Thursday, May 20, 2010

Red Pencil Thursday with LJ Cohen

Welcome to another Red Pencil Thursday, our online critique group. If you're here, you're invited to participate. I'm in Bermuda right now running away with my DH to celebrate our anniversary, but LJ Cohen, our guest author, would appreciate your comments and suggestions.

As always, a critique is only one person's opinion. Mine are expressed in red. LJ's are italicized in purple. So without further ado, let's dive into LJ Cohen's epic fantasy, WINGS OF WINTER.

First off, I love the title. Wings of Winter implies a journey and an edge of danger. (Anyone who thinks winter can't be dangerous needs to spend one in Minneapolis!)
Thanks! I’ve spent enough brutal winters in upstate NY and New England, myself.

The stag crashed through the tangled undergrowth, its sides heaving. In the shadows, a darker shadow spread across the graceful arch of its neck. Fat raindrops of blood dripped onto the shiny surfaces of outstretched leaves. Elias listened to the tortured sigh of the animal's last breath. In the distance, the hunters' voices rose, their argument carrying clearly in the still twilight air.

Good beginning. You've dropped us directly into the action and made us scramble to keep up. I'd suggest you not use shadows and shadow in the same sentence. I know what you're trying to say, but it stopped me for a second. The fat raindrops are evocative, but a little confusing. If you say 'Fat raindrops of blood dripped from the beast's throat onto the . . . " then I know exactly what's happening. Elias seems to be floating here. Ground him for us. Where precisely is he?

That whole floating character thing is an issue I struggle with in every story. I’ll need to buy some extra gravity. :)

"We cannot follow, Milord."

"The stag is mine!"

"It will die beyond the border, Lord Kaleb. Let it go."

"I’ll have the beast."

"Lord, we do not cross into Aliud land."

"Return to the garrison without me then. I’ll get the antlers myself."

"There is no need, Kaleb. We all saw your killing shot."

Good byplay, but if he's Lord Kaleb, would someone call him by just Kaleb?
Good point. An easy change to "Lord".

Elias smiled as the ambitious hunter tracked the stag's trail closer and closer to the boundary. He projected an illusion of the wounded animal into the man’s mind and sent him chasing it through darkening woods past the border that his sister ensured no Aliud could cross. Kaleb ran, heedless of the branches that tore through his shirt sleeves and scratched thin welts across his arms and face. Elias ensured that the beast was always just out of bow shot.

This is one place where I might recommend a dreaded -ly word. Elias smiled, but he's not happy. Did he smile grimly?
I know, all adverbs aren’t evil! I’ll figure out what’s most descriptive for Elias here.
Adverbs are like salt. Best used sparingly, but sometimes necessary.

Your hero possesses some unique abilities. It's good to emphasize them early like this, but I'm a little unsure about what he's doing with them. The mention of his sister is a little confusing. Are the hunters Aliud or is he? You've used the word ensure twice here. It's a word that trips me up so I looked it up in the dictionary. It says:

"Ensure, insure, assure, secure mean to make a thing or person sure. Ensure, insure, and assure are interchangeable in many contexts where they indicate the making certain or inevitable of an outcome, but ensure may imply a virtual guarantee (The government has ensured the safety of the refugees), while insure sometimes stresses the taking of necessary measures beforehand (Careful planning should insure the success of the party), and assure distinctively implies the removal of doubt and suspense from a person's mind (I assure you that no harm will be done). Secure implies action taken to guard against attack or loss (I sent reinforcements to secure their position)."

Are you using the word you intend to?

I only saw the echo on ‘ensure’ after I sent you the 500 words! Isn’t that always the case?? I will likely keep the first one and omit the second. Ensure is the correct word in the instance of the sister. We learn later on, that Elias’ sister was the Queen of his people (the Aliud) and she sealed the border with her abilities.
The hunters are human.
Elias isn’t the hero, he’s actually the antagonist. More on this in your prologue comment, as it’s something I’ve been struggling with in this story.

I catch more echoes if I read my work aloud.

Yikes for Elias being the villain! I was in his POV and I didn't know. I need more sense of malice from him. The thing you need to ask yourself is "Who's story is it?" Meaning who will have the strongest character arc from beginning to end. And that's who you should start with.

At the edge of a clearing, Kaleb nocked an arrow, pulled the bowstring taut, and loosed.
What is Kaleb shooting at? The phantom stag? The real one? Elias?

Kaleb is shooting at the phantom. Elias took the image of the real stag Kaleb had already killed and made an illusion that Kaleb chased. Ack--this is so clear in my mind! Why aren’t you telepathic, Emily??? LOL. Darned readers--they only see what the words show. :)

Showing is important, but sometimes, you need to tell too. The trick is knowing when to do each.

A brief cry shattered the silence.
Teasing the reader with incomplete information is a time-tested technique, but don't confuse us. We need a bit more to understand what is happening.

Yup. Will do. Would this help? "His sister’s brief cry shattered the silence."

Not unless you've told me Elias has set his sister up more clearly. Otherwise, I'm still clueless.

Elias shouted his triumph and Kaleb dropped the bow, crumpling to the ground, his hands clasped to his head. Stealing through his thoughts, Elias altered Kaleb’s recent memories and sent him reeling back through the trees towards the border and the men and horses waiting
for him there.

Now I'm really confused. Kaleb shot an arrow, but Elias shouts his triumph? You have two male characters. When you use a pronoun, make sure we know which man you mean. 'Stealing through the hunter's thoughts' would be more clear.
Again, one of those examples of so clear to me, so muddy on the page. Sigh. Elias manipulates Kaleb to kill Elias’ sister. (We learn later that this is because he is unable to do it directly himself.)
As writers, we see all. We know all. Our readers only know what we can clearly convey. This is why a trusted beta readers is so important.

