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First Page: The Sweet Science

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Lillian stared at her waist-length mass of hair in the mirror and picked up the scissors. She hesitated a moment, since this was against God and the Bible and every sermon she had ever heard on modesty and deportment of Godly women. She cut anyway. The first lock of the hated raven-black hair that fell on her dressing table was a revelation and her scissors flew. She couldn’t cut it all, of course, not for a single night’s entertainment. But she could shorten it, since women weren’t allowed at the fights.

She cut it to just below her shoulders. For a moment, she turned her head, feeling the unaccustomed lightness. The pile of glossy black on her table, she swept into the wastepaper basket. She’d burn it before the maid could find it.
The shorter hair braided easily. With two braids, she looked like a pale Cheyenne woman. That was part of the plan. Lillian took out a pot of greasepaint and applied a thin layer to her hands and face and neck, anywhere that would be seen.

The Cheyenne woman in the mirror was no longer so pale. But she wouldn’t be a woman for long, either. Lillian stripped to utter nakedness, shivering with her own wicked thoughts. She could not recall having been completely naked in her life. No man had taken her to wife, nor would she have married if any had asked. She liked her independence and the freedom that came with her parents’ legacy.

She took a belt and fastened it around her generous bosom, tightening it until the breasts lost their defined shape. She added a pillow just beneath them to make her look barrel-chested rather than buxom, and pulled on the shirt she’d bought from a trader.

The heavy cotton smelled strongly of horse and leather and sweat, but it fit her small stature. She wrapped her head in the usual scarf the men wore, and pulled on loose trousers and moccasins. She felt quite naked, even with the clothing. She put on the low-crowned felt hat to cover her gray eyes.

A Cheyenne youth stood looking back at her from the mirror and all of Lillian Shaw lay on the floor, a pile of clothing and hair. She put away the dress, chemise and corset, then hurried to burn the hair before she could be caught.

She stopped. Flossie would worry. Lillian scribbled a note to her maid and left it propped on her pillow. “Dear Flossie. I’ve gone out and about in disguise. It’s a bit of a lark, and I shall be home before morning, so do not fret yourself. Lil.”

She secured a moneybelt around her waist and headed out to the fights. Her hand trembled on the latch of her bedroom door, from excitement and fear both. She knew this could ruin her forever in her hometown.

No women were allowed at the illegal boxing matches. It was unseemly and dangerous. She’d paid her driver well to listen to the men’s gossip and let her know when one was. He was adamant in his initial refusal, but she claimed she only wanted to make a couple of wagers, through him, so he relented. He would be horrified if he knew she was going to one, even in disguise.

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
    May 04, 2013 @ 05:59:49

    I think this is well-written, and there’s enough anticipation that I think you can probably get away with breaking the ‘start at the action’ rule, but I’m not sure if you WANT to get away with it.

    Rather than showing us the preparations for attending the fight, maybe you could show her AT the fight? (Assuming she makes it there, I guess – if she gets kidnapped on the way, I think this is a great way to start, letting us think we know what’s happening and then shaking our assumptions). But if the next scene is her at the fight, I’d be tempted to start there and just let us know about all the taboos she’s breaking as backstory.

    I don’t know enough about the historical setting to know if your depiction is accurate. I do have some concerns about her maybe being a TSTL heroine if she routinely does things like this, so I’d hope we soon hear about her motivation for putting herself in a dangerous situation.

  2. Amanda
    May 04, 2013 @ 07:57:38

    I really enjoyed this start. However, I agree with Kate Sherwood above, and show her at the fight. Usually women who have maids aren’t accustomed to dressing themselves. We get the clue that Lillian is wealthy because she has a maid, and obviously has the resources to gather what she needs to go out in disguise. However, this is a large undertaking, and I think that she may need more help putting this together than just bribing her driver to find out where the fight is being held.

    Keep at this work, Author. The tone and voice of this piece drew me in and I want to see where it is going to go. I think you have a great character in Lillian. I do want to finish this story.

