Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayThe Touch of a Thief Tour is stopping at The Pen & Muse today, but here on Read, Write, Love, we have a short story author in the hot seat.

Please welcome Genevieve Moultrie and her medieval tale “A Soldier’s Vow.” I haven’t written anything shorter than a novella, about 30,000 words, (Letters to the editor of my local newspaper don’t count!) so Genevieve may have to take my suggestions with that in mind. I’m hoping to pull in comments from short story writers and readers to help Genevieve.

My comments are in red, my guest’s in blue. Please add yours at the end of the post!

A Soldier’s Vow

A short story by Genevieve Moultrie

Thank you for your critique, Mia.  I’ve never done your Red Pencil bit before, so please bear with me if I screw up!  If you want to critique my response, please do.  Same goes for everyone who reads this.

I’ll add my revision after the original text and comments.  For starters, allow me to note that “A Soldier’s Vow”—just a working title, of course—was inspired (I hope!) by my longtime love for and study of folk tales.  I think I’ve already mentioned on your blog that I’m really into myths and legends.  Though you can’t tell from this opening excerpt, the story has much to do with fairies and magic.

In creating this story, I thought it might be an interesting experiment if I cast at least part of the narration in folk-tale mode.  That includes an omniscient POV once in a while.  But now that you’ve brought up the matter, maybe I should drop it, or at least use it as sparingly as possible.  Most of my potential readers wouldn’t get it—that is, they wouldn’t know enough about folk tales to make the association.  They would think I use this device because I don’t know any better.  That, or can’t do any better.

Also, another relevant matter in the creation of this story:  I wanted to write a historical romance in which the hero and heroine are both social nobodies.  When was the last time you read a romance written by a modern writer, and set in the Middle Ages, in which the hero is a peasant?  For me, the answer is:  never!  But I’m sure those at the base of the social pyramid needed love too, and can provide a modern writer with lots of possibilities for characters, themes, and plots.

To paraphrase a line from a musical you’re familiar with: “What did the common folk do?”

I believe that’s actually What do the simple folk do? It’s from Camelot!  Yes, I have played Guenevere before (It broke my heart to betray Arthur). And I’ve written heroes and heroines who are not members of the aristocracy. In A CHRISTMAS BALL, my hero was the head groomsman and the heroine was a scullery maid.

Long ago in the Cotswold Hills of the West Country, in a hamlet called Springthorpe that has since vanished, there lived a young peasant named Miles.  His strength, skill, and daring won him the post of man-at-arms to his lord at Springthorpe Castle, Sir Jeffrey of the Motte.  His looks, charm, and kindness won him the heart of the shepherdess Audrey, the village beauty.

I like the voice here. You’re an authoritative storyteller. However, the remote omniscient POV doesn’t really pull us in right away. How about starting inside Miles’s head? Let us see his world through his eyes. I don’t think it’s necessary to tell us that the hamlet is gone. You’re building the world for us with one hand. Don’t tear it down with the other.

Will do!  That is, won’t do.  Whatever.

But to their misfortune, the two fell in love just before Miles was to accompany his lord to the Holy Land on a Crusade.

On the day before departure, Miles met Audrey at hillside grove, where the thick foliage of the trees and bushes afforded them privacy.  As she approached, he beheld her graceful form, clad in red-brown homespun which she had woven from the wool of her sheep and dyed with walnut shells.  The spring sunlight shone on her thick, long tresses, the color of ripe wheat, which escaped from the kerchief on her head.  As she neared, he could make out her merry cornflower-blue eyes and chiseled face.

Using the word “beheld” gives the tale a slightly biblical flavor. I don’t think that’s what you want. You’ve obviously done some serious research into the period, but we’re in Miles’s head now. Would a guy think about how she dyed the wool of her tunic with walnut shells? Bear in mind when you choose a POV character, you need to only note the details he or she would find remarkable. “Chiseled” is not a word used for a woman’s face often. It makes her seem a little hard.

Okay!

He committed to memory every feature of hers.  Miles would have that to console him in the trying times ahead.

Audrey gasped in glee when she saw him, then ran into his arms.  They kissed fervently.

If she knows he’s going to leave, I doubt she’d be gleeful. This moment would be more bittersweet. Besides, we’re still in Miles’s POV. Neither he nor we know what she’s thinking unless her actions or words show us.

True.

