Week 5 Mini-Critique Winner

Lynn S.
Paris or Bust

Sandra folded the letter, added her check and sealed the envelope, planning on dropping it into a sidewalk postbox on her way into work. This didn’t need to go through the office mail system. Her divorce after 18 years of marriage had started enough rumors about her as it was. Most centered on her friendship with Tom and of course, Tom’s wife and kids. Sandra could hear the voices in the break room now, “Sandra’s so desperate for sex she’s using the personal ads.” At least then if this rumor started, the others involving her so called relationship with Tom would stop. But Sandra wasn’t sure that the basis of the rumors about her and Tom weren’t based on a shred of truth, at least on her side. She was sure he was just worried about how much time she spent alone, but their time sitting drinking at the village pub probably should be time he spent with his family. But he kept asking her to meet him each Wednesday afternoon and she kept agreeing, even though she sometimes felt guilty. Especially when she saw him sitting where he could watch the door, keeping his hands just out of reach of hers, and sometimes touching just her fingertips.

Dumping her coffee cup into her sink, Sandra pulled on her trench coat over the black pant suit, grabbed her briefcase and purse and said goodbye to Tasha, the current love of her life. The Persian loved sitting on the counter, watching Sandra rush through her morning routine. Dan, Sandra’s ex husband would always yell. “Cat’s don’t belong on the counter.” Tasha would slowly climb down, watching him closely and giving him a stare that could freeze water. Now, Sandra let Tasha sit there just for spite, knowing Dan would have freaked. God knows he drove her crazy enough.

The commute to work seemed to take longer each day. Her steel blue Blazer handled great in the snow but most of her commute was freeway time. Turning on the stereo, blasting country rock like Big and Rich or slow ballads from Gretchen Wilson calmed Sandra and gave her time to ramp up for work or cool down before she hit home. Stopping at the light before she entered the freeway, she noticed a Dodge Ram truck pulling a construction trailer next to her. The guy driving was cute. In the rugged, not shaved sense, tall dark and handsome. At least he looked tall. She continued to stare, noticing his hands, rough from weather and work, until a horn honked behind her. He glanced up from the light and started to smile, but the light had changed and Sandra heard a second horn blast from the impatient jerk behind her. She turned from the man and turned her Blazer off the main road on to the ramp. Too late she realized there was a company name and number on the trailer.

“What, and you would call and ask: Who’s the hunk driving the Dodge? Oh, Miss Receptionist, that’s your fiancé’? No, he wasn’t flirting, I was. Yeah, that would go over like a lead balloon and probably cause a fight over nothing.” She laughed at herself and turned up the music. Sex wasn’t the most important thing in her life these days. Thinking back, maybe it had never been that important. Dan had insisted on “making love” at least once a week, but so many times it was so routine and expected that she felt like the old wives joke. “Blue, I think I’ll paint it blue,” as she stared at the ceiling waiting for him to finish. Maybe she was frigid as he yelled during their arguments. But romance had never been a part of their relationship and neither had hot sex. She knew she wanted the romance, to have the knowledge that she was loved. She wanted the giddiness back she had felt on her first crush in junior high on the captain of the football team. But sex? Maybe that was why all her personal items were blue, like the ceiling. Sandra’s thoughts returned to the guy from the truck as she entertained herself during the rest of her drive into work.

Parking in the garage, she gathered her items, locked her Blazer, and headed to the elevator that would take her into the office building. Her office was on the fourth floor and it had taken her five years of hard work to get that far. Her window overlooked the city at least as far as a fourth floor view would go. She loved the feel of her office and she was never distracted by the view from working. As usual, she was the first one on the floor. She passed by the maze of cubicles without worrying about making small talk and idle chatter that would be required later during the day. She would have more work done in her first two hours than most of the other associates would have done by the end of their shifts. Ice Queen was her nick name with the clerical staff and her clerk hated the amount of work Sandra gave her, but Sandra didn’t care. If having Ice Queen as a nickname was a result of her work, so be it. Besides, Sandra had never been good at being one of the girls. She didn’t understand their fascination with makeup, clothes or even guys.

And why did women want to talk on the phone all day? That would drive her crazy. Even when she was married, she had little to say to Dan on the phone that she felt couldn’t wait until she got home. Dan unfortunately felt otherwise and called her at least tem times a day. Most of it was to check to see if she was where she was suppose to be and not off with some other man. Sandra felt like she couldn’t breathe during these calls.

Leigh here:    Hi, Lynn – You’ve created a really interesting character in Sandra, and you’ve given her a nicely-rounded character with a great many angles you can exploit in telling her story. She’s a bit of a workaholic who may not be completely appreciated by her employers and is not exactly popular with her co-workers. She’s got this interesting and perhaps twisted relationship with her co-worker Tom – but she feels guilty about it, which keeps her more sympathetic. She’s got a sense of humor (I liked the bit about calling the number on the construction van to find out more about the guy in the truck, and how with her luck the receptionist who answered would be his fiancée.) She’s an interesting character with lots of depth, just enough flaws to make her human, and enough good characteristics to make us empathize with her.I love the line about how all her personal items are blue like the ceiling. That’s a good example of taking a somewhat clichéd line and making it fresh again by giving it a twist.

I also really like your first sentence, because I really, really wanted to find out what’s in that envelope along with the check. I was disappointed, then, when the rest of the first 1,000 words didn’t tell me anything more about that but instead filled in a lot of backstory and history.

