Thursday, June 17, 2010

Red Pencil Thursday with Marissa Berry

You've heard me mention Eastside RWA in Washington state. This is the writers group that helped me so much in the early days of my writing when I lived in Seattle. In fact, the idea for the heroine in my debut novel came to me during one of the chapter meetings.

Today we welcome Marissa Berry, a member of Eastside. She's graciously allowed me to give her an online critique. I'd like to take a moment to thank her and all the authors who've volunteered for this public scrubbing. It's a generous thing to do because the hope is that other writers will learn from their experience.

My comments are in red, Marissa's in purple. I hope you'll add yours at the end of this post!

Chapter 1

Valerian Francis’ life altered the day his brother vanished. It had been forty-four days since Vander’s disappearance. Vale stood looking out the castle window watching the villagers burdened by uncertainty. It was not only his brother but their King who had abandoned them. Whether it was by choice, force or even death, it didn’t matter. The people were still left without a sovereign to guide them.

Excellent first sentence. Something important has happened to someone important! And you've raised lots of questions.

Now a word about names. I know it's historically accurate to have siblings named similarly. And Tolkein gave us Eowyn and Eomer, but in this first paragraph, you'ved introduced Valerian, Vander and the hero's nickname Vale. That's a lot of V's for a reader to absorb. I'd recommend not having characters names beginning with the same letter to avoid reader confusion.

The way the third sentence is constructed, I'm not sure if it's Valerian or the villagers who are burdened with uncertainty.
How do you feel about Zander? I ran into some problems with three ‘V’ names further into the story, so I’ve made a slight change for the brother. Also, I’ve decided to stick with introducing him as Vale, since it’s his POV. I’ve been making changes the past few days based on some great critiques I’ve received. I can’t take any credit, but I’ve been doing some major reconstruction.

I’ve changed this first paragraph a little. The confusing sentence now reads: “He looked out the castle window, observing the villagers now burdened by uncertainty.” Does this make it clearer?

I like Zander. Yes, it would make sense to use Vale since that's how he would think of himself.

I think I'm having trouble with that sentence because we're in Vale's POV. If it's the people who are uncertain, how does he know? Does he have an empathic or psychic gift?

They hesitated to look in Vale’s direction, the youngest son, who had proven nothing. They had no faith in his abilities to lead or protect them. Suddenly being the second son no longer excused him from the responsibilities of his lineage.

If this is a monarchy, I wonder if the common people would think to question him like this. Divine Right and all that. I'd have an easier time imagining the other nobles, who might think to supplant him, wondering if he was up to the task.

I’ve played with the idea of inserting a scene from my Heroine’s perspective as the opening. The scene is of Jesse spying on Vale as he goes for a swim in the river. I think it paints Vale as a carefree character, or at least, I’m hoping. This may help make it clearer that people aren’t sure about Vale because he’s young and he doesn’t spend a lot of time in the castle.

The problem isn't what the people think. It's how does Vale know what they think? And at this point, why do we care what they think? We are more interested interested in what Vale thinks. Maybe he's feeling inadequate and is projecting that onto the people he's watching.

Despite his desire to the contrary there was no question who would rule if Vander did not return. Vale would. It was now time to face his obligations.

He had been royally summoned by the elders who composed the council that aided the King. A knock sounded on his outer chamber door.

The only person who can royally summon someone is a royal person. I would think his courtiers would be scrambling to curry favor with this new power.

At this point Zander is missing and Vale is being summoned because they assume Zander is dead. So Vale is in a precarious position. You’re right. “Royally summoned” is wrong. If Vale is just a prince at this point, do you think I could still get away with the Court summoning him?

It depends on how you've set up the rules for your special world. Perhaps if there is a powerful spiritual leader, he might have enough clout to "summon" the temporal leader. However you do it, make sure the rules of the world make sense.

“Come in,” Vale called. Konnelly’s hand was still on the doorknob as he poked his head into the room. His oldest friend’s green eyes were grave, and his amber hair was tangled from his habit of running his hands through it.

