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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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 Mackenzie Walton.
The First Page
This was submitted by the author as a first page.
Author A described this manuscript as historical romance told in a “sweet heat” voice.
Boston, Massachusetts, 1900
Raven Nightengale brought a dripping, leg over the side of the tub, as Darla enveloped her in a length of flannelette. There would be no bullying tonight, just a quiet supper, and much-needed rest.
Unpinning her hair, and allowing the long, black tresses to fall below her hips, she thrust both hands into the locks, and massaged her scalp.
“Darla, if men had to carry the weight of this hair all day, they’d not admire it so much.”
Her friend laughed aloud. “Or those breasts, either.”
Raven grinned. “Now, let’s not cut off our noses to spite our faces. Many a grand dinner was paid for with a teasing glance at these lovelies.”
“And they’re still bringing in the green, right?”
“Well, lately the “green” has been more like black and blue. If that continues, we may have to pull up roots, and move.”
Darla’s curls bounced, as her head bobbed. “I was wonderin’ just how long you’d allow that.”
“I can’t any longer. If he damaged my face, where would we be?”
Where, indeed, Raven thought. Her face had put her onstage at Austin’s Palace Theatre. She’d made a living for three years before she met Michael Patrick Dillon. She enjoyed the lavish surroundings he furnished for her, and the jewels she wore when she visited the homes of Boston’s upper class, on his arm. She still couldn’t understand why they welcomed him into their homes, but they would be attending a soiree at the Mayor’s home tomorrow evening. All the more reason to rest tonight. She couldn’t afford to look tired. Stage make-up could only hide so much.
“Here dear, soup for supper. Tomorrows dress does not have room for one extra ounce. The men will drool over you, and the women… well, they already hate you.”
Raven thumbed through newspaper as she sipped her soup. A personal notice caught her eye.
She laughed aloud as she folded the paper around the notice. “Helpmeet wanted. Circuit Minister needs wife to care for two orphaned daughters. Must be humble, prudent, and hardworking. Respond to Rev. Aaron Hennessy, Methodist Church, Newport, Tennessee.
Well, good luck to that one. What woman in her right mind would answer that notice?
Darla returned for the tray. “I’ll be at Austin’s working on repairs.”
Raven stretched her long arms over her head. “The gold satin has a stay popped loose, if you could catch that for me? I’m about to fall asleep just sitting here. ‘Night.”
She lay with her arms behind her head and let her mind wander to the first time she’d met Darla.
Raven was seventeen when she’d wandered in off the street. Austin’s Palace Theatre was advertising a musical with “beautiful” girls. The year was 1897. It was early morning, raining, and colder than a well-diggers behind. She’d only stepped in to get warm. Moments later, Darla came bustling in carrying a large basket, and nearly knocked her over.
“Whoa there, who are you looking for? Did Wallace send you? You here to sew, or sing?”
Raven swept her wet hair aside, and Darla snorted.
“With that face, I’d guess you’re not here to sew. What’s your name?”
“Raven Wilson, and I don’t know Wallace. The door was open, it was raining…” Raven began edging toward the door. The last thing she needed was someone calling the law.
First off, I’m immediately intrigued by the unusual setting of this book. I’m a fan of historical romance in general, and while I adore Regency and Victorian books, I love exploring other periods as well!
Now, the reader doesn’t have firsthand experience of what life was like in early 1900s Boston, and I think there’s room here for a lot more detail to flesh out that world. There’s some hints at it—the flannelette, being tended to so intimately by a servant, the mention of presumably expensive gold satin—but more detail will really sell what we’re told: that Raven lives lavishly. What’s the decor like, for example? Does she get into nightclothes, and what kind? Is the room lit by lamps or newfangled electric lights?
Historical readers are usually hungry for richness of detail, so building up the world this way would be extremely satisfying while also establishing what Raven’s life is like and letting us sink into the time period and setting. Remember—world-building is important for all genres, not just SFF and paranormal!
The page could also use more attention to detail in terms of blocking (how the characters move around) and setting the scene. One moment she’s getting out of the tub, the next she’s eating soup and reading the paper (still naked and wrapped in that flannelette?), and then she’s going to sleep. What happens in between these bullet points? There’s no need to take us step by step, but it’s worth a line or two to move her from place or place. Perhaps more economically, the book could begin with her reading the paper in bed.
The paper is another place that could use more detail. What’s so funny about that notice, and why does it catch Raven’s eye? Would it be strange for a Tennessee notice to appear in a Boston newspaper? More context would be fantastic and further highlight what seems to be some important foreshadowing. I’m wondering if that and more info about this violent lover of Raven’s might actually be more interesting to the reader than exploring her history with Darla. Think critically about what the hooks are in this plot and how to best utilize them—while I’m sure Darla is extremely important to Raven’s backstory, this probably isn’t vital to position on page one.
On a final note, at the top of the page Raven makes a quick joke about the domestic violence she’s experiencing. I’d strongly suggest adding more seriousness to that reveal, because we don’t know Raven well enough to get a read on if she’s trying to downplay her fear with gallows humor or if she truly thinks this is only a big deal if it affects her face. Domestic violence is something that many readers will find upsetting, and you want to be careful that there’s no misunderstanding your intent here.
Would I keep reading? First pages are notoriously tough, so I’d keep going to see how things progress.
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