Week 1 Mini-Critique Winner

Title: Matrimony Mayhem
Author: Donna D.
Category: Contemporary Romance

Perched on the desk in her tiny home office, Libby indulged in an afternoon latte, her one true vice. The creamy froth and dark, rich espresso worked wonders. Lifting her spirits and putting that trademark grin back on her face. She reached up, and tucked a spiral of raven hair behind her ear.

Funky, dark rimmed glasses slid down her nose. Absently pushing them back in place, she was the very image of a sexy librarian. Actually, Libby was the farthest thing from quiet, timid, or buttoned up. She was the girl in the midst of everything, her finger poised on the pulse. She liked being the go-to girl and revelled in the feeling of a plan coming together. Her fledgling company, Elizabethan Events was the perfect outlet for her very creative and social personality. That was until she had signed the Jamieson-Smythe wedding, and began living her worst nightmare. Running over the last few weeks in her mind, tackling world peace should be next on the list. After this job, it would be a walk in the park.

When the families had insisted on Executive Chef, Rooney McQueen for the catering, Libby explained that the man did not personally cater events anymore. She ensured them that his staff was well-trained and very professional. The bride had lost it. The resulting tantrum had her groom running for cover and only an afternoon in the spa could soothe her ruffled feathers. Libby rolled her eyes remembering the fit and the following slick negotiating she’d done to sign the chef.

Rooney McQueen was a local celebrity, something he used to his advantage whenever possible. With a string of restaurants down the coast and a new series with the Food Network, his star was shining bright. So bright, that he figured himself to be an irresistible specimen. Somehow, in spite of all the flirting and endless banter, Libby managed to maintain a professional relationship. Even when his long, lean physique captured her imagination. He really was sexy as hell. His teasing manner worked well on every female, herself included. Often, when she stood close, his clean male scent beckoned her and she wondered how good he really was with his hands.

Reality check! Libby’s number one rule: no mixing business with pleasure, no matter how tasty the treat.

The man could be quite charming, true. But it was just the icing on the cake. Libby couldn’t understand what kept the endless string of girlfriends interested. It was obvious that McQueen enjoyed sampling the menu; he never settled for the same dinner twice. Not a man to trust with your heart.

Quick with words and good at finding out what people really wanted, she’d reduced herself to stroking the man’s ego. She’d explained how his hands-on treatment would be a great promo for the new series. At first, he’d flat out refused. Then, like a slow oven, he’d warmed to the idea. Especially when Libby suggested taping the event and using it as the pilot episode. The couple had agreed as well, since the show would not air for months, their celebration would be old news to the entertainment rags.

Libby soon realized that getting Rooney on board had only been the first of many hoops to jump through. Now, it was a daily struggle to appease the egos of both the bride and the high-strung chef. The greatest hurdle had been the menu. Each plate had evolved into a contentious prize worth fighting over.

Her phone rang, and she listened for a moment before interrupting. ‘What do you mean, you’re leaving?’ the muscles in her shoulders pulled together. Six months of meditation classes, wasted on this one wedding. She needed a good massage complete with a minted rosemary wrap to banish the built-up tension.

Instead, she readied herself for another gruelling debate with Rooney McQueen and his insufferable ego. Their meetings had been nothing short of a knocked down, dragged out battle of the wills; one that Libby refused to concede.

‘Rooney, you can’t just leave town now! I’m coming over. I’ll be there by four. Please, just wait there.” frustrated, Libby snapped the phone shut and double-checked her day timer. The gall of this chef! The biggest event in her career and he was trying to skip town two days before. She wondered how he kept staff around. Granted, if they could work for him, they could handle anything! But, this was her baby and with only 48 hours left, Libby’s focus was on ironing out any last minute glitches, before they happened.

‘Simple Elegance’ was the theme. Very little pomp, just a small ceremony followed by a sumptuous meal. A secluded resort on one of the Gulf Islands had been completely booked. Just large enough to accommodate a few friends and family, it was exclusive, exquisitely charming and wonderfully remote.
In the morning, the newlyweds would sail away for an extended cruise aboard the family yacht. Libby had organized adventure tours and put the spa staff on call for the remaining guests. They were free to amuse themselves, all expenses paid for the rest of the weekend.

