Jane is an aspiring writer and I met her for the first time at RT when she came early for Bobbi Smith's Aspiring Writer BootCamp. Jane actually sent me two versions of her excerpt this week. The first was one she'd worked on with a writing coach whom she'd paid to go over her manuscript. The result was disjointed and flat. The coach had edited out her voice. This second version (which was her original) has a better flow. I share this with you as a cautionary tale. Not all manuscript doctors are worth your dollars. If you consider using one, make sure you get references and call them. Ask if the changes the coach made resulted in a sale or a contest win before you plunk down your cash.
As always when I do a critique, I'm only offering my opinion. It may only be worth what you're paying for it, Jane! (Which is nothing, in case the rest of you are wondering!)
The following excerpt is from her historical manuscript Love's Soft Surrender. My comments are in red. Jane's responses are italicized in purple.
Love's Soft Surrender Be sure to add the apostrophe to Love's. Otherwise, it seems as if there are multiple loves in the manuscript--which would be a different sort of story altogether.
West Virginia I'm sure you know this already, but the historical market is skewed toward Regency England. I've even heard acquiring editors say that first time authors should set their story in the Regency if they want to increase their chances of selling. That said, write the story that moves you, wherever and whenever it takes place. Writing to the market can backfire if you don't have any passion for the setting. This is so true. A writer must write what inspires them and for me, my heart is in America.
Brianna lifted her trembling hand and reached out with bloodstained fingers. The blood of her parents before she buried them. She traced the profile of her face in the dusty mirror. The soft peach kissed glow of her skin (was) gone. She moistened her dry, cracked, lips with the tip of her tongue. The shadowy circles under her once sparkling green eyes reflected the torment of the last few days. Something inside her snapped after witnessing the death and destruction the Yankee Soldiers rained down on her family’s home. When would this nightmare end?
* You're ahead of me already. You named your protagonist right away, when I let mine wander around without one two weeks ago. But I want to talk about names for a minute. Choice of name helps ground your reader in another time. Brianna wasn't a popular female name in 1864. Though it may have Celtic roots as the feminine of Brian, in fact, it surfaced in the 1970s and is in the top 20 female baby names now. Visit http://www.galbithink.org/names/us200.htm for a listing of common US names based on the census from 1800-1999.
* I wasn't expecting bloodstained fingers. Good hook.
* Dead parents. Another good hook and a hotbutton emotional issue that will grab readers.
* Having your heroine stand in front of a mirror so you can slip in a description of her is an over-used device. I'm more interested in what's going on with her emotionally than physically at this point. But just to illustrate a principle of writing I highlighted a few of your excess adjectives in green. They aren't as heinous as adverbs, but try to avoid overusing them. Go for specific nouns and descriptive verbs and you'll be ahead of the curve.
* The word 'was' was missing so I added it. Try reading your work aloud. I miss small words all the time and tend to hear they're missing quicker than I see something's wrong.
* Soldiers shouldn't be capitalized.
* If she witnessed the carnage, how did she escape it? You don't say in this excerpt.
She glanced down at the shears on the edge of the basin. Grabbing them in her fist, she held them to her heart. The cold metal points grazed her skin. The crimson of her own blood trickled down her ivory skin. The will to end this torment inside consumed her. If only she possessed the ability to carve away the pain and bitterness plaguing her, like some horrible insect, burrowing its way deep into her soul.
* You don't need 'own' before 'blood' here.
* We're in her POV. Would she think of her skin as ivory right now?
* Is she thinking about suicide? It's not clear. The Prime Directive of Writing is Be Clear. Don't make your reader have to guess what's happening because the prose isn't specific enough.
* I really hate bugs. This image of the burrowing insect makes me squirm . . . and not in a good way! I think I'd cut this sentence. I knew you would say that. Lol!
She slammed her fist against the mirror. “Damn the Yankees!” she cried out.
* Yay! We have some dialogue, but she's talking to herself!
They stripped her of everyone and everything that was dear to her. One of the few things left were her memories. She would never allow those memories to be taken from her. The intense hatred she felt consumed her, igniting a passion for revenge against them.
* This whole paragraph is wandering over ground we've already covered. I'd cut it all except the bit about revenge. I'd like to do a little "less is more" exercise. Here's your sentence:
The intense hatred she felt consumed her, igniting a passion for revenge against them.
