First-Page Critique: Riches to Rags


Meant to be a sneak peek into a Carina editor’s brain, and critiqued by a different editor each month, we’re going to post these first-page critiques monthly as long as authors are willing to let us use their work and people remain interested.

The idea here is to give you a quick 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 one page, the amount of feedback is necessarily limited—we don’t have access to more than one page!

It’s important to note that this manuscript was submitted specifically for the purpose of first-page critique on the blog, we do not/will not use random submissions so no worries we’re going to pull your piece out of slush and critique it.

The next opportunity to submit a piece for critique will be open in April 2017, so please watch the blog or our newsletter for more.

This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press Senior Editor Kerri Buckley.


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The First Page


Author A described this manuscript as “a contemporary riches to rags” story and hints at all sorts of delicious inter-familial scandal and intrigue.


“That’s how clouds are made.” Her father’s long-ago explanation hit her full force. A recollection so vivid, she could almost feel the weight of his arm across her seven-year-old shoulders as they had stared out across the lake. Sudden tears spilled down Madison Reese’s cheeks. Tears sparked by the memory of the man who’d betrayed her and didn’t deserve them. Or, so she told herself countless times.

Amazing, after a year, she still had tears to give. Each day her emotional reservoir drained a little more, but when would it finally dry up? Especially since there was nothing new to cry about. Nothing left he could cost her.

Correction. There were still a couple things she held on to by her fingertips. Jeremy Reese’s passing had taken enough from her. From her mother, too. Stripped of life as she knew it, every memory of her father replaced with a stranger, she refused to also lose her rightful inheritance.

Madison wouldn’t allow it. She wouldn’t let her and her mother lose any more.

She swiped her wet cheeks, trying to keep her eyes on the soft cottony wisps of fog sprouting from the very water which sparked the memory. As if the so-called “cloud makers” would disappear before she got one last look. Would everything be a reminder?

Time to move on. Those days were in the past and there was no use reminiscing—it had all been an illusion anyway.

She didn’t know how long she’d been there, sitting on the top porch step of her family’s summer home. Definitely long enough to see the sunrise over the surrounding mountains, and for its rays to light up the colorful autumn leaves. Long enough for her legs to tingle and become numb from resting down the rustic wooden stairs.

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The Critique

I’m a huge sucker for family saga/drama, and the author of the above hooked me with a pretty killer query that touches upon a secret family, a misunderstood playboy, and a hefty inheritance on the line. The concept of riches to rags in a contemporary setting can really work—has anyone seen the TV show Schitt’s Creek? You should. It’s fabulous. So I was on board with this, conceptually, from the very beginning.

Choosing to open your novel with a line of dialogue is always a bold move. It can work brilliantly…if that line is strong enough to carry the opener. Think about it: you’re relying on it to hook readers, to draw them in and make them want to keep reading. Author A is doubling down, here, somewhat—we’re being asked to invest in not only a single line of dialogue but one that the heroine is remembering. One spoken by her father, whom we haven’t yet met. I struggle with this choice, to be honest. I’m not terribly blown away by the way this particular memory sets up the dynamic between Madison and her father, and I’m just not sold on the cloud-convo-as-emotional-whammy that I think is intended.

All of that said, there is a lot of technical information included in the first three paragraphs. We understand from them that Madison’s father has betrayed her. It happened more than a year ago and has greatly affected both Madison and her mother. There’s an inheritance at stake. This is necessary background information that I don’t mind having right there up front. But I would encourage Author A to see where it’s possible to go back in and reshape how this information is conveyed, without relying on a somewhat random long-ago line of dialogue.

As a sidenote, a lot of focus on a heroine (or hero, for that matter!) crying can be somewhat tedious, no matter the genre. There are other cues—both physical and emotional—that can be used to indicate a character’s state of mind or distress. Madison’s ruminating on her own tears tilts my understanding of her toward the navel gazing, and I don’t think that’s what Author A was after.

Okay, moving on. Madison’s determination in paragraphs four and five is quite welcome! We get a small sense of the fight that’s to come. Fantastic—it feels as though things are turning around and the conflict is kicking off. Again, I’d look for ways to depict this that don’t include swiping at tears (somewhat clichéd) or circling back to the clouds, but the timing feels right and Author A’s instincts are solid.

From there, Author A lost me. The final two paragraphs here feel unnecessary, like they’re included only to fill space and spin wheels, or to move the heroine from point A to point B. I’d like to see something more active, a better illustration of Madison’s agency and ultimate character.

Would I keep reading? As Angela noted in her critique last month, a first page is pretty short. Plus, I’m generally an optimistic person and so yes, I would keep reading for at least 2-3 more pages. As I said above, I really do like the concept here. I think the author is just perhaps choosing to start in the wrong place and putting too much faith in the reader’s ability (or desire) to connect with what isn’t ultimately a super engaging or hook-y memory.


Do you have questions about my feedback or the First-Page Critique program? Email

Authors entering their work for critique can choose to have the blog post comments open or closed. Comments are closed this month.


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