Week 2 Mini-Critique

TITLE: Black Hills
CATEGORY: Short Contemporary

Shards of bark flew off the huge pine tree as the bullet struck it. Two feet above and one foot to the left of his head, precisely where she had aimed. She could see the fear in his eyes as he dropped to the forest floor. Great opening lines here – in just a few words, you’ve showed us the severity of the situation. Obviously your heroine has reason to be in self-defense mode (even though we don’t yet know what that reason is) and we respect her for being able to put a bullet exactly where she wants to – close enough to warn but not so close that she risks him walking into it. This is a woman we can respect.

The man didn’t seem like much of a threat. He obviously wasn’t trying to sneak up on her wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, and wasn’t carrying any type of weapon that she could see. And this is a good picture of the man (the hero?) You haven’t simply stopped the story while you describe him; instead you’ve got a good reason to tell us about things like the white t-shirt.

“Get off my land. This is your last warning.” Her voice echoed back to her off the rock cliffs of the canyon. And now you’ve shown us the setting too, in a nice little nutshell. Threat or not, she didn’t want him there. You’ve showed us very clearly that she doesn’t want him there (I’m sure she wouldn’t greet invited callers with a bullet!) so there’s no need to tell us, too.

“Ok, ok, I’m leaving.” He raised his hands into the air as he got up and walked backwards.

Through the scope of her rifle, she could see the features of his face. Rather than the features of his face, use his features. It’s shorter and clearer. He had a strong jaw line, covered with a shadow of dark facial hair that made him look ruggedly handsome. The t-shirt and jeans he wore were unsuccessful at hiding the corded muscles rippling beneath. His hair was thick, brown, wavy, and begged for fingers to be run through it. The man between the crosshairs between the crosshairs? Or is the correct terminology in the crosshairs? It’s a very picky point, but if you get it wrong, then anyone who knows guns (as I do not!) will question everything else you say about guns too. could have walked right off the pages of GQ and into her front yard.

Perhaps that’s what he was, a figment of her imagination, someone she had seen in a magazine. It was possible, in fact, even quite likely that she had finally lost her mind.

People thought she’d gone off the deep end when she left everything behind to live alone in her remote little cabin in the Black Hills, but she had a good reason for doing that.

Shooting at the best looking man she’d ever seen, the only man she’d seen in a while, just might be crazy. I’m intrigued, but also a little worried. She doesn’t have any idea who this guy is, but she’s just put a bullet a couple of feet from his head without asking any questions at all? Suddenly I have a lot less respect for her than if I’d seen a reason why she was willing to shoot first.

Through the scope, she stared at him as he walked backwards down the hill. Tall pine trees cast shadows over the ground, and fallen branches were scattered around. If this is our hero, he’d look more heroic if he didn’t try to back out but had enough composure to turn around and walk away. He looks scared here. I know you’re going after the laugh when he trips and falls in the next paragraph, but the giggle comes with a cost of making him look wimpy by backing away, tripping, and looking mortified.

The man tripped over a branch, landed on his butt, and the mortified look on his face made her giggle. It was strange hearing herself giggle, a sound she hadn’t heard in a long, long time.

The man scrambled back to his feet and quickly walked down the canyon. Paige shook her head, went into the cabin, and returned the rifle to its resting place behind the door. Did she clean it first? Reload it? She pulled down the wooden timber to secure the cabin before she started her supper, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the man. What possible reason could he have for coming here? A bit anticlimactic here. If she really wants to know, why didn’t she hold off and ask rather than shoot?


Colin quickly reached the bottom of the canyon, jumped into his pickup, fired up the engine, and began driving up the road. Fairly mundane action, which unfortunately adds to my feeling that he may be a mundane sort of hero.

Before making the trip here, he’d tried to find out about Paige Anderson, the woman who owned this piece of land. The only information he got was that she’d moved there two years before, lived alone, and never came out to socialize. There were rumors that she was crazy, and all that he’d heard about her made him curious about what would drive a woman to seclude herself from the world, but he hadn’t thought he would have to worry about his own safety. All the detail about Paige is something of an information dump. And this concern about his own safety again makes me think that Colin’s not exactly a heroic sort. That may not reflect what you know about him and intend to reveal later, but it’s my impression right now.

He had a right to be there, whether she wanted him there or not, but she had a gun, and he didn’t. She didn’t give him any choice but to leave. Yep, already know this, because I saw it. What I want to know now is what he’s going to do about it. Why didn’t he try talking to her?

He didn’t drive far before stopping to check his map. Was he even in the right place? He’d taken the right turn, there were no splits in the road, it just wound deeper and deeper into the hills and ended at her house. There was no doubt about it, this was the place marked on his father’s map. He took out the letter he found with the map and read it again. Wait a minute. He wasn’t even sure he was in the right place? Heroes are dynamic, self-contained, assured, assertive – they’re not always right, but they’re pretty certain of themselves. Again, I’m left wondering – if this is the hero, is this the way you want me to see him right now?


Sometimes life has a way of forcing you to make decisions that will impact you and your family so deeply that you may wonder for the rest of your life if you made the right choice. I know my days here with you are almost over, and I need to let you know the truth about a past I have kept hidden from you.

You remind me so much of your mother. You possess her curiosity, her need to help others, her intelligence, and wit, and I am so proud of all you have accomplished in life. I know you will do what’s right with the information you are about to acquire about the family you didn‘t know existed. I just want to warn you that things aren’t always what they seem and people are sometimes driven to do the unthinkable when money is involved.

