Red Pencil Thursday Goes to Italy

Red Pencil Thursday

Volunteer for Mia's online critique group!

I’m so delighted to bring you a new RPT volunteer–Molly Maka. Her WIP is called Angel and it’s set in WWII. I know conventional wisdom says historical romance should be plunked down squarely in Regency England (and I love a good Regency as much as the next girl) but I get excited by out of the box times and places.

As you know, we can’t have our online critique group unless someone steps forward to take the hot seat. So, if you have a manuscript you’re working on, let me encourage you to volunteer for Red Pencil Thursday. Check out the “how to” details.


Monte Cassino, Italy
February, 1944

“Incoming!” someone screamed from outside.

The first explosion shuddered the ground beneath Ginger’s feet.  A thin fog of dust floated down from the roof of the dim, olive drab tent.  She steadied the metal tray of medical supplies and went back to rebandaging Sergeant Armstrong’s leg.

Mia: First, kudos for dropping us into the heat of action. So often the opening of a story is tentative or bogged down with backstory. You’ve hit the ground running. Yay!

Molly: Thank you! That’s exactly what I wanted to do. This story does not warrant flashbacks or connections to letters in my mind.  I wanted to put the reader right in the midst of World War II.

Mia: The first explosion sentence structure is a little awkward. It’s not the explosion that shuddered. It’s the ground. I’d rework it like this:

The ground shuddered beneath Ginger’s feet.

Molly: I like that. I could never figure out why it didn’t sound right.

Mia: You don’t know it’s the first explosion at this point. It may be the only one. Now pull us in close with a visceral reaction from our heroine. What is she feeling? Does she lean over to shield the sergeant’s wound with her own body from the debris falling? Does she struggle to maintain her composure for the sake of her patient?

Molly: All awesome questions and it really gave me an idea on how to tighten this up.  I was trying to keep the action moving and was afraid getting into her head would slow things down.  Also, good point about the explosion.  I’m trying to make it out to be basically the start of the attack, but I see what you mean.

It had been so close…closer than normal.  A second explosion followed the first.  What was going on?  It had been quiet for days.

Mia: One way to really pull your reader in is to take her inside the mind of your protagonist. Instead of ‘It had been so close…’ how about giving us her direct thought–That was close! A second explosion followed. What’s going on?

Molly: I like that.  I think again, it was me being afraid that I would slow down the pace.

Mia: As long as you’re not setting up camp in her head, you’re not in danger of slowing the pace. What’s quicker than a thought?

“Move!  Find cover!” a short dark-haired medic shouted, pushing through the tent.  His head streamed blood, and most of his combat uniform was in shreds from just below the knees showing the peppering of shrapnel up and down his legs.

Mia: At this point, we don’t need to know the medic is short or dark-haired. We’re in the thick of the action. Give us the essentials and we’ll fill in the rest. If he has a name, use it here.

Molly: Sadly, he has no name.  I jokingly called him Random Medic #3, so I don’t know if I ought to differentiate him since he doesn’t have a name.

“They’re bombing the unit!” he continued to yell, trying to push off the nurses who came to attend to him.

Mia: They’re bombing the unit is pretty obvious. If you’re going to put that in there, at least tell us who they are. It’ll give us more of a sense of who’s fighting where.

Molly: Good point.  I think I just assumed that the reader saw Italy, 1944 and could infer that it was the Battle of Monte Cassino against the Germans.

He started aiding the wounded soldiers.  “Get up! We have to evacuate!”

Ginger stared at the chaos, motionless.  It was as if the world had changed to a film running far too slowly and she couldn’t find a way to speed it up.

Mia: Nice use of a newly emerging technology for this time. ;-)

Molly: Thanks.  I love keeping my readers fully entrenched in the time period.  I think it’s the historical reenactor in me.

Another explosion screamed just outside the tent.  The force was enough to send her flying backwards against the empty cot next to Sergeant Armstrong.  A searing pain seeped up the back of her skull.

“Ginger!  We’ve got to get you out of here!” the sergeant yelled over the deafening explosion.

He had managed to pull himself off his cot and held onto one of the wooden support poles of the tent.  His rough and calloused hand reached out for her.  Ginger grasped it, and though he was still weak, his strength hauled her up as though she weighed nothing.

