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First Page: unpublished manuscript – contemporary

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Fall had arrived early in western North Carolina, bringing with it invigorating breezes. But inside a tatty office building in downtown Asheville, The Bugle’s stuffy newsroom reeked of press ink, abandoned pizza boxes and drugstore cologne spilled months before by a despairing City reporter as he packed up his belongings. Dust coated darkened light fixtures and broken file cabinets. Cobwebs draped over forgotten spaces. And in a lonely conference room, Senior Copyeditor Ginna Bristol sneezed as she sat across from her boss, who, scratching out what must be his two-hundredth cat doodle on a yellow legal pad, allowed a “gesundheit” before continuing on about the future of the newspaper.

“So, you understand,” he finally said, lifting his eyes from the artwork, but not quite meeting her own.

She internalized a sigh. “Understand what, Lenny?”

“Ginna, please,” he said. “It’s not about good or bad work. It’s about… journalism. Democracy. I mean, making sure this newspaper continues. For that to happen, well, without one particular person, will anyone really notice?”

“I’m totally lost.”

Unblinking, he tapped the pen with a single, final thud and looked directly into her blue eyes. “You’ll find another job.”

She flopped back, nearly tipping over in the frail office chair. When he lurched forward to steady her, his red pen struck hard against the table, soared and targeted her heart.

Frowning, she looked from her white shirt to him. “Lenny! For crying out loud!”

“I’ve heard club soda… .”

She rose from the wobbling chair. “I’m being laid off!?”

He stood and shakily re-capped his pen. “It’s not personal.”

“Sensei! Why’d you dump this hot mess on me?” Renée, a Junior Copyeditor at the adjoining desk, called out when Ginna returned.

Newsroom staff was about a quarter the size it was just a few years before, but everyone had bunched their desks together in the center of the large, open room. Safety in numbers, maybe. The click-click-click typing of all those still-eager, or desperate, reporters and editors created a cacophony in Ginna’s ears. She squinted at her co-worker. “Huh?”

“Sensei! This freelancer’s story. It stinks.” Renée watched her for a moment, then took a bite of apple. “What’d Lenny want?” she said with her mouth full. “Man, what a toadface.”

Ginna’s head pounded, along with her eardrums. She opened a desk drawer as a nearby reporter asked her, again, how to type an em dash. She gave her head a quick shake. “Don’t. Re-write the sentence,” she said and grabbed her bag from between a stack of old newspapers and reference books.

Renée set down the apple, stood and ambled to Ginna’s side. “He’s not making you work another double, is he? That piece of … .”

Ginna grabbed a bottle of ibuprofen from her purse. Empty. “I need some air.” She brushed past Renée and headed for the door.

Renée followed. “Word. But when you get back, I need you to edit the story behind me. It cannot go to print like this or The Toad will axe me.”

Voice cracking, Ginna said over her shoulder, “Watch it, Grasshopper. He’s going to hear you one of these days.”


On the sidewalk outside of the building, the man she ran smack into apologized to her, presumably because he couldn’t imagine what else to say to a woman with tears streaming over her cheeks. Steadying herself after the crash, she peered ahead at Battery Park Avenue, which appeared coated in petroleum jelly. She spotted her car and ran to it. “It’s not personal,” she croaked as she yanked open the door. Boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, the Civic responded. “Oh, shut it,” she said and tossed her purse on the passenger seat. But the car didn’t listen. “Dammit!” Fumbling with the key fob, she pressed button after button while from inside her bag her cell phone trilled. “Oh, for fuc… ,” she growled.

She pressed her fingers against her temples and willed the noise to stop and then, just like that, there was quiet. She leaned her head against the cool glass of her door window and closed her eyes. “Dammit. Dammit. Dammit,” she said softly. A few moments passed before her cell rang again. She retrieved it and glanced at the screen. “Not now, Renée,” she whispered and declined the call, but it only rang again. Her best friend, Melinda, this time. She took in a deep breath before answering.



“Come again?”

“Renée called me.”

So much for confidentiality. Renée must have spouted off to Lenny, who then filled her in.

“News really does travel fast. I only found out like thirteen minutes ago.”

“They’re wankers, but they just did you a favor.”

“Sure. Who needs a paycheck? Or a career?”

“Dude, this is an opportunity.”

“Mel, this is a rejection. And you know what day this is? Makes it even worse.”

“Um. August 29th?”

Ginna’s father had died fourteen years ago. Aside from the sadness over his death, his illness had ended graduate school for her, though Mel never understood why. But Ginna had had responsibilities. Mel was right, though. Long in the past. Of course, it was also the anniversary of her divorce. One year.

