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First Page: Ghost of a Chance

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Sarah Carmichael had been in Hartford, Nebraska since noon. She’d been ready to leave since 12:15.

The old, ramshackle Victorian she’d inherited a few weeks ago was proving to be nothing but a hassle. She should never have promised her mother that she’d come down here and see the house before she sold it. Heritage, schmaritage. This place was a pain in the ass.

She’d managed to find exactly one window in the whole filthy place that opened – in the dining room – letting in a welcome bit of clear fall air. Since that was the only room that was even tolerable, she’d cleaned off one rickety dining chair and a good bit of the scarred mahogany table. Thank god for the emergency cleaning supplies she always kept in the trunk of her Lexus LS.

Then she’d perched herself cautiously on that one clean chair and waited. And waited. 2 p.m. came and went, with no sign of Ronald Construction. 3 p.m. came and went, with no sign of Advanced Builders. And now here she was, at – she glanced at her delicate Cartier watch – 4:14, no, 4:15, with no sign of Jake Simmons Remodeling. He was 15 minutes late, and since he was Sarah’s final appointment of the afternoon, that was 15 minutes too many. She’d fulfilled her promise and shown up. Now she could take care of this over the phone, as she’d originally planned. Heck, maybe she wouldn’t even bother with the remodeling. She’d already gotten an offer on the place from some local bank; maybe she’d tell her lawyers to go ahead with the deal.

She stood and reflexively brushed off her miraculously still immaculate gray wool skirt and straightened the matching jacket. Stifling a yawn, she picked up her black Coach bag from its safe resting place on the clean section of the table, and headed out.

Good riddance. I never liked Victorians anyway. Too fussy.

She grabbed the front door’s old brass doorknob and tugged it open. Or tried to. The door was stuck tight.

Sarah hadn’t noticed any problems with the door when she’d entered the house, but maybe the wood had warped somehow, making it stick from the inside. She got a firmer grip and pulled again, using all the strength in her well-toned upper body. Nothing.

Aaargh! All she wanted was to get out of this stupid house and then out of this stupid little town. If she left now, she could get to Kansas City tonight, check in to her room at the spa, and finally relax and get some sleep. The insomnia and weird dreams of the last few weeks had driven her to the brink of exhaustion.

She tugged at the door again, with no results. She could try calling someone to come pry open the door, but the way her day was going, she doubted anyone would show up. And besides, she was tough enough to handle a stupid door. She didn’t go to the gym five times a week for nothing.
She reached down with both hands, bracing her Manolo-clad foot on the doorframe and pulled at the door with every bit of strength she had. The pesky thing finally popped open, though the momentum literally knocked her flat on her ass. She looked up from her undignified spot on the floor to see a visitor on her porch.

This time the being knocked on her ass was figurative.

Leaning casually against one of the wooden porch columns was the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen. His blond hair shone like spun gold in the light of the setting October sun. His eyes were blue and so beautiful that they would have looked too feminine in a weaker face. But his face was perfectly masculine, with high cheekbones and a firm jaw. And his lips… oh those lips.

And then the lips moved. “Well, hello there. You must be Sarah. You’re even prettier than you sounded on the phone.”

Well wasn’t this just great? Her delayed contractor – which he must be, judging by the toolbelt slung around his hips – was an Adonis. And a charming one at that. Fantastic. Just when she thought her day couldn’t get any worse.

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. SAO
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 06:25:01

    This is a nice start, but I’d like some hint of ghosts sooner.

    You could make it stronger by:

    1) Start the scene in the now. You started this something like 4 hours before “now,” giving us the past progressive. She *had* arrived, she *had* been ready to leave. Instead, show her pacing and glancing at her watch. (Although, frankly, I’d have called the contractors to figure out what held them up).

    2) You tell us too much and don’t show us enough. Have her sneer at the carved balusters or cornice moldings. Shudder at the dust on the chair rail in the Dining room, etc. We’re told she hates Victorians, not shown the wonderful house under all the grime, even if the description is all the frou-frou detail catching cobwebs compared to the clean, spare lines of her home.

    3) The description of the Adonis is all physical. None of it conveyed character. Do his lips smile at the sight of her on her ass? Or do those blue eyes express concern?

    Beautiful blue eyes traveled the length of her exposed legs. His lips — oh, those lips — smiled with masculine appreciation. Her delayed contractor was an Adonis — and he knew it.

