I’ve got my steaming cup of coffee. My red pencil is sharp and I’m happy to report that we have a volunteer for Red Pencil Thursday. It’s Mary Anne Landers, one of my Facebook friends. (If you haven’t connected with me there yet, I’d love for you to. Here’s a link to my “official author page!”)
If you’re a writer, please consider offering up the first 500 words of your current WIP. I promise you and your work will be treated with respect. And if you’re a reader, we value your input. You know instinctively what makes for a great story so your insights are much appreciated.
The Weeping Dragon
Dragons cannot weep. So say the most learned scholars of the arcane arts. Yet I, Mary of Daltrey, have seen with my own eyes one such scaly, fire-breathing monster shed copious tears. Not once, but often. It is of this woeful creature that I would write.
Mia: The only trouble with this opening is that I didn’t write it! ;-) I love the way you plunge us into your world and give us an immediate conundrum—impossible dragon tears. You also set a definite tone with your POV character’s voice, formal yet a little whimsical. I’m ready to settle in for a great story.
In the castle of Leffingham, on the far side of the river Humber, dwelt two maidens: Lady Dorrit, daughter of the lord of the manor; and her cousin and best friend Lady Annis. Both were blessed with beauty, wit, and charm. But only one had a conscience. And only the other had common sense.
Mia: Hmm. You set me up for a dragon and gave me two maidens instead. I’m a little let down, a bit “bait and switched,” but I’ll keep reading.
Mary Anne: Okay, I’ll think of something. Like bridging the gap between the two concepts. Maybe I could mention that dragons are supposed to hold maidens captive so that knights can rescue them. This time, that was not quite the case.
On the banks of the Humber in the first blush of spring, the two maidens were picking flowers. Dorrit, her basket full of leaves around her, hair the soft gold of ripe wheat.
Mia: Ok, you’re losing me now. You’ve mentioned Humber twice without giving a hint of why it might be important. And the second sentence is not actually a sentence. It requires a verb.
Mary Anne: Oops. Delete one “Humber”. And either my software screwed up with the second sentence or I did. This passage is supposed to read:
Dorrit, her basket full of daffodils and primroses, sat on a rock to take a drink of water. In the clear stream she could see herself: pale oval face, eyes green as the new leaves around her, hair the soft gold of ripe wheat.
She thought, What good is my beauty? Does it lessen the pain in my heart? Or draw the only man I want?
Mia: Romance is character-driven fiction. No matter what cool things the characters might do, we won’t care if we don’t like the character. It may just be a pet peeve of mine, but someone who knows they are beautiful and ruminates about it doesn’t seem like someone I want to befriend. I take it she’s the one without common sense?
Mary Anne: You betcha! That is, she has none at the start of the story. She’d be too dumb to live if she didn’t wise up over the course of events. This might be a bit controversial, but I don’t mind protagonists who start off clueless. That allows them to screw up, suffer, and learn from the experience. This one certainly does.
If this bit doesn’t go over well, try this:
She thought, The Rose of the North Country, they call me. With looks like mine, I should be happy. I can attract any man . . . except the one I want.
Mia: It occurs to me that we have a POV problem too. You’re using a narrator–Lady Mary of Daltry. How can you be in Dorrit’s head?
Suddenly another reflection appeared beside hers. A face and form as manly as she was womanly. As handsome as she was beautiful.
Mia: You’re telling, m’dear. Show us how manly and handsome he is. Use Mary of Daltrey’s poetic voice to give us a clearer picture of him.
Mary Anne: Okay, try this:
Suddenly another reflection appeared beside hers. A form tall and robust, with a ruddy face framed by redder curls. A pair of amber eyes shone brightly. And they were looking right at her.
Mia: I’m not getting handsome from that. I’m not even getting male especially.
Dorrit gasped. Not two feet away stood William.
He said, “Pardon me for startling you, fair Dorrit.”
Mia: I understand that you’re using a purposely formal voice, but let’s put ‘he said’ after the dialogue. Or think about dropping it altogether. If it’s clear who’s speaking, you don’t need a tag.
Mary Anne: Okay, will do. I try not to use tags unless they’re necessary anyhow.
She rose and tried to compose herself, as befits a lady. But she exclaimed in anger, “You nearly made me faint! What’s the meaning of this?”
Mia: This reaction strikes me as odd. She seemed to want to see him, to conjure him somehow, even. Why is she so disproportionately angry?
Mary Anne: Okay, substitute this for the second and third sentences:
But she could not conceal her surprise. “William! What are you doing here?”
“I had to see you. Alone.”
Mia: Wait a minute. I thought the two maidens were picking flowers on the banks of the Humber. Until William appeared, I wondered why Dorrit was thinking at her reflection instead of talking to her cousin and best friend, or better yet, our POV character Mary of Daltrey.
Mary Anne: Thanks for pointing this out. In the fourth paragraph, I’ll note that Dorrit wandered off by herself. Or Annis did. Keep reading; Annis will show up.
Dorrit studied his ruddy face framed by auburn hair. “Why?”
“I will speak plainly, for a knight such as I knows nothing of refinement.” He paused. “I love you, Dorrit.”
She was too stunned to speak. William went on: “I know I presume too much, loving above my station. But how can a lonely man see you and not fall in love?”
Mia: This seems incredibly sudden and isn’t ringing true for me. I think it’s because this seems like the first conversation these two have ever had. I know the whole courtly love bit—how a knight would adore a lady from afar, but even in that case, he’d compose sonnets to her and beg for tokens of affection. Is there a way to give some sense that he’s been paying court to her before this astounding declaration?
