscript. Today, we have our first sci-fi/fantasy author, James Marino.

I’m a closet sci-fi fan. In fact, I’m reading my way through Orson Scott Card’s Ender quartet right now. But this genre isn’t in my wheelhouse as far as writing goes. That’s why I’m counting on YOU to share your thoughts about James’ opener. Thanks so much in advance.

If you’d like a ride in the Red Pencil Thursday hotseat, check out the details on how to become a volunteer. My queue is empty so now is a great time to step up.


Working Title: Out of Darkness

Mia: Your title is your first hook. It’s your promise to your reader about what sort of story they can expect. It should set a tone, suggest a question, or make the reader think “Hmm, this sounds like something I’ve heard of. I’d like some of that.” Out of Darkness is atmospheric, but pretty generic. It could be a spiritual book, a moralistic tale, a mystery. It doesn’t necessarily say sci-fi to me.

James: That’s exactly what I was going for – atmospheric, spiritual/mythical undertones, a moral tale and a mystery. Sci-fi will come into play later. I’m starting it off as pure epic fantasy.

Chapter -1-

Varro Augustin rode in darkness. The sound of the riders around him was a meditative mantra. They were of one mind, one purpose, and they rode as one. They were a sacred weapon on a sacred mission serving a sacred order. They were sworn Sacred Warriors of The One True Faith and they would obey. His men would not question his authority any more than he would question the authority of those who sent him. They rode out of Autoria two hundred strong, breaking into smaller groups along the way, each with their part to play. He chose almost every man himself, all loyal and skilled. He knew very well what he was, what they were; game pieces on a board. But this did not trouble him. Pai Marbach was the game master and for ten years he had not failed in playing his part in Marbach’s sacred mission. What the most holy Pai’s mission was he did not really know and did not care. The most holy Pai was of the One True Faith and that was enough.

Mia: Ok, it’s clear there is a religious tone, so maybe Out of Darkness is the right title. Clearly, you have a well-thought out theology and world system. Pick a few unusual details to set the scene. Varro’s riders could be a biker gang in South Dakota. Make sure I know they aren’t.

Be careful of word repetition. It’s not creating the impact you want. You’ll notice I highlighted in red repetitions of the word sacred. I read my work aloud to catch those echoes.

My interest meter didn’t start pinging until you hit the bit about them being game pieces. I’d start with that thought idea, or better yet, with dialogue. Even if Varro is riding (on what? Give us some fun sci-fi wheels or wings!) he can have an earpiece in his helmet. Dialogue makes for a quick read. Drop readers into the middle of a conversation or better yet, an argument, and let them scramble to keep up.

James: Great ideas. I think slipping in some details about the world might work by adding some conversation and action between the riders. I’ve also thought about putting the conversation that happens in the past (which happens toward the end of the chapter) into the present and going from there. But I also want this image of these dark figures riding into the night.

He did sometimes wonder what Pai Marbach did with these game pieces he captured. He never saw them again after he delivered them. Whatever happened to them he was sure it was in service to The One True Faith. Yet he did wonder what someone like Pai Marbach would want with these insignificant commoners. What could The One True Faith want with a servant girl from the Shores? Why had a farmer’s son been needed?  He remembered the first one well. He had been caught off guard when he and two of his men had been sent to seize an orphan who was taken in by an elderly couple in a small village. The couple actually took up arms against them when they found out they wanted the young man. Pai Marbach warned him to be on his guard but an old man and woman skilled with a blade in an obscure village? They cut them down in order to subdue them and the young man nearly put the sword to himself before Augustin could stop him. Then the youth had been silent the whole journey back. He did not speak a word and it was not Augustin’s place to question him anyway.

Mia: I’m glad you shared that Varro is concerned about what happens to the other pieces. He has a conscience. This makes him likeable—very important!

However, this paragraph is mostly backstory, which is fascinating to us as writers. However, it’s death to story momentum. All of a sudden I’m not riding with Varro and his horde of dark warriors. I’m thrust into a past I know nothing of, reading about people I don’t have the background to care about. If the reader needs to know any of this, have Varro argue with one of his lieutenants about it and get the info out that way. Hook me on Varro and I’ll follow him anywhere.

Long blocks of narrative remind me of the first time I read Crime and Punishment. Yes, it’s great literature, but it has daunting multi-page paragraphs. Pull out your favorite sci-fi book. How does it start? Action? Dialogue? Long chunks of narrative?

James: Again, great ideas. That’s the conversation I was looking for to get at the back-story. These are the bad guys but I want the reader to have a love/hate relationship with them. I don’t want them to be one-dimensional. Showing them arguing about this mission or perhaps arguing after finishing up a mission would pull in the back story and show their struggle. Thanks!

Each mission after this was more difficult yet each time he was successful. Every endeavor cost him more men but what was that in service to The One True Faith? All thought always came back to his Faith. The One True Faith purified all doubts. The One True Faith was the answer to all questions.

Mia: And yet he has questions. Lots of them. Openings need tension and a crisis of faith is very intense. I’d rather see Varro obeying with clenched fists, struggling with his doubts. I’d relate to him better. And as the protagonist, that’s his purpose—to be the character readers can identify with and root for.

James: This might be ok. These dark warriors are the antagonists and I want the reader to fear for the protagonists that get introduced in next chapter. I know traditionally you start off with the protagonist(s) but I thought showing these bad guys coming right from the start would set a dark tone. But I agree that showing him physically struggle with what he has to do is a great idea.