Gathering up her bag and laptop, Libby headed for her car. She’d better hurry to make it across town by four. Dropping her things on the front seat, she folded down the top of her BMW convertible. The warm sun and wind always helped to clear away frustration. The classic sports car drove like a dream, the suspension cradled her around the corners and over the hills of the coastal area. The jangle of her cell phone interrupted the peaceful drive.
Using her wireless ear nub, she answered the call, hands free.

“Libby darling, I just don’t know how to tell you this…the Wedding’s off.”Mother of the bride, Janet Jamieson’s cultured voice drawled into her ear. Libby’s brain couldn’t process the words, they were too absurd. Then, Janet continued…

Leigh here:

There are a number of factors I really like about Donna’s story. The conflict is concrete and easy to grasp, and the characters’ professions of chef and wedding planner will require them to deal with each other up close and personal as they try to sort out the mess of this on-again, off-again wedding. Giving Rooney a TV show as well as a position as a hot chef adds wonderful possibilities to the plot and action – and adds to the give-and-take potential as this couple negotiates.

There are some laugh-out-loud lines, as well – if she can fix this wedding, she should take on world peace next, and how Rooney never sticks to one dish on the menu (either food or women). And I love the name of Libby’s business, with its double meaning.

I like Libby, too – she’s active, she’s appealing, and she’s attracted to the hero but has her head firmly on her shoulders (for now) and is resisting. I like her smart mouth, and I could see myself being friends with this woman. And of course I’m sympathetic when the wedding starts to fall apart under her.

I also really like the sense of awareness that we get of the hero — even though he doesn’t actually appear on the page here, Libby’s reaction to him makes the sensual tension sparkle already, and I can’t wait to meet him in person.

In fact, as a reader that’s the biggest problem I have with this opening – that I haven’t had a chance to see Rooney for myself. Instead, I’m being told about Rooney and his success and how sexy he is, I’m being told about their first meeting and how challenging it was, I’m being told about how they negotiated, I’m being told about how Libby convinced him, I’m being told about how she’s had to stroke his ego.

But I haven’t seen any of that for myself. The result is that I feel distanced from the story – I’m being told about it, rather than living it right beside Libby. I’m left feeling that the most important parts of the story have already happened, and I missed out on them.

(When the author starts using lots of “had” constructions — she’d reduced herself; She’d explained; he’d flat out refused; The couple had agreed – and expressions like “she remembered”, it’s a clue that perhaps the important action has happened off the page. It’s usually better to show the reader what’s going on rather than telling her what happened previously.)

One of the most important moments in a romance is the first significant meeting of the hero and heroine; it’s impossible to overstate how crucial it is that the reader feel she’s right there watching that moment, seeing how the two characters react to each other. Here, the first significant meeting of Rooney and Libby is when she approached him to do the wedding – the first time they encountered each other. But that happened well before page one began, so we didn’t get to see it.

And even when you bring the characters together in this scene, the conversation is summarized. In the conversation between them — (paragraph 7) – there’s only one line of dialogue, and it’s Libby’s. I’m eavesdropping on one end of a conversation, so I can’t judge for myself what’s going on.

As a reader I’m frustrated – why am I not allowed to hear what the hero’s saying? Give me the whole picture, so I can really wallow in how ridiculous Rooney’s being and why Libby’s ready to shoot him.

I think you’ve also cheated yourself of some wonderful story moments by summarizing like this. It would be a great dramatic moment when the bride finds out she can’t have Rooney and has a hissy fit. It would be a great scene when Libby has to finagle her way into Rooney’s kitchen to try to convince him, because he won’t talk to her when she calls. It would be a very effective bit of dialogue when Rooney “flat out refused” to consider the idea. It’s a terrific plot moment when mother-of-the-bride calls to say the wedding’s off – but putting that into the first 1,000 words means that you’ve lost the impact it could have as a major turning point and conflict-raiser later in the story.

In terms of technical matters, watch out for misspelled words, punctuation, and sentence fragments (“Lifting her spirits and putting that trademark grin back on her face”). Overall, however, your writing is clear and solid; you say exactly what you mean and the reader has no trouble following your story. You’re a very good writer. I’d just like to see you start telling the story earlier – at the significant moment when Libby, with a wedding contract depending on convincing Rooney to help her, approaches him to cater the wedding – and show the reader what’s happening rather than telling her about the story.


