We’re beginning our Red Pencil Thursday a little differently today. Our volunteer sent along an explanation of the philosophy behind her excerpt. I’m posting it here in case you’d like a peek behind the writer’s curtain to see what’s going on in Mary Anne Lander’s head. If you want to read the excerpt without any preconceived notions, scroll down to the title. Thank you for volunteering, Mary Anne and for giving us some thought-provoking things to mull over.
Mary Anne: A word from the author, which you’re welcome to publish or not, as you see fit. I didn’t explain my purpose because I figured those who offer critiques, including you, would rather cut to chase and just deal with the actual excerpt. But in case I was wrong, allow me a brief intro.
I’m deliberately planning this romance to be off the beaten track. I’m aiming for one that appeals to readers with tastes similar to mine. Or who go for conventional romances, but might try an offbeat one when they’re in an adventuresome mood.
What do I mean by offbeat? For one thing, the hero is a good guy. He isn’t an alpha male. He’s not a billionaire, a duke, a Navy SEAL, or a CIA agent. He’s an average Joe—on the outside. Inside, he’s anything but. To the heroine, at least.
Though he has problems, he isn’t tortured, not like most romance heroes. He doesn’t have to be redeemed. There are other issues going on. Just my opinion, but I think the emphasis on redemption in today’s romance fiction comes at the expense of romance. At least, what I consider romance.
So if there’s no redemption, what is there? A tale of love against fate. Two people fall in love; but in order to fulfill it, they must overcome obstacles on both the outside and the inside. The odds aren’t in their favor; they must develop strengths they didn’t already have. But despite setbacks, they keep trying. Such is the power of love.
Though many readers wouldn’t find this kind of story romantic, I have reason to believe some do. I’m one of them. And the romance market isn’t supplying what we demand.
I hope to fill this gap. I can’t say whether I’ll succeed. But if I do, there will still be plenty of alpha heroes and redemption romances. A niche market won’t hurt the big one.
Enough explanation. Now for the excerpt:
Paradise for Two
Mia: Your title is your first hook. It telegraphs what sort of story the reader can expect. It raises questions in their mind. It makes them pick up the book and read the first line. This one strikes me as a little too generic. Can you think of something specific to your characters that will do more for your story?
Mary Anne: Here’s an idea. How about “Bird of Paradise”? Not just because of the setting. The hero is an ornithologist.
Mia: Yes, that’s better. Check on Amazon to see if it’s been used before.
No sooner had Jacqueline spotted the rainforest pool than she stepped on the rocky rim, stripped off her robe and bikini, and dove in. The fresh water felt heavenly, washing off the brine from the nearby seashore and cooling her sun-reddened skin. Her fingers ran through her black tresses, rinsing out every trace of sand.
Mia: It may be me, but I’m hearing a more historical tone than contemporary. Even your heroine’s name sounds a bit Victorian. Might she go by Jackie? ‘No sooner had’ seems a bit clunky to start. How about this:
Jackie stepped on the rocky rim, stripped off her robe and bikini, and dove into the rainforest pool. The fresh water washed off the brine from the nearby seashore and cooled her sun-reddened skin. She ran her fingers through her black hair, rinsing out every trace of sand.
‘Tresses’ sounds too historical to me. Try to avoid ‘felt.’ We’re in her POV. Just describe and we’ll figure out it’s heavenly.
Mary Anne: Okay, will do.
Oh, this is paradise! What I’d always imagined the Virgin Islands would be like. A place I thought a poor Brooklyn girl like me would never see, except in a travelog.
She swam from to the other side of the pool, barely sixty feet across. Her trim body reveled in the invigorating exertion. Jacqueline saw the sunlight on the ripples, the birds flying through the luxuriant greenery.
Mia: A contemporary heroine is more likely to see things online instead of in a travelog. The DH and I have been to St. Marten, St. Thomas & St. John, but we’ve never seen a pool like this. Those islands are too small to have rivers, which I’m assuming you’d need to refill a pool like this lest it go stagnant. Is there an island in that chain with a place like the one you’ve described?
Mary Anne: Okay, substitute “website” for “travelog”. And it’s a fictitious island. Also, the “natural” pool isn’t really. But there’s no room for landscaping details in the first 500 words.
