One of the fun things about Red Pencil Thursday for me is that I get to read the start of different sorts of stories each week. We've had paranormals and westerns, YA and historicals. Today we're taking a look at a Christina James's contemporary.
As usual, my comments are only one person's opinion. Christina is the final arbiter of her story. But it's always good to get fresh eyes on one's work. That's why I'm glad to work with a critique partner and a beta reader. If you're a writer, look for someone whose opinion you trust, who will be objective about your work, and listen when they speak.
My comments are in red. Christina's responses are in purple. Hopefully yours will show up in the comment section at the end of this post!
Heavy footsteps came closer to where she hid in the stall. Melina was frozen in place, sitting on the cold, hard ground littered with straw. Her silk pants would never survive such punishment. The smell alone was enough to ruin them forever and gag her with the musky scent of wet dirt and the sourness of horse manure she prayed she hadn’t sat in or stepped in.
Excellent first sentence. It dumps us immediately into a dangerous situation and raises all kinds of questions. This is how you do it, folks. I might change the word order to Heavy footsteps came closer to the stall where she hid but your way is fine too. However, if she's hiding, I don't think she'd be sitting down. She'd be squatting, ready to run and if she's truly afraid, she's not worried about her silk pants.
Unfortunately, you received the very first draft before I did the revisions so I will try to answer everything you pointed out and have already corrected some parts in the final version.
Thank you for the compliments on the opening. She is sitting because she is exhausted – she is hiding in the stall because the hero returned before she could hide in another part of the barn. The reason for her concern for her silk pants is basically out of nervousness – it’s something to focus on – but also because she has limited clothing with her and if it gets ruined she can’t replace it because she also has no money with her which is pointed out further into the story.
I understand about multiple drafts. My work goes through several incarnations and I only stop revising when it's time to turn it in.
Still, she held her breath and clutched her lone possession to her chest. All her shoulder bag carried was a change of clothes, which were most certainly wrinkled beyond help by now, a few pairs of panties, a toothbrush and other toiletries. Not much for what was usually accessible to her. But that life was no longer hers. Running from it was the best decision she’d made in forever.
I like the use of clutched. Its a verb that shows us her desperation.
Not much for what was usually accessible to her is an awkward construction and is too vague to tell us anything. If she normally has a full closet big enough to need its own zipcode, say so.
Agreed – this could be stated better – was trying to point out how she goes from one extreme (having abundance of everything) to another extreme (having nothing).
She's scared and hiding and probably sitting in horse dung. Right now I'm not seeing how running was a good decision. What are you trying to convey here?
I’m trying to convey a young woman who was desperate to get out of a situation in her life (an arranged marriage since she comes from royalty and it was a tradition) and she hadn’t quite thought it all out but took the first chance she had to just get on her own since her father, the King, had control of all royals as king. Going against his wishes was never done so for her to do it she ran. It was the best decision because despite her current circumstances staying behind in a life she didn’t want was worse.
Oh, she's a princess! We need to know that right up front. I had spoiled little rich girl in mind. Now that I know she's a royal who's in a coercive situation, my interest is piqued. Is there a way to hint at her station?
A long, dark shadow crept over the railing. Her heart pounded as her eyes slowly lifted to identify its owner, that of a horse’s massive brown body. Dear God, please don’t let that beast come in here.
If the Dear God sentence is her direct thought, you should underline it to indicate to the typesetter that it should be italicized. You raised another question in my mind. Why is she hiding in a stable if she's obviously afraid of horses?
Yes it’s her direct thought and for my publisher they only require italics – no underline – so this will be in the final version – should be here to make it clearer. And she’s hiding in a stable because it was the first structure she came upon after a long journey and she couldn’t go into his house.
OK. Obviously each publishing house has their own standard formats. For Dorchester and Kensington, it's underlining because in Courier New it's easy to miss italics.
“Silvermoon, easy. Bet that brushing feels mighty good, heh?” a man’s deep voice boomed over the horse’s rants. The sound of its hooves clanked on the hard ground.