She said, “Oh Miles, how I will miss you!  Your embrace, your smile, your voice—everything about you.  How can I bear to do without?”

You don’t need She said. We know it’s Audrey speaking since she says “Oh, Miles.”

“And how can I do without you?”

“Must you leave?  Sir Jeffrey has a hundred others in his troop.”

“Dearest Audrey, I must.  It is my duty, as a servant to both my lord Jeffrey and our Lord Jesus.”

“But so am I.  I can go with you!”

Miles shook his head.  “Your duty is here in Springthorpe.  Some must leave, and some must stay to tend the fields and flocks.  You’re more useful here.”

“Useful, but unhappy.”  Audrey glanced aside.  “Oh Miles, we won’t be together again for years, if ever.  Many leave on this holy quest, but not all return.”

She says “Oh Miles” twice in close succession. Think about your own conversations. How often do you use the other person’s name?

Not very!

“I know.  That’s why I shall not hold you to the vow you made to me.”

Her blue eyes flashed; “But I shall!  I’ll stay true to you, and wait for you no matter how long it takes.”

Miles sighed, his heart brimming with love.  “Then I vow the same.  I shall stay true to you.  Someday I shall return to marry you, though Hell should block my path.”

#   #   #

Many were the hardships Miles had to endure, the dangers he had to brave, the obstacles he had to overcome.  But such was to be expected for a Crusader.  What could not be expected was what happened to Audrey.

This paragraph is classic author intrusion. It’s like an aside directly from you to the reader. It pulls us right out of the narrative. I’d cut the whole thing. However, since it appears we aren’t going to follow Miles and the real action is what happens to Audrey, you might want to consider starting your story with her. Just be sure to give her someone besides the sheep to talk to about Miles.

I’ve planned the story so that every scene unfolds from the point of view of either Miles or Audrey.  I’m a great believer in restricting the POV as much as is practical.  That way I can avoid head-hopping and giving away what’s going inside the minds of characters who are keeping a secret.

I think it would be best if I use Miles’s POV in the opening scene because this is the only time he appears during the first few thousand words.  He won’t return to the narrative until he returns from the war.  On the other hand, the reader will get plenty of Audrey during the first few thousand words.

As always, this critique is just one person’s opinion. The point is to help you think in new directions, but the decisions about how to tell your story must always be yours.

Though you can’t tell this by the first 500 words, Audrey does have someone to talk to about Miles other than her sheep.  They don’t exactly make for scintillating dialog!  Right after the cutoff point of this sample, she’s confronted by Bartle the Smith, an unscrupulous young man who tries to seduce her.  That’s when something really bad happens.  But I’m getting ahead of the narrative covered by this critique.

Now that I’ve thought about the matter somewhat, I think I can reword this passage so that there’s no author intrusion, but I can still express the basic irony in the focal characters’ situations.  It’s this:  Miles goes off to war and is subjected to countless dangers and hardships, but comes out of the experience safe and sound.  Audrey stays home in the safety and security of her village, but something terrible happens to her.  I can foreshadow it through her thoughts, which you can read at the end of my revisions; and Miles can make note of it once he returns, which of course is after the first 500 words.

It’s not unusual for me to write several pages before I find the real beginning of my story. It’s not a wasted exercise. I’m learning who my characters are. What you’re looking for is a pivotal point where something changes in your character’s lives, where an imbalance is created that will propel them for 400 pages. Think about how you can introduce your heroine in an original and memorable way.

Well, I don’t know that a scene of two lovers saying farewell when one of them goes off to war is very original.  But I’m trying to make it memorable!

The problem is we don’t know them well enough to care at this point.

I’ve tried to think of some other point at which I can begin the story.  For example, I can open with Miles getting his marching orders and Audrey’s reaction.  Shucks, I could go back to when Miles and Audrey fell in love—but probably not when they first met.  If they’re roughly the same age, and they’ve lived all their lives in the same tightly-knit village, they probably can’t even remember that!

Those are all possibilities, but at least for now I think it’s best if I stick with opening the story with their farewell.  It’s an emotional scene, or should be once I get through revising it.  It’s a pivotal point in their relationship.

True, Miles and Audrey’s back stories are relevant to the narrative.  But the elements therein, such as the fact that he’s a dutiful soldier, should be obvious in the main story.  Or better be once I get through with it.

