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 Fall 2018, so please watch the blog or our newsletter for more.
This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press Editorial Director Angela James.
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The First Page
Here is a snippet from the author’s short book description… Vowing to put her career and herself first, she swears off dating. But when a wounded ex-marine walks into her life, she has a decision to make; can she trust him with her own wound, a fragile heart?
This scene was submitted as a sex scene.
He’d made peace with the idea that this would just be dinner. He didn’t have any expectations with her, she was unpredictable. But she was essentially asking him to take his shirt off. It was on. His gears switched into overdrive. He wanted her, wanted to throw her onto the couch and touch every inch of her. But what did she want? Clearly something. He drew his arm up, then down behind his back, pulling off his shirt in one swift motion. Her legs spread apart as soon as he did it. He stepped closer, closing the distance between them to mere inches.
He wanted to please her, wanted her to be happy she’d said yes to coming here. When he bent down he couldn’t hold back. It had been so long since he’d touched a woman. He wished it was easier, to go without human touch, but he craved it, craved her. Cupping her face, he kissed her furiously. She was kissing him back. For a moment his mind went blank, all he could feel was her. Then he pulled back, before he got sucked in too far and couldn’t stop.
“Raven, I know how you feel about your job. Just so you know, this is between us.”
Her breath was heavy. “Can I trust you? Because no one can know, ever.” She turned suddenly serious, even fearful, like a rabbit trapped in a corner. “If you go bragging about this to any of your buddies at the hotel, I’ll deny the whole thing and never speak to you again.”
No, she was pulling back. He wanted her like she was before, relaxed, carefree, then when they kissed, tender, soft in his arms.
“No one will know. I swear it. This is between us.”
“I need someone I can trust.”
“I would never sleep with two girls at once, even though neither of us wants anything serious, I wouldn’t do that.”
“Good, me too. But can I trust you?” She bit down on the word, trust. Her eyes blazed with something untamed behind them.
Rowan sucked in a breath, a shock vibrating through him. He knew. It wasn’t just about cheating. She needed someone she could trust, in and out of the bedroom. He was a solider, he knew about trust. You didn’t go into a warzone with just anyone. You had your team, men you have trained with and joked with and bled with. You put your life in their hands and they put theirs in yours. Sometimes crazy shit went down. He’d seen brave men break down and sob, or shake in the corner with fear. It was never talked about and you never looked down on anyone for it. There was a trust between them that couldn’t be broken. No matter what happened they would never betray that trust. Raven needed that kind of trust in her life.
He couldn’t just say the words, he needed to show her.
“If we going to do this, it’s just us. I swear it. Trust me, Raven.”
Her lips pressed against his, hungry. When her legs wrapped around him, he lifted her up then laid her down on the rug next to the fireplace. The world flickered away as a heat rose between them. His hands slid down her smooth hips, drawing her close. There was nothing in the room; no more war, no darkness, no questions, no room left for anything but the hot touch of her skin. Crossing her arms, she threw off the dress. Her ample chest spilled out of the pink bra top. She pulled down one side, a clear invitation for his mouth. Hearing her groan and clench his hair in her fist, he started to feel shaky. He was already worked up to the point he knew he wouldn’t last long. His movements slowed, lips grazing her earlobe, down her neck. Trailing his finger down he found her chest again, rubbing his thumb around the sensitive ends she gasped. Then his mouth was there again, every flicker of his tongue drawing shivers to her thighs. Raven threw her head back, her breath becoming deeper, the anticipation rising. His kisses trailed lower, navel, then lower still until he reached her wet center.
“Do you like this?” His last girlfriend hadn’t liked oral, giving or receiving.
“Yes,” she gasped. “Don’t stop.”
Her hips rotated against the rhythm of his mouth, searing heat swallowed him whole. Grabbing his neck she urged him to move up. Then he was peering down at her, crushing her with his weight, filling her, slow, then urgent, until he couldn’t hold on any longer, their skin moist and searing, until she clenched his back, his name shuddering through her lips. Rowan.
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This was a hard scene to get a read on, because we don’t have an emotional connection to the hero that was hopefully built prior to this scene. We’re in his head, but without that sense of being interested in what he’s thinking, so his narration feels a little long and maybe a little bit more of a downer than we might want heading into a sex scene. It was difficult to imagine this moving on to sexy/steamy and right away I found myself wondering if we were actually getting a sex scene or if the author had mislabeled it. But to be fair, it’s hard to judge this, out of context, and be able to tell if the lead-in is appropriate here.
Judging it just based on the snippet, I would have preferred to see this sex scene lead in with less internal narrative and more interaction between the hero and the heroine. I also think the longer paragraphs give this scene a bit more of a slow, almost draggy feel, rather than using paragraph and sentence length to effect and convey more of a sense of urgency.
Usually when we see two characters have sex for the first time, we’re looking for a sense of urgency, along with desire and sexual tension that overwhelms everything else. The best sex scenes are the ones that convey all of this, while also using the characters’ emotions to build the heat level. When you have a scene, like this one, that feels like it’s been plotted out somewhat methodically, rather than letting the characters get lost in the moment, it tends to miss the mark on what we hope to see in a great sex scene.
I personally find teaching someone to write great sex is one of the hardest craft skills to teach, so I tend to lean on 2 main pieces of advice: sex scenes are one place deep POV can really have a positive effect, and instead of focusing on the body parts moving, focus on the characters who are moving those parts. Intimate sex on page isn’t about body parts, it’s about emotion, connection and tension.
Would I keep reading? If this was my only exposure to the author’s work, I probably wouldn’t keep reading as there’s not a lot here to pull me in and the scene itself falls a little flat. But! That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t read something from this author, because for some people, writing sex scenes is the hardest part. People think writing sex is easy, but it actually takes a lot of skill and expert craft work to write sex scenes that are compelling, get us into the characters’ heads, and also create a sensual feel. It’s one of the most underrated skills in the craft of writing, and authors who can keep the scenes fresh and interesting book over book don’t receive enough credit.
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