Short Scene Critique: Mermaid Bodyguard Meets Grouchy Dragon

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Meant to be a sneak peek into a Carina editor’s brain, and critiqued by a different editor each time, we’re going to post these critiques twice a month 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 about 600 words, two pages at the most, the amount of feedback is necessarily limited—we don’t have access to more than a couple of pages!

New as of March 1, 2018: instead of first-pages, we asked authors to submit one of four types of scenes: an action scene, a sex scene, the black moment or the first meeting between protagonists. This opportunity was still limited to 400-800 words, but it provides both authors and those following these critiques with an opportunity to see editorial feedback deeper into a book.

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

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

This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press Freelance Editor Alissa Davis.


* * *

The First Page

This was submitted by the author as a first meet.  

Author A described this manuscript as “a sweet, small-town, holiday paranormal mystery featuring forced proximity, mistaken identity, enemies to lovers, fated mates and shifter tropes.”

In addition to the author’s description, I’m going to share a little more info from the query letter in order to help everyone get a handle on some of the worldbuilding and paranormal elements we’d likely encounter earlier in the story:

Long after the Merfolk-Dragon Wars, one of the last mermaid warriors to survive the Zombie plague, PERPETUA STROM, has honed her abilities on land and sea to open a top-ranked security firm. When the Dragon Shoe Institute and the Merfolk Studies Department announce a joint fashion show, she isn’t surprised when The Council calls on her to protect the show’s outspoken curator. 

THOMAS DRAKE is the legendary cobbler and bad boy of dragon fashion who gives no credence to the death threats piling up on his desk. It’s only when the curvy, no-nonsense PERPETUA kicks him out of his shoe studio and uses a pop-up portal to ferry a boat-load of poisons, explosives and deadly critters off-continent that he realizes collaborative fashion can be murder. With a countdown to Fashion Week, PERPETUA and DRAKE must be quick on their haute-couture heels to stay alive.

Okay! We’ve got a mermaid warrior boss who knows her own worth and does not have time for anyone’s nonsense. Love it! There’s a lot going on here, but I’m looking forward to meeting this character. A mermaid/dragon pairing sounds fun, especially with what looks like a huge amount of baggage between the two species, so let’s take a look at their first meeting:

“Listen, pet.” Drake strode back into his shoe studio, shoulders tight, jaw clenched and wiped his runny nose with the back of his hand.

“Actually, it’s Perpetua.” The tall woman with lush curves and a severe chignon, shoved another box onto an upright shelf. Then she punched in a series of numbers onto the keypad, activating the customized portal.

“I’m flattered that you’re a fan, but I don’t know what kind of a show you’re running here with the smoke, flashing lights, and your pop-up portals. But no one locks me out of my own studio. That’s crossing the line at any job interview. So, I tell you what–”

Drake grabbed a pair of matching high heels from a rack then pushed past the mounds of fabrics, magazines, assorted tools and hate mail on his desk, found a marker and tested it on a creative death threat. “Since I pity anyone lacking fashion sense, let alone a Personal Assistant, and I’ve never met a MerZenary before…” A cough rattled his chest as he autographed both unworn soles of last season’s final pair of limited edition spiked heels and walked a few steps towards her. “These are for you.”

“The War was a long time ago, Mr. Drake and the old nicknames are long gone.” She fit the pumps between boxes on the shelf and watched as the case disappeared into a black shadow. Then she bent down to unzip her suitcase, removed a hand-sanitizer bottle, a teapot, water jug, and set up at the nearest wall outlet. “Merfolk with the Z-cell insist on being called, ‘Merzumvian.’”

A drop of blood welled on his thumb, from where a jagged spike along the heel pricked his skin. “All the same, I sniffed out that Eau de Mud-water scent you trailed in here even with my nose all stuffed up.”

In truth, warm-vanilla and jasmine wafted around her with every lithe move, but best to get her away ASAP. Mermaid-Zombie hybrid sightings were incredibly rare and feared more than super-blue-blood moons or walking starfish.

“I gotta ask. Is it true? Merzumvians speak to ghosts and eat dragon flesh?” He blotted his bleeding thumb on his jeans.

Perpetua shrugged, “Not at the same time.” She pressed a button, heard a chirp and the five-shelf rack glowed. “I’ve heard that the museum’s Spring Gala is a collaboration between the Dragon Shoe Institute and the Merfolk History Department.” She carefully swept his shoe trappings: pins, tacks and thread spools into their containers, then picked up the phone and dialed. “Dangerous, no?”

“Controversy always boosts sales.” Drake rolled his shoulders. “Then, you do speak to ghosts?”

“It depends.” She pointed to the empty space beside him. “Do they count?”

A quick comeback was on the tip of his tongue, when his head reared back and snapped forward with a flash of hot light. Perpetua dodged the blast, but a flame landed on her lapel, catching fire.

“What was that?” He cleared his throat several times, stemming the burn in his throat.

Unphased, Perpetua balanced the phone between her ear and shoulder while patting out the flame with her fingers and pouring him a cup of tea. “Your first sneeze.”

