Thursday, April 8, 2010

Red Pencil Thursday

If it's Thursday, I'm sharpening my red pencil! Please welcome Donna Labbe, our guest author, to our online critique group. Donna's a pre-published author and a member of my local RWA chapter. She says she has a thick skin (which is a must if a writer doesn't want her stay in Writerland to be painful and brief!) but the goal here isn't to inflict pain. The point of Red Pencil Thursdays is to help us all learn better practices and share writing tips. If you're reading this, consider yourself an official member of the Red Pencil Club and entitled to share your thoughtful opinion.

And Donna is entitled to ignore all of us!

Writers retain ultimate control of their own work. Critique comments are only suggestions. But none of us come down the mountain with our words carved in stone. I revise constantly and only the deadline to turn in the manuscript makes me stop! There are a million different ways to tell a story. Our job as writers is to find the best one.

This excerpt is from Donna's thriller INNOCENCE LOST. My comments are in red and Donna's responses are italicized in purple.

Chapter One

The elevator doors opened facing the sign for Children’s Psychiatry. Seth Bellingham froze. Places like this never changed. Dreary, gray waiting areas were filled with old, broken toys and troubled people. He felt like he was fifteen again, and angry with his mother for forcing him to come. Talking to someone wouldn’t help. No one understood how he felt and no one ever would. They kept asking him, how it made him feel. Why? They didn’t care.

You've got an evocative image here. Let's see if we can sharpen it up by adding some fresh sensory details and removing excess material. An auditory cue pulls us into closer POV. What does an elevator door sound like? Can we say 'The elevator doors whirred open facing a CHILDREN'S PSYCHIATRY sign.' I love that your hero freezes. Great way to telegraph a history. The "Dreary gray" sentence is a little generic. Can you give us a smell that will jerk your hero back into his 15 year old self?
Good catch, will work on this over breakfast with a friend, who knows this floor.
Scent is the sense tied to memory. I remember my tough guy dad blinking away tears after he opened a cabinet in my great grandparent's abandoned cabin and the smell of cinnamon flooded the room. He was suddenly a little boy waiting for the cookies to come out of his grandma's oven again.

Be careful using the word 'felt.' It is by definition telling instead of showing. Say "He was fifteen again ..." and we'll follow you.
Thanks, Emily. This was added recently by the gentle nudging of a CP. My inner self really didn’t want it. Jumping up and down saying Yeah, my instincts were right.
It's hard to overestimate the value of a critique partner, but ultimately, the decisions about your work are YOURS! That said, if you get the same comment from multiple sources, think about it long and hard before you ignore it.

The tap on his arm brought Bellingham back to the present. He saw his new partner and childhood friend, a tall, wiry, red head named, Jake O’Brien, eyeing him with caution before he asked, “Are you okay? Did they get the results back on your father’s tests, yet?”

Since we're in Bellingham's POV, be careful to only include details he would notice. Jake may be tall, wiry and red headed, but a guy isn't likely to think this way about another guy. We don't need to know those things about Jake yet. I'm more intrigued by the fact that he eyes the hero with caution.

Once again a point of discussion in critique group as to how much info to give. I prefer to hold back, others want more. Please, help me decide. I’m okay going with his new partner, but he is a strong secondary, how long do I wait to describe him? My gut says to give your reader only what they need to continue. Witholding info is one of the ways authors hook readers into reading on. Salting the character description in over the course of the first scene is the best way to go. He could fold his tall wiry frame into a crouch to pick up a scrap of paper under the desk, for example. He might shove his red hair out of his eyes or under a ball cap. However you do it, remember you're in your hero's POV. What will he notice about his friend, whom he's known a long time? That's all you should include here.

And I'm really glad you've dropped in a good hook about his father. Obviously, there's plenty going on in our hero's life even before he steps into the special world of your story.
Glad you liked this, made me smile.
One of the keys to creating characters that breathe on their own is the sense that they have a history, even if we don't know all of it.

Bellingham shoved the elevator door that bumped him for the second time, and stepped out. “I don’t know what the results are. The old man threw me out after I dropped my mother off.” He changed the subject of his father with years of practice and asked, “What do we have?”

Another good hook. Not only does his father have a health issue, father and son are pretty estranged. You've laid the groundwork for a solid subplot that makes our hero more interesting and conflicted.