    Beautiful blue eyes instantly clouded with concern. He extended his hand as his lips — oh, those lips— moved, “Are you okay?”

    Agleam of amusement lit his beautiful blue eyes. His lips- oh, those lips – quirked into a sardonic smile.
    These are three different guys. One’s a player, one’s a really nice, (but maybe not too bright guy) guy (whom she might successfully play) and one isn’t too fond of her attitude. I’m not interested in gorgeous fantasy guys. I want to read about people and their characters.

    4) Sarah comes off as a bitch. That’s okay, but I’d like her better if I were more into her POV. If I could feel the exhaustion.

    I don’t really know how anyone can stay immaculate in a house that looks as you’ve described. I’m not sure why she’d show up wearing a wool suit and high heels. Presumably, when she was informed of her inheritance, the lawyer (or her mother) hinted at the condition.

    Most people, even Mitt Romney and his 200M$, appreciate more money. In general, houses, even houses in bad condition, can be turned into a decent chunk of change. Even if the house is good for nothing but tearing down, the land has value. If I didn’t want it, I’d be assessing the value. I would have contacted realtors, not builders.

    One thing I hate, as a reader, is characters who act in unrealistic ways. Someone who views a substantial inheritance as a nuisance, not an asset that can be converted to cash.

  2. DS
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 07:35:56

    There’s quite a bit a brand name dropping; however, if I was to determine her financial status from her possessions I would guess upper middle class. Nothing there, not even in combination, says really rich. But I couldn’t imagine someone sitting in a place they don’t want to be for hours waiting for an appointment to be kept by a contractor.

  3. Patricia
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 08:23:43

    One of my pet peeves is brand dropping, and there is a lot of it in this piece. You could cut every brand name and the writing would still work. I’m actually okay with the Lexus mention — there’s a stereotype associated with Lexus you can make use of as a shorthand (sorry, Lexus owners) — but we don’t need to know the exact model. Since I don’t keep up with luxury cars, mentioning the precise model just confused me.

    The hero doesn’t do anything for me as described. Though you didn’t say it explicitly, I imagine him sneering after his “Well, hello there” line. A person who doesn’t show any concern or empathy when someone else falls in front of him is not someone I want to get to know. Also, if I were alone in a creepy old house with a man I’d never met before and his first comment was about how attractive he finds me, I’d be seriously skeeved out.

    I agree with SAO that meeting with builders is an odd step if the heroine would rather sell the place as-is. Maybe her mother made the appointments without consulting her and she is just meeting with them as a courtesy?

    If the hero warmed up and the brand dropping were reduced I might keep reading. As it stands now this doesn’t suit my tastes and I would probably put the book back on the shelf.

  4. Jane Lovering
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 08:34:48

    Although I have to say that I love the voice in this, and the tone, I second (or third) those things mentioned above. Can I also add that ‘inheriting a haunted house’ is a very overdone trope too, to the extent now that I can imagine anyone coming into property thinking ‘oh great, bet it’s haunted…’
    Also, what’s ‘charming’ about a man who says you’re prettier than you sound on the phone? For one, he’s a sexist, secondly, what – he assumed she was ugly from her voice? And, thirdly – would anyone REALLY say this to a strange woman, without expecting her to leave, very quickly, by the back door?
    Additionally can I add a plea for heroines to PLEASE stop thinking how gorgeous/sexy/attractive/Adonis-like a man is on first meeting? Can they start noticing what a nice person he is, or what a nice personality he has before they jump straight into ‘whooooo, sexy-times!’? Men are people too, y’know, not just ‘looks on legs’.

  5. Jennifer Armintrout
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 08:58:43

    I’m going to chime in and say that I didn’t really have a problem with the brand name dropping. I assumed it was a set up for the “Too fussy” line. I mean, we’ve got a woman who is referring to her car, watch, and purse by brand name, and she has cleaning supplies in the trunk of her car in case of emergency, then she finds the house “too fussy.” That actually got an out-loud laugh from me.

    I kind of feel like a person like this heroine isn’t going to realistically sit around and wait for hours and hours.

    However, if she’s supposed to be super rich, a Coach bag isn’t getting that across to me. Neither is a Lexus.

    Title-wise, maybe consider a different one, because it’s pretty common. If you search for “Ghost of a Chance” on Amazon, you get over 3,000 results.

