I run a fortnightly critique group as well as critiquing other authors’ writing which I really enjoy, so I started creating podcast episodes doing this. Because this was not only time-consuming but also restrictive being audio-only, I decided to switch from audio to text and will now be running future ones on the blog. The earlier episodes have already been blogged (and are listed on the http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/red-pen-critique page) with new episodes being run here every Sunday evening (UK times).
Please remember that it’s only one person’s (my) opinion and you, and the author concerned, are welcome to disagree with my interpretation – I will never be mean for the sake of it, but hope you find that I’m firm but fair. I type my comments as I read through the story as a reader would think as they read, although they would most likely be reading, not analysing, unless they’re writers too!
Regardless of what genre you write I hope that this helps you think about the way fiction is constructed and that you have enjoyed reading another author’s work, the copyright of which remains with them.
This two-chapter extract in this post was kindly emailed to me by YA, romance and suspense thriller novelist Erica Miner. If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is email@example.com. And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free. Or I have new online critique blogs: http://poetrywritinggroup.wordpress.com (50 lines max) and http://shortstorywritinggroup.wordpress.com (5,000 words max). So without further ado, the story / synopsis and extract, then my feedback…
Murder in the Pit © Erica Miner
O dolce notte, scendere
/Tu puoi gemmata a festa
O sweet night, descend/
Starlit on our celebration
Verdi, Un Ballo in Maschera, Act I
As she finally stepped through the revolving doors and into the Met lobby, Julia gave one last wistful glance at the patrons ascending the elegant staircase and headed toward her own appropriate stairway, the one leading to the lower level and the alley where the stage door was located.
The servants’ entrance.
Life at the opera house appeared glamorous to the patrons and public at large, but Julia knew her place; notwithstanding her well-paying position in this prestigious artistic institution, she and her overworked Met cohorts in the orchestra were just the hired help. The true stars of this exhilarating world were the Domingos and Pavarottis. Musicians were underlings, and no one was better at putting them in their place than Patricia Wells, the Met’s formidable general manager whom Julia had dubbed “a barracuda in high heels.”
Julia had grudging respect for Patricia’s running the Met like a well-oiled machine, but she had no love for Patricia’s personality or for her spiteful attitude toward musicians. Patricia had a clear-cut disdain for these “low-class drudges” who were very good at grinding out musical notes night after night but who, she believed, showed no gratitude to the organization responsible for putting bread on their tables.
Patricia, with her high-and-mighty mind-set, did not acknowledge the fact the orchestra was the lynchpin of the opera house and did not appreciate the magnitude of the orchestra’s contribution. The majority of Met musicians had been honing their craft since early childhood, and without an orchestra, as Mozart had displayed with such effectiveness in the movie Amadeus, there was no opera.
At this moment, Julia imagined the scene backstage, Patricia calming the nerves of the evening’s lead tenor, Giuseppe Masini. Julia tried to arrive early for rehearsals to spend time watching the pre-rehearsal activity from the wings. She often observed the way Patricia masterfully controlled such situations, by stroking Giuseppe’s ego, as the harried wardrobe mistress fussed with his costume.
“The Maestro will be watching you like a hawk. Non preoccuparti.”
“Grazie, Patrizia, you are Regina, a queen among general managers.”
“Ah, you are too generous, Giuseppe.”
It was a scene of dramatic proportions rivaling the operatic performance itself and a familiar drill at the Met. Opera, after all, was the epitome of drama.
Putting such musings out of her mind, Julia entered the stage door and approached the security guard’s station. She was not surprised when she noticed a number of extra guards patrolling the area. Between the assemblage of stars onstage and rumors of bigwigs such as Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in the audience that evening, security was extra tight.
Before the 9-11 attacks, several years before Julia joined the orchestra, she had heard that the guards were friendly and affable and even kibitzed with the personnel who passed through the gate. Now checking people out as they passed through was serious business, and the guards, sequestered in a bunker-like contraption high off the floor, no longer smiled. All personnel were required to swipe an ID card through a magnetic strip in order to enter. This change in procedure and mind-set saddened Julia.
