Red Pencil Thursday Rides Again!
It’s been several months since we had a Red Pencil Thursday, but if I don’t have a volunteer, we can’t have our online critique group. Fortunately, Suzan Tisdale has stepped forward with the first 500 words of her work in progress.
The opening of any novel is such a delicate time. Seeds of the character arcs, the conflict, the whole story is here in nascent form. That’s why we focus on the opening for Red Pencil Thursday. If you’d like to participate, please click on the red pencil to pop over for the details of how YOU can find yourself in the hotseat.
Mia: The purpose of a title is to set a mood, convey what sort of story you’re offering, or pose a question in your readers’ minds. I like this title. We know it’s a Highland setting and you’ve set us up for a love story with the possessive.
Time had suspended for an interminable length before his heart beat again. Even longer before he could draw a breath. Only sons of whores would attack and kill a group of auld people, set their home ablaze and leave the bodies for the wolves and carrions. He didn’t need the bit of bloodied fabric clenched in his fist to tell him who was responsible for the massacre that lay before him. Buchannans were the only clan in all of Scotland capable of such atrocity. The bit of Buchannan plaid they had found skittering in the breeze merely clarified their suspicions and sealed the fate of the Buchannan chief. The man would be dead within a fortnight if Findley McKenna had anything to say on the matter.
Mia: OK, we have a vivid, dramatic scene here, but it has no voice. By that I mean we don’t know who’s head we’re in right away, so while we’re appalled at the carnage, we can’t feel Findley’s rage as much as if you let us get under his skin and see the whole scene through his eyes. Close POV draws a reader in, makes us part of the action. One of the best ways to do that is to give us some dialogue. Give your hero someone to talk to. Try this:
Findley McKenna clenched the bloodied fabric in his fist. Old people killed, their home set ablaze and …. (insert your short description of the scene as Findley would think it. This is key. Use his words, show the details he’d notice instead of painting the broader canvas of an omniscient narrator.) “Only sons of whores would do such a thing.”
“Buchannans, ye mean,” said (Findley’s as yet unnamed friend.)
I wouldn’t mention Buchannans till their name comes up in conversation. And save the fact that he’ll kill their chieftain to use as an end of scene hook.
Notorious for lying, cheating and stealing, the Buchannans were rapidly becoming more than just a pain in the arses of their neighboring clans: they were a plague on the whole of Scotland. Their only allegiance was to themselves and the side with the most coin.
Mia: We got it in the first paragraph. The Buchannans are real bad actors. You’re beating the reader over the head with it here. I’d salt these details in later, preferably in dialogue so it’s your character’s opinion, not the narrator’s. If you do it that way, you’re showing rather than telling—almost always the better choice.
Plus, be aware that every villain is a hero in his own story. The Buchannans are just taking care of their own, albeit at the expense of everyone else. So while they are undoubtedly heinous, make sure you give them at least one good quality—family loyalty, for example. Otherwise, your villains will be cartoonish. Think of Magneto in X-Men. Undoubtedly a bad guy, but he’s out to save mutants from genocide (a noble goal). It’s his method of reaching the goal that makes him a villain.
Now Findley and his men stood in the aftermath of what had once been Maggie Boyle’s home and Maggie and her boys were no where to be found. Three years past a pox had taken nearly every member of Maggie’s clan. All that had remained was a handful of auld people, Maggie and her boys.
His feelings for Maggy had been unspoken, but his men could easily surmise that Findley held very strong affections towards the widowed mum. They hadn’t travelled these many days just to bring supplies to her motley clan and an offer to foster her sons. Maggie had inexplicably won Findley’s heart.
Mia: Oh! This needs to be closer to the beginning! Our hero’s heart is engaged, not just his righteous indignation over the atrocity. Don’t let there be surmising. This is too good a hook to pass by lightly. Strong emotion is the strongest hook a writer can set. If he harbors tender feelings for her that colors the whole scene. He should be tearing through the wreckage, trying to find her, afraid he will.
BTW, I like that you haven’t succumbed to the temptation to make the heroine a Buchannan. ‘My-clan-hates-your-clan’ is a little tired as a conflict. Kudos for avoiding it.
Findley could not explain his intense attraction for the auburn haired woman with the bright green eyes, for they had spent but a few short hours together the past spring and under less than desirable circumstances. It had been her five boys that had set in motion the events that led up to rescuing a severely battered young lass from a fate worse than death.
Mia: You’re trying to insert too much backstory here. We have a smoking ruin before us. We can’t be dragged into the past right now. Especially not since we don’t know if Maggie’s body is among the fallen. Concentrate on how he’s feeling. Here’s where time is suspended and he can’t draw a breath.
You need to know Findley and Maggie’s history. The reader doesn’t at this point. Modern readers expect us to hit the ground running. Ask yourself if the reader needs this information in order to continue reading with understanding. If the answer is ‘no,’ save it for later.
