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First Page: Worth The Trouble

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Catalina St. James’ Journal
March 28, 2014

After twelve hours spent curled in a ball, submerged by a devastating surge of emotion that turned my sobs to dry heaves and wore my throat raw, I’m depleted. Numb. Hollow. As empty as my worthless ovaries. Unable to reconcile the shadowy loss of children I’ll never bear. I can’t even speak those words, as if somehow my silence will miraculously nullify the final diagnosis.

Until recently, my only concerns about pregnancy involved prevention. Now the privilege I’d arrogantly dreaded has been stolen, leaving me to face a future I’d never anticipated. Fate has relegated natural-born children to the realm of my daydreams. And yet I’m incapable of actually absorbing this news.

Have I become so adept at hiding my thoughts and feelings from others that I can’t even fully access them in private? I wish I were different. I wish so many things were different now. But perhaps I should simply be grateful I’m unattached and not also depriving some man of biological children.

I wish my mother were alive to hold me close, stroke my hair, whisper in my ear, and make the monsters go away. However, there won’t be any miracles for me. My only option is to accept this blow quickly, adapt, and move on. Fold it into a tiny square and tuck it away in the recesses of my heart before refocusing my attention on aspects of my life I can control, like my career.

But first I must force myself out of this bed.

Chapter One
Late June, 2014

The violinist’s sharp note sliced through the air like the crisp breeze that caused Cat to shiver. Huddled near the edge of the bluestone fire pit to avoid the pack of determined male guests pestering her, she was sipping her champagne cocktail when she felt Hank approach her from behind.

“They look happy.” His honeyed voice seeped through her skin.

From across the patio, Cat beheld her oldest brother, David, posing for photos with her best friend, Vivi, his new bride. The newlyweds’ palpable love and adoration smacked her in the chest, suffusing her with unwelcome longing.

“They are,” she said without glancing at Hank.

“Guess they prove real love can’t be denied,” he said.

“And what do you know about real love?” she asked, still observing the joyful couple.

A faint puff of warm air brushed her hair when he chuckled. “Not much. At least not yet, anyway. How about you? What have you learned about love?”

Love was a word often associated with Cat thanks to her modest fame and uncommon beauty, although that term was always tossed around superficially. The fame and beauty coveted by others actually distanced her from experiencing real love.

She turned toward Hank and met his provoking gaze. Cat’s breath hitched as the fleeting memory of his fiery kiss passed through her mind, reawakening dormant parts of her anatomy. She’d once briefly discovered a fair amount of passion lurking deep beneath Hank’s buttoned-up attitude. The silent admission almost caused her to regret having given him the brush-off last year. Almost.

“Love’s a game with uncertain rules, and I don’t play games I can’t win.” Good thing, too, considering her infertility. She’d grieved alone these past three months, withholding the news from her family so as not to detract from the planning of this celebration. She was making peace with her situation. But she knew, for many reasons, participating in this wedding today would be the closest she would ever come to standing at the altar.

“I didn’t realize love was a win-lose proposition.” He peered into his glass of whiskey, temporarily hiding his stunning green and gold-flecked irises.

“Everything in life is a win-lose proposition,” she replied evenly.

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
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 05:05:57

    This is smoothly written. I had a quibble:

    You don’t want to set anything in the near future that will be the past by the time this is published. If some big, unanticipated event, like Hurricane Sandy, comes along in the middle of your setting, you’ll have to rush around changing your book. Even something mild, like unseasonably warm, cold, wet or dry weather can make people roll their eyes if you have a, say, Memorial Day BBQ when Memorial Day weekend was notably dank and rainy in your location.

    Main quibble:
    Having observed people with infertility problems, it’s rarely a sudden blow. More often it starts as a nagging feeling that you should have conceived by now, and moves through a series of fertility treatments of increasing complexity, while the couple is experiencing a a series of disappointed hopes. And then, too, it takes time to process what never having children means. And adoption as an option. Yet, you say Cat had only thought about conception as something to avoid. I guess I just don’t buy the scene. That Cat gets the news suddenly, that she has an instantaneous reaction to it. I might buy it if she had been a bit in a daze and then watched a particularly loving mother-child scene with someone she loved.

    Also, a decent portion of her thoughts are self-absorbed. “And yet I’m incapable of actually absorbing this news. Have I become so adept at hiding my thoughts and feelings from others that I can’t even fully access them in private? I wish I were different.” She’s now thinking about herself, not grieving for the loss of a potential child.

    So, you turned me off at the first half of the page. Maybe for someone for whom infertility isn’t such a familiar concept, it would work.

    Having had the impression that Cat was self-absorbed, I felt like her decision to never marry was melodramatic. She can’t ever tell a man she’s infertile? Maybe Hank doesn’t want kid. Maybe Hank’s fine with adoption. Maybe Cat’s making life really tough for herself for no particularly good reason, other than maturity.

