Home / Meta / Learn Something / Learn By Example - A Study of a Mary Sue
The following is a bit long (definitely longer than the usual essays that I post) but even still I hope you'll find it worthwhile. What is it? It's my attempt to provide a more "hands-on" example of what can be good and bad in a story.
Why do it? Because I've been talking about things that can make or break a story in a few of my favorite fandoms and I've found two things. 1) There's a lot of people who haven't had writing lessons who are eager to learn more about the craft of writing and 2) It's hard to discuss some aspects of writing without providing examples.
So, in an effort to try to offer something in response to all of that, I'm providing this lesson. Not because I necessarily think I'm the greatest writer in the world and therefore everyone must learn my technique, but because you've got to start somewhere. In all honesty I'm hoping that maybe this can serve as an example for others to follow where, after reading this, they post similar essays of their own. God knows I'd love to read them.
What we have here, then, is an actual dissection of a story. It's a story which has some excellent examples of certain aspects of writing, both good and bad. What I'm going to do with it is quote the entire story for you (hence the length - the story itself was about 30 pages in paperback book form) and comment on parts of the story as we go. It's a published story which should hopefully remove some of the squickiness people have about discussing fanfic in a critical manner.
Now if it were up to me I'd suggest that you read the story first to form your own opinions about it and then read my comments. However because the story is so long I don't feel comfortable with quoting the entire story as-is, then quoting it again while I talk about it. So in the interest of saving space I'm going straight to the commentary. However, I've formatted my comments and the story in different colors so that if you do want to try just reading the story first you can just ignore everything in black and just read the things that are maroon. I know that's a bit eye-straining but hopefully if I ever do this again I'll either pick something shorter or just highlight a few select passages. (And if you decide to try this yourself by all means don't feel as though you have to pick something as long as this was.)
Why this story? Well as I said because it was professionally done so this doesn't turn into nothing but flames on fanfic authors and critiques. But also because it's an excellent example of a Mary Sue (hence the title I've chosen for this particular essay). We talk about Mary Sues a lot in our various fandoms but a lot of authors out there still aren't sure what they are, why some of us call characters Mary Sues when the character might not necessarily be based on the author or how you can fix a Mary Sue once you've got one. This story, in my opinion, has not only an excellent example of a Mary Sue (MS from now on) in it but also examples of why the MS is a problem and examples of places where the "Mary Sueness" of the character could have been fixed.
Plus the story has the advantage of being written by an author who I think has some potential in her. This isn't just going to be a discussion of everything wrong about the story. I'm also going to point out things that the author does well and why they work.
The other thing I like about this story is that it's fanfic. Professionally written fanfic, but fanfic all the same. In this case fanfic for the universe that Mercedes Lackey writes about, otherwise known as Valdemar. The story appeared in an anthology edited by Mercedes Lackey herself, thus providing us with a great opportunity to not only discuss what the author of the story did but what the editor (aka the beta-reader) did as well. And because it's fanfic I think we can all come in and appreciate the fact that this is a story any one of us could have written.
Now if you are not a fan of Mercedes Lackey, don't worry. It's not necessary to be familiar with her work in order to understand the story and the discussion we'll be having. As you'll see, I'm only a moderate fan myself. Because it's fanfic, the story isn't very canon-heavy (that I can tell - like I said, I'm only a moderate fan) and for the most part can stand on its own.
Finally, let me just disclaimer by saying that the story appears here courtesy of my scanner, so if there are any misspellings or whatnot, blame my machine. Otherwise everything in the story is as it appeared in the anthology. I haven't changed anything beyond formatting it and inserting my comments. So all misspellings and typos are mine, particularly the ones in my own commentary that I left in as a reminder that we all make mistakes (yeah, that's the ticket).
Anyway, that's about it. The only thing left is to get into the story itself. As I said I'll be inserting my comments as we go along. I hope you find it all interesting and by all means feel free to respond to this with your own thoughts and ideas. The more the merrier, I always say!
Sword of Ice And Other Tales of Valdemar
Edited by Mercedes Lackey
Published by DAW
by Michelle West
When Kelsey saw the white horse enter the pasture runs,
she stopped breathing for a moment and squinted into
the distance. Then she saw the Herald Whites of the
man who walked just beside it, and with a pang of disappointment she continued across the green toward the
inn. Shaking her head, she grimaced just before she took
a deep breath and walked through the wide, serviceable doors.
"Kelsey, you're late. Again."
"How can you tell?" She pulled her dark hair back
from her square face, twisted it into a makeshift coil,
hand wrapped it up with a small swathe of black silk—a
parting gift from a friend who'd left the town to join a
merchant caravan. It was the finest thing she owned, and
the fact that she used it in day-to-day wear said a lot
about her. Not, of course, that she had very many other
places to wear it.
One of the things that struck me about this story was that it didn't immediately feel like a MS. I think it was easily two and a half pages into the story before I started saying "Wait a minute..." And the reason why is because of paragraphs like the one above. Little details like the one about the scarf help to fill in atmosphere and make the story "real". I think Michelle did a nice job of giving us Kelsey's features and a bit of information about her life without hitting us over the head.
Note too the lack of the usual MS-style details. Her hair is just dark, not "ebony", her face is "square" not "plain, yet oddly beautiful in the right light", etc. So far she's just a girl. Michelle is using a light touch to give us this information and it's just the touch it needs.
"Don't get smart with me," Torvan Peterson snapped,
more for show than in anger. He had very little hair
left, and professed a great resentment for anyone who
managed to retain theirs, he was obviously a man who
liked food and ale a little overmuch, and he owned the
very practically named Torvan's Tavern. Children made
games with that name, but not often in his presence.
This is a clunky paragraph. The details about Torvan are hard to follow. Compare how you found out about Kelsey's hair with the sentence about Torvan's. Then look at the long sentence we've got in the middle giving us all the details about this man's life (TBQ now looks innocently in the other direction while talking about problems with long, run-on sentences. Cough/ahem). Also, call me naive, but "games with that name"? Does "Torvan" rhyme with a part of the anatomy I'm not familiar with? If this is my own ignorance I'll own up to it but as of right now I'm just scratching my head about a detail that I shouldn't even be caring about.
Finally, and unfortunately there's no other place to point this out, but all of these details are hugely unnecessary since Torvan is not that important a character. I hate to point this out now for those of you who are reading along with the commentary but there we are.
In a good way, though, this provides a great comparison. The minor details of Kelsey (like the scarf) were well-done. The minor details about Torvan were not. You can really read the two paragraphs side by side and learn from the contrast. And part of that contrast is that Torvan, as a character who vanishes from the story in a few scenes, is not important enough for me to know about his hair loss issues, his eating and drinking habits and his relationship with the kids in town.
I'll be saying this a lot but if you've read my writing essays before you know my favorite question word is "Why?" If you hang on to that word while you work on stories I think you can't go far wrong. In this case a good "Why?" might be "Why do we know more details about this character than we do about the protagonist?" As the author/editor either figure out the answer to that question and adjust the story accordingly, or realize that the answer is "We shouldn't" and fix the paragraph along those lines.
You may ask, then, what would have been better in this situation? Well what do we need to know about Torvan? He's Kelsey's boss and that's important and, IMO, readers wouldn't mind a detail or two in order to give a face to the name. So I would vote for a mention of how he owned the tavern and how he had thin hair and a big belly, in whatever way your writing style is comfortable with. But more details than that are just too much.
"Not," he added, "that I would disparage an improvement in your intellect." He stared at her expectantly,
and she grimaced. "Well, out with it, girl. If you're going
to be late, you can at least amuse me with a colorful
She rolled her eyes, donned her apron, and picked up
a bar rag. "We've got a Herald as a guest."
"Chatting her up?"
"He, and no."
Again we've got that light touch from Michelle and again it works. Torvan's response is a good "show don't tell". Instead of saying "Torvan, who seemed gruff but was actually a kind-hearted soul who had taken Kelsey in as his own daughter." we see the two of them talking in a friendly and comfortable manner and are allowed to conclude for ourselves what the relationship is like.
And this is a personal bias but I like the throwaway line of "Chatting her up?" It lets us wonder if maybe Kelsey is gay without hitting us over the head about it. To me this works as a subtle detail like the scarf. I think that's because Kelsey's our main character. I don't like the detail about Torvan and the kids because I don't need to care about that. But a quickie reference like this about Kelsey does touch on an important detail in the sense that it might actually be an influence on her personality.
"Hardly much of an excuse, then. All right. The tables
need cleaning. The lunchtime crowd was rather messy."
She could see that quite clearly.
Bad! Bad job here with what is otherwise a good technique. The technique in question is the concept of having a single sentence stand out on its own. This is useful when you want to give something an extra punch. To use a broad example you could have something like:
The look on Barbara's face caught Steve's attention. Her normally quiet features seemed pained. She put the phone down, staring at nothing in particular as she spoke.
"Steve, I'm pregnant."
See what I mean? This isn't the greatest example in the world but it should at least show you the concept behind the single sentence paragraph. You can use it however you want as long as your goal is to highlight whatever the sentence is saying. It should not, however, be used in a situation like this where all we're saying is that Kelsey's got some cleaning to do. In a context like this it puts so much emphasis on such an unimportant line that it almost becomes satire. But satire isn't Michelle's goal so it's not appropriate.
On normal days, it wasn't so hard to come and work;
work was a routine that added necessary punctuation to
her life. She saw her friends here—the few that still remained within reach of the inn—and met strangers who
traveled the trade routes with gossip, tales of outland
adventures, and true news.
But when a Herald rode through, it made her whole
life seem trivial and almost meaningless. She worked
quickly, cleaning up crumbs and spills as she thought
about her childhood dreams, and the woman who had—
while she lived—encouraged them.
I don't have much to say here except to point to this as another example of good background description. It's good for the same reason that the others were good, though, so I'm just going to point at it and move on.
"You can be whatever you choose, Kelsey," her grandmother was fond of saying. "You've only to put your
mind and your shoulders to it, and you'll do us all
Kelsey snorted and blew a strand of hair out of her
eyes. I can be whatever I choose, but I'll never be Chosen. In her youth she'd believed that to be Chosen by
one of the Companions was a reward for merit. She'd
done everything she could think of to be the perfect,
good little girl, the perfect lady, the little hero. She had
forsworn the usual childhood greed and the usual childhood rumbles for her studies with her grandmother; she
had learned, in a fashion, to wield a weapon, and to
think her way clear of troublesome situations without
panicking much. Well, except for the small stampede of
the cattle back at Pherson's, but anyone could be expected to be a little bit off their color in the midst of
their first stampede.
She had done her best never to cheat or lie—excepting
those lies that courtesy required; she shared every
bounty she was given; in short, she had struggled to lead
an exemplary life.
Hands up, how many of you are wondering if these passages came two and a half pages into the book (based on my earlier comments)? Yeah, you'd be right. Right about here is where Kelsey starts to take a downward turn.
But let's dissect this.
Michelle starts out well. I can remember enough of Mercedes Lackey's universe (which I read when I was back in high school) to like the concept of Companions being rewards for merit. You'd have to know the books to understand the whys and wherefores of this so I'll keep the comments short and just say that I think it's an interesting idea and a very likely one. Given the fact that in the Valdemar universe Companions are such magical and legendary creatures I really could see a young child trying to mind her Ps and Qs in order to get a Companion someday. It kind of reminds me of how kids who believe in Santa Claus will try to be extra-good in December in order to make sure that they stay off the "Bad" list.
Likewise I can see the goals Kelsey set for herself. People who are Chosen are supposed to be magical, wise, kind and good fighters. So it would make sense that Kelsey would try to be extra-good and that she'd try to learn how do combat. Heck, I loved Nancy Drew books as a kid and because of that I occasionally had my friends tie me up just in case I grew up to be a famous girl detective and needed to figure out how to untie bonds in the event the bad guys kidnapped me. Now, of course, I do similar things with adults just for fun but that's neither here nor there.
Anyway, the point being that Michelle has a great concept working here and a realistic one. We can tell that it's realistic by comparing it to things from our own lives. To a certain extent this then touches on the idea of "Write what you know". I would offer this up as an answer to those people who have asked the question of how they can put in details from their lives without making the character a MS.
But the keyword here is realistic. In spite of this good beginning Kelsey still becomes a MS character, and a strong enough one that it only took one sentence to get my MS meter beeping.
Why? It's not, as you might suspect, the bit about her wanting to be "perfect". Yes the word "perfect" is often used to describe MSs but the concept of her wanting to be perfect isn't what does it.
What does it is the "flaw". What's the flaw?
Well, except for the small stampede of
the cattle back at Pherson's, but anyone could be expected to be a little bit off their color in the midst of
their first stampede
Ok, first off this is a clunky detail in the same ways that Torvan's description was clunky. But we covered that earlier so I won't go into it again, esp because there's bigger fish to fry. Specifically how this is how Michelle tries to make Kelsey human.
IMO this is a classic MS. MSs are often "perfect" but for one "pretty flaw". Now I know a lot of you have talked about this before but in talking with you I know a few of you don't understand what people say when they talk about an unrealistic MS flaw. This, believe me, is a great example of that.
Why? Well think about it. This is being given to the reader as the one thing that Kelsey couldn't be perfect at. Her first stampede. A stampede. A veritable earthquake of animals was the only thing Kelsey couldn't get right. And not only that but it was get right the first time. So not only is this a situation of God-like proportions in which we needed something that severe to stop Kelsey, but we're also finding out that it only stopped her once (and, moreover, didn't really stop her so much as make her "a bit off color"). The "first time" comment implies that now she's an old hat at it so the one thing that she wasn't good at she is good at now.
I don't know what it is about the MS flaw (you know every time I type that I feel like I'm talking about the latest product from Microsoft - although I suppose arguably all Microsoft products could be called MS Flaw) but it really does tend to be a concept like this. I wish I could understand why it works that way but I don't know enough MS theory to explain it. I can just tell you that it's common. For some reason some MS authors think that by putting in something like "she was off-color her first stampede" or "her eyes were a perfect shade of blue, except for strange flecks of gold" they've covered the need to give you a well-rounded character. Obviously that's not the case.
What, then, would be a good flaw? Well we get a hint of this in the next paragraph:
She had done her best never to cheat or lie—excepting
those lies that courtesy required; she shared every
bounty she was given; in short, she had struggled to lead
an exemplary life.
As-is, this is unrealistic. The fact that it is unrealistic makes Kelsey a MS. The reason why (see how often that word comes up?) it's unrealistic is the key both to understanding what makes a MS character a MS and how to fix a MS once you've got one.