We're in Vale's POV. How can he see Kon's hand on the doorknob from his side of the door? Also, my DH says guys typically don't notice the color of other guy's eyes. At this point, it's not a detail we need to know.

Good catch! I also think: “Kon poked his head into the room.” does more for Kon’s character development. I’m working on showing, not telling. I can also take out his green eyes, because my heroine makes this observation a few scenes later.

Good idea. I always like to do character descriptions from the POV of an interested member of the opposite sex. There's a time to show and a time to tell. The trick is to know which is needed at the moment. But as a general rule, beginning writers tend to err on the telling side, so it's good that you're focusing on showing.

"Vale,” he greeted. “The Court is assembled in the Chamber.” Even the normally jovial Kon was somber.

Greeted doesn't sound somber. In fact, it's not necessary. Couldn't he just say "The Court is assembled in the Chamber" with no dialogue tag at all? Also, even though they are friends, if Vale is royal, Kon would address him more formally.
Yes, I’ll remove that dialogue tag. I also took out: “Even the normally jovial Kon was somber.” I have to remember showing, not telling.

I think what I’m attempting to illustrate is that Vale isn’t used to being treated as royal. If it’s his oldest friend, do you think he would call him “Your Highness”? In the next scene where they interact together, they joke about the title thing. It wouldn’t be too hard to change it to a formal greeting here.

You might have Kon greet him as Your Highness and have Vale tell him not to. That makes Vale more likeable and yet shows the difference in their stations.

“Thank you, Kon,” Vale said.

His friend nodded and shut the door. Gifted with all four of the Spiritual gifts: Warrior, Healer, Seer and Sensitive, it was Kon’s job to be the King’s advisor. With an affinity for all four gifts, it was his duty to ensure the spiritual health of their people.

Oh cool! You have paranormal elements! Now my interest is really piqued. All right, now that I know your world is different from ours, if the rules regarding royals are different, let us know more about that up front. Does Valerian have any gifts? If so, his needs to be introduced first.

Vale possesses a Warrior spirit. It gives him superior strength. They, as a people, are actually shadow shifters. Do you think I need to put this in up front? The thing about his spiritual gift is that once they discover Zander is actually dead, one of the Court members challenges Vale’s accession on the grounds that he hasn’t been tested for his Warrior spirit. It’s a requirement of the throne. There’s a reason he hasn’t been tested, and because of that reason, Vale doesn’t really think about this gift. That’s why I’m hesitant to throw it in upfront. If I can add in his shifting, do you think I can keep his spiritual gift a secret for now?

I think you should introduce the special aspects of your world pretty quickly. If the reason the people are uneasy is because he hasn't been tested, that would make the opening make more sense, IMO. Why do you need to keep the spiritual gift a secret? Does he know he has it? What does your hero shift into?

Kon had attempted to do the same for Vander. Kon and Vander had grown up together and each reached their coveted accessions at a far earlier age than was customary, Vander as the King and Kon as the Spirit Teacher. But even working together closely, they had never become friends.

Ah! the plot thickens. Vander was gifted. Was Valerian not? If that's the source of the lack of confidence in him, I'd like to see that in the first paragraph.

Does Vale come off as lacking confidence? I guess I was hoping more for “sexily indifferent”.

He seems reluctant to accept his responsibilities and that telegraphs lack of confidence to me. Now, if he still believed his brother was alive and didn't want to usurp his place, that might alter my perception of him. I've never thought of indifference as being sexy. It seems a little passionless to me, actually. We want our hero to care about something deeply and have to struggle to achieve it.

In all of his life, Vale couldn’t remember a time when Vander had ever befriended anyone. Vander had always been a man who seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. The elders had said it would make him a great leader. Vale had always thought it made him a lousy brother.

To be a king is to be alone in all the ways that count. I'm not surprised that Vander didn't have the gift for friendship. Weight of the world is a little tired. Can you think of a fresher metaphor?