Mia: As though she weighed nothing is a bit of a trope. Plus the guy is wounded. If you end the sentence at up, we still get that the good sergeant is strong.

Molly: You totally helped me again tighten and tidy where I could not figure it out.

Without thinking, she draped his arm over her shoulder and helped him make his way to the exit.  All around them, nurses, medics and doctors scrambled to get their patients up and out.

She searched the chaos for her medic, Boots.  Finally, she caught sight of him.

Mia: Boots is a great name! Is he the medic speaking earlier? Please name him the first time we see him. We’re in Ginger’s POV. If she knows someone’s name, we should know it too.

Molly: No, he’s a different guy.  Since the earlier medic is only there for really that short moment, do you think he needs a name?

Mia: No, I think you only need to use one medic. Have Boots do the speaking earlier. You have enough going on without cluttering up the cast with nameless ‘spear carriers.’ It’s always a good idea to combine smaller characters and let them wear different masks depending on the needs of the scene. First Boots is a herald, announcing a change in action. Then he acts as a threshold guardian, directing traffic. (See The Hero’s Journey by Vogler for more about character archetypes.)

He stood at the tent flap barking orders to get the men onto waiting trucks or to foxholes.  His mousy brown hair had fallen into his face and partially obstructed his round glasses.

“Boots!  Which way?” she screamed over the racket of warfare.

Mia: Always go for specific nouns. Shelling is more specific and descriptive than warfare.

Molly: I like that much better!

“They’re strafing the hospital.  No place is safe!” he shouted back.

She desperately made her way over to him with Sergeant Armstrong in tow.  His broad, heavy frame weighed her down, but she kept moving until she reached Boots.  The chaos outside looked gruesome.

Mia: I can’t see where they are exactly. How far are they from Boots? What’s in their way? Chaos is a unique enough word that you shouldn’t use it twice in the first 500 words. Plus The chaos outside looked gruesome is telling. Show us by giving specific details what Ginger is experiencing.

Molly: Good point.  I think I was seeing it in my head and not getting all the details on the page.

“Ginger, take me to a foxhole.  If I can get a rifle, I can help repel ‘em!” Sergeant Armstrong said.

Mia: We like Armstrong very much! Please tell me he’s your hero.

Molly: Unfortunately, he is not, but I want to give him his own story one day.

“Are you crazy?  You’re wounded!”

“Don’t need my leg to fire a gun,” he countered.  “Let’s go before more people get hurt.”

Ginger looked out at the carnage, then back at the strapping young sergeant in her charge.  “All right.”

An eerie silence surrounded the pair as they emerged from the tent.  A few of the jeeps sat engulfed in flames.  Fiery fingers grasped at whatever they could consume.

Mia: Oh, I had them outside the tent already for some reason. Didn’t she move toward Boots? This is a good example of how we as writers can see our scene in great detail, but the reader doesn’t always get the same message. The Prime Directive of writing is “First, be clear.” Don’t make your reader wonder how your scene is playing out. Be direct. Be specific. Show. Don’t tell.

Molly: Thanks for pointing that out.  I do need to be more clear in that section.

Mia: Great start!

Molly: Thank you so much for a great critique.  You really gave me good ideas to tighten what’s already there.  I knew it needed to as much as I kept it action packed but this gave me a clear direction.

Molly Maka

Molly Maka

Molly’s Bio:
Molly Maka is an aspiring author and a 1940’s girl at heart.  When she isn’t writing or at work, you can find her traipsing through various time periods as a historical reenactor or volunteering with the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.

Facebook Fan Page:


Now it’s your turn to offer Molly your opinion. The point of Red Pencil Thursday is helping each other improve our storytelling skills. I hope you’ll share your thoughts and Molly does too!

23 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday Goes to Italy

  1. Betsy says:

    Ack! So sorry I missed this last week – I completely got sidetracked! I’m glad to find it still up on the blog and that I’m able to stop by for a read. Everyone has left wonderful and on task comments, so I don’t have much more to add. As always, I offer up my enthusiastic encouragement! Keep writing! Start marketing this one and start writing another!

  2. Liz Lincoln Steiner says:

    Great opening, Molly. Like many have said, I’m so glad you’re tackling WWII. It’s about my favorite timeperiod and I’ve never understood why it’s a “no no” in romance. But, even as much as I love WWII history and have studied a lot of it, I know very little about the Italian front. And I would expect the average reader to know even less than I do. You don’t want to slow an opening like this with a history lesson, but you’ll definitely need to dribble in a little scenery and history as the story moves along.

