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First Page: Gemma and the Earl

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The conversation began the same way it always did, generally over a pleasant meal that would not remain so for long. The Earl of Southfield was a force to be reckoned with when his mind was settled. For the last year and a half this was how it started:

“Gemma my dear, will you look at your sister? The poor girl hasn’t touched a morsel on her plate. She’ll waste away to nothing like that”, my father dramatically gestured.

They sat in the breakfast room at the table while her sister picked at her food on the settee. Gemma glanced at her knowing full well that her sudden reluctance to eat was all for her father’s benefit.

“You know she’s thinking of Frances and Claire off to London next week. If only her selfish older sister would get married so she could join them”.

“Dear Father, I would remind you that she is only eighteen and just recently of an age to participate in the London season. I was nineteen before I came out”, she gently reminded him.

“Aye, but that was because you were in mourning for your dear mum, Gem. Anna is old enough now and by Jove I need to get you girls married and settled before I am too old to enjoy my grand-children”.

Her father was a hale man of fifty-two but acted as if he had one foot in the grave when he discussed his daughters’ matrimonial futures.

The Earl signaled the end of the conversation by returning to his study of the morning newspaper.

Gemma frowned to herself upon reflection of her father’s words. However much she sympathized with her younger sister’s unhappiness, she simply could not face the marriage mart for the third year in a row. In fact, she would readily trade places with Anna if she could. The thought of staying in the comfort and safety of the countryside with their father was immensely appealing.

Her reluctance to attend the London season was not unfounded. If she failed to attract a husband yet again, she would be considered well and truly on the shelf. The situation had become tiresome and rather depressing.

Gemma knew that she was no great beauty but thought her features to be pleasing enough. The unfortunate truth was that it was her outspoken disposition that was the cause of her lack of proposals. The marriageable men of the ton were looking for a certain kind of wife; one with a polite, reserved temperament that they could manage as they managed their estates. After a few moments in Gemma’s company or a turn around the dance floor, it was apparent to them that she was not quite marriage material.

She longed to fall in love and be romanced like the heroines in the novels she read but was not capable of the artifice required to carry it off. It simply wasn’t in the cards for her she feared.

Anna abruptly rose from her seat, “I shall be in my rooms the rest of the day I fear. I have a dreadful headache”. She left the room as the Earl glared at Gemma over his bifocals as if it was entirely her fault for every ailment her sister now possessed.

“What are your afternoon plans my dear eldest daughter?” he inquired.

“I am planning a hike over to the Caldwell’s property line. It has been far too long since I explored that section of our land”, Gemma replied. She was known to take prodigiously long walks through their extensive acreage with their dog Max by her side. It was what she missed the most when they were in London. At the thought of returning to London, she fell into a somber mood that only a vigorous constitutional through the countryside would cure.

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

17 Comments

  1. Katie T.
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 05:54:50

    Lots of punctuation errors (period after a quotation mark). Long run on sentences without the use of a comma. The characters speak in a very stilted manner, the speech does not flow. From what I’ve read so far, the plot is extremely generic. Older, less attractive bluestocking sister, ungrateful and unsympathetic family, clueless old dad, misunderstood heroine who will undoubtedly win her earl in the end. It’s been done 1000 times, and with the rather poor writing, I would not give this another glance.

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  2. Katie T.
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 05:58:46

    Also, jump from first person (my father dramatically gestured) to third person narration.

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  3. SAO
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 07:10:47

    I like historicals and you may be writing a great story, but this is not where it begins. As I imagine, this is a romance between Gemma and some Earl other than her father. Yet, “Gemma and the Earl” begins with a scene between Gemma and an Earl. The content of this page is back story and Gemma does nothing. You need to have a conflict and for Gemma to be actively dealing with it, whether openly (No, Dad, I’m not going to London for another season) or subversively. You should have a better conflict than clueless Dad.

    By setting it up as a repetitive conflict, “Conversation began as it always did,” you told us that nothing ever changes. It’s a stale conflict. Your page would have been a lot more interesting if you’d said something like, “The conversation began the same way it always did, but, for once, it wasn’t going to end the same way” and have Gemma do or say something.