Jake gave him the rundown. “The hospital security was here first, followed by a couple of uniforms. They secured the scene and waited for us. I got here a few minutes ago.”

You've told us then shown us. You don't need to tell us Jake gave him the rundown. Maybe you could have him flip open a small notepad if you need an action tag to make sure we know who's talking.
I like your suggestion, because I hate the line and tried to change it many times. Oh, and I plead guilty to lack of tags. The characters are so loud in my head, I seem to think everyone can hear them.
It's ok to go tagless. I prefer using action or better yet, unique speech patterns to indicate who's talking. Just don't tell us he did something, then show him doing it.

Bellingham followed Jake down the hall, past all the doors that normally would’ve been closed, hiding the private sessions of pain and trauma. Today the doors were open, filled with faces of doctors and patients curious about someone else’s misery. The last time he’d seen a place like this, he was a scared, lanky fifteen-year-old with dark shaggy hair, and a gut full of pain and guilt. His years in the military and on the police force created his muscular six-two frame, and taught him how to make use of his dark features and impenetrable aura to put fear in other people.

Another good peek into Seth's past, but remember we're in his POV. He isn't thinking about his muscular 6'2" frame, dark features or impenetrable aura. Those thing are better described by an interested member of the opposite sex.
Yeah, he’s not vain enough to think this way. My main goal was to compare his weakness to his strength in size, body power and emotional strength. Maybe, it’s the wrong spot and person doing the description. I think if I change it to this it may work better:

The last time he’d seen a place like this, he was a scared fifteen year- old, with a gut full of pain and guilt. His years in the military and on the police force rid him of the fear, but the pain and guilt still lingered and grew stronger the longer he was forced to stay in Maine.

Hooray for heroes who aren't vain! Yes, I like this change! Plus it makes me wonder what's forcing him to stay in Maine. Raising another question in a readers mind is an invitation for them to keep reading.

When Jake and Bellingham reached the door, blocked by crime scene tape, they ducked under the strips of yellow and black plastic to enter the office. Bellingham had become desensitized to dead bodies and gruesome scenes, unless it involved a child. He could ignore the stench, blood and decay, but the woman in sitting in her office chair before him stopped him cold. He rubbed his hand down the back of his neck to warm it.

Let's try a tightening exercise. Here's your sentence:
When Jake and Bellingham reached the door, blocked by crime scene tape, they ducked under the strips of yellow and black plastic to enter the office.
How about . . .
Jake and Bellingham ducked under the crime scene tape to enter the office.
Still your words, just less of them. I think it reads cleaner. Sometimes less really is more.
Yes, I like it. Less is more and good things come in little packages – hey, I’m little.
This is the kind of thing I try to do with my entire manuscript. Going sentence by sentence, ask yourself if you can say the same thing with fewer, crisper words.

If her door had been open, most people would have passed by not realizing anything was wrong. The beginning odor of death coming from the body fluid seepage was becoming noticeable, but her hair, make-up and dress masked the dead eyes and graying pallor visible upon closer inspection. The sick bastard who had killed her then brought her back to her desk had set her up for her day at work complete with her morning coffee and a bottle of water.

According to HOUSE (one of my guilty pleasures), when someone dies, all their sphincters relax. If you're going for the odor of feces, say so. It's pungent and shocking and a perfect sensory detail for this type of story. This one I’m leaving and for a good reason. My daughter gave a great workshop at the NEC conference with Jessica Andersen. They debunked T.V. “facts”. Yes, the sphincter relaxes, but it isn’t the only body fluid you lose. She explained the whole gory thing to me and said if it holds fluids, it lets go and from every orifice. Yeah, probably T.M.I. Ok! If you've learned to stand your ground when you feel you're right, our time has been well spent. An author has to choose what details she includes. But I wonder if we can personalize this detail more? How about The odor of death, the seepage of bodily fluids, assaulted Bellingham's nostrils. ? This pulls us into closer POV and makes the details matter more because our hero is experiencing them.

The last sentence is a little awkward. Let's slash a few extra words (mostly 'had's) and maybe break it into two sentences. How about . . .
Some sick bastard killed her, then brought her back to her desk. He set her up for her day at work complete with her morning coffee and a bottle of water.
I am taking the changes to this last sentence, it reads way better. Subtle changes, but great.
You'd have caught it yourself if you'd read it aloud. I find lots of my awkward sentences that way!