Mary Anne: Okay, will do. I’ll indicate early on that they already know each other and that he’s been courting her. I’ll make it more explicit that he’s the one she wants. And delete the bit about how she studies his ruddy face framed by auburn hair. In the revised version, the reader will already know what he looks like.
“But what of Annis? I thought you love her. I know she loves you!”
“I did, at first. With all my heart.” He grasped her hand. “Then I met you. And realized Annis loves only herself. I kept paying court to your cousin, but only to see you.”
Dorrit wanted to reproach William for his deception. But even more, she wanted him to keep talking. To say what she had longed to hear.
Mia: At first I thought Dorrit was the one without common sense, but I see now that she’s the one without a conscience. If she cares at all for Annis (her best friend, you said), she has to be more conflicted than this. And William is coming off pretty fickle. Not a heroic trait. Remember we need to like the characters. You can make them do some bad things, but give them some angst about it, some underlying motivation that drives them besides “I love you, and I want what I want so everyone else can go suck eggs.”
Mary Anne: Indeed, Dorrit does feel terribly guilty about this. It’ll come out later. But right now all she can focus on is William and his declaration of love. She has longed for this moment, and feared it would never happen. Now it has.
Also, William has good reason for leaving Annis. Her selfishness and dishonesty drove him away. He would’ve left her even if he hadn’t fallen in love with Dorrit. There will be more on his motives and Annis’ lack of character later in the story. But I figured that in the opening scene, the most I should do is to allude to these factors briefly. Maybe I should’ve elaborated.
William said, “Forgive me. If I’ve offended you—”
“No! This is a surprise, but . . . a pleasant one.”
“William, you’ve been honest to me. I must do likewise.”
He tensed. “You’ll send me away.”
“No. I love you. I dared not tell you, until now.”
William beamed, then clasped her. They kissed deeply, ardently, as neither had been kissed before.
Mia: I’m not happy for them. I’m too upset that both of them are dismissing Annis without a second thought. But if all Annis feels is anger when she learns about this, she’ll soon lose me too. People are complicated. Relationships make it even more so. I need more layers of things going on here. If they kiss, it needs to be a guilty kiss, one fraught with the sense of being something stolen.
Mary Anne: Yes, Annis gets angry. But she also gets even! With Dorrit, that is. Though Annis is mad at William too, overriding this is her love for him. And her determination to win him back at any cost. But that’s another part of the story.
If you want me to make this first-kiss scene more than what I’ve already written, I can add this, though it would push the excerpt over the 500-word mark:
Dorrit thought, Oh my love! How I’ve longed for this moment. I feared it would never happen. Now my prayers have been answered!
But wait. Is William really mine? After loving Annis so long, so deeply, can he just let go of her? Can she let go of him?
Yes, I have what I wanted. But at what cost? I love both William and Annis. This will hurt her like nothing else can.
Oh, what have I done? How can I build my happiness on someone else’s sorrow?
Had they not been so lost in each other, they might have noticed the leaves of a nearby hazel bush had parted. Just enough for a face to peer through. A fair one, with sapphire-blue eyes, staring at the joyous couple.
The eyes of Annis.
Mia: Well, you know who’s side I’m on now. Can you give me a reason why William’s affections have transferred to Dorrit from Annis? Is Annis a crazy witch? What’s the projected length of this story? The relationship between Dorrit and William is moving at lightning speed. I’m a little worried about pacing.
I think your story has some good bones, but we need more flesh on them.
Mary Anne: Annis isn’t crazy, just narcissistic. Don’t worry, I won’t use that word in this story. And though she resorts to witchcraft later on, she has a professional show her how.
Yes, I can have William go into more detail about why he’s fallen out of love with Annis. I do so anyhow later on. But I see your point. I should do it from the get-go. And make it specific, not vague. I can allude to just what she’s done that has turned his love for her into loathing.
I can move this scene along more slowly, and will have to in order to add the material you suggested. As for the projected length, it will be a novelette or novella, not a full-length novel. Wait a sec, maybe it could be a novel. That would require still more tinkering with the opening scene, of course.
Usually I prefer a brisk pace in the stories I read, especially if they’re adventures or contain a hearty helping of adventure. So this story should move along at a nice clip. But I don’t want to outrun the reader.
One final note: Lest anyone object that “Daltrey” isn’t the name of a town—well, I found that out after I sent in the excerpt. It’s the Anglicized form of the Norman French “d’Haute Rive”, from Haute Rive (High Banks) in Normandy. I realized I’d have to find another medieval-sounding North Country place name for Mary, the narrator (and a major character, though not at the opening of the story). So now she’s Mary of Ormsby. Ain’t Google wonderful!
Thanks a lot for the feedback, Mia. That includes the negative comments. If I’m screwing up, I want to learn about it now, not after I submit the story to an editor. And I’m grateful to you for not just pointing out what’s wrong, but also offering suggestions on how to fix it.
And for everyone else: You’re welcome to add your reactions. Don’t be shy; if you don’t like something, just say so. If I can dish it out, I’d better be able to take it!
Find Mary Anne at www.facebook.com/maryannelanders.
About Mary Anne: I live in a small town in Arkansas. I love to read and write. I have three furry children—oops, I mean cats: Spartacus, Archimedes, and Farrah. I’ve been trying to think of something interesting or unusual about me; but the truth is, there isn’t anything.
Thanks for taking a ride in the RPT hotseat, Mary Anne. Now it’s YOUR turn. What suggestions, comments or encouragement do you have for her today?