Thursday, August 26, 2010

Red Pencil Thursday with Barbara Britton

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 a

And here's what's behind Door Number Two:

Juneau, Alaska
September, 1918

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’s

Wow. 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.


Joe F said...

Loved reading this back and forth discussion. Barb, you're really talented. I far prefer your first version to your second but agree with Emily that you need a bit more background in order for the reader to take a stronger interest in your heroine. Story openings are so challenging! This is why I enter as many contests as I do. The critiques are invaluable for getting that first chapter just right.

Joe F

Barbara Britton said...

Thanks, Joe. And thanks for being the first comment of the day!

EmilyBryan said...

Hi Joe. Welcome to Red Pencil Thursday. This is a regular feature on my blog so I hope you'll stop by again for our online critique group.

You're so right. Contests offer invaluable feedback and wins and finals are a good way to pique an editor/agent's interest. This is such a subjective business. Why not try to give the pros an independent reason to take a chance on a newbie?

EmilyBryan said...

Barbara--Thanks for letting us take a look at both versions of your story. It's a common dilemma and it'll help others who are facing "revise and resubmit" decisions.

Barbara Britton said...

This has been a great experience, Emily. After I got your feedback, I sat down and wrote a third version. Your direction was so clear.
I definitely recommend doing--and reading--RPT.
Thanks again for having me.

Mary Jo said...


Both versions had very good elements but Emily's idea of a third incorporating those best elements and why is the path for you.

I've learned that the first ten pages of any ms of mine is really more like 100 pages if I counted all the revisions I do to get to those best first 10. :-)

Syar said...

This kind of revision and commentary really helps me with my own work. I really love reading your red pencil Thursday blogs.

Barbara Britton said...

You're right Mary Jo. Those first pages are the hardest. We want that elusive "hook".
Thanks for your post!

Ilona Fridl said...

Hi, Barb and Emily!
Barb, I'm inclined to agree with Emily that we should get to know your heroine before the action scene. That will bring out more empathy with the character.
I love that you set the book in Juneau. Golden North is set there in the twenties.

Barbara Britton said...

Hi Ilona,
You're right in that I snatch Josephine away rather quickly in the first opening. A blend of the two openings lets the reader get to know her better.
Alaska is such a fun place to set a novel. Breathtaking and rugged--especially in the twenties.
Thanks for your comments.

EmilyBryan said...

MaryJo--The reason I do RPT with the opening is because so many problems can be either started or fixed there. The beginning is a delicate time.

EmilyBryan said...

Glad to help, Sori.

EmilyBryan said...

Ilona--I'm glad to see this setting too. We got a chance to visit Alaska in 2007 and it was breathtaking. And I'm sure to the lion's share of the goldrushers, heartbreaking. A vast, beautiful and unforgiving land.

Sarah Simas said...

HI Barb and Emily!

I enjoyed reading both versions. The first grabbed me with the intensity/suspense and the second for getting to know the character more. I'm no expert but I agree with Emily. I think a blending of the two versions will make for a perfect pairing. You definitely have the chops to do it! :)

Best wishes and Happy writing!

Barbara Britton said...

Thank you, Sarah. My blender is going!

EmilyBryan said...

Thanks for the support, Sarah!

Edie Ramer said...

The one thing both versions have in common is very good writing. Though I agree with Emily about the third version, as a reader I would have continued to read either version.

BetsyN said...

Hi Barb!

I agree with Joe, and liked the first version best, too. I like the grab and go, but also agree with the comments that more empathy needs to be created with the character to strengthen the opening hook. I'm so impressed with your writing and the images you invoke in my mind! Kudos!


Barbara Britton said...

Hi Edie and Betsy,
Thanks for the positive comments (: I'm so glad you like the openings and would keep reading. I don't want anyone closing the book after the first page!

Barbara Bettis said...

Hi Barbara and Emily,
I know I'm late with the comment, but I found your two openings and the problems involved very interesting.

Those of us yet-to-be-published writers are so often told to 'start with the action'--grab the readers' attention from the opening lines.

You certainly did that with the first version. Reading of the agent's reaction, then your revision and the way Emily plucked things from both in her recommendation--really gave me a lot to consider. Good luck with your third version. Hope it makes that agent smile :)

Thanks for all the insight, ladies.

EmilyBryan said...

Edie--You're right. The writing quality shows through, which is probably why the agent suggested a revision in the first place. Unless the original had some strengths, he/she wouldn't have bothered.

EmilyBryan said...

Betsy--Thanks for your comments. I too like for a story to hit the ground running, but creating a reason for the reader to care about what's happening is paramount. Emotion is the strongest hook a writer can set.

EmilyBryan said...

Barbara, glad we gave you some things to ponder for your own writing. That's sort of the point of RPT.

KatheeJantzi said...

Hi Emily and Barb,

After dining with Barb after a WisRWA meeting yesterday, I was dying to read the two versions of this story. I like action - so I love the first version which really pulls me in. Your attention to detail is amazing and your voice is strong. I like the idea of making him her stepfather and blending the two versions a little, but keeping the tension high! Congrats and good luck with this - (you make me want to undergo the Red Pencil)
Kathee Jantzi

EmilyBryan said...

Kathy, if you're serious about being a Red Pencil Thursday volunteer, please contact me through my website for details on how to make that happen.