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First Page: Westward Rose

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Update: I switched out the previous first page at the request of the author.


This is a historical romance set in the autumn of 1865, post Civil War.

“Westward Rose”

“Mister, I think the only reason you’re here is to take my money.” The geezer clutching two aces and two eights slipped a hand inside his vest, withdrawing an ivory-handled knife. “No one has your kind of luck.”

Jack burned a stare from underneath the brim of his hat. Men at surrounding tables sucked in their breaths. The piano player lifted his fingers off the keys and the barkeep stopped polishing glasses.

From the wall behind the bar, the regulator clock’s pendulum swung.

Tick.

Tick.

A man wearing an eye patch grabbed the geezer’s arm. “Don’t, Halsey. He’s packing Colts.” His one good eye lowered to the shoulder boards on Jack’s frockcoat. “Halsey didn’t mean nothing, sir. He’s a sore loser, is all.”

Jack answered with a tight smile and scooped up his winnings from the gambling table. “The war ended at Appamattox, my friends,” he drawled, although there wasn’t a friendly face among them, three grizzled men who’d gobbled too much drought dust and regretted their gambling impulses that afternoon. Outside of St. Louis, Missouri was a no-man’s land that knew no loyalties to the Federals or the Rebs. Two days earlier, Jack rode in, parched and sore, his horse as sandy as his Union-issue uniform. He’d collapsed onto a bed above the saloon and twelve hours later, tested the mattress springs with a hot-tongued married gal. Three times on the squeaky brass bed and once against the wall. So much sparking he thought they’d torch the blankets.

Narrowing his gaze, he chomped on a cigar, adding to the smoke pluming to the ceiling. Black Jack Stanton took before he could get taken. Give him a reason to earn more gold for his pockets and a beautiful woman who was imaginative with her hands, and he could blot out the horrors he’d witnessed and what happened to his sister Beatrice.

Bea, out of breath and fretful. Baked biscuits harder than fence posts, patched his coat up during his last furlough. Bea. Christ help me. Sweat broke out above his lip. Jack slammed his empty glass on the uneven wood surface.

The bartender rushed forward, sloshing the shot glass with amber liquid. “Food’s coming.”

Jack flipped a coin between his forefinger and thumb, kept his eye trained on the parlor. Damask wallpaper cloaked the saloon in a brimstone red. The wood railing appeared as though it had cracked open under a brawl and had been hastily repaired.

“Some fine eats here.” The barkeep nodded toward the back. “Old Man Simpson’s got himself a new cook.”

“Hmm.” Like he gave a hare’s ass. The knife-grabbing geezer had left, as had other men. Jack had blown through the dozen or so gamblers in this one-trick town, biding time until he met with the colonel. According to the cryptic note Jack had received a month ago, the newest mission involved locating the missing wife of a railroad tycoon. The colonel was the go-between, the deal-maker, Jack the gun-for-hire.

The colonel was a day late, though. He was never late.

A peacock feather and seawater silk blurred as a fancy girl passed near his chair, trailing perfume. Her kohl-lined eyes danced upward to the brothel rooms. “Care to play a hand with me, handsome?”

“Play a hand, lay a hand.” He slid a palm over the silk covering her thigh. “Always up for a few horizontal refreshments.”

She drew out an Asian fan, a half-circle trimmed in black lace. Tiny white letters spelled out one word, just before she snapped it back.

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

18 Comments

  1. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 09:02:19

    It’s a poor attempt at hardboiled fiction. Ditch the style until you get the technicalities right.
    The first simile made me wince. Was the guy wearing pink and red? What? The booths were red? Because it took me a while to work it out (I’m not that familiar with the layout of diners). Compare that to the description at the beginning of “The Big Sleep.” Read it and you’re there, even if you know nothing about Marlowe or Chandler or LA in the thirties. And everything is to the point. Marlowe notices because he needs to. From the descriptions, you get his character, the way he’s looking for escape routes, his jaded attitude. No sentence is wasted, whereas your hero dots around all over the place. He’s angry? He’s flirtatious. Why? Read this and you’re going “Wha?” Or I am. Maybe it’s just me. Or maybe it’s the leprechaun in the corner.
    See what I mean?
    Down to the technicalities. How difficult is it to pronounce Armani or Valentino anyway, especially when you can hear the names on the TV and other places? Are we talking Ferragamo here? Doesn’t compute. And I can see the designers coming in for the kill, having one of their creations described as a “sport coat.” And how does the onlooker know his target is wearing that? Can he see the label, or does he have an eye for fashion?
    Second para – you’re still talking about the man sprawled in the booth, right? Oh, no, right.
    How do you “sip it black”? You sip the black coffee, but here you’re associating the adjective with the verb. Change of tense, if you’re talking about the past, he had seen the cornfields.
    I spot a martyr in the making, since he’s doing this for somebody else. Also a revenge plot. I’m almost out at this point, as I dislike both tropes.
    Then – why does the diner have hairpin curves? Oh, wait, it’s the waitress. A stereotypical diner waitress but hairpin curves make her distorted. Hell, I live in the UK, and I’ve read enough of those to last me a lifetime. Aaand that’s it, I’m out.
    What the others said about hanging participles and the other problems.
    Work less on the style and more on the technicalities. Walk before running.

