Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayWe have a volunteer for RPT. Huzzah! It’s Catherine Wolffe, author of western romance. We had a little bit of a miscommunication. Usually, my volunteers just add their responses to my critiques. It gives them a chance to explain why they made the writerly choices they did. However, Catherine re-wrote her opening based on my feedback. I think you’ll enjoy seeing the metamorphosis.

And remember, if you’d like a ride in the Red Pencil Thursday hotseat, please check out the details about how to submit your materials. And now on to…

Secret Salvations

Mia: The “salvations” in this title hints that it may be an inspirational romance. Is it?

Catherine: Not in the sense of religious. Salvation in this title refers to these young men’s struggle with their coming of age in a difficult time. The battle to save those they care about and themselves. The Comanche raids on Mexico occur in the fall of 1846. Seth and Charles’ lives will be impacted by this war.

Shooter Creek Ranch
Tyler, Texas 1846

Mia: I like the indication of time and place.

Wide-open spaces loomed before him. Alone, eighteen-year-old Seth Loflin rode the trail, one as familiar as his name. Restless and hungry, but for what he couldn’t say, Seth traveled over Loflin land. A man didn’t have to ask where he was when he headed west out of Tyler, Texas. He passed through the Shooter Creek Ranch, the largest ranch in east Texas and one of the three largest in the state.

Mia: Can you give us a specific landmark for Seth to see instead of “wide-open spaces?” Maybe the curling ribbon of Shooter Creek, or a lone stand of pines on the horizon?

He scanned the terrain with a vague sense of annoyance. As far as the eye could see belonged to his father, Earl Loflin, a man as hard and unforgiving as the ground under the hooves of Seth’s horse, Sarge. He loved this land and never wanted to live anywhere else except Texas. Shooter Creek Ranch had been his home from birth. But lately, something was missing. Glancing at the sun dipping low in the western sky, Seth ran a hand over his chest, just under his heart where a certain longing festered. Putting a name to the yearning did no good. He’s discussed the matter with Maggie, the housekeeper and Loflin boys surrogate mom since the death of their maw some eight years back. She’d told him in her best Irish brogue, ‘You’ll be finding the answer when the time is right, lad’. Jake Long, Shooter Creek’s foreman and Seth’s mentor said basically the same, ‘You’ll find what you’re looking for without trying. Give it time’. Time! Time to pack away the craving he couldn’t identify. “Jake’s right. I’ll stumble on this thing, whatever it is.” Leaning in, he gave Sarge an affectionate pat on the neck. “Right boy?”

Mia: This paragraph is a big name dump of characters who are probably important, but since they aren’t physically here, why do we need to hear from them? Maggie and Jake don’t belong in this scene. It’s hard for readers to keep track of so many characters all at once. The first 500 words are so important, think about whether we need to know his horse’s name at this time. Also “maw” means the open jaw of a voracious beast. I think you mean “ma.”

In response, the bay nickered heartily.

“Besides, there’s always work to do.” He sighed, glancing off into the trees. Work kept the longing at bay during the daylight hours but in the wee hours of the morning when nothing stirred except the wind in the trees, he’d wake feeling empty and alone, as if he waited for someone, perhaps to share that sliver of time with before the cock crowed and a new day dawned on the world called Shooter Creek Ranch. Running his fingers through the thick mat of dark brown hair, a sigh escaped. “Let’s go, boy. No use in wallowing in it, is there?”

Mia: When we first meet our hero, we want him to have an imbalance in his world, a problem that will propel him into the special world of the story. I’m not sure this vague longing is enough to launch Seth. You hint at a rough relationship with his father. That can make a young man strike out on his own.

Also a word about POV. We are seeing the world through Seth’s eyes. Would he think of his own hair as a thick mat of dark brown? No. He’d just rake his fingers through it.

Sarge’s magnificent chocolate brown head rose quickly as he jerked his mane from side to side. The horse, always responsive, always obedient, picked up the pace. Soon they were trotting down the path leading back from the creek. The pleasure of the ride didn’t last long. The air filled with scents unfamiliar yet pleasing to his nose. Putting pressure on the reigns, Seth maneuvered Sarge into the trees lining the creek. His heart skidded to a halt with the sight before him.

Mia: Oh, I hope not a halt. Let’s have his heart do something else or this will be a very short story. ;-) Your descriptions are vivid but watch the overuse of adjectives. Not every noun deserves one and you’ve given “head” four of them—Sarge’s magnificent chocolate brown. Don’t tell us the scents are unfamiliar. Describe them. We want to smell them too.

The woman was most mesmerizing creature he’d ever seen. Her jet-black hair hung to her waist and her skin, reminded him of a creamy praline, the kind they sold in New Orleans on the street corners. Would she taste as sweet and creamy on his tongue?

