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First Page: Egyptian Christmas (Urban Fantasy / Romance)

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The great hall of the museum had been dimmed slightly, but that did nothing to make the scene less impressive. Long strands of lights hung from the second-floor balconies in glittering loops, the statues of the muses near the ceiling had been draped in tinsel in honor of the season, and flickering lamps in blue-and-gold shades lit up the dozen or so round tables that were arranged in front of the central dais. A pack of skeletal Struthiomimus sedens glinted, their black fiberglass bones showing yellow highlights in the lamplight. Behind them loomed the massive figure of Little John, a partially complete Tyrannosaurus unfazed by the party going on under his huge feet. There was a murmur of conversation and laughter, muted somewhat by the hugeness of the hall itself.

Theodora Speer glanced down, checking her hands and dress one last time for any flecks of paint. Despite being required—like all the resident museum staff attending the event—to dress to the nines, she hadn’t been able to resist putting a few more touches to her paintings before coming down to the main hall, and every career artist knew that accidents will always happen exactly when you don’t want them to. Fortunately, the plastic apron and smock seemed to have protected her from anything embarrassing, and despite being slightly late to the party she looked fairly put-together. Neither the chair of the museum’s publicity department nor her own immediate superiors would likely find anything in her that could embarrass the museum.

White-coated waiters circulated among the crowd, carrying trays of champagne and, in a nod to the festive season, hot cider. Theo took a glass of the latter, carefully cupping it in her hands as she sipped, and looked around.
The Publicity department had done a good job, she had to admit. In addition to the lights, sea-blue banners were draped from the balconies, lined out with heiroglyphics in burnished golden letters. The lamps on each table were in the shape of a kneeling Egyptian figure who held the shade up in one hand and cradled the alcohol wick in the other, all in polished black ceramic. There was a pine tree on the dais, but it had been decorated in more blue and gold, with tiny recreations of the mask of King Tut and the pyramids. Publicity had decided that the annual and exclusive holiday party for the trustees of the museum would be an Egyptian Holiday, and Theo was impressed despite herself. It looked opulent but not gaudy: tough to pull off when you’re designing a party for the rich and basing it on ancient treasure.

The guests were no less interesting than the décor, and Theo recognized a few of them right away. Sicily Margrave, matriarch of the Margrave group; Robert Howell, the famous architect, now in his seventies but still more than healthy enough to oversee the distribution of his intimidating wealth; half the history faculty of Culver University; and bankers, bankers, bankers. In their formal clothes, her coworkers were harder to place than the guests.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Theo jumped a little, reflexively clutching the glass to prevent spilling cider all over her dark green dress. That voice, at least, she recognized: Aki Lee, one workbench over from her in the high attic workshops where the paintings were prepared. Normally an esoteric mess of sardonic t-shirts and colorful plastic ponchos, Aki had cleaned up well, and between the tuxedo and the neatly combed dark ponytail it took Theo a moment to connect the voice to the face.

“I wasn’t thinking much of anything,” Theo said truthfully. “Just letting my mind wander. You look good, Aki.”

“Only under protest,” Aki responded, tugging at his bowtie with a momentary grimace. “I thought humanity was past the point where society requires that we kill ourselves to meet a standard of beauty.”

“’Society’ doesn’t require it, the publicity department does,” Theo pointed out.

Aki yanked on the bowtie again. “Poh-tay-to, poh-tah-to.”

“Except in this case, the line ends ‘Let’s cut your salary off.’ For God’s sake, if it’s bothering you that much, get rid of it and go for the free-spirited artist look. You know half the trustees don’t want to be dressed up either.”

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She 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

16 Comments

  1. SAO
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 05:43:48

    I’m clearly in the Easternmost time zone of your readership. It’s late afternoon and I’m the first one to the party.

    I like the idea of a story set in a museum, with a vaguely Egyptian feel, but I choked on the first para. Sentence 1 irritated me because it told me the scene was impressive (a particularly meaningless term) but I had no clue what anything looked like. The next sentence went on and on. My eyes were glazing over by the Struthiwhatever skeleton and I had to read twice to get that Little John wasn’t another statue (a tasteless, shades-of-Disney one) and the name of the dinosaur. In all this detail, I didn’t get a sense of whether or where there were people. I didn’t have any sense of time period, either. So, I was already ready to find fault when I got to para 2.

    Theo struck me as likely to be TSTL. She’s all dressed up for a fancy event and she gets out her paints? When she seems to be clumsy? I’m okay with the idea that she’s clumsy and, if so, clutching the mug is a nice way to show it. But add what we know at the end of the page, 1: She’d better look nice, her job’s on the line + 2: she’s a klutz + 3: artists know accidents happen = very dumb to paint in fancy clothes. I suspect you are trying to show, not tell us she’s an artist and not into this sort of event, but it didn’t come off for me, at least.