If a person is trying to gentle a horse, they speak soothingly and softly. He wouldn't boom. A horse being groomed doesn't rant (I'm really trying to imagine a horse ranting.) They really love the attention. I can imagine the horse being restive because it can sense there's someone in the next stall who shouldn't be there. For their size, horses are the silliest and most cowardly of creatures. It might be snorting and shifting its weight, but not 'ranting.'
I appreciate the way you're adding auditory elements, but hooves would only clank on pavement and only if the horse was shod, but they might thud on hard ground when the horse stomped.
This is true. I was just trying to convey that there was sound from his hooves from his prancing.
Instead of rants it should be grunts. Silvermoon is actually a temperamental horse which is described further into the story so he prefers to be running than being groomed. As for the man’s deep voice – to her it sounds booming because of her situation and of course his voice is deep which makes it louder. And I was trying to convey the hero trying to be heard over the horse’s noise. The soothing was in the form of the brushing and petting.
If this is a tempermental animal, I think now might be the time for the man to give us a hint at that. Otherwise, you may have other readers who have a little experience with horses who are thrown by this interaction.
“There you go, buddy. Get inside. Get some water now.”
The wooden door opened allowing the beast access to the stall. Melina sucked in a deep breath, squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and buried her head into her handbag on her bent knees.
Good fear reaction! This is a prime example of showing, not telling. Excellent.
Silvermoon made a grand entrance into his stall, stirring up dust and kicking around.
If the horse was worried about a stranger in the stall, he'd be likely to balk at the entrance and the man might have to swat his backside to get him to move. But since she's not behaving in a threatening manner, the horse might be curious enough to approach and sniff her.
I was actually writing it from a point that the horse is just ornery and not wanting to get back in his stall but wants to keep running. So basically because of his size, his moving around stirred things up.
I guess our horses were pretty docile so I'm having trouble relating to this. The only time our mare kicked up a ruckus in a stall was when she was at the vet and wanted to come home.
A scream escaped her throat, one she couldn’t stop as the beast stomped around her.
Ok, now the horse would be dangerous. In an enclosed space you really don't want to do something to rile them like screaming. Melina's in serious trouble here. I think you might have the horse rear, paw the air and whinny. He might kick at the sides of the stall.
Yes, she is reacting in a way that scares the horse and that’s why the hero responds so harshly, because he knows how Silvermoon can be bad-tempered.
“What the f***?” the man’s voice yelled above her.
Since this is a PG-13 blog, I edited your explitive. But since it's here, let's talk about the vulgar tongue for a moment. There is a place for all words in literature, but choosing the right moment to loose a less-than-polite verbal volley is one of the author's most important tasks. We want our prose to make an impact and there's no question that vulgar words serve as an exclamation point to an emotional moment. Rhett Butler's "Frankly, my dear" would have been severely diluted if he'd been swearing through the rest of the story.
This is an erotic contemporary and the swearing depicts a hero who doesn’t have to watch his language because he’s not always around females – he does apologize further into the story, recognizing he’s rough around the edges and not used to females being around. He’s around ranch hands all day and their mouths are bad. But the fact that he can recognize his swearing makes him appealing since he does know right from wrong and once things calm down he tries to make an effort to not swear.
This is almost the first thing we hear from your hero. The heroine is in danger, but I'm assuming worse things will threaten her later. What will he say then? Where does he go from here?
His reaction is to show how startled he is to find a woman in his barn, and worse, in his temperamental horse’s stall. The hero is caught off guard and the situation is immediately dangerous so his reaction was to portray a man who is rough around the edges who deals with danger in a rough way – until the heroine has a chance to “unroughen” him.
Since he obviously knows horses, he wouldn't shout in a way that would further upset the animal. I wonder if forceful action from the hero with no words at all isn't a better way to go.
Again, to her it sounded like yelling because of all the commotion and how deep and rough his voice is so I was trying to portray this. I do like the idea of not using any words at all – maybe until after she’s safely in front of him out of the horse’s stall.
Before she knew what to expect, large hands grasped her crudely around her upper arms and she was airborne, still clutching her bag. Instinctually, she kicked and twisted her body to free herself then she planned to run like hell to get away from whoever had just found her.
