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First Page: Untitled historical

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The crowd noise almost deafened her. Nardine wiped a tear from her eye as she watched Gaius struggle in the arena. He was a great and handsome gladiator, with short black hair and a thick chest, strong of limb and lovely to behold. He was also the first man to grab Nardine’s attention since the death of Matthias, her first love, who died in the arena after being attacked by a group of savages.

Now the same thing was about to happen again. Her lover, taller than the three men sent up to battle against him, lay on the sand, flat on his back. Nardine couldn’t see his eyes, but she imagined she saw fear in them as the largest of his three opponents raised a club and smashed it into his head. His brown locks covered with blood, Gaius rolled over as the smallest man finished him off with a sword through the back. As Nardine gasped, she heard the lanista swear.
“I thought he had it in him to best these three nobodies. I bet much coin on him. I am disgusted. This should not have happened.”

Nardine silently agreed. Gaius was a strong man and a practiced gladiator, and not a particularly young one. He won many matches in the ring against multiple opponents before today. And now he was dead. He had loved Nardine in a silent, inscrutable way she could not put into words. He was gentle as they made love, and his willingness to listen to her complaints about life at the ludus impressed her. At the start of the day, she had looked forward to another night of love with Gaius, as he had requested her from the lanista after his last five matches. Instead of loving her, he would be lying on a cold stone slab, waiting for his funeral rites. And Nardine would never hold him again.

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. Carol McKenzie
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 08:02:26

    Hi author and thanks for sharing.

    I don’t think I’m your reader so I probably wouldn’t read further. I’m not certain of the historical accuracy of your gladiator scene but something seems a bit off. I don’t believe gladiators ever expressed fear in the ring; maybe it’s that line where I find it hard to suspend disbelief.

    I can say you probably needed another edit before this was submitted. You have Gaius with black hair in the first description and brown hair as he is being smashed in the head.

    There are also some curiously redundant phrases.

    “Now the same thing was about to happen again.” ‘Again’ could be left off, since it’s the same as ‘the same thing’.

    “…silent, inscrutable way she could not put into words.” Inscrutable means impossible to understand, so telling us she couldn’t put it into words is what inscrutable means.

    You lost me a little after the lanista’s comment, which was said in disgust, and Nardine agrees with. Is she agreeing with his disgust? If so, it’s confusing then that she goes on to express her love. I believe you meant to have her agree with his statement that Gaius should not have lost, but it doesn’t come across that way for me on the first read.

  2. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 08:26:08

    I don’t get the feel for any ancient world here. It’s more like the movie “Gladiator” (which is about as accurate as “Braveheart” to its era), not a real step into the Roman world. Take the names. “Nardine” and “Matthias” aren’t Roman names. While the Romans conquered many civilisations, they tended to Romanise everything they came across, so for instance Nardine would become Nardina, or something similar, or they couldn’t parse it properly. Unlike ours, the language was all-encompassing.
    Read Mary Renault or one of Robert Graves’s Roman novels and you’re there. They know their worlds and they take you straight there. As a reader you don’t have to know a lot because they do. I want that same kind of trust when I’m reading a book about a relatively unfamiliar world.
    For the storyline – I’m not sure I want to read a romance that starts with the death of a lover, especially so brutally. And you need to go into more detail. “Smashed a club into the back of his head” is “telling,” it gives me, the reader, no experience of what is there. Does it bleed a lot? Does he leave bits of bone on the ground? Are people waiting to deal with the soiled sand? That kind of thing. Fill it out a bit, if you have to start the book with a scene like this. Read the first page of Suzanne Brockmann’s “Breaking the Rules” where an explosion happens. She really takes you there, draws you in.
    Isn’t your heroine going to spend the rest of the book mourning him? And isn’t anything that happens going to be a rebound romance?
    Where is she watching the contest from? If she’s a slave, it’s highly unlikely she’d be allowed to watch. Seats were for freedmen and women, and cost money. Unlikely her master would let her have a free show.

  3. Carol McKenzie
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 08:34:30

    @Lynne Connolly:

    Yes, to the rebound romance issue. In effect, Gaius was a rebound from the first gladiator.

