First-Page Critique: A Spicy Opening Scene

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Welcome to our first-page critiques! These critiques are meant to give insight into how we might look at a manuscript as it comes across our desks on submission. We’ll strive to be critical but not mean. Because it’s only about 800 words, 2 pages at the most, the amount of feedback is necessarily limited—we don’t have access to more than a couple of pages!

It’s important to note that this manuscript was submitted specifically to be critiqued on the blog, we do not/will not use random submissions for this purpose. We’re not going to pull your piece out of our submissions inbox and critique it, so no need to worry about that!

The next opportunity to submit a piece for critique is will open soon, so please watch the blog for more.

This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press editor John Jacobson.


The First Page

This was submitted by the author as a first meeting scene.

Author A described this manuscript as “An intense and spicy story of one woman’s need for a baby. What she finds is more than she bargains for and more than she could handle.”

Jasmine Thornton pulled into the parking lot of D. W. Morris LLP, cutting off the ignition, her nerves started to get the better of her. This was a big favor to ask of him, Damien may be upset that she kept him out of the loop for so long. They did not keep secrets from one another. She didn’t know how he was going to take this. She had to get it over with, reaching for her phone, finding his name and hitting talk.

“Hey,” Damien Morris said from the other end.

“You busy?” Jasmine asked trying to hide the shaking in her voice.

Resting her head on the headrest of the seat, letting her eyes close. She needed to relax, this was exciting, Damien will agree, once he realizes how bad she wants this.

“For you, never.” He said. She could hear the smile in his voice. Damien always had a smile waiting for her. Sometimes spending only five minutes with him made everything better.

“Great, I am on my way in,” she said. Ending the call.

Damien was standing by the grey weathered wood L-shaped reception desk waiting for her, seeing him in his baby blue suit pulling at his toned arms, with two buttons of his white shirt undone and the exposed brick. The sunlight coming through the window gleamed off his dark brown skin, making the perfect GQ cover, he was great man candy she could look at him for hours. The ding from the elevator caught his attention, and he turned and gave the smile that was meant just for her. His smile made her feel at ease. He is her person and she, his. Obviously, she had binged watched Grey’s Anatomy too many times. Jasmine would like to think they are in some way like Meredith Grey and Christina Yang, granted neither are dark and twisted as the T.V. duo but they had each other’s back when it mattered. They both have had their fair share of crazy family drama, no bombs in body cavities, or ferry boat crashes, but they had each other.

“Looking good, there with that purple lipstick.” He said wrapping his arms around her in a welcome hug.

“You think? I was trying something new.” Jasmine said resting her head on his shoulder and taking in his smell. Damien has smelt the same for years; he smelled of ginger and sandalwood. it was never an overbearing scent, it would trickle into her senses only when he embraced her. She asked him about it many times, but he swears he does not wear cologne; it bothers his sinus. It is just his natural smell. His smell made her feel as if she was right where she needed to be.

“I do think so. How about we go to Lou’s for lunch, I am starving.” He said

“Lou’s works for me; I’ll drive.” She said.

“Why drive, we could walk; it’s only about three blocks away.” He said “Three blocks my ass, you know on the southside one block equals a whole neighborhood and it’s cold out.” She said heading for the door, causing Damien to laugh.

“Fine, if you want to be such a baby about it, we’ll drive. You act as if you didn’t grow up in Pittsburgh.” He said following her to the door. “Are you sure you can make it to the car, it’s a far walk and very cold out there.”

Giving him a hard shove, making him stumble a couple of steps back. “Shut up and come on.” She said

Lou’s was packed with the lunch crowd, Jasmine was not surprised Lou’s had some of the best food, with reasonable prices. The location was perfect for the lunch or dinner being only walking distance from southside works the newer business developments in the area, but they were able to grab a table by the window the Monongahela River.

She was smiling, Jasmine thought she did not stop smiling since Dr. Banks told her, she could have a child, the news was bubbling up inside her ready to burst out. Why was she waiting?

“I am having a baby.” She said. Causing Damien to sputter on his Pepsi. She had planned on waiting until their food arrived and made some small talk not to hit him with it. “Are you ok?”

“Yes, you took me by surprise,” Damien said. Wiping his mouth. “I didn’t know you were seeing anybody.”