  2. Patricia
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 09:26:04

    The “kid’s tongue on a cherry popsicle” comparison did not work for me. I got an image of the guy lying in the booth and intently licking the apholstery. I know that’s not what you intended, but it made me literally giggle — not the effect you were going for, I’m sure.

    I also did not care for the description of the waitress. It felt forced, but worse it came across as very stereotypical, and a demeaning stereotype at that. The first and so far only woman in this story seems to exist solely to be sexually available to the main character. (And to serve him food, I guess, though I don’t think that improves the picture much.)

    Furthermore, the interaction between her and Cooper did not feel real. Would a server really be so brazen — tacky, even — with a customer right off the bat, and would a customer, even a famous one, accept this as normal without so much as a blink of an eye? Also, I am not a NASCAR expert but I wonder if the sponsors are famous enough in their own right to be recognized on the street. I thought sponsors were usually corporations rather than individuals.

  3. wikkidsexycool
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 09:46:43

    Edited to add: I see Westward Rose up, which is listed as a historical romance. Was there another story up earlier? It’s just because as I read the comments before mine, they appear to reference a different first page.

    Hello Author,

    Thanks for having the courage to submit this. Your writing is skillful, but I’m not sure this if this is the best place to start your story.

    I think my main concern is with your lead character. Jack is the problem. He’s just not as interesting or hard as you’re trying to make him come across. For example:

    “Some fine eats here.” The barkeep nodded toward the back. “Old Man Simpson’s got himself a new cook.”

    “Hmm.” Like he gave a hare’s ass.

    Hmm? Now why would a grizzled ex soldier even say that word? It read like something modern inserted into the story. As I read further, Jack becomes a caricature of the old west. He drawls, he chomps down on a cigar, his stare burns, he flips a coin etc. There’s nothing jumping out that makes his character unique.

    And because I’m supposed to see this scene through Jack’s eyes, I felt that he sure knew lots about minute details of the saloon itself, that read more like an author’s omnipresent voice inserting elements to make the scene seem more authentic. I think you can cut some of that and still get your point across.

    What I did like is his backstory about his sister. And while I enjoyed the details on the bar, I think you may want to edit a bit more. Perhaps some action happening at the table, instead of men backing down would help. But again, thanks for letting us read your first page. I wish you all the best with this.

  4. Meoskop
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 11:02:22

    I wouldn’t read further if this was a sample. There is waaaaayyyy too much going on. He likes to sleep with married women, working women, strange women, STD alert combined with Magic Attracting Wang and possibly Predator. Obviously something very bad happened to his sister and his coping reaction is treating other people’s sister’s like kleenex. In one page we’ve got the sibling back story set up, cheating at cards in a saloon, his lack of concern for others, PTSD and gun for hire. Plus other stuff. I don’t know much about who he is outside of the cliche stack but I know enough not to spend more time with him. I would slow is way down and ask why the reader would want to know this guy – focus there for a second and slowly open that up before tossing in so many other elements.

  5. Willa
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 11:12:55

    I am sorry – but this reads as one long Western cliche from start to finish. The only thing missing is a few tumbleweeds and a casket with a dead person in it on the porch.

    When I reached the part when his name is revealed as Black Jack Stanton – that is when it would have gone back on the shelf.

    Oh and my guess – the new cook is the missing wife of the railroad tycoon! :D

  6. SAO
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 11:14:20

    Okay, take two, new story; W. Rose.

    You start with what should be a very tense scene, but it isn’t. When the old geezer pulls the knife, I’m too busy figuring out what’s going on: that it’s a poker game and Jack is our hero. By the time I have the basics down, the tension’s gone.

    Then we get a bunch of backstory. In the mean time, the threat of a guy with a knife and a bar full of unfriendly faces is gone. This makes the whole scene deeply unreal. It’s like western saloon wallpaper at a restaurant chain.

    You close the page with a prostitute and the hero paying for sex, both of which are turn-offs for me. It would be okay, in the context of a great page, but not with this. You need to learn how to write a tense scene.

    This could be turned around easily. For example, if you started Jack looking at his hand and needing to win the pot to have the money to meet some goal, then winning and then the threat, it might mean something. But if you do that, you can’t forget about the hostile faces a few paras later.

  7. Willa
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 11:16:20

    @wikkidsexycool: Yes, there was another excerpt up first thing. Jane has posted at the top of the post

    Update: I switched out the previous first page at the request of the author.

  8. Lori
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 11:19:04

    Author: you’re trying too hard. Both first pages were too full to be readable, you’re trying to give so much personality and scene and attitude in the beginning that it becomes too much and messy.

    Slow it down. Don’t jump from a card game and “yer cheatin” said the grizzly old-timer to sex three times with a married woman and then look, he’s remembering his sister but no, now there’s a new cook and a saloon girl and and and….