Though there’s a lot of good information here about Sandra, it’s awfully early to be dishing out all of her past, and I think this story would be better if it started with more action. As it is, nothing much happens in this scene except that Sandra drops the letter in the mailbox and goes to work.

One Harlequin/Silhouette editor has said that in most cases when she picks up an unsolicited manuscript from the slush pile, she can start reading in Chapter Two and not miss anything, because the first chapter is so often about the character’s history rather than the actual story. While it’s useful to write down all that backstory, it’s often better to print it out and hang it up beside your computer for reference, so you can filter in small pieces of it later on, after the reader has gotten attached to the character.

Since your title is “Paris or Bust,” I’m presuming that before long Sandra will be headed for Europe and her adventures there will form the main part of the story. If that’s the case, then perhaps Chapter One should start with Sandra arriving in Paris… or getting the work assignment that will take her to Paris… or getting fired, which prompts her to take a longed-for vacation with her severance pay… rather than with all the background about her marriage, co-worker, cat, etc.

One clue that the author may be story-telling rather than story-showing is often the appearance of long paragraphs. Some of these are very long – the first paragraph is more than 200 words. The result is that the page looks very dense and hard to read, and this can be daunting for readers. I’m not suggesting that there’s a definite word limit for paragraphs or that we should dumb down our writing style — but if we’re showing the story, displaying action for the reader rather than telling her about things, then the narrative structure will break up very naturally into smaller sections, making the pages more inviting to the reader’s eye.

I think you’ve got a fascinating main character, and there’s a hint of the life-changing experience that’s waiting for her. I’d like to see you start with action, closer to the time when this important change is going to happen, and filter in the backstory – the nasty ex, the co-worker, the job situation – later, when the reader needs to know these details in order to understand Sandra.


3 responses

19 10 2007

I’m so excited to get the mini-critique! And thanks for the contest which made me dust off the first few chapters of Paris or Bust which I had printed out and then lost the digital copy in a computer breakdown. I’ve been working on being more focused on writing and submitting in addition to the day job and a few other things that have been taking over my life. Today it’s oral surgury so forgive me if I’m a little rummy.

The letter. There was suppose to be a sort “singles” ad at the top of the chapter that Sandra had written and put into the letter, wanting to get on with her romantic life. So that was what she was sending and the ad and her subsequent meeting with Chance is a big part of the book so I better get that back in the story.

You are right about the lack of action in the chapter and I struggle with that a lot. I am heartened to hear that Sandra is an engaging character and has the strength to be a leading lady for the book. I was interviewing for a job about a year ago and was sitting in the waiting room thinking, this is exactly the type of office that Sandra would work in.


25 10 2007

Hi Lynn – I just realized that I had not commented on your submission. So sorry!

At any rate, I’m a sucker for a loner/outcast/underdog, thus I’m already cheering for Sandra. I love the sense of melancholy, aloneness, and adrift qualities that she seems to exude. I agree with Leigh — she is an engaging character, one that I can identify with and cheer for as the story unfolds.

Right now, this beginning sort of reads like an entry made into a personal journal, giving it a light stream-of-consciousness feel, as we are swept along with Sandra’s thoughts. In real life, we often have random thoughts, like Sandra, i.e, mailing the letter, thinking about past events with Tom, her ex-husband’s feelings about the cat, sex with Dan, attraction for a stranger, etc. as we go through our everyday activities. But, when this is written as fiction, the detail and lack of action leaves the reader confused – we don’t know why we’re being given all this information, we don’t know what’s important to know now, we don’t know where the story is going. Thus, rather than starting the story with all these wonderful flashes of insight into Sandra’s mind, you can weave them into the story later, sprinkling them in with the action.

You mention that the letter she is mailing is a response to a singles ad and that Chance is a big part of the book, thus is sounds like this is where the story begins. For example, why not begin with Sandra meeting Chance in response to the ad, showing their interaction and reaction to each other?

You’ve created a delightful character in Sandra and there are so many interesting directions you can go with her. Have fun. 🙂

Oh, and I hope you have fully recovered from your surgery by now.


28 10 2007

Thanks Rachelle, and yes, the mouth seems to be better. Althought I didn’t take advantage of that time to write, I am more rested now. Hopefully, the rest of the year will be stressless heathwise that is.

I do write in that stream of conciousness and I wonder if that is because I don’t plot. I have taken fiction workshops before but we didn’t really talk about plotting, more about literary fiction and it’s quirks.

But I’m very glad that Sandra is being seen as she is. Or as I see her. (Talk about characters taking over.) I’m stopped at Chapter Five because I’m sure I wrote it before but just don’t know where I put it or if I even have any more copies. So I’m just going rewrite it and see where it goes.

I know she should find the guy, lose the guy, then get back together, but I’m not good at building in conflict. So I don’t know what happens to cause them problems yet, unless it’s her wanting to go off to Paris with Tom for this work project. So it’s still a work in progress and Paris or Bust is kind of a working title. I wanted something that shows the country versus city struggle that Sandra will be going through. I’m also wondering if Chance should have two grown daughters as he discloses in their first meeting. Maybe I’m just adding complexity where it’s not needed. I guess now it’s time to just type and edit the book later.

Again, thanks for the critique. You both have given me a lot to think about and really helped me focus my thoughts around what this book is really about.


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