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First Page: Unnamed Romantic Suspense

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Readers, though, the way that I look at it is this: Would the hook itself interest you in reading the book. If yes, what interests you and if not, what would you change to make it more appealing?

***

Julia cursed as she lost her footing again. The rounded cobblestones were like black ice under her stilettos and her ankles struggled with every step. She clung to her companion for support, and the short, muscular Spaniard with lips like ripe cherries and silky black hair seemed more than happy to wrap his burly arm around her waist. After a few paces he let his hand drop to give her bottom a rough squeeze.

She didn’t protest. Instead, she began to stroke his torso. She imagined running her hands through the forest of dark, curly hair that would cover his platter-sized pectorals, envisioned letting her mouth trace the clean demarcations of his eight perfect stomach muscles.

Julia bit her lip and shivered. Silvio Penalta reeked of gunpowder and trashy cologne, but there was no denying the appeal of his gym-honed masculinity.

As they walked down the dark street toward what she assumed would be his apartment, she admitted to herself that she couldn’t blame all of her imbalance on Madrid’s medieval streets. If she were the type to point fingers, she’d have to accuse the bottle of amontillado sherry she’d downed over the course of the last three hours while waiting for her man to come hither.

Of course she could have snared him faster–American blondes in Spain hardly hurt for attention–but the fun was in letting him think it was all his idea.

Silvio’s pace slowed. Seconds later, he led her around a corner and they were alone in a narrow, moonlit alley. Julia choked back a snort of laughter as she wondered how many girls Silvio had seduced in this very spot.

He would soon discover that she was not the sort of girl who let herself be seduced. She rather preferred to do the job herself.

***

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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

34 Comments

  1. Ann Somerville
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 04:53:13

    Repeating the names of characters unnecessarily is one of my major peeves. There’s only one ‘she’ in this. You don’t need to repeat ‘Julia’. Or Silvio

    he imagined running her hands through the forest of dark, curly hair that would cover his platter-sized pectorals, envisioned letting her mouth trace the clean demarcations of his eight perfect stomach muscles.

    I’m almost certain there are more than 8 muscles in the abdomen :) This sounds more like an anatomy lesson than sensual description – or perhaps a hunter describing a kill. Not sexy, at least to me.

    “If she were the type to point fingers, she'd have to accuse the bottle of amontillado sherry she'd downed over the course of the last three hours while waiting for her man to come hither.” Really clumsy sentence.

    “She rather preferred to do the job herself.” Funny :)

    Personally, it doesn’t appeal – the prolonged description of a man who is so not my type really turned me off. I like the humour, but I’m not getting any flavour of the story. I probably wouldn’t read on, but not because the writing sucks, so much as the physical turn off of the description.

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  2. Shiloh Walker
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 07:02:49

    The voice is good, although the opening hook didn’t exactly grab me. A little too over-descriptive, the forest of dark curls, platter sized muscles and demarcated abs…

    Definitely like the last line

    She rather preferred to do the job herself.

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  3. Laura Vivanco
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 07:24:28

    Silvio sounds more Italian than Spanish to me (see this list of the 100 most popular Spanish first names and surnames, and I would have double-checked that against the source here except that it tries to give me the names in Excel files, and I don’t have Excel). As for the surname, it might look more convincing it was spelled Peñalta.

    I’m also a little bit curious about the description “reeked of gunpowder.” Is this because he works with fireworks? Or is he in ETA? It would be a pretty obvious give-away if he was.

    Finally, re “Madrid's medieval streets” with “rounded cobblestones” although the city does have a long history, there isn’t a great deal of Madrid which dates from the Middle Ages. When I think of the older parts of Madrid, I tend to think of the parts which date from the “España de los Austrias” and maybe even later. There’s a quick description of the history of Madrid and photos of its buildings here. Are you thinking of specific streets in Madrid which are both cobbled and medieval?

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  4. jmc
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 09:10:29

    I agree with Shiloh Walker. The description of Silvio was a little…too much. Florid is the word that springs to my mind.