Think about it. Let's go back to childhood like we did before. Whether or not you believed in Santa Claus I'm sure at some point you were put into a situation where you had to be extra good in order to get a reward. Maybe it was your Christmas presents, maybe it was good grades in order to get a new bike, maybe it was a deal with your folks that if you behaved yourself at Aunt Bessie's they'd take you out to the movies. Whatever it was, really think back to when you had to dedicate yourself to being super good for a reward that depended on how well you did.
Got the memory? Cool. Now keep thinking about it. What was that time like? How did you feel? What did you do in order to be "good"? What did you do to keep yourself from being "bad"? Did other people know about what you were doing? If so, how did they treat you? If not, how did they treat you? How did you act around both kinds of people? What was it like when you made a mistake? How did you react? How did you fix it? Did you get what you wanted? If so, how did you feel? If not, how did you feel? In both cases, what did you do afterwards?
Are you starting to get the picture? People who dedicate themselves to being good - especially children - are never perfect at it. They are going to make mistakes. They may or may not succeed. To say that Kelsey decided to be good and therefore was is unrealistic. It would never happen. The fact that the story says she was cuts right to the heart of why many of us can point to a MS in a heartbeat. It is that "feeling" you get when you read about a character who, like Kelsey, decided to be perfect and simply was. Now not all MSs dedicate themselves to being perfect, but the feeling you get when reading about Kelsey's character is the exact same feeling you get when reading about any other MS-style character be it Kelsey the perfect person or Mary Sue MacCloud, the best swordswoman in the world save for that tiny scar she got on her cheek when battling the man who raped her when she was 11 years old. Fix it up however you like, it's the same idea.
This then goes back to the stampede. I suspect Michelle understood that it was unrealistic for Kelsey to have done everything right so we get this mention of the problem at her first stampede. "There," Michelle could say to us, "See? She didn't do everything right the first time but through hard work and perseverance Kelsey was able to do everything else. And the fact that she did accomplish her goal of perfection just shows the reader how dedicated she was to the task."
Hmm, maybe so maybe not. Now of course I'm just guessing that was Michelle's thoughts about Kelsey's perfection but even so it's still unrealistic. Why? Because of what we did earlier with our childhood memories: the feelings.
Let's face it, not even Christ could cope with being a God. Even near the end his thoughts were pretty much "Dad, what the FUCK were you thinking?" Nobody can live with the idea of being perfect even if they ARE.
Remember when you were trying to be "good"? Didn't you have a few naughty thoughts? Didn't you still want to pelt your sister with snowballs even though it might mean coal in your stocking? Didn't you have a night when you wanted to watch TV instead of going over your spelling again?
No matter how good the goal or how dedicated the person is to it there is always going to be a naughtiness factor. Maybe the person gives in, maybe they don't. But ignoring this factor is unrealistic. If you do want a character that's "perfect" then you're going to have to work the naughtiness factor in somehow. Leave it out and you've got a MS. Put it in and you're on your way to a well-rounded character.
I'm reminded of an episode of Highlander with Rae Down Chong. She played a pianist who was "perfect" in the sense that she was apparently one of the most talented pianists in the world. A sense of realism was added, however, by having her be very vain about her talents to the point that she put her life at risk in order to keep them. Now RDC's character was still a MS because Duncan was supposedly in love with her even though he had no reason to be whatsoever (plus it was a Seacouver episode so by definition the writing pretty much sucked) but my point is that at least the writers understood that there was no such thing as a "perfect pianist" and that RDC's emotions were the key to fixing the problem.
What would we do with Kelsey, then? Well it all depends on your goals with her. But as I say said goals would involve her emotions with a touch of the naughtiness factor. How did Kelsey feel about having to be perfect? Did she envy her friends would could laugh and play? Did she ever make a mistake?
You get the idea. You can figure out for yourself how to fix it. If it was me, knowing what I do about the story and Michelle's apparent goals with it, I would probably do something like say that Kelsey really did attain these over-achiever goals but that it made her very bitter on the inside, especially because Michelle tells us in the story that Kelsey strove for this perfection without complaint. Everybody's got complaints. If Kelsey never told anybody about anything that was wrong, I'd say she sounds like a person who doesn't like letting people in past her "perfect" shell. That would make her feel distant from others which would build up the resentment and there you go.
But that's just me. As I say, you need to make these decisions for yourself in your own writing. I'm just showing examples.
Whew, that was certainly a long break wasn't it? Let's get back to the story.
And for her pains, she had drifted into work at Torvan's Tavern, listening to her friends, encouraging and
supporting their dreams, no matter how wild, and watching them, one by one, drift out of her life, either by
marriage, by childbirth, or by jobs that had taken them
out of the village.
She had her dream, but it was a distant one now, and
it only stung her when she came face to face with the
fact that someone else—some other person, through no
work, no effort, no obvious virtue of their own—was
living the life that she had dreamed of and yearned for
ever since she could remember.
This is when I'm probably going to get some dissenting voices. I'm reminded of a certain book by a certain author which just so happened to involve a kid with auburn hair and a brothel. A few of you are probably ready to speak up and say "But TBQ, Michelle just talked about the things you mentioned. She just said that Kelsey's dream hurt her, especially in relation to her friends. Doesn't that cover what you said was lacking?"
As with the aforementioned book my answer is going to be "Yes, and no."
Yes, we get a mention of Kelsey being bitter. This is good. These two paragraphs, as they are, are good. I've got no problem with them.
My problem comes with the rest of the story. While we get these mentions of Kelsey's resentment, that's really all they are. All the reader gets from Michelle is a few cursory attempts to say "Oh yeah, she was bitter too." In no way do these references actually influence or affect the story and that's the problem.
Kelsey's bitterness should be part of her character development. It should influence everything she does. Why? Because part of the point of the story is Kelsey coming to terms with her dream. If the story involves Kelsey's dream then it should involve her bitterness about said dream as well. You can't just sit down and say Kelsey was resentful unless you show it as well. And, IMO, the story does not really show Kelsey being bitter. If anything it shows the opposite.
But that'll be something we see as we go along.
Still, if the Heralds—they never traveled alone—came
in for a meal and left their Companions in the pasture
runs, she could sneak out for a few minutes and watch
them, and pretend. Because no matter how stupid it was,
she couldn't let go of her dream.
Getting off the topic of MSs, I want to point out this paragraph as being a bit "off". Not for the bit about watching the Companions - that's ok. The bit about "they never traveled alone". This is actually a bit of information that the reader needed and I don't know about you but when I read it I skimmed over it. I then became confused later when we get a mention of the Herald's partner.
Of course that could just be the way I read it. Maybe it was different for you guys. But, just in my opinion, Michelle should have rewritten this to help make that information stand out more. As it is now it just sounds like a qualifier to explain why she said "if the Heralds" plural.
It was clear from the moment he walked into the tavern that something was wrong. Heralds were able—although how, she wasn't certain—to keep their Whites
white and in very good repair, and this Herald's Whites
were neither. He was pale, and the moment he stepped
out of the glare of the doorway, she saw why; his arm
was bound, but bleeding, and his face was scraped and
"Excuse me," he said, in a very quiet, but very urgent
voice, "I need help. My Companion is injured."
Heralds seldom traveled alone. Kelsey tucked her rag
into her apron pocket and made the distance between
the table and the door before Torvan had lifted the
At this point I'm tempted to now call the "Heralds traveled alone" problem one that we can blame Mercedes for. Having done similar things myself I can say that this looks like a case of Michelle having gone over the story so many times when writing it that she lost track of when she repeated herself and when she needed to qualify things. Mercedes, as her editor, should have noticed the problem and corrected it. Beta readers take note!
Otherwise this part is good. Again I hate interrupting just to say "Good" because I know it interrupts the flow but OTOH I do want to highlight when Michelle gets it right. The description of the whites is good, as is the way Michelle tells us that Heralds don't travel alone in the last paragraph.
I will say, though, that it is a little hard to follow what's going on and who's talking but potentially this is a formatting problem that my scanner caused so I won't harp on it too much save to say that if you wrote a story like this on purpose you'd need to fix it. Also it's unclear if the part about not traveling alone refers to the Herald's Companion or his partner.
He shook his head, and it was obvious, this close up,
that he was near collapse. She put an arm under his
arms—she was not a weak woman—and half-walked,
half-dragged him to a chair. "Don't worry about me,"
he said softly, his face graying. "She's hurt, and she
"Why don't I worry about both of you?" Kelsey replied, mimicking the stern tone of her grandmother in
crisis. "Torvan—send Raymon for the doctor, and send
Karin for the vet!" The Herald started to rise, and she
blocked him with her arm. "And where do you think
He opened his eyes at the tone of her voice, and studied her face as if truly seeing her for the first time. Then
he smiled wanly. "Nowhere, ma'am," he replied. It was
then that she realized that he was probably twice her
age, with gray streaks through his long braid and two
faded scars across his neck and cheek. His features were
fine-boned, unlike her own; he looked like the son of a
noble, except it was obvious that he was used to doing
his own work.
Personal preference here again but I liked these bits. I know some people who read this part and felt it was classic MS but for me Kelsey's taking charge here, in and of itself, isn't that bad. If you read it on its own I don't think you'd suspect she was a MS. It's only in the context of the story as a whole that these paragraphs become MS-ish.
"Good. What are you smiling at?"
"You. You remind me of my grandmother." The smile
faded as he winced; his expression grew distant again.
She knew that he was seeing not only the loss of the
Herald he traveled his circuit with—for she was certain
that that Herald must be dead—but also the fear of the
loss of his Companion.
Clunky. Again I'm going to have to whistle innocently and wonder what on earth you all are looking at as we talk about run-on sentences with too many clauses for no good reason but in truth those aren't a good thing. Especially because the ideas don't flow. How does being reminded of his grandmother make Kelsey automatically understand that he's thinking about the death of his partner?
This also goes back to what we were talking about earlier with regards to why we needed to know that he had a partner. As I said before it's actually useful information and the first time we didn't notice it and the second, though it was written well as a concept, it still wasn't clear that we were actually talking about a human. I shouldn't be this confused about who he was traveling with right at the moment that I'm supposed to be feeling sorry the guy's dead.
She brought him an ale and made him drink; he finished most of it before the doctors—human and animal—arrived.
"If you make her travel on the leg, you can probably
get a few more miles down the road, but you'll lame
her," the vet said, staring intently at the cleaned gash
across the knee. "I don't know much about Companions—but I do know that if she were a horse, she would
never have made it this far." That he didn't offer more
and in the lecturing tone that he was wont to use,
showed his respect for the Herald.
The Herald—who called himself Carris, although that
was clearly not his full name—nodded grimly and wiped
the sweat absently from his forehead with a handkerchief. His uniform was safely in the tub in Kelsey's room,
and he wore no obvious weapons, although a sword and
a bow were in easy reach. "How long will it be until she
can travel safely?"
"Hard to say," the older man replied.
Carris nodded again, absorbing the words. The doctor
had been and gone, and Kelsey had been forced to
rather harsh words with both doctor and Herald before
an uneasy truce had been reached between them.
"You don't interfere with His Majesty's business,"
she'd snarled at Dr. Lessar. "And you—what did you
think we called the doctor for? He'll bind and treat that
arm—and those ribs—even if you feel it's necessary to
go out and break them again. Is that clear?"
The doctor laughed. "And you're telling me how to
talk to a Herald?"
Oddly enough, the Herald laughed as well. And he
did submit to the doctor's care, electing to more quietly
ignore most of the doctor's subsequent advice.
Where's our beta-reader? This is truly a good example of bad grammar. Read it again. Who's knee was the vet staring at? Where was the vet when he was talking? When did the conversation happen? Where did it take place?
Moving forward, why are we in what I believe would be called past perfect tense at the end? (English majors feel free to correct me). "Kelsey had been forced"? "She'd snarled"? Why is this being presented as a flashback of a flashback? Why do we go from "She'd snarled" to "He laughed" in what's supposed to be the same time and scene? Sloppy, sloppy work and Mercedes should have picked up on this. Michelle should have too, of course, but once Michelle dropped that particular ball it was up to Mercedes to pick it up.
I'm not saying that every story has to be grammatically perfect, I'm just saying this is a good example of why you at least need to know what grammar is in the first place before you decide not to use it.
Likewise again there's descriptive clunkiness akin to Torvan's introduction. Same problem, same solution - less details, presented more naturally.
With regards to the Herald, I'll admit I don't know enough about Mercedes Lackey's later works to know if Carris is a canonical character. I'm told by someone who's read more of the later books than I have that he isn't but since she and I haven't read absolutely everything ever published in the Valdemar universe we couldn't say for 100% certain.
Why bring this up? A few reasons. First, if Carris is a canonical character then it's possible to assume that the bit about "not his full name" might be referring to something that's known in the books. If so, fine. If not, though, there's a problem and it's going to come up as the story goes on.
Second, if he's not a canonical character it serves as an example that not every MS has to attach herself to a canon character in order to be a MS. It's possible to be a MS without canon characters.
For the sake of argument I'm going to assume Carris is not canon. If any of you are more familiar with Mercedes Lackey and can either confirm or deny this I'd certainly appreciate the heads-up. Until then, I'm going to go on what I've been told and say that he's as original as Kelsey is.
Torvan accepted Kelsey's desertion with as much
grace as he could muster during the season when the
trade route was at its busiest and the tavern could be
expected to have the most traffic. She did what she could
to lend a hand between the doctors' visits with Carris
and his Companion, but it was clear that she felt them
both to be her concern, and clearer still that the Herald
was almost in bad enough shape to need it, so he gruffly
chased her out of the dining room and told her to finish
off her business.
Her business took her to the stables, where, in the
dying light, the orange flicker of lamps could be seen
through the slats of the door. That's odd, she thought,
as she lifted her own lamp a little higher. It wasn't completely dark by any means—but the stables tended to
need a little light regardless of the time of day—and she
shone that light into the warm shadows.
Again bad use of language. How much time has passed? The idea of multiple doctor visits and Kelsey's "desertion" indicates days but the second paragraph of "her business took her to the stables" gives us a single incident which contradicts that idea. Also at the end of the first paragraph it's not clear who the "he" is.
Then we have more MS detail with Torvan not caring that Kelsey abandoned her work during the "busiest" season with "the most traffic". What's that question word we need? You got it - WHY? Why doesn't Torvan care? Does he have other employees? Does he love Kelsey that much? Is she that crappy a waitress? No boss is going to be thrilled to loose an employee during the busiest season without a reason. What's the reason? No reason = MS detail. We're left with nothing but the fact that Kelsey is so perfect that she can even shirk off her normal work during a crisis time and have no problems at all. I'd like to see all of us trying that at our jobs and seeing how far we get.