Life in New York City, and at Lincoln Center, has never been the same.
Julia fished for her Met ID in her pocketbook, while doing a balancing act with her violin case, and finally produced her card. As she swiped it through the magnetic reader, Sidney Richter squeezed past her, waving his ID in haste. Sid, her best friend in the orchestra’s first violin section, was a jaded veteran, though Julia could never figure out how he still managed to bypass the security procedure required of most “normal” personnel. And he complained about everything.
“The pay is too low, and the hours are too long. And why did Abel have to add the extra forty-five minutes of music?”
Don Carlo was Julia’s favorite Verdi opera, but though she agreed it was too long, she still defended Abel. “He’s a stickler for doing operas uncut.”
Sidney had reason to object. Sitting through the longer operas often irritated his diverticulitis, causing him to get up and head for the men’s room. From the back of the pit where he sat, he was able to slip out without too much notice from the audience. The other musicians griped, but Julia felt both sympathy toward him and fondness for his protectiveness of her. Nonetheless, she frowned at the guard with mock bravado.
“How come he gets in with a wave but not me?”
Sidney flashed her a hurried smile. “Stick with me, kid, you might get in with a wave, too. Someday.”
Julia rolled her eyes at Sid and pivoted back to the guard. “Is that fair?”
But when she turned again in Sidney’s direction, the older violinist had already dashed through the gate and disappeared down the stairs toward the orchestra level. Like a modern-day Alice neophyte trying to keep pace with the more experienced inhabitants of Wonderland, she scurried to catch up with him.
Oh, Mister Rabbit…
“I just wanted to wish you ‘merde’ for tonight, Maestro.” Wishing someone “merde” was the operatic equivalent of saying, “break a leg.”
Abel stopped her from retreating. “Just a moment, Patricia. About that interoffice mail I sent up this afternoon, I just wanted to make sure you received — ”
She stepped inside. “What? I didn’t see anything cross my desk from you.”
She ignored the dark shadow crossing his face. “Quite certain. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a baritone to appease.”
Patricia withdrew, closing the door behind her, unaware that as soon as she was gone, Abel hurried over to the piano, picked up a piece of music and started to scribble on it.
Julia negotiated the dimly lit stairway and passed through the noisy, fluorescent-lit area one level below the stage, which was alternately called A-level, pit-level, or orchestra-level. This was the hub of the orchestra’s workspace, where musicians signed in on a list posted near the men’s locker room and milled about during pre-performance frenzy and intermissions. The conductor’s dressing room was close by the pit so the musicians could also observe whoever visited the maestro. Patricia was seen there frequently, as were nervous solo singers, management types, and others who felt welcome in the conductor’s inner sanctum. The pit entrance was a few strides away, though it was necessary to pass by the men’s locker room on the way there. The women’s locker room was discreetly separated from the men’s by a long hallway. The pit was also accessible from the opposite side, close to the company cafeteria, one of the few places in the opera house where musicians mixed with choristers, stagehands, ballet dancers, and solo singers. Even the illustrious tenor Domingo had made appearances there. Julia had confided her excitement to Sidney the first time she saw the star up close.
“He smiled at me, I’m sure of it.”
“Those Latin types can smell a young, inexperienced chick a mile away.”
Julia bristled. “What makes you think I’m inexperienced?”
“Just a hunch.”
Most of the time however, orchestra members were sequestered in their own little world, a planet apart, in Julia’s opinion, from the real guts of the opera house.
Sidney was nowhere to be seen. Julia glanced at the date at the top of the sign-in sheet and scanned the list of orchestra personnel to see if he had signed in.
September 29. One I’ll always remember.
She was embarrassed to find a small “heart” symbol scrawled next to her name. She looked around. Matt Reynolds, the cute head stagehand, smiled at her from the opposite corner of the hallway. Julia turned away from him, wondering how to react.
A familiar, scolding voice interrupted her thoughts. “Haven’t I told you not to let him deface the sign-in sheet with his little love notes? People are beginning to notice.”