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  5. Carolyn
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 09:12:54

    The descriptions seemed awkward to me and I was completely turned off after ‘lips like ripe cherries’.

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  6. Jill Sorenson
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 09:16:18

    The description of Silvio is off-putting, but I want to read on to see what happens to him.

    If the heroine is genuinely lusting after this guy, I would venture to say she has bad taste. If she’s about to put a bullet in him, she seems pretty darned cold. Either way, I’m intrigued.

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  7. Rosario
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 10:15:18

    Silvio sounds more Italian than Spanish to me (see this list of the 100 most popular Spanish first names and surnames, and I would have double-checked that against the source here except that it tries to give me the names in Excel files, and I don't have Excel). As for the surname, it might look more convincing it was spelled Peñalta.

    Silvio actually sounds Spanish enough to me… although probably not a sexy Latin-lover kind of name to my ears. Obviously just a personal reaction, but for me, Silvio is either a hairdresser or an uneducated ranch-hand *g*

    As for the surname, yeah, Penalta sounds like something the author made up. Peñalta is better, and Peralta even more so, as it’s a common enough Spanish surname.

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  8. Leah
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 10:19:11

    The writing is fine–although I also didn’t like the “lips like cherries”–it doesn’t seem very masculine–almost like a kid. I have to say, though–and this is just me–I am not very interested in reading about the heroine making a casual drunken hook-up. I want to know Silvio has qualities other than his pecs, and that the heroine has some kind of self-control and judgment. At this point, though, it’s hard to tell if Julia is the heroine, or some potential victim–likewise with Silvio, although since we’re not getting a peek inside his head, he seems like he’ll be out of the picture soon. But, again, the writing is fine. I would need to read the back cover summary to know for sure if I’d follow Julia further. Good luck with your book!

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  9. KeriM
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 10:33:58

    I agree with everybody…the male description didn’t do anything for me at all. Since we were given this part of the story with no back story to go on..we are lost as readers as to why this is taking place. gunpower = sexy….not to me. :-)

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  10. TracyS
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 10:42:55

    Like others, I find the description of Silvio a little too much.

    As others have mentioned, since this is a first page of a romantic suspense, this very well may not be the heroine or the hero, so the random hook up may not be a part of the romantic storyline.

    It hooked me enough that I want to know who these people are and what is going to happen next.

    I, too, loved the last line.

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  11. Cathy
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 10:49:05

    The description of the man definitely struck me as a bit purple – it wouldn’t surprise me to read about his “long, hard manroot” entering her “feminine love portal” on the next page.

    This one just didn’t draw me in.

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  12. Darlynne
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 10:49:27

    If Silvio is someone Julia is hot for and really would like to seduce, don’t tell me that he reeks of anything, certainly not trashy cologne. And although I know it wasn’t intended this way

    with lips like ripe cherries and silky black hair

    the word “like” links the description of his lips with his hair and that’s just not going to work.

    Gunpowder doesn’t smell the way books would have us believe. When first fired, there is a distinctive odor, not unpleasant at all, but it doesn’t really linger, except perhaps in the sinuses of the shooter. Someone would have to have recently shot many rounds or in a confined space for the smell to be detected by another person, particularly over that trashy cologne.

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  13. Carrie Lofty
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 11:00:30

    I read “Spaniard” as “Spaniel,” so that first paragraph was hella confusing for me. My bad.

    Can’t relate to the character’s drunken hook-up either, which is an issue of personal taste that would put me off.

    Otherwise, the sentences are fat with unnecessary words. “…She admitted to herself that…” could become “she admitted,” because she’s not saying it aloud. “If she were the type to point fingers, she’d have to accuse the bottle…” could become “she’d accuse.” These are small instances, but they make the prose unnecessarily slow. It says the author doesn’t have a firm hold on the type of sentences she’s creating. Because this is supposed to be romantic suspense, I’ve lost faith that the eventual action and suspense will be as sharp, gritty, and concise as it’ll need to be.