    Then we’re treated to another few paras of scenery. It’s not doing much for me. It’s not all that interesting. You could be using this to expand Theo’s POV. As an artist, she might be saying, for example, Cobalt and gold, as an Egyptologist, Lapis Luzuli and gold. It would probably still too much detail and wasted space, though.

    Finally, we get to a little interaction with the guy who’s probably the hero. I like the idea that he’s pretty clearly not your generic blonde billionaire, but the interaction is hum-drum. The only thing you’re showing is that your chars are dancing to a tune set by some committee. That’s usually life, but if it’s the only thing on the page, they look like wimps who follow orders, not interesting people with ideas and agendas of their own.

    You need to start your story where the story starts.

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  2. SAO
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 05:46:18

    Oh, and I wasn’t quite sure what a career artist was doing working for what seemed like a natural history or science museum. If it’s an art museum, what’s T Rex doing there?

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  3. Marianne McA
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 06:32:18

    I didn’t take it that Aki was the hero – I thought that was just friendly interaction. I imagined the hero would be one of the wealthy trustees, or possibly – given that it’s fantasy – a resurrected pharoh.

    It read, I felt, like the start of a murder mystery. You expect set up in that genre – the interesting backdrop, the wealthy patrons who will have dark secrets, and the ordinary Joe who will take us through the mystery. And if it was a murder mystery, I’d read on. But as a romance, I’m less sure. There isn’t any emotion to connect to: she’s not excited, or unduly flustered – she’s dutifully attending a work party, albeit in an interesting place. It didn’t hook me in.

    I think SAO’s suggestion that you use her artist’s POV more is a good one: I’m remembering the start of a Ngaio Marsh mystery: ‘Artists in Crime’ where the opening scene is written in that way. Even though Marsh starts the book with an entire page of description, it’s a compelling and memorable beginning, because it’s such a different way to ‘see’ the character’s surroundings.

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  4. Carolyne
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 06:39:20

    I agree with SAO’s points–this is exactly the sort of setting I adore, but it isn’t engaging enough yet in this draft.

    I’d have been more on board with Theo if she had been defiant–yeah, there’s a party, and she’s dressed, but that painting needed one more touch and she wasn’t going to lose the moment, and if one of the nervously perfectly coiffed people saw a speck of paint on her maybe they’d understand she’s a working artist, or relax themselves, etc etc. I don’t need her to be an angry, in-your-face heroine in order to be interesting, but some sort of edge and verve to her personality would get a reader through all sorts of office party tedium. Even if she’s complacent on the outside. What’s her personal passion? It seems to be painting, but that’s told in a very nervous, perfunctory way, and I’m not even sure what sort of painting she was doing (restoration, I assume?).

    The list of fellow guests can wait. Or be reduced to quick descriptions without names. Coming so early in the story, it makes my brain think it needs to record and remember all these people, and my reading either bogs down or I start skimming.

    I’d keep reading beyond the first page to see where you go with the setting, and because you obviously know how to put paragraphs together :) But I’d need to start liking and enjoying the heroine very soon, or I might give up on her.

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  5. Liz Talley
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 07:13:03

    I liked it, but I like a sense of the space characters work within, so setting the scene is always good for me. That being said, I do sort of agree with SAO on the stopping by to paint in her grown up clothes. If you motivate it, as if she were on a deadline, then it fits a little better. But even absent-minded artists have the sense God gave a billy goat to know she shouldn’t paint in a ballgown. I love the interaction with Aki, and over all the writing is smooth, if not overly detailed.

    I don’t necessarily feel a strong attachment to Theo, but I’ve already gotten the sense I’d like her in the way she reacts to her friend.

    Basically, I’d keep reading – it’s a good set up.

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  6. Donna Thorland
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 08:32:24

    I’m also confused about what kind of museum this is. Yes, there are 19th century institutions that collected EVERYTHING. The Peabody Essex, where I worked, was one. But where an attic full of artists fits into that kind of institution is a bit puzzling. Are they restoring paintings? It doesn’t sound like it–she talks about her paintings and describes herself as a career artist. And her co-worker is on salary. If there are museums that have career artists on salary and invite them to the fancy galas with the free food, then please share. I’ve got a lot of friends who would love that gig. There are a few institutions that fund artist-in-residence type programs, but these are few and far between and they aren’t generally salaried position–a stipend and housing are considered generous.

    I agree that a museum is an appealing setting — but this one is ringing false to me and others. That’s not to say that you can’t create a fictional museum to suit your story — but if that’s the direction you go in then there’s world-building to be done. It would probably take only a few sentences to establish — but without that I’m lost.

