First Page Critique: An Estranged Marriage

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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.

This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press freelance editor Carrie Lofty.

The First Page

Author A described this manuscript as a “queer, melodramatic, romantic, cozy mystery” featuring “a bisexual black female private investigator living in the Midwest who solves ‘love crimes’ with her currently estranged wife.”

Neema woke up slowly. With her eyes still closed, she tried to guess the time by the sunlight hitting her face and the feeling in her bones. 8:20am. Far too late to get to work on time.

Taking full advantage of her tardiness, she gave a lazy stretch against her soft jersey sheets. As her right arm swung through empty air and landed on rough paper, reality set in and she opened her eyes. Ignoring the space beside her and the grief that seized her chest, she glanced at the clock on her wife’s night stand. 8:43am. Later than she expected.

Heaving a sigh, she glanced at the stapled document resting beside her, already knowing what the contents would be. Separation Agreement was written in bold type across the top. The names Neema Hart and Eugenia Hart followed.

The unexpected twist was the bright pink post-it note on top. Dont forget your meeting with ML at 9:30. This could be big for us! – GH.

“Fuck,” Neema groaned to an empty room. But as she launched out of bed and rushed to get dressed, she had a smile on her face. Her wife must have been home in the middle of the night or early morning to leave another copy of the infernal separation agreement. While the post-it reminder was strictly professional, the hopeful side of Neema read into the kindness behind the gesture. And the signature. The signature. Neema closed her eyes for a moment just to think about it, blindly buttoning up her striped oxford as she committed the delicately printed message to memory.

GH. Genie Hart. Not a formal Eugenia. Not a simple Genie. Not a reversion to her maiden name of Rowe. Neema wasn’t a psychologist like her wife, but she felt she’d learned a thing or two during the ten years they’d known one another. The logical side of her wife may have been intent on filing for separation, but her heart was still a Hart. And that was something Neema could work with.

Dressed in black skinny jeans, a pair of Timbs, and an oversized puffer coat, Neema skipped her usual morning coffee to head straight into the office. As she got into the beaten down Camry she’d been driving for the past fifteen years, her cell vibrated with a new text message. Youre late.

The smile on Neema’s face grew, and she bit her lip as her fingers worked quickly to send off a reply. “Love you too, babe.” Work mattered little when her wife was finally speaking to her outside of work again.

They’d specifically chosen their current apartment because of its proximity to their office building. Milwaukee traffic was never truly bad, but since she’d already missed rush hour and most non-working folks were at home trying to avoid below zero temperatures, Neema’s commute was a breeze.

Bouncy was the only word Neema could use to describe her mood when she arrived at their building, and it wasn’t an unusual mood for her. Despite recent struggles in her personal life, Neema couldn’t deny that in most ways, her life was perfect. She was married to the love of her life. Together, they owned a thriving private investigation agency in one of the hippest parts of town. Business was so good that they were looking into expanding their team. And though she had to grin and bear awful Wisconsin winters for what felt like nine out twelve months of the year, Milwaukee was her home. The city was rough around the edges, but so was Neema.

Taking the stairs up to the second floor, she paused on the landing to look at the blocky black print on the frosted glass pane of their office door.

Hart to Hart

P.I. & LPC

Pride filled Neema’s chest. Hart to Hart was more than just a private investigation agency, it had a mission. Genie and Neema were dedicated to helping women, and some men, with all matters of the heart. Neema helped their clients find the answers to their questions through investigative work; and through therapy, Genie helped their clients understand why they needed those answers and what to do once they had them. They were the only full-service private investigation and therapist office in the city and they were making a difference in the lives of women all over the city.

The door swung open and Neema was met with the anxious face of her wife. “Stop being a weirdo and get in here,” Genie ordered. “Mrs. Laghari will be here any minute.” Neema glanced down at her watch. It was already well past 9:30 am. She looked up in question just in time to see her wife roll her eyes. “As if I’d ever let you be late to such an important meeting.”

The Critique

I have a weakness for reconciliation romances. How did they first fall in love? What broke them? What will bring them back together? Reconciliation romances can be rich with emotional backstory, with double the stakes as the partners give it one last shot. They can be difficult to pull off, particularly because of that element of backstory. Too much too quickly can cut the opening momentum of a story, and ideally, the focus should be on the protagonists’ romance this time around. So, it’s a tricky balance.