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  14. Dari
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 11:48:30

    I just couldn’t get over “lips like ripe cherries” either. It is such a feminine description. I can see it as a part of Regency novel describing a female character, but never in this context.

    I just watched Legally Blond last night and the whole description of Silvio reminded me of the pool boy who wore thong as a uniform. “Delta (…) never sleeps with a guy who wares a thong” was reaction. I guess as a reader, he is just not my cop of tea. I would keep reading though and hope that she does something to him before she gets to do whatever they went to do in that alley.

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  15. Laura Vivanco
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 11:54:16

    As for the surname, yeah, Penalta sounds like something the author made up. Peñalta is better, and Peralta even more so, as it's a common enough Spanish surname.

    Yes, if you go here you can search the Instituto Nacional de Estadística’s database of surnames (that should be the English version of the page). There are 1736 people with Peralta as their first surname living in the province of Madrid.

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  16. Val Kovalin
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 12:31:32

    This opens well with two vivid sentences that draw us into the action by giving us the sensory details of Julia struggling over the cobblestones in stiletto heels. The “black ice” comparison is especially good. After this, however, I increasingly draw a blank about her motives/state-of-mind and this pushes me further and further out of the story.

    First, to me at least, the Spaniard is over-described and in an exaggerated way that verges on parody: cherry-red lips, forest of hair, platter-sized pectorals. Plus, I’m wondering why he reeks of gunpowder. That’s a little unusual unless we’re in the Spanish Civil War, maybe, right after a battle. Gunpowder doesn’t really smell like anything unless it’s burning (i.e., a cartridge has been fired).

    Then there is ambiguity of Julia’s state-of-mind. He’s groping her and she doesn’t seem to mind? Right here would be a good time for a hint of her ulterior motive: is she putting up with this because she’s a spy, hoping to get information from him? A vampire, hunting him as prey? Instead, she imagines his physical attributes, admits the appeal of his masculinity, and thinks to herself that she’s going to do the seducing.

    I’m sure there’s an ulterior motive that you’re keeping back for suspense, but no hint of it is coming through on the first page. We need some hint at this point or we’re left with a first page that suggests she actually enjoys being treated like a sex toy (which is all right if that’s actually the intent for this character, but I doubt that it is). There needs to be some hint, probably in the last sentence, that Julia is building towards something other than a simple seduction.

    This is only 301 words. Maybe if we’d received a little more, all this would have come clear. I wish you the best of luck with it.

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  17. Keri Ford
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 12:34:36

    I agree with Leah. I’d have to read the back cover copy before moving forward. The description of the guy turned me off, but I would have kept reading if I knew Julia wasn’t the heroine, if I knew she was fixing to kill off the guy, or be killed off herself. Julia came off as very unflattering. It was the one night stand frame of mind she’s got.

    And Carrie, you’re not the only one! I too read that as spaniel and had to stop with the image of her leaning on a dog.

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  18. Jessica
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 12:40:32

    I’d read page two just to make sure Silvio gets offed. If not, I’d probably pass (though to be fair I read romance and suspense, just not together). My only advice would be to tighten up the writing as Carrie suggested. Also, the description reminds me more of Portugal (which has far, far too many cobblestones for comfort) than Spain.

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  19. KB
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 12:42:27

    Maybe I was reading too much into the fact that this was listed as a romantic suspense, but I definitely got the idea that Silvio was Julia’s target for something and that while she was pleased he was pursuing her, her interest was not romantic. I would have kept reading to find out what was going on.

    I liked the descriptions about the walking, the stones, etc. but I also found the descriptions of Silvio overdone.

    KB

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  20. Shelly @ Bewitched
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 13:08:27

    Like everyone else, the description of Silvio was waaay too much for me. I did enjoy the descriptive parts about her walking on the cobbled street. It sounds like Silvio is a mark, but if that is the case, what professional would have downed a bottle of alcohol beforehand? I might have read a bit further but it would have had to really grab me because this first page was just a so-so hook for me.

