Missing by Mary G.

LEIGH: A big thank-you to Mary G. for sharing her contest entry and critique with everyone who’s taking part.

Panic hit her the moment she walked into the room and saw all of the reporters and photographers. They were all waiting to begin a press conference, with her.

LEIGH: I’m intrigued. Not that facing a roomful of reporters isn’t an adequate reason for panic, because it is. But our heroine seems even more nervous than “normal” people would be, so I’m wondering if she’s got a panic disorder, or if she’s nervous because she has something to hide. Either way, I’m immediately interested in her and I want to know more.

Her heart raced. Perspiration dampened her face. She didn’t need a mirror to know that red blotches covered her neck. She’d felt them as they’d spread a blotch at a time like small branding irons being pressed against her skin.

Stress always brought them on. And this could easily be the most stressful event in her life.

LEIGH: Good details, which add to my previous impression and make me even more interested in our unnamed heroine. I’m also wondering at this point, because you’ve drawn quite a bit of attention to the hives, what uses you plan to put them to. Are we foreshadowing something? Planning ahead to something we can use at the ending, or to reveal a secret, or to turn things around between the hero and the heroine?

The director of the state lottery stepped to the microphone. “Ladies and gentleman, I’d like to introduce you to Maddy Parker, South Dakota’s newest lottery winner.”

LEIGH: Ah, yes. Well, that’s a good enough reason for being nervous. Still, it’s a happy reason – or is it? Wouldn’t Maddy be feeling a mixture of emotions – excitement as well as nerves? Or is she truly afraid of something specific?

He was smiling the same non-stop smile that he’d been wearing since she arrived at the lottery headquarters that morning. He’d practically danced with excitement from the moment she’d presented her ticket for authentication.

“Maddy, I’d like to present you with this ceremonial check for one hundred fifty-three million, two hundred eighty-five thousand, eighty-four dollars and sixty-four cents.”

Hearing the words spoken aloud stole the air from her lungs. She expected someone to rush from the sidelines claiming that it was all a mistake.

LEIGH: Why? Again, is this a normal reaction for a big-time winner, or is something else going on? Has Maddy forged the winning ticket?

Curling her fingers into a death-grip around the edge of the lightweight, over-sized check, Maddy glanced around.

No one was headed toward them.

Could it be no one was going to stop the press conference and declare there had been a terrible mistake?

Was it possible that she really had won the Powerball jackpot?

LEIGH: At this point you’ve drawn so much attention to the whole mistake thing that if it turns out to be just her imagination I’m going to be a bit disappointed.

Two weeks ago, her Saturday had been like every other. She’d stopped to fill her car with gas at Quick’s Convenient Store in the tiny town of Cartersville, South Dakota where she lived. She’d bought her usual one lottery ticket. Sara, the weekend clerk, had tried to tempt her to buy two tickets because the jackpot was high. They had even joked about her ticket being the winner.

Then, on Sunday morning, she checked the numbers and her life had been spinning out of control ever since.

LEIGH: I can see why Maddy might not believe her eyes, why she’d hesitate even to think about such a big win until the check was in her hands, why she might have trouble taking it all in. But this seems a little inconsistent. She’s had two weeks to get used to the idea. And she seems to have been doing some of that, since she says her life has been spinning out of control since that Sunday morning; if she’d just tucked the ticket in the bottom of her jewelry box for two weeks and waited, her life wouldn’t have been “spinning out of control,” would it? I’m now a little confused about why she’s still thinking that someone’s going to grab this away from her.

Looking out at the eager crowd, she inhaled a slow deep breath and braced her wobbling knees to keep them from buckling. Her mouth felt like she’d eaten sandpaper.

After all the advice she’d been given, she couldn’t remember what she was supposed to say. Or, more importantly, what she shouldn’t say. Considering she had no plans she wanted to share with the public, she hoped the press conference would be over quickly.

LEIGH: If she’s been getting advice (and a very good idea that is – I like that common-sense approach of Maddy’s) then it seems even more questionable that she’s still thinking someone’s going to take her prize away. Or maybe it’s just that all the attention you’ve called to this particular point makes me think that it’s got to be important or you wouldn’t have emphasized it so much, so I’m turning it over and over to find out how this thing ticks. If that’s your intention, then you’ve succeeded very well. If it isn’t, then you might consider what else could be going on in this scene, what other emotions Maddy’s likely to feel, what other implications all this has for her, so that you’re not putting so much emphasis on the “somebody’s going to say it’s all a mistake” thread.

When she got home, she’d figure out how to live with her newly acquired fortune.

LEIGH: Though you’ve divided this off and called it a chapter, this first scene is a mere 427 words – which is short for a scene, much less for a chapter (in category romance, chapters tend to be about 5,000 words; in single title the division is more flexible).

Chapter Two

“Have you got it on Channel Six?”

LEIGH: A lot of writers and writing teachers suggest starting a scene with dialogue because of the sense of immediacy it produces. I disagree; I think it’s better to start by very briefly setting the stage and identifying a person, so the reader knows up front where she is and who’s talking. If the reader doesn’t get this information first, she has to read the next paragraph to find out what’s going on, then go back to straighten out in her mind who’s talking, where they are, what’s going on, how much time has passed, etc.

I’m not suggesting a long description; one short sentence usually does the trick. In this case it might be something like, When Blake grabbed the phone, an urgent voice demanded, “Have you got it on Channel Six?”

The other thing the grounding-then-dialogue approach does is to make the scene start with the POV character rather than the person the POV character is talking to. The first person mentioned can be Blake, our main and POV character, rather than Andy, the first speaker.

