Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayIt’s hard to beat sitting around a kitchen table with your writing buddies and tearing into some serious critique time. The camaraderie, the laughs, the friendships forged are so worth the effort, but since we’re separated by miles, I hope you’ll enjoy our cyber- time together instead.

Our volunteer today is Marion Spicher, a return visitor for Red Pencil Thursday. My comments are in red. Marion’s are in blue. Please add yours in the comment section.


A title is a promise to the reader of what sort of story the author is offering. Judging from this title, it sounds like a straight historical. Am I right?

One of my problems: not certain where this story belongs. A historical with strong romantic elements? The Title is certainly an important consideration, and thought I could reconsider when/if needed, but perhaps the time is now?

Scotland still under the scourge of Land Clearances

The year 1840.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much information given in the little bullet points before a story starts. Scotland, 1840 would be more common.

Good point. Discussion of the land clearances take place briefly in dialogue a little later in the manuscript. As a new writer, protocol is important to learn. Thank you.

Robert slid from the saddle and called to the groom, “Take care of me horse, lad,” and ran across the courtyard.

I don’t like to see more than one clause connected by and’s in one sentence. How about splitting it into two sentences?

Is this better?  Pounding hooves raised dust clouds as Robert rode toward the stable. Dismounting in one leap, he said, “Walk the stallion, lad. I’ve ridden him hard.” He ran across the courtyard.

Yes! It conveys a sense of urgency missing in the original.

His boots striking the stone floor echoed down the long hall. At the door of his father’s rooms, five long strides carried him to the bedside.

With a soft groan, old William Maclean stirred. Sunbeams tracked down through the dust from the high castle window, warming the tartan across the old Scot’s chest. The weathered Laird raised his head, dismissed the maid, and clutched a gnarled fist full of Robert’s shirt. He pulled his son close enough to hear his weakened brogue. “Rabby.”

I think MacLean is spelled with a capital L. I don’t think Laird should be capitalized and I’ve never seen Rabbie spelled with a y. Someone smarter than I should weigh in on these matters, but that’s my take. Otherwise, you’ve set the scene very well with sharp details, descriptive verbs and specific nouns.

Good points, all three.  Nice catch on my typo with MacLean.

Robert’s throat ached and his eyes filled.

Oh, yes, we like a man of strong feeling.

William’s greying long curls, the bushy eyebrows meeting above a long straight nose, and the grizzled beard, framed the fading blue eyes.

We’re in Robert’s POV, so wouldn’t he think of William as “Father” instead? Gray is spelled with an a in America, e in England. It’s a picky point, but my editor makes me change the a to e every time.

When the setting is in the British Isles, spell it with an e?  Regarding the POV, I subconsciously slipped into the omnipotent POV, as the nurse in me stood by with clinical observations about his fading eyes!  Demonstrates again that writing requires fresh eyes to read our words and point out areas needing attention. Good catch.

No, if you’re writing for an American publisher, you’ll need to use American spelling. Otherwise you’d need to write parlour and colour and whole host of other small changes for British English.

The old laird’s voice wheezed. “Rabby, me boy. Ye canna stand against the greed …”

Robert’s large calloused hand cradled his father’s shoulder.

“Greed breeds cruelty. Rapes the land.” His eyes drifted closed for a moment and he struggled to cough.

“Da,” whispered Robert, “Dinna strain yourself.”

It should be Robert whispered instead of the other way around.

Nice catch.

William’s old eyes opened and his finger traced the fresh scar from Robert’s left ear to his square jaw, slashed while defending against the latest raid on the Clan MacLean tenants.

Question … do I need to refer to William as Roberts father here as well for POV?  I would guess so?

If you’re in Robert’s POV, you should refer to William as Robert would think of him.

“Get our tenants and crofters to America.”

“Da. I’ll stay. We’ll fight.”

“Nay. Listen to me. Now.” His lungs rattled and he coughed. “Ye canna stand against a roaring tide. They’ll charge ye with murder for Cameron’s death.” He twisted Robert’s shirt and pulled him closer. “Promise me.” Old William paused to catch his breath. “Close the estate and file papers with Mr. Kracken, our solicitor. Those caught grazing cattle or sheep here must pay rents to our Edinburgh bank or pay the fines.” William struggled to raise his shoulders a few inches. “America, me lad. Go. Homestead land almost free.”

You have an opportunity to tighten your prose here. How about:

They’ll charge ye with Cameron’s murder.