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  21. Jessica Barksdale Inclan
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 13:20:20

    What I like about this opening–despite some of the description–is that it sets up the main female lead as complicated. She’s too smart to be walking with the street in high heels with some kind of jerky sexy wannabe, and yet she is. That seems interesting to me. Why is she doing it? And I would read on to find out.

    Having started a novel with a character running in high heels, I’ve now decided it’s too much of a cliche, and I vowed never to do it again. I hope to spread the word of this notion.

    Take some of the descriptive advice above and keep going with this character.

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  22. SpeshulWalrus
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 13:56:53

    Silvio sounds…distinctly unsexy. Hairy arms, hairy chest, short, burly and trashy cologne. Not exactly a prize package.

    Also, I kept stopping at the ‘blonde American’ causing a sensation in Spain. Really? I haven’t been to Spain so I don’t know if that’s the case, but I have been to Europe, and they’re not exactly super-enthralled with Americans right now. A nitpick, perhaps, but that phrase really stuck out to me.

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  23. Marianne McA
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 14:00:44

    Yes, in that I want to know what happens next. Marginally worried that she drinks an entire bottle of sherry – but perhaps sherry in Spain tastes nicer than the stuff you used to drink before Sunday lunch in the UK.

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  24. JulieLeto
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 14:57:56

    Agree with a lot of the comments…particularly about “blonde American” simply because, well, there are blond Spanish women, too. Take care with stereotypes (all Latinas are brunettes, etc.)

    Anyway, that little pet peeve o’mine notwithstanding, I didn’t get that Julia was the heroine AT ALL. I read her as the villain/victim in this romantic suspense. I don’t buy her as a heroine and I like an edgy heroine. I guess because the man is so unappealing.

    I keep waiting for the author to pipe in and say, “She’s not the heroine!”

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  25. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 16:48:35

    An interesting start, and a nice style.
    I’ve been to Madrid more than once, and I have yet to discover any cobbled streets there. It’s not medieval, it’s more Victorian with lots of wide roads. The most distinctive things are the huge, hand-painted movie billboards. Incredible things. But no cobbles, except in the touristy bits for effect.
    If she drank a whole bottle of sherry, she might well have alcohol poisoning. Sherry is a fortified wine with an average 20% alcohol content (wine has around 12% and strong beer 5%), and while amontillado isn’t the strongest, it’s plenty strong enough. And hella sweet, so she’s going to be extremely ill come the morning.
    You used an Italian name for a Spaniard, but I guess you know that by now.
    Lose that second paragraph. You’re trying to inject sex and it doesn’t work. Bring the description down and try to thread the awareness throughout the piece instead of bunging in the one para.
    Blonde Americans aren’t that unusual in Madrid, and Spain has enough blondes of its own as well. They like rich Americans, though, and don’t much care what color hair they have.
    Lots of words you don’t need, so maybe another editing pass could help. My pet hate, “She thought to herself,” – unless it’s a paranormal using telepathy there’s not much chance she’s thinking to anyone else!
    So we have a blonde, blind-drunk American who has hooked up with a stranger for sex? I don’t know enough about Julia to care for her, maybe if she’s the heroine, you want to give the reader a hint, and Silvio, obviously an unsavory character. So where’s the hook?
    But a good start, and with a bit of trimming, could do well.

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  26. K. Z. Snow
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 19:01:05

    My pet hate, “She thought to herself,” – unless it's a paranormal using telepathy there's not much chance she's thinking to anyone else!

    My long-lost sister! Actually, Lynne, I don’t believe the author is guilty of this. The heroine “admitted” to herself, which is more like a private, unspoken confession.

    I didn’t have any big problem with this excerpt — thought it was pretty good, actually. Seems to me the description of Silvio was intentionally hyperbolic, in a kind of drolly skewering way, because he’s perhaps a little too full of himself (something the last line suggests). My sense of the heroine’s attitude is that she’s perfectly willing to enjoy this hot-bod and may even have some hidden agenda, but she doesn’t take the man’s machismo seriously.

