Week 3 Mini-Critique Winner

Title: Second Chances
Author: MP Lindsay
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Sydney Taylor Stevens stared out the large vertical windows that framed the southern end of her office and gazed across the expansive grounds that had become so fundamental to her sense of self the past hundred days. She sighed heavily. It was a sunny, unusually mild January afternoon. She wanted to be out there where she felt free.


Syd reluctantly turned around. “Ready for me?” she asked Andrew Masters, her personal aide, who was accompanied by her chief of staff, Edward Fitzgerald.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Interviews go okay?” she queried taking the few steps back to her desk.

“Fine. All qualified,” Ed informed her. He handed her a stack of résumés. “Start with these first. If none of them works out, we’ll bring some of the others in.”

His boss did not personally interview prospective low-grade aides. She didn’t even know the names of eighty percent of the people who worked for her. But this position was unique. Given the nature of the job, her personal circumstances and legendary work habits, this young aide would spend more time with her than anyone. Her body man must be wise enough to anticipate her needs and wants, strong enough to handle the good days and the bad, the light moods and the inevitable dark ones. Most important he (or she) must be fiercely loyal, protective and passionate about her and the job.

Syd sat down. “Sit down and tell me about them.” As they joined her, she leaned forward and with elbows on her desk, said, “Andy, you know the job better than anyone. What do you think? Do you have a favorite?”

“The Montgomery kid, ma’am,” he answered immediately.

For a moment she froze. Now there’s a name from the past, she thought wryly. “Ed?”

“I agree,” he said thoughtfully. “He’s young—won’t be twenty until May. But he’s not your typical college sophmore. He’s nearly finished a Yale—with a double major.”

A Montgomery from Yale, now that is a coincidence. Out of curiosity she flipped through the papers until she found his résumé. One look at his name and she knew this was no coincidence. This “Montgomery kid” was RJ’s son. A host of warring emotions washed over her, and she was taken back to another time and place.
Ed heard her sharp intake of breath and observed a blank, far away expression appear on her face. “Is there a problem?”

He received no response.

“Ma’am?” he said more emphatically.

It had taken Syd several weeks to respond to the title “Ma’am” without hesitation. Now it was like a magnet, instantly drawing her attention. “Yes?”

“Is there a problem?”

“Fine. No problem.” She leaned back in her chair while forcing her mind back to the present. “Did Mr. Montgomery’s application come through personnel?”

“No, ma’am. Marcus Sanders called about job openings. I told him about Andy’s promotion, and he brought over Mr. Montgomery’s information.”

She raised a single eyebrow. She and her best friend would be having a little chat in the near future. “Did Marc say anything else?”

“Only that he didn’t want any special consideration. I believe he knows the family, though.”

“Did that have anything to do with your recommendation?”

“No, ma’am,” they answered simultaneously.

Ed clarified, “Wasn’t necessary. He’s bright, personable, and seems unusually mature. He and his twin sister were raised by their father, a judge on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Actually ma’am, in many ways—like his intelligence and drive—he reminds me of you.”

Syd was astounded. Ed knew nothing of her history with his father. Nevertheless, this was the last thing she’d expected to hear. She wasn’t certain whether to laugh or cry.

“That’s true,” Andy interjected. “He’s incredibly smart, not easily intimidated. I think you’ll like him.”

Until she could regain her equilibrium, she’d heard enough. “Thank you both.”

“Would you like to start now?” Ed asked.

“Give me fifteen minutes to look these résumés over.” She knew nothing of the others and needed time to look them over. At least that’s what she told herself.

After they left, she tried to focus on the others but failed. Her mind refused to move away from him: What would he be like? He had to be tall. Would he be dark like his dad? Or fair like his grandmother? Would his eyes be brown or the most amazing slate blue? Would he, too, be playful? Sensitive? Strong? Obviously she couldn’t hire him, but how could she not be curious?

She returned to staring out the windows. She seemed destined to have Montgomery men come into her life at unexpected times and in the most shocking ways:

It had been the first morning of her last year of law school. She’d been in a hurry. He had, too. Neither of them had seen the other as they came around the corner. She ended up on her butt. Her books sprawled everywhere. He helped her up, ignored her sarcasm and promptly dared her to meet him for dinner. That was the beginning of a magical time in her life. She’d never felt more with anyone.

And then he’d walked away.

His final words began to play in her head. Words and emotions she’d locked away deep in the recesses of her brain and heart: “If you believe that…. Forget it. Your mind is made up. You’ve made your choice. And you’re right. We’re finished.” He’d said something else she couldn’t quite remember. It was irrelevant. The end result was the same.

She closed her eyes and tightly folded her arms against her chest as the pain came rushing back. It had been more than twenty-one years and yet, today it was yesterday. Twenty-one years and still she didn’t understand what had happened between them… or why he had walked away.

“Madam President?”

She turned around and immediately her breathing ceased. Directly across the Oval Office stood what could have been.

Leigh here:

MP, there are a lot of things I really like about this entry. I absolutely love your foreshadowing – the way you hint at Sydney’s job without telling us what it is until the last two paragraphs. Your hints are sly and well-done – it could be any corporate office, any job where a woman is not the expected choice – and yet when we hit the reveal, there’s an “aha that’s just right” feeling for the reader.