Since this is an alternate Realm, do you think I could use “weight of the realm”?

That'll work as long as you capitalize Realm to emphasize that you don't just mean his kingdom.

If this is a historical type story, lousy used to mean someone's infested with lice.

Well I don’t want anyone to think that. LOL. I explain a few paragraphs down that the Shadow Trekkers move from the Mortal Realm to the Realm of the Hidden in 1744. My thought here is that if you have two societies that are founded in the same traditions, and then separate them for 200-300 years, they will have some similarities and some differences. So that’s where the old world elements come in. I guess if you add magic to one of the society’s so they don’t have to depend on technological advances it will make them antiquated in one sense and further evolved in another. It makes sense in my head…

That's what I love about paranormals. You have such fresh ideas!

Vale straightened his robes before leaving his rooms. The walk was long enough to give him a chance to settle his churning emotions. It was a few minutes before he reached his destination.

I'd cut the last sentence. It's a little redundant since we know from the 2nd sentence that the walk was a long one. Instead, how about a peek into his intentions for this meeting?

Excellent. How about: “Straightening his robes before leaving his rooms, the long walk helped settle his churning emotions.”

That won't do. My inner grammarian has been forced out of hiding. You've got a dangling participle there. The Straightening his robes before leaving his rooms phrase should be followed by Vale since it refers to him, not the long walk. For more examples of dangling participles and how to fix them check out this site.

The Court Chamber was located in the heart of the castle. The large, wooden doors stood vast and daunting. The massive doors swung open and led into a great room. It was too large for the nine-member Court, but the elders held a certain amount of vanity. It could be seen in the expensive velvet fabric of their robes and in the gaudy ornateness of their jewels.

You use large twice, great and massive. Let's see if there's another way to show how big the room is. Do Valerian's steps echo in the overhead vault? Is the room perpetually cold because it's too big to heat evenly? Think about how to use all the senses in telling your story.

Okay, I rewrote this part. I’ve taken out “large” and “great”. That’s a good point. I think once I read something 20 times, I don’t even notice these things anymore. His steps can definitely echo! That’s a great idea. Although right now I have him walking down carpet, so I’ll have to think about that. I need to put a post-it note on my computer when I’m writing that says “Show don’t tell” and “There are five senses. Use them!”

My post-it says "It's the relationship, stupid!"

Vale walked straight through the middle of the room and ascended the stairs leading to the throne. He didn’t sit in his brother’s place. Still

And because I strictly enforce the 500 word rule, Marissa's excerpt ends in an incomplete thought. Sorry, but I want to be sure we have room for her responses without having a post that runs into next week.

Before Vale makes his entrance, I'd love a peek into how he's feeling. Does he suck in a deep breath and square his shoulders? Does he glance nervously at the elders, doing a mental headcount of supporters and detractors?

I have him taking a deep breath at the moment. Do you think that’s enough?

Should do. Thanks for letting us all go to school on your work, Marissa!

Thank you for the opportunity for feedback! It’s so great to hear another perspective. I think I made some common errors here that will be good for writers to see.

That is a wonderful, generous attitude, Marissa. I learn something each time I do a Red Pencil Thursday and I get lots of emails from writers who've recognized their own errors in the volunteer author's work. You helped people today and I thank you!

Marissa N. Berry lives in Northwest Washington with her husband. An aspiring author of paranormal romance, she loves reading as much as writing and revising. She is a member of the RWA and the Eastside chapter. For more about Marissa, check out her Blog and Facebook!

And now it's your turn to add your comments and suggestions for Marissa!


Jane L said...

Hi Marissa! Than so much for sharing. Just a thought. I also had brothers with names all starting with the same letter and as I began to enter contest, I found out this is a huge no, no with contest judges, and editors. Good idea to change it!

I like the idea of saying something about his "gift" right away also. It makes me more intrigued to keep reading further to find out what the gift is and how he may use it! But great job working on showing not telling. I also struggle with this!