Moonrise illuminated the clearing. Elias strode slowly toward the body. He stood over it, watching as life ebbed out of his sister who lay bleeding in the grass.

It's nighttime? This is too far in to tell us this. In my mind, I had them hunting in the daylight. Shadows in the first paragraph implies a light source strong enough to cause them.

I have this as twilight at the start of the scene, but perhaps the transition isn’t smooth enough. I’ll revisit.

Was his sister the stag? In which case, it should be a doe. Did he purposely make Kaleb think he was shooting a deer when he shot a woman instead? Does Elias hate his sister? He certainly shows no emotion over her passing. While it's important to raise questions in the readers mind, this is too nebulous for me to follow. The Prime Directive of writing is : Be Clear.

Yes--the stag was an illusion that masked his sister. In effect, Elias tricked Kaleb into loosing the fatal arrow. Yes--Elias hates his sister. That enmity is what sets the plot in motion. I’m struggling with the utility of the prologue. On the pro side, it’s the single event that sets up the entire rest of the story. And it’s pretty dramatic. On the con side, we don’t revisit Elias again for more than a handful of chapters and I think it may be confusing, as the main character in this story is Sparrow (who we meet in chapter 1). I could certainly drop hints of the visuals from the prologue later in the book, and ultimately, as I think about it, just starting with chapter 1 would be a better opening. That way, the reader discovers, as Sparrow does, that Elias (her uncle) has killed her mother (his sister, the Queen).
It's dramatic, but if this is Sparrow's story, the story should begin with her reaction to this upheaval in her life. If she learns her uncle is a murderer, that's pretty dramatic.

Chapter 1

Sparrow stared up into the canopy. Even now when autumn work left little time for daydreaming, she still loved to nest in the moss and dried leaves of the forest floor and listen to the birds chatter. A steady rise in birdsong announced the approach of dusk. Time to head

The only reason to have a prologue is to give important info without which the reader could not continue. I don't see an immediate connection between Elias and Sparrow. Is one coming within the next page? I like the name Sparrow for your heroine. Nice tie in with the title.
Prologue is going to end up on the cutting room floor, as per my last comment! The scene won’t be wasted, just presented differently. And the scene Sparrow walks into when she gets home is quite dramatic as well--it’s what shakes her from her comfortable life and into the story.
If that's the case, you may still not be starting in the right place. Authors have less time to devote to "the ordinary world" than we used to. Most editors want us to drop readers right into the heat of the action and keep going.

Hoisting her basket with blue-tinged hands, she whistled a cheery thanks to her feathered namesakes. Darkness draped the fir and pine trees long before Sparrow reached the stone walls that marked the edges of her family's land. She shivered in the rapidly cooling air and quickened her pace, as surefooted in the dark as in full daylight here in the wild places.

Why is she thanking the birds? Be careful you don't have a Disney moment here. I don't think it fits the tone you began with. Why are her hands blue tinged? Is she berry picking? A Pictish maiden? Is she not human since this is a fantasy? I like that she's seems capable and unafraid. Good qualities for a heroine.

Sparrow can understand the language of birds. She doesn’t understand why, yet, but it’s part of her heritage, as she’s half Aliud. I will re-word the sentence, or omit it altogether and get the information across another way, as I definitely don’t want that Disney moment! Her hands are blue from berry picking. That’s made clear in the next sentence or two.
I didn't get that she understood bird language from this scene and it would be important to show, I think.

She scrambled over the stone stile and into a solid wall of sheep. The flock huddled in the deepening night, bleating their distress. Sparrow frowned and whistled for the

And since I'm a stickler for the 500 word rule, we've ended mid-sentence. Looks like you've got an interesting start to Wings of Winter, lots of intrigueing characters and a unique ability in Elias that I'd like to learn more about. Thanks for letting me take a look at your epic fantasy.

Thank you very much, Emily. This was the first novel I wrote six years ago (I still have my first draft! Scary!) and “RPT” was just the push I needed to decide to revisit it. I think the story has good bones and my summer project will be a full-contact revision.

My pleasure. Sounds like a great summer project. Please let me know what happens to this story when you're finished. You've got a richly imagined world here.
LJ Cohen lives in the western suburbs of Boston, MA with her husband, 2 sons, and one dog. She and her dog Tigger are registered as a therapy team through Caring Canines. When she's not reading, writing, or editing, she's a physical therapist in private practice.


Gillian Layne said...

Wow, LJ. I envy your descriptive skills. This seems like a wonderful way to spend a summer. Good luck with your revisions!

Glynis Peters said...

I love how Emily guides us through your work, LJ.
I enjoyed reading it and thank you for sharing. Good luck with the rewrite. I love the title by the way.

Emily, thanks for another interesting RPT.

Jane L said...

LJ, I have to agree the title is wonderful!

I like the story very much, lots of action. There was a spot, when it was actually night, I was a little confused. But I think Emily pointed out the conflict there! Best of luck with the re-write and I hope we can read the whole story soon!

Lisa Cohen said...

Thanks Gillian, Glynis, and Jane. I'm really looking forward to diving back into this one.

Unknown said...

I was drawn in, I love the action. I think Emily pointed out everything that I would have. No stone unturned... *g*

I'd love to see what this looks like after some revisions. I hope to see more.

EmilyBryan said...

Agreed, Saranna. I'd love to see how this one turns out!