11 responses

18 09 2007

I agree with Leigh’s assessment and recognize some of the same tendencies in my own writing to present too much exposition, telling rather than showing the story, too much off the bat. But I really enjoyed the ‘flavor” of this writer’s writing and her character constructs are fun and breezy. Good job, overall, I thought. (BTW, this is a wonderful facet of the contest, to learn by good, well-drawn example like this!)

19 09 2007
The ‘Process’ of Picking a Winner « Chase the Dream Writers Contest

[…] a Winner 18 09 2007 NOTE: Before I begin, I want to remind folks to check out this week’s mini-critique winner, where Leigh provided excellent advice on how to make the piece […]

19 09 2007

Thank you Leigh! Wow, I am honoured just to get the critique!:-)
This afternoon, after I read Marcia’s finalist entry, I knew then what was missing from the work…dialogue.
I had never (before now) considered a different beginning point for Matrimony Mayhem. I thought the best was yet to come, but there was all this info I felt the reader needed to know. Again, Show, don’t tell! Why is that in big letters across my corkboard?
In fact, I have been struggling with the same issue in my next entry, there’s no interaction between the principals in those first 1000 words.
Well my thanks again Leigh and Rachelle for giving us all this chance.
Now, let me limber up those fingers and give it another try!

Kind regards to all! Donna

19 09 2007

I’m finding the entire contest process interesting. I wonder, however, on the value of looking simply at the first 1000 words. Depending on the length of the piece, say a full size, single title, 1000 words is nothing; A drop in the bucket, a teardrop in the pacific. That would be using 1% of a manuscript in which to meet both characters and get a feel for the plot. In a full-length piece, that might not get you past the prologue. Wow. What would you do if the story actually starts with each person “getting to the party.” That could take 5 pages each.

I totally understand that the stakes change when you’re looking at a category romance of 55,000 words. That would be almost half the room in which to explore a story line…and the first 1000 words would have a larger impact.

I wonder if this contest is therefore geared to “the lighter side”; including category, chick-lit and the newer paranormals and erotica that has been popping up….most of which are what I consider “consumable goods”. Read once, toss.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the contest. I have submitted a piece and I hope it finals, these were just thoughts I had while I was reading the first “finaling” piece and the first mini-critique.

19 09 2007
Leigh Michaels

Harriet, have you read the Q&A section of the website? One of the questions Rachelle and I answer there is why we’ve asked for just the first 1,000 words. It’s not only to keep the contest manageable, but because no matter how long the book is, if the author doesn’t capture the reader in the first four or five pages, the reader isn’t likely to keep going.

There’s a very interesting book by Noah Lukeman, who’s a literary agent, which goes into detail about what needs to be in the first few pages of a manuscript in order to interest him (and by extension editors) in the author’s work. It’s called THE FIRST FIVE PAGES — and it’s great food for thought for all writers. While we may not agree with everything he says (and it’s not always pleasant to hear his reactions), it’s a fact that when we submit work we’re up against the clock. The editor or agent who has a big stack of submissions is going to be looking for ways to reduce that stack — so if the first few pages don’t grab his attention, he’s likely to assume that the rest won’t either, and stop reading.

Of course, you’re quite right about 1,000 words being a very small section of the story, and it’s not always necessary to show both characters within the first few pages. But it is necessary to grab the reader’s attention — and hinting at what the conflict will be, and who the main characters are, is a good way to do that.

19 09 2007
Rachelle Chase

Hi Donna – thanks for allowing your work to be included in a mini-critique.

I agree with Leigh’s assessment — you write really well and there is truly a lot of potential for this story to truly pop. I wanted to make a quick comment about your reference to dialogue … Dialogue is a great way to convey information (including background information) and is a great way to make the story engaging, advance the plot, etc. But, it is only one way to show action (and done incorrectly, even dialogue will not convey action, i.e., if the characters aren’t discussing things crucial to the story, or there’s unnecessary narrative surrounding the dialogue, etc). The important thing the opening should do is show your characters doing something, not just thinking – and the “something” that they are doing should be crucial to the story.

