Mozart and Beethoven are two of my favorite classical musicians, but their method of composition could hardly have been different. Mozart’s pieces sprang to life fully formed in his head. All he had to do was write them down. Beethoven, however, left us reams of notebooks filled with his crude beginnings and unformed musical thoughts.
There may be a few Mozarts in the romance world, but most of us are more like Beethoven. We write draft after draft. In the immortal words of La Nora, we “can fix a bad page, but we can’t fix a blank page.”
That’s why I so appreciate my RPT volunteers. While I hope they gain from the Red Pencil experience, what they’re really doing is letting others learn from their efforts. Suzan Tisdale, my volunteer today, is a successful author already. Her Laiden’s Daughter has sold over 30,000 copies since February 2012. But she’s agreed to let us all go to school on the first draft of her new WIP. Now that’s a generous heart!
Wee William’s Woman
The thought of running his dirk across the throats of the whoreson’s who inhabited the tiny cottage brought a smile to his face. He’d either bring back the treasures or the whoreson’s heads in baskets. Either way, he’d not leave this God forsaken country empty handed.
Mia: You’ve shown us how ruthless this protagonist is in only a few sentences. That’s good. We want our characters to have firm goals and we know his. However, whoreson’s shouldn’t have an apostrophe and it’s a unique enough word not to use more than once. Repetition cuts its effectiveness. Also, I believe God-forsaken is usually hyphenated. (Grammar geeks please weigh in!)
It was to have been an easy mission, but nothing about it had been easy since they left Castle Gregor more than a sinnight ago. They’d been plagued with a lame horse, a blizzard of near epic proportions, and a bout of a stomach ailment that that was almost as fierce as the damned blizzard. To say the least, his patience had worn thin.
Mia: I think you mean sennight (one week) instead of sinnight. I’d really love to have you use the man’s name by this point. I need a name in order to feel any sort of connection with him.
Now the two men he’d sent in to the barn to retrieve the treasures were walking toward him empty handed. As they approached, he contemplated what course of action to take next. Moments later the door to the cottage opened. Yellow candlelight spilled out onto the soft winter snow and a half-asleep young man stood in the doorway. The young man looked positively terrified.
Mia: It’s impossible to be both half-asleep and terrified. Terror has a way of jolting all the systems into full operational mode.
They were huge, hairy, intimidating men covered with furs. Moonlight glinted off the steel of their swords that hung at their sides or that clung to their backs. Three were on large stallions and two more were on foot.
Mia: Are these the men he sent into the barn? I’m a little confused at this point. Also, remember what Angela James, Carina Press editor, always says: “Not every noun deserves an adjective.” You’ve given ‘men’ 3 of them.
The two on foot had approached him with a speed he would not have thought possible considering their size. Before he realized what was happening, they had their swords drawn and pressed against his chest. He was too shocked and terrified to utter anything more than a gasp and certainly not brave enough to try to warn the others that slept peacefully unaware inside the small cottage.
Mia: There’s been a jarring POV shift here. First we’re in the mind of the nameless fellow who intends to kill all the whoresons. Now we seem to be inside the guy who wandered to the door. Either POV would work, but it’s easier for readers to follow the thread of the action if you stick with one.
The young man wasn’t sure if it were snarls or smiles that were plastered to the brutes’ faces. He didn’t have the nerve or where with all to inquire. Without a word, the two men quietly backed him into the cottage until he was firmly pressed against the wall.
Mia: Different sorts of action call for different rhythms in our prose. Quick violent action like you’re describing will read better if it’s told in short sentences. Try this:
Either snarls or smiles were plastered to the brutes’ faces. The young man didn’t have the nerve to inquire which. Without a word, the two men backed him into the cottage. They didn’t stop till his spine pressed the wall.
The two warriors gave a quick survey of their surroundings, all the while keeping their swords pressed against the English man’s quaking chest. They took note of a man asleep on a pallet in front of the fire while another slept on the only bed. The room smelled of smoke, bad ale and sweat.
Mia: Ok. Now we’re in the two intruders’ POV. That said, I like the details you’ve given us. My old crit partner Darcy Carson always complained when she couldn’t “smell the scene.” You’ve taken care of that for us here.
As the young man trembled, he looked toward the door. His eyes grew wider when he saw the dark, imposing, silhouette that stood at the doorway. A man, or half of him anyway, stood at the entrance of the cottage and mumbled something barely audible, and in a language the young man didn’t understand. It sounded Gaelic and quite irritated. As he continued to quake, he wondered what highlanders were doing here of all places.