  4. cleo
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 08:56:00

    I don’t think this is where your story starts. That’s really all I can think of to say, so I’ll let the more knowledgeable commenters talk about authenticity and grammar.

  5. Kate Sherwood
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 09:14:28

    I love heroines who initially come off as unsympathetic, so if that’s your intention here, I’m intrigued. Your heroine seems cold – wiping away a tear isn’t a sign of deep distress, we’re not given any indication that this incident is more than upsetting for her – so if that’s deliberate, it’s cool (for me, at least). If this story is about how she’s been numbed by abuse and doesn’t allow herself to feel any deep emotions until X and Y happen, excellent.

    If it’s NOT about that, though, I think you need to work on giving this woman some deeper reactions to what she’s seeing.

    If it IS what you’re trying for, I think I’d go a little further and give her no reactions at all. Right now, you’ve got her showing weak emotion, so she just seems… weak. I’d prefer to have her more fully committed to whatever her reactions are going to be.

    I think you could also work on your word choices. Sometimes it feels as if you’re going for an ‘authentic’ historical voice (tricky when you’re writing in English!) and sometimes things feel quite modern. You’re using modern idioms (‘wiped a tear’ ‘grab Nardine’s attention’) but then leaving out words in dialogue (‘bet much coin’) as if going for a historical flavour. But Nardine herself lives in that world, so it makes no sense to have the narrative feel modern when the dialogue doesn’t.

    I think you can make your language a lot more evocative, too. Your first sentence means a lot, and you could make yours do more than it is. “The crowd noise almost deafened her” doesn’t tell us much about the nature of the crowd or about her reaction to it. “Nardine was swept up in the triumphant roaring of the boisterous crowd” or “The screams of outrage from the crowd washed over Nadine’s quiet shock” could both fit into the range of possibilities presented by a sentence as vague as the one you wrote. Better to be more precise, especially in a sentence so important.

    Like I said, if this is a deliberately numb and unfeeling heroine, who’s maybe going to grow into a tough freedom fighter or wily assassin? I’m IN. But I need it to be made more clear to me on this first page.

  6. theo
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 10:15:42

    Aside from the other comments I agree with, I don’t like your Hn. Her ‘first love’ dies in the ring so she rebounds to a second who also dies in the ring, supposedly in front of her though her vantage point is in question for the time setting, and all she can do is gasp? And agree with someone who says, “this should not have happened.” She’s not torn, not emotional, no tears, no hollow feeling in her chest, no agony at her lover’s death, nothing. She’s flat and one dimensional. She thinks about how they would make love but now he’ll be laying on a slab. Where is her emotional investment in this man? Where is her heartbreak that the man she supposedly loved has just been murdered? She’s not in shock, she’s not upset, she’s not anything. She’s not for me. Sorry. I don’t want to spend 300 pages with someone like that.

    This is definitely not where your story starts but it will be where most readers finish. You need to bring your characters to life to keep your reader interested. What does the area smell like? What is the energy level. You mention the noise, but that’s it. Is it hot? Those arenas were open air and the sun beat down mercilessly on the spectators. Sweaty bodies, screaming fans, was the emperor in attendance? You said this love of hers was one of the best. How would the emperor react to losing a favorite? The setting is as flat as your Hn.

    Put yourself in the stands if you must and imagine what it feels like and write that. Imagine how you’d feel if you were watching your love murdered and you couldn’t do anything about it. That’s what you need to put on this page. Bring it to life. As it stands now, it would be a ‘back on the shelf’ for me.

  7. Kilian Metcalf
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 15:33:02

    Thumbs down.

  8. Carolyne
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 15:43:51

    I’m having trouble posting…please pardon this little test comment!

  9. Jamie Beck
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 17:46:32

    So, I’m basically your audience because I love historical romance. Because I view historical romance as a great escape from reality, I’m also one of those readers who doesn’t nit pick accuracy (although in non-romantic historical fiction I want accuracy) as long as I’m caught up in the characters and have some sense of reasonable credibility in the “historical” setting, actions, dialogue, etc.