    You would do a lot better with a few sentences showing us the scene. I spent a fair amount of the first few paras being thoroughly confused. We go from “the Earl” (given the title, I assumed him to be Gemma’s love interest) to “my father,” we only know Gemma, then Anna are in the room when their names are mentioned. Suddenly some Claire and Frances were mentioned — this was the point where my interest was seriously waning. Too many people to keep track of. POV char doing nothing.

    You have a nice historical flavor in some of your word choices, but I wonder if you need to do a bit more research. Earls are rich because the title comes with huge tracts of income-generating land which is usually protected from loss from disastrous financial decisions by any one of the line of earls.

    As a minor point, this had a regency feel and bifocals are a much later invention. The purpose of bifocals is so that you don’t need to look over the tops of your reading glasses and you get your distance vision corrected, as well as your reading vision. So if he needed bifocals, when he looked at his daughter, he’d be looking through the lens so he could see her.

    Good luck with this. I think getting the first page right is the hardest bit, especially when you don’t have any further pages to grab our interest.

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  4. a lurker
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 07:49:19

    Didn’t Benjamin Franklin invent bifocals?

    To the author: As for the critique, I agree with the two posters above me. Static set-up, POV shift, numerous punctuation errors, and you probably need to start somewhere else. At what point in the story does everything change? Start there.

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  5. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 08:40:32

    I can’t tell what era this is supposed to be from the piece. At the moment it’s tending to the generic wallpaper, which doesn’t add background or detail or interest.
    There are numerous historical and usage errors in this piece:
    A settee is a sofa, so what’s she doing there eating her breakfast? Also, it’s a Victorian word, so if this was meant to be a Regency, then it needs revising.
    “gestured” isn’t a speech tag.
    An earl wouldn’t say “Mum,” which is a twentieth century term in this context, and not at all aristocratic.
    What’s the sister getting married to do with anything? They might have fired off daughters one at a time, but they didn’t wait until one was married before another one was debuted. Nineteen is rather old to make a debut. Seventeen or eighteen is much more likely, and of course they’d be well known in society before that. Making a debut meant they could go to adult entertainments like balls and they were ready for marriage. There was a lot more to a debut than the “marriage mart,” which I wish people would stop talking about.
    How do you “frown to yourself”? Either you frown or you don’t. You don’t need the reflexive.
    The assumptions she’s making are all wrong. During the Georgian era, men wanted partners – intelligent, outgoing, creative, all those things because the position they were expected to take would demand all those things. Even Victorian aristocrats wanted more than a biddable wife. And they weren’t all the same, either.
    There were very few romance novels until the twentieth century – you’re maybe thinking of Jane Austen, but she was exceptional, not the norm. There were also the gothics – you’d do better specifying what kind of book she read.
    Bifocals? Is the earl a time traveller? They were really unusual before the end of the nineteenth century, and they weren’t combined lenses, more two lenses in one frame, separated by a piece of the frame. Unless the earl is a scientist, he’d be very unlikely to own a pair.
    A “hike” is not a walk. It’s climbing over rough terrain with boots on, and it didn’t become usual for women until the 1930′s. It’s actually not anachronistic, but in this sense it’s used improperly.
    And honestly? This is a catch-up backstory scene masquerading as an opening scene. They’re all telling each other what they know already, so it doesn’t ring true, and frankly, it’s boring. Start where the story starts, when she’s out for her walk and the hero nearly runs her down because he’s riding his feisty stallion. And then the dog attacks him.

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  6. Anna
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 08:50:49

    It could be that the writer isn’t American, so then the punctuation isn’t incorrect. In many countries you put the comma after the quotation mark, which is more logical.

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  7. reader
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 09:33:12

    @Lynne Connolly
    “Settee” has been around longer than the Victorian era and is not exclusively a sofa. The author could believably use it. Also, there were enough romance novels (outside of Austen) in the 19th century that I don’t find it that much of a stretch the character would reference them. I’ve seen them referenced in works of the time period (hell, even read some in Google Books.)