The fix? This situation doesn't need to be that extreme. It doesn't have to be the busiest season. The amount of traffic doesn't affect the story so don't tell us about it. Just say that Torvan was nice enough to let her get out of work and move on.
Carris was kneeling at the feet of a pinto mare, gently
probing her knees. She nickered and nudged him, and
he nearly fell over as he spun quickly to face Kelsey.
"What are you doing here?" they said in unison.
I don't actually have much to complain about with this scene overall except for this part. The fact that they spoke in unison is too cutesy to me and is the first hint of unnecessary comedy we get in this story. But that's a personal preference. Otherwise, as I said, the rest of this scene is fine.
Then Carris smiled. "You know, lass," he said, al-
though she'd passed the age of "lassdom" five years
back, "you should consider a career in His Majesty's
army. You've the makings of a fine regimental sergeant."
Quick nitpick: the nickname of "Lass" never comes up again, even though a small deal is made out of it in this scene. Either take the references in this scene out or have him call her that more often. (Although frankly I think it's a stupid nickname that gives the impression that we're supposed to think Carris is pseudo-Scottish, but that's just me.)
"Thanks," she replied, feeling that he meant to tease
her, but not seeing anything in his words that could be
viewed as perjorative. "You haven't answered my
He chuckled, and it added wrinkles to his eyes and
mouth that suggested he often laughed. "No, lass, I
haven't. What do you think of her?"
"Of—" She looked at the horse, and then realized
that it wasn't. A horse. "That's your Companion."
"If she forgives me for the indignity and the desertion,
then, yes, she is."
"Why—why have you done that?" She lowered her
lamp, as if to offer the Companion a little more privacy.
Her tone made it clear that she thought it almost
"Don't you start as well," Carris said, mock severely.
"I've done it," he added, his voice suddenly much more
serious, "because I've a message that must be delivered—and I can't take her with me, but to leave her
here, as an obvious Companion, is to risk her life."
Kelsey let the seconds tick back while she figured out
exactly what he meant. Then she lifted the lamp again.
"Are you crazy?" she said at last. "You can't ride with
your arm like that and your ribs broken—you'll pierce
your lungs for certain!"
The Companion bobbed her lovely head up and down
"Don't start," Carris said again. "We've already covered that ground, and I've made my decision. She knows
it's the right one." He stood slowly, but winced with pain just the same as if he'd jumped up. "Kelsey, you've
done as much as any girl can to help me—but I've one
more favor to ask of you."
"I want you to take care of her."
"Of . . . her?"
"My Companion, yes," he replied. "Her name is
Arana." He waited for her to answer, and after five minutes had passed, he said, "Kelsey?"
She couldn't even speak. Instead, she walked past him,
holding the lamp as if it were a shield. She approached
the dyed Companion, met her eyes, and held them for
a long time. Finally, she remembered that she wasn't
alone, and had the grace to blush.
"I meant to tell you that dinner's been laid out for
you. It's probably cold, but you should still get to it
while you can."
"I'll have to think about it," she replied, not taking
her eyes off of Carris' Companion.
As I said, more or less fine. Other than the nitpicky details (like the part about "it wasn't. A horse." which reads strangely) this is otherwise OK. I liked the part about her using the lantern as a shield and, other than the unison bit I mentioned earlier, there's nothing really wrong with this scene.
That night, with the moon at half-mast, it was dark
enough that she stubbed her toes twice on the path to
the stable. The lamp that she held was turned down as
low as possible—she didn't want to attract attention
from the field mice and the rats.
She wanted to look at Arana again, without Carris
intruding upon the privacy of her old dreams and her
old desires. Could she watch the Companion. Could she
take care of her. Ha!
She opened the doors, paused as the smells of the hay
and the horse scent hit her nostrils, and made her way
in. Usually Companions weren't stabled like this—but
Carris had insisted that Arana be as horselike as
"Does she like sugar?"
Carris had laughed. "As much as a real horse."
Good so far. I liked the bit about the mice. Quick, throwaway line that helps details stand out in the reader's head. The bit about the sugar, though, is a little clunky. It could use some polishing. Ironically this would have been a good time for that past perfect tense. A simple "she'd asked" would have done the trick.
She hadn't snuck into stables since she was child, but
she'd lost none of her old instincts. She made her way,
unerringly, to Arana's stall.
She wasn't particularly surprised to find Arana waiting
for her. "Hello," she said softly. The Companion, as expected, didn't answer. A pang of disappointment, like a
slightly off-key chord, rippled through her and vanished.
Arana lifted her head and nodded.
"I suppose you've met a lot of people like me. I—1
always wanted to be a Herald. I've always prayed that
one day, a Companion would Choose me. It's never happened," she added ruefully. "And I don't suppose you'd
be willing to tell me why."
Arana put her head over the stall's door and let
Kelsey scratch her. It was easier than scratching a normal horse; the Companion seemed to be more sensitive.
"Doesn't matter. Carris wants me to stay here, with you,
while he does some fool thing on his own, injured, without anyone to look after his back. What do you think
Arana said absolutely nothing, but she became completely still. Kelsey shook her head and lowered the
lamp. "That's what I thought as well. Here. I brought
you some sugar."
Again, no problems with this in terms of Kelsey. Not too heavy-handed and feels realistic.
I do have a bit of a problem with Carris, though. We're getting another reference to his mission again without ever being told what it is exactly. Keep that in mind as the story goes and try to figure out if you know what the mission is.
"Where do you think you're going?" Carris, dressed
like a well-to-do villager, frowned as Kelsey let her back-
pack slide off her shoulders to land on the ground with
"Talked it out with Torvan," she replied, around her
last mouthful of bread and cheese, "and he says it's a
go." She swallowed, wiped her hands on her pants,
rolled her hair into its familiar bun, and shoved her coin
bag into the inner reaches of her shirt.
Oh dear. And here's where the good stuff ends. We were doing so well and now this.
What's this? Well it's Kelsey's MS nature coming back to haunt us in another form. We've touched on Kelsey the Perfect, now prepare to meet Kelsey the Wacky!
Allow me to explain.
What's going on here is another example of the "feel" of an MS character. Unemotional perfection was one "feel". This "wackiness" is another. I've got a few theories about why we get MS wackiness but I'm going to hold off on them until a better example comes up. For right now, though, I'm just going to point out why it doesn't work: nobody talks like this. Not in a situation such as this one anyway. Kelsey is taking an attitude of nonchalance that is completely inappropriate given her relationship with Carris and what's going on. He's a stranger, his mission is supposedly very important, and she's being cheeky.
The MSness of this is the fact that she is being cheeky and his reaction is somewhere between "nonexistent" and "dull amusement". It's the same problem that came up earlier with Torvan not minding that she wasn't working. It wouldn't happen. Read on and watch how silly this gets.
"What's a go?" Carris asked, suspicion giving him an
aura of unease that made Kelsey want to laugh out loud.
Why? Why would she laugh? His mission was dangerous enough that his partner died. How can she find it funny? Nervous laughter might be appropriate in this case, but not "laugh out loud" laughter.
"I'm going with you, Carris." She checked her long
dagger, and then picked up her wooden bat. Made sure
she had a hat, and a scarf to keep it attached to her
Hat/scarf details here are good, fwiw. I'll get to the bat in a second.
"That's preposterous," he replied. "You are doing no
She shrugged. "Whatever you say."
"Look—what did you think you were going to do?
Dress like that, but pick up a fast and fancy horse that'll
take you to the capital?"
He looked taken aback.
The "taken aback" line is a good stand-alone sentence. But am I the only one who doesn't understand why he couldn't get to the capital "dressed like that"? This ties in to my complaint about Carris's mission: What is it? Which capital is he going to? Why couldn't he dress fancy? He normally wears Herald Whites, why wouldn't fancy clothes be an acceptable disguise?
You can't just tell your readers that he can't "dress like that". If it's that important a detail then we need to know the reasoning behind it.
And again we're seeing Kelsey's cavalier attitude.
"You'll stand out like a scarecrow. You're afraid that
someone following you would recognize Arana, and if
that's the case, you'll be recognized if you travel as you'd
planned. Trust me."
Again, I'm blanking on why this would make him stand out like a scarecrow. Now if the method of travel wasn't important I wouldn't harp on these details. But since the method of travel is important then I'm going to be picky and say we're still not getting enough. Like I said, he doesn't wear fancy clothes normally so why would it make him stand out? If it's the fact that he'd be traveling alone and on a "fancy horse" then why not hire a carriage?
I point all of this out because the solution they do come up with doesn't make much sense either so Michelle, as the author, should have done a better job showing us why the fancy dress wouldn't work. Just saying "You'll be recognized" that way isn't enough. Why would be he recognized?
"I wasn't aware that you'd studied the arts of subterfuge. You certainly haven't mastered the art of subtlety."
More unrealistic dialogue. Carris is finding it easy to make stupid jokes while being told by a "lass" that he's got all the subterfuge skills of retarded raccoon. Why does he allow Kelsey to get away with this? He's the Herald, she's some random stranger he met accidentally. His partner is dead. Do you like it when the new intern at work tells you how to do your job? Then why should Carris like it when Kelsey does it here?
"Ho ho ho." She bent down and picked up her pack;
slung it over one shoulder, and then bent down for his.
"Don't argue with me," she said, not even bothering to
look up. "I'll take the packs. You take your arm and
your ribs. Oh, damn."
"I almost forgot."
"The hair. It has to go."
Whoa! Seriously unrealistic! First off, who talks like this? Second, who would talk like this on Valdemar ("It has [got] to go" is modern English vernacular)? Third how fake is it that she "forgot"?
I know it's supposed to be a joke but my point is the joke sucks so much that unless you're trying to show that Kelsey couldn't tell a joke if her life depended on it this shouldn't be in there. A joke like that is planned by the teller. They need the timing of that pause before "XYZ has to go" for the line to work. Kelsey is telling a Herald how to do his job on a life and death mission and she decides to take the time to be even cheekier by cracking a joke like this?
I'll get more into the theory behind this soon, I promise, but for now just understand why the conversation doesn't feel right.
Carris was in a decidedly less cheerful mood when
they finally departed the inn. "Look, Kelsey," he said
tersely. "You may not believe this, but that hair was my
"A man your age shouldn't be beholden to a single
vanity," she replied sweetly. "Now come on. You've
come at a good time—I've a friend who guards one of
the caravan routes, and they're always looking for new
Beware the word "sweetly" near your MS. Rarely does it indicate a believable line. While the bit about Carris's hair is OK as-is, the fact that Kelsey replies "sweetly" again indicates that somehow in this conversation she has the upper hand. First off she's telling Carris how to do his job and now she's cracking jokes about his personality?
Again, if this was nerves on her part it might be OK. But it's not. She just came in and took charge of the situation with Carris only offering a cursory objection for the sake of appearances. Why? Is Carris that bad of a Herald? Is he too upset over the death of his partner to think anymore? Show us the answer to these questions and what we're reading might work. Leave it out and it's just more MS magic.
"As a caravan guard in this territory?" Carris raised
an eyebrow. "You do realize that with the upsurge in
banditry lately, he's just asking for trouble?"
Something about the way he said the word "banditry"
caught her attention; she pursued it like a cat does a
mouse. "What do you know about the bandit problems?"
He didn't reply.
"This have something to do with the message you need
He nodded, but no matter how she pressed him, he
would say nothing else.
Well, it's King's business, not mine, Kelsey thought,
And probably better that I don't know. She knew enough,
after all, to know that as a Herald he was trustworthy,
and that anyone who tried to kill him was as much the
King's enemy—and therefore her own—as a stranger
could be. Still, she felt a twinge of envy; she knew that
were she a Herald, they'd talk openly of their mission—
like equals. Comrades.
I liked the cat and mouse line. It was a cliche used in a new context to help give the writer's description meaning. Good job on Michelle's part.
The bit about the mission though...
Time for a Behind the Scenes confession. Those of you who aren't writers might not know this but sometimes authors like myself will do our best to cover our asses when our writing ability and imaginations fail us. Now like any writing technique this can be both good and bad depending on how it's used. Used well you won't even know we're doing it. Used badly and it shows.
I suspect that this is just such a time.
We need to know the details of this mission because Michelle keeps telling us that it's important. Everything they do, every choice they make, is based off of the mission. We need to know what the mission is for this to make sense. Without that knowledge we've got gaping logic holes all over this story.
There is no point in not telling the reader what the mission is. Yeah it's a bit of character development to have us see that Carris doesn't tell Kelsey but I know for a fact that at no time do we ever find out the full details even after trust builds up between them.
So why don't we know? I've got no way of proving it but my guess is that Michelle doesn't know what the mission is either. I suspect she had the idea for this story, knew that Kelsey and Carris needed to travel together while worrying about danger and decided that if she threw in enough important sounding details we'd never notice that it doesn't add up to a whole.
What clues me off is the repeated use of concepts like the line about it being the King's business. Often authors will just put down the truth when, as I said, imagination fails them. "The sight of the room was indescribable." "He could think of no comparison to the horror they had gone through." or, for you vampire fans, a line not unlike "He couldn't think of a reason why Mojo could still recognize him in the new body." The author doesn't know so the reader isn't going to know either.
Now sometimes this works. Like I said, this is a writing technique like any other. Sometimes things are indescribable. Sometimes your characters aren't going to know why things are the way they are.
But for lines like that to work they have to ring true to both the story and the situation. Your reader should never be wondering if you don't know the answer to the questions that you pose. If the questions are good enough they'll stand on their own.
Twin Peaks started out as a good example of this. When it began David Lynch had no idea who killed Laura Palmer. However the TV show was good enough that people still wanted to watch it to see the story unfold. Some of them may have questioned whether David knew the answer but whether or not David knew it was irrelevant as far as the quality of the show went. Within the universe of Twin Peaks itself the mystery made sense.
FWIW Buffy the Vampire Slayer, X-Files and the early days of ER are also good examples of times when just because the audience and characters don't know something doesn't mean that the story is bad (Where does a Slayer get her powers from? What happened to Mulder's sister? How did Dr. Weaver hurt her leg? etc.)
Again our touchstone is "Why?" "Why is this a secret?" Are you keeping something a secret because the point of your story is that it contains mystery or are you keeping it a secret because you don't know the answer yourself? If the answer is the latter then you'd better make sure it's written well enough that your readers believe it's the former.
As if he could read her thoughts—and it was rumored
that some Heralds could—he said, "It isn't that I don't
trust you, Kelsey."