Tony Rossi, the orchestra’s personnel manager, was glaring at her. A wannabe conductor, he walked around waving a baton in practice gestures, tapping the skinny little stick on a music stand before each performance, trying to corral the musicians.
“It’s not my fault, Tony. Why don’t you tell him?”
“Is that any way to talk to your boss on your first night?”
“Should I wait until my second night?”
He didn’t laugh. “I don’t have time for this.” Tony turned on his heels, flapping the baton in her direction as he took off. “Just tell your boyfriend to cease and desist.”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
Julia turned around. Matt had disappeared. She would have liked to protest more strongly, but realized she couldn’t afford to anger her boss so early in the game.
Tony, too preoccupied to hear her protest, grumbled to himself just loud enough for her to hear, “Miserable stagehand. Just because he played clarinet as a kid, thinks the Met owes him a living.”
Julia, intent on escape, slipped on the well-polished floor and felt her feet go out from under her. She clutched her violin with the protective instinct of a mother holding tight to her baby. As suddenly as he had vanished, Matt reappeared at her side and grabbed Julia around the waist, preventing her from tumbling to the floor.
“You okay, Julia?”
Blushing, Julia gently pulled away. “You shouldn’t worry so much about me.”
“I was just afraid you might hurt yourself.”
“Me? I’ve been taking care of myself most of my life.” She tried to regain her composure. “It’s just opening night jitters.”
Matt lowered his voice. “Still, an opera house can be a dangerous place. You’ll find out after you’ve got a few more years’ experience.”
There it was again, that word. “Experience.”
Someday I’ll show all these guys I can hold my own with any veteran.
Matt flashed his famous sardonic grin. Julia took off before she could do any further damage to herself or her violin.
Non esser, gioia mia, con me crudele:
lasciati almen veder, mio bell’amore
Don’t be cruel, my treasure:
I beg for one glance, my beloved.
Mozart, Don Giovanni, Act II
On her way to the women’s locker room, Julia passed Abel’s dressing room, where the Maestro Trudeau – Do Not Disturb sign was posted on the door. She felt a little flutter of excitement and glanced at her watch.
Fifteen minutes, and he’ll give the downbeat for my first performance.
Even with the door closed, she could easily distinguish the raised voices from behind the closed door as Abel and Sidney’s.
“You son of a bitch!”
“For God’s sake, Sidney, keep it down.”
“You said you’d leave her out of it!”
Abel lowered his voice. “I had no choice.”
“Over my dead body.”
Julia couldn’t fathom what caused the personality conflict between the hotheaded Sidney and the self-assured music director. It made her uncomfortable.
They’re only the two most important men in my life.
Sid continued at top volume. “If I find out you’ve done something stupid, I’ll …I’ll write a whole new finale to your opening night!”
“The trouble with you, Sidney, is you think you’re too damned important.” The contempt in the maestro’s voice distressed Julia. “No one is indispensable around here. Now get the hell out of my dressing room. We’ve got a show to do.”
A whole new finale — what does that mean?
The booming sound of the P.A. system made Julia jump.
“Curtain for Don Carlo in fifteen minutes.”
She took a tense breath and let it out with a sigh of relief as the door opened. Sidney stormed out of the dressing room, slamming the door behind him, and ran right into her.
“How long have you been there?”
His dark tone alarmed her. “You know I get concerned when you and Abel — ”
“Who are you, my mother?”
“What’s going on, Sid? Why were you going at it again?”
Julia tried to charm him with a smile, but his expression remained grim. “Can’t you two just call a truce already? Please?”
His rage softened. “Look, kid, it’s what parents do.”
“But it’s so distressing.” She attempted a smile. “You’re acting like a jerk.”
Won over, he returned the smile, until Tony disrupted their caring moment.
“Time’s getting short ‘til curtain.” Tony tapped his baton against his palm in short, tense gestures. “You two better hustle.”
Sidney glared at Tony. “Don’t you ever get tired of ordering people around, Rossi?”
As Sidney turned to walk away, Julia turned and saw Charles Tremaine appear, balancing a full cup of coffee in each hand.