“That is because I am not. It’s not what you think.” She said, “I am not currently pregnant, but I do plan on having a baby within the next year using intrauterine insemination.” Giving Damien a reassuring smile.

“I’m more confused now.” He said, “Tell me everything.”


The Critique

As a first meeting scene that’s also the opening scene, this does a great job of laying out the groundwork for a compelling story with a high conflict. I appreciated that by the end of the scene, we have both a clear idea of who the characters are to one another and of how the conflict could potentially disrupt that in a way to trigger the romance. The opening of this reminds me of a good category romance – it goes right to the central force of the story and stays there.

One other element I also enjoyed was the immediate sense of place. I’m a native of Pennsylvania and visited Pittsburgh often. The details you placed were great markers of the area and allowed me to envision the setting better. Your usage of local detail stood out, and I think it helped make the story feel more full in these opening pages.

There are a few things you can do to make this first scene more engaging. While I was compelled by the conflict and character relationships, I struggled with the technical quality of the writing. There are a number of tense shifts between different present and past tenses that are inconsistent and don’t flow. The dialogue also reads as stiff, in part because we just see he/she said often. It makes it hard to concentrate on the compelling story, and it also obscures the authorial voice. Voice can involve grammar or repetition of specific things, but it should be deliberate or add to the experience. When the technical elements of writing make it hard to stay in the story, it’s hard to fully enjoy the rich conflict or character potential.

Would I keep reading? I would not keep reading this story.


Do you have questions about my feedback or the First-Page Critique program? Your turn to add constructive feedback for the author in the comments section! Or email generalinquiries@carinapress.com.

Authors entering their work for critique can choose to have the blog post comments open or closed. Comments are open, so please utilize them to ask questions or to offer your own critique, but please remember to offer useful criticism. Comments will be moderated and deleted if not deemed to be useful or appropriate.

Just Finish It: Charish Reid Shares Her Writing Process

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by Cherish Reid, author of The Write Escape

Not unlike the Nike motto “Just Do It,” my writing mantra has always been “JUST FINISH IT.”

I have no problem with the doing or the starting; it’s the follow-through that eludes me. I can’t tell you how many exciting writing projects I’ve started with the hopes of holding a complete novel in my hands. There was the one about a woman lost in the jungles of Costa Rica, the tale of a journalist getting back to work after a traumatic incident in Tunisia, and the book of bus poems… They all seemed like brilliant ideas when I started them, but somewhere at the midpoint of each project, I lost the Inspiration.

No one told me that this happens to all writers. That the brilliance of something new is the most alluring part of the writing process. No one told me about the actual labor of writing a book. I was young and arrogant, I believed that a stroke of genius would lead to a finished product. During the many times I lost interest and dumped a manuscript, I would blame it on this esoteric thing called Inspiration. I’d tell friends, “I’ve lost Inspiration,” and they’d look on in pity. “Oh, that’s terrible! Where has Inspiration gone?” I’d shrug blamelessly before seeking out the next soon-to-be ex-project.

Inspiration is a fair-weather friend who won’t stick around when a writer needs them the most. Sure, they might pop in for a visit somewhere around the third act, but they will flit away when things get tough. The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn as a writer is: Accountability, Humility, and Sheer Will are actually my friends.

I figured this out when I pushed myself to write my novel in one month. When I participated in National November Writing Month (NANOWRIMO) a couple years back, I was nervous I would quit yet another novel. But I was participating with a friend and we were accountable to one another. If I gave up on this project, I’d have to answer to her. We didn’t make a blood pact or anything like that, but I felt bound to her, and my work, in a way I’d never felt before. Like many writers, I’d worked alone and consulted no one. After all, these were my ideas; only I truly understood them. Only I could mold them. That is true to an extent, but community and accountability can help those like myself. Those who quit quickly. When I was in a tight spot, I could talk to my friend and move forward.

Humility and Sheer Will found me at the midway point of The Write Escape. Yes, I was still accountable to my friend, but that wasn’t enough when I was alone, sitting before my blinking cursor. Humility showed up when I slumped over my writing desk, mourning all of the witty ideas I’d had in the first act. Back then, things were going great, I was on track with my plot plan, and I was so saucy with my banter. I was tempted to go back those early pages and reread how wonderful I was, but Humility said: “That was then, this is now.” Sheer Will threatened to beat me up if I didn’t move forward and just type something, anything.