"Don't bother with explanations. I can come up with
a dozen good ones on your behalf and you don't even
have to open your mouth." She paused, and then
stopped. "You can wield that thing, can't you?"
Good lines here. Personal preference on my part but these do ring as a bit more realistic.
"Both of them, yes," he replied, smiling.
"What did you intend as a weapon?"
"This." She pulled her bat out of her pack and swung
it in a wide circle. "I call it a club."
Oh God. Ok, now we come to the bat. Now again I'm not the Number 1 Mercedes Lackey fan in the world so maybe I'm ignorant but to me it really seems like Valdemar, being a more or less normal (albeit magical) place would have dealt with the idea of "bats". But for some God-unknown reason this story is going to hammer the idea of bats over our heads more or less literally. You'd swear Kelsey was walking around with a Palm Pilot based on the way people react to this. There will be plenty of opportunity for me to talk about this, though, so let's just keep going.
"You're going to sign on as a caravan guard wielding
Why? Aren't clubs weapons? Do caravans prefer archers? Do women not get hired as caravan guards?
"You've never seen me wield a club before," she assured him. Then she laughed. "You should see your
face. Yes, I intend to sign on, but I'll probably do it as
cook or a handler. If a person's willing and able to work,
there are always jobs on the trade routes. Especially
now." She started to say something else, and then
stopped. "Are you in pain?"
"Yes," he said, but the word was so soft it was a
She studied his pale face for a moment and then grimaced. The death of his friend wasn't real for him yet,
but in bits and pieces it was becoming that way. Kelsey
was almost glad that she wouldn't be with him when he
finally completed his mission—because she was certain
that when he did, he'd collapse with grief and guilt.
She'd seen enough hurt men and women come through
Torvan's place to know the look of it.
"That's the life of a Herald, dear, " her grandmother
would tell her.
"I know," she told her grandmother's memory. "But
I want it just the same. "
Meh. The final bits here aren't hideous, aren't great. They just are. And that's fine actually. Not everything has to be mind-blowingly good.
David Fruitman had the look of a barbarian to him.
His face was never closely shaven, but never full-bearded, his brown hair was wavy—almost scruffy—and
long, and his carriage gave the impression not only of
size, but of the ability to use the strength that came with
it to good advantage.
Getting off of the idea of this guy's name (David Fruitman?) this is actually an ok description. David is more of a character than Torvan was so it makes sense to take a moment here to give this introduction and talk about his appearance, esp because said appearance helps to influence the mental image the reader has about the meeting that's about to take place. Sadly, however, this isn't going to last long.
Kelsey waved and shouted to catch his attention.
When he saw her, he rolled his eyes. "What, you
Carris hung back a bit, unsure of the larger man's
reception, but Kelsey bounded in, slapped him hard on
the upper arm, and then dropped the two packs she
carried to give him a bear hug. She called him something
that was best left in the tavern among friends who had
had far too much to drink, and then swung him around.
"Carris, get your backside up here. David, this is
Carris. Carris, this is David. He's what passes for a guard
captain around here."
Oh God. Are you ready for that discussion about MS theory? Well hang on to that idea for a sec and let's get to the end of the scene. I'm pausing you here just to point out when the writing goes sour again. Also to point out a pet peeve of mine which is POV changes. The line about Carris being unsure isn't a total POV shift but it's close. The story is in Kelsey's POV therefore it's very touchy whether or not she'd know Carris's thoughts about meeting David. It's borderline enough that I'd say this just squeaks in as acceptable but it's still close. Try to avoid stuff like that in your own writing. It's really easy to see once you know to pay attention to your character's thoughts and feelings - specifically the fact that unless they're a mind reader your POV character shouldn't know another character's unspoken thoughts and feelings.
[Ed note - after I posted this essay I was told by Cesare that it was a little unclear what I meant by POV and why the problems I mention in this essay are bad. Cesare was nice enough to point me in the direction of a website that explains it far better than I could. So if you want to learn more about the different kinds of POV check out the POV primer. Thanks Cesare!]
David looked at Carris, raised an eyebrow, and then
looked down at Kelsey. "There's a problem, Kelse,"
"His arm's broken."
"So? It's not his sword arm."
Carris and David exchanged raised brows. "Shall I
explain, or shall you?" Carris said.
"You do it. I'm not getting enough danger pay as is."
Who's talking? If you pay attention and keep quick mental notes you can figure it out but your readers shouldn't have to guess. Also, what are they talking about? Is Carris asking David if David should explain or is he asking Kelsey if she should explain? And explain what? And what does David's comment about danger pay mean? I know why it's there and I'll talk about that as the scene goes on, but for now really look at the line and realize how strange it is.
"Very funny, both of you. David—can I talk to you
in private for a minute or two?"
"Is this like last time's private—where you shouted
loudly enough that this half of the caravan lost most of
their hearing for the next two weeks?"
"Very funny." She scowled, grabbed his arm, grabbed
her packs, and nodded frantic directions to Carris. It all
came together somehow, and they made their way to the
wagon that David called home while he was recruiting.
The last paragraph could sort of work if you removed the word "frantic". Take that out and you've got an OK description of how they moved to David's recruiting space. Otherwise it's a bit silly. Why "frantic"? Is it that complicated to get to? If so why not just tell Carris or say "Follow us"?
Also do I really need to point out how unfunny the "last time's private" joke was? But again more on that in a sec.
"Carris is a Herald," she said, dispensing with pretense and bluster—although the latter was hard to get
rid of. "His partner's dead, his Companion's injured, and
he's got a message that he's got to get to the capital as
fast as possible. He can't ride—don't argue with me,
Carris, you heard what the doctor said—and he's being
"Hunted by who?"
"He can't say."
"I can't hire him, then."
"David—he's a Herald."
"That doesn't mean the same thing to me as it means
to you," David replied. "Look—the people who hunt
the type of guards I hire are cutthroats that I know how
to deal with. The people who hunt a Herald . . ."
"David!" She reached out, grabbed the front of his
surcoat, bunched it into two fists and pulled. Even Carris
recoiled slightly at the intensity of her tone. "You-are-
He raised a brow, not in the least put out. "Or?"
"Or I will tell Sharra about the time that—"
He lifted both of his hands in mock surrender, and
than his expression grew graver. "Is it that important,
"More. Trust me. We need you."
"All right. Let go of my surcoat and pray that the
entire encampment didn't just hear that. I'll take Carris
on,—but we've got to strap a shield to that shoulder,"
Ok, this is as good a place to pause as any.
This scene doesn't work. It really doesn't. But indulge me in a moment of MS theory as I explain why.
I have a theory about why some MS elements are the way that they are. My theory is this: people see things in movies and TV shows that they like and try to recreate them in their stories.
Now in and of itself that's not a bad concept. However I think where people go wrong is in forgetting why those original scenes work.
For example, this scene here. You know what this scene reminds me of? Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, specifically the scene where Han Solo meets up with Lando Calrissian. You know the one. Han arrives, he and Lando exchange some gruff but friendly insults, joke about who the ship really belongs to, say a few bon mots and the story moves on.
Now in SWESB that scene worked. It was a cool scene. Both Han and Lando got to show off their sexy outlaw sides and the audience got to enjoy watching it. And I suspect that the concept behind that scene is what Michelle was trying to create here. Maybe not that specific scene exactly, but a scene not unlike it (there've been dozens of scenes like that in movies and television). But by taking the scene out of context the concept behind it fails.
See, Kelsey is Perfect. Which means she's got to be the best fighter, the wittiest speaker, the cleverest spy and, in this case, the one with the best connections to supposedly unsavory characters. Now in a general way it makes a little sense. She works in a tavern, we know travelers come through the tavern, understandable that because of her job she'd know who was in town and who might be trusted.
But again we get the MS mistake of going too far. Just as it was too much to say it was "the busiest season" it's also too much to say that Kelsey is this guy's bestest waitress friend who can walk up to him, call him something rude in that oh-so-friendly way that those "in the know" with the underworld have and enjoy some good-natured joshing about David's sex life.
Let's go back to the scene with Han and Lando. Why does that scene work? Well for starters because of the actors. I suspect you could see that scene entirely on its own and still feel the dialogue to be appropriate. However moving that aside (I'll talk about actors later in the story) we also have the story itself. Han is an outlaw. We see him kill a guy not long after meeting him in SW A New Hope. He's got debts, he's being stalked by bounty hunters, he gambles. It's therefore believable that he would have something to talk about with a guy like Lando.
Moreover Han doesn't always have the right thing to say. Yeah sometimes what he says is funny ("Who are you calling scruffy?") but it's not always the perfect witty reply, just a reply which happened to be witty. The fact that he often doesn't know what to say when he's around Leia actually works to emphasize why the stuff he says around Lando is so witty and easy. Lando is Han's friend, Leia isn't.
Kelsey's flaw is that her dialogue is always perfect. She was talking to Carris in the same way she's talking to David now. Any attempt to sell the idea that Kelsey and David are old friends is ruined by the fact that she's not acting any differently around him than she did around Carris.
I tell you about this theory because, even if there isn't a direct connection between movie scenes and MSs I still think you can learn a lot by making the comparison. Think about times that you saw something in a movie that's similar to what you're reading in a MS story and ask yourself why it worked in the movie but not in the MS. Was Michelle thinking of a movie scene like this when she wrote the story? Who knows? But we can still think of a movie scene like it that works and use it to see what's wrong with this part of the story. The scene in Star Wars worked because it was in-context, realistic and made sense. Strip the scene of its context and reasoning and you've got a MS.
Again it goes back to realism. Take Kelsey's threat (and do we even want to touch that entirely hyphenated sentence?). It's being played as comical. It shouldn't be. David is trying to tell us that it becomes a matter of his life or death to take Kelsey and Carris on. Therefore why does he cave at the threat? Is what Kelsey knows really that serious? If so then think about what that would have to be for David to be risking his life. The secret would have to be pretty damned serious (like a rape or murder) for David to think it was worth dying over. If so, then we shouldn't be getting the wacky comedy of Kelsey talking like this.
If the secret isn't that serious then we're left with the fact that David just isn't that brave or intimidating to begin with. Which would work from the comedy aspect but what Michelle really wants to do is give the reader a sense of urgency. She's failing at this miserably (not to be too mean but it's unfortunately true - Michelle does some things right but she really screws up any sense of drama in this story).
I think the place that really does it is "mock surrender". By putting that in we know that this wasn't a serious threat for Kelsey or David. It was just part of the wacky things that Kelsey does because she's just that kind of gal.
I've got to say that at this point I began to feel like I was reading two stories. The first was the fanfic story that had potential, the second was actually a sitcom entitled "Oh That Kelsey!" where I half-expected the characters to stop at the end of each scene, look at the camera, grin in mock-annoyance and say "Oh that Kelsey!" while the laugh track roared and the credits rolled.
It's probably a very bad sign that I was sitting there imagining this much when I should have been engrossed in the supposed drama going on here.
Anyway, that's the gist of the theory and the fault of this scene. Michelle is trying to evoke a mood not unlike the Han/Lando scene but failing because we've got none of the depth or reasoning, just as we had no depth or reasoning to why Kelsey isn't more bitter and resentful about her dashed dream of being a Herald.
This, too, by the way, is part of why I say nothing in the story supports the bitterness. Kelsey is now spending all her time with a Herald, the living embodiment of all she failed to be. What's she doing? Cracking jokes and winking at the audience. If she was actually resentful her relationship with Carris would be much more strained and uncomfortable. We'd see her struggling between the pain of "Why did Carris get picked and not me?" and the deep-seated desire within her to still do The Right Thing even though it never got her anywhere. We would not be sitting here watching her making stupid jokes about Carris's hair being too long.
"Can't you just say he was injured in the line of
"Sure. But who's going to ask me? Most of the guards
here are the same as I started with, and they'll know
he's a stranger if they're asked. We've hired five mem
here, and he'll just be another one of those—but he's got
to look the part, even if he's not going to act it. Clear?"
She said something extremely rude. "Yes. Clear."
Is anybody out there following this? Do you see what I meant earlier when I said that the option they do take doesn't make anymore sense than the "fancy dress" option they abandoned? Nothing here makes logical sense. How would the other guards not know that Carris was injured when he was hired? How is this option any less obvious than what Carris was going to try on his own? Why couldn't he and Kelsey have just joined the caravan with the promise to lend a hand in return for transport (thus freeing David to hire an actual guard for protection)?
Because this doesn't make anymore sense than the fancy dress option, we really needed to know more about why fancy dress wasn't going to work. Yeah Carris can't ride a horse but why couldn't he have joined a carriage traveling to the capital?
Plus, which capital? Which King? Maybe I'm dense but it took me a while to understand that Carris was actually trying to get to the capital of Valdemar to give a message to the King of Valdemar. Based on how everyone's acting like Carris is in enemy territory I swore for almost the entire length of the story that he was in another country trying to get to its King.
"Captain?" Carris said softly.
"Don't. Thank her. I owe her, and it's about time she
started calling in her debt."
Argh! This is a good example of a moment when Michelle is on the right track but screws it up. Carris saying thank you is nice. It's a good touch and is realistic given the circumstances. But why, God why, do we need the line about "Thank her. I owe her."? How realistic is that? Not to sound snobbish but Kelsey's a waitress. What on earth could she do that would cause this much of a life-debt between her and David? Why does there even have to be a life-debt between her and David?
Once more we're getting the over the top MS detail. It was enough to say thank you. It was enough to establish before a realistic reason why David would agree to this. We do not need David telling us that Kelsey did something so wonderful he "owes her". But this is just part and parcel of MS descriptions. Kelsey is so perfect and wonderful that she would have a debt like this and not even bring it up as part of the negotiation to save Carris's life.
No. No, no no. Just take this line out. It's unnecessary and stupid. But it is a good example of a line that screams MS.
"I hope you appreciate this," Kelsey said to Carris as
they set up their tents. Her hands were stiff and
chapped, and she was busy nursing a blister caused by
peeling carrots and potatoes for a small army. When he
didn't answer, she looked across the fire.
"It's Arana," he replied at last, weighing his words.
"You travel for this long with a—a very dear friend, and
you really notice when she's gone."
"You aren't used to being separated?"
"No. I'm used to being able to hear her no matter
where I am." He was quiet, and she let the silence
stretch between them, wondering when he would break
it. Fifteen minutes later, she realized he wasn't going to.
"Is it everything they say it is?"
"Being a Herald. Having a Companion. Is it every-
thing it's cracked up to be?"