You’re a good writer – your story moves along nicely; you introduce your main character in a way which makes us sympathize and identify with her. We know right away who the heroine is, and within the first thousand words we have a pretty good idea of what her problem’s going to be as well – she will have to deal once more, and probably very closely, with a man who was very important to her in the past, and this time the stakes are higher. (At least, as a reader I assumed that he’s not just any old fella; he’s going to be someone who can cause her some real trouble in her new job.) I especially like the way you share the emotion of the moment in a realistic way. In her first day on the job, Sydney’s going to be feeling doubts, reluctance, a very understandable urge to run – and yet the personality that got her this job isn’t going to let her panic or get overly emotional, or show her emotions publicly. You’ve handled all that very nicely.

What doesn’t work as well for me is the point of view switches. We start off very nicely in Syd’s head – sharing her doubts, her “what the hell have I done to myself” attitude. But when Andrew and Edward come in, we slip out of Syd’s POV and into Ed’s. As soon as you say “His boss” we’re no longer in Syd’s head; we’re getting Ed’s thoughts and his perspective as he tells us about Syd and how she doesn’t even know who works for her. The effect is that we’re left on the outside – we’ve gone from getting to know Syd intimately through her thoughts and emotions to being told about her. Suddenly the reader feels distanced, like one of those many employees whose names Syd doesn’t know.

We stay in Ed’s POV for a couple of paragraphs, then we go back to Syd’s (“Now there’s a name from the past, she thought wryly”), then back to Ed’s (he heard her sharp intake of breath and observed a blank, faraway expression on her face), then we return to Syd’s.

Romance is one of the few areas in fiction where we’re allowed to use two POVs within the same scene, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to do so. That’s particularly true when we’re using a secondary character’s POV (at least, I’m assuming Ed isn’t the hero), and when we switch back and forth rapidly like this. The scene would be far stronger if we stayed in the heroine’s head through the whole thing. Let Sydney think about why the body man is so important, rather than giving us Ed’s take on it; let us glimpse her emotions again rather than going into his head to notice her quick breath and faraway look – and the reader will be much more involved with Sydney.

One more issue to consider is the choice of setting. Though a woman in the Oval Office is a topical and timely issue, you might consider whether the story line has international appeal. In a romance market where sales outside the United States are increasingly important and publishers are looking for books that are going to sell well around the world, you may find that this setting/background limits which publishers are interested in your story. You’ve listed this simply as contemporary romance, so I’m not sure if your target market is category or single title. If you’re aiming for single title, this story line has a lot better chance than if you’re planning to submit to category romance publishers.

I really like this story, and I’d love to see how you carry out Syd’s romance in the limelight of the Oval Office.


5 responses

2 10 2007
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2 10 2007

I have to agree. This is a wonderful story, its only setback the jumps in pov and the fact we’ve yet to meet the hero. But still, a nice, easy read with an obviously strong heroine.

3 10 2007
MP Lindsay

What a wonderful surprise to come home to at the end of a very long day in court (particularly as I was under the obviously mistaken belief that I’d submitted the chapter for week two and not week three). Frankly, I’m still in shock.

Leigh, thank you for your feedback and your willingness to so freely impart your wisdom. Already the wheels are turning in my head to address the POV issues while staying within 1000 words. If by chance, you were being easy on me in regards to what needs work and improvement, please feel free to be brutally honest. Law school gave me very thick skin. Creative writing is very new to me. Nevertheless, I love it and want to learn to be the best writer I can be.

I have no idea what category is the best fit for this story. I don’t even have a clear understanding of the categories. But it sounds like single title is what it should be. I understand the concerns over the setting and international appeal. However, in reality this is the back-story for a series of children’s chapter books I am writing, akin to the June B. Jones books, which center around the musings and adventures of a curious and precocious five-year-old boy who has spent his entire life in the White House because Mom is the President and Dad his primary caretaker. By using the White House as the setting, I hope to be able to teach children and others a little something about American history and the presidency in a fun and entertaining manner. Family and friends have suggested that his parents’ love story would make a great novel in its own right, so I decided to take a shot with it.

Leigh, thank you again. You have no idea what a thrill it is to be critiqued by such a talented writer and storyteller. If anybody else has any suggestions or comments, I would be honored to hear them.

3 10 2007

Actually, I wasn’t taking it easy on you, MP — you’re a very good writer, and the POV issues are fairly simple to fix. (A good trick is to read the work aloud substituting first person for third. So you’d be pretending to be Sydney — I looked out over the garden, I sighed, what have I got myself into — so that when you hit something like the “His boss” line it will stand out.)

I’m fascinated with the idea of a chapter book for kids with a young hero who lives in the White House — and it’s a good marketing ploy to make it a boy, too, as girls will read stories about boys, while many boys resist reading stories about girls. 🙂

4 10 2007

I loved the hook of the heroine being President – the idea of a female world leader, U.S. or otherwise, inside of an (Oval) Office romance feels like a fresh spin with a lot of fresh possibilities and inherent conflicts in the unique premise. You also seem to write from the heart, which is a solid plus. Good luck with this work in progress! Best, Marie

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