It's Thursday and I'm without a volunteer for our online critique, so I'm putting myself back in the hotseat. I'll be using the opening of my free online novella (which is posted on my website) as an example of how an author continues to tweak prose till the very last moment when it's time to turn the manuscript in.
My comments on the work are in red. Please feel free to add your catches in the comment section.
A DUKE FOR ALL SEASONS
I like this title. Since Sebastian only keeps his mistresses for a single season, it fits. And it's a bit of a play on 'A Man for All Seasons.' Because it has a ring of familiarity, it resonates. In fact, I may wish I'd saved it for one of my published works later!
"A woman, like a blooded hound or a fine steed, has a finite period of usefulness. When that time has run its course, a prudent man divests himself of the asset without regret." ~ A Gentleman’s Guide to Keeping a Mistress
The point of this pithy little vignette is to give readers a peek inside the ideas rolling around my hero's head. Not very good ideas, I'll grant, but the goal is to shock and provoke readers to keep going.
His Grace, the Duke of Winterhaven settled into his private box as the house lighting dimmed and the gas footlights illuminated the Olympic’s red velvet curtain. Sebastian preferred to arrive late, usually aiming to miss most of the overture. It kept him from having to brush off those who would use a chance meeting at the opera as an excuse to curry favor.
My goal was to set the scene and introduce my hero in short order. By choosing details like private box, gas footlights, red velvet curtain, I've created a setting of priviledge and wealth at the theatre. In sharing why Sebastian preferred to arrive late, I've let readers know he's a very self-contained person, very private even in his pleasures. He relishes control.
Or ask for one.
Curry favor and ask for one is the same thing. I need to delete Or ask for one lest I be redundant and say the same thing twice. ;-)
“Rosalinde isn’t joining us?” his friend Neville Granger asked in a whisper as the orchestra began tuning up.
So Sebastian didn't arrive late as he preferred. His plans are already askew for the evening. I'm trying to telegraph that they'll be even more undone as the story unfolds. Also notice that I've dropped readers into the middle of the action with minimal explanation. If a reader wants to know who Rosalinde is, they have to keep reading.
“Her season has passed,” Sebastian said with a shrug. “We parted ways and she left with a generous pension.”
I could tighten this a bit. Instead of Sebastian said with a shrug I'll change it to Sebastian shrugged. When possible, it's good to substitute character action for dialogue tags.
Neville shook his head. “They don’t call you The Ice Duke for nothing.”
The Ice Duke encapsulates my hero's character. And yet because he has a friend like Neville, I hope readers will sense there is hope for Sebastian.
“Nonsense. Rosalinde knew exactly what to expect.” Sebastian was faithful and devoted to his mistresses, but he always dismissed them with the turn of each season and found a replacement. The rules were explained at the start. He never grew bored, and never had to end a relationship in anger or tearful recriminations. It was simply a function of the calendar, eminently logical, utterly civilized. “She has a new diamond necklace and I have my freedom, as per our agreement.”
Here's the nugget that explains the premise of the novella. Sebastian's well-ordered love life is about to be stood on its head. Do you dislike him a bit right now? That's ok. I've given him some growing room. Without character growth, we have no story.
Neville brought his quizzing glass to one eye and swept the crowd below them. “Someday, my friend, you’re going to meet a woman who can’t be bought.”
I haven't indicated a year or location for this story. Quizzing glass helps cement the historical feel. It's a specific detail that yields a solid reader impression. I'm not hinting any longer. In Neville's prediction, I've said outright that Sebastian is about to meet his match.
“On that day, I’ll give you a bottle of that expensive port you favor,” Sebastian said. “Provided you stop grumbling at me about it now. This is how I’ve ordered my life. Four times a year, I enjoy a brief chase and then give myself three months to enjoy my prize. Don’t spoil this part of the process for me by scolding like a fishwife.”
I'm tossing in a little more background information, but hopefully, because its set up as a minor squabble between friends, readers don't feel I'm using dialogue for exposition. There should always be "micro-tension" in fictional dialogue, meaning characters have a goal for the conversation which are at cross purposes with each other.
“Make it a case of port and we have a deal.”
The wager serves the same purpose as a ticking time bomb. It's a promise that something is going to happen. Hopefully readers will watch to see if I deliver on the promise and make him pay up. (I do. Check chapter 7.)
“Done.” Sebastian leaned back in his tufted seat, sure he’d never be called upon to make good that wager. (That's what he thinks!) “Now, tell me about this soprano you think I’d like.”
“Arabella St. George. Shh! Here she comes.”
Neville leaned forward so far, Sebastian feared he might tumble out of the box. Then his gaze flicked to the stage and he realized why.
A good way to make a character important is to show how others are affected by them. Because of Neville's reaction, Sebastian is set up to be "wowed" by her.
Normally Sebastian favored petite brunettes, but the footlights shot this woman’s long pale hair with strawberry highlights. Tall and willowy, with sharp, even features and luminous dark eyes, Arabella St. George possessed a fierce beauty.
She's not his type, but he's drawn to her nevertheless. By calling her a fierce beauty, I'm trying to prepare readers for an unconventional heroine. She's no blushing debutant, nervous over her come-out.
Sebastian didn’t consider himself the sort given to flights of fancy, but his imagination soared at the sight of her. She might be a changeling princess, offspring of the hollow hills. Or a pagan priestess demanding sacrifice. Or one of the three queens who bore King Arthur’s body to Avalon.
I could tighten here by taking out didn't consider himself and substituting wasn't. But if I want to convey that Sebastian has an inaccurate self-image, I should leave it as is.
Because I've set Sebastian up as a logical, controlling personality, this internal imagery is even stronger than it might have been otherwise. Sebastian may try to hide it with his rigidity and rules, but he has the soul of a poet.
Lord knows, he’d let her take his body anywhere she pleased.
I'm always looking for ways to flip words to make them show almost diametrical opposite meanings. I did it here with the comparison of Arthur's dead body with Sebastian's very much alive one. We want a hero with a healthy libido. Even in Sebastian's tightly controlled world, I wanted to hint that there will be a time when he's out of control.
So that's the first 500 words of A DUKE FOR ALL SEASONS. I welcome your suggestions. Did I miss a chance to make the prose work harder? If you haven't read my free novella, I invite you to do so. After you finish chapter 7, be sure to leave a suggestion for how you think the plot should advance through my Contest page. You'll be entered in the drawing to win a signed copy of STROKE OF GENIUS.
Also, if you'd like to see your first 500 words here in the coming weeks, please contact me through my website and I'll send you the details on how you can be on Red Pencil Thursday.
And as always, I appreciate it when you click on the little icon below to share this post with a friend via email, Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, or Google Buzz!