Julia knew Sid had never picked up a baton, but she tried not to stare at the movie-star looks of the tenor understudy, who had a tendency to hang out with musicians and stagehands. According to rumors, he did this to fend off his own bitterness at constantly being passed over for big roles despite having more talent in his left thumb than tenor star Giuseppe had in his entire body. Julia sympathized with Charles’s plight, but she couldn’t understand why he blamed Abel for his own lack of recognition in the opera world. Still, eavesdropping on Charles and Sidney’s conversation helped Julia endure Tony’s scolding.
“It’s an understudy’s duty to provide overworked musicians with their ‘fix.’”
“Right, that’s all I need, Charlie. Something to make me even more hyper.” Nonetheless, Sidney took the cup and gulped it down.
“And don’t worry about paying me back. I’ll think of something.”
Charles’s grin made Julia’s heart quiver, but she kept nodding at Tony.
Sidney scowled at Charles. “And don’t call me ‘Maestro.’ I’m no conductor.”
“It’s a term of endearment.” Charles flashed his best Rat Pack smirk.
Julia suppressed a smile. She, too, felt the term “maestro” should be reserved for conductors, the great ones at that. But she couldn’t help thinking Charles’s misuse of the phrase was apt. Sidney’s strong opinions on everything gave him an air of authority.
The door to the maestro’s dressing room opened. “Julia, come in please.”
Abel did not look at the others. They all stood still, caught off guard by his unexpected appearance. Tony walked off, miffed. The rest of them continued their conversation as if nothing had happened. Julia walked into Abel’s dressing room, and the door closed behind her.
My comments (in order while going through the extract):
I love titles and Murder in the Pit, without a synopsis or reading any of the writing, intrigues me. I imagine that there’s a hole in a dark forest somewhere but then as soon as I see it’s music-related I picture the orchestral pit. Very clever.
Not having Chapter 1, I don’t know whether it also starts off with Italian / English excerpts but they were a great touch, especially Verdi first as I saw the film ‘Quartet’ yesterday and they had a gala in celebration of his birthday – perfect timing. :)
I get told off by my writing group for starting sentences with ‘As…’ but I like them as an alternative to using the pronoun (I, he, she, the character’s name, etc) as is so easily done.
‘The Met lobby’ gives us a sense of place as I guessed the USA (a Google search offered me The Metropolitan Police here in London or The Metropolitan Museum of Art as the first American choice). Again, having Chapter 1 we would presumably know where she is, not that it really matters as it doesn’t have to be a real place and it sounds grand. :)
Italics usually imply a character’s thoughts but are used in other instances such as titles so a little clarification here would be good.
Job titles should start with capital letters so I would changed ‘general manager’ to ‘General Manager’. Julia’s dubbing of Patricia as ‘barracuda in high heels’ made me laugh.
I wondered whether Mozart should have appeared in inverted commas because it was an actor playing him in the movie rather than the composer himself, but that could just be me being picky.
In the sentence “Grazie, Patrizia, you are Regina, a queen among general managers”, presumably the italics are used for emphasis? I would have put a full-stop (period) after Patrizia. Having said titles should have capital letters, Giuseppe’s talking about the title generally rather than her title so it’s OK.
I loved the comparison between the Met and opera both being dramatic.
With ‘Life in New York City, and at Lincoln Center, has never been the same’, the Lincoln Center is in NYC so perhaps ‘especially at Lincoln Center’ would be better.
Re. the first instance of ‘magnetic strip’. It jarred with me because it’s the strip that’s on the card rather than in the machine so changing that to ‘magnetic reader’ then just ‘reader’ the second time.
Readers don’t always have to know what every word they read means, as long as the context is clear and with ‘diverticulitis’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diverticulitis) we do understand what it is because of the actions the character suffering from it has to take. Any further explanation within the piece would have been unnecessary and sometimes an author can appear to be ‘showing’ off if something is over-explained.
I did initially wonder whether Julia would be frowning with ‘mock bravado’ but then what she says shows us that she would be, although would it be ‘mock’ bravado?
I loved the ending of that section and the Alice in Wonderland reference – it’s well-known enough for most readers to understand how she’d be feeling, and used with great humour.