Blake Sonderman sat on the edge of the sofa opposite the television in his living room. “Yes, Andy. I’ll call you back as soon as I’ve seen the story. I’m sure it’s just someone who looks like Stephanie.”

“She looks exactly like Stephanie.”

LEIGH: Hmm. Is Stephanie a separate person, or are they thinking that Maddy might be an assumed name and she and Stephanie are one and the same? Do you want there to be some reader confusion at this point? Or is this a case where because you know who Stephanie is, you’ve assumed the reader will somehow know it too? If that’s so, then you may need to give the reader just a bit more information.

“I’ll call you back.”

Blake hung up his cell phone before his brother could say anything more. Andy had called him six times in the last hour, but he wasn’t the only one. The office phone had started ringing in the middle of the afternoon when a national news station aired the press conference with the new Powerball winner.

LEIGH: I’m confused. I was assuming they were watching the press conference now, but if the press conference was this afternoon, where are we now and how much time has passed? What’s on TV right this minute that Blake’s so keen to watch? What’s Andy asking about?

Every caller told him the exact same thing–the woman who won the lottery had to be her.

Now he sat waiting on the news story, his heart pumping over-time, wondering if it could really be her after all these years.

He inhaled a deep breath as he rubbed his hands over his face. He couldn’t let speculation get to him. The likelihood of it being the missing twin daughter stolen from his neighbor thirty-one years ago wasn’t just small. Statistically it was nearly impossible.

It might be possible. Hell, anything was possible, no matter how unlikely or highly improbable.

LEIGH: Technically, he’s right – anything’s possible. Fiction has to be plausible, however, where real life has no such requirement. So when we start relying on coincidence in fiction, it’s smart to be very careful how we handle it.

Also, going from “it was nearly impossible” to “it might be possible” without any intervening thought, action, or event makes this sequence a little jolting for the reader. What changed his attitude?

But the circumstances couldn’t be more bizarre. He seemed to be the only one who knew the odds were too high against a winner of the multi-state lottery being the long-missing twin sister to his brother’s wife.

LEIGH: I’m assuming the wife is Stephanie and Maddy’s resemblance to her is what’s caused the hoopla. But I don’t know yet; it’s just not clear.

Everyone he’d talked to so far had jumped on the idea that it was her. That meant thirty-one-year-old wounds were being ripped wide open. Which meant the whole town of Whispering Cove was going to get damn bloody from all the speculation and hope.

LEIGH: Umm, this is nice. In a couple of sentences you’ve told us how old this secret/scandal is and how high the stakes are.

He didn’t even want to think about what the disappointment was going to do to everyone. They were going to have a problem believing she was just someone who happened to look a little like Stephanie.

LEIGH: A little? I thought she looked exactly like Stephanie. And why will people have so much trouble accepting the outcome? A simple DNA test compared to her “twin” will be conclusive. And it’s not like Maddy can’t afford the cost of having the swab taken. 😉

But what if it is her?

That fragile, tiny bit of hope was what had him sitting on the edge of the sofa, his eyes glued to the television. With his elbows propped on his knees, he rested his chin against the tips of his index fingers. The wait for the news to begin seemed to stretch on forever.

He’d been seven when Anna Wilkerson had come home from a shopping trip in Louisville, Kentucky with only one of her twin girls. He hadn’t really understood. He’d heard the whispers as people talked about how some man had snatched baby Stacy out of the stroller as Anna pushed it down the sidewalk in front of some stores.

At the time, he hadn’t known what to do when Anna alternated between sobbing and screaming for her baby. It had scared him more than anything had ever scared him. He’d felt like he should do something to help. Only there hadn’t been anything a seven-year-old could do. There hadn’t been anything anyone in Whispering Cove could do.

LEIGH: Why would a seven-year-old neighbor boy feel responsible for? Why would he feel that he should do something, or feel that he should know what to do? If he was just a neighbor kid, why would he even have been allowed close enough to a sobbing and screaming mother for it to occur to him that he might be able to do something for her? I’m confused about why Blake at seven was so involved in this event.Is there another way to give this information to the reader rather than to simply tell it? We’ve had nice action up to this point, but these last two paragraphs verge on being an info dump. You might consider the value of holding this back until your hero (Blake?) meets your heroine (Maddy?), and have this come out in dialogue instead. She’s going to wonder why he’s seeking her out, why he thinks she might be this missing person, why she should go along with whatever tests he wants to run. She’s going to be suspicious that he’s only coming after her because of the money she’s won – so he’ll have to do some convincing. Rather than risk repeating this information then, it might be better to hold it back for now so the reader can see it unfolding later. If the reader can find out along with Maddy what happened all those years ago and why Blake’s involved now, the story will be much more compelling.

The issue you’ve brought up – missing person possibly found; woman who discovers at thirty that she’s not who she thought she was – is an important and emotional one. My big concern here is how you can make this problem last through an entire story. It seems, on the surface, to be an easily-solved difficulty. Blake confronts Maddy and tells her why he wants her to take a DNA test. Why wouldn’t she do so, especially if she has questions about her past (and her panic disorder would seem to indicate that she’s got some issues)? Once the results of those tests are in, either she’s identified as Stacy or she’s not. What happens to the story at that point? Perhaps I’m oversimplifying and you’ve got a great plot figured out, full of twists and turns – but it’s also possible that the conflict you’ve set up might just be Blake wanting her to take a DNA test and Maddy finding excuses not to, so the story ends up going round in circles with no development or progression of the initial conflict.

I’m intrigued by the premise and I’d like to see how you’ll handle it through the rest of the story. There’s a great deal of potential here, if you’ve found a way to make the mystery last, or a way to keep the tension going between the hero and the heroine beyond the point where the reader finds out if Maddy really is Stacy or not.

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