    I’m a nitpicky reader, myself, but I allow the writer (especially the writer just venturing into historicals) a little breathing room. I think this writer wants to get it right and she will learn to do more research. Learning to research goes along with learning to write, which of course you, as a writer, understand. I’m sure you didn’t just post all that to show off, right?)

    Author, your story reads as if you’re trying very hard to shape something similar to the stories you’ve read and loved in the past. You seem so conscious of making the story sound a certain way that I don’t feel *your* connection to the characters, let alone a connection to them, myself.
    My advice would be to do a lot more research-reading (and if you really don’t enjoy research-reading, maybe tackle a contemp instead) and then have a long think about ways to make Gemma’s story feel fresh. You’re going over ground that’s been a little too well-trod, and I’m not getting any sense of what makes Gemma unique or different from a dozen other Regency maidens. The story right now is what I always think of as Regency Disney, a sort of Disney princess story complete with fussy old father figure and misunderstood girl.
    I’d love to see a more realistic edge to your story and get a sense that this one will be different, even if aspects are familiar.

    If I were you, I’d scrap this and toss Gemma into more immediate trouble. You could grab me right away with that.
    Good luck!

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  8. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 10:32:25

    I’ve never heard “settee” as anything but a padded couch. If it’s used in a variation of “settle,” that’s even more unlikely to be somewhere someone would sit and eat their breakfast in this situation. Just, well, weird mental images.
    I wanted some specifics about what books she read, rather than “romancing” – by the way, that’s a twentieth century habit, to turn a noun into a verb and not recorded before then. But I didn’t mention it, because it didn’t particularly bother me.
    You’re right not doing it to show off. Why should I? I’ve never seen the point. I researched long before I ever thought of writing, just because I enjoyed it. Other people don’t. Fair do’s. But if a story is labelled “historical,” I like some history in it.
    But those were the things that bounced out at me. The settee thing gave me the weirdest mental image, of a Regency lady sitting on a couch to eat her breakfast, rather than at the table. Was she ill? Had she broken her foot? But no, it was treated as normal behavior.

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  9. AlexaB
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 11:12:21

    @Anna

    While the style of quote marks to punctuate dialogue can differ from country to country — American English prefers double quote marks, British & Australian single — the rules of punctuating dialogue in English remain fairly standard from continent to continent. So the periods, commas, etc are definitely out of place in this submission.

    It could be the author’s first language isn’t English (in which case, brava!) but if she plans to sell her work to an English language audience she needs to get the punctuation basics right.

    @Author

    I agree with most of the comments you’ve received. The story feels very familar and I’m not sure why I should read this over re-reading my Heyers.

    I very much appreciate the historical voice you’re attempting, but the result is a bit stiff and puts the reader at a remove. I also agree you need more of a conflict for Gemma. As it is, I have no idea why she’s a failure at receiving marriage proposals. She says that one dance is all it takes for potential suitors to run away from her outspoken tongue, but she’s quite gentle and accommodating with her father so I just don’t buy it. If Gemma really is an unmarriageable hellion then you need to show us, not tell.

    “Settee” came into use in 1715, so it’s a historically accurate word, but I also find its usage here confusing. Why is her sister sitting on the sofa to eat breakfast, and not at the table with Gemma and her father? In addition, watch your placement of prepositional phrases: “her sister picked at her food on the settee.” That could be read as if the food was physically on the settee.

    Also, the paragraph that begins “You know she’s thinking” needs a dialogue tag to indicate who is speaking.

    I love historical romances and always welcome a new addition to the genre so keep writing! Good luck.

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  10. SAO
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 11:20:14

    I have to admit, the settee sounded out of place to me, too. I’ve heard of “settee” used to refer to unpadded seats, but it’s an odd place for brunch.

    I did worry about the sort of trumped up conflict which makes all men of the era in question like bland mice, in contrast to the feisty, modern heroine. It’s not realistic. If you look at Jane Austen or biographies of the era, you have both intelligent and managing women as well as pictures of miserable marriages where one partner is stuck, until their or their spouse’s death to someone they can neither like nor respect.