A recent writing teacher stressed that I must check every prepositional phrase and clause.  Shorten and tighten when posible.  You are so right!

“Da …”

Like a King’s sword bestowing knighthood, old William’s blue eyes flashed and bore into Robert. He reached up a trembling hand to stroke his son’s cheek. “Give me your oath,” he gasped. “Swear. Now, my son. Swear.”

I’m not sure the king’s sword reference works here. I know we’re having a “pass the torch” moment,  but it’s a bit too on the nose. Sometimes, simple is best. Perhaps no simile is needed at all.

Whenever something in the writing jars me, I need to pay attention!  The simili bothered me as well.  I agree, it doesn’t need to be there.

Robert couldn’t swallow through the ache in his throat. Swirling emotions made it impossible to deny his father. “I promise ye, Da.”

His throat ached earlier. We need a different physical response to show his conflicted emotions–a raised vein on his forehead, a tick in his cheek muscle, a hard swallow…

The preamble to Robert’s promise to his father needs attention—an important character trait opportunity.  A balance between conflicting emotions and loyalty. If or when he swears, his life as he knows it will end, and he will be forced to leave Scotland.  If he doesn’t swear, he will betray the trust and loving relationship with his father.

“Give protection and care to our tenants and crofters.”

“Aye. The honor lives in me heart, but—”

“God’s Blessing be upon you, lad,” and the eyes drifted closed.”

You don’t need a quotation mark at the end of this sentence.

Oops, I missed it.  Who put that in there? Surely, not me! (grin)

“Da, ye must rest—”

“Ahhh.” William’s eyelids lifted half way and he waved a quivering finger again. “One more thing. Attend to your betrothed, Alexandra MacDonald. Papers in the locked desk. Key in my sporran.” The grey head fell back, nested in the feather pillow.

I sort of wanted William to say something like “Aye, I’ll rest soon enough.” I like the old man and want to see a spark of cleverness even as he’s near death.

Perfect! I love it.

Robert’s mouth flew open and his brow cramped in every direction. Leaning over him, fists clenched, he said, “What have ye done?”

Very good. William’s obviously created another problem for Rab. I like it. A marriage of convenience is usually anything but. However, now I’m wondering if this is a romance. In that case, I think you need to work on the title to hint at that.

Robert does not meet his betrothed until he has established a homestead and can send for her. They correspond via letters, which in 1840, take a long time to send back and forth.  We see parts of her character and life in her POV when she receives each letter.  Most ‘romances’ need the hero and his intended to meet early in the manuscript. The story deals with complicated romantic elements combined with the amazing drive and stamina required in a pioneer’s life. I describe it as a Historical manuscript with strong romantic elements.

Sounds like you’ve got a good handle on where your work falls.

His brow cramped? I’m not sure what that looks like.

I tried to show a look of utter dismay and Robert’s feeling of betrayal by his father, in contrast to Robert’s earlier unwillingness to betray his father’s trust in him.  But you are right— cramped doesn’t do it for me either!  Chuckle. I’ll work on it.

“Me and Angus MacDonald … signed papers “I meant to tell ye…”


Thanks for letting us all go to school on your work, Marion!

Thank you for sharing your time, wisdom and writing skills, Mia.  I appreciate you and the critique process when it is done so well.  Giving instruction and providing encouragement concurrently is a gift.

Marion says:

“During the pursuit of a writing career, I’ve learned talent alone doesn’t hold a reader’s attention—unless the words are honed by knowledge, application of the writing craft elements, and practice, practice, practice.” To learn more about Marion and her work, please visit .

Now it’s your turn. Please leave your comments or questions for Marion. Thanks!

18 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Ashlyn Chase says:

    HI Marion,

    Mia’s weekly critique partner weighing in here. First, I want to say I like this story and I like where it’s going. I think you started in exactly the right place.

    Beyond what Mia found, I can only offer one more critical observation. You have the word ‘down’ repeated in adjacent sentences. See 2nd and 3rd.

    I liked the word ‘cramp’ but was thrown when I tried to picture his brows cramping in more than one direction. It created an odd visual.

    Finally, I was impressed by how well you handled the criticsm. Then I saw that you’re a nurse. Yup, that job will beat the defensivness out of anybody! LOL (Fellow RN here.)

    Great job!

    1. (Smile) You wrote, “It created an odd visual.” Such a lovely understatement! I had to stop laughing before I could reply. When I tried to conjure up the visual for a ‘brow cramping in every direction’ … yes, very odd indeed!