Mia: And now we’re back in the young man’s head. I know what you’re trying to get at by saying ‘or half of him anyway.’ You want to emphasize the large size of the fellow at the door, but it doesn’t read quite right.
A heavy sigh came from the doorway as the giant bent at his waist, turned slightly and entered at an odd angle. There was no way he could stand upright in the tiny cottage, therefore he stood crouching sideways as he looked around the room. The scowl on his face was enough to make anyone with a half a dose of common sense or instinct take pause.
Mia: ‘Take pause’ seems a little tame for the terror you’ve shown in the young man. Can you punch that up a few notches?
I sense something violent is about to happen, but I’m still not invested enough in any of the characters to care. I need names. I need a reason to worry for the young man. I need a reason to hate the ‘whoresons.’ Are the ‘treasures,’ by chance, this big highlander’s children? That would change this scene out of all knowing for me.
Choosing the POV character for a scene is an important writerly decision. Some people advise picking the person with the most to lose. Others say you should inhabit the head of the person who’ll see things in the most interesting light. However we choose, it’s important to make a choice. When I first started writing, I thought 3rd person omniscient meant I could pop in and out of any head I wanted at any time. The result was chaos. Omniscient POV is the most distant one a writer can choose and the one that makes it most difficult for readers to establish a connection with the characters. Many YA books are written in first person because it creates an instant rapport between the reader and the POV character. Experiment with which POV gives you the most engaging beginning.
You know I love your adventure-filled stories. I’m sure this will be another terrific one!
Mia: Usually, my volunteers post their responses to my comments. Suzan has submitted a total rewrite instead, picking a single POV. I think it really smooths out this opening. See if you agree:
Version 2 of Wee William’s Woman
The thought of running his dirk across the throats of the whoresons who inhabited the tiny cottage brought a smile to his face. He’d either bring back the treasures they’d been sent to retrieve, or their heads in baskets. Either way, he’d not leave this God-forsaken country empty handed.
It was to have been an easy mission, but nothing about it had been easy since they left Castle Gregor more than a sennight ago. They’d been plagued with a lame horse, a blizzard of near epic proportions, and a bout of a stomach ailment that that was almost as fierce as the blizzard. To say the least, the giant man’s patience had worn thin. The eight men who traveled with him were growing just as impatient.
Now the two men he’d sent in to the barn to retrieve the treasures were walking toward him empty handed. As they approached, he straightened himself in his saddle and cast a frustrated look to the two men who sat atop horses on either side of him. Eager smiles formed on their lips, which brought one to his own. They were just as eager as he to seek vengeance on the three men who’d cut the braid off a beautiful lass more than two years past. The bastards had made her life a living hell. Now the Highlanders had the opportunity to make right, the appalling wrongs that had been done to Aishlinn McEwan.
Before he could form his next thought, the door to the cottage slowly opened. Yellow candlelight spilled out onto the soft winter snow and a half-asleep young man stood in the doorway, scratching his stomach and yawning. The instant he caught sight of the Highlanders that filled the yard before him, terror came alive in his eyes and he dropped the candle he’d been holding. The flame sizzled in the snow before the light extinguished.
The two men on foot approached the young man with such stealth and speed that he’d no time at all to react. The young Englishman gasped as the two large Highlanders pressed their swords against his chest. Silently, they backed him into the cottage until his spine pressed against the wall.
The giant and his men quickly dismounted to follow the others inside. The giant paused at the threshold and cursed the low doorway. He hated small cottages with low ceilings for ’twas impossible for him to stand completely upright in one.
The warriors inside gave a quick survey of their surroundings. They took note of a man asleep on a pallet in front of the low burning fire, while another slept on the only bed. The room smelled of smoke, bad ale and sweat.
With a frustrated sigh and a shake of his head, the giant entered the cottage at an odd angle. The scowl on his face was enough to make the bones of anyone with a half a dose of common sense to rattle with fear.
Thanks, Suzan! If you’d like to read more of Ms. Tisdale’s work, let me recommend her newest: Findley’s Lass . It’s the second book in her Clan MacDougall series.
This is the final weekend to take advantage of the special offer on my Touch of a Thief–only $3.99 for your Kindle! It’s a great way to start my Touch of Seduction series.
And now, since the strength of this group depends on the critical eyes gathered around my cyber-table, Suzan and I are waiting for YOUR comments! We look forward to hearing from YOU.