Thursday, September 2, 2010

Red Pencil Thursday with Anna Bowling

Our volunteer today is Anna Bowling, author of postapocalyptic medieval romances (try saying that three times fast!) She's a hard worker who gets excited about good rejections--a perfect candidate for Red Pencil Thursday. A writer needs a teachable spirit and a willingness to try different options.

My comments are in red. Anna's responses are in purple. Please add your comments and suggestions as well.


The point of a title is to give the reader a hint about what's to come. A draper was a cloth merchant/weaver and the term first surfaced in the 14th century, so it has a medieval feel. However, if this a postapocalyptic story, this title doesn't convey any sense of danger or "other-ness." I wonder if anyone has a suggestion that will juice the title up a bit?
Title suggestions are very much welcome. This is a road story, with Draperwood being the name of a haven that may or may not exist.
Maybe something with Quest in it or Return or Finding

England, 1361

John de Warre needed nobody and nobody needed him. That fact gave him some measure of comfort, enough to keep him moving through one day after the next. He rode toward the town, or the remains of the town, weary in body and soul and with absolutely no illusions that it would afford him the rest he needed. For too many days, he’d ridden beneath the elements, his packs and stomach far from full. If it weren't for the horse, he would have stopped and in time, death would find him.

John de Warre--terrific name. You've introduces us to an archetypal hero--The Loner. We like John because even though he "needed nobody" he has a care for his horse.

I’m glad John’s name works. Finding the right name for a character lets me grab onto them. He is a loner, but he’s not beyond hope if he’s considering the horse’s needs.

He did not fear death for himself. He would not seek it, but he would not flee it either. A moment's ignorance could do it. A sudden storm if there were no shelter. Or running afoul of bandits who might be anywhere, even more desperate for the little he carried than he was himself. Starvation could do it, or thirst, or sheer exhaustion blinding him to a wrong step that could lead to a fatal fall. He'd seen death come even quicker than that, a second’s inattention in battle, or a single boil heralding a fever that could empty a house or a town in less than a week.

Things like that could empty a life as well. They had emptied his. No use whining about that. All he could count on were his own strong arm, keen eye and enough intelligence to know that those were valuable tools.

Ok. Now I'm depressed. There are a few too many ways to die enumerated here and none of them mean much to John except the fever. That's the only one we need to know about, because it impacted our hero.

Good point. Establishing a bleak atmosphere is one thing; depressing readers is another. Sticking to what matters most keeps the focus where it belongs. The death list goes.

His dry tongue rasped and stuck against the roof of his mouth. He didn’t regret giving the horse the last of his water, even if it meant his own thirst.

Have you ever been truly thirsty? In addition to the symptoms you listed here, a person's esophagus dries out, making it almost impossible to swallow. Fatigue, muscle cramps, headache, nausea, increased heart rate, the list goes on. He just touted his own intelligence. Giving the horse the last of his water doesn't demonstate it. Even though he likes his horse, he'd regret it, I promise you.

Smacking myself in the head here. I have had experience with dehydration (heat stroke, oh so fun) so this is a good chance to draw on that. John might still end up giving the horse the water, but he would regret it.

A compassionate gesture, some might call it, but for John it was a practical one. A dead horse would attract bandits, and once they were done picking the carcass clean, they would follow his trail, better nourished and better equipped than a lone man on foot. Death by bandits would be his last choice. There were better ways.

There's a logic problem here. If they butcher the horse, the bandits would be there a while. Long enough for John to reach the town even on foot... provided dehydration doesn't get him.

That sounds a lot more logical, and more John-like. He might take into consideration that the bandits would need time to butcher the horse, and they can’t do that and chase him, but how far would he get without water?

Starvation and disease would require the least effort on his part, and he’d seen their effectiveness. Trouble was, they took too long and he’d had enough of the pain and desperation either would bring. His knife had a long, sharp blade, good for hunting and dressing the meat. He’d heated it over a fire and cauterized his own wounds with it. If he had no other options, he could draw it across his own throat and be done with it all, but unless he had no other choice, he wouldn’t take his own life outside a city, or the remains of one.

I'm afraid you're spending too long on ways to die. I'd rather know more about why John is considering it in such minute detail. The best hook a writer can set is an emotional one. John is indifferent about death. If he doesn't care, we won't either. Give us a hint of what's driving him forward and we'll follow.

The death list definitely gets cut. His preoccupation with death comes from a desire to be with his wife and their child again, having lost his family in the plague, which wars with his sense of honor and his faith that tells him actively taking his own life is wrong. Which would be much more interesting than listing ways death might find him.
Now you have my complete attention. We love wounded heroes. And a hero who has loved deeply can love again, if he lets himself. The journey back to a full life can mirror his journey to Draperwood.

His eyes scanned the horizon for signs of life, his ears pricked for any hints of sounds of the living. Voices, maybe, or turning wheels. A dog’s bark. The cluck of chickens. Anything that wasn’t the wind. Then he heard the bell.