    I agree, however, with others who’ve noted that this story isn’t opening in the right place. All of this is about her ‘watching’ action…and sort of passively reacting to it. If I were in love with a man who’d just been bludgeoned to death, my reaction would be stronger (even if I’d had to go through that once before).

    I don’t dislike her for having found love again after her first love was killed…but I don’t particularly like her for her tepid, distant emotional response to the scene she’s watching. I don’t have a strong sense of the protag…or where this story is going to go…so I’m not hooked into reading more.

    I can’t quite put my finger on what, precisely, isn’t working for me with your writing style/voice in this sample, so I apologize. Others have noted some word choice issues, etc. For me, perhaps it comes down to the “telling” instead of showing in these paragraphs. This is just a summary of your protags thoughts…and they are very detached…so it isn’t as compelling as it should be.

    Not sure if this was helpful. Sorry! But good luck. I commend anyone willing to try to write in this genre. So hard.

  10. txvoodoo
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 21:01:39

    I love ancient Rome, so I’d be your target here, but this isn’t grabbing me. There’s no real feel of the setting, other than “gladiator” and “lanista.”

    Gaius is the only name that feels right, too. Nardine is just a *strange* name.

    Why is she at a ludus? Is she a servant? A slave? What kind of ludus is this?

    If she’s a slave, why is she watching the games?

    Too much doesn’t fit.

  11. Carolyne
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 06:24:24

    Hi, author.

    The title intrigues me!

    A few folks have talked about the heroine. Her being cold or on the double rebound aren’t necessarily deal breakers for me–just makes it a tougher story to pull off. She doesn’t quite seem cold/distant at the moment, or like she’s in the process of shutting her emotions down; she seems under-described. But I’d find an emotional journey toward opening herself again, or for the first time, interesting.

    I’m more concerned about the setting, though. I think the first page struggles right from the first sentence. Because the details are unspecific–a gladiator, an arena, opponents/men–I’m not sure whether it’s meant to be Rome (real or alt history) or a world with Rome-like trappings.

    If the former, the details feel off–from the name choice to lacking “local” flavour. A person isn’t just a gladiator, they’re a specialist in a certain type of gladiatorial fighting, all with different helmets or other body protection and weapons and techniques. You could mine that to enhance your description of Gaius and the action and give a sense of why an experience fighter who was trained to defeat multiple opponents couldn’t do it. Arenas varied from small to vastly elaborate. Description of the size and variety of the crowd, of the awnings, the decorations, the food sellers would make it less generic. If it’s a huge arena, maybe she thinks in sad amazement about how the year before they had staged a naval battle there and now another lover is dying on a desert of dry sand, etc. etc.

    I think you’ll find it inspiring and helpful, no matter how much you already know about the setting, to go back and read nonfiction or watch documentaries or find some solid web resources, and let that all flow in and see what percolates in your imagination–so that when you write about the heroine’s surroundings, details will easily flow back out. Not super-specific textbook information, but how you’d expect it to smell, feel, what her eyes will brush across as she looks around, etc. It never hurts to refresh the inspiration well, no matter how much you’ve poured down there in the past.

    If this is a world that has a bit of a Roman tone to it but isn’t history/alt-history, I’d want clues about that right away so I know I shouldn’t expect it to be too similar. Like…the three moons glowing faintly in daytime over the arena that meant the fighter should have had good luck, or a description of the opponents that shows they’re from an alien culture, or how the ruler of Something Not Named Rome is watching from her special throne…

    I’m always interested in stories set in Rome or Rome-like settings, so I hope you find everyone’s comments helpful for taking another run at the storytelling.

  12. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 07:25:27

    For fun:
    Nardina closed her eyes, and lowered her parasol, letting the scorching August sun beat down on her unprotected head. Around her the crowd bayed, the crescendo of hounds closing in for the kill. Tears scorched her eyelids, but she dare not let them fall. Not with everyone watching.
    “Open your eyes.” Her brother pinched her arm painfully. “Your choice to take gladiators as lovers. The least you can do is watch them die.”