He smiled. "It's harder than I ever imagined," he replied, leaning back on his elbows, and then wincing and
shifting his weight rapidly. "And it's the most rewarding
thing I could ever dream of doing." He laughed, and the
laugh was self-deprecating. "It wasn't what I'd intended
to do with my life—and both of my parents are still
rather upset about it, since it significantly shifts the family hierarchy."
"Do you know why you were Chosen?"
"Me?" He laughed again. "No. If I had to Choose,
I'd be the last person I'd ask to defend the kingdom
with his life." He sobered suddenly. Rose. "Kelsey, I
don't know how to thank you for everything you've
done, and I know that leaving you to the campfire alone
isn't the way to start."
She waved him off. "Everyone needs a little space for
grief," she told him firmly. "Even a Herald. Especially
But after he was gone, she stared at the fire pensively.
By his own admission he'd done nothing to be consid-
ered a worthy candidate—why had he become a Herald?
Why had he been Chosen? Don't start, Kelsey, she told
herself sternly, or you'll be up at it all night.
There we go! This is much better. We've put the anvils aside for a moment to take in a quick scene which establishes a bit of what's going on in Carris's mind and which even touches on Kelsey's problems as well. There's nothing extreme, Kelsey doesn't walk on water or heal the sick, it's just a nice, simple scene.
"You look awful," David said, as he ducked a flying
handful of potato rinds.
"I didn't sleep very well," she replied. "Are you here
to annoy me, or should I just assume that you already
He laughed. "I wanted to see how you were faring.
The caravan's got a few extra mouths this time round;
if I was going to choose KP, I wouldn't have done it for
this stretch of the route."
"Thanks for the warning," she said, and heaved an-
other handful of rinds. Then she wiped her hands on her
trousers, set her knife aside, and stood. "Why is the
caravan so bloody big this time?"
"It's well guarded," David replied, lowering his voice.
"Well guarded. We've done our buying for the season,
and we're doing our damned best to protect our investment."
"How bad has it been? We'd heard rumors that—"
Do you start to see why I suspect Michelle didn't have all the details before she sat down to write? I brought that up before in reference to Carris's mission, I'm bringing it up again for David's caravan.
Notice the odd lack of specifics: "our buying" "our investment" "We'd heard rumors that—" What? Why are these things blank? Kelsey supposedly knows David very well, certainly well enough to threaten him before with that "I'll tell" nonsense. Wouldn't it make sense that she'd at least know what line of work David was in? Or at least know it well enough to refer to it in slightly more specific terms, albeit still vague ones?
Likewise Kelsey's "rumors" comment. David isn't interrupting her when he replies so why is it cut off like that? When you ask someone how their day at work was do you say "How was it? I'd heard it was..." and just leave it? Of course not, you'd toss something in. "I'd heard it was rough with your boss gone." "I'd heard it was a real pain with all the post-Christmas shoppers." Something.
As I said before, I'm not saying you can't write stories where you don't fill in unknown details. I'm just saying that if you don't know the details you need to fake it really well. Strange blank spots like this make no sense, thus adding to my suspicion that if you asked her Michelle would probably have to confess that she doesn't know what David's carrying or what the trouble Kelsey was referring to either.
Why? I suspect because Michelle wanted both the trouble and David's job to have this "ultra-bad" vibe to them. It's all so dangerous and horrible that it's unspeakable don't ya know? But, perhaps because she wasn't familiar enough with the economic goings-on of Valdemar, she couldn't figure out just what kind of illegal cargo someone like David could be hauling or what kind of threat would be so bad None Dare Speak Its Name.
Potentially good in theory. Remember that The Blair Witch Project became famous for only hinting at the evil in the woods and not actually showing it to you. Letting people's imaginations do the work for you is actually a good technique. If you do it properly.
Where did Michelle go wrong? Again in unrealistic dialogue. People like talking and people especially like giving names to things. Nobody talks in blank sentences. If they can't refer to the thing directly they'll find another way to talk about it. I'm reminded of Harry Potter and how everyone in that universe calls the evil Voldemort "You-know-who". Likewise people in real life who do supposedly criminal things have no problem talking about it in guarded terms (e.g. prostitutes "get dates" people don't possess drugs but have "herbal refreshment" etc.)
If the dialogue had been more realistic Michelle could have pulled off the lack of information without a hitch. But because it's so unbelievable we're left with nothing but evidence of where she tried to take short cuts.
Again, not to slam her personally. Believe me, not every author puts in the amount of invisible backstory that JRR Tolkein does. I'm just saying that, like any good magician, you've got to make use of plausible smoke and mirrors.
"It's been bad." His face lost all traces of its normal
good humor. "If you hadn't insisted, Kelse, I wouldn't
have taken your friend on. There's a very good chance
he'll get to see action whether he's up to it or not."
"Oh." She blew a strand of dark hair out of her eyes.
"Is there some sort of drill?"
"What should the noncombatants do if the caravan is
attacked?" She waited for a minute. "Look, stop staring
at me as if I've grown an extra head and answer my
Huh? Our dialogue has taken another turn for the strange. Granted I've never done KP duty for a caravan traveling to the capital of Valdemar but considering that even airlines give their passengers a safety drill why wouldn't it be reasonable for Kelsey and the other non-guards to know what to do in case of emergency?.
What's going on here is an attempt at exposition that went sour. True it's important for both the reader and Kelsey to know what to do when that unspeakable trouble shows up, but there are better ways of doing this. Heck I'd even go so far as to say that just taking out the line about "stop staring at me" would improve this setup 90%. But if you took that out you'd loose Wacky Kelsey! so it got left in. Bad call by the author. You should never sacrifice any aspect of your story for the sake of giving your characters a line you think is clever.
"Well," he replied, scratching his jaw, "if I were in
that position. I'd probably hide under the wagons."
Great. "If I'd wanted an answer that unreal. I'd have
asked a Bard." She picked up her knife and went back
to potatoes, carrots, and onions. Onions. That was the
other thing she was going to have to find a way around.
I'm not sure why David's answer is "unreal" but it's not important enough to make a big deal of, esp since it's just part and parcel of the overall vagueness problem of this entire conversation.
On a more upbeat note, though, I wanted to point out the line about the onions as being a nice one as far as segues go. I've got a problem with endings myself so I can appreciate when an author can find a way of gently closing one scene and moving the reader along to another one.
Carris took to taking it easy about as well as a duck
takes to fire. He was grim-faced and impatient, and he
watched the road and the surrounding wooded hills like
a starving hawk. David had decided that the best watch
for Carris was the night watch; under the cover of
shadow and orange firelight, he could pass for a reasonably whole guard. He carried his sword and his bow—
although Kelsey pointed out time and again that the bow
was so useless it was just added encumbrance—and wore
a shield that had been strapped to his front as well as
possible given the circumstances.
Personal nitpick: try to avoid situations where you've got repeated concepts. In this case it's the "duck takes to fire" and "like a starving hawk" sentences. It's not so bad here but things like that tend to lend themselves to inadvertent comedy. For example a few people win those "write the worst opening paragraph" contests by creating sentence after sentence that has nothing but a food theme, or a number theme or what have you.
What he did not do well was blend in with the rest of
the guards. It was his language, Kelsey reflected, as she
listened to him speak. He didn't have the right cadence
for someone who had fallen into the life of a caravan
guard. Never mind cadence, she thought, as she dove
into the middle of a conversation and pulled him out—
whole—he didn't have the vocabulary, the tone, the posture. He did, having been on the road without being able
to shave himself, have the right look.
Beta-reader! It was your job to go over this paragraph and fix it for the obvious grammar problems! Bad job! For those of you who aren't sure what I'm talking about, reread the paragraph and note the change of tense and time. This is another situation where pretty much every sentence is taking place at a different time from the ones around it. Notice how often we go from present to past and back again just in the course of this short bit of story.
From a writing standpoint, we're back to Carris's mysterious past. It comes up again later so I'm going to hold off my comments on that and just point out that we're getting another MS moment: Kelsey is so good that she not only understands how to be "down with the homies" that are caravan guards (vaguely plausible, given her job) but that she can do a spot-on analysis of Carris's speech patterns and note that the "cadence" is off. Thank goodness she was there to save him, huh?
Bear in mind throughout all of this that Carris is a Herald who's job it is, we know, to transport important messages through unfriendly territory. So you'd have to imagine that somewhere along the line he'd have learned how to cope with situations such as getting along with caravan guards.
How would we make this more believable? Establish that Carris isn't very good at his job, which would tie in to why he needs Kelsey so much. Maybe Carris wasn't the actual brains of this operation, maybe it was his now-dead partner. Maybe Carris is one of those people who's really good with book-learning but not so good at translating his knowledge into practical situations. Maybe Carris's Heraldic duties are normally ceramonial (which might also tie in with the fancy dress problem - if his job keeps him around those of high-class circles than it would make sense that anyone pursuing him would look there first).
Likewise don't make Kelsey his savior. Don't make her such an expert of languages that she knows the "cadence" of caravan guard vernacular and don't make her so in-control of this situation that she needs to literally barge into a conversation and save Carris as though that wouldn't be more conspicuous than whatever Carris was already doing.
And again we're back to our "Why?" Why was this bit in here anyway? I have some theories, which is why I'm not suggesting that we take it out entirely, but it should have been written in such a way that I'm not guessing. What is our point here? Is it to hint at Carris's past? Kelsey's competence? Establish the danger Carris is in because he's not blending? Why do we care?
My theory, and IMO what this scene should be about, is the danger Carris is in because he's not blending. If so, it's an important point to make and the scene should stay. At which point we would need to revamp the scene to highlight how Carris is not clicking. That would be an excellent "show don't tell". By wording this scene from the POV of Kelsey saving him we've only got the narrative's word that Carris was screwing up. It would be much more effective to actually show Carris talking to some of the other guards, screwing up, and then showing the guards' reactions. This approach could also be used increase drama and tension - where's our danger coming from? will one of the guards betray him? will someone spot him standing out from the crowd? who knows?
See, those are good questions to be asking (compared to the "what's the mission again?" one of before). That's what we should be wondering about right now and not "Why was this scene here?"
As you might imagine, if the point was to talk about Carris's background or Kelsey's competence then just take this scene out. Those points are unnecessary. I'm going to give Michelle the benefit of the doubt, though, and assume she was trying to add some tension and just took a wrong turn.
"Stop being so nervous," she said, catching his good
arm in hers and wandering slightly away from the front
of the caravan.
"Kelsey, do you know what this caravan is carrying?"
"Nope. And I don't want to."
There it is again. A too-blatant "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" from our author. Why is it blatant? Because Kelsey and Carris wouldn't be having this conversation right now. Earlier bits of narrative (including Carris's rescue) indicate they've been on the job for at least a couple of days. Other than David they only know each other and have one another to talk to. Therefore they'd know by now if the other one knows what the cargo is. Carris wouldn't be asking Kelsey about it at this point. When they first got hired maybe, but not now.
Likewise people rarely say "Nope. And I don't want to." outside of overly dramatic movies, particularly in a situation like this. Dialogue like that in this context is trying to establish both an element of "dare not speak its name" such as we talked about earlier plus the element of "this character is so cool and in the know that she knows not to ask questions about stuff like this."
The points fail though because we don't have an actress articulating the lines for us to let us know what the character is really feeling. Therefore we only have the words themselves and the words here are, as with most of Kelsey's bad dialogue, too non-chalant to be appropriate for their intended meaning.
Think about it. If Kelsey really was "in the know" then she wouldn't be (or shouldn't be) so flippant about it. Nor would she feel a need to talk about it. This is one case where somebody really would clam up. In reality Kelsey would have either said "No." with a tone of voice to indicate that there should be no further discussion about it or, if she felt the need to keep talking, she would have been more likely to say something like "No, and David prefers that we keep it that way."
In other words she would have been more likely to say something to hint that Carris should keep his mouth shut rather than talk about how much she's keeping her mouth shut.
"Well, I do. We're going to see action, and I can't
afford to see it and not escape it alive. We've lost four
Heralds to this investigation, not including Lyris, and
we'll lose more if I don't get word back."
Nitpick: As opposed to all those other times when he can afford to be killed?
"We'll get word back," she said, assuring him. But she
felt a twinge of unease when she finally left him. Dammit, he's even got me spooked. She went to her pack,
found her bat, hooked it under her left arm, and walked
quickly back to her place among the cook's staff.
"What is that?" A familiar voice said.
"Don't ask her that." Marrit, the older woman who
supervised the cooking, looked a tad harried as she
glared in David's general direction.
"It's a bat."
"I know what it is."
"Then why did you ask?"
"Don't be a smartass, Kelse. Why are you carrying
"It's as much a weapon as anything else I own."
"And you need a weapon on kitchen duty?" David
laughed. "Marrit, I didn't realize that you'd become such
a danger over the past few days."
Nitpick: Wouldn't the knives count as weapons? I don't know about you but I'd rather stab with the knife I'm holding than take the time to put it down and grab my club.
"Look—don't you have something to do?"
Who said that? Kelsey or Marrit? Things like this are why it's really not that big of a deal to put in "Kelsey said" "David said" and so on. They really don't stick out as much as you think they do and your readers need them more often than you think. Again Mercedes as editor should have picked up on this.
"I'm off duty. I've got nothing to do but sit and visit."
He smiled broadly and took a seat. He even managed
to keep it for five minutes. Marrit didn't say one dispar-
aging word about her cook's lax work habits when
Kelsey dropped her knife into the potato sack, turned,
and pushed him backward over the log.
Oh That Kelsey!
Do you see now what I mean about inappropriate comedy? It was just the last scene that we were being told this situation is so dangerous that four Heralds died. Why on earth would you follow that up with humor?
Add on top of it the fact that there is no reason for this scene to exist. Mercedes truly dropped the ball here as editor. Think about it, what does this scene establish? The only real facts here are that they're in danger and Kelsey is carrying a bat. The last paragraph of the previous scene already told us this. End of discussion.
Which isn't to say that you can't have humor in a serious piece. Sometimes the most serious pieces need a bit of comedy to help ease the mood a bit. The gravedigger scene in Hamlet is a good example of this, as is a song like "Master of the House" in the musical of Les Miserables. Sometimes if your mood is so intense your readers might actually need a light moment here or there in order to make it through.
But you don't have a time like that here. There's no tension, there's no suspense and the humor at this time is definitely not appropriate. The only thing it does is reinforce the idea of Kelsey the Wacky, that MS concept that our MS always has a witty thing to say or do and it's always considered appropriate by the people around her.
Two days passed.
