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First Page: The Red Dress

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Note: This first page submission was marked “romance” and is presented as the author requested.

She was a hot chick in a red dress. I could smell the faint odor of last night’s sex on her, a combination of smoke, booze, and semen.  I loved that smell, disgusting and sexy at the same time, all too familiar for guy like me. She looked a bit worried, but used to it. Makeup wasn’t quite perfect, but did she care? I certainly didn’t.


We had been sitting next to each other at the bar, awkwardly pretending not to notice one another. She seemed far away, distant, I tried not to stare. Me? I had just dropped two hundred dollars on a losing horse in the Kentucky Derby, leaving me with about twenty, my last twenty. Run for the Roses?  Fat chance for this asshole! Another bourbon and a shot at the tragic blonde in the aforementioned red dress was all I had left, except for the stained and poorly fitting suit I was wearing. Armani himself would punch me in my drunken face if he saw the condition of this once beautiful and well tailored garb.

“Fuck it.” I thought to myself, as I lit my 27th cigarette of the day. Or was it my 26th? “Jesus, I’m getting to old for this shit.” I mumbled, dropping my forehead gently into my calloused and slightly arthritic hand. I could hear the words of my Grandfather: “Never bet the track,” he would say, “they’ll burn you every time.” I took a deep breathe, looked over at the hot chick sitting next to me, she was looking back.

“Hi, how are you doing tonight?” Her voice was sexy, a bit rough yet feminine. It sounded like years of needing coffee to get excited and how the hell did my life come to this?

“Lose money too?” I asked. “On what?” she replied. “The Derby.” “Oh I don’t really get into that kind of stuff,” she answered. “You know, betting and races?” “Smart,” I replied.

“Smarter than I am,” I thought to myself. I had watched the race earlier at a joint down the street.  The betting patrons were gathered around the old TV at the end of the bar, screaming at their hopefuls, as if the horses could feel their urges and heed their demands.  I sat quietly at the back of the room, shaking my head slowly as the horse I bet on lost it on the backstretch. He was close, we both were. Not close enough.

“How much did you lose?” She asked, bringing me back to the moment. “Too much to make it a topic of conversation,” I responded, shaking my head and looking down at my drink.

“Well, what should we talk about?” She replied, turning toward me slightly. Her left leg was draped over the right. She rested her left arm on the back of her barstool, twirling a chewed pink straw between the fingers of her right hand. The black polish on her fingernails looked old, chipped. We talked for a while, about what I can’t remember. She was nice, relaxed. I liked her easy going style. She laughed at the right times and moved with graceful ease when she gestured. Things seemed to be going fine until: “Oh great!” She said, “Time to go.”

“Not on my account I hope?” I said, trying not to sound desperate for her to stay. “No not you, you’re actually the one asshole who hasn’t, well, acted like an asshole towards me tonight.” “Now that’s my kind of compliment!” I thought to myself amused. “I guess that means we’re leaving together, yes?” “Yes,” she said. “Yeah, let’s get out of here.”


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. Kate Sherwood
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 06:36:21

    Obviously you’re breaking some rules, here – if you can pull it off, I think you could end up with something outstanding, but I’m not sure you can pull it off.

    If this is a romance, we’re trained to assume that the first vaguely possible romantic interests are, in fact, the people who we should be expecting to fall in love. Maybe this ISN’T your to-be-happy-couple, in which case your introduction may not fit well with the rest of the story. But assuming that these ARE your main characters, you’ve definitely gone with non-traditional romantic leads.

    I’m ALL FOR non-traditional romantic leads, but as I said, it can be hard to pull off. Based on what I’ve read so far, I don’t care for either character, but I’d probably read on a bit to see if they grew on me. If they don’t, though… it wouldn’t work as a romance, for me. I need to be able to cheer for the characters in a romance and want them to get together, and right now, I just want them both to get to rehab and/or therapy.

    The blurring of two characters’ dialogue into one paragraph is another non-traditional choice, and on this one, I just can’t see the point. I don’t think it’s something that will make your book more exciting and interesting if you can pull it off – it’s just pointlessly confusing, and I wouldn’t do it. (This is assuming that it was a deliberate choice, not a mistake or an issue with the formatting).