    As for the drunken hook-up? Been there, done that . . . so who am I to cast stones? Truth be told, I despise perfect heroines who always have their shit together in a currently PC way. I liked this one’s attitude and only hope she doesn’t turn out to be some kickass Mary Sue type.

    To quote Three Dog Night, I’ve never been to Spain. I can’t address those aspects of the excerpt.

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  27. Maya
    Aug 16, 2008 @ 22:41:03

    i got stuck at the lips like cherries comment. eyes like that i can picture – but lips? are they round? have a stem? a stony centre? that’s obviousl all silliness, since (i’m guessing) what is meant is the color – but even that makes me trip, since all i can picture is a man wearing either really bright red (sour cherries) or really dark (sweet cherries) lipstick. neither one a particlar turn-on for me personally.

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  28. Mothella
    Aug 17, 2008 @ 02:42:19

    I’m with everyone who put off by the “lips like cherries”, and the gunpowder thing just read as over the top to me, like you were trying too hard.

    I hope with cold, detached descriptions like these that we’re heading for a violent crime and not a sex scene. I would keep reading to find out if she offed poor Silvio, but not too much further after that if the girl is the heroine and she didn’t become more likeable.

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  29. LizA
    Aug 17, 2008 @ 02:42:27

    The Cherry lips sounded very gross to me. I was picturing kind of overblown, wet baby lips on a grown man – yuck. Personal preference, but still.
    I had no feel of Spain in the whole piece. The describtions were generic – like the cobbled streets. i esp. object to the bottle of sherry. it is an aperitif, not meant to be drunk in huge quantities (as somebody pointed out, a bottle of sherry would make you very drunk). Well, there are personal tastes, of course, but it still sounded weird. If you are alone in a bar in Spain, you would very likely drink wine, and eat some tapas…. or enjoy a cafe corretto or something like that.
    Spanish men do like blondes but they do not care where they come from. There are plenty of blonde spanish women, too, and Americans are not all that rare anywhere in Europe. to me that describiton sounded like it was somewhere in South America, in fact. Maybe that is what the author knows? If the book is set in Spain, it ought to have more “flair” from the location….

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  30. joanne
    Aug 17, 2008 @ 08:44:32

    The author lost me at the clinging, stroking stupid female lead character who is about to break an ankle in the stilettos … but I continued on until cherry lips. As a reader/buyer I would have backed out and gone on to look for something else to read/buy.

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  31. Janet Mullany
    Aug 17, 2008 @ 10:52:11

    Yikes. Lose most of the adjectives; my initial reaction was that it was a parody. I couldn’t help but think of the Monty Python travel agent sketch.
    On the other hand, the end was quite intriguing.

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  32. EC Sheedy
    Aug 17, 2008 @ 10:52:56

    The author has talent.

    The intended setup held elements of promise: the intrigue of Madrid, a moonlit alley, an old and uneven surfaced street, stilletos, a man and a woman alone, intentions undefined . . .

    All good, but, yes, too many words and often the wrong ones. Hone the scene, pen warrior. Cut,slice, dice, then do it again. This scene could work with more *work.* Good luck.

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  33. Lauren Bethany
    Aug 19, 2008 @ 14:33:18

    I liked he setup, but I also think the language was too flowery and overdone. Silvio sounds like a jerk and I’m hoping to find she’s a vampire and he’s dinner on the page turn. If he’s the hero, this book would be a no-buy for me.

    I say cut back on the descriptives and keep them more to the point. What do you mean by, “Lips like cherries?” Are his lips full? Lush? Nibble-able? Red? For the abs, I have an image of him walking around in an unbuttoned shirt flashing his physique. I’d stick to describing body parts that can be seen until the clothing is actually removed.

    I can’t stand the, “drunken blond = easy lay,” implication here. It irritates me for more reasons than I can outline here. I want to know the heroine is going into any encounter aware. I want to know the men involved aren’t the kind who would feel the need to get a woman impared and unable to resist. I want both parties consenting.

