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First Page: Criminal / Legal Romance

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The photographer leaned against the bathroom door, studying the room for the next shot in the series through her camera. The theme for the series was contrast and the room provided plenty; water and steam, marble and silk, shadows and light. The subject of the picture would provide the centerpiece, her pain and triumph serving as an anchor. For months, the photographer had been searching for faces and stories that showed such contrasts. Faces hidden behind the ordinary. Policemen and women, soldiers, mothers and fathers, doctors and nurses, Kay's latest photo-essay focused on those contrasts within ordinary people. No temperamental musicians or petulant movie stars, just men and women who survived a nightmare and emerged, for better and worse, on the other side.

"Slide that towel to the right." An arm appeared in the frame and pulled a heavy white towel off to the side. Kay lowered her camera and nodded. "OK, let's get the steam started." In a few moments, thick curls of steam began to fill the room. A smoke machine stood ready to fill in any gaps.

"Kay, they're here." A voice called from the main room. Kay emerged from the bathroom and smiled at the couple walking through the door, holding her hand out the woman. The woman's posture was relaxed, her body loose. His was tight, tension clear in the set of his shoulders. They were dressed casually in neutral colors. After a round of introductions, Kay invited them to sit, offered refreshments. An assistant appeared with green tea as Kay began to share her vision for the cover of the book and the woman's portrait in the essay. Fifteen minutes later, they were standing in the middle of the steam-filled bathroom, Kay setting up the shot.

She walked around the couple, studying the light and angles. She moved the camera to face level and took a few shots. She caught both large and small moments; his hand resting protectively on her hip, her hand wrapped around his wrist, her fingers resting against his pulse. Framed in the lens, Kay recognized the vulnerability as a private moment and slid her finger away from the shutter release. She knew as soon as she announced it was time to begin, Mia's hand would drop from her husband's arm, the line would return to his shoulders and the private would be hidden. The man looked up from his wife's face, directly at the photographer. When their eyes met, Kay abandoned the set up. The steam suddenly seemed contrived, the water unnecessary. "Mandy, close the blinds. Let's get hair and make-up for both of them." Kay saw his shoulders tighten at "both" but ignored it. A make-up artist appeared, moving quickly to remove the sheen from the summer heat. Other assistants moved quietly in the background, adjusting light shades, moving objects around to change the shadows in the room. As soon as the makeup artist finished, the hairstylist appeared and worked her quick magic, taking the woman's hair from a casual bun on the top of her head to a loose cascade of dark curls held up with a silver barrette.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. sasha
    Jul 03, 2010 @ 07:55:39

    I’m not sure why we have so much photography background on the first page and really nothing that happens or is set up. The writing was fine but my question is really why this is a first page.

    Also, to me, this seemed to be very much like the scenes in a Nora Roberts novel when the protagonist is set up as a fast rising star in her field. Not a problem with that per se but if La Nora is someone you read all the time – you may want to be aware that her writing style seems to be influencing yours.

    One of my biggest questions though is what seemed incongruous in the first paragraphs. I cannot get a good read at all about what this photography session is set up to actually look like. Why are they photographing a man and woman in a bathroom filled with steam while the man and woman are dressed? And why was it so important for this man and woman to be “of the people” rather than a “petulant movie star”? There could be very good reasons for these things, but it isn’t clear in the writing and I am not really all that curious to find out by reading on. For me, too much description that doesn’t connect.

  2. Terri
    Jul 03, 2010 @ 08:25:36

    Same critique from me, essentially. While the writing is smooth, there is a lot of telling rather than showing and much of the description actually tells us nothing.
    Not crazy about the technique about starting with the bird’s eye view before zeroing into 3d person. Why not just start with “Kay leaned against the bathroom door”? I think that would clarify our focus, perhaps the writer’s, as well.
    Kay leaned against the bathroom door and studied the room through her camera lens. Through the haze of steam, gray shadows and stark flourescent light played over the hard marble, the fluid silk. Maybe something like that? To actually show us the contrasts you’re talking about? (Don’t add the adjectives, as I did, but show us!)
    For me, the talk about ordinary people and the contrasts hidden in their faces doesn’t work at all when this is clearly a posed photo-shoot complete with hair, makeup, steam and what-have-you, rather than a serendipitous candid moment caught on film.
    I think you need to tighten, shorten and…focus.

  3. DQ
    Jul 03, 2010 @ 08:35:11

    Positive: I think the premise of this story is intriguing, I’m always fascinated by people’s paradoxes or inconsistencies. The first page is a gentle hook, but does show promise. The photography point of view is unusual, and could provide the reader with interesting information.