    Or something. Interesting premise but you need to get your reader involved from the get-go.

  13. Maura
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 09:44:43

    Others have better touched on the historical details. Imagine your reader is asking one question while looking over your first page. That question is “Why should I care about these people?” Right now you’re giving me a lot of show, not tell. I don’t feel any real reason to connect with your heroine. I don’t feel her pain. I don’t have any sense of consequence or weight. In short, I don’t really have a reason to care about her serial gladiator dating. Give me one. Lynne’s rewrite above grabbed my attention, possibly because the addition of an external voice immediately throws the whole situation into sharp perspective AND gives a sense of emotional connection.

  14. Author
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 17:38:29

    You should all know that I worked for twenty years as a journalist and also taught journalistic writing at the college level. Occasionally I would have a student who just “didn’t get it,” no matter how hard he or she tried. I usually gave them a “C” for effort.
    I can tell you that having the shoe on the other foot is no fun. I appreciate the fact that some of you tried to provide some guidance. I have been at this for more than two years and have published a book, but am learning I have real difficulty with the language of emotion.For many years I had to banish any emotion from my writing and it is proving to be difficulty to insert it now. This book is actually a sequel to a novella I sold but which ended up being self published after the publisher folded. The character Nardine was mentioned in the earlier novella, so I can’t change her name now. I can’t change her history, either. Gaius actually is not a rebound romance. Her earlier affair happened several years earlier, and is also mentioned in the first book. As far as whether or not slaves were allowed in the arena — I have researched it and there are differing views regarding whether slaves were allowed in the Colosseum. There were many amphitheaters, however, in Rome and outside of it, in addition to the Colosseum, and the emperor didn’t go to all of them. Some of the writing prompts were helpful, I appreciate that. Please keep in mind that most people who are submitting their writing to this site realize they are having difficulties and would appreciate some positive reinforcement.

  15. Carol McKenzie
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 20:02:59

    Hi author,

    While your credentials are impressive, and it’s understandable you are having difficulty unlearning, or relearning, writing habits, you don’t get the luxury of telling that to readers of your book. All you have is what you put on each page. There are no do-overs, or second chances, or footnotes to explain the whys behind your story.

    As far as positive reinforcement from critiques, speaking only for myself, I value those that seem the harshest. Critiques that only offer the positive, without the balance of the negative, aren’t all that valuable. I want to hear what someone disliked about my work, what they found unrealistic, what didn’t work for them on the page. I don’t take it personally; it’s my writing, but it’s not me they’re critiquing. I still like myself just as much after reading them.

    As a writer, I’m far too close to my work to be objective. I want someone to tell me when my character is unlikable or my dialog drags or my plot has holes big enough to drive a truck through. I don’t learn or grow by hearing only the positive. While it may be a great ego boost, it’s not going to help me grow as a writer, or write better stories.

    You wrote something and had the courage to put it out here for critique. Good for you. When you publish your book, you’re going to be putting stuff out there that people are going to pay money for. And someone on Amazon or Goodreads is going to post a one-star review and tear your book apart. Learning now how to take a less-than-positive critique with a grain or three of salt, and not let it be personal, is pretty valuable, along with learning how to improve your writing.

  16. Author
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 21:18:11

    If I were to have my journalistic writing critiqued, I would agree with you completely. I have enough confidence in my ability to write in that style; I already know my strengths and weaknesses. But, as I said, I’ve been doing it for more than thirty(!) years now.

    As a former college teacher, I can tell you that if I gave a two word response, “Thumbs down,” on a paper I didn’t like I might be drummed out of the classroom if the student complained about it. Granted, this isn’t a college classroom, and sometimes, as I noted, certain people just don’t “get it.” But I firmly believe that people learn better when given some encouragement.

  17. Carol McKenzie
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 21:38:19

    If I got the “thumb’s down” response, I’d just pass it off as someone who didn’t like the story but didn’t give me anything to work with, and I’d feel I lost an opportunity to learn (although I did find the reply witty; I may not have if it had been on my own submission).