“Dragons do not get sick.” Desperate for relief, Drake took a healthy swig of the floral-scented stuff she offered.

“True,” Perpetua’s unmanicured fingers tapped on the stack of his death threats. “But they are often assassinated.”

As Drake sputtered, she spoke into the phone. “Roxanne? I’ve Mr. Drake for an 11 a.m. call. Could you put us through?”

Perpetua covered the receiver and whispered, “From the Trustees Office. Now, this gel’s for your thumb and here’s your invoice. If you could check off these three boxes and sign on the bottom line.”

Drake applied the quick-drying liquid band-aid and then rifled through the papers. “Perimeter checked, secure. Explosive, neutralized. Gas, inert. Vaccination administered. Threats stowed and removed via portal.” He smoothed his fingertips together. “Those heels…?”

Perpetua re-packed her suitcase, zipped the sides and put her coat on. “The spikes were laced with a slow-release toxin designed to decimate a dragon’s immune system.”

“I thought you were a Personal Assistant here to interview.”

“I own a security firm and the Trustees wanted the best protecting the ‘Bad Boy’ of dragon fashion.” Perpetua approached the portal and firmly gripped her suitcase’s telescopic handle when the phone beeped. “Roxanne transferred you to the Council meeting. You’re on speaker.”

Drake held the phone in his hand, “What do they want to know?”

“Whether I’ve taken you on as a client and when I’ll start.”

“What should I tell them?” Drake looked after her retreating figure.

As Perpetua disappeared through the diminishing portal, she waved a hand high and without a backwards glance her answer echoed, “I will and I already have.”

* * *

The Critique

After reading the query letter, then seeing the dragon wipe his nose on himself, I spent several paragraphs thinking about what our gorgeous mermaid warrior would do to this guy if he attempted to touch her with his snot-covered hand. In my mind, it was not pretty. Possibly not what the author wants her readers focusing on during a first meeting, so Author A might consider revisiting that line or having him find a tissue.

Looks like we’re starting out with a case of mistaken identity, which is always fun. Drake thinks she’s interviewing for a PA position, and I love that Perpetua can’t be bothered to set him straight right away—she’s busy securing the room, making tea and saving him, and she isn’t inclined to deal with his whining. So far, I like her!

We’re in Drake’s POV in this scene, and Author A may want to take advantage of that in order to give us some additional characterization for this hero. He’s grouchy and a bit snobby, but else is going on under the surface? Internal dialogue and deep POV could get us into this character’s head and help us to understand why, when he believes Merzumvians are dangerous and wants Perpetua to leave ASAP, he then insults her by telling her she smells like muddy water and encourages her to linger in his studio by asking her several questions about her species. It’s fine for a character to have all sorts of conflicting impulses, and it would be fun to see Drake trying to figure out why in the world his mouth is still moving when all of his instincts are telling him to back away slowly and then run like hell before the zombie mermaid gets annoyed that he just sneezed fire in her face. (Great moment, by the way. Sick scenes are so much fun.)

On a similar note, if dragons don’t get sick and Drake has never been ill before, it would make sense to show more confusion and disgust about all the coughing and dripping, even if he’s trying to play it off in front of Perpetua because he wants her to go away. Show us the vulnerability beneath the persona he projects as part of his professional “bad boy of fashion” image. He’s not making the best first impression here, and it’s important to give the reader at least a hint of why they’re going to love this character later, even if they don’t love him now.

Drake’s a little busy trying to end the faux job interview and then trying to process the fact that someone’s attempting to kill him–and that they touched a pair of his beautiful high heels to do it–but we could heighten the tension and chemistry in this important first meeting scene by having him observe Perpetua in greater detail. The details he notices and the way he describes her, both before and after he realizes who she is, will give us insight into both characters. Author A might like to highlight Drake’s slow, stumbling realization that this person is definitely not a personal assistant and that she isn’t the one being interviewed here in his studio today. Possible bonus points if one of the things that eventually tips him off is something to do with the type of shoes she’s wearing.

Author A does a great job of ending this first meeting with a bang. By the time Drake gets an inkling of what’s going on, Perpetua has foiled an assassination, removed a murder weapon, put out a fire, made a cup of tea, set up a business call and delivered a killer parting line. So. Much. Competence. I love it.

Would I keep reading? I’d probably jump ahead to see if I could find more banter/flirting in a moment where Drake has settled down.

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

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.


One thought on “Short Scene Critique: Mermaid Bodyguard Meets Grouchy Dragon”

  1. Stephanie says:

    Thank you so much for your time and comments, Ms. Davis! Most of all thank you for appreciating Perpetua’s efforts, because saving a dragon from himself and an assassin can be a thankless job. I’ll pay keen attention to Drake’s internal dialogue, deep POV, have him sanitize those snot-covered hands (Ewww!) and I’ll add stiletto descriptions. Any excuse to talk about heels is a good one, am I right? Thank you again for all that you do!

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