Carris was edgy for every minute of them, except when
he spoke of Lyris. Then his emotions wavered from guilt
and grief to a fury that had roots so deep even Kelsey was
afraid to disturb them by asking intrusive questions that
stirred up memories too sharp and therefore too dangerous. This didn't stop her from listening, of course. She
managed to infer that Lyris was the Herald who had
traveled with Carris, and further that Lyris was young,
attractive and impulsive. She knew that he had come
from the wrong side of town, just as Carris had come
from too far into the right side, as it were.
A few comments. On the good side, "Two days passed." is an acceptable way of establishing that, well, two days passed. Sometimes it is OK to just state the obvious.
On a nitpicky note it could have been smoothed into the narrative better. Something like "Two days passed and Carris was edgy for every minute of them." would flow a bit better than leaving them in separate paragraphs like that.
On the downside: "show don't tell". Remember the earlier conversation where Carris talked about how strange it was to be away from his Companion? Didn't that quick conversation establish its point so much better than this drive-by description of Everything That Was Lyris? Particularly since Kelsey is "inferring" this information. She's got a pretty good ability to "infer" things if she was able to pick up Lyris's age, looks, temperament and family history - in other words you don't "infer" stuff like that. That's like saying "TBQ managed to infer that the people reading her essay had brown eyes."
Far better to have given us one of the conversations between Carris and Kelsey about all this and let us infer Lyris's story. It's better writing and it lets us in on not only Lyris but gives us character development for Carris and Kelsey as well.
Back on a plus side though, I do like how the relationship between Carris and Lyris is another one of those "soft touch" moments. Were they lovers? Hard to say. But plausible that we wouldn't know, especially in a situation where Kelsey doesn't feel comfortable asking questions. Michelle did a good thing in leaving this detail fuzzy.
Never anger a noble, her grandmother used to say.
Especially not a quiet one. Although it was a tad on the
obvious side, it was still good advice.
How often did Kelsey's family interact with nobles that this was an oft-repeated family saying complete with qualifier ("Especially not a quiet one")?
I feel a little anal retentive pointing this out but the truth is sometimes questions like this do point out important things. If Kelsey's family had some kind of bad relationship with nobility it would affect Kelsey's ability to get along with Carris. That's actual character development and it shouldn't be tossed in care of an unlikely family saying.
"Kelsey, why must you take that club everywhere
Given that she'd just managed to hit his rib with the
nubbly end, it was a reasonable enough question—or it
would have been had she not heard it so often. "Don't
start. I thought if there was one person in camp I'd be
safe from, it'd be you. Why do you think I'm carrying
Strange transition there, but that problem's come up so often now that once again the finger of blame points squarely at our editor.
And do you see what I mean about the club now? Why are people making such a big deal out of it? I've got to admit every bit of dialogue about the club is so odd I don't even know what it was trying to accomplish, let alone how to try fixing it.
This scene also confuses our mental picture of the caravan. Wasn't it established before that normally Kelsey and Carris wouldn't walk together? So why are they together now?
This sort of problem is one your beta-reader should fix. Often writers are so mentally familiar with their worlds that they don't realize when they're leaving details out. So this particular description, unlike those too-deliberate "blank spots" of before, strikes me as a moment where I actually do think Michelle knew why Kelsey was with Carris again but it was so obvious to her she forgot to write it down.
In which case your beta-reader needs to step in to help you understand how the story looks to someone outside of your head. No matter the reason why you're leaving details out, a beta-reader is really the only person who can tell you if what's on the page makes sense to anybody who's not you.
Which isn't to say you always need a beta-reader. If you write enough you can (and should) start to develop your own editing skills which will help you figure out this stuff while you're proofreading. So I'm not trying to say that every fanfic must be beta-read before you show it to anybody. I'm just saying that I personally don't hold an author as responsible for making mistakes like this as I do a beta-reader. It's natural for an author to be too close to the material to pick up on this. The job of the beta-reader, by definition, is to watch out for the things the author can't pick up on.
Plus it should go without saying that anything being sold for money (as this story was) should never be put up for sale until somebody besides the author has read it and agreed that it's worth spending cash on.
He shrugged. "I don't know. Everyone here seems to
have their pet theory."
"What do you mean, everyone?"
"Guards," he said, offering her the gleam of a rare
smile, "have very little to talk about these days."
She blushed. "I'd better not catch them talking about
me, or I'll damned well show them what I'm carrying
Personal nitpick: I feel like I've read this conversation a thousand times before. It's not the cause of cancer so I won't raise too much of a fit about it, but if I were the editor I would have asked for a rewrite of these lines. The whole "gossiping Guards" and "I'll give them what for" concept feels cliched. And since it's not really establishing anything important to the story it needs a rewrite to justify its existence anyway.
Carris actually laughed at that. Then he stopped. "I
know I'm unshaven and unkempt, but have I done something else to make you stare?"
"Yes," she replied without thinking. "You laughed."
She regretted her habit of speech without thought the
moment the words left her lips; the clouds returned to
his face, and with them, the distance.
"And there's not much to laugh about, is there?" He
said softly, his right hand on his sword hilt.
This bit wasn't too bad. It's a nice, sadly rare glimpse of what's going on with Carris. And notice - Michelle showed us this. Don't these lines here feel much better than that earlier rushed paragraph about Lyris?
We also get a nice glimpse of some actual personality from Kelsey too. Doesn't the "regretted her habit of speech" line feel so much better than the earlier Kelsey the Wacky parts? Likewise doesn't it feel more realistic than if Michelle had written something like "Kelsey was glad for her habit of speech. Carris had been too quiet lately and she knew that he needed someone to talk to, someone to recognize the pain, someone to help him heal."? (In other words another dose of Kelsey the Perfect who would naturally know the best way of giving Carris some therapy).
If we wanted to nitpick we could point out that these passages could use some smoothing. But there's plenty of other stuff to nitpick about so I'm just going to leave this part as a good example of how to show some actual personality with a few lines of dialogue. The story needed way more scenes like this!
Kelsey was at the riverside, washing more tin bowls
than Torvan owned, when she heard the screaming start.
A silence fell over the men and woman who formed
Marrit's kitchen patrol. Fingers turned white as hands
young and old clenched the rims of tin and the rags that
were being used to dry them. No one spoke, which was
all the better; Kelsey could hear the sound of hooves
tearing up the ground.
Admittedly catty nitpick: The first two sentences here are straight out of the Mater's Son school of writing (those of you who have read my DoS MST/review know what I'm talking about). We've got a too-sudden transition with the first sentence and a direct contradiction of the first sentence in the second (how could it be silent if Kelsey is listening to screaming?) Put all that together and I'm suddenly trapped in Lafayette cemetery with four stupid kids (again, if you read the MST/review you know what I'm talking about).
Moving away from the cattiness let's talk about how to fix this. We had a good setup. The fact that Carris was withdrawn at the end of the last scene does provide enough of an atmospheric hint that we could go into this scene fairly easily.
For me I think the problem lies in the fact that we're starting out with unnecessary details. Why are we talking about the tin bowls? Who cares that there are more of them than Torvan owned? These details are totally irrelevant and put our attentions in the wrong place. Our minds shouldn't be busy remembering who Torvan is and trying to calculate the Torvan to David bowls ratio at a moment where Michelle really wants our attention to be on the drama of this sudden attack.
How to improve it? The first step would be to simply remove everything between the commas. If the sentence was "Kelsey was at the riverside when she heard the screaming start." it'd be a lot better. Not 100% perfect in my opinion but at that point I'd say anymore fixing would be up to the individual author's tastes.
Now for the next paragraph - I actually do like this. I do think this is a nice descriptive set-up. The images of fingers turning white and none of the women knowing how to speak is a nice touch. It's just a shame that the earlier sentence about screaming throws it off.
The problem is we're starting out with screaming, we're finishing with it being so quiet that Kelsey can concentrate and study the sound of hooves. We can't have both of these at once.
The fix in this case, then, is to either take away the continuing action of "screaming" (eg "Kelsey was at the riverside when a scream tore through the air. A silence fell... ") or bring it up again at the end by letting us know who's doing the screaming (eg "Kelsey could hear the sound of hooves tearing up the ground and the shouts of David's men as they tried to tend to the wounded.") Again how you'd choose to do this would be up to your own narrative preferences.
Horses, she thought, as she numbly gained her feet.
The bandits have horses!
Both our author and our editor let us down here. What on earth is going on? Why is it such a big deal that the bandits have horses? Doesn't David? Is his entire caravan nothing but people carrying his cargo on their backs? Why was such a big deal made about Carris not being able to ride (reread David's first scene to see what I'm talking about) if David doesn't have any horses for him to try riding anyway?
"Kelsey!" Marrit hissed. "Where are you going?"
Kelsey lifted her fingers to her lips and shook her
head. She motioned toward the circular body of wagons.
Marrit paled, and mouthed the order to stay by the riverside, where many of the cooking staff were already seeking suitable places to hide.
It was the smartest course of action. Of course, Kelsey
thought, knees shaking, that's why I'm not doing it. She
swung her bat up to her shoulder and began to run.
This bit is ok. I personally found it a little confusing at first but I honestly think that's just me. Assuming that you're not like me and that you weren't confused about who was taking charge here the rest of this scene is an OK set up of what Marrit and co. are doing while Kelsey joins the fighting.
In the confusion and chaos, panic was king, and the
merchant civilians his loyal subjects.
Maybe this is just my taste in metaphors but I find this just on the borderline of being silly. I think my problem is that we've got no tone to back this up. The line really stands on its own. If we had more descriptions like it peppered throughout the story it might be better. As-is it's a little shaky.
The wagons, circled for camping between villages too
small to maintain large enough inns and grounds, provided all the cover there was against the attackers. People—some Kelsey recognized, and some, expressions so
distorted by fear that their faces were no longer the faces
she knew—ran back and forth across her path, ducking
for cover into the flapped canvas tents, the wagons, or
the meager undergrowth. The guards on watch had their
hands full, and the guards off duty were scrambling
madly to get into their armor and join the formation
that was slowly—too slowly—taking shape.
I liked the description of fear on people's faces. It's good enough that it works for me even though we haven't had anything in this story to establish why Kelsey would be familiar with these people. I guess that just goes to show that good writing can help cover up a multitude of sins.
On the nitpicky side, though, I'm not believing the line about the guards. Isn't this supposed to be a super-important cargo? Isn't the point of the guards to be prepared for something like this?
Michelle, I think, is trying to say that the attackers are so good and so fast that even these good guards are useless. Unfortunately though what we're reading is that the guards are slow and not very useful at all because they're too slow at getting into formation (I guess they just drilled for those attacks that come with plenty of advance warning).
A better way of writing it would have been to end with another description of the attackers which makes the point we really want: they're so fast and good the guards can't keep up with them.
She counted forty guards—their [sic] were forty-eight in
total—as she scanned the circular clearing searching desperately for some glimpse of Carris. No sign of him;
maybe he'd finally shown some brains and was hiding
somewhere under the wagons.
I double-checked this one. The "their" was a mistake in the actual book. I point this out just to show that even professional books have errors in them sometimes.
Ha. And maybe the horses she heard were a herd of
Companions, all come to ask her to join them. She took
advantage of a scurry of panicked movement to take a
look under a wagon. She saw the horses then.
Funny thing, about these bandits. They weren't wearing livery, and they weren't wearing uniforms—but they
looked an awful lot like a Bardic description of cavalry.
The horses were no riding horses, and no wagon-horses
either. She didn't like the look of them at all, and she
Horses. Horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.
See how silly that looks? This is a more extreme example of the "duck/hawk" problem I was telling you about earlier. Say a word (or a similar kind of word) often enough in a sentence or paragraph and it becomes ridiculous.
Beyond the drinking-game style use of the word "horses" we also have a description that's not very clear. What especially throws it off is the reference to "Bardic description of cavalry". Now cavalry can either be law enforcement or a part of the army, which makes the immediate assumption that what we really have here is nothing more than some form of police that have come after David for his illegal cargo, especially since the knee-jerk mental image of "cavalry" tends to be the group of guys you rounded up in a Western to go after the bad guys.
Then you get that "Bardic description" qualifier. I suspect Michelle threw that in there to explain to us how Kelsey knew what a cavalry was but frankly we don't care. We already know she educated herself so the fact that she'd have a good vocabulary is a given. And since we are taking that as a given we're then going to assume that the qualifier means something else entirely. My first thought would be that maybe the "Bardic description" differs from the "modern Earth" description.
Throw it all together and you've got a big mess. Why are we doing this? What's the point of the paragraph? Are we describing the attackers? Kelsey's knowledge of them? The confusion of the attack? What?
How to fix it... tough call since I'm not sure of the point. My guess is that what Michelle is trying to say one of two things. 1. That Kelsey was expecting run of the mill bandits and was surprised to find that the attackers were actually of army caliber. Or 2. the "bandits" rumor of before is incorrect. Carris was actually lying about the real problem by claiming it was bandits so as to not start a panic.
Since the rest of the story doesn't really clear this up I'm going to have to step away from story cues and just go for what I personally think would work better. Toss out option #2 (it's just more "pay no attention" stuff) and go for option #1. Make it clear to your reader that the problem is a group of bandits who have gotten themselves some good men and weaponry. Then either take out the cavalry reference or clarify it to let people know if you were just comparing them to a cavalry or if you actually meant to say that the bandits are being funded by a king who's an enemy of Valdemar.
They sure make bandits a damned sight richer than
they used to, she thought, clenching her teeth on the
words that were choking her in a rush to get said. And
a damned sight more organized. She had a very bad feeing about this particular raid. And when the blood spray
of a running civilian hit the grass two feet from her face,
she knew that if there were any survivors to the raid at
all, it was going to be a minor miracle.
This paragraph is a little bit better. At least now we've got the main thesis: the bandits are richer and more organized than you'd expect. We still don't know if this is because of any ties to enemies of Valdemar but at least now we can start to form a better mental image of the attack.
A flare went up in front of the lead wagon; fire-tipped
arrows came raining from the trees, and shadows detached themselves from the undergrowth, gaining the
color and height of men as they came into the fading
Kelsey knew she should be cowering for cover some-
where, but the tree that she'd managed to climb was
central enough—and leafy enough—that it gave her both
a terrific vantage point and a false sense of security. She
counted the mounted men; there were ten. She couldn't
get as good a sense of the foot soldiers—bandits, she
corrected herself—but she thought there weren't more
than thirty. So if one didn't count the cavalry as more
than a single man each, the caravan guards outnumbered them.
There it is again - "foot soldiers". Evidence that this is part of a war or just really skilled robbers?