  3. Carolyne
    May 04, 2013 @ 07:59:04

    This is off to a nice start, the title piques my curiosity, and I wish there were more here to see how things develop. I dislike the start-at-the-action “rule”–although I could concede that start-at-the-action is the expectation for certain genres. For a long, rich historical, I love being able to sink into the setting and into the character’s mindset even if only for a few paragraphs, before having to start rushing around and/or having the hero thrown at us. But that’s my particular taste and, again, not necessarily the expectation of the majority of readers.

    But I do echo what @Kate Sherwood said about motivation. Lillian calls this a lark, but it’s much more than a lark to make a big alteration like bobbing her hair if cutting it off is as drastic in her society as Lillian expresses in the first paragraph. She apparently hated hauling all that hair around, so this seems like something she’s been wishing she could do for a long time–her sense of that relief and excitement could be made more palpable than just calling it “hated” and saying the shorter length is a “revelation”–what sort of revelation? what sort of thrill is going through her at this moment? Is a shorter hair length acceptable for a woman her age, so it won’t be so bad when she returns to her hometown and everyone sees what she’s done to her crowning glory? Will she just seem eccentric and independent? And couldn’t she keep her hair much longer than shoulder length to pass as a Cheyenne boy–is she just enjoying the excuse? I’m not expecting all my questions to be answered right away–the fact that I have them and am eager to know more means the story is working.

    I’d also point out that burning hair reeks, so I assume there’s no one nearby, and that she’ll air out her bedroom before Flossie gets home.

    All of it–cutting her hair that short, not caring if she ruins her reputation, not caring about divine wrath and modesty, wanting to go to a fight… As much as I love historicals, Western settings aren’t at the top of my list, but the writing here is smooth and clean and I’d definitely read on a few pages more to see where it’s all going and how all these factors fit into the plot and who Lillian is. Plus, I have a weakness for heroines in boy drag, and always love to see how long an author keeps the charade going and what finally brings it down.

  4. Lil
    May 04, 2013 @ 08:45:13

    This is smoothly written with good detail, but I feel as if there is something missing here. Cutting her hair seems to be a serious matter, given what you say in the first paragraph, and she has clearly given careful thought to her disguise. And she knows this could ruin her forever. So why is she doing it? To go see an illegal fight? It seems such a trivial reason to go to such extremes. Does she have some other reason? If not, I’m afraid she sounds like an idiot.

  5. Johnny Ray
    May 04, 2013 @ 09:57:16

    This was well thought out by the author, but is missing a small point of letting the reader know the motivations behind this. I am sure this will come, but to hook a reader, the writer must allow the reader to care about the main character. Hopefully, this will come out in the next few pages.

  6. wikkidsexycool
    May 04, 2013 @ 09:59:29

    Okay . . . sigh.
    As far as the writing, you’ve got skill. As far as the scene? I cringed as a person of color. I get that she decided to disguise herself to attend an illegal fight. But if grease paint is all that’s needed to change one’s color from white to . . . I’m not sure . . . is it greasy?

    Is it greasy brown? I don’t get why she couldn’t just change into a young white male?
    And I also get that the reader needs to suspend belief enough to think her ample bosom is flattened and also a simple haircut will change the angles of her face into a male’s. But if making two braids can change her into “a pale Cheyenne woman” then you’ve pulled me right out of your novel, because braids will not magically change one culture into another. Besides that, the whole deal about her raven black hair and ample bosom read like other novels which “tell” the reader that the heroine is one hot female. So by painting her skin darker, somehow she’ll go unnoticed, and that’s the part I so hate. It implies that her “beauty” is gone once she darkens up. Sorry author, but the writing pushes a button on one of my pet peeves, and that’s how easy it is for someone white to look like someone of color, and once that’s done, why, she’s such a spunky heroine for doing so. Which reminds me of far too many old films and TV shows where this was a common ploy, but most often used for laughs. I mean, what’s next, when she’s attending the fight does she speak in a caricatured dialect? Do you see where I’m gong with this? To some readers, this will simply be about a lead character cutting her hair and putting on a disguise. I didn’t read it that way, and I’m probably in the minority. But this is 2013. Not 1950. So please . . . just think about it a bit more before you lead with this.