You've set up a compelling crime scene and a complicated hero. Thanks for letting me take a peek at your work, Donna!
Emily, this was a wonderful experience and not the least bit painful. What you suggested has made the beginning stronger and also reassured me in certain areas. You are offering a valuable service. Keep it going. Thank you.

My pleasure, Donna. As long as I have willing victims--oops! I mean 'volunteers'--I'll continue Red Pencil Thursday. If you'd like to have an online critique, please contact me through my website.

Donna's Bio:

Donna Labbe loves reading hot romance and psychological thrillers, but wants it all in one book, kind of like chocolate and peanut butter. She's been writing sensual psychological thrillers for six years and finds it is a very therapeutic outlet for stress. While waiting for the call, she continues to create twisted villains. She's a PRO member of RWA, the New England, Maine, and KOD chapters.
Visit her website:

Ok, now it's time for all you Red Pencilers to get a crack at this post. Have I missed something? Did I get something wrong? Please leave your comments and suggestions!


Gillian Layne said...

Good morning, Donna. I'm a total coward, so I was in dread waiting to see who the dead body was. I was relieved it wasn't a child, since you're in the children's psychiatry ward.

I agree with the comments about what men notice when it comes to describing each other. Most men just don't notice much. I think that's a real challenge when of course you want your reader to "see" them. Maybe you could have him notice a change, or if you want your hero described, have the other guy mention it. Something like a "hey, you loser, I see the Captain made you finally cut your hair." Or they shaved because the big undercover case is over. (I know nothing about police so I'm sure you'd have a million better examples.)

"Bellingham followed Jake down the hall, past all the doors that normally would’ve been closed, hiding the private sessions of pain and trauma. Today the doors were open, filled with faces of doctors and patients curious about someone else’s misery." This was to me the most powerful phrase in the story--it just totally sets the scene and mood for where he is. I had chills thinking of those miserable people peeking out of their rooms, distracted by yet more sadness. Great Job!

EmilyBryan said...

Good morning, Gillian! Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

About "guy-speak": My DH reads my work and often will redflag something as non-guy-like. Women check each other out from head to toe (sometimes I think we dress to impress each other instead of the men!) but guys don't notice much about each other beyond deciding "Yeah, I could take him."

Men are so delightfully uncomplicated that way.

Unknown said...

Hmm, This really helped me with my current wip, because I have started the same way, with the hero thinking about his past just before he meets the heroine, but now I am going to cut all of that and start where he hits the brakes (figuratively speaking since he is driving a carriage).
I would humbly suggest cutting everything in this opening scene and starting where he ducks under the tape. To show his military background I would have him issue crisp orders, stand in an at-ease stance for a moment, - something. The psychological memories I would save for later when it drives the story and adds tension. Even use it to surprise the reader, when she is sure he is a held together guy. He is going to be hot stuff at his job and repressing everything else. Men tend to think in linear fashion, in my experience, even when it is only putting the garbage out, and they focus very hard on their jobs (IMHO).
However, as you said Emily, it really is the author's choice.

Hot Ash Romance Novels said...

What a treat! I get to sample another friend's story and watch my critique partner tell her the same things she tells me! LOL.

Sounds like the beginnings of an awesome story, Donna. I used to work in a kid's psych ward. I can imagine that's just how my ex-patients would feel coming back after several years.

Isn't Emily awesome??? I'm a lucky, lucky author.


EmilyBryan said...

Ann, I'm glad you found this helpful. I think it's ok for your hero to have a fleeting thought of his past and shove it aside as Donna's does here.

Men do a better job of compartmentalizing things. If women have a problem in one area of their lives, it bleeds over into all the others. Men, on the other hand, can tuck it away to be dealt with later.

The science behind this, I've been told, is that men have fewer connections than women between the hemispheres of their brains. It's harder for one side to communicate with the other. Which makes them better at shoving things aside. And makes it harder for them to connect some dots.

When I told my DH about this, he said, "What are you saying? That men are somehow brain damaged?"

Well . . .

EmilyBryan said...

Ash--I'm the lucky one. You help me in so many ways.

Edie Ramer said...

Donna, a great first page. Emily, I can't think of anything I'd like to add. I'm enjoying your Red Pencil Thursdays.

Nina Pierce said...