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  7. Patricia
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 09:13:32

    Reading the first paragraph, I pictured an elaborately decorated but empty hall. Where are the people? You mention muted conversation only in the very last sentence, which could easily be filtering in from elsewhere. It took me a while to figure out that the party is taking place in the big empty hall I had in my mind.

    I also have trouble believing your main character would really believe her job would be in jeopardy if she didn’t look perfectly photo-ready. Museum conservation and restoration are difficult jobs that require extensive training, and looking like a model is not one of the requirements. Unless her bosses are looking for an excuse to can her, her anxieties are irrational. Painting in a ball gown is still kind of a bonehead move, though.

    On the plus side, I quite like Aki. I hope he is the intended hero. I actually like him better than Theodora at this point. She mostly seems uptight, whereas he is able to find some levity in an awkward situation. And even though I think the description of the space went on for too long, I think the museum is a promising location for a story. I’m not totally sold on this story yet, but I would read on a little longer to see how it develops.

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  8. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 09:13:35

    I really liked this. While it’s not without its faults . Is this like the Field Museum in Chicago, which has a jolly mixture of dinosaurs, Egyptian relics and precious minerals?
    I was a bit confused about the artist being there, because contemporary art always has a separate place of its own. And there are a few weak sentences, ones that start with “There are” or “It is.” Or she might be the kind of artist who creates scenes and backgrounds for the dinosaurs to plough around in.
    I liked the heroine, enjoyed her banter with her friend/colleague Aki. Is he going to be the resurrected Egyptian pharoah, who takes over his body?
    Anyhow, yes, I’d definitely read on.

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  9. wikkidsexycool
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 10:40:48

    I loved the setting, though I think swapping paragraphs made the read better for me. I liked starting with “Theodora Speer glanced down” because your descriptions (which I also loved by the way) may work better whittled down a bit, or worked into later pages.

    But yeah, I’d definitely read on and I think your setting is what I gravited to, but not your heroine. Plus the genre is Urban Fantasy, which I love. I liked the Tyrannosaurus and Aki. Hopefully the story goes on to give Theodora a bit more spark, because I’m not feeling her yet.

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  10. Lori
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 11:03:26

    I really enjoyed the description and for once, didn’t skim You painted a vivid picture and I really like it.

    My only nag was also I don’t understand what an artist is doing in the museum. She doesn’t sound like she’s restoring so I’m confused. And I do agree that there needs to be a reason she’s paint while wearing an evening dress since nobody wants to destroy a dress that cost a decent amount and is pretty.

    Other than that, I really liked and would easily have curled up on the couch and kept reading.

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  11. JL
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 11:36:07

    I admit that I started skimming from the first paragraph. I rarely get engaged by long descriptions of the setting, but that could be a personal quirk. I also was immediately confused by what an artist is doing touching up a painting in a museum. That bit was so jarring that I would definitely have set the book back on the shelf had I been reading at the store (and yes, I am one of the rare few who do go to the bricks and mortar store and read the first page).
    I did, however, immediately like Theodora once the dialogue started flowing. I also like the idea of an urban fantasy where the heroine is an artist rather than kick ass fighter (although if this is urban fantasy romance, then that doesn’t hold the same weight for me).

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  12. theo
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 11:56:38

    Rarely do I see a hn that shares some form of my first name so kudos to you for that.

    That said, I like the hn a lot better in the last paragraph than through the first several only because I’d have liked to see the museum throughout the conversation rather than up front where I might be likely to skim.

    If your hn is attending because she had an artistic hand in perhaps an exhibit that the party is celebrating the opening of, then yes, I see that happening, but it would be nice to know up front or close to it. I don’t really know a lot about the inner workings of a big museum, but my feeling is there would have to be a darned good reason why the ‘help’ would be at a Trustee Holiday Party. I’d be more inclined to think there would be a separate party, if at all, for those who worked at the museum rather than having them rub noses with the big money people.

    I’d give this one a few more pages to see where it was going to go but would like those questions/problems cleared up within those pages or you’d probably lose me.

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  13. hapax
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 12:22:47

    I’m not a big fan of UF, mostly because I get weary of angsty, kick-ass heroines; so your low-key artist in a museum setting suits me fine. But I’d agree, that this particular museum feels schizophrenic and “off” to me; spouse has worked in a LOT of museums, from big ones like the Smithsonian to little regional ones, and none of would work behind the scenes in the manner you describe. Artists very rarely work for museums on salary; if they were responsible for convervasion or restoration or murals or diarama backdrops or whatever, they’d describe themselves that way, not as an “artist” working on a “painting.”

    I did like most of your description, but I’d nitpick some of your word choices: e.g., you almost lost me in the very first phrase: How can a “hall” be “dimmed”? That is a property of light. And dark lighting can be very “impressive”; I think I’d go with “festive”, maybe. And is the Publicity department capitalized or not? Shouldn’t both words be, or neither? Etc. I know these are little details, but while I’m thinking about them, I’m not thinking about your story and characters.