    I’ll just leave it at that, and thanks for having the courage to post your first page.

  7. Carolyne
    May 04, 2013 @ 11:02:15

    I took it as Lillian thinking she had achieved a great disguise, and maybe it is enough to fool a certain type of person–as in all those stories set in times/places where rules of dress are presumably so strict, the book’s premise is if you change your manner of dress from F to M, that’s the major marker people use for a quick assessment and they don’t look deeper; or if you seem at a quick glance to be an “undesirable” no one looks twice. Not sure this setting qualifies for that.

    The discussion of A Spear of Summer Grass a few posts back has me thinking about the narrative balance needed to show how the POV character sees the world, versus the reader’s reality. I wouldn’t immediately give up on this at the first page.

  8. Patricia
    May 04, 2013 @ 11:10:36

    I am not a person of color, but I had much the same reaction as wikkidsexycool. I was quite taken aback that our “heroine” is putting on brownface in the very first scene. That is very off-putting. I also agree that much of this scene reads like the cliched “look in the mirror so we can see how pretty the character is” device. I do not think you should start the story here, and I think you need to seriously reconsider your character’s choice of disguise.

  9. theo
    May 04, 2013 @ 11:53:43

    I didn’t have a problem with the cutting of the hair or the flattening of the breasts. I didn’t even have a problem with the greasepaint. What I have a problem with is that other than the Cheyenne reference, this is so generic that it tells me nothing.

    Where is this happening? This could be London or the western US. I have no clue. *edited to add, Native American Indians were a novelty for many years in London. Most Europeans had not seen them and were fascinated, so no, I really have no clue.

    When is this happening? Is this historical? Alternate world? Futuristic? Again, I have no clue.

    Why would she want to do this? Curiosity? Is there someone at the fight she needs to contact in a clandestine way? Does she want to be a boxer?

    What is the premise? Does she have a need to break away from a repressive family? Does she feel the need to save a brother/father/what-have-you from being the main attraction?

    And who is she? There is nothing here to tell me anything more than she has servants. Many upper middle class had servants if this is historical. Day servants perhaps, but servants, none the less. Futuristic? Do they all have servants then? Alternate world? Are there only two classes of people? The haves and the have nots?

    I’m sorry but the way it reads now, no amount of ‘very good writing’ will fix those things. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. I just found it very generic and a little boring. But kudos for putting it out there. I know how hard that is to do. Just remember the criticisms here are meant to help.

  10. Viridian
    May 04, 2013 @ 11:59:24

    The part where she bound her breasts made me wince. She used a belt? Owwww. For a “buxom” woman, binding can be painful or downright dangerous with the wrong materials.

    How wide is the belt? If it’s a standard 2-3 inches wide, I can’t imagine it doing any good.

  11. hapax
    May 04, 2013 @ 12:33:04

    I’m with Viridian on the belt thing, and I’ll add that a pillow under the breasts won’t make a woman look “barrel chested”; depending on the pillow, it *might* make her look fat or pregnant, but most likely will make her look like she has a pillow under her breasts.

    And as someone who customarily wears her (much longer than shoulder-length) hair in two braids, I’m pretty sure that it won’t braid “easily” at that length if she’s not accustomed to that style, and it will look less like “Cheyenne” than like “Pippi Longstocking”.

    Finally, I’m another who’s really really uncomfortable with the whole “brownface” stunt, especially for a lark.

  12. wikkidsexycool
    May 04, 2013 @ 13:17:52


    “if you seem at a quick glance to be an “undesirable” no one looks twice. Not sure this setting qualifies for that.”