      I’ll fix the repetitive ‘down.’

      Ah, yes, nurses. However, my ability to handle criticism has developed over time. The more I write, the more I appreciate the skill/knowledge/experience in a good critique. Appreciation also springs from my increasing writing craft education and knowing that no matter how many times I review my own work, I cannot find all of the missed opportunities either to delete, clarify, change, or embellish.

      The experience here made me dig deeper. What a gift. Thanks Ashlyn. Now I’m going to Google you.

  2. Kat Duncan says:

    Mia, I had one other question. Marion wrote:

    “Da,” whispered Robert, “Dinna strain yourself.”

    And you commented:

    It should be Robert whispered instead of the other way around.

    Is there a reason for the particular word order?


    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Standard practice. Take out any book and look for dialogue tags. 9 times out of 10 you’ll see ‘Name said’ rather than ‘said Name.’ The point of a tag is to unobtrusively remind the reader who’s speaking. The ‘said Name’ construction is a little theatrical and draws more attention to itself–exactly what a tag shouldn’t do.

      1. Thanks for asking Kat and glad to have the explanation.

        1. Kat Duncan says:

          Thanks Mia, for the explanation and for putting it into its proper context. Many thanks!

  3. I don’t know how the “pingback that a click takes to my blog, got there, Mia, but feel free to remove it and this post. Gremlins.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      My blog is set to allow pingback’s evidently. I don’t mind having a link to your blog here, Marion. Not at all.

  4. Kat Duncan says:

    Hi Marion. This is a good beginning. I feel sympathy for Robert and his dying father. You are trying to do a lot in this short piece: the time period, the relationship between the father and son, the dire circumstances and the burden the son has to take on as the father dies. I agree with Barbara that the longer explanation of what the son should do could be trimmed without harming the scene.

    One other comment is the use of the word “me” as in “the honor lives in me heart”. This is more of an Irish-style usage than Scottish. But then, you have the highlanders speaking lowland Scots instead of Gaelic, which is not historically correct, but is what readers have come to expect. Ah, the joys of fiction! :)

    Good luck with this story. It sounds very interesting.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      If the dialogue in my Victorian stories were absolutely true to the period, my readers would be nodding off over the stilted euphemisms and convoluted sentences. In a romance, we walk a fine line between giving modern readers a taste of the era without being off-putting.

  5. Forgot to thank you for your comments as well, Barbara Britton.

    This critique process helps me to dig deeper and I do so appreciate it.

  6. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Marion,
    I liked your opening and immediately had sympathy for your hero. Nice job.
    There were a few lines that I think could be softened for emotion. The “attend to your betrothed” could state her name and what attribute is beneficial to his son. Also, “what have ye done” after the death seems like the father is being blame for dying–kind of out of his control. Maybe, more heartfelt words would amp up sympathy for Robert.
    I would keep reading. I like the build up of passion/emotion through letters, too.

    1. I agree, “attend” is harsh. I will play with an improvement there, and still keep William’s dialogue short as these are his last words before he dies. The 500 word cut off didn’t let you know that William does not die until after Robert expresses his dismay to his father. But he does die before Robert promises to follow through.

      1. Mia Marlowe says:

        Sorry about the 500 word rule, but we have to stop someplace. ;-( Otherwise the post could run for ages.

  7. Hi Marion,

    This does sound like historical with romantic elements. And the time period is interesting, too. So much is done in Scotland’s earlier periods.

    I like the fist full of Robert’s shirt :)

    Later when William is telling Robert what to do,(“Close the estate and file papers with Mr. Kracken, our solicitor. Those caught grazing cattle or sheep here must pay rents to our Edinburgh bank or pay the fines.”) it struck me that he’s speaking in long, complete, coherent sentences when he’s just been coughing, fighting for breath. Perhaps some of dialogue could be in shorter phrases, maybe even fragments, to show his feebleness. (He probably wouldn’t have to tell his son who Kracken was and probably wouldn’t call the guy “mister”. The reader can learn later who he is.)

    Thanks for being here again to let us comment. You’ve got an intriguing start. Good Luck.

    1. Barbara, you are so right. William would not have the strength/energy to make such a long uninterrupted speech. The details can be slipped in later if needed. Removing “mister” is an easy fix. Thanks for your input.

    2. Mia Marlowe says:

      Oh, good catch. A dying person would be more likely to ramble, then with supreme effort, hold himself back from making that last journey long enough to impart his wishes.

Leave a Reply

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