Mia: Like avoiding ‘felt’, avoid ‘saw.’ Just describe what she sees and we’ll follow our POV character.
Mary Anne: Will do.
And, half-hidden behind a hibiscus bush, a man. Staring at her.
Mia: Bingo! You’ve found your opening. Start with our heroine suddenly staring into that stranger’s eyes. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, because I’m a sucker for settings myself, but the secluded pool you’ve lavished so much care on isn’t nearly as important as this moment.
Mary Anne: I’ll condense it.
Jacqueline gasped. She submerged herself deeper and quickly swam behind a large rock.
Her heart raced. My God! A peeping tom! Even in paradise there are creeps!
Trying to keep the fear out of voice, she shouted, “Go away!”
Mia: Keep it simple. Just “Go away!” is enough. We know from her actions that she’s afraid/startled. As an exercise, see if you can show how she’s feeling without the internal dialogue throughout this opening.
Mary Anne: Will consider it, though—just my opinion—I don’t consider stating a character’s thoughts directly to be telling. No more than conversation with other characters.
The stranger said, “Don’t be frightened. I’m not here to harm you. Just warn you.”
“You’re trespassing. This is private property.”
“You’re the owner?”
“No, that’s Paul Fairchild. The man who owns the big resort next door. And he’s very hard on trespassers.”
“But I’m a guest of his! I just came from his party at the beach.”
“Did he say you could come here?”
She held her peace. He didn’t. But he didn’t say I couldn’t. Am I allowed here or not? This guy must be one of his employees. I’d better explain myself. Nicely.
Mia: She doesn’t seem to know her host, but she just came from his party? I’m a tad confused and had to reread the passage a couple times. You don’t want that. Remember the Prime Directive: First, be clear.
Mary Anne: I can make it clearer. She doesn’t know her host very well. She hasn’t been here long, and their relationship is purely professional. Though soon he’ll try to change that.
Jacqueline stared straight at the man, noting his tanned skin, blond curls, and well-muscled form. A pleasant sight under most circumstances. But not these.
Mia: I’m a little disappointed that this guy doesn’t seem to be the hero, especially since he’s buff, tough and “a pleasant sight.” Or if he is the hero, be aware of reader expectations. Peeping aside, he’s not meeting the hero standard at present. I’m a fan of the underdog myself, but romance is fantasy. We want the billionaire. If we have a cowboy hero, he’d better own the ranch, not sleep in the bunkhouse.
Mary Anne: Well, not everyone’s romantic fantasy is the same, and we obviously have different ideas about what makes a hero a hero. Readers who don’t go for the usual billionaires and dukes should have options. Or so I believe. But I don’t want to debate that here. Shucks, I don’t want to debate that at all! To each her own.
Mia: Debate is healthy and I welcome it, Mary Anne. My goal is to help you meet the expectations of the largest possible audience. When I do my RPTs, I sort of put on a NY editor hat. Readers want what they want and we ignore them at our peril. If your goal is to be published by one of the NY houses, there are some givens in the romance genre. That said, if you have your sights on self-publishing or one of the boutique publishers who are more open to out of the box stories and characters, go for it. Ultimately, you’re the one who knows how to tell your story best. (And FYI, I have bucked the trend and did a hero who was the head groom in My Lady Below Stairs. So it can be done, but it’s harder than you might think.)
She smiled and said in her sweetest voice, “Listen, my name is Jacqueline Sarto. I’m a model, here on St. Ursula for a photo shoot. We’re making ads and commercials for the resort. Just ask your boss.”
Mia: A model. Hmm. I don’t know for certain, but I’m thinking that models are not terribly shy about their bodies. I suspect it’s sort of like theatre people, something with which I do have some firsthand experience. There often isn’t time for modesty. I had such a quick change in a production of Marriage of Figaro once, it took two wardrobe people to switch me out in the wings with any of the cast and stage hands looking on if they cared to. Granted, it wasn’t from the skin out, but let’s just say “Victoria had no secrets.” Anyway, now I’m wondering if your heroine’s reaction to being caught in the buff is a little excessive, given her job.
Mary Anne: Good line, “Victoria has no secrets”. More to the point, if you’re undressed while performing your job, and in the company of several people doing the same, there’s precious little danger that anyone who sees you will do anything worse than sneak a peek. But if you and some stranger are alone, like these two, I think a healthy measure of alarm is justifiable.