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  11. Melissa
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 11:23:08

    I have to agree with some previous comments that the language sounds stilted and does not strike me as historically accurate for the Regency period– or any other period. Also, this opening has nothing fresh in the set-up. I predict that next Gemma has some sort of meet-cute with the titular earl during her hike. But I wouldn’t continue reading to find out whether my prediction is accurate.

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  12. Mary
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 14:40:58

    Alright, kudos to the author for submitting this and wanting critique! Additionally, I am definitely no expert on proper grammar, but here are a few things as a reader that jolted me out of the story:

    1) The very first sentence: “The conversation began the same way it always did, generally over a pleasant meal that would not remain so for long.” This seems a little awkwardly phrased, and the way it’s written doesn’t draw me in. The idea that this is a scene that has happened many times is an okay start, but I think it could be phrased better. And of course, at some point, this should be the time that the conversation doesn’t go the way it always did.

    2) The POV shift other posters have mentioned…I’m assuming the story was originally in first-person POV and then you changed it?

    3) This sentence: “Gemma glanced at her knowing full well that her sudden reluctance to eat was all for her father’s benefit.” The word “her” is in this sentence three times, which means that its a little confusing and sounds awkward. At the very least, changing the last one to “their father’s benefit” would flow better. You could even replace the second “her” with “the” and it would still work.

    4) These sentences: “It simply wasn’t in the cards for her she feared.
    Anna abruptly rose from her seat, “I shall be in my rooms the rest of the day I fear. I have a dreadful headache”. The “she feared”, “I fear”, doesn’t work for me. I know that one is in her thoughts and one is in speech, but again it comes off as repetitive.

    5) Again, some word choices that don’t work for me personally: “she gently reminded him” and “dramatically gestured” don’t sound right to me. I feel like I generally use/hear adverbs after the verb in this situation, as in “reminded him gently” and “gestured dramatically”. However, this could be totally wrong, or an American vs British or a modern versus Regency/Victorian/Georgian usage.

    6) A lot of places seem like they need commas, or that there are commas when there shouldn’t be. It disrupts the flow. However, I am no grammar expert, so I don’t want to cite specific instances, as I could very well be wrong. So I would suggest having a grammar expert look at it, or read up on comma use.

    Then I have just one structural note. I don’t think there’s anything bad about the section “Gemma frowned to herself” through “Anna abruptly rose from her seat”. BUT, I think if maybe Gemma reflected on this while she was taking her walk, rather than in the middle of the breakfast scene, it would flow better. Going from the earl dismissing the conversation to Anna leaving would work better, as the action is uninterrupted. Then we can get Anna’s thoughts on herself/marriage as she walks. I think it would work well, especially since she’s falling into a somber mood when she thinks of London. After that sentence, even, you can start talking about why she hates London and the marriage mart.

    What I do like about the writing: apart from a few word choice/punctuation errors, the language here is very nice. It doesn’t sound contemporary to me, except maybe that she’s reading romance novels and expecting true love, but that’s a common romance novel trope, so its fine. I especially like the last paragraph, it’s a nice image.

    Unfortunately, I probably wouldn’t read on. I’m a little burnt out on historicals, and need to have something unique or different or amazingly well written to continue. The plot here sounds very standard to me “out-spoken/bluestocking Regency (?) girl meets handsome Earl by accident, hijinks ensue”. I could be wrong-you could have an awesome hero, for example, but all the characters introduced here are fairly standard genre characters. Also, it seems to have my current least-favorite plot point: sisters that are awful to each other/everyone in the family doesn’t like MC.
    However, I think that the writing is good, and there are definitely people out there who will read this plot, so don’t be discouraged my unwillingness to keep reading. As I said, I think that in general the writing is fine, and the scene certainly isn’t the worst opening scene ever. It’s just a little…average to me.

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  13. Off Subject
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 20:35:33

    These “maybe English isn’t the author’s first language” comments that pop up every week make me REALLY uncomfortable.