Hatred consumed her, igniting a passion for revenge.
These are still your words. There are just less of them. Cutting extraneous words strengthens what you're trying to say. Yes, it reads much smoother.
* A revenge plot is a strong one. Think Moby Dick and The Count of Monte Cristo. Just be careful your heroine doesn't sound unhinged. We want our heroine to be smart. Because I read your previous incarnation of this story, I know she intends to go to war disguised as a man. We need a hint of that here so her next actions are motivated. It's not such a crazy idea actually. There have been so many women sneaking into male regiments over the years, the Beaumonde RWA Chapter is sponsoring an online class about Women in War starting later this month. You've got a historically valid premise here! But she can't wreak revenge on the whole Union army. Have her settle on something or someone more specific. We have her shouted curse. Then we need action, not rumination and fortunately, you provide some in the next paragraph.
After a moment’s hesitation, she lifted the shears to her head, grabbing a chunk of her long, brown hair in her free hand. Savagely, she clipped away the curls, throwing them on the floor. She reached around and held the shears high, snipping away the remainder of the silky locks. Her beautiful curls, tossed away and soon to be forgotten, like the lives of those she loved.
* You did much better than me in the -ly word department, but you're addicted to adjectives. Yes, her hair may be long, brown, silky and beautiful, but she's not thinking about it like that now. It's just something to get rid of lest it keep her from her goal. Write like your character thinks.
The sound of footsteps pounding on the stairs startled her. She heard a gasp and swung to face the door.
“Good Lord Miss Brianna! What have you done to yo hair chile?”
* If you're doing an accent, editors want it accomplished using syntax (word order) not unusual spellings. Is this speaker a slave? One of the reasons the market shies away from Civil War romances is that this was such a painful time in our nation's history. My friend Eboni Snoe, the African-American author who got me started writing, says there is nothing romantic about that part of history from her perspective. Can't say I blame her.
When I chose this time period, I interviewed and researched several African-American people from the south. The pain and suffering of their ancestors truly is heartbreaking. I do not condone or glamorize any human beings suffering. This was truly a humbling experience for me during my research.
A very emotional premise, vivid imagery and your character's motivation is very strong. Thanks for letting me critique your work, Jane. I'm mindful of the honor. When someone trusts you with their writing, they are trusting you with their heart. But we're also doing this public scrubbing for the edification of all my readers, so if you don't mind, I'll pull out the loofa and go to work on a few things.
First of all, I'm seeing a pattern here. The opening of my excerpt two weeks ago had a lone character. Last week, Saranna DeWylde's hero was dialoguing internally. And now your heroine is all by herself, talking to the mirror. We all need to give our H/h someone to talk to. Bring in the speaker at the end of the excerpt much sooner. Dialogue will make the scene read faster and you avoid the sense of an info dump.
Did your heroine consider suicide for a moment in this scene? If so, be careful. Your readers want to walk a mile in your heroine's shoes. Make sure they don't pinch so much at first, readers will yank them off and hurl them across the room. Later in a story, when we're invested in the character, we'll be willing to entertain darker thoughts. In the beginning you need your readers on your heroine's side.
You've done a terrific job motivating your heroine's extreme actions. I'd like to see her goals be a little better focused. Is there a Yankee unit or better yet, a Yankee officer whom she blames above all others? Make the goal as personal as her motivation. You're setting up the conflict here and the bones of your story are strong. It'll be interesting to see how you flesh it out. Make the conflict mean something down the road by making it personal.
Thanks so much for sharing with us, Jane! Please let us know when you sell.
I would like to thank Emily for the opportunity to experience a detailed critique. It is important that aspiring writers understand these are learning tools and should be used as such. You can take what you feel is valuable and leave the rest on the table. Finding a good critique group or partner will help you see these types of simple mistakes. Thanks again Emily! Now I can focus on my edits!
Author Bio: Jane Lange is an aspiring author focusing on writing historicals that are set in America. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading, collecting antiques or traveling with her real life hero, her husband Bryan.
And as a saavy pre-published writer, she's got a terrific website up already. Please visit http://www.janelange.com/ for more info!
And now it's YOUR turn. Did I get something wrong? Do you have any suggestions for Jane?