    @Jane Lovering, as for noticing what a nice personality someone has before mentioning their looks, that’s not how it really works in real life, is it? You see the person’s physical appearance first. Plus, if she’s just meeting the dude and he’s hours late for an appointment, she’s not going to think, “What a great guy this is, making me wait around for hours.” On the other hand, author, if I had been left waiting by someone for that long, I’m not going to find them attractive. Channing Tatum could walk through the door after making me wait four hours, and I would think he was a jerkbag, not super hot.

    I would keep reading this, provided that the heroine eventually transformed from material-obsessed fussbudget to a more relatable character, and there were hints of that happening fairly early on in the novel. I’m a huge sucker for “inherited haunted house” books.

  6. Irish Lass
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 10:28:52

    You’re a good writer, and kudos to you for posting your opening. It takes guts to do that! This is nicely crafted yet I’m not sensing what her real issue is, or the root of conflict. Her prime relationship seems to be with things and herself, e.g. “ramshackle Victorian,” “her Manolo-clad foot,” “her well-toned upper body,” “rickety dining chair” and “the scarred mahogany table.”

    The fact that she can’t sleep is lost. I’m overwhelmed with things and can’t get a sense of her.

    I am reading the magnificent James Scott Bell’s “Conflict and Suspense,” and there is one section on how writers linger in Happy Town too long. While this isn’t exactly “Happy Town,” the emphasis is on objects and the surface of things. I felt you could cut much of this and boil it down to the main conflict.

    Even though I know Sarah is disdainful of this house and seems to contrast it – with her new things, her Lexus, and herself as perfection, (her toned body), it’s hard for me to relate to her.

    Think of two older actresses for a moment. They’re not in their youthful prime to be sort of “automatically sympathetic.” Hollywood is for the young, youth is worshipped, celebrated. Once an actress is over 40, she’s got to plug away based on what she is inside. Let’s take a look at two actresses for a moment to illustrate my point: Meryl Streep and Sharon Stone. Many would say that Stone is the physical superior of Streep, she has an almost perfect symmetry to her face, etc. But who has landed more films and who do most audiences find most riveting? Streep. And that’s due to her inner life.

    Give your female lead an interesting, interior life.

    An interior life is what makes a literary figure fascinating. I think some romance writers today fall into the post-Carrie Bradshaw descriptions of things, trends, places, fashion, and most of these are pretty transient, even shallow. That’s TV, too, where an actor’s skill can elevate scripts, (Sarah Jessica Parker was the anchor of the show, and I think if you pulled her out, the series would deflate and lose its center – that’s how critical her acting was to giving depth to the material)

    Anyway – in a book, it’s critical that we bond with the lead’s thoughts and feelings.

    We bond with a lead who struggles. The underdog. We cannot shake off those who suffer. I watched “Gladiator” last night again with Russell Crowe, and he’s an honorable, deeply wounded character who must save Rome. Yep, that is dramatic, it’s an almost over-the-top goal – but Crowe accomplishes it because he conveys a quiet, dignified power.

    So let’s look at your character. I think it’s interesting she can’t sleep. I might suggest working on that. Think in terms of her suffering from it. Maybe she is a Type A alpha girl who can’t relax. Why can’t she get back to the spa for a massage to ease her stress, instead of it feeling like an indulgence? Maybe she has a headache or feels a migraine coming on. You could describe that in rich sensory detail, too, make us sympathize with her. Give me a hint as to what is stressing her out. Make me care about her. Make me vested in her outcome. Put some soul into her finely toned body.

    Personally, I’m not even sure you need to make this a ghost house. (the Victorian) As a plot driver, it (the house) could morph into something exciting and different.

    I’m okay with her being fit and driving a luxury car, but I’d love to see why she’s driven to work out so much, (5, 7 days per week). Why can’t she sleep? You have a great opening line, too, I want to know why she’s in Hartford, Nebraska. What is the weather like there? Couldn’t she react to her setting a bit more?

    Why couldn’t you add a little more dimension to your opening line:

    Sarah Carmichael had been in Hartford, Nebraska since noon. She’d been ready to leave at 12:15.

    It was now two o’clock.


