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!
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This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press Freelance Editor Kate Marope.
The First Page
Author A described this manuscript as a paranormal romance where “Holly and Callum are hired as a team to clear a haunting in the ancestral home of the mysterious Mr. Western and they unearth a blood-soaked connection between the Western family’s fortunes and the witch hunts of the 1600s.”
Holly jumped as her alarm jangled to life startling her with its annoying buzz. What the hell? How is it time to get up? It felt like only a minute since she’d crawled into bed. She fumbled for her phone, shutting off the offending noise and squinting angrily at the sunlight peeking through her curtains. It’d been a long, hard night and Holly was exhausted, physically and mentally. The spirit she’d been hired to clear was vicious and fought tooth and nail to stay in this world. But Holly won in the end. She always did. Ghosts zero – Holly…she’d lost count.
Lifting her aching body off the mattress with an involuntary groan, Holly shuffled towards the shower, cursing as she stumbled over her discarded boots. Fifteen minutes later, dressed in grey pants and a fitted, white shirt she was slipping on her shoes and heading out the door. Holly Daniels was a no fuss human.
“Coffee. Must have coffee,” she muttered to herself as she practically fell into her car. Why on earth did I organized a 9am meeting? Ugh. Must have been a moment of insanity. Another one. She internally grumbled at her own stupidity as she pulled out into the traffic. When her phone rang, she answered without even looking.
“Good morning sunshine,” the voice said brightly. “How’s my favorite Ghost Whisperer this morning?”
Holy gritted her teeth. God damn it. Not today. “Don’t call me that, Callum,” she didn’t even try to hide her impatience. “What do you want?”
“Don’t call you what? Sunshine or Ghost….”
“Well, aren’t we chirpy today? What happened, Casper make a break for it?”
The teasing in his voice infuriated her. “No. Casper did not…,” Holly sighed. “Look, I’m tired, okay? So, I repeat, what do you want, Callum?”
“Where are you?”
“On my way to the office, why?”
“I’ll meet you there, I’ve got something to discuss with you, I’ll even bring coffeeeee.” He sung the last part. “Cream with 2 sugars, right?”
Oh. My. God. Holly puffed out a tense breath. “Non-fat, no sugar, as you damn well…”
“Right,” Callum continued breezily, totally ignoring Holly’s mood. “How could I forget? You’re obviously sweet enough!”
Holly squeezed the steering wheel in frustration, she knew he was winding her up, but it didn’t make her any less annoyed. “I don’t have the energy for you this morning, Callum, I really don’t, and I’ve got a meeting, so…”
“No worries. See you there, princess.”
“Don’t call me….AGGGHHH!”
All she heard was laughter as he hung up.
Callum Jefferies was a pain in Holly’s ass. He was crazy good looking and annoyingly charming, and he knew it. He pushed Holly’s buttons like no one else. In fact, Holly thought he made a sport out of it. Like Holly, he was a spiritual clearer for hire, and a damn good one. He was some kind of paranormal savant, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the supernatural. They worked together on occasion, when Holly needed a bit of extra muscle on a job. Callum definitely had muscle, in all the right places. In truth, she could have done with his help last night, and the only reason she was now sporting this awesome bruise which was threatening to become a shiner, was because she was too proud to bring him in. He just…bugged her, with his smart-ass attitude, brilliant smile and unnaturally green eyes. Damn those eyes. You could get lost for days in those eyes.
Holly shook her head. “Argh. Stop it,” she said, chastising herself out loud as she pulled into her car space.
When Holly arrived at her office, Callum was waiting for her, all six foot two of him, looking gorgeous casually leaning against the door and holding out her coffee.
“Here you go sweetheart,” he said, handing her the cup. “Whoa! What happened to you?” He reached out to touch Holly’s face.
Holly batted him away. “Nothing. Got tossed into a wall. And don’t call me sweetheart.”
“Impressive. Looks painful. You shoulda called me.”
“I could handle it.”
“I know, but…”
“The spirit is gone isn’t it?”
“I’m fine!” She practically shouted as she shoved him out of the way.
“Okay, okay,” Callum said, throwing up his hands in mock surrender.
Holly unlocked her office door, stomped into the room and tossed her bag onto the floor beside her desk. Dropping heavily into her chair she rummaged through her draws for some painkillers, the side of her face was starting to throb. Nope. It was her whole head. “Make it quick,” she said. “I’ve got a 9am.” She tossed back some pills with a mouthful of coffee.
“That’s why I’m here,” Callum said, fiddling with the mail on her desk. “Your 9am is my 9am.”
As far as first lines went, this could’ve been more unique. The late night phone call or groggy alarm wake up is a very common disturbance plot device in the genre (I guess since more paranormal bogeys go bump in the night), and though it reads like a paranormal romance, it doesn’t do much to differentiate this story from others like it.
But then the author made a quick job of letting the reader know the heroine’s occupation (ghost removalist of some kind), and her disposition towards her job. The “she’d lost count” quite deftly communicated Holly’s dissatisfaction and growing weariness.
As you read on, you learn a lot about Holly’s habits and general character. She’s a low maintenance, messy (or clumsy), coffee-fueled “no fuss human”. Her character was relatable and pragmatic. Again, nice, but still a common enough paranormal romance or urban fantasy heroine. What makes her stand out?
Then we got to Callum, Holly’s PITA co-worker. Unfortunately, most of their dialogue didn’t do much by way of furthering the plot. It was just there to show how much Callum annoys Holly. He calls to annoy her, then he does it in person. That’s a lot of word count to spend on one reveal, and it slowed the pacing that was built with Holly’s utilitarian movement.
Moreover, it isn’t good character building for Callum, as it puts him firmly in the I’d sooner stab you than date you column (not quite enemies, but close). The author already has an uphill battle in convincing Holly (and the reader) that Callum might be good for something other than annoyance, so belaboring this aspect of his character doesn’t help. The narrative between their phone call and in-person interaction did a better job of summarizing their current relationship in a meaningful, but concise way that doesn’t clip their budding romance before it even starts.
Unfortunately, due to the word count spent on PITA Callum, the author didn’t have a chance to set up the mystery plot before the two-pages were over. That’s something you want to get in as soon as possible, because that’s where the hook lies. Not every reader will like your characters, but you can compel them to read further with a good set up of the main plot yet to come. From the query letter, I know there is a life-endangering spirit prophecy mystery in store, so that’s a hook you want to build intrigue for as quickly as you can.
Craft-wise, there were a few times where Holly’s thoughts told what her actions showed, and that repetition slowed down the pacing and reduced the impact her actions could’ve had (e.g. “God damn it. Not today.” tells of the irritation her gritted teeth and subsequent dialogue showed). I’d suggest that the author go back and either rework the telling or cut it out completely (trust the reader to pick up on the context clues you give them). Also, the story lacked a sense of place, which was another missed opportunity to distinguish this book from others.
Would I keep reading? No. Maybe I would read the first chapter, just to see if there is anything standout in the way the author handles the set-up of the mystery plot, but chances are the craft and story aren’t strong enough to keep me reading beyond that.
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