    @Anna: Are you kidding? American-born people make these kinds of mistakes all the time! Have you SEEN fanfic? When I was a teenager, I had one favorite fanfic writer who, despite being twenty, well-read, and American, didn’t know when to use a comma and when to use a period. I think it’s safe to say that the average person is a TERRIBLE writer, and even those who choose to pursue it either as a profession or a hobby often lack these basic mechanics, especially given the number of well-read young people with a lot of daydreams to write down and little respect for basics.

    I don’t mean to be off-topic, but I’m just so tired of seeing these comments. They carry the implication that bad writing naturally suggests not a bad writer, but a writer who speaks English as a second language, and that simply isn’t the case.

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  14. Avery Shy
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 20:40:53

    The first thing I’d work on is punctation and other such basic rules. The quote mark goes after the comma, not before it. “Like this,” I say. “And it’s the same thing for a period.”

    You only use a comma after a line of dialogue if there is a dialogue tag. “My father dramatically gestured” is not a dialogue tag, as one cannot “gesture” a sentence. It should read:

    “Gemma my dear, will you look at your sister? The poor girl hasn’t touched a morsel on her plate. She’ll waste away to nothing like that.” My father dramatically gestured.

    Grammar and punctuation rules are the foundation for everything you ever write. They are both the most important and easiest things you can learn. Think of puntuaction and grammar errors as soot, and your writing a precious gem. Your writing can’t shine if it’s covered by soot; no one will even look at it. Get rid of the soot.

    While we’re at it: why is he dramatically gesturing? You’d be better off if you specifically told us what he was doing — is he slamming a fist on the table, or what? Otherwise, there’s just the vague impression he’s waving his hand or something, god knows why.

    As for the dialogue tags themselves: I bristle at the use of “inquired”. The question mark lets us know its a question; we don’t need the word “inquired” to let us know he is inquiring, much the way you wouldn’t describe a grin as happy. It’s repetitive. The only time you should use a dialogue tag other than “said” or “asked” is when that tag adds information we can’t infer from the sentence itself.

    Moving onto more general problems:

    This is what’s known as a “As You Know, Bob” scene, wherein the characters all tell each other things they already know for the audience’s benefit. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AsYouKnow
    This isn’t a good thing. People are just sitting around and explaining things they not just already know, but have discussed over and over! Who does that? Do you do that with your family? I don’t. It feels fake.

    Gemma feels wooden. Her mother is dead. She hates the marriage market, but if she doesn’t get married soon, her sister will suffer. Her father doesn’t care. This is an awful situation! Show some emotion! Describe how sick she feels at the whole situation; how much she loves her sister; her anger at her father, for so casually brushing off her mother’s death. Make us care. And don’t just tell us she feels these things; help us feel them, too.

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  15. Helena Fairfax
    Dec 16, 2012 @ 05:11:28

    Several people have already commented on the fact that there are anachronisms in the historical language in this piece. Maybe I’m wrong here, but it also seems to me that the author is not British. I hope I’m not upsetting “Off Subject” by saying this, but I don’t think this author’s first language is British English. I’m reading Lisa Kleypas at the moment, and this is why I’m concentrating on this particular aspect, because even in Lisa Kleypas there is something in the style and vocabulary choice that points to her being an American writing about England.
    If I just draw on one example from this piece, it would be the use of the word “mum”. I think the author wants to show that he/she knows we say “mum” not “mom” in England, and of course we do, but not in aristocratic Regency England and not even in aristocratic contemporary England. Prince William called his mother “Mummy”. I would suggest to anyone wanting to write historically accurate British dialogue not to turn to authors such as Lisa Kleypas for background, but to try reading British texts from the period or at least to read a lot of British historical authors such as Georgette Heyer.
    George Bernard Shaw said Britain and the States were “divided by a common language”. I also understand from the other side of the pond how hard it is for a British writer to sound authentic when writing American dialogue, as I’m struggling to do this myself at the moment. (E.L. James is apparently also guilty of this – not that I’d notice, as a Brit.)
    Maybe you think I’m talking garbage! Of course as a Brit, I’d say it was just rubbish.