    This shows both her impatience, (that she wants to leave after 15 minutes), but if you tack on the 2:00, it shows she has a flaw, she will wait, she has some persistence. Maybe the house is freezing inside and she shivers, she questions her sanity. But she has to see it through, it’s part of her nature, seeing something to its conclusion, rather than being impulsive or immature or a narcissist. She’ll wait, even if she doesn’t want to. A toddler or a diva can’t wait, an ordinary adult woman can, if she must. Make it a “must” for Sarah.

    I don’t mind the hero, would love some sense of instant conflict. Couldn’t she say, “You’re late,” and put him on the spot, and take that conflict deeper? It sounds like he’s more relaxed and she could be his jittery, controlling contrast. That could make a wonderful read!

    Conflict is what makes fiction compelling. Many romance writers struggle with conflict, and it’s essential to creating a page-turner.

    I think you’ve got the craftsmanship down, I’d love more of a story. Again, take or leave my suggestions, all I can do is offer ideas and hope my advice is constructive, and that it sparks insights. I wish you the best on your writing journey.

  7. reader
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 10:35:25

    If this is supposed to be a light, breezy, humorous, throwaway read, it’s ok. Completely predictable and cliched and a bit boring, but ok.

    If this is supposed to be any kind of story with weight and depth, with involving characters that feel real and alive and worth caring about, then no.

    It’s all surface and all been-there-done-that. She’s a character description for a stereotype. She’s not real. Neither is he.

    One thing I do like in the story is the situation and potential for an interesting story. But this, so far, isn’t the opening for the story I’d like to read. I have no interest in either character. They aren’t people. They’re barbie dolls.

    I’d like more setting description, too. Setting description that feels real. She doesn’t appreciate the house yet, but I’m assuming she’ll learn to. I’d like more of a sense of the house, because I assume it’s basically a character, itself.

    You can write, and you can write entertainingly. If you mean this as pure fluff, it’s not a bad start. But this could be so much more. It could be funny and charming and a lot more subtle and vastly more meaty. Slow down, inhabit your character, live her life, and set her in that house with a more well-rounded reaction, and I think I could be invested in her story.
    Sorry to be so harsh, but I wouldn’t even bother to comment if I didn’t think you have the potential to write a better story. And I think you do.

    (Unless, of course, it’s your intention to write fast fluff pieces instead of books with substance. I don’t have anything against those, as there are readers who love them, but since I don’t know what your intent is, I’d like to encourage you to put more thought in this one.)

  8. The Author
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 10:35:57

    Wow, these are some wonderful and thorough comments! Thank you all so much for taking the time to go over this so carefully. And I agree with a lot of your thoughts. I think I’m going to tone down the brand stuff (but yeah, I’m keeping the Lexus), and I need to trim quite a bit to get the story moving faster.

    The hero is going to stay gorgeous, because it’s the root of a lot of the coming conflict – I just need to get to it faster, I think! And maybe if I trim this back, you can get to know Sarah better, and faster. (She is kind of a bitch, so that’s okay. I just need to keep her on the sympathetic side of that line.)

    Again, thank you all for the really marvelous comments!

  9. Maura
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 13:06:05

    “Well, hello there. You must be Sarah. You’re even prettier than you sounded on the phone.”

    This creeped me out. If I’m alone in an unfamiliar place, I don’t care how good-looking this total stranger is- if this is the first thing out of his mouth, especially if I’m already in a vulnerable position like having fallen on my ass, this sends up DANGER DANGER flags for me, and I start looking for a way to get out of there. It’s a weird, stalkery thing to say, even if he is the hero and being introduced as such. Having him leaning on the porch further suggests he isn’t concerned about her at all- he wouldn’t step forward in alarm when he heard the commotion, but he’d rather just stand there while the door pops open and Sarah falls down? This would go a lot further with me if he at least asked if she were OK before getting creepy on her appearance.

    The brand names irritated me too. The first time, OK. But Lexus AND Manolos AND Cartier AND Coach all in one page? You might do better with descriptions than brand names here- say, “her diamond-encircled watch” or “her handmade Italian purse.” Throwing too many brand names around calls to mind a certain aspirational quality, like she’s someone who’s insecure enough about her money that she’s constantly calling attention to the expensive brands she buys. It reminds me of some of the awful self-insert stories I’d write in middle school, where I’d be sure to include the brand names of every article of clothing I- I mean, my heroine- was wearing so everybody would know how tasteful I was. I mean, she. She was.