    Respectfully, I have to disagree, though I do understand your point. Imo the character is attending an illegal fight during a time period in history where other races were singled out and inflicted with bigotry. Chances are alcohol as well as inhibitions will be lowered, thus the disguise could be given more scrutiny, or perhaps a tongue lashing or a demand of leaving the premises by someone who feels the youth shouldn’t be there, among paying customers (who most likely will be white). At the very least the heroine, while disguised as a minority male will be ordered to perform some type of servile function. At the most, she, disguised as a he would possibly be accosted and perhaps made to fight or even pounced upon. Being young would also pose a liability. This is where more historical research would greatly help the author.

    What I don’t know as a reader, is whether this sets the scene for the “hero” to save her, or even notice her and see through the “disguise”. And really, I hope this isn’t the case.

  13. Caro
    May 04, 2013 @ 14:20:08

    The writing is smooth – you have skill. Some of the descriptions and details do pull me in:

    she turned her head, feeling the unaccustomed lightness.

    Since I just got my hair cut, this one really rang true for me.

    The heavy cotton smelled strongly of horse and leather and sweat

    Nice use of the sense of smell – one that is often ignored.

    all of Lillian Shaw lay on the floor, a pile of clothing and hair

    Nice turn of phrase.

    I do think the structure of your writing might need to be tweeked. I guess what I mean is that if you look at your page the writing is all about the same length of paragraphs and that gets me a bit bored as a reader. It seems minor, but when there’s no dialogue, my mind wanders quite quickly. I know, blame the MTV and Twitter generation. But there it is. I do believe many readers are like this now. And it’s so easy to fix. For example:

    Lillian stared at her waist-length mass of hair in the mirror and picked up the scissors. She hesitated a moment, since this was against God and the Bible and every sermon she had ever heard on modesty and deportment of Godly women.

    She cut anyway.

    The first lock of the hated raven-black hair that fell on her dressing table was a revelation and her scissors flew. She couldn’t cut it all, of course, not for a single night’s entertainment. But she could shorten it, since women weren’t allowed at the fights.

    Just this one little change cuts through the monotony of the same length of paragraphs and also highlights an important decision so the reader doesn’t miss it.

    You drop some nice hints that let me know about the heroine. She doesn’t want to get married. She has a legacy of some sort. She’s got spunk. She cares about her maid. All of this is conveyed without info dumping, which is a real skill.

    But my biggest issue is that right now, I think Lillian seems to be a bit of a twit. She’s cutting her long hair, dressing like a boy, risking her reputation to go see a fight? Just on a lark? Huh? She writes a note to her maid that says she’s going to be gone all night and just – don’t worry? Huh? I’m all for independent, feisty heroines, but this strikes me as bizarre if she doesn’t have a stronger motivation.

    I would keep reading, but I would be a wary reader. If Lillian continues to be a twit in the next few pages, I’d put the book down.

  14. Kate
    May 04, 2013 @ 16:19:11

    Am I the, only one wondering how come a maid knows how to read? Even a little education was considered very expensive and precious. How did a lowly, superstitious maid have access to it? Also, read this type of story 100 times before. What is so special about independance? Lower class people tend, to be independent. Rich people like her have connections to other influential people. Therefore they are never independant in the truest sense. I am assuming that you meant frolicking around with the animals and not having a care in the world like Pocahontas? Guess what, she was a princess. Still need to know why our heroine thinks having freedom is as so precious since this the first time she is going out.

  15. Mary
    May 04, 2013 @ 18:07:22

    I have to agree with those who say that the disguise is a little off. The one thing I can say that is different is that it is very hard to disguise oneself as a different race UNLESS you have some of a different race in you. And even then…it’s iffy. I say this because I am multiracial, and I look completely white. My sister looks like she could be anything from Latina to middle eastern to Chinese.
    But I find it hard to believe your average white woman of history could pass for a Native American boy, especially with just braids and greasepaint.
    Also as a larger chested woman….it’s actually pretty hard to disguise that, even with a pillow.
    Finally, her hair cutting seemed odd and hopefully you will explain her motivations soon because a fight doesn’t totally seem worth it.
    And also in agreement with whoever said the time period isn’t clear. Obviously, if I read the book I will know from the blurb, but there is no sense of time here which is jarring.
    But the writing itself is quite lovely. I currently have minor believability issues that wouldn’t totally interfere with my enjoyment unless they continue throughout the novel.