Patricia’s surname may be unnecessary, having already ‘met’ her earlier in the chapter but we are switching point of view so there’s no harm in introducing her fully.
Again we learn something new (or at least I did); that ‘merde’ is operatic’s ‘break a leg’ and even if the writer (Erica in this case) was not a native of the theme, we should think that he or she was.
I only recently learned that when a speech is interrupted, a writer should use – instead of ‘…’ as I had been doing. I presume — is an American equivalent?
Whilst I love the term ‘dark shadow crossing his face’, it did make me think literally; that a light was being moved away.
Readers enjoy knowing more than the characters and here we have Patricia being unaware of Abel scribbling on the piece of music. Nice touch. :)
Dimly lit should be hyphenated, especially as fluorescent-lit is. The beginning of this section felt a little too informative (although again we’re learning something with the alternatives including pit-level).
I’m a stickler for repetition and got a little bogged down with ‘men’s locker room / women’s locker room and men’s so ‘The women’s was discreetly separated by a long hallway’ would be neater.
I’ve always loved the word ‘bristled’ and smile whenever it’s used. Brownie points without knowing it, Erica.
Again we have italics that don’t clarify: ‘September 29. One I’ll always remember.’ Although we know it’s an entry in the book, is it in Julia’s thoughts or the entry itself?
We have another title (personnel manager) that I think should be in title case, and the verb used thereafter ‘was glaring’ slips into present continuous (there’s a great example of tenses at http://www.englisch-hilfen.de/en/grammar/english_tenses.htm) and sometimes it’s appropriate but I feel glared would be better here.
Another tick for ‘corral’. :)
I was a little confused by the reference to first night as Julia seemed very familiar with her colleagues so I assume it means opening night. I like her standing up to Tony. There’s nothing worse (but then I am female) than a wimpy female lead character.
Tony’s reference to Matt’s playing clarinet as a kid intrigued me and made me wonder (hope) whether something would come of this later. I already like Matt and hopes there’s more to come with him.
I’m not the world’s best grammarian but to me loud (just loud enough) and tight (mother holding tight) are adjectives whereas they should be adverbs, so have ‘ly’ on the ends, although Stephen King would disagree as he doesn’t think we should use them at all, so perhaps gripping would be better for the latter.
Each character’s dialogue / action should take place on separate lines, so ‘As suddenly as he had vanished’ should be a new line.
In the few lines where he appears and grabs Julia, there are three mentions of her name so I scored through ‘at her side’, changed the first ‘Julia’ to ‘her’, removed it from his question so it reads:
As suddenly as he had vanished, Matt reappeared and grabbed her around the waist, preventing her from tumbling to the floor.
Blushing, Julia gently pulled away.
Also by losing some of the words it’s made a quick action quicker.
Having already grown attached to Matt, I feel she’s being harsh to him, which is the sign of great writing. :)
This time we know the italics are her speaking, and a great ending to the chapter.
At the beginning of Chapter 3 we have two more ‘room’s although this may be unavoidable but they leapt out at me. There is a hypen (-) rather than a dash (– or –) on the sign’s name and although it’s a sign, it should still be correct. :)
In ‘Even with the door closed, she could easily distinguish the raised voices from behind the closed door as Abel and Sidney’s’ there is a door closed and a closed door so removing ‘from behind the closed door’ neatens this.
Three full-stops / periods (…). ellipses, are usually used for hesitation and after the trailing word rather than the subsequent speech so I’ll …I’ll should read I’ll… I’ll – again just a little pick.
Again, I enjoyed Julia being feisty to Sidney, and we know he’d take it.
Until recently I always thought that ‘till’ rather than ‘til’ for ‘until’ was wrong but apparently till was actually used before until so the shortening should be till (which always makes me think of a British cash register) and even using ‘til, the inverted comma should be curling left instead of right, ’til, which most software packages get wrong as they think it’s opening speech or phrasing. I type in ‘’ then delete the former – annoying, I know.
We’re told of Charles Tremaine’s arrival and although he may have been referred to in Chapter 1 but I would have liked a small reference there as to whom he was.
