When Barbara Britton offered to be part of Red Pencil Thursday she presented a unique opportunity for us. Barbara wrote me saying she has "completed a YA historical with romantic elements. I had an opening which had received good comments from contests. When I won an agent critique, the agent thought the opening opened way too fast--at the inciting incident--and I should slow it down. I did slow the opening down, but now I wonder if it's a sleeper."
This offer to revise happens more often than you might think. If an editor or agent makes specific suggestions and invites you to resend, you've received what's known as "a good rejection." It's really an offer to revise and resubmit. But you've invested a great deal in the current version. So what's a writer to do? And what guarantee do you have that the new version will be an improvement?
Before I was published, I revised the opening to Maidensong
( my debut Diana Groe title). As an experiment, I sent out the two different versions to a bunch of different contests. (Always save the first version. You never know if you'll decide to keep it.) Somehow the same person was judging two of those contests and hated
the 2nd version (she'd given the 1st version extremely high marks previously and thought I'd "bastardized" the story). There was more than a 50 point difference between her scores and the other two judges. As it turned out, the 2nd version is the one that eventually sold.
So today, we're taking a look at two versions of the same story. In order to make it easier to read, I'll wait to comment
until the end of the 2nd version. Barbara's responses are in purple
Josephine Nimetz had been told death would be peaceful. It would most likely happen when she slept, and the bright light she traveled into would make it seem like Juneau in mid-June. But as she stared into the enraged eyes of her father, his calloused hands taut to her throat, the sour stench of whiskey bathing her face, she knew it had all been a lie.
“Where’s the money, Josephine?” He curled his daughter’s gingham collar into his fists. “Mrs. Chambers pays you and your ma fourteen dollars for those fancy dresses.”
Her petite fingers clawed at his hands, easing the pressure on her neck. She had recently stitched rick rack to her collar and she’d be darned if she was going to reattach it. Gasping for air, she tried to defend herself. “We forgot the gloves. It was only gloves. I didn’t deliver the dresses. I swear!”
Her father seized her neck again, lifting her off the ground. Her feet strained for the security of mudded pine needles. “Liar! I need that money.”
“But your pay from the mine? You got paid.”
“Don’t you hold out on me girl.” His thick hands squeezed her voice box. “That pay’s gone.”
She stared into the familiar hazel eyes of her father, now bloodshot and bulging. In all her fifteen years she had never seen them so crazed.
“People are coming.”
She did not recognize the man’s voice but she welcomed his announcement.
Her father released her neck as the stranger bolted through the ancient pines. A burning radiated down her neck-- the path of one ragged fingernail gouging her skin. The sound of cloth tearing filled her ears as batting ripped free from her collar. She fell backwards, propelled by her father’s haste to get away. Her head struck against aAnd here's what's behind Door Number Two:
Josephine Nimetz didn’t take health for granted as she wrapped her petite fingers around her mother’s swollen knuckles. She eased the stiff hand against a tea cup and made sure her mother supported the cup before letting go. The cup already had one chip. Mint vapors perked up Josephine’s senses. It had been a long morning at the Singer sewing machine.
“I’m off to the Chambers’ estate,” Josephine said. “It will be a nice walk now that the sun has returned.”
“I thought you delivered Mrs. Chambers’ gown yesterday?” Mrs. Nimetz blew on the tea before taking a sip.
“Yes, but Ann forgot the gloves and embroidered handkerchief. I don’t want any complaints from our best customer”
“Your sister can’t seem to think about anything these days. Anything, that is, except men.”
Josephine grinned. Ann--her oldest sister at twenty-- was intent on marrying someone educated and wealthy. Not a small feat when most of the men in Juneau were sportsmen, lumberjacks, miners, or sailors. At one month shy of sixteen, Josephine preferred to focus on the family tailoring business and her mother’s welfare.
Josephine grabbed a shawl and the small glove box before heading outside. Her sealskin boots scuffed along the planked walkway in front of the tiny houses that looked out over Gastineau Channel. A steamer and fishing boats filled the small port dwarfed by mountains lined with evergreen trees. The breeze off the channel lifted her long brunette hair from her shoulders. Her cheeks tingled in the tepid air.