  16. Justine
    May 04, 2013 @ 19:11:47

    I also wondered about the era and place this was set in. It’s hard to gauge. Also it’s a tiny thing but ‘waste paper basket’ really jumped out at me and took me away from the story. I don’t think there was such a thing as waste paper till the 20th century.

  17. cleo
    May 04, 2013 @ 19:15:06

    I agree with the comments about the grease paint and the disguise in general – reading the description of her putting on “brownface” made me uncomfortable. And I didn’t get the haircut – why cut it if she’s going to braid it?

    Right now the details of her disguise don’t hold up to scrutiny, and that takes me out of the story. There’s a long trad of women disguising themselves as men in romancelandia and those stories often require a (sometimes ginormous) suspension of disbelief. Sometimes I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and go with it, but there’s something in this page that won’t let me do that. I think it’s because there’s too many specifics and those specifics don’t work for me. I’d rather just read one sentence that says she’s disguised as a something and go from there.

  18. Loreen
    May 04, 2013 @ 23:09:08

    Why bother burning the hair to hide it from her maid when everyone will see that she just lost about a foot of hair anyways? This seems extremely short sighted as there is no way she will get away with the haircut unnoticed.
    I am also put off by the Cheyenne disguise. I am a pale white woman and I am very sure that if I smeared grease all over my skin no one would suddenly mistake me for a Native American – I would just look like a really greasy white woman. For one thing, grease is not Hollywood makeup, so you can see it on the skin. For another, the facial features are different.
    The breast binding is a pet peeve of mine – maybe it would work if you are an A or B cup but anything above that would take a lot of engineering. You could patent that and sell it to a minimizer bra company.
    The writing is smooth so I think you just need to rethink the disguise and, as others said, add more details about where and when this is set. ….is she a Mormon in the 19th century west? That could explain the hair cutting prohibition….

  19. anon
    May 05, 2013 @ 00:24:59

    @wikkidsexycool: Completely this. This is so offensive in terms of racial insensitivity. She’s putting on brownface (greaseface?) and tying her hair in braids and suddenly she’s Cheyenne? That’s absurd. And offensive. Because it doesn’t work that way and no one would ever believe that a white girl with grease smeared on her face is not just a white girl with grease smeared on her face.

    And as someone with generous breasts, I cannot imagine how a belt could be used to bind them down. Belts are usually narrow so they fit through belt loops. All a belt of an inch or two in thickness would do to generous, natural breasts is smoosh them in the middle so they pop out over the top and bottom of the belt, creating not a flat chest, but basically four new breasts. She wouldn’t look like a young man or breastless, she’d look deformed with four breasts.

  20. Kate
    May 05, 2013 @ 02:08:24

    Personally, I wasn’t too bothered about the brownface. I had suspended reality the moment I read a woman of stature prefers freedom instead of the cushy life she was given. I have read lots of romance novels where heroines have gotten away with something similar. What bemused me though is that it took a non white commentatot to point out the racism before the rest of the DA caught on and even bothered to say anything about it. Therefore, to the author: you can ignore the brown face unless you plan on your readers having a politically correct friend with them when they are reading the book at the dead of night.

  21. Angela Booth
    May 05, 2013 @ 03:25:58

    Beautiful writing, and I enjoyed it.

    But… As others have pointed out, there’s something missing.

    Why would she cut her hair? Just to go to a fight? Why must she attend the fight?

    Maybe her brother is one of the fighters. Or her father even…

    It makes no sense for a woman of any period, to be going to a prize fight alone, on a whim.

    You know this. You wrote: “No women were allowed at the illegal boxing matches. It was unseemly and dangerous.”

    The operative word is “dangerous.”

    At the moment, she’s a TSTL heroine.

    Give her GOOD reasons for what she’s doing.