    Nip-picking: I’m not sure how a suit can lose its “well-tailored” status through wear. Seems to me that if it was once well-tailored, it’s always well-tailored, even if it’s in rags.

    You’ve got some nice details and some interesting phrasing in there (although also some punctuation issues and awkward bits that I had to read twice) and as I said, if you can pull off the non-traditional leads I think this could be a really interesting story. Good luck with it!

  2. Sweeney
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 07:54:57

    Your writing is good, but I wouldn’t read past the first paragraph. I think maybe you should really get to know the genre of Romance. This reads Urban Fantasy to me and those who like urban fantasy would probably read further than those who don’t.

  3. Cara Ellison
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 08:18:27

    The content was not for me, but the line about being “too old for this shit” is such a cliche that I stopped reading then and there.

    I almost stopped reading when the male lead (hero?) smells another man’s semen on her and thinks it is sexy. To me, that is not sexy at all. In fact, it is kind of repulsive.

    It’s gritty, and I’m not sure I see how this is going to work as a romance.

  4. Lil
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 08:45:48

    Is this supposed to be Romance? Because it reads like a tough guy mystery à la James Cain. Which is fine if that’s what it’s supposed to be. The problem is that people pick up a book, read maybe a page or two, and decide whether or not to take it home and read it. Someone looking for a walk down these mean streets may continue. Someone looking for a romance is more likely to put it back on the shelf.

    And that first paragraph? It’s vivid all right, but I found it kind of disgusting.

  5. RebeccaJ
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 10:20:59

    Yeah, I had problems getting past that semen line too….yuck. I can’t tell if she’s supposed to be a high priced call girl or not? Cuz how many women walk around with the stank of semen on them from the night before?

    The description female character is confusing. On intro, she’s a ‘bit worried’, and ‘far away, distant’ but that didn’t quite jive with her dialogue of “hi, how are you doing tonight?” That has more of a cheerful sound to it.

    If she was distant, I would think she would have rebuffed his first few attempts at conversation. Why engage in conversation, let alone care how he’s doing? Then a few paragraphs later she is described as ‘nice, relaxed and easy going’.

  6. Patty H.
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 10:27:18

    I get the noir vibe and have no problem with it. Romance readers may be turned off by the grittiness of your characters, unless you show us some redeeming qualities in them. It’s hard to do in the first page, but I wanted to see strength and determination (or optimism, or something) in these two, but all I saw was desperation. I wanted a line that would make me root for them.

    Mixing their dialogue in one paragraph made it hard for me to read because both characters spoke the same way: short, choppy sentences. There is no change in syntax or cadence, so if you removed the tags they sound alike. Dialogue is a way to show us who these people are. If you eavesdrop on strangers (for just a moment in a public place, like the mall or the check-out line) you quickly make assumptions about them based on their speech. Those assumptions may be correct or incorrect but my point is, it is part of characterization. Use strong dialogue in this opening to give these two life.

    Saying ‘she moved with graceful ease’ tells us a feminine quality, but you could show us more about her:
    She bent her head to look at the thin silver watch on her wrist, then glance up at me through mascara smudged lashes. “Time to go.”
    Her glass hit the bar with a solid thunk and a rattle of ice. She stood and smoothed the skirt of her dress. “Time to go.”
    Not perfect, but in the first she is coy, seductive and I expect she’s lonely and wants physical company. In the second, it’s time to get down to business and I expect her to name a price when they get to his car. Same dialogue, different expectations.
    I like that you took a risk. Good luck.

  7. Jane Davitt
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 14:17:04

    I liked that he’s older and they’re both scuffed around the edges. I could also see how it could segue into something more traditional by having him bond with her and tell her the story of his romance, taking the action back to the past, though obviously that’s one of many possibilities.

    What put me off is the incorrect punctuation of dialogue and the typos (‘deep breathe’ should be ‘deep breath’, ‘to old’ should be ‘too old’), , along with the repetition of ‘I thought to myself’ that’s used three times on the page.

