Untitled by Megan M.

LEIGH: Thanks to Megan M. for agreeing to let her submission be critiqued this week. Again, I hope that the comments will be helpful to everyone.

Maggie flipped her straight, blond hair out of her face, made one last adjustment to her bra and pulled the door open to the pub. As an American she knew as soon as she opened her mouth her accent would draw attention. She glanced through the smoke-filled room at the mass of people. She checked out the guys at the trivia machines. Geeks. Leaning against the bar a blond guy with longish hair and wire-rimmed glasses caught her eye. She wasn’t sure about his friend, who was short and stocky with a military-type haircut, but what the heck, she wanted someone who would at least be able to hold up their end of the conversation.

LEIGH: Nice scene setting here. We know right away where we are; we can see the scene with the smoke-filled room full of people; we know we’re not in the US or Maggie’s accent wouldn’t draw quite this sort of attention. We’ve got nice details and just enough of them to let us settle in comfortably and begin to learn about Maggie.

I’m not sure what I think about Maggie, though – she’s pretty quick to write off the guys at the trivia machines (and what’s a trivia machine? I’m a bit lost on that one, but maybe it’s just that I’m still living in the last century) as geeks, and guys with military haircuts as not intellectual enough to carry on a conversation with her.

Maggie saw a couple of other girls from the hostel perched on low stools around a small wooden table at the far end of the bar, but she barely knew them, and didn’t intend to spend the evening hanging out on the fringes of a group of girls. She’d rather meet a guy who would pay attention to her alone.

LEIGH: Well – okay. At least Maggie’s honest about what she’s looking for – and not looking for. My first impression of her, though, is leaning toward not liking her. If she’d said she didn’t want to hang out with girls she didn’t know, that would leave a better taste in my mouth than having her write off females altogether. Maybe if I knew Maggie a bit better before this, and understood why tonight it’s so important to her to have a guy devoted to her, I might be more sympathetic.

When we ask a reader to spend an hour or two getting to know our heroine, we’re really asking her to make friends with that heroine. If we then present our heroine right out of the gate as judgmental and having eyes only for guys – or we show her screaming at her mother, or swatting a kid, or kicking a pet – we’ve made it harder for the reader to like her.

Since the author created this person, she knows all about her – good and bad. And of course a character needs both good qualities and flaws to be real and to be interesting. But if we present the bad side first, without anything positive to balance it, then the reader may be turned off and stop reading. She may not get far enough into the story to find out that the heroine’s really a lovely person who’s under a lot of stress right now, or that she’s behaving out of character because of something that just happened to her.

Is there a way to show something more positive about Maggie right up front? It might be something as simple as holding a door for another patron as she comes into the pub (though doing something that’s less hokey would be far better). But ANY positive aspect to Maggie right here will help me – the generic reader – reserve judgment and follow Maggie a bit further before deciding that I don’t like her.

Why did these English pubs always have old balding guys behind the bar?

“Hey, can I get a drink?”

LEIGH: Is this Maggie talking, or has someone else walked up to the bar ahead of her? The reader can only see what the author presents, and in this case, the last we knew Maggie was still standing in the doorway. When did she move close enough to the bar to place an order?

“Just a minute, love,” he replied, hardly glancing in her direction. She knew she wasn’t drop dead gorgeous, but she had pretty, blue eyes, a wide smile and a spattering of freckles that said, “Innocent.” If they only knew! After asking the old guy’s opinion, she took a sip from the strongest cider available and glanced the length of the bar. Had the intelligent-looking guys noticed her?

LEIGH: Okay, now I’m starting to wonder – is Maggie just out to pick someone up, or is there more to her than meets the eye? Is her remark about her seeming innocence an egotistical thing, a self-centered use of her looks to get what she wants, or is she a spy or something? Is there a reason she’s set her sights on these particular guys?

The guy with the blond hair and crooked smile glanced in her direction. Yes! She smiled slightly, enough to let him know she had seen him looking and didn’t mind the attention, then she spun around so she was facing out to the masses.

The girls from the hostel had been joined by a rowdy group of rugby players, still in their uniforms and covered in mud. Ugh!

The guy spoke up.

“I noticed your accent. Where are you from?”

LEIGH: The words a character speaks and the attribution telling us who said it should be in the same paragraph. So the two paragraphs, since it’s what “the guy” says, should be just one paragraph – like this:

The guy spoke up. “I noticed your accent. Where are you from?”

“The States,” Maggie replied, turning to look at him, but glancing out toward the other people in the bar as soon as she’d answered.

“Right, I guessed that from your accent. What part?”

“The North. Indiana. You’ve probably never heard of it.”

LEIGH: Is she just being rude – looking at others instead of at him, saying he’s probably too ignorant to know about the US – or does she have a reason for baiting him?

“Um, near the great lakes?”

“You got it,” Maggie said, giving him a full-on smile.

“By the way, I’m Thomas, and this is my friend Jo,” he said, pointing to the short-haired guy to his left.

Maggie put out her hand. “Maggie.” Surprised, Thomas responded, and they managed an awkward handshake. “Nice to meet you Thomas, and you too Jo,” she said, waving across at him.

LEIGH: Thomas might act surprised, but since we’re supposed to be in Maggie’s POV we can’t actually know what he’s thinking.

Jo gave her a quick wave and went back to his beer, a Guinness or something like it she guessed from the color. Ick!