    My only suggestion for a tweak would be I think the opening line would be stronger if it were simply

    Yes, leave the ! there (as someone pointed out, it’s necessary in this instance). Since it’s an unknown, disembodied voice it’s not really necessary to identify it as an unknown person.

    Great opening! And kudos on taking the brave step of putting your work out there for public comment.

  3. Maurine H says:

    Hi, Molly. I love the start of your story and the way you put the reader right in the middle of the action. Everyone else has mentioned most of what I would make a comment on, but I disagree (a little) on the exclamation point thing. “Incoming,” someone (male or female?) screamed from outside just wouldn’t be the same as “Incoming!” Same thing with “Find cover! We have to evacuate!” But some of the others could go and still keep the excitement up. At least you didn’t put any !!! in the narrative.

    Another thing you might think about is if Armstrong isn’t the hero and the hero doesn’t show up until Chapter Two, maybe you’re starting too early? What is the reason for starting at this point rather than when the hero and heroine meet? I’m not asking you to justify to me where you started your story, but to know for yourself whether this is the best place to start. Then if you do decide that, yes, this is the best place to start, then so the reader knows that Armstrong isn’t the hero, maybe have Ginger give him paper and pen to write a letter to his sweetheart or something else that lets us know, rather than be in the middle of changing his bandage. Just a thought.

    You drew me immediately into the story and I would love to read more. Good luck with it.

    1. Molly says:

      Hi Maurine,
      Thanks for the comments and feedback. I went back and forth for about three months with whether I needed this chapter at all and even tried moving it to other places, but in the end, it sets up the tone for things that need resolving later in the story so I decided to keep it. It originally was in chapter 3 as a flashback, but I felt like that was weak and agents who had seen it before all said that they felt that Ginger’s POV was the stronger of the hero and heroine’s.

      I did some thinking last night and the thing with Armstrong is, I think as one would read further past those 500 words, it would be clear he isn’t the hero.

      I’m a little apprehensive about having Armstrong be writing a letter is because this is a field hospital and the point would be to get them stable and then either move them further down the line for more care if necessary or get them back out to the front. I don’t expect readers to have that much knowledge and I don’t think there really is a way in the midst of the crazy action going on to even talk about the chain of evacuation. I suppose I could make mention that it’s a field hospital early on.

      I really appreciate your comments and thanks for reading my first attempt at Red Pencil Thursday.

  4. Molly says:

    Thank you so much, Marcy. You’re absolutely right on not assuming. I’ve always been a 40’s girl and I love researching the period (always have) so it would help if I did add extra info. I’m definitely glad this period is getting more attention so that younger generations can learn about it. It was a pivotal time in our world’s history.

  5. Marcy W says:

    Oh, I love WWII stories, Molly, thank you for being willing to go there. I will caution you that your readers today (most of whom I assume are younger than my 60 years) will NOT know much history from that war, and may not have even heard of the Monte Casino battle, or the whole Italian campaign. (They think of Vietnam the way I think of WWII.) You may need to do a little more education than you think.
    I can’t add anything to Mia’s, and others’, comments, which do a lot of tightening and show you how to cut bits and pieces. I like the very active opening, your characters, even in just 500 words, have gripped me enough to want to read on (Mia, couldn’t it be the first 1000 words??), and I hope you’ll keep us informed about when we can read the whole book. Thanks for sharing, Molly, and now get back to writing! :-)

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      If I did the first 1000 words, the post would stretch into next week by the time all the comments and responses were up.

      Actually, this is a good reason for aspiring writers to have a web presence–a blog with a static page for a chapter excerpt would do. That way, readers could pop from here to the volunteer’s site to read on.

      1. Tricia Quinnies says:

        Wow! What a great idea Mia! I think you just drafted your next victim…or, volunteer. Just a little jittery.
        Tricia Q.

        1. Mia Marlowe says:

          Terrific, Tricia. And there is no cause for jitters. This is a safe blog. I look forward to taking a look at your WIP.

      2. Marcy W says:

        What a great solution! You do have such good ideas, Mia … even when you’re not writing a book :-) I hope lots of novice writers will take this advice.

