Thursday, April 1, 2010

Red Pencil Thursday with Gillian Layne

Since I started Red Pencil Thursday, we've had writers at all points along the publishing spectrum--Saranna DeWylde (under contract/debut novel HOW TO LOSE A DEMON IN 10 DAYS due out in November), Jane Lange (aspiring writer) and today, we have Gillian Layne.

Gillian's entry TO SEDUCE A PROPER ROGUE is a Golden Heart Finalist this year. In case you're not familiar with that writing contest, let me just share that it is THE most prestigious contest for unpublished writers. By the time the GH winners are announced at RWA Nationals this summer, lots of the finalists have their first contract in hand. These are writers who are inches from publication.

So as you can imagine, I looked forward to giving the red pencil treatment to the talented Ms. Layne. As always, my observations are simply my opinions. She should impliment or ignore them as she chooses. Critiqueing is absolutely subjective. With any critique, authors must remember whose story it is. If you change to please every critique point, you won't recognize your story in short order. If you decide a comment has merit, act on it. If you disagree, that's ok. Only YOU can tell your story.

This excerpt is not from Gillian's Golden Heart entry. This is the 2nd in her Bluestocking Seduction Society trilogy. My comments are in red, Gillian's responses italicized in purple.

TO TEMPT A WICKED KISS Good title. However, as Gillian properly says, it's a working title. When a manuscript is acquired, the publishing house decides what the final title will be. Sometimes the author is consulted. Sometimes not.

Chapter One

Sisters with morals were a dreadful nuisance.

Brilliant hook! You used a reversal to pique our interest. Morals are generally a good thing. Because you indicate otherwise here, we're spurred into reading on to find out why. I’m so glad. Although I didn’t realize it until I’d written half the book, morals are a major theme in this story.

“I’m dead. Tell him I’m dead, Maddie. If I’m dead, surely he’ll find someone else to poke and prod and torture this fine Tuesday afternoon.” Matching deed to words, Rebecca Stayton collapsed among the feather pillows littering her bed.

Fresh use of 'littering'. You don't normally associate litter with feather pillows. Finding a unique, but fitting, use for a word makes an editor's "acquiring antenna" perk. And delights readers.

“What a treat you would be for the practitioners at the Royal College of Surgeons. Instead of a lifeless corpse, they find you stretched upon the cold slab, no doubt lecturing on inappropriate medical treatment.” Madeline rescued a mewing kitten from the depths of a discarded afghan upon the floor and settled him into a bedside basket with his littermates. “Now be a good patient and smile for the doctor. Life, although a trial at times, is preferable to the alternative.”

The homely details of kittens and afghans are nice touches and sets the scene with a deft hand. With only a few words, you invite the reader to fill in the blanks to create a mental image of the room the sisters are in. Reader involvement keeps pages turning and invests them in the story.

“Not with the choice of suitors Uncle brings home.” Rebecca propped up on her elbows, blowing an errant curl out of her face. “I am, in truth, the very picture of health. It’s criminal, your obsession with my simple cold, while countless others languish, deprived of desperately needed medical attention.”

This reminds me of a comment Avon author Katharine Ashe left on one of the earlier Red Pencil posts about dropping in little nuggets of description of your character instead of a dump. We know Rebecca's hair is long enough to get in her way, but we don't need to know what color it is. We're far more interested in what she says and does.

“I’ll concede your lungs are unharmed.” Madeline pointed an imperial fingertip toward the headboard.

I really like the way you use action instead of dialogue tags to remind me who's speaking, but this action puzzled me. If she wants her in bed instead of on it, perhaps lifting the covers for her would be more clear. Plus when we point, it's generally with our finger. It's a built-in redundancy, like saying someone blinked their eyes. Well, what else would they blink? Ha! That’s just me being in love with the term ‘imperial fingertip’, which is silly. I could as easily have her snap the sheets back. The last thing I want is a confused reader. Amen. Confused readers turn books into wall-bangers!

Rebecca squelched the urge to stick out her tongue and instead crawled back under the covers, grimacing as her sister tucked yet another blanket about her.“Why don’t you ever turn ill?”