  10. cbackson
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 14:49:55

    I got a strong and immediate sense that the heroine was a Type A, alpha female career woman who is going to be taught a Very Important Lesson about valuing the things that matter in life and who will end up leaving her high-powered career and moving to this small town for good.

    I hate that storyline.

    Leave out the Manolos, the Coach bag, and the Cartier. You date yourself and it’s too easy to screw up (for example, a woman with a Cartier watch is highly unlikely to be carrying a Coach bag – there’s a price-point mismatch there). Figure out how to love your heroine. If you don’t, why should the hero? And more importantly, why should the reader care about her?

    I would be unlikely to read on at this point, simply because as a highly driven, Type-A career woman who loves her job (and yes, who rocks the occasional sling-back Manolos), I’m tired of romances in which a heroine like me learns that all she really wants in life is to open a bakery in Smallville. If your opener convinced me that this was something other than a book about a successful female professional getting her comeuppance, I could probably be convinced to give it a shot.

  11. Marianne McA
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 17:56:09

    This is a may-well-just-be-me comment – but because first lines are so important, I’m going to mention it anyway.
    The switch from words to numbers disrupted the punchline of the joke for me. I find it funnier when it’s spelt out:

    Sarah Carmichael had been in Hartford, Nebraska since noon. She’d been ready to leave since a quarter past.

  12. JL
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 18:09:43

    I liked this. There’s nothing wrong with a breezy romance, and this sounds like a good start to one. I will agree with PPs that brand name dropping is a huge pet peeve of mine. It feels like a cop-out instead of putting in a real effort to describe the scene/character, KWIM? My creepy meter also went off with the ‘pretty as you sounded’ comment. It automatically makes me dislike the hero and the author will have to work very, very hard to convince me he’s not a jerky player. First impressions matter a lot in this time of book. That being said, I really liked the writing and and the premise (perhaps haunted houses are overdone, but I’ve yet to read one and it draws me in). In other words, I would definitely keep reading. Good job, author!

  13. Kat
    Nov 25, 2012 @ 11:02:33

    One thing you have to be careful about in naming brands is making sure they are classics and not short-term brands that won’t be recognizable in the future. You also might want to make sure they are internationally known, too. What goes here in the US may not be the same in the UK, for example, so I would watch for that. So I’d stick to descriptions and dropping the names. One example – the Cadillac, which was once the epitome of luxury has been replaced by the Lexus. So yeah, be careful what you name-drop.

  14. Lucy Woodhull
    Nov 25, 2012 @ 12:57:52

    “Sarah Carmichael had been in Hartford, Nebraska since noon. She’d been ready to leave since 12:15.”

    Please don’t change the first lines. It’s a perfect setup and joke.

    I don’t mind that there’s not a ghostie BOO on page one. Frankly, the “I inherited an old Victorian house that totes can’t be haunted!” is enough.

    I like your bitchy, prissy lady. I don’t know why, but I do. And I get the brand dropping — it’s on-purpose and I dig it. But the brands don’t match up. Coach with Cartier? No. Commit to Louis Vuitton if she’s stinking rich, but make the brands funnier and more regular if she’s not, and only pretending. It’s all setup for the “too fussy” line and I LOL’d. If you remove all the brands and the spotless suit, you ruin it. I usually hate brands, too, in a book, but to me you’ve made the reasoning solid — your heroine is kinda shallow, will learn A Lesson, etc. Screw the rules — you can make anything work if it serves the story. Rewatch Troop Beverly Hills to see a glorious name dropper worthy of love.

    If she’s a rich and important person, then she has an assistant. She’d be calling her assistant asking where the hell the builders were. Trust me on this one. Rich important people don’t have the number for the builder. They call a minion.

    The describing the hero in only visual terms didn’t bother me. She doesn’t know him — how is she supposed to know his strong jaw denotes tough moral fiber? I hate that, actually… when romances infer intelligence from sinewy thighs or whatever. She sees him, she likes what she sees, the end. I kinda hate that he says she’s even prettier than she sounds. I feel like our prissy gal would take umbrage to that, and it could help in the clearly opposites-attract-with-bonus-ghosts thing you’ve got going.

    I think maybe you haven’t quite taken her far enough, and that’s why there’s confusion about where the character is going. I say commit to the good stuff you’ve got going. If she were normaled up, I wouldn’t keep reading, because the setup is so cliché. But if she’s committed to her overblown, rich bitch fussiness, I like where it’s going. Good luck!

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