    When they say start in the action, honestly, not like this. Take out the cliches, give us a better sense of the hero as a human being and take the caricatures out of your characters.

  9. Victoria Paige
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 12:48:51

    This is a great feature of this site for authors, especially beginning ones like me. Starting my second book soon and will try to submit here.

  10. Patricia
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 13:13:11

    My first comment was for the page that originally appeared here. I requested deletion when I saw the page had changed between the time I started writing and when I actually posted. Sorry about the confusion. Also, I see I misspelled “upholstery.” How embarrassing.

    Anyway, I actually liked the first First Page more than this one. This selection reads as cliche after cliche strung together. I also see even more of the virgin/whore dichotomy in this piece. We’ve got a a “hot-tongued married gal” whose only purpose apparently was to be repeatedly screwed and then forgotten by the hero, a long-suffering caregiver sister who motivated the hero by dying horribly, and then we get back to the literal whores with the fancy girl and her blatant invitation. If this is what we get on the first page, I don’t feel very confident about the treatment of women in the rest of the book. I would not be reading on.

  11. Gillyweed
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 13:37:31

    I was so confused by the first few comments! It was almost like we were reading a different page… ;)
    I thought the writing was promising here, but storywise, it didn’t add much to the western genre that hasn’t already been done, most recently in AMC’s crappy “Hell on Wheels” show (the main character heads west to blot out the horrors of what he witnessed in the war and what happened to his wife). I liked the writing though, so I think if you can work out the cliches — maybe think about why you feel compelled to write this particular story — you could have something very readable. Best of luck.

  12. yotaArmai
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 15:33:06

    I feel like your first page was giving me whiplash. I didn’t know what detail was important since they are all thrown in there with nearly equal page time. I agree with above poster who said to start with the card game and follow through. Maybe he backs off some to avoid drawing attention to himself. Or maybe he’s more doc holiday, quick on the draw.

    Cliches can be fun when they are twisted slightly, or played with. The familiarity of it allows a little shorthand and can even set up expectations that can be later dashed.

    Bottom line find and focus on one thing. If you throw everything and the kitchen sink in on the first page, what will be left by page 2?

  13. Cristiane
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 16:03:58

    The aces and eights hand that the “geezer” was holding took me right out of the story – that’s famously the “dead man’s hand” that Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was killed.

  14. Author
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 18:40:37

    Thank you, everyone, for your advice. (Thanks too, to Jane, for substituting the Civil War era story instead of the former one).

    Your points are well-taken, (cliché-riddled, whiplash-y, too much happening). Appreciate your time, and I’ll work hard to improve.

  15. Willa
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 18:59:35

    @Author: Good luck with your writing . . you have a great attitude!

  16. Angela Booth
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 22:56:06

    Thanks for your Western – I dearly love them. You have writing talent too, with a smooth style.

    However, as others have pointed out, you’ve dragged in way too many cliche characters in a single page.

    Check out “Appaloosa” and the other Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole Westerns by Robert B. Parker. His novels are character-focused, sparsely written, and fun. This may be the kind of thing you’re aiming at.

    Think CHARACTERS first. Get to know them yourself, as people, then stay in their head as you write.

    For scene setting and a real sense of place, check out “Bugles in the Afternoon”, by Ernest Haycox. (It’s an old novel but a great one.) I reread the first chapter every few months to remind myself what sheer brilliance looks like. :-)

    Please — keep going! I love Westerns, and I’m sure that once you hit your stride, you’ll write books I will want to read.

  17. Caro
    Mar 31, 2013 @ 08:54:29

    Whenever I start a book, I’m looking for a character I can bond with. Even if it’s the villain, I want this…attachment. I want a piece of their goal at least – or their problem. And I want a piece of “them” – their personality. And it has to be consistent. Something I can “plant” myself on. A character who isn’t going to morph from a bad boy into a cuddly beta guy in a couple of pages. Or gee, let’s hope, not even the whole book.

    With this first page, I’m confused. He’s about to get in a gun fight, but then that fades away. I initially thought – Wow! Great! He’s got a big problem. But it just..disappeared. Then I don’t really have much of a clue why he’s around this bar until we go through several paragraphs of women he’s slept with, sisters he’s lost and…ah… then we get to the colonel and the next mission.

    Okay. A goal.

    But the problem is, by now, you’ve lost me. Because I don’t have a clear bead on Jack. And what I do get of him, I don’t much like. He’s been to bed with a married woman – and doesn’t think much of getting back with her or the fact that she’s married. Then he’s all angsty about his sister – too much too fast for such a hard core guy. And at the end, he’s playing with an entirely different woman.

    So I’m left with a hard, tough guy who’s a softy for his sis, who will jump from bed to bed -whether the woman is married or not – who’s contact for his next mission is a day late, when the he’s never been late before – but Jack doesn’t care because he’s going to go have some more sex.

    I think you need to figure out Jack.

  18. Author
    Apr 01, 2013 @ 07:55:16

    Thanks for these additional comments, advice and book recommendations. Appreciate your time and feedback, everyone. I’ll work harder and smarter next time.

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