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  16. Donna Thorland
    Dec 16, 2012 @ 11:34:35

    Settee is definitely an 18th century word. It shows up in household inventories. Check out this post over at Early American Gardens. Link: http://americangardenhistory.blogspot.com/2009/07/blog-post_07.html

    In 1766, Charleston merchants Sneed & White offered “Windsor Chairs … and settees … walnut … fit for piazzas or gardens,” imported from Philadelphia.

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  17. Irish Lass
    Dec 16, 2012 @ 16:53:00

    Greetings, fellow writer, and I tip my hat to your bravery for posting your first page. Everyone’s offered up great insights, and I’m not sure how much more I can add. I think there are some nitpicky things you can correct — comma placement, reversing your end quote marks.

    Admittedly, I was thrown by the “my father” versus the other pronouns, they, she, etc. So it’s jumping from the first-person narrative to — another POV. You’ve got a way with words, this just requires more polishing and careful attention to detail. This does seem rote, or relying on what’s been done before. It seems like you’ve cobbled together common themes in historicals… which makes this read a little generic, a “been there, done that.”

    What I find helpful is to read a myriad of historicals — from Lisa Kleypas to Anne Stuart to Julia Quinn and Loretta Chase. These are all splendidly talented authors and you’ll get a feel for narrative voice — what makes them distinctive as authors. I still smile when I think of Chase’s “Lord of Scoundrels’ and how the heroine calls him ‘Beelzebub.’ He’s got this nose, too, as well as this big masculine build and sympathetic beginning (mother dies or is exiled — maybe both? — he’s treated horribly by his father, bullied fiercely at school). That is what will make your historical memorable, is your narrative voice, your wit, the dialogue and characters, the setting, etc.

    Of course, another favorite is Laura Kinsale’s magnificent “Flowers from the Storm.” That’s a gold standard. Also loved “Redeeming Love” by Francine Rivers.

    And yes, by all means, research, get your references right.

    I guess my question is — what is her GMC? Goal-motivation-conflict? What does Gemma want? What stands in her way? What is at stake? How does she suffer, or how will she suffer? I don’t need her to be perfect, I love the underdog. What makes your Gemma unique? Where does this “Earl” factor in? What will be her internal conflict vs. external conflict? If you place a burning goal in front of Gemma, something she wants above everything else, and someone is standing in the way of that goal, you’ll have a story. For me, I suppose, it’s not about your craftsmanship or ability to string together words, I’d say you’ve got definite ability. I think with another pass / subsequent draft, you could rectify the nitpicky things, spelling, grammar, ensuring your research is accurate, e.g,. phrases and furniture are accurate for the time / era.

    What is at stake for Gemma? Where is the threat? I know, we’re critics, we want all of this on the first page — and that’s impossible — plus, more often than not, bestselling authors break all the rules. I do think some semblance of a threat, or some purpose, (a HINT), ought to be implied on the first page, and the very first sentence ought to be a grabber, a way for you to proclaim “I’m here! I’m different,” as a writer. Come out charging from the gate, there’s no time to lose — and you could lose readers’ interest by the second sentence, if you’re not engaging.

    How will Gemma change? How will the Earl change? How will they bring about change in each other?

    Here are a couple of ideas, I hope you’ll find them helpful.

    GMC by Donna Dixon:
    http://www.amazon.com/GMC-Motivation-Conflict-Building-Fiction/dp/0965437108/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1355696900&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=donna+dixon+goal+motivation

    Another How-To is the book on conflict by James Scott Bell:
    http://www.amazon.com/Elements-Fiction-Writing-Conflict-Suspense/dp/159963273X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1355696940&sr=1-1&keywords=james+scott+bell+conflict

    Bell mentions in his book — find an issue that’s an emotional hot button for you, and weave that into your story(ies). I’m paraphrasing and not doing his words justice. I am reading his book right now and find it enormously helpful.

    Additionally, Dixon’s book is a writer’s essential, one that I keep handy as a constant reference.

    “Dear Author” seems to thrive on historicals, reviews and otherwise, so I’m sure you’ll recieve exceptional advice here.

    You’ve got what it takes, keep at it, heed the advice that’s been shared here. Best of luck to you and again, what I offer is only my opinion. It’s your novel, go forth and write with vigor.

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