After your mother died, I made the choice to protect you from her family and the evil I fear they have done.

She was the daughter of a wealthy family, and I was the son of a coal miner who they despised. When she got pregnant with you and married me, it made many people in her family very angry.

I’ve left a map to a mine shaft, and directions to a chest that contains some of your mother’s belongings, and information about your mother and her family. I hope you can understand why I chose to keep this from you and can forgive me.

I don’t think what I did was a mistake, and you have done very well with your life in spite of it. You have always been my pride and joy, and I know I should have told you this more often…I love you.


Oy. Okay, now I know why he stopped to check the map – so you could bring in the letter.

My first reaction as a reader to the sight of this long, looooooong letter is to skip it altogether so I can get back to the action. My second reaction is to read it, but with impatience – wondering what the heck this has to do with Paige and Colin. My third reaction is… and this is the one you won’t like… now that I know Colin’s the hero, I know all about his family, I know all about the mine, I know there’s a secret on Paige’s land, I know they’re going to find it, and I know they’ll end up together, why should I keep reading? The mystery here is why Dad didn’t just do the sensible thing and tell Colin instead of doing the treasure map/scavenger hunt thingie.

The tears welled up in his eyes It’s not that heroes never cry… but again, is this the view you want the reader to have of Colin? as he folded up the letter and placed it back into the glove compartment. He wanted to be angry with his father for leaving him with so many questions and no one to answer them, but he couldn’t bring himself to harbor any resentment toward the man who raised him alone, the man who gave him unconditional love throughout his life.


Sarah, you’re an excellent writer, and you had me hooked with that first scene. Paige, defending herself and her property with a rifle, and using it extraordinarily well, is a heroine I’m ready to settle in and root for.

Unfortunately, after that wonderful start, the action goes from exciting to mundane as Colin retreats, and then it grinds to a halt as he rereads the letter (and, in a sense, relives everything that’s brought him to this point). The reader is only starting to get to know Paige and Colin; she wants to learn more about them and see them interact. She’s not ready yet to care about who his mother was and how the family dynamic operated.

I think you’ve missed a great opportunity to push the story forward. He has to come back and talk to her sometime, right? So why delay? Keep the action going right now. Instead of having Colin meekly go away, make him give Paige a reason why she can’t just drive him off. Then show the important bits of his history, and hers, through what they say to each other, once he has – in the manner of a self-assured hero – convinced her to lower her defenses and listen to him.


6 responses

21 01 2009
Rachelle Chase

Sarah, Leigh pretty much said it all. But, I did want to add one other point about Paige’s turning away/Colin’s retreat – it just wasn’t believable to me. Paige was concerned enough about a stranger being on her property that she shot at him. So, I think she’d want to stay and make sure he left her property. And Colin — we discover his purpose for being on the land via the letter. Since he’s there, why would he just turn away and leave?

As Leigh said, you’ve created the perfect situation for your characters to interact. And you’ve penned a wonderfully compelling beginning — if you allow the intrigue you’ve captured in the opening to spill over into their interaction, you’ll have a page-turning beginning!

21 01 2009
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21 01 2009
Nancy Naigle

I think there are a lot of really great elements in this work. I’d keep reading.

I’m wondering if one slight shift in the letter scene wouldn’t help a lot … that would be for him to get to the letter re-read it (but not to us) then have him say something about not letting that crazy woman stop him from his daddy’s dying wish or something … you know what I mean —- leave us wondering what’s in the letter. Let that unfold as we proceed.

I’m already wondering why Paige has secluded herself. I personally am fine with knowing that Paige and Colin will end up together right here from the get-go … I’m in it for the ride, the how they get to the HEA 🙂

Best wishes with this ms Sarah —

Leigh/Rachelle: I’m learning things to look for that I wouldn’t have necesarily picked up on my own through your critiques. This is a great learning opportunity for me. Thanks!

21 01 2009
William C.

I like the fact that she is an excellent shot, but it looks aggressive, not at all like self-defense. He’s unarmed and she puts one down range at him? I also wonder about a person that can place a round on target from, how far apart are they again, and not chamber another round afterward or bother to clean their weapon and just put it away dirty. That just doesn’t mesh.

Once you read the letter, the story does seem a bit predictable, but that allows for twists and turns at your discretion. 🙂 I was immersed in the setting immediately. I could feel a chill in the air and smell the pine. I loved it. Personally, I have no problem with the “hero” emerging in the main character. As long as it is told correctly. 😉

I don’t understand the letter. Is it written while he is on his death bed or years earlier? When do rich relatives write off a would be heir? I guess these are questions I would have to read further to understand, right? So I am enticed enough to keep reading. That fist scene with the rifle just rubbed me a little raw.

Good luck Sarah.

23 01 2009
Rachelle Chase

Nancy, that’s an excellent way for Sarah to handle the letter! And, I’m really glad that you are learning from the critiques.

William, good catch regarding the gun cleaning. You reminded me that my dad always came home and cleaned his guns after using them at the shooting range. 😉

You’ve both left very insightful comments! Thank you…

24 01 2009

A very insightful critique — I liked the opening scene, too, and could totally picture Paige and Colin having a great yelling match in the trees if he demands to stay.

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