I've seen the transformation of this story. I like where it's beginning now. Excellent suggestions Gillian. Some very minor changes make a huge difference.

Good luck with the rest of the story, Donna!

Maria said...

I think that the revisions that Emily suggested were all good and that the points about men describing men were valid. Also as a reader there is a pet peave of mine and that has to with verb usage being consistent to the situation. I'm thinking that this part "The last time he’d seen a place like this, he was a scared fifteen year- old, with a gut full of pain and guilt. His years in the military and on the police force rid him of the fear, but the pain and guilt still lingered and grew stronger the longer he was forced to stay in Maine.". Should really be "The last time he'd seen a place like this, he had been a scared fifteen year old, with a gut full of pain and guilt. His years in the military and the police force had ridden him of the fear but the pain and guilt still lingered and grew stronger the longer he stayed in Maine". Just a suggestion for better word flow and verb usage.

EmilyBryan said...

Edie! Thanks for dropping by. Any chance an American Title contender would like to step up for the Red Pencil treatment?

If not, that's ok. I just had one volunteer compare it to stepping in front of a bus.

And she volunteered anyway.

EmilyBryan said...

Marie--Oh, goodie! A grammarian! I was hoping to flush one out for RPT! When I lived in Seattle, one of the members of the critique group there was our Jiminy Cricket of the gramatical wicket. She kept us all straight. Thank you for commenting!

And you're absolutely right, Marie. If the main body of the story is in past tense, we need to use past tense perfect (is that what it's called?) to show something actually took place in the past.

However, just FYI, sometimes editors will take out the extra had's and bring everything into just past tense in order to make the action seem more immediate. Even though it can result in confusion.

Jane L said...

Hello Donna! Thanks for sharing your story with us and letting emily use it to help us aspiring authors! Like the other ladies it is a brave thing to do! LOL! I agree with Gillian, I was thinking, no it isnt a child?? Great job!

EmilyBryan said...

Hi Jane! Good to have another brave lady drop by! I think we should have a Red Pencil Thursday Alumni Club.

If Donna had had a child as the murder victim, we'd have had a rodeo over it. "Child-in-jeopardy" stories are always dicey, but doable if the child is rescued. Telling a story of dead children is beyond my scope, as a writer or a reader.

Donna said...

Hi Everyone and thank you so much for your wonderful comments. To make everyone feel better there will be no children in danger only children's mental health workers.

I think a Red Pencil Thursday Alumi club would be great and I highly recommend this process to anyone out there on the fence.

I hope some day you will all be able to read the finished book in print.


EmilyBryan said...

Thanks for letting us give you a public scrubbing, Donna. I think you have the bones of a good story here. I like how complicated your hero seems to be.

librarypat said...

One comment on Maria's revision . To keep the form, it should read "His years in the military and the police force had rid him of the fear..." ridden is the past participle of a different verb (ride).

I am really enjoying these critiques. It is an excellent way to learn the craft. Too bad this didn't happen sooner (like 20 years ago). I would have had time to try my hand at writing and getting published.

Hope you find another willing participant for next week.

librarypat said...

I still don't like that sentence. The had just doesn't feel right. I think I'd leave it as just plain rid.
Great critic partner I'd make. Too wishy-washy.

EmilyBryan said...

Pat--It is NEVER too late to start writing and be published! MM Kaye, one of my favorite authors of all times, didn't become an international bestseller with THE FAR PAVILIONS till she was 70! NYTimes Bestseller Connie Mason didn't start writing until she was a grandmother of 50 (Be sure to look for her new book LORD OF DEVIL ISLE starting April 27th!)

If you want to write, now's the time.

Glynis Peters said...

Donna, thank you so much for undergoing the red pencil. I enjoyed reading your work. It sounds a great read. I have taken the liberty of adding a link, it is one I came across a few months ago. You might find it valuable, regarding body fluids.

Emily, thanks again for a valuable lesson. You critique so gently, I am gaining courage and might,I said might submit to you, if you'll have me. *Knocking knees* :)

EmilyBryan said...

Glynis--thanks for the helpful link.

I'm glad to know you find my critiques gentle. I certainly don't want to be known as the Simon Cowell of Romance. The point isn't to discourage anyone. It's to help us all. Each time I do a critique, I see some of the same errors in my own WIP and what we know about, we can fix.