Apostrophes drive writers mad… especially indicative apostrophes (http://diogenes.hubpages.com/hub/Using-the-Apostrophe-Punctuation-Part-3). It’s easy if it’s Matt’s shirt or Laura’s shoes but names ending with an ‘s’ have grammarians split. Personally I don’t use an extra ‘s’, so I would Charles’s plight as Charles’ plight but I’d say both are correct – feel free to disagree, folks.
Another bone of contention (to use a cliché) is full-stops (periods) and closing speech marks / inverted commas. Dialogue punctuation drives me nuts but in the phrase, “with their ‘fix.’”, the fix itself is not dialogue so I would have put the closing inverted comma directly after the word fix, so it would read, “with their ‘fix’.” because you’d put the inverted commas around the word if mid-sentence. Ditto ‘Maestro.’ – I see them split so often that I do sometimes wonder if I’m wrong but to me it just looks odd – perhaps it’s a UK vs US thing?
Big tick for the Rat Pack smirk.
The door to the maestro’s dressing room confused me a little because Sidney was just called the Maestro so I presume it’s Giuseppe’s room? Abel’s? I loved the ending but not being sure whose room she was being beckoned into lost a bit of the sparkle for me.
Because there’s mention of ‘others’, the ‘all’ from ‘They all…’ can go. There are then two ‘off’s (off-guard and walked off’) – something else that probably wouldn’t catch most readers but certainly something to look at.
There are a few instances where references are put in double-speech marks (“ ”) and inverted commas (‘ ’) and when using both they should be the opposite of each other. Because we have speech in “” (I feel correctly – they’re not called speech marks for nothing :)) then references should appear in ‘’.
Clichés are best avoided although a writer can get away with it more in dialogue; for example we have ‘well-oiled machine’, ‘putting bread on their tables’, ‘so early in the game’ (unless it was a football match!) and whilst they are in Julia’s opinion, if Erica could find alternatives it would be advisable.
One of the most regularly-used phrases in creative writing guides is ‘show don’t tell’ and we have a few instances of ‘tell’, e.g. ‘she had no love for Patricia’s personality’, ‘The change in procedure and mind-set saddened Julia’, ‘It made her uncomfortable’, ‘The contempt in the maestro’s voice distressed Julia’, ‘the P.A. system made Julia jump’. Whilst it’s easy to avoid them, the writer showing us how a character is feeling by them reacting is always better.
Another recommendation when writing prose is a mixture of short and longer sentences, and some of the sentences tended to be quite lengthy, although at times it suited the ‘classical’ feel of the subject matter.
Thank you, Erica, for inviting me to red pen your piece. I really enjoyed reading it.
Violinist turned author Erica Miner has had a multi-faceted career as an award-winning screenwriter, author, lecturer and poet. A native of Detroit, she studied music at Boston University and New England Conservatory of Music. When injuries from a car accident forced Erica to give up her career as violinist with the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York, Erica turned to her lifelong love of writing as her creative outlet. Several of her screenplays have won awards, and her journal-based debut novel, Travels with My Lovers, won the Fiction Prize in the Direct from the Author Book Awards.
Erica’s suspense thriller novel, Murder In The Pit, which takes place at the Met, has garnered rave reviews. She is currently at work on the next in her FourEver Friends Young Adult novel series chronicling a young girl’s coming of age in the volatile 60s and 70s.
In addition Erica has developed a number of writing lectures and seminars on writing, which she has presented at various venues across the West Coast and on major cruise lines. Topics range from “The Art of Self Re-Invention” to “Journaling: Mining the Gold of Your Experiences” as well as Mystery Writing and Screenwriting.
Her writings have appeared in Vision Magazine, WORD San Diego, numerous E-zines and such websites as OperaPulse.com. Details about Erica’s novels, screenplays, seminars and interviews can be found on her website, http://www.ericaminer.com. Erica returns in March for our interview. :)
If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free.
Next up is a new feature; Novel-nights-in where I bring you the synopsis and first extract of Rose Mary Boehm’s novel ‘Coming up for air’.
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