This is the first clear indication whose POV (Point of View) we're in. I'd like it to come sooner. As a reader, I'm wondering who's story this is going to be. Establishing POV early lets me know. I suspected it's Rebecca at first, but the fact that she "squelched" something is the first time you've pulled me in close enough to be sure. This is so important, and I address how I might clarify POV at the end of the critique.

“I eat what is necessary and no more, wear my gloves at all times, and rest when the doctor says I ought.”

This tells us volumes about Madeline. She is a "pattern" sort of girl. We value individuality today, but in Victorian times, calling a girl 'pattern' was a compliment. She was always correct, moderate and obedient. I love learning historical terms. That is new to me. I gleaned it from Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders. Excellent reference material.

“Let’s not forget the benefits of my herbal remedies,” she added, ignoring Madeline’s censorious tone. “No one who remembers to drink my special tea falls ill. If I hadn’t given my last batch to that family at the Stafford coach stop, I’d have never developed this fever.” A smart rap upon the bedroom door pulled Madeline’s attentions away long enough for Rebecca to tuck her last bag of treasured lemon drops under a pillow.

You have mastered the art of subtext. The fact that she hides the drops shows us what Madeline thinks of Rebecca's views on natural remedies without having you tell us.

“You may enter.”

The physician who strode through the doors, however, pausing only long enough to drape his long coat across the camelback sofa and nod respectfully to Madeline—of course, he was respectful to Madeline, whose graceful stance never faltered—was not the elderly Scotsman who had visited Rebecca’s bedside each day for the past week. This gentleman’s frank stare or brisk conduct could never be confused with the rambling manner of their jovial family doctor.

Here the little 'of course, he was respectful to Madeline ...' is another peek into Rebecca's head, grounding us further in her POV. Because I suspect I'll like her enormously, I'd enjoy seeing this sort of thing a little earlier and more often.

Physicians ought not visit their patients looking quite so robust and well kept and—and virile. Such observations would be rather lowering, if the disheveled patient gave a fig about the immaculate physician’s opinion. Thankfully, she suffered from no such inclinations.

I'm 99. 9% sure the she I highlighted is Rebecca, but I'd like to see you use her name here. When you have a scene where there is more than one of a gender, you don't want any confusion. You’re right!

With a lovely economy of words, you've let us know we're meeting the hero. No one else would deserve 'virile.'

And again, you've made clever use of subtext. You've said what you don't mean. Rebecca protests too much. She obviously cares a great deal that this particular man is seeing her disheveled whether she realizes it yet or not. Readers enjoy being able to figure things out before the characters do.

“What are you doing here?”

Ah! Suspicion confirmed. I was sure she knew him! Your use of subtext has made me feel smart. Readers like that. A lot.

“Rebecca! Mind your tongue,” Madeline whispered before nodding in return to the gentleman. “Dr. Guilford. How kind of you to call.”

The gentleman smiled understandingly at Madeline—of course, he smiled at Madeline, whose braided hair was coiled neatly away and not tumbling down in a tangled mess—before turning a bland frown to Rebecca. “And a pleasant day to you, Miss Rebecca. Might I assume your less than cordial greeting indicates some lingering malady on your part?”

The little 'of course' aside is a nice feature I hope you continue as the story progresses. Actually, I do, and I’m glad you like it. ;-)

I'm thinking again about your opening hook and I'm wondering about the choice of the word 'morals.' Both sisters seem equally moral, but one is decidedly more conventional. Is there something coming soon that makes the word moral make more sense? Otherwise, I wonder if you want to change it to something reflecting Madeline's perceived perfection instead of morals.

You are right, and this is a another example of me so clearly picturing what’s happening in the story that I failed to paint an adequate picture for the reader. ‘Moral’ refers to the fact that Madeline won’t lie and get rid of the doctor—Rebecca has no problem with little white lies. But I should change Rebecca’s first dialogue to something that reflects that, such as “I’m dead. Tell him I’m dead, Maddie. One little lie won’t lock the gates of heaven to you.” Or I could use her thinking about perfect Madeline getting into heaven regardless of a lie to establish the initial POV you mentioned earlier. Regardless, the hook needs to make sense to work.

