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First Page: Undertow

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The air was a tangible thing, snaking along his skin, creeping past the layers of his clothing, and permeating his senses with the tang of seawater. Alex inhaled it as he strolled down the sloping dock in the fog, savoring its flavor. The end of the dock was shrouded from view, the colors he expected- the cherry red and glossy forest green of freshly painted hulls- all turned to shades of gray. Maine was shaping up to be just as deliciously spooky as he’d hoped.

He paused a moment, letting the scene settle in his mind, picturing the swift sweep of oars bringing a skiff full of red coated soldiers towards shore. Staring into the fog, he could almost hear the curses of sailors as their woolen clothes grew damp and heavy, as they crowded close in the slim boat after long weeks crowded aboard ship, as they compared the heavy skies and tree-dark shores to the green fields of home. The rush of excitement swept up from deep in his chest, carrying the corners of his mouth up with it. This would do. This would definitely do.

A sleek sailboat appeared as he drew closer, rocking gently where it was tied to the dock. The word Leault shone on its stern, its gold script catching the muted light. Over the sound of lapping waves and distant motors he heard a gritty voice, steeped in that distinctive Down East accent. Alex was sure he heard someone say “ayuh.” Things kept looking better. Ladd’s Harbor was the ideal setting for his next book, the epitome of the Maine coast, and was even home to its very own legend of gold, betrayal, and violence.

“Mr. Donnelly?” he called out, spotting a stocky, brawny man on the deck of the Leault.

“Not me. Which Donnelly are you looking for, then?”

“How many are there?” he replied, curious.

“Well, you’ve got the Mr. Donnelly who lobsters, the father, he’s up the bay aways. Then Carl, Johnny, and Ted, his sons, they run the pub you passed on your way down,” this with a vague wave towards the sturdy brick buildings lining the waterfront, “called the Lady Cynth-”

“Don’t you dare say that name, Hank,” a disembodied voice cut in.

“But if you’re down here,” Hank continued unfazed, “I expect you’re looking for someone else.”

“Well yes, actually. I heard there’s a Cy Donnelly working here I should speak with. At the office they said he’d be working on the Leault this morning.” Alex peered into the fog hopefully, knocking a stray lock of hair out of his eyes.

“Ahh. It’s not a Mr. Donnelly you’re wanting,” Hank said, raising his eyes towards the sky.

Alex followed the man’s gaze up the tall mast, past coils of rope, where a pair of long, lithe legs dangled from the fog. Despite the scuffed sneakers and cut off shorts, those legs were distinctly feminine. He should know better than to make assumptions, and now his foot was squarely in his mouth.

“Hank, stop gabbing and find out what the man wants. And send me up a hammer, will you? The damn clevis pin’s rusted in.” That voice was trying its hardest not to be sexy, its huskiness tempered by no-nonsense delivery.

“Cynthia Donnelly,” Hank mouthed silently, wagging his eyebrows meaningfully before reaching into the tool bag at his feet. Alex studied Hank’s movements as he removed the end of a line from the mast, tied a knot around the head of the hammer, and hoisted it upward.

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. Jillian
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 07:14:05

    I loved it. I always read these, and never comment, but I had to for this one. As a native of Maine, and someone who grew up on the coast, this reminded me instantly of home. A few things could be tightened here and there, but it instantly drew me in. I usually skim through these, but I read this line for line, and love how you’ve set it up so far. I would most definitely read on.

  2. Lynne Connolly
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 07:21:28

    I want to read this. This page is an example of a hook without a flash-bang-wallop. Seriously, tell us when it’s coming out.

  3. Upstart1
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 08:15:00

    Well done, great opening. Lovely writing.

  4. Jill Sorenson
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 08:31:47

    I like it.

    I’d take out the comma after clothing in the first sentence. I’m no grammar expert but I don’t think you need it. You also don’t need “it” after Alex inhaled. I see some repetition, up etc. He’s wearing layers of clothing but she’s in shorts. Do sailors wear shorts?

    Good job and good luck!

  5. Lil
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 08:47:57

    This is terrific, and I really look forward to reading it. I have two niggly little problems.
    In the first paragraph, the cherry red and glossy green jumped out at me in the wrong way. I feel as if the paragraph would read better without them.
    Then, would British soldiers be bothered by Maine’s fog and damp? I would expect them to feel right at home.
    A third. It does sound a bit chilly for shorts.

  6. theo
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 08:51:15

    This is everything that sucks me in on a first page. Brava! And do let us know when it’s published. I want to read it too.