He let the darkness and the sound of the riders wash away his thoughts and they rode on. They would arrive under cover of darkness to the monastery at Vyron. No one would be allowed in or out while they made their search. Pai Marbach told him there was a traitor to the One True Faith defiling the monastery and hiding a woman among the novices. This woman was very important. But if she was not found then he was not to act against this traitor. They would need him to lead them to her. Curiously, the most holy Pai hinted that he actually would prefer that she should run. “This one I believe will be quite slippery and it may be for the best. How long since you had a good hunt, my friend?” Pai Marbach had asked. “Duty should come with some enjoyment, yes?” Varro Augustin smiled and thought yes, please run so I can hunt you down.

Mia: One of the most difficult choices a writer makes is where to start their story. I think we’ve found your beginning and it’s at the end of this excerpt. If you start with Varro’s conversation with Marbach, your story will zip along faster and we get a chance to get inside our hero’s head right away.

Just so you know, I once had to lop off twelve pages before I found the beginning to one of my books. However, the writing wasn’t wasted. I was getting to know my characters. It was like clearing my throat before I was ready to start.

Thanks for letting me take a peek at your work, James. My observations are just one writer’s opinion and only you can decide the best way to tell your story. Fortunately, as writers we get to play with words till they line up the way we want them. Good luck!

James: I think you are right. I need to start with Augustin and Marbach. Perhaps he’s just returned from one mission when they have this conversation? Then he argues with his men and start off in pursuit.

Thanks so much for this opportunity! You have given me some great ideas!

James MarinoBio: James is an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who is trying his hand at writing a fantasy novel for his personal enjoyment. He is a Process Improvement Engineer at a large financial institution.

URL: Tracking my progress on the novel at –

Now it’s YOUR turn. Please leave your comments, questions & encouragement for James. Thanks!


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7 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Hi James,

    You have an interesting story here. I have to agree with what Mia and some of the other writers have noted. I don’t think you are starting in the right spot. A story should begin when the main character’s life changes forever. Are we going to be cheering for Varro, or another character?

    Also, block paragraphs in the opening pages kill interest. If you included dialogue, that would add “white space.”

    I am intrigued by this “slippery woman” who Pai gives them permission to kill. That is a great hook. Have Varro talk with another rider about how they are gouing to subdue her and hint at the mission of this One True Faith.

    I agree with Mia on the repetition of words. Unless you are using a specific literary device, don’t do it. Since this is a battle scene, you have lots of power words to choose from :subdue, seize, capture, evade, etc.

    Keep up the good work. Writing is difficult, but so much fun.

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  3. Thank you for your excerpt, James. I agree with most of the reactions so far. But I would add a few.

    I have a problem with this aspect of much contemporary fiction in any genre: the protagonist is morally indistinguishable from the antagonist. We can no longer root for the good guy to beat the bad guy. All we get is two bad guys, one of whom the author identifies with and expects us to do the same.

    I assumed this would be the case here. Then you stated in your notes that Varro is one of the bad guys, that the protag would first appear in the next chapter. But readers who have only the text won’t know that. See the problem?

    That’s my main criticism. Some less-fundamental points:

    • The paragraphs are too long. Breaking them up would make the story more reader-friendly.

    • What weapons are the peasants using? I envision sickles, axes, butcher’s cleavers, kitchen knives. I can’t picture them using swords. In historical lowtech cultures, the weapons one wielded was determined by class.

    • You’ve got three situations going on in the first 500 words—Varro’s mission, his memory of a previous one, and the woman hidden in the monastery. That’s two too many. Can you focus on one and do it justice before moving on to the others?

    Good luck!

  4. James Marino says:

    I’m beginning to see the real value of joining a writers group. This is great feedback everyone. Thanks!

  5. James, this holds lots of promise, but I agree that the hook is at the end with the conversation. Perhaps you can keep the image of the dark riders for the first paragraph (perhaps shorten to reduce the echo words), and then slip back to the conversation that set Varro on his ride.
    The fact there are 200 men coming for this one ‘slippery’ woman provides another hook because it shows how important she is to the master.
    Maybe a hint of the troubling boy’s capture can be dropped with the details filled in later.
    Good start!

  6. Woops–Out of Darkness–sorry for the typo.

  7. James-Several great images and ideas. The image of the dark riders is especially good, but I agree with Mia that it needs to come later. That image will be more impressive when your readers know a bit more about their mission and about their leader’s misgivings, giving ‘dark’ a couple of meanings. I agree with Mia that a good place to start might be that scene where they capture the young man. Let readers see that unfold and let your character reflect on it as he participates.
    Pieces in a game–always good! How does it feel to be a pawn, a rook, a knight? And how does it feel if you begin to question the game master?
    A writing quote I often say to myself is “write the first draft with your heart; write the second with your head.” In the first draft you are developing that essential back story and personality for your characters. It will be heavy on ‘tell’ and light on ‘show’. In the second, break up those ideas and work them into the action in small doses so your readers discover bits and pieces as they read. Tell them only what they need to know in the ‘right now’ of your story. This is the artistry–the part that gets better with practice–of writing.
    The really hard part is coming up with a concept you can sustain for 50K+ words and you seem to have that. I’ll look forward to seeing Our of Darkness listed in Goodreads and at Amazon.

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