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?