I like the "One little lie" solution. Wraps it up neatly and reinforces the difference between the two women. You could even add a quick "of course" aside. Of course, measured against Madeline's perfections a small fib wouldn't tilt the scales one jot. Makes sense of the hook and establishes POV. Oh, and while we're on the subject, you might change the hook to A sister with morals was a dreadful nuisance since it's only one of them whose morals are creating a dilema for the other at present.

Thanks for letting me look at your work, Gillian. You've whetted my appetite for more!

I’m grateful for your sharp eyes and spot-on advice, Emily. You’re very generous to volunteer your time for these critiques. Thank you!

Because I found so few no-no's in Gillian's work, I'd like to talk a little about voice because hers is a perfect example of a historical voice.

What do I mean by voice?

There is a cadence, a rhythm to strings of words that lends itself to certain types of stories. It all boils down to word choice and sentence structure. If you read contemporary comedy, the tone is sassy and irreverent. The sentences will be generally shorter. Punchier. For urban fantasy, authors choose words with harsher consonants in keeping with the gritty atmosphere. Historical authors tend to write longer, more complicated sentences. If you read a historical aloud, there is a balance, a symmetry to the prose.

I've heard authors despair about "finding" their voice. It's not lost. It's in you. It's how you think, how you're wired. Instead, find your sub-genre. If you can identify which type of story most closely fits your unique style, you'll save yourself tons of heartache.

Gillian Layne's bio: I have been an avid reader of romance for fifteen years, but only considered writing romance after entering the Avon Fanlit contest in the fall of 2006. After a few false starts, I have completed two Regency historical
manuscripts. I belong to RWA and the Beau Monde Regency chapter.

My blog, The Gentle Art of Conversation,
may be found at

And now it's your turn. Do you have some advice for Gillian? Have I missed something? Am I wrong about something? A critique group's strength is in numbers and diversity of opinion. If you're reading this, you're a member of the group on Red Pencil Thursdays. Make your voice heard.


Nynke said...

Thanks for sharing, Gillian! It looks like a great read already :).

I really loved the opening line, like Emily; did you come up with it early on, or did you slip it into the scene only after you realized how big a theme morals were?

I loved the 'imperial fingertip'! Although I didn't immediately understand why Madeline was pointing at the headboard. Still, that becomes clear in the very next line, and I do like the economy of Madeline's instructions. It feels like something me or my sister might do in real life :).

I also really like Rebecca's subtext thoughts - especially towards the end, when you start suspecting she really envies Madeline, deep down :). I also like the recurring 'of course' bits, but I wouldn't want to repeat them too often - I guess after about four times, it might not be quite as funny anymore. Unless the formula has been gone for a while and pops back into Rebecca's mind with some particularly poignant experience :).

EmilyBryan said...

Re: repeating a schtick like "Of course . . ."

When I studied music theory, my professor taught us the rule of three. A repetition of the same musical figure loses its effect after the 3rd time. I think the same applies to words, but Gillian has only used it twice here, so she's doing well. Since it's how Rebecca thinks, Gillian could use it 3 times per scene without it being a problem, IMO.

Nynke said...

Ah, it was only 2 times... Then yes, still well within the safe zone. You're so sharp, Emily! And this while it's so early in the morning for you!

Have a nice day!

Gillian Layne said...

Good morning! Hi Nynke--and thanks for the comments. :) The opening line came in my head after I'd written the first paragraph, and I just switched them because I like one-sentence beginnings.

I went back and looked; I use 'of course' one more time later in the scene when doctor is agreeing with sister and Becca's had enough of both of them. So I think I'm safe. I like that 'rule of three'.

I'm off to the day job but will check in this afternoon. Hope you all have a super day!

EmilyBryan said...

Sometimes, the perfect opener comes several pages in for me. Which is a good indication that I've been clearing my throat for a while and have finally reached the correct starting place for the story.

On my Write Stuff pages, I quote a number of brilliant authors. Here's one of my favorites:

"Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it."
~ Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (French writer 1873-1954)

Edie Ramer said...