It is wonderful to come forward and allow us all to learn together with Emily's red pencil! LOL!!

Jane L said...

Hey Emily, not sure if anyone else is having this issue, but I had a terrible time getting onto your site today! just fyi! finally made it!

Mary said...

Wow. It's quiet here today.

Thanks for sharing, Marissa. I learn a lot about writing from these Thursday exercises, so I appreciate the bravery of Emily's volunteers in putting their work out there for critique.

I enjoyed reading your excerpt, but I would have liked to have gotten a clearer sense of who Vale is in this opening. I felt like I knew more about his brother Vander/Zander than I did Vale.

Good story premise. I wanted to keep reading past the 500 word limit.

Kristine Cayne said...

Hi Marissa,

Try to take in each of Emily's comments and see how best to apply them to your work. Think of each draft or re-write as a layer you are adding to your story, making it better and better.

I loved reading your comments regarding the world you are creating. I think this will turn out to be a very interesting and unique story.

Keep up the good work!

Kind regards,

P.S. Thanks Emily for Red Pencil Thursday :-)

Marissa N. Berry said...

Thank you Jane, Mary and Kristine! I'm definitely listening to the advice. I've been doing a lot of revising the last few weeks and I think the story is really coming along. At least, today I'm feeling good about it. :-) Tomorrow, I may feel differently. Such is the writing life.

Thank you, Emily!

EmilyBryan said...

Jane--During some times in the past, it wasn't unusual to give the same name to several of one's offspring, since infant mortality was so high. Most families buried more than one child.

EmilyBryan said...

Mary--I too am deafened by the sound of crickets.

Hmmm. I haven't been checking in on the blog much during the day (scrambling to hit my page count for the current WIP!) I don't know why there should be a problem. Must be something with Blogger.

Good point! The opening needs to focus on the protagonist, not a third party.

EmilyBryan said...

Kristine--You've grasped the point exactly! Writing is mostly rewriting. One of my favorite Nora Roberts quotes is: "I can fix a bad page. I can't fix a blank page."

EmilyBryan said...

Marissa--FYI, the first 4 or 5 chapters of my works are the ones that undergo the most revision. That's the time when I'm getting a handle on the characters and the conflict. After that, I know them and the story's general shape is clear in my head. Don't ever feel bad about re-imagining parts of your work. That's a writer's job.

Thanks so much for sharing your story with us today.

Glynis Peters said...

Marissa, thank you for sharing your work with us.
I enjoyed what I read, it sounds great.
I am glad Emily mentioned the V names, that was something that jumped out at me.

Have fun with the rewrites, Emily put me on the right road. I have no regrets of going under her red pencil.

Thanks for an interesting RPT, Emily.

EmilyBryan said...

Glynis--I so appreciate you for being a volunteer for RPT! It tickles me that you're seeing things that need changing in other's work now. That's part of the learning process. Seeing those things in our own work is the hard part. We get too close to it.

Thinking of you on sunny Cyprus!

Glynis Peters said...

LOL, it was couragous of me to add my twopenn'orth / two cents worth, wasn't it Emily?

It is thanks to folk such as yourself, who have taught me along the way.

Unknown said...

Hi Marissa! Thanks for having the courage to share your work. I would definitely keep reading, though I do agree with the suggestion of saying more about your hero's gifts right away.

Emily, I just started following your blog and I'm enjoying Red Pencil Thursday very much. Your comments help me see how I might make changes to my own WIP. Thanks for helping pre-published authors (like me) learn something new!

EmilyBryan said...

Jena--I'm glad you're enjoying the Red Pencil Thursday posts. If you haven't done so already, let me encourage you to check out my Write Stuff, 7 pages for aspiring writers. I offer suggestions on self-editing, submitting, and a recommended reading list of books that have helped me.

prashant said...

I think this will turn out to be a very interesting and unique story.
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