“Mr. Fairchild. You work for him, don’t you?”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I’m trespassing. But I know I am!”
Mia: I’d like a sense of what he’s physically doing at this point. A small percentage of our communication takes place in words. Can you add some action or at least a facial expression so we can put the dialogue in context?
Mary Anne: Yes I can.
Her heart sank. I knew it! He’s up to no good. But what?
She thought quickly. I’ve got to keep him talking, to find out more about him. Then tell Fairchild. And the police.
Mia: The italics tell us she’s thinking. You don’t need to say she’s doing it quickly. IMO, internal dialogue is telling. See if you can eliminate it. Is St. Ursula a private island? Would they have a police force or private security?
Mary Anne: It’s not a private island. It’s a well-developed resort.
Again she smiled. “Listen, why don’t we make a deal? You won’t tell on me; I won’t tell on you.”
Mia: Can she do something else besides smile? Even though she’s trying to earn his confidence, too much smiling is off putting. It’s something I have to guard against in my own work too. Sometimes I go back over a page and think “Why the heck is everyone grinning like Cheshire Cats all the time?”
Mary Anne: Delete one smile.
“But we’ve got to be even. I told you who I am and why I’m here. Now it’s your turn.”
He winced. Jacqueline thought, Is he going to keep silent? Can he tell I’m leading him on?
But after a moment, he said, “Call me Rob.”
“As in Robert?”
“My first name is Robinson.”
“And your last name?”
Mia: I take it back. He’s behaving in too creepy a manner to be the hero even if he does look good in a speedo. Peeping and being evasive without reason are enough for me to scratch him from the hero list.
Now if he is the hero, there are ways for him to be introduced in a better light. He could speak to her first instead of letting her catch him leering at her. He could go all alpha and come sit down beside her discarded clothing. He could offer to peel off his own and join her in the pool in the interests of, as Jackie says, “being even.” He could explain why the pool is off limits to Paul Fairchild’s guests and why he flaunts the rules. If he won’t give her his real name, he shouldn’t give her any.
Of course, if he’s not the hero, then all these suggestions are moot.
Mary Anne: Lest there be any confusion on this issue, and obviously there is, yes, “Rob” is the hero. And he wasn’t leering at her. He’s here to warn her she’s trespassing; that’s all. Perhaps this would be clearer if she saw him avert his eyes, or if he defended himself to more extent. Going alpha on her wouldn’t be his style.
As for his evasiveness, I deliberately tried to make him come across as a man of mystery. He’s supposed to puzzle both Jacqueline and the reader. I was hoping this would intrigue the reader. Obviously you have a very different reaction! Oh well, back to the drawing board.
Mia: I’m biased toward alphas, but there is definitely room in the romance heavens for the beta hero. I like the idea of him averting his eyes. If you watch old movies, you’ll see Cary Grant doing that–an endearing, gentlemanly thing to do. I’d like Rob better if he were straight with her instead of evasive. I don’t think he needs to be mysterious at this point. What is he trying to hide?
She bristled. “Oh come on! What’s your real name?”
Then a familiar voice rang out from the path to the beach. “Jackie! Where are you?”
The stranger vanished.
# # #
Mia: Those first 500 words are so tough and so terribly important. You need to introduce your protagonist in a unique and engaging situation, which you have done. A model is caught doing a bit of nude bathing by a handsome stranger. As a cute meet that could work, but there’s something off in the exchange between Jackie and Rob.
What is the goal of this scene? What do you want them to learn about each other and their situation through the exchange? How will what happens here impact what follows? Answer those questions for yourself and you’ll have a handle on what needs to change. Good luck and thanks so much for volunteering!
Mary Anne: Yes, I know this opening needs work. That’s why I submitted it to your workshop. And I’m grateful for any feedback, even the most negative.
Mary Anne Landers loves to read, write, and play with her furry children, aka cats. She lives in a small town in Arkansas. She’s in love with love, which helps to explain why she’s into romance fiction.
Now we come to the most important part of Red Pencil Thursday–YOUR turn. Please weigh in with comments and encouragement for Mary Anne. What do you think? Are you a fan of alpha or beta heroes? What draws you to them? Do you like the theme of redemption so popular in romance? Or is it a distraction? Thanks in advance for sharing!