    Negative: Seems there is more TELL than SHOW. Wordy, repetitive sentences could be shortened or completely edited out. Needs more dialogue, it would add a lot if the couple spoke as well as postured for the photographer. If this is a crime based story, we don’t get any inkling on the first page, this is really necessary if you want someone to read your whole work.

    Thank you for submitting your efforts.

  4. LKC
    Jul 03, 2010 @ 08:57:27

    Essentially, my comments are the same as the others. I felt immediately distanced because instead of calling Kay by her name you called her “the photographer” repeatedly. And then there was the fact that I didn’t really understand the setup. If she’s supposed to be doing a series on ordinary people, why the elaborate setup?

    Basically, I think this needs more clarity. It may be more than one of those situations where starting later in the story is all that’s necessary, since the writing itself seems fine.

  5. Stephanie
    Jul 03, 2010 @ 09:23:53

    While I usually love stories that show the main character engrossed in the work he or she is meant to do, I was thrown by the very first sentence when you introduced the main character by her profession rather than by her name. It distanced me–I thought that meant the photographer was not that important and the main character had not yet appeared on scene. If Kay is your heroine/protagonist, that needs to be revealed right away.

    As for the rest, I agree with the other comments that there is more telling than showing here, as well as a lot of exposition. I found the last paragraph particularly hard to get through because it looks like a big block of text that jams dialogue and narrative together. Breaking it up into two smaller units might make it more reader-friendly.

  6. job
    Jul 03, 2010 @ 09:35:45

    Very nice indeed. Can I bring up a few nits?

    — Even at the end of the page, I am left wondering whether this is in Omniscient Narrator or character POV.

    Lines like;
    The photographer leaned against the bathroom door, studying
    The man looked up from his wife's face, directly at the photographer.
    and the constant use of ‘Kay’ for the character rather than ‘she’ make this feel like you’re not aimed at character POV.

    If you were going for character POV, however, you might make a few changes.

    You might start with her name rather than ‘the photographer’. Right now, there is the smallest wtf for the reader when she comes to Kay’s name and realizes who the photographer is. In Romance genre, the reader now expects Kay to be the POV character. But the POV character would generally be named right up front.

    To put us more firmly inside Kay you could add her emotional context.

    For instance, you could change the somewhat distant;
    Kay's latest photo-essay focused on those contrasts within ordinary people
    to the more intimate to Kay;
    This would be the hardest project she’d ever attempted. She wanted to focus on . . ..

    That way we do not hear her work described impersonally, as a narrator would. We see Kay’s take on it.

    — On a practical level, I’m surprised one would try to get an effect with steam from a shower in a small closed room. It seems unreliable — and liable to cloud up the lenses of the camera.

    I am also puzzled by;
    adjusting light shades, moving objects around to change the shadows in the room.

    Do you mean adjusting filters and angles on the lighting? ‘Light shades’ sounds like table lamps or something. What objects are there to move around in a bathroom? You mean the light set up itself? Why didn’t Kay set the shadows when she was inspecting camera angles earlier?

    — Adding a frivolous nit here, after Kay checks her angles and leaves the bathroom, she might order the shower and the lights and fans and so on turned off. Or you could just note that it’s done. I feel like my foot missed a step.

    — I like the quick and straightforward movement of action. Cool.

    At the same time, I hunger for some acknowledgement that Kay’s crew is there and known to her. They are not the invisible hands that served Beauty in the Castle of the Beast. She has a relationship with them. They take up space.

    I’m not saying you should risk a refocus of the reader’s attention. But maybe you could do something along the lines of, “Douse the lights, Mandy,” or “She stepped past the smoke technician, on his hands and knees as he taped a hose to the doorjamb, and went to meet . . .”

    I will mention that this seems a HUGE crew for a simple photoshoot. This sounds more like doing a location shot with film. To have both a makeup artist AND hairdresser . . .

    Anyhow, you got this crew crammed into a small suite of rooms. They’d be falling all over each other. Bringing this physical presence and confusion and crowding into your action could be interesting.

    — Maybe reconsider ‘curls of steam’. I see this all time, but does steam actually curl?

    — With;
    Kay recognized the vulnerability as a private moment and slid her finger away from the shutter release.
    you are saying much about the character.
    She has just deliberately lost what could have been the best shot of the day. Or of the week.
    Ok. She is not ‘artistically ruthless’. For some reason, she won’t intrude. Their privacy is more important to her than her art.

    Because you are saying this strongly and so early in the story, this character trait is going to stand out in the reader’s mind. The placement in Chapter One makes this an emphatic point about who Kay is. Ideally, this sensitivity is vital to her character and you are deliberately bringing it to the reader’s attention.