  6. Mary Brady says:

    Molly, I love it! (Sorry kittens, but I just can’t help myself.) Great comments from everybody. I just have a small one. If you have trouble with people thinking the Sgt. is the hero, give Armstrong a heroic death in this chapter. Then the question asked will be quickly answered.

    I’m happy the WW’s are coming into popularity. I’ve read 2 WW books recently. So much rich conflict available–both internal and external. Have fun and good luck!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      One of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time was REDTAILS, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Really wonderful flying sequences and male ferocity at its finest.

  7. Tricia Quinnies says:

    Hi Mia! Hi Molly! Read the first 500 of Angel and I’m excited to read more. Molly’s story combines two of my favorite reads romance and WWII history. The action starting off the first scene is terrific.
    I, too, would like to see the #3medic turn into Boots. The unique name of Boots stuck in my mind and would help to visualize him moving in the scene as his character circles around Ginger, keeping up with the great pace of Molly’s action.

    ? To deepen or tighten up the scene can words like “continued to” or “started to” be skipped to move right into the action? For example if it reads. “They’re bombing the unit!” Boots yelled, pushing off the nurses who came to attend him. He aided a wounded soldier. “Get up! We have to evacuate!”
    Would this keep in Ginger’s POV yet exclude author intrusion?
    And I am also fond of Armstrong! Molly, your great word choices to describe him make me like him and want him to be the hero. Sadly he’s not, but you have just hooked me into not one but two of your books. Kudos! While I wait for Armstrong can you, or should you introduce the hero in the first 500 words?
    What do you two think? Is it dependent on the genre? For me…as a reader, it sets up an emotional bond of sorts, but as a writer it’s sometimes hard to do! :)
    Looking forward to reading more Molly and thanks Mia for another great RLT.
    Tricia Q.

    1. Molly says:

      Thanks Tricia! :)

      The only reason I’m hesitant to turn Medic #3 into Boots is because of the role Boots has to play later in the chapter. Having him be wounded at the start of the chapter will make that impossible.

      And, unforunately, the hero can’t show up till the next chapter. This is essentially a prologue and his chapter follows. There is no way for them to meet at this time. I guess it’s hard to say more without giving away the story, but there is a reason I kept them apart.

      1. Mia Marlowe says:

        Here’s an easy fix. Don’t have the medic be wounded.

    2. Mia Marlowe says:

      It’s not essential that your H/h meet in the first 500 words. However, after the stalwart Armstrong, Molly’s hero had better be something special. ;-)

  8. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Molly,

    I liked your opening. See, RPT isn’t painful.
    You drop us into the action which starts this story out with good tension.

    I don’t have much to add to what Mia said. I did have the same thoughts on the characters’ whereabouts. The line “The chaos outside looked gruesome” had me thinking Ginger was outside the tent observing.

    I do have two picky things. The line “Fiery fingers…” was probably referring to the fire, but with all the carnage, I was picturing actual charred hands. And I’m going to hate myself for saying this but watch the exclamation points. Quite a few on the first page.

    Great job. Thanks for sharing with us. Love your picture too.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Oh, I should have nailed the exclamation point thing, Barbara. Remember what editor Heather Osborn says. “Every time you use an exclamation point, you kill a kitten.”

  9. Hi Molly, great scene! Lots of action and immediacy. I always loved WWII stories too. Here’s hoping you blaze a trail for them.

    As to tightening, I was thinking you could trim here: “Another explosion screamed just outside the tent. The force SENT her flying backwards against the empty cot next to Sergeant Armstrong.”

    And then I wondered if the sergeant would call her by her first name. Wouldn’t she be Nurse (last name) to him? That would be a way to introduce her full name.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Good point about the name, Helen. This is the strength of RPT–many eyes around the table. ;-)

    2. Molly says:

      During that period of time, the GIs would call nurses by nicknames or address them as Nurse Last Name. I just read recently one nurse was called Miss Irish by the men she treated. Yes, Ginger is her nickname, but with the action of the scene I couldn’t find a good place to drop her full name.

      Thanks for the nice comments and thoughts, Helen!

  10. Molly,
    Nice work. Your story beginning was good, but with Mia’s suggestions it’ll be awesome! Thanks for sharing. I’m learning from both of you.

    1. Molly says:

      Thanks Brenda! It’s been a great learning experience.

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