That “something, anything” was a mishmash of plot holes, bland characterizations and using the word “just” 78 more times than necessary. Humility reminded me that my first draft was never going to be as brilliant as I thought it would be. Just get the words on the page. Just Finish It. The first draft was always going to be tears and sweat on a page, an exhausting act of finishing. When I thought the last five pages were terrible, Humility was there to confirm my suspicions while Sheer Will shouted, “We know that, keep going!” This insane conversation played out for 78,000 words. Accountability, Humility and Sheer Will drove the car while Inspiration quietly hung out in the periphery.

Finishing the first book is really the key. Once you’ve cleared that first hurdle, the next one comes a little easier. Put your butt in the chair and keep crying if you want, but cry and write. You can do it if you remember that your labor will be the only thing pushing you forward. Talk to someone, labor on and know that it will not be perfect. Perfection, if it exists at all, happens in the edits. Even then, Inspiration might still be suspiciously absent.  

About The Write Escape:

THE WRITE ESCAPE by Charish ReidTake one heartbroken Chicago girl

Literary editor Antonia Harper had it all—the career, the man, the future. That was then. Now Antonia is jobless, alone and at a crossroads. What better time to travel the world? A solo honeymoon on the Emerald Isle will be like hitting the reset button. No distractions, no drama.

Add some luck o’ the Irish

Aiden Byrnes may be a literature professor, but words fail him when he meets the woman staying in the cottage next door. Tully Cross is meant to be a sleepy little village, and he’s meant to be on a working holiday—not a vacation, and most definitely not with his beautiful neighbor. 

And you get some mighty good craic

They say laughter is the best medicine—and as it turns out, superhot sex isn’t so bad either. Antonia and Aiden’s spark quickly grows into what could be something special, if they’re willing to take the leap. Ending up an ocean apart is unthinkable, and when real life comes calling, there’s no ignoring that leap anymore…

Carina Press | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Google Play | Kobo | Apple Books | Goodreads

The Real Life Neighborhood Behind Love and the Laws of Motion

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Just months before our daughter was born in 2004, I moved from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn with my husband. Since then, I’ve come to love every quirky corner of this vast, diverse borough. When I started brainstorming the Romano Sisters series, I knew it would be set in New York. But I also wanted the sisters to be from a family with deep roots in their community, and Brooklyn is full of ethnic enclaves, some new, some going back a century or more. From the still-bustling Chinatown in Sunset Park to the Russian community in Brighton Beach to the last vestiges of the Italian-American community based in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn has long been home to immigrants looking to build a future in this vibrant city. I didn’t make the Romano sisters Italian and then decide where they’d live; the Romano sisters are Italian because I set the books in Brooklyn.

Carroll Gardens, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the fictional Romano clan lives, was a predominately Italian-American community for much of the 20th century. In the 1920s as recent Italian immigrants, many of whom worked the docks in Red Hook, gained financial security, they moved into the nearby middle-class neighborhood, which was then called South Brooklyn. In the 1960s gentrification began to change the face of the neighborhood as well as its name, which became Carroll Gardens, but it still bears a strong imprint of its Italian roots. Even today, although many of the original Italian-American families have scattered across the tri-state area, the population of Carroll Gardens is still nearly a quarter Italian-American.

Reminders of its Italian-American heritage are everywhere in Carroll Gardens. Shrines to the Virgin Mary (which Jessica Romano called “bathtub Madonnas in The One I Love to Hate) still abound in the atypically deep front gardens the neighborhood is known for. Several old-school private Italian social clubs are still hubs for the Italian residents of the neighborhood. Twice a year, the Procession of Our Lady of Sorrows winds though the neighborhood, bearing an icon of the Virgin Mary brought from Italy by early immigrants. There are still people playing bocce ball in Carroll Park, and many older residents still speak Italian to one another.

Many of the Italian restaurants, bakeries and butchers in the neighborhood have been in operation along Court Street for decades. Several served as inspiration for the community of businesses Gemma relies on in the upcoming Love Around the Corner. Caputo’s Bake Shop became DiPaola’s Bakery, G. Esposito & Sons Pork Store became Vinelli’s Meats and Sal’s Pizzeria became Russo’s Pizza (where Nick DeSantis, the hero of Love and the Laws of Motion, still holds the high score on their Ms. Pacman game, even though the real Sal’s doesn’t have a Ms. Pacman). D’Amico Coffee didn’t get a mention in the books, but they’ve been roasting their own beans since 1948 and my husband is absolutely addicted to their espresso!