Also ‘fate worse than death’ is a tired euphemism for being raped. If that’s the case, I’d rather you said so instead of using coy substitutes. These are Highlanders, not Victorians. Straight talk is the order of the day.
Had Maggie Boyle’s young sons not stolen some thirty head of cattle from his clan, then he and his friend Duncan McEwan would not have been there to rescue the lass from the freezing stream. Had the boys not stolen the cattle then Aishlinn and Duncan would not now be blissfully married and expecting their first bairn. And had the boys not stolen the cattle, Findley would never have met their mother who had unwittingly stolen his heart. And his soul would not be shredding into an infinite number of pieces with worry over her.
Mia: We have no idea who Duncan or Aishlinn are or why we should care about them. I’d X them out here. I need to see Findley in action, showing us that his heart is shredding rather than having you tell us it is. What is he doing? Who is he talking with? Where is he looking for Maggie?
Maggie had somehow managed to keep her clan together and alive, no small feat considering all she’d been through. Perhaps it was admiration for her tenacity and strength that drew his heart to her. Or perhaps he hoped that by helping Maggie and her people he could in some small measure make up for failing his own family some ten and seven years ago.
Mia: Making up for a past mistake is a good motivator for a hero’s action, but at this point, we need more action and less motivation. Your narrative needs to move us forward, not backward in these critical first 500 words.
You may feel I’ve been tough on you, Suzan and I have. But that’s because I sense that there’s a viable kernel of a strong story here. It’s locked inside you and I’d love to see you bring it out. Don’t be afraid to climb inside your character’s heads and take us with you. Try rewriting this opening using only dialogue and action, not looking back for anything. I bet the result will feel more immediate, more gripping. Then if you feel it absolutely necessary, sprinkle in a few teasers about your backstory. Let me know what you think about your changes.
Good luck and keep writing!
Suzan lives in the Midwest with her verra handsome carpenter husband, the last of their four children. Their youngest, a 6’1”, 14-year-old boy is eating them out of house and home. Monetary donations are currently being accepted in order to feed their built-like-a-linebacker son and keep him in shoes.
My blog is: www.suzantisdale.blogspot.com
My twitter is SuzanTisdale
My FB page is www.facebook.com/suzantisdaleromance .
Mia: Usually my RPT volunteers simply respond to my comments, but Suzan sent me back a new version of her opening incorporating some of my suggestions. The whole point of a critique is to start thinking in new directions. Let’s see what Suzan did with her story:
Findley McKenna gripped the bloodied plaid until his knuckles turned white. Time had suspended for an interminable length before his heart beat again. Even longer before he could draw a breath. “Only sons of whores would kill auld people, set their home ablaze and leave the bodies for the wolves and carrions.” Findley spoke through gritted teeth. Rage, as hot as a blacksmith’s forge pounded through his veins.
Findley blinked and drew his lips into a hard, thin line. His feelings for Maggy had been unspoken, but his men could easily surmise that Findley held very strong affections towards the widowed mum. They hadn’t travelled these many days with heavy wagons just to bring supplies to her motley clan and an offer to foster her sons. Maggy had inexplicably won Findley’s heart.
“Buchannans done this,” Wee William said with much contempt in his voice. Wee William had seen much death and destruction in his lifetime, as had Findley. Death on the battlefield however, was a far cry from the butchery that surrounded them.
“Search again,” he ordered his men through gritted teeth.
Findley tore through the blackened tents and the charred remains of Maggy’s hut. He lifted the trestle table and tossed it aside as if it weighed no more than the bloodied fabric clenched between his fingers. Anger, disgust and worry filled him to the marrow as he kicked through the blankets and debris, searching for her, but all the while praying his search would not find her, not here, not among the dead.
He knew his heart would not be able to withstand finding her burned corpse. But the alternative was worse. If she was alive, she was in the hands of a soulless bastard who would either imprison her for his own purposes or take her to the slave traders in the high north. The vision of Maggy being stripped, thrown into chains and put on display to be sold to the highest bidder tore through his heart with as much force as an enemy’s sword. The damage would be the same either way, for there would be no repairing his destroyed heart.
Sweat covered his brow and ran the length of his back, plastering his tunic to his chest and arms. His lungs fought for clean air for the cloying stench of decayed bodies hung thick all around him. His heart pounded mercilessly in his chest, threatening to burst as his thoughts of what Maggy had gone through, of what she might be going through would not relent no matter how hard he prayed. He felt his very soul dying with each beat of his heart.
When his frenzied search yielded no sign of the auburn haired woman who had stolen his heart months ago, his heart finally conceded to what his mind had been telling him. The Buchannans had her. They had Maggy and her boys.
Mia: Lots more emotion in this version, Suzan. There’s more action, less telling and there’s a sense that the story is advancing faster. All good things! Thanks for sharing your revisions with us.
Now it’s YOUR turn to weigh in. Do you have suggestions for Suzan?