It made for a tough fight, but the horses were too
large to be easily maneuvered around the wagons, and
if the merchants and their staff were careful, the caravan
would pull out on top. She smiled in relief, and then the
smile froze and cracked.
For on horseback—a sleek, slender riding horse with
plaited manes and the carriage of a well-trained thoroughbred—unarmored and deceptively weaponless, rode
a man in a plain black tunic. At his throat, glowing like
a miniature sun, was a crystal that seemed to ebb light
out of the very sky.
This was the threat that Carris wouldn't speak openly
of. This was what he had to reach other Heralds to warn
them about. This was the information that the King
needed. Kelsey gripped both her bat and the tree convulsively as the Mage on horseback drew closer to where
she sat, suddenly vulnerable, among the cover of leaves.
His was a power, she was afraid, that dwarfed the
power of all save a few Heralds—and she was certain
that Carris was no Herald-Mage, to take on such a formidable foe.
Again: do we have an act of war going on here or just a really strong Mage? I know enough about Valdemar history to know that if Kelsey is talking about Herald-Mages it is not that unusual for magic to be used so the fact that there's a magician on the loose isn't that important in and of itself. (For those who care: making a long story short Valdemar gets turned into a place where no magic may enter or be used. Therefore if this story took place during that point in time it would be a big deal for a magician to be let loose inside the borders.)
The fact that we're told this was the message to the King suggests to me that this is an act of war. Or at least, I hope that's what it's supposed to be. Because otherwise our only option is that the message is "Holy crap there's this totally powerful magician running around who's stronger than all of our Herald-Mages! What are we going to do?"
Why is the second option such a bad one? Because there's no reason to keep it secret. Because it would in fact make more sense for Carris to warn people than to keep his mouth shut (eg "Hey David, if you come up against a guy who looks like this I seriously recommend you surrender at once. You can't beat him and that way you'll save some lives.") And because if you don't know how to defeat this guy already you have not been paying attention.
Plus, could we have more of a MS setup? The most powerful and dangerous magician in the world (which, you know, Kelsey would be able to determine all on her own, being such an expert in magic and all). Only a few, really powerful Heralds could stop him - well, maybe they could stop him. It's so hard to tell with him being so powerful and God-like and all.
Take it down a notch. Even Satan has flaws. And he doesn't wear them in huge, anvil-shaped pendants around his neck.
Improving this is a matter of asking yourself what kind of story you want to write. Do you like fighting or magic? If you like fighting I'd say up the army experience. Let us know this really is a cavalry of skilled fighters trying to sneak their way into the capital with a little help from a powerful mage.
If you like magic then increase the mage's personality and motivation. Why is he such a big bad? Why is he doing all of this? Nobody is good at everything (if he was why doesn't he just transport himself into the King's chambers and do whatever it is he's hoping to do?) so figure out what this guy is good at. Fire? Teleportation? Curses? Potions? Decide what his particular magic angle is and then get creative with how he uses it. Then remember that he's only human and ask yourself, just as you did with Kelsey, where the naughtiness factor is and how it affects him. Alternatively ask yourself how magic works, how he kicked his magic up a notch and therefore how he might be defeated. Again I'll say that anvil-shaped pendants are not your answer. Nor is what Michelle is about to do in a few minutes.
Damn it, she thought, holding her breath lest a whisper rustle a leaf the wrong way. Carris was right. I
shouldn't have brought him along with the caravan. Then, And he'll probably die just like the rest of us—they won't
know he's their Herald, and they won't care.
One of the mounted soldiers rode up to the Mage.
"That wagon," he said, pointing. "Food supplies, but
nothing of more value."
"Good." The Mage gestured and fire leaped up from
the wagon's depths, consuming it in a flash. The circle
was broken, and the ten mounted horseman, pikes readied, charged into the encampment.
She heard the shouts and then the screams of the
guards and the civilians they were to protect. People fled
the horses and the hooves that dug up the ground as if
it were tilled soil. They didn't get far. Kelsey saw,
clearly, the beginning of a slaughter.
This isn't too bad. We're seeing our Mage think and use some strategy. The strategy suggests, though, that he's out for money. Not good. That means he would have been likely to go after a caravan - something Carris should have known and therefore avoided in his attempts to hide. Likewise it suggests this isn't an act of war, just of a powerful bandit. Therefore our earlier descriptions are misleading.
On their own, though, the paragraphs are good. If we ignore the mistakes that lead up to this we can take them at face value and appreciate a good description. In this instance it's ok for Michelle to give us a short litany of what's going on. There's a lot of things happening. We now know what they are without having to get into Moby Dick style lists about it.
Of course if your style is to get into detailed descriptions by all means go for it. That's the kind of choice that's entirely up to you.
Bear in mind, though, as you read that this is a very bad attack. We're using words like "slaughter". How do you think that would affect anyone who lived through it? I'm not saying you have to get into the minute details of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I'm just saying that if you're going to have your characters go through something this bad then you'd better give your readers indications of the aftermath when you're done (assuming your story goes that far).
Sickened, she shrank back, closing her eyes. There's
nothing you can do, some part of her mind said. Hide
here. Maybe they won't notice you.
"Captain! 'Ware—they've got a Mage at the center of
their formation!" It was Carris' voice, booming across
the panicked cries and painful screams of the newly
dying. In spite of her fear, she gazed down to see him,
sword readied, shield tossed aside and forgotten. The
blade caught the fire of the camplight, and it glowed a
Thank you, Carris. Couldn't you think to at least give David a hint about this before the "slaughter" started? What kind of a Herald is he that he wouldn't give some kind of warning?
Anyway at this point in the game it really is just a matter of "Thank you, Captain Obvious." I'm sure David figured out the whole "they have a mage" thing by now.
Any way you slice it it's not good dialogue.
You see? Another part of her taunted. You wouldn't
have made a decent Herald after all. She hid in the trees,
and Carris, broken arm and cracked ribs forgotten, stood
in the center of the coming fray, his sword glowing dimly
as it reflected the light of the fires.
No. She took a deep breath. Watched.
At this point I was so rooting for Michelle. I really wanted her to get this right. I was flashing back to the start of the story and the great idea of a little girl trying to be good enough that a Companion would pick her. I wanted her to remember that and then remember Kelsey is human.
In other words, I wanted Kelsey to stay in the tree. I wanted Kelsey, when tested, to realize that she's got flaws and discover that in spite of her dreams of being a Herald she just doesn't have the legendary courage that she thought she did.
Not to be mean to Kelsey or anything. I'm not saying she discovers she's a total coward, I'm just saying I wanted to see the impact of her fantasy meeting her reality. Then I wanted to see her react in a non-cliched manner. The obvious ending is for Anakin Skywalker to blow up the ship and save the day, for the underdog to win the big game and for Kelsey to get out of that tree and destroy the magician. Don't do it.
One of Roger Ebert's theories is that very often far more interesting stories lie in writing the opposite of your original idea. Every so often it doesn't hurt to check this theory out while you're writing and see if it works. I think this is one of those moments.
The guards met the bandits, but the bandits attacked
like frenzied berserkers, and it was the caravan guards
that took casualties. Kelsey could not make out individual faces or fighting styles—and she was thankful for it.What she could see was that somehow, the blows that
the caravan guards landed seemed to cause no harm.
It was almost as if the enemies were being protected
by an invisible shield. Magic. Magic.
Another horseman rode in, and stopped three yards
from the mage. "Sir," he said. "We've got a group of
them hiding by the riverside. Possible one or two have
managed to cross it."
The Mage cursed. "Get the archers out, then," he
snarled. "We can't afford to have anyone escape."
"Not if you want to be safe from steel and arrow tips,"
he replied grimly. "Go." He gripped the crystal around
his neck more tightly.
Ow! Damn that anvil hurt, didn't it?
More practically, ask yourself how realistic this dialogue is. Wouldn't the horseman already know what the Mage is protecting him from?
Think of it this way: when you're late for lunch do your friends say "Hey, hurry up or else you'll miss burgers, apple pie and a drink." or do they say "Hurry up or else you'll miss lunch."? You know what lunch means, your friends don't need to define it for you. Likewise the horseman knows what the Mage is doing and doesn't need the definition.
Get down, Kelsey. She shivered as she saw the Mage
close his eyes. Now's your chance. Get down. But her
legs wouldn't unlock. Her hands shook. She watched the
ground below as if the unfolding drama was on a stage
that she couldn't quite reach.
Paragraphs like this just convince me it would have been infinitely better if Kelsey stayed in the tree.
Carris came out of the wings. She saw him, close to
the ground, and nearly cried out a warning as the
mounted soldier departed. But she bit her lip on the
noise. He used the shadows, Carris did, and he moved
as if he had no injuries. An inch at a time, he made his
way to the Mage who sat on horseback, concentrating.
Our narrative voice is suddenly mock-Irish? ("He used the shadows, Carris did"). Why write that instead of "Carris used the shadows"?
The horse shied back, and the Mage's eyes snapped
open. Carris leaped up from the ground, swinging his
sword. It whistled in a perfect arc; the Mage didn't have
time to avoid it. The sword hit him across the chest and
shimmered slightly. That was all.
The man laughed out loud. "You fool!" He cried.
"Did you think to harm me with that?" Carris swung
again, and again the Mage did nothing to avoid the
strike. "Why, I think I know you—you're the little Herald that escaped us. It's probably best for you—you
wouldn't have enjoyed the fate that you consigned your
friend to suffer alone."
Have you ever read the Evil Overlord List? If not I strongly recommend it. Not only is it hysterical but it actually helps to expose some surprisingly common villain cliches.
I call them "surprisingly common" because when you think about them they don't make sense. Much like our current example. Why on earth would the Mage actually tell Carris swords can't hurt him? (Likewise why would he actually say the "steel and arrow tips" comment from before while in the middle of battle when his enemies could overhear him?) In real life people aren't actually that eager to talk about their fatal weaknesses.
Carris' next swing was wild, and it was his last; three
foot soldiers came up, slowly, at his back. But the Mage
lifted a hand, waving them off. "No, this one is mine,
gentlemen. Unfinished business." He smiled. "Don't you
have merchants to kill?"
I like the beginning about his first swing being his last. Some might call it a cliche but I think it works OK here. The only problem with it is that it implies he was stopped from swinging again. The fact that the guards don't actually wrestle him to the ground or something makes me wonder why it was his last swing then.
And we're getting another line that reminds me of my MS theory about people getting their inspiration from movies. Sure we've all seen the "Don't you have people to kill?" line in one movie or another, but let's face it: nobody talks like this.
In the movies lines like this are only believable if you've got a good actor behind them. Without the voice of James Earl Jones or Patrick Stewart to help you out you've got nothing.
Plus this is another moment for the Evil Overlord List. Rarely is it a smart idea to leave your supposed enemy alive just because you want to gloat.
The soldiers nodded and stepped back almost uncertainly. If Kelsey had to guess, the Mage had probably
killed one or two of them to keep them in line; they
weren't comfortable with him; that much was clear.
I'm all for Machiavellian instincts in your villains if that's the route that you want to take but, frankly, most people aren't going to stick with a boss who uses death as a motivator. If the Mage's guys don't like him then why are they with him? If they're risking death for the slightest screw-up then they'd better be getting one heck of a good paycheck out of this.
A sentence like "probably killed one or to of them to keep them in line" is just a poor substitute for actual development of your villain character. Fix it with the classic "show don't tell". Let the Mage do his evil thing and let us conclude for ourselves what a prick he is.
"You can't think that you'll get away with this,"
Carris said. It was, in all, a pretty predictable thing to
say—and not at all what Kelsey would have chosen as
her last words.
Something snapped into place for Kelsey as she
thought that. I can't let him die with that for an exit line,
she told herself, and very slowly, watching her back as
much as possible, Kelsey began to shinny down the tree.
Painful, isn't it? Now can you see why it would have been better if Kelsey stayed in the tree? Wouldn't that have been more interesting (and plausible) then her deciding she's going to kick ass and take names just to make sure Carris doesn't "die with that for an exit line"?
I'm not saying there's no way to get Kelsey out of that tree without ruining your story. Sure, there's ways to do it. I'm just saying that a quick brainstorming trick (ie "What if I did the exact opposite of my first idea?") immediately gives you a much better idea with far less work.
And it should probably go without saying that Kelsey right now is putting her full MS armor on. Any plausibility or realism has fallen by the wayside. As has the audience interest in this fight. We all know what's going to happen now. Why bother reading it? Especially if reading means we're going to get more lines like the ones we just read.
"I know we will," the Mage replied, all confidence.
"Are you sure you don't want to continue your futile
line of attack? It amuses me immensely."
Never have a character say a line like "It amuses me immensely" unless they're doing so with a healthy dose of irony ("Carl, why don't you fetch me some coffee and then spend the day making these copies and alphabetizing my paper clip collection. It amuses me immensely.") Actual villains wouldn't do this. Once again the Evil Overlord List would come in handy as a reality check.
Carris lowered his sword.
"You could try the bow—you can wield it, can't you?
It would also amuse me, and perhaps if I'm amused,
you'll die quickly. I was embarrassed by your escape,"
he added, his voice a shade darker. "And have much to
make up for to the Baron."
Too many uses of the word "amuse". Try to avoid repeating words within the same sentence or paragraph if you can help it. Obviously some words like "the" "said" etc. you can't help but repeat. That's ok because readers are used to tuning those words out. But a word like "amuse" is too specific. It stands out like a sore thumb.
Evil Overlord Tip: True villains wouldn't keep their enemies alive long enough to even be having this conversation.
Carris said nothing.
"Come, come. Why don't you join me? We can watch
the death of all of your compatriots before we start in
on yours. You see, you have a larger number of guards—
but they aren't, like my men, immune to the effects of
sword and arrow. It's a lovely magic I've developed, and
it's served me exceptionally well. Come," he added, and
his voice was a command.
Why is this paragraph here? What is it establishing? Don't we know these facts already? Why is Carris still alive?
At this point I'm assuming you know enough to answer the questions for yourself.
Like a puppet, Carris was jerked forward.
It was almost impossible not to obey his commands.
Kelsey looked up—and what she saw made her freeze
for a moment in helpless rage. David was fighting a retreat of sorts—but he was backing up into another cluster of the enemy. He seemed to understand that the
swords that the caravan guards wielded were only good
for defense, for he parried, but made no attempt to
strike and extend himself to people who didn't have to
worry about parrying anymore.
Definite POV change in the first sentence. Carris is the one being commanded, not Kelsey. The first sentence is actually Carris's POV. Can't have that in a Kelsey-only story like this.
A guard went down at David's side.
Kelsey bit her lip.
