First Page Critique: Humorous Small-Town Holiday Romance


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 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, John Jacobson.

The First Page

Author A described this manuscript as, “A sweet, small-town, holiday contemporary romance featuring forced proximity, fake marriage and enemies to lovers.”

Nessa twisted in an earring. “What do you think?”

Teddy returned her notecards. “Are you sure you want to lead with, ‘Harbinger of the Kraken’? Seems pretty strong for opening remarks.”

“Yet not expressive enough. I should’ve gone with, ‘The Apocalypse,’ since that’s the truth.  Millicent Daniels is a miserable, old buzzard who thinks her money entitles her to treat people like servants and I’m supposed to, what? Congratulate her at this awards dinner thingee? Please.”

“Awards …?”

“Besides, I was talking about the stockings.” Nessa pirouetted to the violin’s tones then stopped at the taped floor marking where she had to stand off-stage and behind heavy curtains. “Too much?”

“Good news? You don’t need a siren, because all of this,” he waved a hand to include her fresh out-of-the box stilettos, “screams fire engine.”

“Outstanding. It’s supposed to be crimson, so that the heat of my revenge sizzles without words, but I’m not mad.” Nessa tilted the fine veil of her fascinator a second time. “The invitation said to wear black.“

“And you decided on red….so much red.”

 “We’re speaking after the violin concerto, right? And again, sorry about being late. I forgot how many people go to the Tree Lighting ceremony. Guess people couldn’t find parking, since the church lot was completely packed. So many news vans, out-of-town and diplomatic license plates. All for a tree and a few twinkling Christmas lights? And what’s with all the security?”

She twirled again, a bit too quickly, with a flourish of her arms. “Ooo!”  Terry caught her with two firm hands around her waist. “I forgot how slippery the floors are in here.”

Nessa sidled away. “Thirty years and I’m back to where it all began. Right there,” she pointed to the stage curtains, “is where I decided to become a world renown ballerina. Two feet further in is where I stood with stage fright for eight painful minutes. Terrified. In a cold sweat. Just magical.”

Shivering off the memory, she continued. “Anyway, I’m not saying that Millicent is the reason why babies cry when they’re first born, but only because it’s that time of year when I’m full of Christmas joy-“

“Are you really?”

“-and I think we all know that the reminders in her daybook of, ‘Lunch With T.D.’ stand for ‘Lunch With The Devil.’ True story.”

“Is it though?”

“Talk to me after a decade in the wake of The Great Millicent Daniels. How long’s it been for you?”

“Word is you left rather…abruptly.” He leaned against a door frame. “Since then, I guess.”

 “And let’s not bring up the sticky notes. On my drafts, proposals, memos…my coat. ‘Terrible.’ ‘Awful.’ ‘YCDB.’ ‘WDIHY?’”

When Terry frowned, she added. “You can do better. Why did I hire you? Just magical. Anyway, glad this will be an intimate gathering. We’ll have, like, twelve people in the audience and two online. It’s the only way I’m even here.”

Terry groaned under his breath.

A green light flashed above the door.

“We’re on!” She rapped the notecards against her palm.  “Good luck out there.”

With ramrod straight perfect posture and a brilliant smile, it was three confident strides onto the stage before Nessa’s knees locked. 

There she stood, from head to toe, in blinding red before a church full of four hundred somber attendees dressed in black attire. And a casket draped in the American flag beside a photo of Millicent Daniels.

An eternity passed before firm hands, Terry’s, pushed behind her mid-waist, allowing her slippery, fresh out-of-the box soles to slide her forward on the marble floor, more effective and quicker than a ballet partner or a well-oiled dolly.

Terry stepped up to the podium and hesitated.  In a thick voice he addressed the crowd. “Madame President, Ambassador, Princess, Prince and cherished friends. What to say about my mother? I’d prepared a speech, but,” he cleared his throat. “I think I’ll leave it to someone who may have adored her even more. Her truest and most loyal friend.” Turning towards the nearest network camera with moistened eyes, he sighed deeply and stepped down.

Leaning close, he whispered behind a tight smile the audience couldn’t see, “Theodore Daniels, at your service.”

“T.D. in the flesh.” She groaned. “You big faker.”

“Mother left notes and sent her regards.”

Then he turned, leaving her alone, before sitting in the first pew where the President of the United States tapped his hand in consolation.

Nessa stepped up to the podium and noticed Millicent’s refined penmanship on a stack of papers, the first of which read, ‘To Nessa.’  And the second, ‘Lie.’  Next was, ‘Terrible.’ Then came, ‘YCDB.’”

Glaring at Millicent’s photo, Nessa closed the leather folder over her worst enemy’s final mandates and admonishments.

“How to describe Millicent Daniels?  She was a harbinger. Just magical.”

The Critique

What stood out to me about this initially was the writing voice. The usage of dialogue and humor within it is done well. We see a strong section of the heroine’s personality. She’s a little self-focused and doesn’t know what’s going on because she’s consumed by her emotions, and the result is a humorous situation that makes her uncomfortable but doesn’t embarrass her. It made the scene engaging even when I didn’t fully understand what was occurring.

What I struggled with is that this scene is hard to read out of context – I found myself wanting more external perspective to get an idea of what was running through the heroine’s mind, to get into her mindset even though I could sense the mishap coming. The presence of important people at the event also made me confused as to the lack of preparation and the misunderstanding at the end – it allows for the dramatics of the comedy to play out, but as a reader I find it harder to believe that our main character would be so unprepared when speaking to royalty and the president of the country.

If you write this scene a little deeper from the heroine’s perspective, readers will understand exactly why she’s not picking up the signal that it’s a funeral and it will make the situation more emotionally impactful and humorous. I would recommend that you make sure that the setup of the heroine being unprepared is solid. It needs to be believable enough for readers to enjoy the comedy of the moment. Note that contemporary settings don’t need to be hyper realistic – just ensure that whatever contemporary world-building you do leading up to this scene allows the reader to accept this situation as plausible for the world of the story. 

Would I keep reading? 

I would keep reading.

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

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