Good sensory details. When you write historicals, purists will ding you for using words that sound too modern. Scanned leaped out at me, so I checked with the Etymology Dictionary. It was in use during the 14th century, but it meant to "mark off by foot" not to look at intently. It was another 100 years before it meant that. So you're close here, but to my ears it still sounds too modern for a medieval. How about "His gaze swept..."? Notice I changed the eyes to gaze because I have a thing about roaming body parts. We don't want his eyes going anywhere.
Thanks much. His eyes stay in his head and his gaze can do the sweeping. Will add the Etymology Dictionary to my resources.

The bell! Aline dropped her mending and whirled to grab her shawl from the peg by the door.

You have a gift for selecting evocative details, but because your hero is alone, we're left only with internal dialogue and no conflict.

I'd like to suggest that you've started this story in the wrong place. As it stands, we have John by himself, ruminating over ways to die. However, the bell signals something is about to happen. That's were the story should start since I suspect John and Aline are shortly going to meet because of the bell. That's where you should begin. There will be dialogue and conflicting goals between the two characters.
That’s definitely something to consider. John and Aline do meet shortly after the bell sounds, and its sounding indicates something other than what Aline thinks it does.

This is a common problem. I chopped 12 pages from the beginning of ERINSONG, my second novel. It was like I was clearing my throat trying to get the story started. But nothing is ever wasted on a writer. Because you've written this, you know a lot about John's state of mind. However, the author always needs to know more than she shares. When he meets Aline, there will be opportunity to pepper in how he's feeling about life and death.
Very good point. Not everything we know about a character needs to go in the actual story, and choosing the right bits to use when introducing the character can make a big difference.

Thanks for letting me take a look at DRAPERWOOD.

Thank you for the opportunity. Now I’m even more excited about digging in and revising.

The whole point of a critique is to find new ways to think about our work, new directions our story might take, fresh ways of presenting our ideas. If I gave you something to think about, I'm delighted.

My bio: Anna Carrasco Bowling has finally found a way to make the voices in her head pay rent. Currently living with her real life hero in the Northeast US, she spends her days plotting world domination...okay, time travel and historical romance that takes the dark road to happily ever after.

Anna's blog:

Ok, it's time for you to add your suggestions and encouragement for Anna. I look forward to reading your comments.


Mystica said...

Thanks for the cross talk! I couldnt get my tongue around it on once let alone thrice!

Gillian Layne said...

Anna, I really like your title, but I am a one word title fan.

You set a mood very well, so maybe just condense his misery into a couple of shorter paragraphs and then move on to him meeting someone. I do think the details you provide paint a very clear picture. Nice work!

EmilyBryan said...

Mystica--Give and take is important to a critique. It really helps to learn what motivates a writer's choices.

EmilyBryan said...

Gillian--Good suggestions! Thanks.

Sandy said...

Emily, what a great job you did.

Anna, I have a logic problem too when I'm writing my scenes. It's always great to get the directional help like what Emily offers.

For titles, I like Return to Draperwood or Journey to Draperwood. The title with return in it lets the reader know he's been there before. The story sounds very good.

Barbara Britton said...

Anna, I liked your theme and the characterization of John. I agree with Emily, that starting near "the bell" would draw us into dialogue and interaction between John and Aline.

I really want to see John happy!

EmilyBryan said...

Sandy--Thanks for the title suggestions.

EmilyBryan said...

Barbara--The bell does seem to function like a herald of sorts--signaling a change. Authors used to be able to spend more time in the character's Ordinary World, but now we're expected to begin closer to the inciting incident.

Anna Carrasco Bowling said...

Mystica (great username, btw) the cross talk is a big part of what makes Red Pencil Thursday such a compelling feature.

Gillian, I like one word titles too; sometimes those can have a lot of impact. Thanks much for your lovely comments.

Sandy, thanks for the suggestions. I'm keeping a list of possible titles.

Barbara, I'm glad you like John and the story's theme. He absolutely does get a happy ending.

Emily, many thanks for the support and direction.

Anonymous said...

Excellent work, Anna. I agree with Emily's and Gillian's suggestions. While there is a better hook that could come from the bell sequence I think the most important aspect for me is whether or not what you have shown as John's intro can/is shown later. Recollections through back story and his condition when he arrives are both viable ways of doing this without sacrificing the character's import or integrity. If these things don't work in the framing of your story, the intro works well, but some areas (the death stuff) could be condensed while his external journey (geography) are expounded upon. Just my $.02. :) Thanks for sharing!

Anna Carrasco Bowling said...

Thanks, Kimberly. More emotion, less grump and things will move right along.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what everyone has said here. I think you have a lot of talent with setting the mood, Anna, and I definitely got the idea John was a bit on the depressed side. I agree with Emily that the bell is a good place to start the story--that's where you really captured my attention. I wondered what the bell signified. Actually, it only takes a few sentences really to tell us about John. I'd suggest take your best ones and forgo the rest. But that's just me.
Keep up the good work!