I think I'd cut Before she knew what to expect. It doesn't really add anything to the action. I try to limit my -ly words to a couple per page, but you've got 2 in one paragraph here. I'd break the last sentence into two. Put a period after herself.
Good feedback. I had already changed crudely to tightly because he’s not trying to be mean to her but at the moment he doesn’t recognize his strength in holding her.
I'm assuming he lifted her over the stall to safety. Showing is great, but sometimes we have to tell. It would make sense to tell she was lifted over the stall. I don't think she'd kick to free herself until after she was clear of the horsestall. Or how about if she started climbing the stall on her own?
The scene is happening so quickly – like literally seconds- that the kicking was part of her reaction without her even thinking of waiting until she was on the ground and out of the stall. It was the fight or flight mechanism.
“Knock it off, you little witch,” the man demanded, dropping her onto her feet but not freeing her.
“Let me go,” she screamed before landing a solid kick to his shin. Her toes protested, but she didn’t have time to address the pain of kicking something that felt like a steel post.
A word about dialogue tags. Most editors would rather see either action to indicate who's speaking or simply use "said." Readers scan right over it and it doesn't intrude.
Was showing her actions and words occurring at the same time in her frantic bid to free herself.
I just mean using 'demanded' and 'screamed.' I've heard several editors say they'd prefer to see 'said.'
He swung her away from him, releasing her. When his strong hand landed smartly across her ass, her hand automatically covered her bottom where it stung. She faced him, hardly able to believe her eyes. He was a f***ing giant. Never had she seen a bigger man. Her jaw dropped at the sight of his wide chest, massive shoulders, thick arms, huge hands, and unbelievable height. Hell, she was five-feet-four and he was a good foot over her. His legs boasted the same enormous muscles, his thighs as thick as her entire body.
Having the hero hit the heroine, even a swat on the butt, is a gamble. There are a few taboos in romance and guys hitting girls is one of them. There's no relationship yet, so this can't be construed as playful.
Understood but it was meant to portray a knee-jerk reaction – similar to a slap in the face to stun a hysterical person – not meant to harm but to get attention. There is erotic play with this later on and it’s that reason he doesn’t hesitate to swat her bottom because he’s doing it based on his Dominant personality.
This still seems over the line to me. If she's hysterical, I'd rather see the face slap, but I don't get hysterical from her, just terrified. Also, I get that he's rough and that explains his rough language, but we're in the princess's POV and she's dropping f-bombs and Hell in her head. If you want her to be able to "unroughen" him later, she needs to be a lady now, even in a tough situation, so we see clearly how different their respective worlds are.
6'4" is tall, but if she's ever watched an NBA game she's seen taller men. The "giant" is a little over the top. Thighs as thick as her entire body? What kind of Clydesdale was he riding?
She’s a princess surrounded by average size people, only her bodyguards would be large but not this large. On TV, tall is tall, but in person and to her slender frame he is much bigger and appears “gigantic” – but it may be a little over the top. Same with the description of the thighs. Just trying to show how muscular he is from working on the ranch.
This is a question of proportion. I think you want to convey 'hunk', not 'hulk.'
He stood, arms crossed, staring at her. When her gaze landed on his face she swallowed hard. He was every bit as mad as she was frightened.
Why is he angry? Confused, curious, irritated maybe. But why angry? If he's as big as you say, a little girl kicking his shin shouldn't make him mad.
This was her perception of him, that he was angry because he looked so stern and serious – again part of what makes him who he is because he’s a cowboy running a ranch and not having a lot of time out of his busy chore schedule. He’s not mad about her kicking him as he is about the interruption to his busy schedule and he knows the situation isn’t an easy fix because his ranch happens to be in the middle of nowhere so how she ended up there is no doubt going to be complicated.