Mia: Bingo! We have found the true opening of your story. Put Seth in this moment at the very beginning. It’s an inciting incident, something unexpected and bound to result in a more definitive response that “vague longing.” What Seth does when he meets this woman will show us more about him and his character than his horseback musings. Plus you can incorporate dialogue much sooner.

I confess that I had to lop off 12 pages from the opening of Erinsong before I found the beginning. I was “clearing my throat” for a bit, but it wasn’t wasted effort because it helped me get to know my characters’ inner motivations. I needed to know them at the outset. My readers didn’t.

Thanks so much for volunteering, Catherine. I like the world of Shooter Creek and I’m sure your readers will too.

And now here is Catherine’s revised opening:

The morning air filled with the scents of sandalwood and lilac. Drawn to the curious smells, Seth maneuvered his bay into the trees lining the creek. His heart skipped a beat with the sight before him.

The woman was most mesmerizing creature he’d ever seen. Her jet-black hair hung to her waist and her skin, reminded him of a creamy praline, the kind they sold in New Orleans on the street corners. Would she taste as sweet on his tongue?

Water swirled against her thighs as she exited the creek with the help of several attendants. Unaware of his presence, she trailed a long, slim finger through the water, giving the lazy current a steady ripple. Her graceful back curved slowly into a trim waist, which flared into agilely rounded hips above lithe thighs. She looked relaxed, as if she were enjoying her bath. Tall and regal, her stance reminded him of royalty as the other women helped her up the bank.

Disappointment set in immediately as they cloaked her body with an oversized blanket. Still undaunted, but wanting a better view, he urged his horse forward. Seth maneuvered Sarge between the low-lying limbs of the Mesquite trees, lining the banks of Shooter Creek. Careful not to disturb the leaves littering the ground, he worked his way closer. Still, Sarge managed to snap a stick beneath his hoof.

The women’s dark heads jerked up as they went on alert, searching the trees for an intruder.

One called out in Comanche, “Who’s there?”

Caught but still determined, Seth slid nimbly from Sarge’s back and stepped into the clearing mere yards from the bathers.

The magnificent creature with the coal black hair didn’t shy away. Half covered in the blanket, she only stared at him. The nudity a white woman would hurry to conceal proved no concern to this marvelous dream-come-to-life. The perplexed, yet curious glaze she pinned him with stole his breath. Her eyes were as green as the bonnie banks of Maggie’s Ireland and almond shaped in her lovely golden face. A sultry mouth of warm rouge formed an ‘oh’ as she allowed her gaze to travel over him. He didn’t anticipate the effect such a perusal would have on his libido.

Seth’s dick twitched in his pants. Where had she come from? So many questions flooded his consciousness that he lost his voice.

Before he regained his speech, the women hurried the maiden out of sight, the sound of native voices floated back in their wake.

Compelled to discover her name, Seth gathered Sarge’s reins, leaping into the saddle. His intention to follow proved short-lived when three tall, muscled warriors blocked his path.

Speaking Comanche, Seth tried to communicate with the Indians.

“My name is Seth Loflin. This is Shooter Creek land, which belongs to my father, Earl Loflin.”

The tallest warrior’s gaze traveled over Seth slowly before replying. “The People are camped nearby. My uncle, Chief Lone Eagle seeks the deer that water here. He comes in peace.”


Catherine: Okay, I think I like this much better!  I began with his discovery of the woman.  See if this is better.  I tend to get excited and forget something important when I have a new idea, so ask for anything I may have left out.

Mia: We’ll let the RPT commenters weigh in on the two beginnings. Ok, gang, what do YOU think?

Catherine's booksIf you’d like to try some of Catherine’s published works, here are the links:

Casey’s Gunslinger

Wolfen Secrets

Waking Up Dead

The Lady in the Mist

Comanche Haven

The Lady in the Mist Sample

A Dance in Time

Darlings of Paranormal


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9 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Chuck Robertson says:

    I read both openings and it’s clear the second is ten times better. I liked it. If it’s okay with everyone, I’m not commenting on the first opening.

    I think the grammar and word choices are near perfect. There’s no need to address them. You have two sources of tension right off, Seth being awestruck by the woman, and meeting the Comanche. Also, you have shown his name, his horse’s name and that he or his family owns the ranch in very few words and in a way that does not sound forced.

    There are a couple small things I think you could change to improve the story, but they are opinions. Others may agree or disagree.

    “Seth’s dick twitched in his pants.” I think the way this is presented sounds crude. If you’re writing a novel about crude cowboys, it may be appropriate. I’ve always thought of Romances as being a little more elegant, and maybe this would be better shown differently. Maybe “His loins warmed” or something along those lines.