  22. Kierney
    May 05, 2013 @ 12:06:50

    I like it, it reads like literary fiction. I also like that I don’t know why she is going to the fight. I want to find out when she is there rather than when she is getting ready. You could skip the getting ready bit, but the writing is fluid enough to keep this reader interested. Good luck!

  23. Lucy Woodhull
    May 05, 2013 @ 14:10:30


    I’m white, and I just read this, and I had big problems with the brown face — I would never continue with this book past this offensive section. What you sneeringly call “political correctness,” I call basic human decency. Author, please do a Google on why brown face is racist. You’ll have 25.6 million hits to choose from.

  24. theo
    May 05, 2013 @ 15:03:15

    One of the things I’m seeing is how many read the greasepaint as racist, and I have no problem with that per se! I would have a problem with it as well were this set in anything close to modern day. I get the impression that it’s not though and if it’s not, if it’s set in say…early 1800’s western US, then this naive girl’s thinking would be more in line with the times the story is set in.

    However, that said, I did mention in my earlier comment that the author has given us no real sense of time or place here which I think with the whole first page is a must in order to ground it. I’m not trying to defend the greasepaint. I’m trying to put it in context. Unfortunately, I can’t which I think is part of the reason, author, that you are seeing so many comments regarding it.

  25. Mary
    May 05, 2013 @ 16:58:30

    I mean, it is kind of racist, but if this is a historical that’s understandable. My issue with it is that I have a lot of doubts that it would be an effective disguise for a white woman. If she genuinely thinks it is and she’s a naive young girl that’s fine, but if it turns out that the disguise works SUPER WELL and no one realizes she’s a white woman, then I have issues.

  26. wikkidsexycool
    May 05, 2013 @ 17:36:59

    Author, if you’re still reading this, I’d like to suggest an excellent blog by Debbie Reese

    And please understand, I’d rather have this discussion than not have it.

    I’m guessing this is supposed to be a romance with a feisty heroine. And if that’s the case, this isn’t a crucial scene (I mean in the context of having her darken her skin). It could very well be changed to have her disguised as an older white male or even a younger one. But some readers have already pointed out that not only is the greasepaint problematic, but also the ease in which she’s gender swapping.

    There’s no way to make less of this than what it is. Even if the character is doing it during the time period, her reasons wouldn’t be to promote equality, but to “disguise” herself as a race that is looked down upon by her own culture. That’s history, and no amount of excuses can change it.

    Now, it’s possible to switch it up and have her attending an illegal fight in order to sleuth to see just how badly the Cheyenne are treated at these events, but I doubt if that’s part of the story. It’s reading like the heroine has a bit of Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. But notice even the recent Holmes films are treading carefully with his disguises.

    One of the points made was that no amount of grease paint will turn a white character brown. She’ll simply look greasy.

    Old school writers and even films (comedies more often) as well as stage plays did the grease paint thing often. White actors donned greasepaint to play both black and brown stereotypes. It didn’t fool anyone then, and it won’t now. To use the reasoning that it was done previously is to move backwards, not forwards.

    In novels, imho it’s a ploy meant to have the reader suspend belief. But it’s also rooted in stereotype and I don’t think that’s news to anyone reading it. It’s just that such things are rarely stated out in the open.

    Ask yourself, if your book ever became a movie, would the part with her using greasepaint be kept in?

    It’s possible if this is submitted, an agent will like it just fine. Or not. If it’s kept in, be prepared to take some heat, even if this is part of the heroine’s charming quirks. Because the people reading it won’t be from the time period this is set in. It’ll be modern readers of diverse ethnicities and races, who no longer have to remain silent when something comes off as offensive.

    Again, I thank you for submitting this. You’re a talented writer, so I hope you’ll share an update on how the story is progressing.

  27. BookBanterCom
    May 06, 2013 @ 15:27:40

    The first few sentences had already hooked me. It would be lovely to find out why the main character was going to the fights. Perhaps if I have continued reading (the imaginary second page), I will find my answers. This first page is well-written. I don’t mind the details (such as the racial insensitivity comment above) if it can be supported by the setting and time the story took place.

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