    As others have pointed out, she doesn’t need to direct her thoughts to herself, so you shouldn’t either.

    I restate that based on the description I hate Silvio. I hope she’s playing bait for some other purpose than sex.

    Please tell me he’s dinner. :)

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  34. Anonymous Romance Writer
    Jan 27, 2009 @ 10:37:59

    Oh boy.

    I never realized this was picked as a first page.

    Thank you all for your comments! I apologize for not noticing before now. I really wish I’d been able to contribute to the conversation.

    If anyone still cares, I can confirm that your basic responses have been echoed by contest judges and a few editors. I see very clearly now that my setup wasn’t working for anyone but me.

    But here’s what I intended to convey: Julia is the heroine, but Silvio is NOT THE HERO. He’s a mark, as some of you thought, and he’s meant to be a vaguely good-looking but muscle-bound greaseball. If you felt like he was gross, then good. He’s supposed to be gross. But I didn’t mean to turn you off to the rest of the book. That’s my mistake, and it’s a big one.

    I still think that a man’s lips can look like ripe cherries. They’d be bright red and overly plump. And they’d be icky. But no one seems to like that, so I’ll probably axe it.

    In the revised version of this story, I cut that first scene out entirely and moved things around a bit so that our first image of the heroine is not so distasteful. I wanted Julia to be complicated — some of you thought that she was, so that’s good — but not unsympathetic. She’s a CIA agent living in Spain, and she’s so bored and lonely that she’s starting to get some sick pleasure out of hooking up with her marks. She’s also fallen for a particular high-end sherry, and drinks much more of it than is appropriate for either her profession or the type of drink.

    I’ve read enough about the CIA to know that it can be a lonely, depressing occupation, and in Julia I’ve tried to convey that being a secret agent isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes it sucks, and this particular woman has some emotional baggage that weighs her down. So she takes risks and drinks too much and generally doesn’t care whether she lives or dies.

    Now, that’s a sad premise for a romance novel, so I don’t keep it there for long. In the revised version, I try to use humor to keep the reader engaged, and to make them feel more connected to the heroine. Her (revised) life is still crappy, but it’s the sort of crappy that you might laugh about, not cringe away from.

    Julia now meets the true hero — who is nothing like Silvio — in the first scene, though not quite on the first page. I wanted to leave no doubt in the reader’s mind who the hero was. I also made sure that it’s clear to the reader that Julia is on assignment and may have to do things that she would otherwise find disagreeable. However, in my new version, she does NOT have a physical relationship with anyone other than the hero. Additionally, it’s now clear that she does not enjoy the instances in which she has to pretend to be on friendly terms with criminals.

    I appreciate your suggestions regarding names, but while “Silvio Penalta” may not be the most common Spanish name, it is a possible one. The name “Silvio” sounds like “slick” and “slimy,” which suits him. The surname “Penalta” isn’t that unusual, and most importantly, it’s easily pronounceable. He’s secondary character and I don’t want readers to have to stumble over his name — or anyone’s name, really.

    And while Madrid isn’t mostly medieval, it is partly, and that’s the part where I chose to begin my book. I haven’t been there, though, and it was so difficult and time-consuming to research Madrid that I quickly moved the rest of the book to places I’ve been, like France and Scotland. Lesson learned!

    It may be worth saying that this is the first scene I’d ever written — not just for this book, but for any book. I loved the idea of the back alley assignation with a potential asset, but it was hard for me to admit that it wasn’t working, even after the rest of the novel came together in a way that didn’t need that original scene.

    I’ve since finished a second book and started a third, and I’ve learned that I can’t always hold on to my first conceptions of a character. I’m much more pragmatic about the whole thing now, but last year, I was reluctant to realize that my first scene shouldn’t see the light of day.

    It’s true that my writing style could use some polish, but that’ll come with time and attention. And while I like reading romantic suspense, it may be that I should be writing something else.

    I’ll submit a revised first page for this book today. Perhaps it’ll be posted, and I can see if it has been improved in the eyes of Dear Author readers.

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