Romano’s Bar itself, however, was based on a real bar a little closer to home. Farrell’s Bar and Grill has been a fixture of my neighborhood, Windsor Terrace, since the early 1930s. They haven’t actually served food for decades, but the sign is so iconic around here that no one would dare change it. Farrell’s is an Irish bar, not Italian, but as I started writing the books and describing the fictional Romano’s Bar, what came out on the page was Farrell’s. From the neon beer lights in the window to the pressed-tin ceiling to the white tile floor (Farrell’s finally replaced theirs with wood several years ago) to the big mirror behind the bar, Romano’s Bar owes a great debt to Farrell’s.

One of the most important things I wanted to convey in the Romano Sisters series is that these smart, strong, passionate women gain their strength, their sense of self, from their family and from a community with roots going back generations. They’re modern women tackling modern problems, but they come from a world deeply entrenched in tradition. I wanted to create a distinct sense of place and a neighborhood that felt like family. And it was important that they be descended from immigrants, people who built, and continue to build, this city. Carroll Gardens, with its deep Italian-American roots and constantly changing face, became the obvious choice, a perfect mix of Old World and New, just like the Romano sisters themselves. I hope readers find themselves falling in love with this special part of Brooklyn as much as I have.

About Love and the Laws of Motion:

LOVE AND THE LAWS OF MOTION by Amanda WeaverTogether they’ll unravel the secrets of the universe

Astrophysicist Olivia Romano has always preferred to stay close to her family in Brooklyn—even at the expense of her academic career. But with her advisor missing in action and an unscrupulous professor undermining her work, she’s forced to rely on the reformed-hacker-turned-elite-computer-genius whose sexy smile she can’t get out of her head. 

Nicholas DeSantis cut ties with his family at eighteen, running away from his old-school Italian American neighborhood to make it big in Silicon Valley. When Livie comes to him for help, he can’t resist the project or the quirky woman behind it. Moving into the Romano house in his old neighborhood seems like the perfect short-term solution, if he can just continue to avoid his own family.

But while living together makes working with Livie easier, fighting his growing attraction to her becomes a whole lot harder.

When Livie’s research is sabotaged, Nick takes a huge risk to get her the proof she needs to salvage her career. Moving forward means leaving Brooklyn and spreading her wings at last—just when Nick might finally be ready to put down some roots.

Carina Press | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Google Play | Kobo | Apple Books | Goodreads

First-Page Critiques: Open to Submissions!

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We’re pleased to announce we’re once again accepting submissions for first-page critiques. This is a feedback opportunity in which authors submit their first pages and a Carina Press editor writes a critique, then posts it publicly on our blog.

This critique sweepstakes is a chance for you to receive honest and constructive feedback from a Carina Press editor. Feedback that we promise won’t be mean—we’re not looking to be witty or harsh, we’re just looking to give insight into the editorial thought process while giving you what solid feedback we can at the same time. Send us your first page, and we’ll randomly select submissions to critique on our blog. If you’ve never had your work critiqued before (or even if you have), don’t worry! Our goal is to help you, not only by pointing out what might not be working, but also by letting you know what you’ve gotten right and how to bring that out and really make it shine. In other words, we’re friendly!

Please read the official rules for full legal details on the sweepstakes, then follow the instructions below.

  • Submit the first 400 to 800 words of your manuscript (for most manuscripts, this will be around 1 ½ to 3 pages) to us here before 11:59PM EDT on September 18, 2019.
  • We’ll randomly select a number of first pages from the submissions.
  • Carina Press editors will review and post the selected submissions, with our editorial feedback, on the Carina Press blog.
  • You choose—do you want the comment section on the blog open or closed? Leaving the comment section open means others can comment and offer feedback, but perhaps you only want the feedback from the editor. In that case, everyone reading will benefit from seeing how our editorial minds work, but cannot comment on the blog post itself.