And then, because she was her grandmother's daughter—and more than that besides—she swallowed, took a deep breath, and crawled as quickly as possible to where
the Mage sat enjoying the carnage.
I like "because she was her grandmother's daughter". "More than that besides" should have been left on the cutting room floor. Isn't being her grandmother's daughter enough? Trust me when I say that your characters can just be regular folks and still be heroes too. They don't need "more than that besides". In fact giving them "more than that" makes your readers not care anymore. Readers like heroes that are human, not perfect.
She wanted to say something clever or witty or glib—
but words deserted her. Only the ability to act remained,
and she wasn't certain for how much longer. She lifted
the bat, and, closing her eyes, swung it with all the force
she could muster.
"But the words deserted her" and probably Michelle too.
But in this case it actually does work. True it's a little suspect thanks to all the other times Michelle tried the non-descriptive shortcut but in this instance, in and of itself, it works.
She had never heard a sound so lovely as the snapping
of the Mage's neck. She would remember it more clearly
than almost any other detail of the attack. Almost.
This is borderline. On the one hand it's not believable for Kelsey's character (it's too pleased and relaxed for someone who's never killed before - even in the heat of battle) but on the other hand if you placed it in the context of some other character (Carris, for example) it would work.
That is to say the description of the death is OK, it just isn't appropriate for Kelsey.
He toppled from his horse as the horse reared. She
watched him crumple and fall, watched his body hit the
ground. Then she lifted the bat and began to strike him
again and again and again. Carris shouted something—
she couldn't make out the words—as she began to try
to shatter the crystal that hung at the Mage's neck.
Then she felt a hand on her arm, and swung the bat
This works better. Kelsey hasn't killed before. It would make sense that adrenaline and rage would kick in and put her into berserker mode. She would not be clear headed enough to think that hitting the Mage the first time was "lovely".
But to be frank, isn't this a sad ending? All this buildup of "unspeakable evil" to find out the guy can be taken down by any idiot who happens to be holding a bat? Bad enough that we saw this coming from miles away thanks to the thoughtful hints the Mage gave us about "steel and arrow tips", it's just worse to have spent darn near 27 pages of lead-in time to have the entire problem taken care of in two tiny paragraphs.
"Kelsey, it's me!" Carris' face was about two inches
away from hers. There was a bit of blood on it—but she
thought it wasn't his. Couldn't be certain. "You did it,"
he said. He tried to pry the bat out of her hands, but
her fingers locked tighter around it than a merchant's
around his money chest. He let go of her hands and
smiled. The grin was wolfish.
"We've got them, Kelsey. Thanks to you, they don't
know that they can die yet—but they're about to find
out the Mage is gone." His teeth flashed. "And they've
been walking onto our swords because there's no risk
These are OK details. Unfortunately they suffer from the lack of after-glow that the Mage's death leaves us with but in context they are believable.
"Remind me," she said faintly, "not to make you mad."
He looked down at the corpse at her feet. Laughed,
loudly and perhaps a little wildly. "You're telling me
Wuh? Um, yeah. Kelsey's comment here is off and doesn't make sense. We've just spent time watching her pound a guy with a bat, we're not thinking about Carris who stopped fighting pages ago. Not sure what Michelle was hoping to accomplish with this.
An hour later it was all over. People lay dead in pockets of blood across the width of the encampment. The
merchants buried and mourned their own, but they left
the bandits for carrion. The mounted men had fared the
best, once they realized that they were vulnerable, and
three at least had fled the arrows and bolts that the
guards used against them. The rest joined their unmounted counterparts.
Got the scene here? We've got enough blood on the ground that dead people can lay down in their own private pools of it. This is heavy stuff. How do you think we should follow up on this? Keep that in mind as you read the rest of the scene.
David, injured, was still alive. Kelsey was glad of it.
She watched his wounds being bound by the doctor—
the merchant Tuavo always traveled with a good physician as part of his caravan—and swung her bat up onto
its familiar shoulder-perch. "Hey," she said.
"I know, I know. So we never make fun of strange
barmaids who carry bats around the kitchen. Okay?"
She smiled. "That's not what I'm here for. It's about
my position as a caravan guard."
"As a what?"
"Look, I'm a bit of a hero for the next hour, and I'll
be damned if I don't use it to get out of peeling potatoes
and onions for the next two months. You're going to
vouch for me—is that clear?"
He laughed. "As a bell."
Humor? Kelsey asking to get out of onion and potato duty? Is that what you thought would be appropriate?
This does not work. It's back to MS land with a light touch of Oh That Kelsey! There's just too much of a wink and a grin behind this dialogue.
If you were totally married to the idea of this conversation (and if you were of course my first question would be "Why?") you could work it in. Just not like this. A far better version would have Kelsey and David talking to one another in the depths of exhaustion, both physical and emotional, and using the concept of kitchen duty as the one sane thing they have to hang on to. Sometimes when people are at a breakdown point mundane things will become very important to them.
So it could work. But only if your point was to show the damage that Kelsey and David had sustained.
"Hello," Kelsey said, as she caught Carris' shadow
looming over her shoulder. "Aren't you late for your
"The captain excused me. I've been," he added, lifting
his arm, "injured in action." He grinned and Kelsey
laughed. She'd done a lot of that lately.
Why? I know nobody on the caravan was a relative of hers but she actually watched all those people die. That's going to have an effect on you. Any laughter that she'd be doing "a lot of... lately" would be part of a coping mechanism, not this "Oh what a weight is off my shoulders" kind that we have here.
Carris returned her laugh with a laugh of his own. He
seemed both taller and younger than he had when she'd
first laid eyes on him in Torvan's place. A little more at
peace with himself.
Still, there was something she wanted to say. "I—I've
been meaning to apologize to you."
"To me? For what?"
"The Mage." She looked up, and her eyes, dark in
the fading day, met his.
Hurray! We're getting a glimpse of that author we saw at the beginning of this story. Just as I liked Michelle's thought of a kid being extra-good to get a Companion I liked how she thought to have Kelsey apologize for her actions with the Mage. It's a very non-MS thing to do. Unfortunately this is going to be lost in the very next paragraph.
Carris shook his head almost sadly. "Was it that obvious?" He took a deep breath, and ran his fingers
through his short, peppered hair. Very quietly, he gave
her her due. "I've never wanted to kill a man so badly
in my life."
Damn! Back to being an MS again. Turns out Kelsey wasn't apologizing for her mistakes but was rather being Kelsey the Perfect Therapist, a girl who has amazing understanding of the human psyche and how to fix it. She wasn't saying it to acknowledge mistakes, she was just saying it because she knew, being the perfect person that she is, that it was exactly what Carris needed to hear.
"I would've felt the same way."
Not to sound too MST3Kish but Kelsey, you did. We know that because you actually killed the guy, so presumably you wanted him dead.
And where is Kelsey's reaction to all this? She killed a human being for the first time. That's a pretty major thing. Even people who voluntarily go into the army have a hard time dealing with that. Cops who have just killed their first person in the line of duty are required to go see a therapist about it. And these are just people who shoot from a distance. Kelsey actually beat a guy to death with a bat. Believe me, she's going to have a reaction to it. Even if her only reaction is to be totally numb and emotionless.
"You got to kill him." He looked into the fire, and she
knew he was seeing Lyris. She reached up and caught his
hand, felt his fingers stiffen and then relax as she pulled
him down to the log.
"Tell me," she said, in the softest voice he had yet
heard her use. "Tell me about Lyris."
POV change. It should have read something like "in the softest voice she had ever used with him". "He had yet" is a decision on Carris's part, not anything Kelsey would be privy to.
He did. He talked for hours, letting his tears fall freely
at first, and then returning to them again and again as
an odd story or an old, affectionate complaint brought
the loss home. He talked himself into silence as the fire
lapped at the gravel.
Then he did something surprising. He turned to her
in the darkness and said, "Now tell me about Kelsey."
That's not bad. Understated sign of a personality from Carris. And it's nice to hear him speak for a change instead of reading a summary of what he said.
She was so flustered, she forgot how to speak for a
moment—and Kelsey was not often at a loss for words.
Well, she thought, as she stared at the crackling logs
beyond her feet, what do you have to say for yourself?
Good paragraph with only a nitpick: leave out "and Kelsey was not often at a loss for words." We've been with her this long. We'll know that by now.
His chuckle was gentle. "Should I start?"
"Kelsey is a young woman who, as a child, very much
wanted to be a Herald."
It was dark, so he couldn't see her blush. "H-how did
you know that?"
"It's a . . . gift of mine. And as a Herald, you get
used to spotting people who hold the Heralds in awe.
Or rather," he added wryly, as he touched his short hair
again, "hold the position in awe."
"You asked me if I knew why we were Chosen—but
what you really wanted to know was why you weren't."
For me this would have read better if we skipped from "How did you know that" to "You asked me". The final answer pretty much negates Carris's whole "My phenomenal, cosmic Heralding powers." thing. Why does it even need to be a "gift" of his? I'd imagine Heralds get asked that often enough that they know anybody who asks the question is actually trying to figure out how they might become one themselves. Just say that and leave it alone.
Also on a personal note I'm not too fond of "very much wanted to be a Herald." We've heard that in the narrative so much that it's expected Carris would know that by now. We needed to know prior to this that she never mentioned it to Carris.
She couldn't answer because every word he spoke
"I don't know why." He slid an arm around her shoul-
der and it surprised her so much she didn't even knock
him over. "But having met you, I can guess."
Here it comes. "What? What would you guess?"
"Kelsey— I told you that I was the son of a noble, and
as it's not important, I won't tell you which one. But if
Arana hadn't come to me, hadn't Chosen me, I would
have become embroiled in the politics of the nobility,
and would have done very little of any good to the people of the Kingdom as a whole. I like to think I would
have ruled my own people well, but . . . it's not easy.
This part here is why I brought up the whole bit about Carris potentially being a canonical character. If he's canon then we can assume that the story of his past is in the books somewhere and therefore significant. If he isn't - frankly there's no point in us caring about his name. Stop going on about "Carris is from a royal family but we Dare Not Say Who". If it's not canon then make it up. Mercedes Lackey herself was editing this, let her tell you if the made up name won't work.
"And Lyris? Much as I love him, he'd have probably
wound up as a second-rate thief—or a corpse. Not much
good there either."
Conversely this is a continuation of the nice soft touch regarding Carris and Lyris's relationship. Were they lovers or just good friends? Who knows? But Carris might not have actually said "Lyris was my lover" and Kelsey might not have wanted to pry and get the clarification. So in this case the lack of information is a good thing.
She was very quiet.
"You don't have a Companion, yet if not for you, the
people of this caravan would have been slaughtered like
sheep at the Crown Princess' wedding." He caught one
of her hands in his good one. "I've got to get some
sleep, if I can. So do you. But think about it."
My problem with this scene only comes when you tie it in with what Kelsey later comes up with. So just remember this scene and then read on to the next comment.
Kelsey had spent many sleepless nights in the cold of
a dying fire, and this one was to be no exception. What
did it mean? What did it really mean? She looked at her
hands, seeing both the calluses and the dried blood of
the injured that she'd helped the doctor with. They were
good hands, strong enough to do what was necessary.
I'm not a Herald, she thought, as she stared at them.
And I never will be. She turned it over in her mind, and
for the first time in her life, she accepted it without sor-
row. I never will be Chosen.
She stood up as the embers faded. But if I can't be
one of the Chosen, I can be one who chooses. And I
choose to do what I must, when I'm needed.
Stop. This, right here, is a good answer for Kelsey. And it should have been Kelsey's only answer. I like the concept of Kelsey being "one who chooses". That she finds out after all these years that she needs to be the one making the decisions in her own life, not some fantasy concept that she held as a kid.
The only problem is what came before. And what came before was this: Carris's words to Kelsey imply that the reason why Kelsey wasn't Chosen was because she was too good for it. The examples of himself and Lyris suggest that Heralds, legendary though they are, are only picked because they have a lacking in their life which makes them need to be picked. Which is OK. Except that in this particular case we're getting the addendum that the reason why Kelsey wasn't chosen was because she lacked this flaw and was, therefore, better than all the Heralds.
Kelsey the Perfect once again. So innately wonderful that the reason why she never realized her dream was because she was better than her dream.
Pfft. Take that out. Let her find the pleasure of realizing that she's the master of her own destiny. You can let her figure out that she can live life on her own without adding in that it's only because she's so good that a magical Companion would only be holding her back.
Heralds couldn't do everything for themselves; she
knew how to run an inn—maybe, if she proved worthy
of it, she'd be allowed to run a school. Everyone needed
to eat—surely the Heralds would need a cook? And that
close to the thick of things—that close to Heralds, Companions, possibly the King himself—there was certain to
be a lot for Kelsey to do.
She smiled; the sun was on the fringe of the horizon.
If she expected him to be sleeping, she was wrong; he
was awake, and a strange little smile hovered around the
corner of his lips. "Yes?"
"I'm coming with you to the capital, and I won't take
no for an answer. You're still injured, you probably still
need someone to watch your back, and you—"
"And I'd love your company."
He didn't, come to think of it, look at all surprised.
Made her suspicious, but it also made her, for the first
time that she could remember, completely happy. She
had done with waiting; it was time to start the life that
her grandmother had always promised her she could
choose to live.
And with that we come to the end of the tale.
Hopefully by now you'll have a feel for the points I was trying to make. I know at times I was anal and a bit harsh but my goal here was not to pick on the story. Rather my goal was to show that we had an author here with some talent (as shown by the scenes and concepts that work) who, like many of us, has made some common mistakes.
The biggest mistake was, of course, the fact that Kelsey was a Mary Sue. Lucky for us, though, she was darn near textbook. The only things she didn't do was sleep with Carris or advise him about his love life (although her therapy style comments did come close). She was, however, perfect, able to do absolutely anything, far more clever than anyone around her, the only person able to save the day and strangely liked and admired by those around her for no clear reason.
She also had the textbook "feel" of a Mary Sue and I hope you were able to start to get your own "feel" for that and what it does to a story.
I want to say thanks to all of you who have stuck with me for this long. I know it's been quite a haul. If I ever find another story to use for something like this I'll do my best to try to make it shorter.
Plus, as I said at the beginning, please don't take me as the gospel on this! Feel free to make your own comments and suggestions and by all means if you'd like to try your own hand at something like this go for it! Get a story or passage out of a book that you're fond of and talk about it. You don't even have to do what I did here in choosing a story with flaws. You could try finding a story that you actually like and explain to people why the story works for you. The only limits are your imagination and free time.
Thanks for joining me!