Also, one of my overall goals as a fiction writer is to provide readers with stories that move at a fast pace.  One of my pet peeves as a reader is draggy fiction.  Therefore, I think it would be best if I open this story at the last possible moment, instead of spending a thousand words or so on events that led up to Miles leaving Audrey.  I think I can provide the reader with sufficient background info as is.  Of course, if anyone disagrees, please feel free to say so.

BTW, if anybody doesn’t like the title, you’re welcome to suggest a better one.

Actually we’d love to hear your thoughts about anything in this opener. And if you’re a writer who’d like to take part in Red Pencil Thursday, please check out how to become an RPT Volunteer.

Bio:  Mary Anne Landers (pen name:  Genevieve Moultrie) lives in a small town in Arkansas with three cats.  She has a B.A. and an M.A in English; she loves mythology, history, science, current events, reading, and of course writing.  She spends too much time on Facebook; you’re welcome to friend her there.

Touch of a Thief by Mia Marlowe

Mia’s Touch of a Thief was released just this week. The fabulous reviews keep coming. Alpha Heroes calls her love scenes “uninhibited, lush and gorgeous!”

Look for Touch of a Thief at your local booksellers and at all etailers now.

The Touch of a Thief blog tour visits The Pen & Muse today. Be sure to leave a comment there for a chance at a copy of my new book!

12 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Krista McKenna says:

    I like your story and see where you are going but I think Mia and some of the others are right. You may want to rethink where your story begins. Backstory if your story has any at all, should be peppered through out the body of the work and never a way to start you story. Something I was told by by more than one published author. I ended up cutting my first two chapters and found out they were right. Also by taking Mia’s suggestion and using a Character POV rather than a more narrator POV, it will pull the reader into your story faster and help us care about your characters and what they are going through. Best of luck with your story:)

  2. Thank you so much, Ashlyn, Kat, Barbara, Maria, Mary Margret, Marcy—and of course, Mia! So much feedback, so much to think over and work on. I can’t possibly do it all at once.

    Rest assured that I’ll take all your comments into consideration. And not just for this one piece of fiction.

    When your works come up for future Red Pencil Thursdays, I’ll be happy to offer you feedback. Keep up the good work!

  3. Marcy W says:

    Well, Genevieve, your excerpt has garnered some interested and well-thought-out comments — that should be encouraging! I really like the ‘fairy-tale’ style; it’s a unique voice, and a slightly familiar one, so I think it draws a reader in nicely. I agree with other commenters that continuing that in dialogue is not as charming, so for me the challenge is to use the fairy-tale “outer story” for a modern-style dialogue and “inner story”. If you can figure this out, I think you’ll have a fascinatingly original format and story, one that I’ll be eager to read. Good luck!

  4. To critique this excerpt, I need a yardstick to measure it by–and I don’t have one.I don’t know from short stories or novellas. I really don’t know from couching a story in “Once Upon a Time” language. All I can offer is my reaction.

    1. Nothing about this story fits the formula for pure genre romance but does it really have to? The formula is not the only way to write a book that is a love story.The world is full of successful fiction based on other models–witness Nicholas Sparks.

    Question for Genevieve: What draws you to this story? What grabs your heart? What is the meat of the problem that you will use the middle of the story to work out?

    I’m suspecting the theme is “Vows, no matter how sincerely meant, can be hard to keep.” Is this story about the lovers’ reunion after having been true, (or not) to their vows, or is it a story about how having made a vow causes conflicts for the characters and ultimately changes them?

    If the answer is the first, you might have a story that can be put into the romance formula. If the answer is the second, you might have a love story, but not a romance. Either way, I would tell any beginning writer to stay true to the story you want to tell.

    Understanding what your genre or niche really is, is a huge part of finding yourself as a writer. It will save you from a huge number of rejection letters.

    2. I disagree that “author intrusion” is at all times verboten. Sometimes it works, and in this case, the first time this story engaged me–made me wonder “and then what happened?” –was at the so-called author intrusion.

    Genevieve says her intention was to use a folk tale narrative style in places. In the folk tale style author intrusion as a classic story-telling device for hooking the listener.In point of fact, there is no “intrusion” at all since in oral transmission the narrator isn’t invisible. He or she is part of the structure of the story. (Think “Princess Bride.”)

    In my opinion, the three sentences in question were beautifully crafted. Every word did double and triple duty. I especially liked the way the tone went from easy to ominous by such gentle increments that I felt it happening, but didn’t guess a change in direction until the last sentence.