Ok, I'll have to confess I got a little distracted by the interaction with the horse in this scene. There were several things that didn't ring true, so it pulled me out of the story. I'm no horse expert, but we had a mare and a gelding for five years when we lived in Wyoming, so I'm basing my comments on behaviors I observed in them. Perhaps there's someone out there with more equestrian experience who can set us straight. How would a horse react in this situation? Silvermoon was reacting solely based on his personality – that is he wanted to be running instead of grooming; and going into his stall he was feisty for the same reasons. The hero goes on to explain how the heroine made a huge mistake hiding in a horse stall especially when the horse is mean like Silvermoon. The normal horse reaction wasn’t going to apply to an ornery horse like Silvermoon.
Making Silvermoon was a stallion would make a difference in my perception of him. The few stallions I've seen I wouldn't get near, especially when there was a mare in season nearby. They are literally testosterone with hooves.
Thanks for letting me take a look at your writing, Christina! You make a very important point when you reminded me that you are writing a contemporary erotica. It's so essential to know what kind of story we're writing and what the reader expectations are for that particular subgenre.
For years Christina has had stories in her head, stories of romance and heartache, stories of overcoming the odds. She writes with a passion to make all her characters realistic so the reader can fall in love with them as much as she does. A sucker for a good love story, Christina writes hot, sensual romances with a little sarcastic wit and some humor, in a contemporary setting.
Ok, now it's your turn to weigh in. Any suggestions for Christina? Have I blown it badly? Any horse experts out there who can help us get a lasso on Silvermoon?
Horses have four legs. That's the extent of my knowledge. Sorry, ladies. :)
The most important point to me is her being a Princess. I'd keep reading just based on that fact if I knew it immediately. I love the royalty/fantasy element. So if you could let readers know immediately (silk pants meant for a blah blah/royal ceremony wouldn't stand up up to a mucky horse stall), I'd definitely keep reading.
Your large, hunky man sounds like a delicious foil for a pretty little princess. Good luck with your story! :)
I agree with Gillian that the Princess element would keep me reading. I don't read this genre of books and the F-words turn me off. Couldn't some less offensive word work just as well? The F-word gives off a signal of a "dirty" story even though that's what erotica is to me, if you can understand what I'm trying to say.
Otherwise, the plot is intriguing.
I love her being a princess, but I've never heard of a royal who is afraid of horses. It should be the opposite, shouldn't it--I mean, wouldn't a royal have had all kinds of experience around horses while growing up? It's more believable to me if she loves horses,and maybe this one knows her, and she's afraid he will expose her. She can be afraid of the stall, never having cleaned one, is only now realizing how disgusting they can be.
I'm also not so sure a royal would be so worried about her clothes, even if they were the only ones she had. When you grow up having things appear for you, you don't think ahead about your supplies, you don't know how to do that, or even that other people DO think ahead like that. I think it would be more effective if she discovers later that she is stuck with a pair of stinky, dirty pants. A princess probably wouldn't have experience thinking about how to clean something, so this could be comical too, to see how she deals with it. (But don't make her too stupid for words.)
The other thing is the "What the F***" comment. Who says that, but an American? Is she in America? I hope so, or change the language to refect her origins.
I love the lead-in sentence - I agree with the comments and might tweak it a bit more - I need to know who she is so I can immerse in the heroine's character.
Heavy footsteps approached Melina's hiding place in the fouled straw of the stall.
Emily, as the daughter of a farmer, I found your comments on the horse and his stim/response to be spot-on.
Christina, your plot is enticing, I'd read more - for sure.
We do have horses, but they're old and docile. That being said, we've had horses in the past that acted "crazy" for no reason. My only comment is consider making the horse a stallion. I think it's a simple fix. Readers expect stallions to be wild.
As for the F word and the spanking, I have to disagree with Emily. It's a totally different genre. Readers of erotica expect that kind of stuff and won't blink an eye at either. If the author wrote it like "straight" romance--well, she would lose her audience:) Same goes for the description of the hero. Erotica is just a different breed;)
Anyway, I thought it was really good. I would keep reading!
Good to know about reader expectations for erotica, which I admittedly know squat about.
This is why I always tell the volunteers to feel free to disregard my comments. My opinion is just that--my opinion.