“So what brings you to the glorious city of Luton?” Thomas asked.

“Touristing around,” Maggie said. “I’m heading north to meet up with a friend who’s studying there, and the hostel up here was a lot cheaper.”

“Ahh, a backpacker. I know the type. Meet up with a chap, get him to fall in love with your and your little American accent and then break his heart when you leave.”

“Hey, who said anything about falling in love. I just want to meet people and have fun. Doesn’t everyone?”

“Yes, but us English guys aren’t used to you American women and your wild ways. We are easily tricked and must be careful.”

“Speak for yourself Thomas,” Jo piped up. So far he’d been watching the scene with bemusement, but with Thomas’ last statement he felt he had to defend the English. “Us English blokes aren’t as naïve as you make us out to be. Better watch it or this little missy will be taking you for all you’ve got,” Jo winked at Maggie with this last statement.

LEIGH: Now we’re getting Jo’s thoughts – when he feels he has to defend the English. I’m also not sure what he means – first he seems to say that Thomas might be naïve, but he himself isn’t; then he says that the English aren’t naïve, then he says again that Thomas is naïve and will be taken for a ride.

She wasn’t sure what to make of Jo. He seemed more sure of himself than Thomas, and less willing to let his feelings be known. Thomas was obviously interested, why else would he be talking about falling love and breaking hearts.

With this last statement Jo drained his glass tipped it slightly towards her, and asked, “Another?”

“Sure.” Maggie replied. He ordered a beer for himself and Thomas and a cider for her. Although cider sounded tame, it was often stronger than beer and Maggie was already buzzed, not an unpleasant feeling. If she could just keep it up without getting totally drunk, that was the key.

LEIGH: Maybe it’s me, but Maggie starts to sound self-destructive here. Again, if I had an idea why she’s escaping into alcohol, or an indication that it isn’t an everyday thing for her, I’d be more likely to be curious about Maggie, and less likely to write her off as a problem drinker. But without any idea of why she’s doing this, I’m inclined not to want to get to know her better.

She glanced at her watch. It was 10pm.

“You guys miss out on a lot of fun with the pubs closing so early.”

LEIGH: Again, the attributing action (glancing at the watch) should be in the same paragraph with the words Maggie’s saying.

“Yeah. Do they stay open later where you are from?” Thomas asked.

“In the States we call them bars and don’t close until 2 or even 3am. It seems crazy and backward for the pubs to close so early, especially when they are packed with paying customers, just look around.”

LEIGH: Megan seems to be coming across as an Ugly American here — assuming that the American way is best and that it’s her God-given right to share with everybody else that she knows better than they do. Maggie has a perfect right to think this and even to say it – but when it comes on top of her other behavior, without some positives, it’s harder than ever to like her. Or if we knew she had a reason for testing Jo or Thomas, we’d see this as a deliberate attempt to smoke out a reaction rather than just a careless comment – and she’d be more sympathetic.

“It’s the law. They all have to close at 11.” Thomas said, “Some landlords shut their blinds and lock the doors and continue serving those that want to stay.”

Maggie wondered what would happen tonight.

LEIGH: What’s special about tonight? If there’s a specific reason she’s here at this pub tonight, if there’s a specific reason she’s latched onto Thomas and Jo, if there’s a specific reason why we should believe she’s not just there to pick up a guy, this would be a really good time to start hinting at what that reason is.

“Want to dance?” Jo asked.

“Sure.” Maggie replied. “What about Thomas?” she asked as she followed Jo through the crowd to a small wooden dance floor packed with people.

LEIGH: I like that she asks about his friend, that she thinks about him and indicates a desire to make him comfortable – rather than just thinking about her own wish to dance.

“He doesn’t dance,” Jo said.

“But won’t he be upset that we’ve just left him at the bar by himself?”

“That’s where he likes to be. Closer to the beer.”

LEIGH: Closer to the beer is cute – and it’s a good one-line characterization, too.

“Oh, OK,” Maggie replied, though not quite sure she understood what was going on. Thomas took her hand and she turned toward him, pressing her hips from side to side and sliding her hands down her thighs as she bent her knees and pressed into him. Time to take the kid gloves off.

LEIGH: Jo asks her to dance, they leave Thomas at the bar where he’s closer to the beer, but then Thomas takes her hand and starts dancing.At this point I’m both puzzled and intrigued. At the beginning of this paragraph Maggie seems clueless, yet by the end she’s ready “to take the kid gloves off”. What’s going on? Has she been waiting for this moment, and why? What’s the real reason she’s gone after Jo and Thomas? Is there something much bigger going on here than the surface story of a girl out to pick up a guy or two? If so, I think there would be a big benefit in sharing some hints of that with the reader, throughout this scene.

Your writing style is smooth and easy to follow, and Maggie is a well-drawn character who seems to have more depths than are apparent at first. It’s a balancing act, however, to present a heroine with so many negative aspects to her character, so if there are positives about Maggie – whether it’s a hidden mission, or a great sense of humor, or kindness to others – it would really benefit the story to share that side of her as well.

The upside is that Maggie, despite (or perhaps because of) all her flaws, intrigues me. I want to like her, I want to get to know her better, I want to believe that there are a lot more depths to her than show up in this snippet. Give me some more hints about why Maggie’s special and what she’s really up to, and I’ll follow her and be eager to find out how she’s going to kick ass.


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