    3. I’m guessing that Genevieve is going for a “Princess Bride” structure in which fairy tale style narrative is interspersed between “real time” action.

    For me, where this except failed was in the dialogue of the parting scene, because instead of going into “real time,” she maintained the fairy tale style and language.

    As someone else pointed out the modern reader is not going to stand for it.Having a fairy tale story teller use that language is one thing. Letting characters talk like that is something else!

    Furthermore, the characters are seen entirely from the outside. The reader isn’t present with them–the reader can only watch.

    Style aside, the biggest problem is that the scene lacks true conflict. The lovers seem sad but I sense no conflict either external or internal.

    I would suggest summarizing the entire scene in the opening paragraph–in folk tale language if you like–then start the next section and the encounter with the smith in “real time.”

    Making the vow is the background, but the real inciting incident is when Aubrey runs into conflict in keeping the vow.

    All just my opinion.

  5. Maria says:

    I read a lot of short stories and what I like about this one is the title and the premise behind the story. What I and a lot of other readers don’t like is “head bopping” where the POV changes back and forth in the story a lot. It can get confusing and difficult to read a story with “head bopping” and if it’s too hard, I give up…just my opinion:)

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Agreed, Maria. Head-hopping is bad and my first manuscript was hopelessly riddled with it. I understand why writers do it. It’s outrageously fun. I zipped from one character’s POV to the next with total abandon. It’s only dumb luck that kept me from popping into the head of a horse or dog for a quick insight into the scene.

  6. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Mary Anne,
    I like your title. The “Vow” has angst. Parting your lovers will bring your story conflict.
    I’m going to hate myself for saying this, but the opening has too much “tell” and not enough “show”. Bring us into the intimacy between Audrey and Miles, and makes us emotional at their separation. Show us he cares with body language…caressing her cheek, holding her close, and vice versa. If his heart is brimming with love, he will act upon it and make the reader swoon.
    I agree that stating “Many were the hardships’, pulls us out of the here and now. You can tear at the reader’s heart with Miles’ (and Audrey’s) hardships as we read along. This builds tension.
    I think you have a fascinating storyline here. Amp up the emotion and foreshadow what’s ahead.
    I don’t like suspense as a person, but it keeps me hooked as a reader!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Don’t hate yourself, Barbara. You’re spot on.

      Telling is almost always the wrong choice. Readers like to bring something to the experience. If you show them what’s happening, they can form their own conclusions, create their own attachments to the characters. Telling short circuits their creative input.

  7. Kat Duncan says:

    I’m a short story addict. I write them and read them voraciously. Some of the best ones have surprising and unexpected endings.

    If you tell us ahead of time that Miles goes through hell and comes out unscathed only to find his Audrey has had some terrible experience, you’re giving away a chance to build anticipation in the reader. Better to show Miles in his POV striving to keep alive and keep his vow and imagining the beautiful (and pure) Audrey as his reward and then show Audrey in her POV and what happened to her with the smith and worried about what Miles will do when he returns.

    It sounds like a great story! I like the old fashioned style. I’d try to keep as much of it as possible, with a nod to the needs an expectations of modern readers.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Excellent suggestions, Kat. Thanks for your thoughtful input.

  8. Ashlyn Chase says:

    First, I love the title. Don’t second guess it.

    Now, I think I read on Mia’s FB post that this is a short story. If so, I can contribute my expertise. I’m a short story teller being pushed into single-title mode at the moment.

    The first “rule” of writing a short romance is to keep your H/h together 90% of the time.
    It doesn’t look like you’re doing that.

    Second rule: keep secondary characters to a minimum.

    Third rule: Cut backstory

    I know. This seems ruthless, doesn’t it? But it really helps to know these things when writing short.

    Mia is right about starting the story with the inciting incident. In movies, they can take up to 20 minutes to get there, but not in short fiction. You’ll lose the reader unless you capture them right away. I’d suggest you start with the assault by the smithy. I know that cuts out your hero in the beginning, but we can be made to care about him through Audrey’s POV.

    I assume the hero returns. (This is a romance, after all.) If you need to skip five years while they’re separated, do it. Alfred Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the boring parts taken out.”

    I hope any of that helps.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I just knew I’d get some expert help if I asked for it. Thanks, Ashlyn!

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