Red Pencil Thursday with a Mystery Volunteer
We’ve had volunteers at every level of experience along the publishing path here on Red Pencil Thursday–total newbies, Golden Heart winners, and even a few published authors. Our volunteer today falls not only into the published category, she recently hit the NYTimes list! She’s visiting us anonymously, but maybe she’ll reveal her identity in the comment section later this weekend. The post will be up till Monday.
The point is every writer experiences moments of self-doubt. Every writer can benefit from a fresh set of eyes on their work. No one I know comes down the mountain with their story inscribed in stone, every word strung together in perfect order like a matched set of pearls . A manuscript is more like a malleable clay pot with plenty of room for revision and improvement.
I salute my volunteer, today and each week. Allowing others to learn from your work is the mark of a generous spirit. My comments are in red. Hers are in blue. Please add yours in the comments because we don’t always agree and need your opinion!
The Proper Peer
Mia: The title firmly drops us into a Regency-ish frame of mind, however I’m wondering what you plan for the sensuality level of this story? It sounds like a traditional regency, which would be fairly sweet. I only ask because I know you can write hot, ;-) and this title is . . . well, not.
Good thought! It IS a dull title, though there’s a little double meaning with “proper” because the hero is a staid sort of fellow but the right guy for our heroine. I’ll think up something snappier.
The child was small, helpless and in harm’s way.
Mia: Excellent hook. Nothing grabs us by the jugular like a child in jeopardy.
Douglas Allen, the Viscount Amery, absorbed those facts as well as others in a silent instant: The grooms clustered in the barn doorway would do nothing but stand about, crossing themselves and looking sick with dread. The child’s mother, white as a ghost at the foot of the huge oak in the stable yard, was also likely paralyzed with fear. The child herself, perhaps four or five years old, standing thirty feet up on a sturdy limb of the old tree, was nearly as frightened as the woman.
Mia: Saying Douglas “absorbed those facts” places us in his POV, but it seems a little clunky to do it that way. Could you give us a sense of where he is? Riding by? I think if you show him in action, we’ll understand that we’re looking through his eyes and will follow his gaze around to the rest of the tableau.
Dang, you’re good at this. How ‘bout: “Douglas Allen, Viscount Amery drew his horse to a halt as he absorbed those facts in addition to several others:” I still don’t love it. Absorbing facts is visually dull, you’re right.
Mia: Because you’re an excellent writer, I want to challenge you to come up with something more original than white as a ghost. Pale as bleached muslin? White as a lily? White as paper? (Any other suggestions out there?)
Dead on, there, Mia. The cliché police have issued a deserved citation. How about… unnaturally pale…
Mia: I like it!
It took another moment of quiet focus for Douglas to accurately perceive the situation in its terrible entirety.
Mia: Not sure you need this sentence other than to tease us with the idea that the situation is even more dire than it first appears. Unless of course, this is to show that Douglas is a man of careful deliberation even in moments of crisis.
I do want an anticipatory cringe here, but the word “accurately” strikes me as one of those overdone, why-did-I-write-that adverbs copy editors hold in such contempt.
Mia: Adverbs have a tendency to creep in. I think you need to show us more of what Douglas sees in order to create a cringe-worthy moment.
“Rose,” the woman said in a tight, stern voice, “you will not move, do you hear me?”
“No!” came a petulant retort from the heights of the oak. Douglas allowed his gaze to travel up, and saw the child had anchored herself by a fierce hold on the branch above her. When she made her rude reply, she punctuated it with a stomp of her foot, which caused the branch she grasped to shake as well.
Mia: You don’t need to allow his gaze to travel. Simply describe what he sees and we’ll follow him. Start that sentence with The child had anchored…
Respectfully disagree, Your Honor. ‘Douglas allowed his gaze to travel up’ pans the camera upward, limb by limb, to the dread Whatever and keeps us away from an insinuation of third person omniscient point of view. This clause ALSO creates a compound sentence, and keeps the paragraph from sounding choppy. The simple sentence left over from deleting the ‘Douglas allowed’ clause sounds wrong for my voice.
Mia: Duly noted. As always, my suggestions are just that. Take what you like and leave the rest.
Douglas heard the problem before he saw it. A low, insistent drone, one that would have been utterly undetectable but for the unnatural stillness of the tableau.
Mia: Wonderful use of the sense of hearing. So often we writers lean too heavily on sight. The low drone is certainly ominous.