“Hold on. You’re not talking about the end of the un-love affair?”

“OK, OK.”

“I mean, the job, yeah, I can see the sucky parts of that ending. But your marriage?”

“I said OK, Mel.”

“Seriously, that outfit you wore to Carly’s birthday party is reason to mourn. But Darrin?”

“Hey! I just lost my job, you jerk.”

“That job was bullshit and you know it. As was your marriage.”

“Is this the kind of counseling you give your clients?”

“Only the ones I’ve known for twenty years. Look, I have some time. Let’s grab a coffee at Izzy’s.”
Ginna sniffled.

“West End?”

“No. I want to be somewhere else.” She paused. “Like really somewhere else.”

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. SAO
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 09:22:53

    This has some good points, but really it could be a lot stronger opening.

    Gina is passive. Things happen to her, she’s not making them happen. Start where she starts acting, not reacting or passively listening.

    1) You have a lot of good detail about antique pizza boxes and cobwebs, but it left me wondering why Ginna didn’t know her job was doomed. How can she be surprised that the place has money problems? which it obviously does, since the cleaners and other reporters have been let go. If you are going to start here, make her stride into the room, expecting a raise because she knows she’s helping the paper gain readership.

    2) Add to this the fact that she runs into a stranger and forgets to disarm her car, Gina’s coming across to me as dim.

    3) The second half of the page is confusing backstory. Mel telling us that the job was no loss, the husband was no loss, Gina’s taste in clothing is awful and that she dropped out of grad school for a poor reason. Gina passively listens to this and does nothing to defend herself. You have layer after layer of suggestion that Gina makes bad choices and is the architect of her own current disaster.

    All of this can be fixed by starting the book where Gina starts taking action.

    As a side point, (if I’m wrong ignore this) this opening has a familiar feel and if you are going where so many have gone before, and Gina, pushed by Mel, deals with her misery by going to a club, meeting the hero and having a one-night stand, which is so out of character for her just don’t let Gina’s angst over her actions or Hero’s slut shaming be the conflict of the book.

  2. Carol McKenzie
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 09:23:34

    I don’t know what this is…other than closer to three pages than a first page.

    I’m confused by the imagery at the beginning: the office seems deserted, yet they still work there. I’m thrown off by the repeated “Sensai” comments and jargon from Renee; it’s too much, too soon. Also, you can lose the capital letters for job descriptions. If they’re someone’s title, you can capitalize them, but if they’re occurring in a sentence as a job, there’s no need to capitalize.

    It took a few reads (I was skimming by then) to realize Mel was a girl. Her dialog was difficult to separate from the jargon-filled dialog of Renee. And the word wanker really took me out of the story. Unless Mel is British, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone from Asheville call someone a wanker.

    Finally, I can’t get a handle on the Hn’s age. Dialog makes her sound young, but the time line of her father’s death and her being in graduate school makes me think she’s much older, along with Mel’s “twenty years” comment. So again, I’m confused.

    I’m not sure I’d read any further. Maybe with a blurb to orient me in what I’m reading, I’d be interested. But as it stands, not so much. Maybe it’s just me, but this leaves me confused. It’s not that I want everything spelled out on the first page, and I like having questions that I think I’ll find the answers to, but I don’t like leaving the first few pages in a state of confusion.

    Thanks for sharing and I wish I could have provided something more positive. But I don’t think I’m your audience.

  3. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 09:28:41

    Well written backstory. At least the first scene is. If this is where the story starts, then it’s not a romance, because there are no indications that anything romantic is going to happen. No mystery billionaire, “Get an interview with him and you keep your job.” Nothing.
    The second part, the interview with the girlfriend is confusing and slapdash compared to the lovingly described first part. And by then my eyes were glazing over.
    I don’t care about your heroine yet. Start where the story starts, which in a romance is usually when one of the protagonists meets, or learns about, the other.
    And on a personal note – I am beginning to truly dislike books that start with a “setup” scene, where the hero is, for instance, staring at a picture of the heroine and thinking about her. Have the courage to dive in and the skill to build in the backstory as you go.

