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 first-page critiques 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 later this summer, so please watch the blog or our newsletter for more.
This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press Freelance Editor Penny Barber.
The First Page
Author A described this manuscript as an angsty small town romance featuring ugly secrets, dark wounds, and a couple who meet when his life appears perfect and hers is in tatters.
I never thought I’d be the girl with a gun in her face. I’m the quiet one. The little woman with the tiny personality who follows the rules and moves through the world unnoticed. Someone like me isn’t supposed to understand the way fear boils your gut when you stare at the business end of a deadly weapon.
But here we are. I guess bad guys don’t understand that bad things shouldn’t happen to good girls.
He thumbs the hammer, pulling it back, and fear thrums through me, searing through my veins like fire down a fuse. The tiny click might as well be a lightning strike. Chills race across my skin and I forget what it means to breathe.
“Is this what you want?” My husband steps towards me, the gun trembling in his hands as spittle flies from his lips. “Or is it this?” He presses the thing against his temple and I run from the room, chased out by the demons in his head, too scared to wonder what might happen if I turn my back.
I grab my daughter by the arm, her wrist fragile in my fist. “Why is he doing this, Mommy?”
Her sobs wreck me but I don’t have time to fall to pieces. Not now. I press a hand to my chest, begging my heart to slow while I hold in the bits and pieces that crack off and crumble inside me. I pull my daughter down the hallway, her little feet stumbling behind me as her father lumbers out of our bedroom.
“Damn it, Michelle! Get your ass back here!” His voice eats through my resolve like acid through metal.
I grab my phone before I lose my nerve. Dial 911 as I race out of our home, praying the neighbors open the door in time.
“Why, Mommy? Why is he doing this?” Claire’s wide eyes stand out like little moons in the dark.
“Because,” I say as I run across the yard, grass clippings sticking to my bare feet. “I told him he couldn’t anymore.”
* * *
This is a powerful scene, and on first read, I was hooked. I liked the narrative voice, found the heroine sympathetic, and the suspense was impossible to look away from. I’d definitely keep reading, but my editor-brain is already seeing red flags. When I’m on alert that early in the story, every little thing stands out.
I have very little in terms of critiquing the scene. It’s a strong and compelling scene, and I think a little tightening could make it even stronger. Some of the first para felt too coherent, relaxed, and chatty for the rest of the piece. The first and last sentences piqued my curiosity about her, which is a fantastic way to encourage readers to keep reading. The two between them, though, felt like she was explaining about herself. Who’s she introducing herself to? If the situation is dire and urgent, does she have any attention left to spare for pondering her own personality? Consider letting those two strong sentences motivate readers to move forward and discover her tiny personality and penchant for rules as they are revealed in the story.
A bit of overwriting appears, like thumbing the hammer plus pulling it back, and grabbing her daughter by the arm and then clarifying it was her wrist. Since it’s written in present tense, I’m guessing the author wanted to give readers a realistic sense of pace and urgency. Vague description followed by explaining chips away at the pace and lets readers have a more leisurely experience that doesn’t mirror what it feels like for the woman experiencing the drama. At the same time, I do feel a bit of the pace-drag, surprising details like running from his demons, grass clippings on bare feet, went a long way toward making it feel surreal and tense, so I wouldn’t recommend too much tightening.
The last sentence of the excerpt does a fabulous job of inciting my curiosity, that I must read on. “I told him he couldn’t anymore.” So many questions and implications lie in those six words. And for me, it’s problematic because what’s intrigued me isn’t the story I came to read. I’m wondering what led to that moment instead of wondering what’s in this woman’s future and looking forward to her HEA.
The query sold me on a story about David and Michelle having an angst-filled small-town romance. What happens on this first page is a different story. Since this is a prologue, Chapter One probably begins with an entirely different situation, time, tone—feels like a different story.
I see strong writing and an interesting character in the excerpt, so I would read on even though I find the prologue problematic. Thank you, Author, for being brave enough to share your work and open it to evaluation and discussion. Best wishes on your publishing journey.
Would I keep reading? Yes.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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