And it was REALLY ominous when I heard it in the tree my very own kid was playing in! But how about we ditch “utterly”? I’ve read this scene a zillion times, you’d think I would have debrided all the stupid adverbs from it.
Mia: –Ly words are the bane of my life.
At Rose’s impertinence, the woman blanched even more pale.
“Please, Rose,” the woman said, her voice an agony of controlled desperation, “I am asking as nicely as I can. You must hold very still until we can get you down.”
“It’s my tree,” the child shouted back, “and I can stay up here as long as I want.”
Mia: Personal pet peeve: spoiled children. I’m disappointed with this kid right now and wondering why the mom allowed her to become such an unlikeable little tyrant. I could never watch Full House because the Mary Kate Ashley character was so snottily disobedient and the adults never reined her in. I trust there’s a reason for the lack of parental authority. Is the woman the nanny instead of the mother?
Another stomp, following by another ominous, angry droning.
Douglas absorbed two more facts: The child was unaware of the hornet’s nest—an ugly gray mass about the size of a man’s head—and she was not unwilling to come down. She was unable.
Mia: Again with the fact absorbing. Since you’ve made a pattern of it, this does seem like part of his character now–assessment, deliberation and then hopefully, appropriate action. Perhaps you should leave it here and at the beginning. What does the rest of the RPT gang think?
Please do chime in. I intended continuity, but does it come off stilted? Does it burden the pace?
Mia: I don’t deduce that she’s unable to climb down from her tone and actions. What specifically leads Douglas to this conclusion?
He recognizes stubborn pride when he sees it, being on intimate terms with the quality himself. Should I drizzle in something to that effect? I’m already worried that the pace isn’t moving along quickly enough. Does Rose’s fear help mitigate the spoiled first impression or not? Be honest.
Mia: I need something more to indicate that she’s afraid. I see the mother’s fear, but not the child’s. All I see in Rose is stubborn willfulness, but that may just be me. Again, we welcome YOUR comments, RPT gang!
He stripped off his gloves and stuffed them into the pocket of his riding jacket. Next he shed his jacket, slung it across the horse’s withers, turned back his cuffs and rode over to the base of the tree. After taking a moment to assess the possibilities, he used the height of the horse’s back to hoist himself into the lower limbs.
Mia: Yay for a steady man of action!
“Miss Rose,” he called out in a steady, no nonsense voice, “you will do as your mother says, and be still as a garden statue until I am able to reach you. There will be no more rudeness…” Douglas continued to climb, branch by branch, toward the child. “You will not shout…” Another several feet and he would be on the same level as she. “And you most assuredly will not be stamping your foot in an unladylike display of pique.”
The child watched as he came up the tree. “What’s peek?”
Mia: Could you give her another action besides “watched?” It seems a little passive for a child who managed to climb up there on her own. I don’t see her obeying a stranger’s order to stand still when she’s been so wretched to her mother. Would she have squatted down on the branch? Maybe sat on it and let her feet swing? Or since he forbade it, would she raise her foot for another stamp only to be derailed by the distraction of a new word?
I REALLY like that last suggestion, because when Rose raises her foot, our anxiety about the bees will rise as well. Maybe… The child raised her foot as if to stomp again, then wrinkled her nose. “What’s peek?”
I deleted some language here along the lines of…. “The child watched as he came up the tree, her expression suggesting guidance from an adult male was more novel than intimidating.”
(Rose has been raised without a dad.)
When the heavens are so generous as to give me a good opening line, I almost resent it because trying to write the rest of the scene at the same level is HARD. If the opening is taut and hooky, then inevitably, as some point, the tension has to ease up and that can feel like sagging. Any thoughts?
Mia: I don’t think this scene is in danger of sagging till the child is out of the tree. You’ve done a good job of creating multiple threats to her and, spoiled or not, we don’t want to see her hurt.
“Pique,”—he secured his weight by wrapping one leg around a thick branch—“is the same thing as a snit, a pout, a ladylike version of a tantrum. Now come here and we will get you out of this tree before your mama can devise a truly appalling punishment.”
Mia: Very nice. I like the byplay surrounding pique. Douglas is a very worthy hero. He’s fully aware of the dangers and yet he acts anyway to help strangers. We like him a lot!
Thank you, Mia! You read with a great microscope, and I’m looking forward to more insights and suggestions from the RPT roving band of critics-at-large.
Mia: You all heard her. Now it’s YOUR turn. What pops out at you in this opener?