    And then I’d move on to a reply that did give me something to learn from, whether that’s a positive comment or a negative one. Maybe I have thicker skin than you, but nothing here is inherently negative, to my eyes. Even the thumb’s down isn’t negative; no, it’s not encouraging, but it is someone’s opinion and they’re being honest. I value someone’s honest opinion of my work above all else.

    This may sound harsh (and you already know this), but no one is going to hold your hand or always give you positive encouragement. In many cases, critiques are going to be harsh. It’s part and parcel of writing and publishing. Rejections are more common than acceptance. And while, for the most part, I feel you got encouragement here, no one is required to do so.

    I guess I see it this way: people read your work and took the time to comment, and that’s a form of encouragement. They offered suggestions. They could have just passed over and said nothing.

  18. theo
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 18:31:45

    Dear author,

    I agree with Carol in that I see a great deal of encouragement here. People commented! People took the time to read it and gave you both suggestions to improve and also suggestions on where to delete. Had they not bothered, had you seen no comments at all and heard only crickets chirping on this particular DA page, that would have been the most discouraging thing you could have received.

    You said you’ve been at this for more than two years. Some of us are not published in fiction but have been working at it for five, seven, ten years. Learning, honing in a genre that is very, very hard to break into. A dear friend of mine is a best-selling author who took almost 20 years to get there. She has more than 40 books in print now, but I can’t imagine where she’d be today if she’d thought two years would be a pinnacle for her and rushed through things. She has a huge box full of rejections and comments such as you received here. It’s what pushed her to continue.

    If you haven’t yet, might I suggest you read On Writing by Stephen King and Save the Cat (and the sequel) by Blake Snyder. There are many, many books out there to help you learn the craft and most of the people commenting here could recommend their favorites as well. Try a few of them. They’ll help you a great deal.

    You aren’t writing a technical journal or a dry piece of information for a student. You’re writing something that has to come alive on the page. The characters have to breathe and we as readers need to feel it against our necks. That takes time. It’s a very rare thing to find someone who can write so well little editing is required on the first try.

    Good luck.

  19. SAO
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 23:29:14

    It’s worth remembering that you got comments on just one page. It’s very hard to give positive suggestions with such a small sample. We don’t know enough about your chars or your plot to know whether your problem is you have a great char and great plot and your introduction doesn’t do them justice or if the issues go deeper than page one, which is one of the hardest pages to get right.

    FWIW, I wrote a comment that got lost. I thought this page was not the place to start your story, but without knowing more about the plot or chars, I can’t tell you where to start so I discussed why I didn’t think this page was working for me (basically the same as many other people said).

    Volunteer amateur critiques can be valuable, but you have to figure out what is valuable and what isn’t. If your blurb will say, “Living on the edge made Nardine numb . . .” then having her come across as emotionless on page one might not be a problem. If you’ve set this at the edges of the Roman empire, (I’ve been to Roman amphitheaters in Bulgaria, Tunisia, and Turkey), then have details you know are correct but seem off to people with familiarity with Rome, maybe you need to make the location clearer.

    Volunteer, amateur critics have no consequences for offering bad, useless, or cruel advice, unlike a teacher who could be reprimanded or fired. Nor are there consequences for offering good advice in a very harsh way. This is why you need a thick skin. Most writers greatly benefit from criticism and hiring editors is expensive.

  20. Carol McKenzie
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 08:43:02

    Hi Author,

    Another thought: If you want to write romances, read romances. Find one you love, open to a passage that has an emotional scene and read it. Pay attention to how she/he conveys emotion, what words and phrases are used, gestures included. I’m a big Diana Gabaldon fan; Outlander (the first book) is full of emotionally charged scenes. But to know the genre you’re interested in writing, you need to read in that genre. You need to read across many genres as well, but knowing how other writers write can greatly help improve your own writing.

    If you’re serious about romances, you may want to join a professional organization, such as Romance Writers of America. As SAO said above, volunteer crit groups have no consequence in offering their advice. You may find a professional organization more to your liking.

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