    If a writer has the guts to put their work up, they must care about it; if they care about it, along with writing the story itself, why not spend a little time learning basic grammar, or just picking up a book and seeing how dialogue is set out on the page? I don’t mean that to sound accusing; it genuinely puzzles me. A reader jolted out of a story over and over as they try to make sense of who’s speaking or hit the speed bump of a typo is losing contact with the story itself and that’s never good.

    Having said that, you’ve got a strong, vivid voice here and I like that. Some of the details set the scene well, using just a few words, and that’s a definite plus.

  8. Lilly
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 14:30:00

    I’d read on. Not traditional romance, but I’m always ready fo something different.
    Break up the paragraphs of mixed dialogue for less confusion.
    Good luck.

  9. K. Z. Snow
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 15:20:50

    I must echo what Jane @ #7 said: First, get a command of the basics. There’s nothing wrong with the hardboiled approach — not for me, anyway, because I do like departures from the norm — but sloppiness puts me off.

    Separate character dialogue into individual paragraphs. Don’t capitalize dialogue tags, and dispense with them entirely (or almost so) when only two people are speaking.

    Think about what you’re writing and for whom you’re writing it. A woman who reeks of “smoke, booze, and semen” will not strike too many romance readers as sexy.

    “I thought to myself” is redundant, and a huge pet peeve of mine. To whom else are you going to think, unless you’re a psychic and sending a mental message to another psychic? “I thought” is the correct tag; without a tag, italicize the phrase.

    And, yes, make sure you clearly signal what genre this story falls into. Romance? Noir mystery? Urban fantasy? Conveying the wrong impression on the first page will result in very unhappy readers — if, that is, an editor takes you on in the first place.

  10. Lucy Woodhull
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 16:14:33

    I enjoyed this overall, and I would keep reading. Except for the grammar and mistakes that others have pointed out. I urge you, courageous author, to study up and nail some of this stuff down. You’re a colorful writer and I like the way you put words together; coming up to snuff on the nuts and bolts of writing will make you soar.

    I enjoyed that you’re pushing the genre. I love that, actually. I think romance is a genre that has new readers all the time and the times can a-change to adjust to a… say a less Vaseline-filtered style of writing. Your semi-skanky pickup lady didn’t bother me at all. I kinda loved her. Get it, sister! Your gritty hero makes me want to get to know him better. There are enough dukes and Navy Seals and inexplicable, wide-eyed virgins in romance — up with the anti-heroine and hero. Not that different is an easy sell; it’s not. But it can be done, and I wish you luck!

  11. dick
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 18:03:23

    Reminded me a lot of the stuff Garrison Keilor writes for his “noir” skits, except he intends, I think, that they be funny. This isn’t.

  12. DS
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 19:49:20

    Keillor parodies noir in his sketches. I doubt if semen would get a mention ever. I’d read this, but I would be surprised if it synced into romance rather than murder.

  13. Des Livres
    Aug 12, 2012 @ 02:31:12

    This is good writing – I first read it when it was first posted, and still remember the scene and the writing quite a while later. I hope you were going for a hard-boiled/noir vibe – if you weren’t you have a problem! The above comments nailed the issues around spelling, grammar and dialogue.

    Romance is character driven. I have to like the characters to keep reading. The heroine here is coming across as “the other”, and I’m not liking/interested in/in sympathy with the guy yet so at this point I would not keep reading. The Armani Suit Abuse does not help.

  14. Katie
    Aug 12, 2012 @ 12:05:57

    The writing is good. I am not in love with the content but I would read something else by this author.

  15. cleo
    Aug 12, 2012 @ 16:47:35

    I think this is interesting and compelling. I get the noir vibe and I’d read more to see where it goes – if it really turns into a romance, if the characters turn into real people (especially the woman), if the noir conventions get played with.

    A couple things confused me. The initial reference to last night’s sex made me think it was morning, not evening. I’m also not sure of the time period, but it seems like it’s set in the past (mostly because of the indoor smoking but also the noir vibe).

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