    This all sounds negative, so I’ll repeat that I think that you’ve got the beginnings of something fun and refreshing here. It’s just not quite There yet.

    P.S.: Maybe it’s just me, but EGYPTIAN CHRISTMAS seems like a very off-putting title. It makes me think either of a sweet cozy with a schoolteacher and her Mummy, or else an HP romance like THE MILLIONAIRE PHARAOH AND HIS TINSEL-WRAPPED VIRGIN.

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  14. Donna Thorland
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 12:40:40

    @hapax:

    I have to admit that I would reserve a copy of THE MILLIONAIRE PHARAOH AND HIS TINSEL-WRAPPED VIRGIN in advance.

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  15. Bren
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 13:32:50

    I enjoyed this and think you write well. What I think you should do is dump those big chunks of description as they slow down the reader and can discourage someone from reading on. Thin out the description and interweave it into the action. You should be starting with the second paragraph and thin out the fourth paragraph. You don’t need to “control” everything the reader “sees.” Give some spot, key descriptions and let the reader fill in the rest with their imagination.

    Well done.

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  16. Irish Lass
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 11:39:44

    Hi, I’d love to post some comments but find I can’t. Hope it’s a temporary technical issue that’ll soon be rectified.

    (trying a cut n’ paste here, let’s hope it works).

    Some terrific feedback here, hope I can likewise be constructive.

    Mistakes and typos can be caught in a later draft, and it’s good some folks have pointed them out. I’ve read bestselling printed books with typos, so this stuff happens, no matter how many sets of eyes review it. My husband is especially skilled at pointing out mistakes made in films, “That would never happen.”

    For me, this is quite sophisticated and well-written. Kudos! Perhaps the reason why the descriptions (which are very nicely done) aren’t as compelling… is because your female lead, Theo, isn’t reacting to the setting. Example: the descriptions could be written by a journalist who’s visiting. There is a certain degree of detachment here, even as I pay homage to the skill, (you’re a great writer, that’s obvious). What’s at stake here for Theo?

    I am admiring the scenery, the dino bones, the hieroglyphics, Aki’s bow tie – wonderful details – but I don’t “feel” the scenery. Does that make sense? It’s brainy and interesting, and could be that much more intriguing if there were hints of Theo’s attitude / reactions threaded throughout this.

    Just a wee bit of GMC might be nice, too. I’m not one of those who needs a heaping ladle of GMC in the first five paragraphs, I don’t need a dead body and instant sex, (LOL), but a sprinkling, a half a teaspoon of GMC, to help ground me as your reader, and also get a feel for Theo, what drives her, what her heart is like.

    That she’s a “resident museum staff member” intrigues me, (is she an art grad student, is that a ‘resident?’ – probably it doesn’t mean she lives at the museum, right? – perhaps ‘resident’ like a medical student has a residency at a hospital) — and that she is “preparing paintings” rather than simply “painting” interests me. Preparing for what, I wonder. Or maybe I’m way over-analyzing here. I live near Chicago and can’t imagine painters at the Field Museum. Students taking a painting class at the Art Institute, yes, Field Museum, no. But now you’ve got me wondering if this is some “special” paranormal museum.

    Another phrase that intrigues me: “every career artist knew that accidents will always happen exactly when you don’t them to.” Hmm. Foreshadowing? That it’s an Egyptian motif and set in a historical museum rouses my curiosity as well.

    Is she nervous at the idea of mingling with the trustees? Do any of them leer at her? Or is she largely ignored? How low is she on the totem pole? A freshman student or a PhD, visiting student / resident? Are there more men than women? Does she feel in her element or uncomfortable, out of place? Is she dreading interaction, (as I often do at parties, I am patently incapable of small talk). If you can integrate more of her attitude here – Theo doesn’t have to be a kick-a*s, she can be brainy and sensitive and observant. If she’s accustomed to slouchier clothes and shoes, maybe you could have her wobbling on heels and detesting her formal dress.

    As a former art student, I can attest to being obsessed with projects, and yes, I hate admitting this, I would easily stumble into some soiree with paint smudges on my hands (and God forbid on my face). So I was TSTL! In college, I hammered away on a sculpture for 8 to 9 straight hours and didn’t take a bathroom break. My bladder didn’t talk to me for a week. It’s the same with writing, if I am inspired, I’ll rush at the last-minute to something, notepad in my hand, scratching down things. Creatives can be obsessed. I imagine Einstein couldn’t turn off his brain when at a party. Sometimes, our best ideas pop up in the most inconvenient of places.

    If you can weave in more attitude (and I don’t mean sassiness, but weave in her personality), I think this’ll be all the more splendid.

    Great job! It takes guts to post your novel’s opening online. Best of luck to you.

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