First-Page Critique: Downton Abbey Meets Deadwood

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Welcome to our first ever first-page critique. Meant to be a sneak peek into a Carina editor’s brain, and critiqued by a different editor each month, we’re going to post these monthly as long as authors are willing to let us use their work and people remain interested.

The idea here is to give you a quick 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 one page, the amount of feedback is necessarily limited—we don’t have access to more than one page!

It’s important to note that this manuscript was submitted specifically for the purpose of first-page critique on the blog, we do not/will not use random submissions so no worries we’re going to pull your piece out of slush and critique it.

The next opportunity to submit a piece for critique will be open in April 2017, so please watch the blog or our newsletter for more

This month’s editor providing critique is Angela James, Editorial Director of Carina Press.


* * *

The First Page


Author A described this historical romance as Downton Abby [sic] meets Deadwood, taking readers into the heart of New York’s Gilded Age.


Manhattan – 1889

The moment the front door opened, Julia stood just a little straighter.  She made sure to face front and fought curiosity to dare to glance toward the door.  In a few seconds, the new master of the house would be introduced to the 10 members of the household staff that were arranged in line along the hallway by order of rank.  As the older of the two upstairs maids, Julia’s spot in line was second only to Ms. Benson, the lady’s maid; Julia would be one of the first to be noticed.  Her heart beat a little harder, a little faster.  She silently prayed none of them would be dismissed, at least not right away, not before he could see how tight a ship this household was run. Just as in the great homes in London, everyone did his or her part down to the last kitchen maid.  Time was never wasted, not under the stern watch of Mr. Mason, the butler and Mrs. Miller, the housekeeper. They could make a comfortable home for him, if only he’d give them a chance.

“Where is Mr. Bartlett?” Mr. Mason’s voice was stern. Edward, the footman, had passed in front of Julia and presumably took his place in line.

“Weren’t at the station,” Jimmy, the hallboy, announced. His spot was at the end of the line, just behind the two kitchen maids.  He’d gone with Edward to help with the luggage, a rare outing for him.  That he’d managed to get to his spot having had to run to the back of the house, enter through the kitchen, and run upstairs, was a testament to the spry pick-pocket he’d recently been.

“Wasn’t at the station,” Mr. Mason corrected the young lad.  “He was due in on the noon train.”

* * *

The Critique


When we read submissions, we always look at the query letter first, reading for a short description of the work. Query letters and the pitch are an art form in themselves, but can often be the difference between reading a submission immediately and setting it aside for later reading—if it gets read at all past the query letter. Some submissions out themselves as not being what we publish simply from the query letter.

I must confess I am not a big reader of historical romance, though I do read some on occasion, and while I have seen one episode of Deadwood, I rarely watch TV, so have not seen more than that one episode or any episodes of Downton Abbey. However, I don’t live under a rock so lucky for the author, I am familiar enough with the idea of both to kind of get the pitch. I think? I am going into this expecting a lot of cursing, thanks to the Deadwood comparison. Just remember that when you choose to compare your book to other work or other TV shows, you assume the editor or reader has the knowledge needed to make the comparison—and you assume they have positive feelings towards what you’re using as a comparison. Can backfire sometimes! Also, when you use something for comparison, make sure you spell it right, even in the query letter.

All that said, I do have a special fondness for books set around the 1900 mark in New York City, for no reason I can articulate. So the Gilded Age of New York is more of a hook here for me than the high concept pitch, since I don’t care about either of those TV shows and know a minimal amount about them. Still, I probably would have popped this open just to see the first page, based on that description and the Deadwood reference (to see if there was the expected excess of cursing).

Alas, this page didn’t deliver on the cussing, but maybe it will come later, like on page two? I also must say that I don’t believe this is the strongest start for this manuscript. There’s no visible hook that would make a reader want to keep turning the page, unless they’re hoping it picks up. It’s possible reading about a group of people, servants in this case, lining up for a meeting with their new employer could be interesting, but not as presented. I’m thinking that scenario would be more interesting if they were all a bunch of goofballs, aliens or paranormal creatures.

I don’t know how to say this other than it’s kind of an uninspiring first page with some unnecessary narrative naval gazing and random details from the point of view character, Julia. I highly suspect there’s got to be a better starting place, one that would immediately capture the reader’s interest and invite them to find out more. It might be that cutting down this first page dramatically and opening right away with the idea that the owner of the house has missed his train might be that place, since that’s potentially more interesting than people standing in line. I’m not sure, since I can’t see page two, but that’s one possibility.

On the more positive side, I give this author props for having something that’s well-polished, sets a nice period tone right away in the first page, and has no immediately noticeable typos, grammatical errors or awkward sentences that pop off the page right away. This goes a long way to convince me to keep going.

Would I keep reading? Well, a first page is pretty short, and also the author has clearly worked at her craft some, based on those positives I listed above, so the answer is yes, but I would probably start skimming the first pages to see if it picks up and if I can spot a more intriguing starting place (and if there’s the cursing I’m expecting. See how that Deadwood reference created possibly the wrong expectations?)

Do you have questions about my feedback or this first page? 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 this month, so please utilize 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.

8 thoughts on “First-Page Critique: Downton Abbey Meets Deadwood”

  1. Thank you for sharing these insights. It is truly helpful to see how the query letter and the first page should work together, and to understand what makes or breaks those first few paragraphs.

    1. Angela James says:

      Thanks for letting us know you found it helpful, Barbara!

  2. I might even suggest starting with the actual arrival of this mysterious new master of the house. I’m assuming that he will be the hero of this book and Julia is the heroine/love interest? All of this information we’re given is lovely, but could be weaved in later as the action is taking place to pick up the pace of the opening pages. If the author starts at the point of his arrival that automatically adds intrigue and urgency. Who is he? Why is he late? What’s at stake for Julia if she fails to impress him at this initial meeting? Plus, it would draw the reader into the story more deeply as they discover these things right along with Julia.

    Thanks to the author for being so brave and thanks to the Carina editors for the wonderful insight into their editing/thought process when reading new submissions, .

  3. Jesslyn Collinsworth says:

    Thank you to the editors for this blog! It is very informative, and it’s only the first! To the author, thank you for sharing your work. I see the potential for creating suspense and giving the descriptions of the staff you want to convey through dialogue. Perhaps short back and forth conjectures about the master’s whereabouts amongst the staff might be an idea. Keep up the good work!

  4. gina mav says:

    I had issues with the grammar/sentance structure. To say “fought curiousity to dare to glance toward the door” is awkward, at best. Eliminating this sentence altogether would (to me) work better.

  5. I’m late in finding this critique, but here’s my input. I agree this doesn’t start in the right place, but the author does have a nice detailed grip on the 1880s, one of my favorite eras no matter where the location. I’ve heard of the TV shows mentioned but never watched them. My view is this could be a great story. The author shows insight into the heroine right away, her nervousness and concern of her future being threatened if she isn’t liked. My suggestion would be to begin the story when the hero walks in. Why delay the inevitable cute meet? All the other information can be introduced in bits here and there.

    And thank you for letting us know the process. Any info in how to capture an editor’s interest is important to us all.

  6. SP says:

    Looking at the blog on my phone, it was really hard to find this page because it doesn’t have any useful tags and isn’t part of the high level menu. Please fix!

  7. Kimberly Helseth says:

    I understand it’s set in 1880, I saw a farm family having to be cleaned and washed up for super before stern father gets home from being at the pub after work. I know nothing of the 1880’s. I have an over-imagination. I know a lot about Deadwood I was waiting for some dirt slinging. I had no problem reading it, smooth and pulls you right along. I would read it.

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