Please keep in mind:

  • We can only accept one entry per person.
  • Authors cannot have been published by Carina Press/Harlequin before.
  • Pages must be from unpublished work and you must be the rightful owner of the work.
  • The entry must be romance of one of the following sub-genres: contemporary, paranormal, romantic suspense, historical, science fiction, fantasy. However, it can be of any heat level and feature same-sex/multiple pairings.
  • By submitting your work to this contest, you give permission for the material to appear on our website along with the editorial feedback.
  • The first pages to be critiqued will be selected at random, and once the selections have been made, we’ll be deleting all other submissions.

Any further questions can be directed to submissions@carinapress.com.

Transness in Fantasy Romance

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by May Peterson, author of Lord of the Last Heartbeat

Fantasy romance feels like home to me. It’s been a mainstay genre of mine since childhood, partly for its sense of wonder and possibility. However, fiction in general has not been a place to find transgender and/or non-binary people like myself until very recently. Many people I know, both writers and readers, wonder how well high and epic fantasy, in particular, can serve as a home for trans and non-binary characters, because these genres tend to rely on non-modern, secondary world settings.

 In order to talk about this, we have to ask ourselves what we mean by someone being transgender and why that seems to require a modern setting. “Transgender” is one way of talking about a broad category of people that existed before the word itself did.

“Trans” itself seems to derive from the notion of transition, of transformation. This understanding is very informed by modern industrial society, by Western philosophy that prefers to define nature and humanity in scientific, chemical and digital ways. We may come to imagine that the alteration of the body (or at least the desire for it) is what fundamentally makes someone trans.

Yet so many trans people end up at odds with this narrative, both the dependence on medicine and the emphasis on transition. I, myself, have been in a state of transition for over ten years, and this doesn’t mean I am only partly trans, or that I was less trans ten years ago.

Underneath the language of transition, we’re discussing what I often call gender non-duality. Cisgender norms describe a dualistic concept of the sexes: that there is the female with a certain biology, and the male with a certain biology. Many people do not fit into this duality or its definitions of the body, including intersex people. Although medicine to alter the body isn’t new, the framing of transness as defined by it is both modern and Western-inflected, and can’t fit all non-dualistic relationships to gender. Ages have passed in which indigenous cultures have had their own ways of thinking and talking about gender, including gender non-duality. It’s reductive to try to fit them into a technological narrative that relies on transition, modern society, or only changing from one binary sex to another.

Exploring trans, non-binary, and other gender non-dual people in fantasy (or any genre) requires us to meet those people and ideas where they are, on their own terms, even if it means shedding the modern or technology-oriented ideas we may be used to.

One of the main characters of my upcoming debut novel, Lord of the Last Heartbeat, is non-binary, and he expresses difficulty coming up with precise language to describe his gender. He lives in a setting in which there is a way of talking about gender non-duality and identities we might compare to trans and non-binary people, but even then he doesn’t have a clear-cut definition to fall back on.

He might have an easier time in the modern world. He’d probably opt for a descriptor like gender-fluid or agender, and may use pronouns like they and them instead of he and him.

It’s also true that he may not, and that this is not so unusual even today. I am a non-binary person living in the modern world who uses she/her pronouns, and I also often struggle with exactly how to express my identity even with a plethora of emerging vocabulary.

This is because gender non-duality, like any variation from the norm, can mean an ambiguity that is itself the point. Ambiguity that isn’t in itself a problem to be solved, because it flows from the elusive wordlessness of personal experience that can’t always be tamed and defined, and doesn’t necessarily have to be. The experience unfolds even without any words to name it. This is part of what I was expressing with this character, because I go through this, too.

I encourage focusing on the lives and hearts we are depicting, not merely on the language used. It’s more vital to concern ourselves with what’s responsible and resonant to our audience. This is a broadly important principle in art in general—we’re not only trying to describe the world, but make our stories a home. A home for imaginations, and for the parts of ourselves that may not seem to have one. The power of stories is not only in the bare facts, but the connection to one another they bring. Trans and gender non-dual people deserve that as much as anyone else.    

About Lord of the Last Heartbeat:

LORD OF THE LAST HEARTBEAT by May PetersonStop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

In a world teeming with mages, ghosts and dark secrets, love blooms between the unlikely pair. But if they are to be strong enough to overcome the evil that draws ever nearer, Mio and Rhodry must first accept a happiness neither ever expected to find.

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