Gillian, what a great beginning! I loved "imperial fingertip" too. It says a lot about Madeline, and it shows what Emily thought about her.

EmilyBryan said...

Thank for weighing in, Edie! It's so good to hear different opinions!

Sounds like 'imperial fingertip' has some fans. If decide to keep it, adding a snapping back of the sheets (I liked your word 'snap' there because it's an auditory cue--always want to appeal to all the senses!), would insure there'd be no confusion over what Madeline wants.

Kath said...

Emily, I thought you did an excellent job on Gillian's MS. And Gillian, I love your manuscript.

My personal style is a little different - I use fewer adjectives and more 'past tense' rather than 'ing' or gerund forms. But, this is Regency and I think you're aiming for historical flavor not only in the details of the text, but also in the style.

...This comment is published under a pen name. Emily knows me as Kathryn Esplin.

EmilyBryan said...

Hi Kathryn! There's a lot of that pen name stuff going around. I'm always afraid I'll have a Whoopie Goldberg moment ("I signed the wrong name!")

Good point about "ing" words. As I go back through my work, I try to change as many of those as I can. But sometimes, you just need a "was" and an "ing."

Kath said...

That is true about the 'was' and 'ing' words. I try to follow a rule of past tense, past tense and..past tense. Or, past tense, past tense, then...if I change the sentence structure...'ing.'

I just changed some 'ing' words in my WIP, and have questions about whether to change others.

EmilyBryan said...

How does it read, Kathryn? When you read it aloud, which sounds best--a was and ing or a single verb? Which conveys most clearly what you mean?

Gillian Layne said...

Edie, I'm glad you took Becca's attitude about Madeline from 'imperial'. You're pretty much right. Thank you for looking over the work. :)

Gillian Layne said...

Oh, Kate. I owe you. I read your comments, pulled up my story, and clicked the 'find' feature.

Good golly, Miss Molly. I laughed out loud. Yes, it would appear I am quite the fan of "ing".

Emily, thank you doesn't adequately cover my appreciation for what I've learned so far today. How on earth I could not realize something so basic about my style...I hope any readers who stop by take away an appreciation for how important critiques are. Another set of eyes are invaluable.

librarypat said...

Good excerpt for Red Pencil Thursday.
Having one for a critique with so much right about it is as valuable as one that needs fixing.
Great opening line. I love succinct opening lines that grab your attention and set the tone for the story.
The first thing that struck me was the difference between this and the past two excerpts. There is more than one character, good dialogue, and names & relationships are spelled out.
Well written. I look forward to seeing the book on the shelves.

EmilyBryan said...

Pat--Right you are! By starting in the middle of the action with more than just the protagonist internalizing, Gillian makes us scramble to keep up with lots going on. Much better... which may be why she's a Golden Heart Finalist.

Glynis Peters said...

A captivating story, I envy your descriptive skills, Gillian.
Thank you for sharing.

Emily your critique post is a valuable lesson. Thank you.

Gillian Layne said...

Librarypat and Glynis, thanks for the kind words. :)

Emily, I'm not exactly sure where you live, but I was hoping you weren't floating away. My heart goes out to the East coast. Those of us in the Midwest are very familiar with hostile weather.

EmilyBryan said...

I'm in the Boston area, but fortunately we're high and dry. Even though I look out on the Mystic River as I write, it's a tidal river and is controled with locks and such. We haven't seen any flooding here, but several of my NECRWA friends have not been so fortunate.

I've lived in MN, IA and MO. I know what you mean about hostile weather!

Lee McKenzie said...

Emily, this is such a brilliantway to offer a critique.

Gillian, I told you ages ago how much I love this book and I am beyond thrilled that it's a GH finalist.

I look forward to even bigger news!

EmilyBryan said...

Lee--I'm glad you're enjoying my Red Pencil Thursdays! As long as I have willing victims--ooops! I mean volunteers--this feature will continue.

I think they felt empowered when I started by using the Red Pencil on my own sad, first forever- unpublishable manuscript. The point of the online critique is to give everyone hope!

I agree with you. I can't wait to read more from Gillian!