  4. Marianne McA
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 09:48:32

    I think I liked it, but it’s awfully concentrated. In the space of a page, we’ve seen the heroine’s workplace, met the heroine, her boss, two of her friends, and seen her fired – all topped with a heaped spoonful of backstory.
    My first thoughts are that, unless the workplace remains a setting, I probably didn’t need that level of atmospheric description: in fact – if that’s all we ever see of The Bugle – I’d almost vote for losing that entire section and starting with: “On the sidewalk outside of the building, the man she ran smack into apologized to her, presumably because he couldn’t imagine what else to say to a woman with tears streaming over her cheeks” because it’s such a great line.
    And I’m not sure about the conversation between Ginna and Melinda – I like the way Melinda is forceful, and just takes an optimistic line on the whole thing, but the conversation itself doesn’t feel entirely authentic. (Particularly the Aug 29th infodump.) Also it means that Ginna is having to be reactive again – first she reacts to Lenny, then to Renée, then to Melinda. The only proactive things she does are to leave the building and ignore her phone, so it’s hard for the reader to start rooting for her.
    Having said all that, I think it’s a promising page. It’s just – for my taste as a reader – trying to do too much all at once.

    Good luck.

  5. Kate Sherwood
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 09:53:18

    Too many characters, too many details, and nothing that grabbed me enough to make me want to sort it all out.

    I agree with the others that this is probably not the start of your story. When you DO hit your start, try to keep it as simple as possible, adding in new elements and characters gradually rather than all at once.

  6. hapax
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 10:00:40

    I think Marianne McA is right. The scene in the newsroom is great (and since I know several people in EXACTLY this situation, I really felt their pain) but I suspect we’re not going to see that place or any of those people again.

    I re-read it starting where she suggested, and your story worked much better for me. I didn’t think the Hn was quite so passive, just justifiably upset. You need some dialogue tags for the last part of the exchange, though, because otherwise the reader might get lost.

    But I’d cut the backstory paragraph about her father dying and grad school and the divorce. Work this info in as it’s needed, not in an infodump.

    Good luck!

  7. theo
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 10:27:01

    Maybe I’m too old, but I was completely lost at the conversation between your Hn and her coworker. Too much slang for someone who works with words all day long. It just didn’t ring true. I really liked the description of the boss’s office, but was expecting an empty outer office rather than one that still had worker bees in it.

    I’m guessing that Battery Park Avenue is still a pretty busy road so her just running across the street like it’s empty had me wondering where the honking horns were and slamming brakes. You did such a good job with the boss’s office and yet, those other details are overlooked.

    The conversation with Melinda was difficult to follow without some occasional tag.

    I agree with the others. This isn’t where the story starts. Your Hn still hasn’t done anything. She’s been done to. Her boss laid her off. Her coworker wants her to help edit a piece but she doesn’t. Her car is blaring and stops seemingly by itself. Her friend Mel calls her and ‘tells’ her things. She didn’t even react to the guy she ran into.

    You might want to start where she’s driving off. At least I’m supposing she drives off.

    There’s too much going on here with everyone else and nothing going on with your Hn that would make me care. Though some of your descriptions are written really well, it’s not enough to sustain the story for me. I’d love to see it start further into the story, but if it started here, I wouldn’t read on.

  8. MJones
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 10:35:08

    When I start reading something and I come upon an odd name and I don’t know how to pronounce it, it will distract me every time. I don’t know what kind of a name Ginna is but if it could be Gina that’d be way more awesome. Authors love coming up with unusual names, but this can take away from your story.

    Agree on capitals of titles. Distracting. Sensei? Grasshopper? Working hard to establish familiarity but we don’t know these people so it’s just……weird. I also agree on the dialog. Americans don’t use wanker. If you’re not American, setting a story in an American city, get someone who lives in the country to review idioms and phrases.

    My fave paragraph is the first. It becomes jumbled and confusing the further I go. Just lots of details that don’t mean anything to us yet.

  9. Shaya Gilford
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 10:45:46

    The descriptions are good, but some of the terms are off-putting. The street of petroleum jelly was an unwlcome image and doesn’t really make sense. The “fuc…” is a personal pet peave of mine. She’s an adult. She can say “fuck,” and the line would be stronger if she did instead of intimating it.

    Renee’s diologue makes her sound like a teenager, and I immediately disliked Mel because of her criticism at a time when the Hn is clearly upset. The Hn comes across as weak minded, not a mature professional.

    This page has some promise, but too much happens all at once and there are no likeable characters at this point.

  10. wikkidsexycool
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 10:53:27

    Hello Author,

    Thanks for having the courage to post this. I enjoyed the descriptive beginning. What pulled me out of the story was this: “Renée followed. “Word.”

    Be careful, because Renee reads like a caricature of someone young. The thing about slang, is that it dates quickly. “Word” and “hot mess” have, in some circles, already been replaced. In addition, Renee is coming off like a nuisance co-worker. I’d recommend dropping her part, because I don’t care about her, especially in the first few pages (I agree, this isn’t a first page, but multiple pages) my focus is on your protagonist, but you’ve dropped in so many extra characters, it began to read like a sitcom for me.