The horses at the barn where my daughter rides are about the furthest thing from docile. They're all divas. Sometimes, to soothe them, yelling helps. It sounds wrong, but it's like slapping a hysterical person. It's startling. My daughter's trainer will pop them in the chops if they get too unruly.
They will also have a fit in the stalls if that's not where they want to be, kicking, snorting and neighing loud enough to wake the dead.
They are also all show horses. None of them are working animals except for showing. There's one that bows whenever his rider gets a ribbon.
There's one who is a catcher, who will move her body to catch riders if they perch on the saddle over fences (and in turn fall) and there's one who's just a b... well, I threatened to turn him into glue if he threw my kid one more time. :)
But I agree that here, the use of "booming" doesn't put the reader in mind of soothing, regardless of if it's really done or not.
Not that I'm an expert or anything, but these are my observations from the last six years.
Saranna--It appears my horses were really just big dogs with hooves we sometimes slapped saddles on. Cody and Star would run across the pasture to stand by the fence and whicker at us if anyone stepped out of the house. They loved to be hugged and have their noses stroked. And if someone was in the pasture, they followed them about, hoping for some love.
They loved to be groomed and were so foot-broke, all we had to do was lean on them a little and they'd lift their hooves to be picked.
Not that we didn't have an occasional rodeo. Cody threw my daughter once, but he never could unseat my DH.
This is an intriguing story, although I have a few nit-picks.
Perhaps you missed an opportunity when his voice booms, which it shouldn't. It might be grufr, but curl through the princess like smoke, arousing her senses for no good reason other than it's an erotic sensation.
Horses mostly snort, blow, whinny, but don't often grunt. If she can see the horse clearly, it's ears might prick forward when he sees her and balks, stepping back, then his ears would lay back when the man speaks and whaps him on the rump.
Horses can be unpredictable. We had 7 hay-burners, four at one time, which was really hard on the pocketbook because we had to buy all our hay and grain.
One we had was seemingly docile, then all of a sudden he bucked off our daughter, giving her a gooseegg on her forehead that could have been life-threatening. If this horse is a stallion, the princess should beware.
Would the princess speak or think so crudely? And who said all royals know horses? Yes, English royals ride, some of them anyway, but not all.
Keep going. This story will find a home!
I was just able to get on here and read everyone's comments. I can't thank you all enough for taking the time to offer your feedback. And Emily, thank you for the critique - I really did learn alot from this experience and now am very excited to think of some edits for the story which has already been sent to my editor. She is wonderful with my stories and I think the Princess and the Cowboy are going to find a great home there but my fingers are still crossed. Again, thanks to all who shared their thoughts...this is why I love being an author!
Emily, Your horses sound like darlings. If I could be sure we'd get one with that sort of personality, I'd be the first to sign on to buy Ashton her own.
Christina--I'm so glad you found this helpful. This is part of what I love about the world of romance. I've received so much help in my own writing for other authors, I'm happy to pay it forward.
Good luck with your submission!
Saranna--We were very fortunate in our horses' temperments. One of the hardest things about moving from Wyoming was knowing we couldn't take them with us. However, we made sure to sell them together, so their little "herd of two" could continue even without us.
Not a fan of horses, rode one once from the underside. I would be crouching in fear with the Princess. *grin*
I enjoyed what I read, thanks for sharing it with us, Christina. The only thing that jumped out at me was the F from the Princess. I felt I did not know her well enough yet, to 'hear' her swearing thoughts. His I could understand, hers just didn't seem 'proper' at the time.
Good luck with your ms and happy scribbling from Cyprus.
Emily, thanks for another interesting RPT.
Oh, Glynis! Horses are much more fun to ride from the topside! Glad you weren't seriously hurt.
I will take your word on that Emily. I was 12 years old and apparently, a saddle buckle snapped. I spun underneath, the horse bolted and I made a vow.
I kept the vow, and have never, never been near a horse again. I love to see them, but...
Para 1--crouch is better than sit or squat. I agree delete stall where she hid. You can describe smell and sounds of barn without the silk pants. I think horse manure smell is more pungent than sour.