  7. Carolyne
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 09:25:48

    I liked it too, with the same little crits as mentioned above, plus I was thrown by the disembodied voice. Not knowing where it was sounding from (possibly ok in the fog), its timbre (not so ok), and the hero having absolutely zero reaction to it–especially since he was enjoying getting into the spookiness of the Maine of his imagination–stopped me in my tracks. Easily enough fixed with a few extra words.

    Littler nitpick: the hero using “deliciously” as an adverb felt “unmasculine.” I have no qualm about it other than wondering if it would give that signal to some readers.

  8. Lisa J
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 09:26:04

    This firsst page made me continue reading. I would definitely love to read more. Please let us know when it is available.

  9. Caro
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 10:06:55

    I liked this a lot. Instantly interested and wanted to read more. You’ve got some really lovely descriptions that are unique.

    The rush of excitement swept up from deep in his chest, carrying the corners of his mouth up with it.

    Just one of many that I thoroughly enjoyed.

    The only nitpick I had was the time period. When he talks about soldiers landing in his imagination, I thought, hm. Is this a historical or no, I think he’s a writer or gee, I’m not getting a handle on this. Then when the heroine shows her legs, I’m thinking, okay, this can’t be an historical… can it? So instead of sinking into your story, I’m ruminating on what time it is. This could easily be fixed by just one addition to a description like Alex looking down at his cell phone or something. Then that would center me.

    But overall? I want to read more.

  10. JB Hunt
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 11:19:11

    I love the setting and the “meet cute” on this opening page. I think it would be more powerful, however, with fewer descriptors and references to the fog crowding the scenery. Less might be more.

    So perhaps…
    Use “sweep of oars” instead of “swift sweep of oars”
    Cut “Staring into the fog”
    “A rush of excitement swept up from his chest and carried the corners of his mouth with it.”
    Just “sailboat” instead of “sleek sailboat” and “voice” instead of “gritty voice” and “stocky man” instead of “stocky, brawny man”

    You do such a nice job of painting the scene that the extra adjectives, adverbs, phrases are unnecessary.

  11. Mary
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 12:04:55

    I’m fairly ambivalent about this: nothing in your writing turns me off, but there I’m not intrigued to read more. This is not saying anything bad about the page, I just think I need a better sense of the plot, which would come from the blurb so I don’t think you have to make big changes.
    The only things that threw me off was her voice trying so hard not to be sexy and some other descriptions. The voice one just seemed odd to me and I didn’t like that sentence…but personal preference. And although the writing was in general good and descriptive, I think in places it was a little too descriptive. The first few paragraphs are a bit over the top in my mind, and I had to read the cherry red and forest green sentence three times to make sense of it. This all settles down after a but and is only an issue in maybe the first two paras?
    Overall, good first page.

  12. Lori
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 12:10:51

    Damned good writing. I want to keep reading.

  13. Viridian Chick
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 13:07:10

    I initially stopped reading after the first paragraph. Very dense with description, and I didn’t want to slog through two more big paragraphs before you got to the point. Then I read the comments here, figured I was missing something, and went back to read the rest.

    I love what’s happening here. I’m interested and I want to keep going. But honestly, I would have *never* kept reading past the first paragraph if not for the comments here. You spend far too much time setting the scene. And the descriptions are lovely, but frankly when I open a book I’m not looking for three paragraphs of description, well-written or not. My advice: at the very least, cut the second paragraph.

    I liked this a lot, and I’d hate to see it fail.

    Another nitpick: “That voice was trying its hardest not to be sexy.” Something about this made me wince. The image of bare, sleek legs is sexy enough. Going on to sexualize her voice is a little bit heavy-handed. (Or maybe it’s the implication that she’s sexy but she’s uncomfortable with it, which is a cringe-worthy cliche.)

  14. Lynne Connolly
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 14:00:22

    Please keep the descriptions. I got a real sense of atmosphere from this, and I think lush is on its way back.

  15. SAO
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 14:14:58

    This didn’t grab me and I think it was the first few sentences. You talked about air as a tangible thing, snaking along Alex’s skin. I immediately flashed to my vacation in Sri Lanka, where it was not at all like cold, Maine fog. I have a house in Maine, so if you’d used words that don’t fit a tropical, rain-forested island as well as my home town, I’d have been in the right place. It took too much description of Maine to get from the tropics to cold New England fog with soldiers shivering in heavy woolen uniforms.

    I found it hard to believe that someone would be working on the mast in fog so dense Alex could only see half way up the mast. Or that they’d work on the water, rocking with the waves, instead of pulling the boat out of the water. My town has no dock, but a couple of boat ramps.