Trudging past the church and up the hill toward Juneau’s elaborate homes, she noticed Widow Gilbertsen’s pristine saltbox, vacant, curtains drawn. The widow had traveled to Nova Scotia to visit family after her husband died. Josephine had helped the elderly couple during Mr. Gilbertsen’sWow. It's like two completely different stories. In version 1, the inciting incident really jerks the story into high gear, but do we have enough emotional investment in the heroine to care sufficiently? I'm going to propose a compromise. You should go with a third version. I’m ready to make this opening the best it can be. I value your input.
That's a beautiful, teachable attitude. If we become rigid and refuse to revise, we have earned the right not to grow.Introduce Josephine on her way out the door to deliver the gloves, promising to fix tea for her ailing mother as soon as she returns. We'll like her for her compassion. Give her a sense of urgency. Hint that her father has made trouble or is threatening to make trouble for them. Oh, please let him be her stepfather! It's hard to imagine a father strangling his own child. Remember you want your readers to slip into the heroine's shoes. Don't make them pinch so badly, the reader will yank them off before they've had a chance to care about her.Making him a stepfather is an easy change. He’s a father desperate from bad gambling debts and in desperation, becomes too rough. He causes Josephine to fall and injure her head, and be taken to the hero’s home. Oh, the father's way beyond rough and well into abusive. If you want him to be desperate instead of evil, there are ways to make the confrontation and subsequent injury more accidental. Grabbing her and twisting her arm or shoving her are bad, but they aren't life-threatening. And those actions say desperate to me. Having him strangle her puts him beyond the pale.
Your sense of place is much stronger in the 2nd version, but don't dwell on non-essentials. Will the widow Gilbertson play a role in the story? Cut her if not. Only describe what your heroine would notice. Love the sealskin boots, but she wouldn't think of her own hair as brunette or her fingers as petite. Tepid means "luke warm." Not conducive to tingling cheeks. You might want to let us know the heroine's age, but it's not necessary to have her sister's yet. The Gilbertsens were added here at the recommendation of the critiquing agent. She reasoned if Josephine had experience taking care of an ailing person it would help spare her reputation when she lives with, and cares for, the sick veteran.
You’re right about the hair and fingers…oops!
I wouldn't add the bit about the Gilbertsens until its needed. Certainly not right up front.
She needs to meet her father fairly quickly in this third version, before you've spent 500 words. And he might bring up the other sister's fixation on men. How did he come to this awful state? Do you plan on redeeming him during the story? Redemption stories are not limited to inspirational fiction. Focus on the heroine's emotions about him and you'll pull us in close. No matter how bad a man is, his daughter wants to love him, whether it's healthy for her to or not. You shouldn't go into backstory here, but you should know if there were happier times in their shared past. If the story is about redemption or about breaking away from a toxic relationship, that will change how you portray this encounter.
Mines in Alaska were filled with gambling and drinking. Too many men, too much time. Her father works at a gold mine. I try to redeem the father through Josephine’s memories of happier times. She also defends her father when the veteran puts her father down. Ultimately, taking care of the veteran because of the incident with her father, brings Josephine a better life.
You can't redeem him without a change on his part. This isn't theology where grace is free and undeserved. This is fiction and readers demand that the scales of justice balance. If the father is to be redeemed, he needs to change and ask forgiveness of his family. Maybe injuring his daughter is the first step to realizing he's hit bottom.
In Verdi's opera OTHELLO, Desdemona sings an entire aria after her husband has strangled her. Readers are not as forgiving of logic holes as opera buffs. Be careful not to have the heroine talking while she's being strangled, if you stick with that. And if her father has his hands on her throat, rick rack is going to be the last thing on her mind. When you can't breathe, all that matters is your next breath.
You’re right—lose the rick rack.
A revision is still in order here. I know this probably isn't what you wanted to hear, but welcome to the world of the writer. Our business is to play with the details we choose to share to shape the story till it tells the tale we intend. I think you need to find common ground between your two versions, to cherrypick the best of both and come up with a stronger third path. Thank you, Emily. I have a clearer picture now of what I need to do to flesh this out. One of the reasons I like Red Pencil Thursdays is you give such good feedback and it improves our writing skills. I’m thrilled you picked me and am grateful for your expertise. Thanks for helping me solve my dilemma.
Because you're willing to do the revision work, you're solving your own dilemma.
Barbara lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two teenage sons. When not writing young adult manuscripts, she coordinates high school concessions and works with youth.
Now it's your turn to add your comments to our online critique session. I know Barbara will appreciate your suggestions and encouragement.