    Also, the “Grasshopper” and “Sensei” aren’t needed imho. If this is the playful banter used between them, then I’d rethink that. If I worked in an office where people were addressing each other like that, I’d be wary that at some point I’d hear someone addressing me by a moniker that would make me uncomfortable. I do commend you for what I can tell is a means of adding personality to your characters. I just think that this could be a double edged sword. But more important, is that your “voice” was strong enough in the first few paragraphs, when Ginna was talking with her boss, that all the other characters and their exchange with your heroine were distracting.

    I understand that she’s been laid off. But I don’t get a sense of what she plans on doing about it, because just as SAO mentioned, things are happening to her. Right now, to me she’s mildly interesting, as is her boss. Maybe concentrating on her first will work better than stirring in a variety of side characters.

    I wish you all the best with this. Right now it reads like women’s fiction, which I also enjoy, so I’d pick this up. Hopefully you’ll post a short blurb giving more info on where this is headed.

  11. Jamie Beck
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 11:08:29

    Thanks for sharing your work.

    I can’t quite figure out how I feel about this opening. Yes, the protag has just been fired, and that sucks, but while we get the feeling she was good at the job (based on her co-worker’s remarks), we don’t know if she even really loved it. If her identity is wrapped up in this job, then this is a huge blow, but if not, then this is just another hiccup in her life (and probably not even as emotionally painful as a divorce, etc.). So, is this really the start of HER story? I don’t know…and I don’t really have a good feel for who she is or what she wants (and what may prevent her from getting it), so it is difficult to care a lot about what might happen next. Right now she does seem to be a bit of a tired victim. I’m okay with that if the story is about her learning to take control of her life…but again, I don’t know yet what her story will be.

    I’m also not one who thinks a hero needs to be introduced in the first two or three pages, especially if this is more of a women’s fiction with strong romantic elements story instead of a true contemporary romance. In fact, I kind of prefer a non-formulaic book (like Lisa Kleypas’s Sugar Daddy, which started out with the heroine falling for one hero, and ended with her marrying another)…but every reader is different, and if this is to be marketed as romance, then you probably do need to tailor it to fit with the majority of readers’ expectations.

    Others here have already given you some good, specific pointers to consider, so I won’t pile on. I know how hard it can be to put yourself out there and get a lot of criticism. I think you have some promise here. Just reshape it a bit to give the reader a clearer idea of what the story is from the outset.

    Best of luck!

  12. Melissa
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 11:09:06

    A couple comments have mentioned the use of “wanker” as not being appropriate to the region. I am not familiar with North Carolina, but at the Midwestern university where I work, that word is used– not overly much, but I’ve heard it regularly.

  13. Carol McKenzie
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 11:13:28

    @Melissa: The use of wanker by someone who’s age I have a hard time pinpointing, and I think is older rather than younger, is what drew me out of the story. My son uses wanker on occasion, but he’s 19 and we watched Bridget Jones, and he liked the sound of the word. But it’s not the norm among the friends he has in the Asheville region.

  14. Melissa
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 12:14:00

    @Carol McKenzie and Author: Although perhaps it’s a bit much to ask of a first page, I would like to read some details that anchor this story in a particular place, if the author is going to bother to mention Asheville, North Carolina at all. While “wanker” didn’t throw me out of the story, neither did it anchor the story anywhere. Instead of just pizza boxes in the newsroom, is there some regional food specialty that people also consume? In my Midwestern state, that might be pork tenderloin sandwiches (breaded and fried, kind of like Wiener Schnitzel). Are there regional speech patterns that some or all characters could use? I’ve known some Southerners (not all of them) who use “sir” and “ma’am” quite naturally when addressing others. Do people in North Carolina do that? Like maybe that stranger who apologizes when Ginna bumps into him? Again, not being familiar with North Carolina, I don’t know what things would be unique, but I would like to discover them in my reading!

    The other thing I’ll mention about the setting is that while I liked the portrayal of the newsroom, I can’t imagine the clicking of the computer keyboards creating such a cacophony. Just some thoughts that bubbled up when I read Carol’s comment.

  15. cleo
    Jan 25, 2014 @ 13:48:33

    I agree with the other comments. The descriptions are good, but it feels unfocused.

    And I’m still wondering about the red ink stain on her shirt – it seems like an odd detail to throw in and then ignore. Why didn’t Rene notice it? I’m a textile lover, so I’m more concerned about saving the fabric than I am with the rest of the action so far (probably not the majority reaction, I know).

    The firing sequence just seemed weird to me – if there’ve been a lot of layoffs, I’d expect her boss to be better at it. This company may be too small to have HR, but still, they should have a better procedure for letting someone go.

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