    When their eyes met, Kay abandoned the set up
    This is a lovely, intriguing line. We wonder ‘why?’ and ‘What’s going on?’

  7. Joanne
    Jul 03, 2010 @ 10:28:29

    I’m interested but not invested in the story. None of the characters pull me into wanting to read more and as a first page I would assume that is the author’s goal.

    It’s more of a list of events rather then an introduction to what’s coming next. Just one inkling of what ANY of the protagonists is feeling would add to the content. Reel me in, that’s what a reader wants.

    I don’t see a similarity to Robert’s writing other then she had some photographers/artists as main characters. Generally I suggest less for first page entries but with this one I would ask for more. Still, a very nice start.

    Thank you and much good luck!

  8. DS
    Jul 03, 2010 @ 12:37:39

    I’m interested, I would keep reading. It feels more like the opening of a mystery or thriller than a romance though. I was waiting for someone to get killed.

  9. Lucy Woodhull
    Jul 03, 2010 @ 21:54:08

    A lot of folks have said the same things I was going to say. Not only is the non-use of Kay’s name weird, but the man and woman are also not named – why? I felt as if you were going for mysterious, but making the characters nameless is not the way, in my opinion. Besides, you have to play pronoun roulette when no one has a name.

  10. Arwen
    Jul 03, 2010 @ 22:14:45

    For me, it had a dreamy quality but I thought it was a lesbian romance. She seemed far more intrigued by the woman than anything else.

  11. JenD
    Jul 04, 2010 @ 05:28:41

    The only thing I would add is that the man hooked me in more than anyone else.

    He had vulnerability but stood strong with, what I assume, was something his wife wanted to do. Obviously uncomfortable yet doing something for his wife- now that’s a hero.

    I want to know their story. They were given more emotional development and movement than the photographer, I feel.

  12. Liz
    Jul 04, 2010 @ 15:12:23

    My first thought was about how the first page would appear if I opened the book in a bookstore. Usually first pages are half a page of ink, and in this case, it will be a solid, unbroken half page of ink, which means nothing to draw the reader’s eye. The first paragragh is also a backstory dump, of sorts, a well-written one, but a dump nonetheless.

    Dialog is your friend here. Start with the instructions, give a few of Kay’s thoughts. I completely agree with JenD – the couple seem more interesting than the photog. We need conflict or action within a couple of sentences for the main character.

  13. sao
    Jul 05, 2010 @ 00:03:59

    I agree with the others. I read the first paragraph and thought it good, but by the end of the page, I was skimming for the story. A romance has a heroine, hero and plot. I know nothing about any of the above, except the heroine’s name and occupation.

    I, too, was intrigued by the dedicated search for faces and stories, talk of contrasts, but that intrigue kind of died when it turned into a posed photo shoot with make-up artists, smoke machines, and assistants pouring green tea.

    If I had the next few pages, I’d skim them to see if the story gets going, because I usually give authors 3-5 pages to hook me, but on the basis of page 1, you didn’t.

    If you given the shoot some real meaning for Kay, career-wise or personally, that might help hook me. But more importantly, we don’t see any personalities. The couple that walk into the room are described neutrally, but they’ve lived through a nightmare. Show it on their faces and give Kay a reaction to it.

    Why does she want to shoot these subject, what personal meaning does it have for her and how does she react to the people she’s shooting. That’s what you need to show. You can do it with a few extra sentences.

    Also, if Kay is recreating nightmares, maybe that’s emotionally difficult on the models. You can make her more of a person by having the green tea pouring assistants be there to make them at ease, which many ordinary people in front of a photographer famous enough to have hordes of assistants aren’t.

  14. Anon76
    Jul 05, 2010 @ 10:21:36

    From the opening sentences I expected something quite different. I felt like I was getting a birdseye (Omni or whatever) view of a crime about to happen. And I was all good with that.

    Then it switched to third, (and a shallow third, at that) and I learned I was supposed to vest my interest in this woman. Then it switched again, and again, etc.

    And that’s how you lost me as a reader. I have nothing against different pov’s–in fact head-hopping doesn’t drive me insane like it does some others–but this is too far of a shift even for me.

    Thanks for subbing and I hope some comments will be of help in spit-polishing this piece.

  15. Cindy
    Jul 22, 2010 @ 20:52:47

    I thought the writing was excellent and you have a good voice. That being said, I feel, like someone else commented earlier, that this page looks and feels like it could be a page from anywhere in the book. I think you can fix this first page problem by doing some research on how to write an opening paragraph and following some of those rules.

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