    Speaking Comanche, Seth tried to communicate with the Indians.
    “My name is Seth Loflin.” – I think this can be condensed considerably. “My name is Seth Loflin,” he said in his best Comanche. may sound better.

    To me, the reaction of the women to seeing a man spy on a bathing woman is much too subdued. I’d think they’d scream, chastise the man etc. Also, maybe the story should have shown them scurry off more colorfully.

    Even in the first 500 words you have set up the possible Romance and the reader is anticipating things to escalate from there. You’re on your way.


    1. Mia says:

      Thanks for giving us a man’s POV, Chuck.

      I too thought the “dick” seemed a little crude for a historical. Sounds a little contemporary to me. But we are dealing with a teenage hero so his engine should be revved up. “What to call it” is a question writers always struggle with. The answer is we should call it what our characters would. If that’s how Seth thinks about that part of his body, that’s the right word.

  2. Looks like Mia and Mary Anne have things covered! The second version really does come to life. And I agree that the hard-on is jarring in this scene, even if there are explicit scenes later.

    1. Mia says:

      I wonder if the “salvations” in the title makes it seem more jarring. Reader expectations are not something with which to be trifled. If the story is explicitly sexy, ok. If it’s a gut-wrenching coming of age story with the broad canvas of a range war as a backdrop, ok. Begin as you mean to continue. This opening is still giving off mixed messages, IMO.

  3. Thank you, Mia and Catherine. Like Mia, I think the revision vastly improves on the former draft. The first version never really comes to life. The second does, and in a big way.

    My only criticisms concern details. Let me get out of the way first one that isn’t just my opinion.

    Obviously you (Catherine) have done your homework, and in your stories authenticity matters. But occasionally there’s a word in Seth’s head that shouldn’t be there.

    A mid-nineteenth-century cowboy wouldn’t use “mesmerizing” or “consciousness”. And “libido” didn’t enter the popular vocabulary until the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud became widely known. Also, though I suppose “nudity” is possible, “nakedness” is more likely.

    I’m a little mystified about where the scents of sandalwood and lilac are coming from. Do they grow wild in Texas? They certainly don’t here in the neighboring state of Arkansas.

    The part about how the woman reminded Seth of royalty—how would he know? I doubt a young man who lives on a Texas ranch in 1846 would know beans about royalty. There must be other ways to convey how she looked and the effect it had on him.

    “Caught but still determined . . . .” Seth hasn’t been caught. He’s been discovered. And the first letter of “mesquite” should be lower-case.

    “The perplexed, yet curious glaze she pinned him with stole his breath.” Try instead, “She pinned him with a gaze that stole his breath away.” If you want an adjective for “gaze”, try one (just one) other than “perplexed” or “curious”. I doubt she’d feel perplexed. “Alarmed” is more likely. She might be curious, but Seth can’t read her mind. I assume.

    Insert a hyphen between “almond” and “shaped”. That bit about an Indian having green eyes struck me as kind of unusual. I’m sure it’ll be explained later on.

    “A sultry mouth of warm rouge . . . .” “Sultry” is a bit much in this context. And “red” sounds better than “rouge”.

    “. . . . the women hurried the maiden . . . .” How does Seth know she’s a maiden? I can see why he’d like to think she is. But how can he tell simply by looking at her?

    “Compelled to discover her name . . . .” An awkward sentence. Rewording would help.

    “Speaking Comanche . . . .” It’s already obvious Seth is trying to communicate with the Indians. Just say, “He said to them in Comanche, “My name is Seth Loflin . . . .””

    In the next-to-last sentence, either insert a comma after “Eagle” or delete the one after “uncle”.

    I’d heartily recommend finding another title. One that includes “Salvation” tells me automatically that a story is Christian fiction. Clearly I’d be mistaken here. But misleading the reader is a bad idea.

    Finally, and this is obviously just my opinion, I recommend deleting the part about how Seth gets a hard-on. Even if the story contains plenty of explicit sex scenes, the first 500 words is too soon for such a detail. It forms a less-than-desirable first impression of Seth, at least in my mind. As they would definitely not have said in 1846, it’s TMI.

    Good luck!

    1. Mia says:

      Thanks for your input, Mary Anne. Your detailed critique is always appreciated. But I beg to differ on the use of ‘mesmerized.’ It was in use by 1829 (Dr. Mesmer lived in from 1734-1815). I use to research word history.

      1. Okay, I stand corrected. And thanks for the link, Mia. Should prove useful.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Catherine! It was really informative to see this process. Thanks, Mia!

    1. Mia says:

      So glad you dropped by, Terri. Writing is mostly rewriting. At least I find that’s my experience. As the DH says, every draft is still a draft until I turn it in.

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