First-Page Critique: In the Shadow of Salem

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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 Senior Editor Kerri Buckley.

 

The First Page

Author A described this manuscript as “a romance novel between a witch and a witch hunter. They are unaware of each other role [sic] until a pivotal moment, where they must examine their own values and determine if love does conquer all.”

 

Chapter One

1705: A small village outside of Salem…

Mary Billington clung to the shadows of the trees as the sun slowly awoke, warming the cool air in the forest and every creature in it. She stopped for a moment as she caught a sun ray through the branches.  It was magical to feel such warmth, yet see her breath flowing like a mythical creature out of her body and into the air.  Fall was her favourite time of year, the cold mixed with bursts of warmth covering her like a soft wool blanket.  She knew mustn’t indulge in the morning’s pleasures while her dear sister lay sickly, however she could not resist the woods and its charms.

This was the only time of the day where Mary could do her work safely. She clutched her red wool cloak close to her body, partly to cover the soot on her dress, and partly to keep the cold air at bay.  The color made her feel different; it was a bold choice that she dare not wear in public and kept hidden for her secret trips into the woods.  Many considered red to be the devil’s color but for Mary it represented life.

With mornings like this, she could run off and be on her own and not think about the responsibilities that lay waiting for her when she returned. The sun on her face made her breathe deeper and these breaths made her feel more alive.  The woods would always hold her secrets – there was no need to hide her lust for herbs and leaves and her love of healing people.  She would pick suitable herbs and place whatever she could find into the secret pocket sewn carefully in the hem of her petticoat.

Carefully observing all the wilderness had to offer, the brightness of a rose bush in full bloom quickly caught her eye. Had she not had her guard down she may have wondered why these roses were in bloom in the fall; instead she wasted no time as she carefully plucked each petal off, and then rolled them up in a lettuce leaf. She was long overdue for a fresh batch of Rose water.

* * *

The Critique

I don’t think the author did this project justice when positioning it. “A witch and a witch hunter” doesn’t clearly indicate that we’re going to be reading in the historical realm (there are tons of contemporary witches running amok in my inbox these days) and the awkward grammar error in place did not give me warm fuzzies going into this. Plus, the conflict as described is pretty bland—“they must examine their own values” doesn’t sound like we’re in for an exciting, high-stakes story.

All that said, this is a first page critique, not a pitch critique. And I was very pleasantly surprised by this first page! The writing is lush but accessible, with Author A’s word choices and sentence structure immediately letting me know she’s operating in the historical genre…even if there hadn’t been a date stamp, lol.

In the first paragraph, I’d recommend Author A backtrack and edit for overuse of metaphor and simile. A little is fantastic but too much is too much, and the combination of the sun awakening, Mary’s breath flowing like a mythical creature, and warmth covering her like a soft wool blanket in such a condensed block of text adds up to overwriting. Author A also seems to go on and on about the temperature/season when a well-placed line (or two—I’ll give you two, Author A) would certainly do. I’d also like to see if the bit about her sick sister could be bumped down, perhaps to paragraph three, so that it’s not interrupting our lovely, atmospheric introduction.

I’d also like Author A to turn an eye toward avoiding repetition. It’s not conceptual, here, but rather individual words. See “creature” 2x in paragraph one, and “lay” is used to describe both her sick sister (graph one) and the responsibilities waiting for her (graph three). Small fixes like this can make a big difference throughout a novel but especially in the very first pages, when you’re trying to entice your reader to continue.

I have very few comments on paragraph two.  Right off the bat, we’re being shown how Mary must hide her trade/abilities, rather than told, and that makes all the difference.  And Author A has done a very solid job of letting us know just what kind of woman Mary is via the description of how she feels about that red cloak. Well done.

Paragraph three builds on what we already know, which is perfect. Her work involves herbs and healing people! Got it. And the sense of urgency around hiding the spoils of her hunt is further emphasized with the mention of a mysterious petticoat pocket. I like it!

I did stumble a bit with paragraph four, mainly because Author A chose to insert a bit of speculation into the voice: “Had she not had her guard down…” Beyond the fact that I don’t understand why her guard is down (or how that would impact noticing/not noticing something like roses blooming out of season), I find this narrative shift distracting. It’s pretty clear to me that we’re being set up for something later, that those rose petals are going to spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e in some way. But I’d encourage the author to play with different ways of doing this, to find one that doesn’t interrupt the story’s flow quite so abruptly.

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 generalinquiries@carinapress.com.

Authors entering their work for critique can choose to have the blog post comments open or closed. Comments are open, 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.

4 thoughts on “First-Page Critique: In the Shadow of Salem”

  1. I agree that Author A might be a little flowery in her descriptions and repetitive a time or two, but she weaves a good beginning and it draws the reader’s interest. The last paragraph stopped me too, just like an abrupt POV switch does. She could easily fix it by using something like: “a rose bush in full bloom caught her eye. An unusual sight in the fall, but she didn’t hesitate to pluck each petal off the bud…” Or something similar. Nice work. I like it. :)

    1. Kerri Buckley says:

      Thanks for your comment, Christine!

  2. Maurine says:

    Even though the story takes place nearly a decade after the Salem witch trials, the fact it’s about a witch and a witch hunter that takes place in Salem intrigued me. I too liked the secret hidden pocket in her petticoat.

    One technique I use to catch awkward sentences, repeating words or phrases, words accidentally omitted, and other problems is to have someone read my manuscript to me. Or I read it aloud myself. It’s amazing how many mistakes I can catch doing this. There’s also computer software that will read your documents to you.

    Thank you for sharing your first page and good luck with your story.

    1. Kerri Buckley says:

      Good advice, Maurine!

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