Para 2-- Delete list of what's in bag. Slows action down. Her bag carried a few necessities. I disagree with Emily on being in the sh-t. She's desperate and desperate people sit in sh-t.
para 3 Underlining is italics. I've written for Dell and Kensington and both houses uses underlining cuz it's easier for copy editor to catch. I'd delete the dear god sentence.
para 4-- A horse in the barn should already be gentled. Hero would have ridden horse until horse tired. That doesn't mean horse can't be ornery and mean. Snorting is correct, not ranting.
(I can't remember which paragraphs are which) BUT Erotic doesn not mean swearing. Unless possibly in the middle of lovemaking. save f--k for when you really need it. Hero can just say "what the---?"
Delete her scream. "Let me go." she landed a kick--- reader knows she's upset. emily is correct.. said and ask are preferred which doesn't mean someone can't drawl etc
I don't think he'd hit her. How about blocking her escape. he's pretty big and if he's hero he would not hit a girl. Delete the f--k Also, I don't think he'd be angry, more of irritated surprise. I think sidling up to any horse in their stall is dangerous unless the person is the owner or trainer.
Inside the barn sounds and smells-- hay, well-oiled leather, musky horse odor. (Come to think of it a well run barn would not have manure on the floor) Horses snort and hollow clumping sounds of hooves on straw-covered floor. I know these things cuz I just wrote a book surrounding horse racing. (Marrying The Marquis, December 2009)
Okay, this guy's a dom. So was my old neighbor. But he didn't treat every person he met right out the gate as a potential sub lover by giving them a slap on the ass just to exert his dom personality. Especially when the heroine wasn't sending out any sexual signals. The hero's actions aren't realistic and, in real life, could land him in serious trouble.
Also, I've owned horses much of my life. Both the horse in this exerpt and the hero actions as a handler weren't accurately portrayed.
Patricia--I want to be in your critique group! Thanks so much for sharing such a detailed, thoughtful comment.
Anonymous--Good point. If the heroine is of a litigious bent, she's got grounds for a lawsuit. I'd be very upset with a stranger swatting my backside.
Of course, my oldest daughter went to Italy and got pinched on the bum while riding the bus. She turned, ready to bless the guy out, "But," she said, "he was sooooo cute, mom. And he smiled at me."
She still maintains the most handsome men in the world live in Rome.
First, Christina, you're very brave to have your work exposed like that. A friend of mine does a blog on horses. Everything about horses. She hates to read a book and have a horse do something it would never do. Her blog is http://www.judyridgley.wordpress.com/ She's very informative.
Emily, you did a great job as usual.
Thanks for the link, Sandy. It's always good to check in with the experts!
Been around horses as far back as I can remember. Never trust a horse. Even the docile ones. They can react differently to any situation. I believe a horse being made to go into a stall where there is a human he's not familiar with would react differently than normal. He would see her as potentially dangerous to himself and would probably cause a ruckous. The old saying "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink" would probably hold true here. You could get him to the stall but making him go in is a whole different ballgame. He could go so far as rearing up on his hind legs striking out at her. A horse can be deadly. Just my two cents worth.
Maggie, I agree. I think the horse might balk at the stall opening if there was an unfamiliar person there.
It's also true that inattention around a horse can result in serious injury. One time, my husband was walking behind our mare and and gelding, who was behind my DH, reached over his shoulder and nipped the mare on the butt. Fortunately, my DH stepped quickly out of the way in time to miss Star lashing out to give Cody a swift kick. If the DH hadn't been paying attention, those hooves would have struck his chest instead of the gelding's.
And we always used to say you can tell the real cowboy because he's the one missing a finger or two. If you don't handle a rope correctly, it'll take one off in a hurry if the horse bolts. I have scars on two of my fingers from a lead I didn't let go of quick enough. Thank God, I hadn't wrapped it around my hand.
But I don't see horses as inherently mean. They're really pretty cowardly, shying at a falling leaf. But because they are big animals, they can be dangerous and cause injury without evil intent.
I agree with the comments and might tweak it a bit more - I need to know who she is so I can immerse in the heroine's character.
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