    And, man, the fog horn blares incessantly when there’s just a bit of fog (day and all night long). My town’s on the entrance to Casco Bay, but I still think there’d be fog horns in a small town far from Maine’s biggest port. And bell buoys.

    I wasn’t sure why he’d expect such defined colors as cherry and forest green if he’d never been there before, which the scene seemed to imply. My observation is most boats are white. Lobstermen might be blue, and cherry isn’t unheard of, but it’s not a color I’d expect unless I’d been there before and seen a particular boat.

    Your page is all atmosphere and since the atmosphere didn’t make it for me, I wasn’t hooked. I suspect a few tweaks and I’d be thrilled to read a book set in Maine.

  16. Viridian Chick
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 15:34:03

    On the descriptions: different strokes for different folks. Shrug!

    Forgot to say: I adore the title. Being dragged under by a powerful force… :) There’s something poetic and romantic about that, but in a manner that’s neither corny nor obvious.

  17. Patricia
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 19:19:31

    I like the Maine setting, but the descriptions in the first several paragraphs go on too long and are just too wordy. Less is more, sometimes. In a bookstore, I would probably have put it back on the shelf before we encounter Cy.

    I also rankled at the “trying its hardest not to be sexy” line. I’m not really sure what that means — I can’t conjure up a “trying not to be sexy” voice in my head. The description you go on to provide (husky, no-nonsense) works just fine. Let the readers decide for themselves if they considers that attractive.

  18. Carolyne
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 19:37:30

    Can’t help poking back in again: It didn’t occur to me to think of this as having a lot of description and I’m finding the range of descriptions-of-the-description really interesting (and probably applicable to my own writing attempts).

    My personal taste is that I’m either bored by books that don’t give me enough description to sink into, or I like them but consider them quickie “popcorn” reads. I’d even have called this “moderate to little” description instead of “lush” :D But I can’t talk to the Maine details or how much tweaking they need. I got the sense of cold and fog, but the only times I’ve been to Maine have been mostly spent in a convention center. One of my vacation dreams is to spend a nice long time there someday.

    Sooo…I think you’ll lose some readers, who like a more minimal approach, but firmly gain others.

  19. Maria
    Jun 16, 2013 @ 04:03:44

    I read ‘the air was a tangible thing’ and just groaned. You lost me there. The writing needs work in my opinion. You don’t need ‘was a tangible thing’. Just, ‘the air snaked…’

    You have ‘creeping past layers of clothing’, but you should add details. eg: ‘creeping past layers of my new thermals, shirt and jacket’. This kind of description clues us into character.

    Instead of ‘his skin’ in the first line, have ‘Alex’s skin’. This was all in the first paragraph, so I just stopped reading.

    Alex inhaled ‘it’. You don’t need the ‘it’. For me, all the instances of where this needs work made it unreadable.

  20. Donna Thorland
    Jun 16, 2013 @ 12:44:49

    Take a look at the way your first three paragraphs end. You’ve got three beats of a character getting exactly what he wants. No drama and no conflict equals no story. Remember that drama is a character wanting something badly and having difficulty getting it.

    Maine was shaping up to be just as deliciously spooky as he’d hoped.

    The rush of excitement swept up from deep in his chest, carrying the corners of his mouth up with it. This would do. This would definitely do.

    Things kept looking better. Ladd’s Harbor was the ideal setting for his next book, the epitome of the Maine coast, and was even home to its very own legend of gold, betrayal, and violence.

    Try rewriting each of these to end in disaster. “Maine wasn’t as he had hoped it would be.” “Things kept looking worse.” “Ladd’s Harbor was a terrible setting for his book.” Now you’ve got a story problem. A small one, but enough to keep us reading. And suddenly, if Maine isn’t all he had hoped, the description is in service of the story. It has tension.

  21. Author
    Jun 16, 2013 @ 22:53:57

    Thank you all so much for your responses! This is actually the first draft of my very first novel, so I am incredibly encouraged. Just the boost I needed to get started on revising.

  22. Author
    Jun 16, 2013 @ 23:01:16


    Thank you for reading and for commenting! I actually was born and raised in South Portland and spent a couple summers rigging sailboats out of Falmouth, so the descriptions were tricky for me- it was hard to tell if the words that evoked May-in-Maine to me would resonate with others, or if I was leaving out part of the picture because it was so connected in my own mind. If it doesn’t seem right to you that she’s working on a boat in the fog, or with chop, I might need to spend a bit of time figuring out how to convey just how busy a working boatyard is at the start of the season. Or, re-reading the first page now, just convey that he’s in a busy working boatyard and not a town dock. Thank you again, and enjoy your gorgeous summer!

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