Red Pencil Thursday Rides Again!

Red Pencil Thursday

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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.

Findley’s Lass

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?

35 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday Rides Again!

  1. Great job on making your second version more immediate, Suzan! One thing that popped out at me, though, was the number of times you use the word “heart.” After you tell the reader, “Maggy had inexplicably won Findley’s heart,” you go on to say “He knew his heart would not be able to withstand finding her burned corpse,” “The vision…tore through his heart…[T]here would be no repairing his destroyed heart,” “His heart pounded mercilessly in his chest, threatening to burst,” “He felt his very soul dying with each beat of his heart,” “When his frenzied search yielded no sign of the…woman who had stolen his heart months ago, his heart finally conceded to what his mind had been telling him.” After the first mention or two, the word starts to lose its impact. Since you’re trying to get your story off to a strong start, you’d be better off moving on to some other physical detail.

    My favorite thing about your re-write is the way you’ve ended the scene on a hook. “They had Maggy and her boys” has so much dramatic promise.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Oh, good catch, Alyssa. That’s why I recommend reading your work aloud. My ear catches echoes my eye misses.

    2. Alyssa…from the bottom of my heart I thank you for pointing that out! lol…;o) I didn’t realize that until you pointed it out. I do thank you! This has been a very fun adventure.

  2. Findley’s Lass is actually Book Two in my series. The five boys are very young and she has only given birth to one of them–eight year old Liam. Maggy is twenty six. Nearly all of her clan was wiped out by a pox and she has adopted the other four boys. ;o)

    I am looking forward to reading your latest book Mia! I’ve read the excerpt and simply cannot wait for more! ;o)

    Again, thank you all! Have a beautiful day!!

  3. So…do I tell you all who Maggy is, or do I make you read the rest of the book??? LOL…Just trust me…Maggy isn’t old, nor is she a hag…On my first draft to Mia, I think it explained a little better just who Maggy and her five lads were…I know its easy to assume how old the boys are…or that she’s given birth to all of them…;o) Thank you all so very very much!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      To be honest, I only read the last version you sent me, the one I critiqued. I usually only give the RPT entries one pass because I’m working pretty hard on my own WIP. You can let us know if the boys are hers or if they are step-sons or “lost boys” she’s gathered around her with only a word or two.

  4. Lol. Do u took out too much info. This is fun! Maddening but fun!! Thank you all. Will rewrite again and send to Mia later. You all are wonderful. Thank you so much!!!!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I rewrite my openings so many times. I experiment and make sure I’ve found the right place to start. It is by far the most revised section of every manuscript.

      When you finally get the right mix of dialogue and action, something will click in your mind and you’ll know you’re on the right track.

      For an example of this blending of dialogue and action, check the opening of TOUCH OF A ROGUE, my upcoming release. It was just named one of Publishers Weekly’s Top Ten Romances for Spring (Jan-June 2012) If you read as far as the first small cover, that’s about 500 words.

      I don’t tell you everything about my hero in that length of time. I simply drop him into a situation and let you figure out for yourself what sort of fellow Jacob Preston is. Let me know what you think.

  5. Lol. Just sent Mia my revisions. You are all
    Just amazing and I cannot thank you enough!!!

  6. Jeanie Ryan says:

    There was one thing that struck me. When you said it was obvious his men knew how he felt, it took me out of deep third briefly (it really isn’t something he’d be thinking about in those terms then), but more importantly it was a missed opportunity. Rather than just use it to say he liked her, you can use it to show his relationship with his men. How do they feel about him? How does he feel about them?

    Rather than tell us his men knew, give us evidence of this. Either show Wee William doing something or tell us something that showed it from his interaction with his men in the past. Either will give him the opportunity to react and show us him more deeply.

    By showing us his relationship with his men, it will create a more rounded character. How people feel about a character helps influence how the reader feels about him. Great characters affect those around them. If this man is great, his men will feel something strong. Show us that right off the bat. It doesn’t take much. This is an opportunity to do that.

    To further him, he can react to how they react. Does he view this as a weakness? Is he worried that his men will see him as weak? Does he even care about how his men see him? Is he worried about their sympathy? As a leader how he views how others see him is important. Does he lead by fear? Do his men respect him? This can all be conveyed in a few sentences here.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Excellent observation. Our heroes don’t live in a vaccuum. They are shaped by the secondary characters with whom they have relationships.

  7. I only have 500 words to work with!!! lol…It is so hard to confine it to such a small space. lol…I’m working on it.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the ideas that are being swung around here. Take a deep breath. Only you can tell your story. RPT’s main function is to help you think in new directions and hopefully discover the most compellling way to tell your story.

  8. Barbara H says:

    Hi Suzan,

    I’m impressed with your quick implementation of suggestions. Well Done. I agree with the comments here. One more about Maggie: It would be good to introduce her –mention her somehow–before referring to his feelings for ‘Maggie.’ Is it the general attitude of that era to think the woman he loves is better off a burned corpse than in the hands of his enemy? (It may be. Odd ideas have prevailed throughout history.)

    I do like your plot, Suzan, and I think the story has so much potential. Good luck. And thanks for letting us comment.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Ooo, you’re right. I’m thinking of the Last of the Mohicans and Hawkeye’s insistance that whatever happens Cora must “stay alive. I will find you.” That’s more heroic to my mind, than speculating she’d be better of as a cinder.