What can be tricky in any romance is emotional consistency. Even when a character is feeling off-the-wall and scattered, they should do so within the parameters established by the author. I’m writing this in mid-December, so please forgive my holiday example: the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge would not be as powerful if Dickens hadn’t presented such a clear, consistent character from the start. Scrooge doesn’t waffle over whether workhouses are better than death; he has his opinion, and he makes sure we know it. Then, as the ghosts work their magic, we see Scrooge softening by increments until reaching the satisfying conclusion of his redemptive arc.

Without consistency, it can be difficult to follow story arcs, particularly personal and romantic arcs. That means establishing a firm starting point for characters and their circumstances, even if those characters are soon to change drastically.

Here, Neema wakes up to find separation papers (presumably) where her wife should have been. Grief seizes her heart. She curses. It’s “another copy of the infernal separation agreement.” This has me thinking that being presented with the agreement isn’t new, and that it does upset Neema, but those are the only instances I can find about her emotional reaction to being presented with the actual separation papers.

I’m being picky for a reason: These are the opening moments that will define Neema, Genie, and the start of their (redo) romance. Separation papers, by nature, should engender emotions—often very strong ones. Yet I don’t have a consistent picture of Neema’s emotional starting point. The grief aspect is very brief. She moves quickly toward hopefulness because of Genie’s sticky note. Later, Neema smiles at Genie’s “you’re late” text and thinks that “work mattered little when her wife was finally speaking to her outside of work again.” But the text doesn’t seem particularly personal, and it does actually relate to work. Later still, Neema thinks of her life as nearly perfect, with some personal “struggles,” but her bouncy mood counters almost everything that’s come before: the papers, a sense of disconnect from Genie, and the importance of the sticky note.

I like the idea of a multi-faceted PI agency, with a psychological element and a way for people to work through their grief. It’s a nice twist on the hard-boiled clichés. You’ve created the basis for a lot of potential plot yet to come, which is exciting, and almost all of the emotions they find reflected in their clientele could reflect back on their romantic turmoil. However, because my mind was still stuck on those separation papers, I found myself slightly distanced from the agency. Neema is going to work, which happens to be the business she and her wife founded together. To me there feels to be a disconnect between the grief she may be feeling and the “ordinary commute, happy with life” vibe she exhibits upon leaving the house.

I suggest that you carefully consider the emotional arc you want to present for each of your protagonists, particularly in relation to their romantic arc. Where are they starting from? If it’s with those separation papers, why is this yet another copy? Has Neema refused to sign them before? If she’s determined to be hopeful, perhaps show us how she deliberately shoves the negativity away. It could be as simple as ignoring her hurt feelings and fear. It could be as symbolic as throwing the papers away, perhaps now for the second, third, or fourth time. Those details will be important, no matter what they are or when you bring them into play. Eventually their sentiments will change as Neema and Genie fall in love again. By shoring up their initial emotions, you will better ground us as readers in the journey to come.  

Would I keep reading? I would scan the initial conversation between Neema and Genie. However, if the emotional resonance and their reactions to each other continued to feel indistinct or glossed over, I would have to pass.

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!

Authors entering their work for critique can choose to have the blog post comments open or closed. Comments are open, so use them to ask questions or to offer your own critique, but please remember to offer useful criticism. Comments will be moderated and deleted if not deemed to be useful or appropriate.

2 thoughts on “First Page Critique: An Estranged Marriage”

  1. Tanya says:

    Thank you so so so so much for reading my excerpt, Carry! I really appreciate your feedback and will definitely consider adding a “show” earlier on since you gave such simple solutions. As you picked up on, Neema is planted pretty firmly in denial, only waking up to reality when Genie forces it upon her, which actually happens again in the next paragraph where we get to see how much it hurts her to even think about separation and how quickly she tries to push it away. I still have a ways to go on wrapping this novel up but I’m so looking forward to submitting it to Carina Press when it’s complete! Thank you again for having a program like this!

  2. Nan De Plume says:

    Hi, Tanya. Sorry I’m a little late to the party. I just wanted to write to say that from a technical standpoint, your WIP is shaping up nicely. You have a good intuitive sense of when to use complete sentences versus sentence particles. Writing is not an exact science, and a good author knows when to use her ear to write thoughts and dialogue rather than “the rules” as taught by English teachers. You do a good job in this department.

    I agree with Ms. Lofty that there needs to be a little more consistency in Neema’s character. To go from annoyed grief to “just another day at the office” was a little jarring for me. Plus the fact that Neema is so quick to answer a text message from her estranged wife with joy felt a little off to me. Maybe a little more conflict of emotion would help here? Or some backstory?

    Overall, I think you have an interesting premise for a story (investigating “love crimes?” intriguing!), some solid writing skills, and two potentially memorable characters. Good luck with your book!

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