WILD ORCHIDS, by Karen Robards, is a book that comes to mind – probably because I just thumbed through it the other day 🙂 – that is low on dialogue and yet captivating. There’s no dialogue for the first 400+ words – and it’s a bit sparse after that – but it opens with the heroine being “kidnapped” by the hero. Why does this work, without the use of dialogue? In my opinion, it’s because the narrative is related to what’s happening to her now – it shows what’s happening, while sprinkling in her reactions to what’s happening, thus it conveys action and advances the story.

My point is, because Marcia’s entry started with dialogue, I didn’t want you to think that that is the “best” way to begin a story. Or that I only select entries that begin with dialogue.

19 09 2007
Rachelle Chase

Hi Harriet – I’m not sure what you mean by “lighter side.” To me, regardless of the genre of a fiction book or the word count of the book, the book must start with a compelling beginning to capture the attention of the reader.

Leigh has pretty much summed up everything I’d like to say. But I’d like to stress that, in the first 1,000 words, it is not expected that all the characters be introduced or the whole plot be revealed. What is expected is that the reader wants to continue reading to meet those other characters, watch the plot unfold, etc.

19 09 2007

Thank you Rachelle and Leigh for this wonderful opportunity. After teaching for ten years I am now trying my hand at writing. I recently completed my first novel and am working away at three others. I worked with a professional editor on my first and her comments and suggestion were very similar to yours. Show the action through dialogue. Eliminate unnecessary information that doesn’t move the plot…

I used to own a Tea Room and hosted many bridal luncheons or showers – so I could really relate to this story line. Thanks Donna – I hope to be able to purchase and read Matrimony Mayhem one day.

I think this contest is a fabulous way for new writers to grow and mature. Even if none of my submissions are selected I will learn a great deal by reading through the winning entries and though your critiques. Thanks again, Jan :o)

20 09 2007

I’d like another chance to thank Rachelle and Leigh, you’ve said some very encouraging things about the story and my writing. You’ve also given me some great food for thought.
Rachelle, I am glad you added your thoughts on the whole ‘dialogue’ issue. Thanks for the example of Wild Orchids, I’ll have a read to see what you mean.
I have many stories started, and they range from Erotica ( a favorite of mine to write), paranormal to contemporary. I even have a historical time travel in the works, but its hard to keep the theme fresh. So I don’t think I’ve actually found a ‘voice’ yet, or at least a genre to stick with. But, then comes the hard work of actually finishing a project through to the final page;-)
So, thanks for the encouraging words! I should keep at it.

Jan, it’s always been a dream of mine to have a Tea Room… I am a semi retired chef. I cook part time at a small hospital now. Thanks for your kind words as well.

Marie, I just got your ‘flavor’ pun, kind of slow hey? I have a quirly sense of humour and like to tweak things just a bit to see who else is onboard with me. Send the boat back… I must have fallen off;-)Thanks for the comments.

All the best to everyone in the next round!

20 09 2007
Rachelle Chase

Jan – glad you like the contest and are participating. Regarding the mini-critiques, since I cannnot reply to entries (due to time and volume) that I did not choose for the week’s finalist, during the last contest, Leigh and I brainstormed on ways we could provide feedback that would enable writer’s to learn fromothers and apply the comments to their own work. And Leigh often picks entries that contain areas that are common to several entries. So, all of this is to say that I’m glad you find them helpful. 🙂

Donna – I’m glad you found the comments helpful. Regarding not having found your “voice” yet, I totally understand. When I first started writing, I wrote in a variety of subgenres. For example, if I found an editor looking for paranormal romance, I wrote a paranormal proposal (probably not the best idead, since I hadn’t read many 🙂 ). I went to a RWA meeting and Kathryn Lye said she was looking for chick lit, so I wrote a chick lit. And so on. Erotic romance is what “stuck” when I ended up winning Lori Foster’s contest, which led to the Red Sage sale. My point is, I think it’s great to explore different genres to discover what it is that you like writing and what you write best.

Much success to you both with your writing – and good luck in the contest! 🙂


22 09 2007
Leigh Michaels

Thanks to everyone for the comments and discussions regarding the mini-critique. I’m so glad Rachelle had the idea in the first contest to offer feedback on some entries, and happy that this new site allows us to have the discussion.

The next mini-critique will be posted on Tuesday, along with the next finalist. Keep coming back!


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