  9. This is a great example and lesson in how to and how not to grab the reader. I just finished judging my Golden Heart, and at least one entry suffered from that lack of immediacy and intimate POV connection that the first attempt demonstrated. The second version is so much better. And I agree that I thought Maggy was too old with sons old enough to steal cattle.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Immediacy and deep POV. I should tape that to my computer monitor and chant it as my new mantra!

      1. Mia, you crack me up!!!

  10. Darcy carson says:

    Maybe I’m way off base here, but I thought Maggy was an old woman and the mother of five kids, not exactly heroine material. In fact it was a turn off that Finley had the hots for her. I’d like it clarified that she is younger than an old hag. Mia can tell you that sometimes my brain just works differently.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I’m glad for the way your brain works, Darcy! (For those of you who didn’t know it, Darcy is my crit partner from Seattle and without her occasional loving kicks in the pants, I would not be published today!)

      You raise a good point. We need to know she’s a young widow. Are the boys hers or are they step-sons?

  11. Mia Celeste says:

    Suzan,
    Beginnings are really hard, but it’s clear you know your world and your main character. Your re-write is better. Thanks for sharing work that’s in the process of becoming great. You give me courage to send in an opening of mine.
    Mia,
    I love Red Pencil Thursdays because your kind suggestions help me improve. Thanks.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I look forward to taking a look at your work,Mia!

  12. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Suzan,

    Thanks for doing RPT. I have missed it. RPT helped me with an opening.

    I liked your revision, but will have to second the need for more dialogue and “white space” in the opening to captivate the reader. You have all the elements of a compelling story so go for it.

    May I suggest a re-organizing of your paragraphs? Start with Findley holding the bloody plaid and have him say “Search again”.
    Then have Wee William use the whore line and accuse the Buchanans. Show Findley tearing through the tents and perhaps calling Maggie’s name (then we’ll know it is she he is searching for).
    This will incorporate more dialogue and action. But of course, wrench our hearts out with Findley’s longing to find her. Oh, and the slave line was chilling. Bring that closer to the top.

    You’ve got a lot to work with here. Good job!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Excellent suggestions, Barbara!

  13. Thank you all for your very thoughtful insights. I have sent Mia some revisions and will continue to revise throughout the day. Ashlynn: I will make Findley a little less foul mouthed ;0). We don’t want a nasty hero! Lol

  14. Karri Lyn Halley says:

    It was neat to see your revised opening after reading Mia’s comments. It really draws the reader in faster. Even more dialogue would make it more compelling. I really enjoy Red Pencil Thursdays and am glad to have the chance to read both versions of your opening. Your story seems like a good concept (especially since we know the backstor). Good luck.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I agree. Dialogue makes the pages fly. I remember the first time I read Crime and Punishment. Those unrelieved blocks of narrative were so daunting, even though the story was riveting.

  15. Ashlyn Chase says:

    HI Susan,

    As Mia’s critique partner, I respect a lot of the advice she gives. My books have done well because of her valuable input. Listen to her!

    Now, here’s my $.02. I need more dialog. An ms without a good balance between dialog and narrative will lose me–quickly.

    I also agree that the “Only sons of whores…” comment needs to come from someone other than the hero. I don’t want my hero to be so foul-mouthed even as angry as he is. Let someone else spit out the vitriol.

    Findley’s emotions are great, but just that he blinked doesn’t say anything. We all blink. Can he blink back tears? No man wants to be seen crying, but they can certainly feel like it.

    Okay, my final comment…I like it!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      As you know, I’m always in favor of gentle discourse. Overuse of the vulgar tongue diminishes its effect.

      However, sometimes a curse is warranted. Standing before a burnt out shell of a croft wondering whether the woman you loved was in it strikes me as one of those times.

      Remember Back to the Future, when Marty is coaching George McFly to say, “Get your damn hand off her” as he rescues the girl he’ll eventually marry. George hems and haws and asks, “Do I have to swear?” “Yes, damn it, George, swear.”

      Sometimes, it works.

      1. That was my first inclination…There are a tremendous amount of really good ideas…and I think that I was trying to listen to everyone…;o) I will work on this tonight…and I will send you another revision…so ignore the first five I sent you today!! lol It could be later tonight or early tomorrow…Thank you so very, very much!!! I do appreciate your insights, pointers and ideas! You have been amazingly helpful! Thank you!!!

  16. Marcy W says:

    Good examples of how valuable critiques can be. Suzan, your revised version was clearly better, and I agree with Mia that you’ve got some interesting characters and therefore the core of a good story.
    My eye goes to editing, and I want to warn you about very long sentences, especially those without commas where needed. One trick is to read it aloud, and wherever you stop, either for a breath or naturally, put a comma. I would suggest shorter sentences in general … the action seems more urgent. And, as Mia would say, show us more about the thoughts and emotions of our hero than tell us. You’ve made good steps toward that goal, just keep going!
    Thanks for sharing, and good luck.

    1. Thank you for your kind words an suggestions! ;o) One of my problems is that my mother-in-law is my editor, lol. Which REALLY isn’t a problem, it is a blessing…but I’m so used to her helping with the commas, that I sometimes forget to pay attention to those. ;o) She was actually the editor for a local newspaper for 30 years. She is CONSTANTLY reminding me of correct comma use! ;o) Thank you for your input. ;o)

    2. Mia Marlowe says:

      Listen to her, Suzan. Marcy is my beta reader and the unofficial Comma Queen!

      1. lol…I’m listening!!! I’m actually working on it now! ;o) I’m spoiled with my mother-in-law! tee hee But I am working on it. ;o) Thank you both so very much!

      2. I sent you my revisions. ;o) Yes…I tend to be a little OCD on certain things. ;o)

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