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.
This was submitted by the author as the first page of their new NA contemporary series where “After a prank gone wrong gets her booted from her college of choice, freshman Rowan Blanchette is forced to attend a public university closer to home, but moving cross-country and starting at a new school between semesters isn’t her idea of a good time.”
I hustle my ass inside a coffee shop on the busiest corner in Dinkytown. Warm air seeps through my coat, my jeans, my boots making my skin tingle as it warms. The place has a funky, vintage fifties vibe, chrome accents and red faux leather, mixed with ski lodge chic. How the fuck does this work together?
I pull down the ‘Help Wanted’ poster from the door and head toward the coffee counter, where a leggy red-head with an amazing ass is washing her hands. Halfway across the room, I spot a couple of U of M hoodies and veer to the right.
There’s an open chair at the table, so I plop myself down. “You boys go to school here?”
The blond one eyes me up. “We do.” He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a lady killer. A pretty face with a dangerous smile.
I could get into so much trouble with that smile. “Well, thanks to the kind kindness of my former Dean of Students, I am now a student here, rather than a guest of the Tennessee Department of Corrections. Who wants to help me find my dorm?” Correction. I’m going to get into trouble with that smile.
The blond leans across the table and holds out a hand for me to shake. “I’m Deacon Cirillo – my friends call me Deke, sophomore, majoring in beer. This is Grayson Miller – Gray – honorary Cirillo, sophomore, double majoring in graphic design and e-commerce.”
I shake both their hands. “Lovely to meet you boys. I’m Rowan Blanchette, freshman, mostly undecided. And you’re ambitious. I like that.” I point at Grayson.
“Thank you.” Gray smiles softly, a flash of pearly whites, and I feel all the girls in the room simultaneously swoon for him. And maybe I swoon too. Just a tiny bit.
“How’s about we give you the Grand Cirillo-Miller Tour of Campus?” Deke pushes his chair back and stands.
“Ooh, I don’t know about a tour. I’ve been walking all day and my dogs are barking like mad.” I wink. “I’m going to grab a coffee while you two decide who’s showing me where my dorm is.” I stand and take a step toward the counter. “Though, I suppose we could do it as a group thing.”
Deke grabs at his chest and mock swoons. “You tempt me, harlot.”
Gray throws an elbow at his friend’s hip. “Down boy.”
I walk across the room to the Formica topped counter and ding the tiny service bell.
“Just a sec.” A voice calls from the back. A second later the leggy red head I saw earlier appears in the doorway. “Welcome to Hot Shots. What can I get you?”
“I need a large caramel macchiato to go and an application.” I check out the barista – she’s everything I’m not: a tall, thin, long-haired beauty, to my short, curvy – a little extra curvy – with a pixie cut.
“Sure thing. It’ll be $4.16 and you should go with Deke and Gray. The tour is completely worth it.”
“Oooh, fangirl?” I arch a perfectly waxed eyebrow.
“Ha. No. I live with them. Used to date Deke’s brother. He’s like a kid brother to me. The boys give a tour of the Cirillo brothers’ pranks. It’s worthwhile.” She turns her back to me and starts on my coffee.
“Nice to meet you Not Fangirl. I’m Rowan and I think I’m about to go on a campus tour with two guys I just met. Seems totally kosher.” I laugh a little, because this is so typical of me and half of moving home from Tennessee was so I could focus on growing up and making better decisions. Clearly, this is not one of the better decisions I need to learn to make.
“Nice to meet you Rowan. I’m Iris.” The redhead tosses her hair over her shoulder. “And the boys are safe, I promise.” She slides a cardboard cup across the counter, steam rising in tempting curls.
“Good. Promises from strangers are totally meaningful.” I sip carefully at my coffee, desperate for the caffeine, but conscious of my easily scalded taste buds.
“Come on now. We’ve known each other several minutes; we’re on a first name basis. We’re hardly strangers.” She grins. “Plus, you know where to find me if they beat you up and take your lunch money.”
“It’s not my lunch money I’m worried about.” I bite my lip and try not to smile.
From the query letter, we know that Rowan is a “One-night-stand junkie” who “…needs to focus on herself and her future – finishing college and growing her business. A man isn’t in her plans.” She’s looking to improve on her second go of things. To that end, it would be critical for the first page or two to establish who Rowan wants to be on this new campus, and maybe a few hints of who she used to be and what made her reach the tipping point to do better (or her plan for it).
For a brief moment, we get a sense that Rowan needs cash flow—she went into the coffeehouse and snatched up the We’re Hiring sign—but she immediately gets distracted by the hotties in the corner. Her job search is a side note to the flirty banter. While I appreciate the author was trying to show “old” Rowan, this just suggested that Rowan was not even really trying to change whatever character flaw that led the “prank gone wrong” which in turn led to her being forced to change schools (she lasted all of 2 paragraphs before she relapsed). This pattern repeats when she asks Iris for an application (they talk more about the boys than the job she supposedly needs).
Rowan’s general attitude in this scene is very flippant. She’s clearly not remorseful for what she (maybe supposedly) did, but she’s also not thankful for having avoided the slammer. Her tone is sarcastic and glib (“Well, thanks to the kind kindness of my former Dean of Students, I am now a student here, rather than a guest of the Tennessee Department of Corrections”). Some amount of intention, whether she wants to change for “better” or if she’s intending to do more of the same (e.g. there’s nothing wrong with me), needs to be there. Right now, she’s going back and forth.
Unfortunately, the author gave us too much information about all the other characters—from full names, familial relations, majors, to housing situations and everything in between—and Rowan’s characterization falls a little flat (she is a flippant, boy chaser). There are very few hints at Rowan’s motivations (why is she trying to do better?), aspirations (she’s “mostly undecided”; what business is she trying to grow?), and conflict (what old habits is she struggling against? What is the nature of that struggle, since she knows she need to learn to make better choices for herself?).
I would’ve loved to see her on the drive to campus or unpacking in her dorm before she goes to the Hot Shots and discover what her expectations and plans for the new her and new campus were. I wasn’t sure if the town was really called Dinkytown, or if this was more sass from her and a reflection of her resentment of being sent there. Basically, I would have appreciated more context to the situation.
Rowan’s conversation with Deke and Grayson felt awkward because of all the details the author crammed in there. She’s meeting guys for the first time at a coffee shop and asking for directions; full names, majors, and all that could’ve waited until the actual tour or as she got to know them better (e.g. That’s the X department where I spend most of my time…cue convo about who is studying what).
On a smaller note, the introduction/meet cute, didn’t fall quite right, just because Deke is very proactive in fighting for Rowan’s attention (though, I’m not a fan of him calling her a harlot, tbh). Grayson, who is supposed to be the hero is not really matching her sexy, aggressive energy, and it doesn’t give a sense of this is a moment.
All in all, I think this is a case where the author was trying to get the chemistry right, but in doing that the heroine and context got a little bit lost. And that’s not abnormal—beginnings are hard, especially when you’re writing a new series with characters whose stories and circumstances you don’t quite know yet. I would recommend that, after they get to know the characters and their arcs better, they go back to these first few pages or chapters to smooth out that arc, so Rowan’s development and situation has a clearer progression (i.e. it’s evident to the reader where or what her character will move towards). Don’t fear not having all the details right up front; worry more about having the right details first.
Would I keep reading? No, because of the pacing and characterization issues.
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