    Maybe this is YA and she’ll grow up and this is just not the book for me, who can barely remember much about being a young adult and would rather forget what I do remember.

  2. Carol McKenzie
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 06:33:23

    The first entry doesn’t quite ring true. I’m not clear how she would have gone from prevention to being diagnosed as being infertile, without the intervening period of not being able to conceive. Unless there was a sudden illness, or possibly a surgical removal (which I don’t think happened, as she refers to her ‘dead’ ovaries) it’s usually discovered that women have premature ovarian failure only after they’ve tried to conceive and failed. It’s not usually something that’s discovered during a routine physical. In other words, unless she were trying to conceive, she wouldn’t have discovered she couldn’t. At least, in my experience, that’s how it works.

    Having lost me in the first journal entry, partly because I’d stopped reading to go Google infertility (your writing lost a bit of credibility), and partly because of the shift in perspective (if this is a journal, why it it from Cat’s perspective and then in third person? Or did I miss something?) I wasn’t interested in reading much further.

    I don’t like Cat. I find her too melodramatic and the whole self-sacrifice of grieving alone so she doesn’t put a damper on the wedding comes across as self-centered and egotistical rather than being considerate of her friend and her brother.

    I sense at some point she may throw out the “oh, woe is me” speech and somehow her infertility becomes a shield to hide behind, rather than a condition she has, and everyone is expected to feel sorry for her.

    I also don’t enjoy the whole “she’s too beautiful or famous” to experience love trope. Unless you can really make me love the woman for who she is and then show me her loneliness or isolation, and make me care that her beauty somehow distances her from finding love, then I just don’t care that she’s alone. Right now I don’t think “Oh, that’s so sad, I hope she finds love.” I just think she’s not finding love because she’s self-centered and self-absorbed and rather cold.

    And the date thing…I have several copies of Stephen King’s the stand. Every couple years it appears they have to update the dates, since it’s now 35 years old, and was written with near future dates back in 1978 (it’s set in 1980, two years in the future). And as SAO points out, the near future becomes the present very quickly. And then the dates are either irrelevant, or come back to haunt the story, in not such a good way.

    Your writing is smooth though, well-paced and the dialog is good. Thanks for showing us your work, and good luck!

  3. cleo
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 07:49:58

    I have a good friend who discovered she’s infertile while she was single and not trying to conceive, so I buy that part of the story.

    That said, I agree with the other commenters that Cat comes across as self absorbed, melodramatic, and not very likeable. I don’t necessarily need to like the heroine, but I do need to find her interesting enough to keep reading – right now there’s not much in the story to keep my interest.

  4. Kate Sherwood
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 07:53:58

    I’d definitely ditch the journal – it’s a form of prologue, which I don’t think you need, and it really didn’t do the book any favors, for me. By the time I got through it I disliked your MC and wanted her to be unhappy until she grew up into someone mature enough to actually BE a good mother, so the second half of the excerpt was kind of ruined for me.

    Based on the journal, I think your MC is a total drama queen. She’s been told she’s infertile, not dying. She’s spent “twelve hours spent curled in a ball, submerged by a devastating surge of emotion” but now she’s writing overly-verbose descriptions of her recent agony and saying she’s “incapable of actually absorbing this news.” Twelve hours curled in a ball sounds like she’s absorbed it pretty well, doesn’t it?

    And the writing style of the journal – well, if your character is a complete drama queen, someone who isn’t really feeling the emotions but is trying to put them on, then maybe the style works. But if this is meant to be a genuine outpouring, the words feel too polished, too smooth.

    I would assume that her emotions at this stage would still be raw, but the journal feels fully cooked – maybe even a little overdone.

    In terms of the second half – I went back and reread it, without reading the journal entry first, and I still don’t really love the MC. This feels like it’s the second book in a series, maybe? We’re seeing the wedding of the characters who got together in the first book? So maybe if I’d read the first book already I’d be more inclined to like this character, but based on what’s here…

    She’s huddled by fireplace to avoid men. (Are men afraid of fire? I didn’t get this part)
    She has trouble finding real love because she’s famous and beautiful. (I… I guess? It’s hard to know how I’d have felt about this if I hadn’t already read the journal entry. Having read the entry I think she can’t find real love because she’s emotionally disturbed)
    But then she admits she doesn’t play games she can’t win. (Which… seems like a truer reason for her lack of romantic success, but doesn’t really make me more inclined to like her)
    And she won’t ever marry because she can’t have babies. (Apparently procreation is the only reason for marriage. So, yeah, even without reading the prologue I’m back to not liking her. She just seems too determined to be miserable, and too quick to blame the world/the medical condition for her unhappiness. Blech).

    The writing is smooth, although a bit wordy for my taste. But I think it’s a good example of the style you’re using, if that makes sense! I just really don’t like the MC, and if the main barrier to her romance in the book is that she’s too beautiful, too famous, and too infertile? It wouldn’t work for me.

  5. Lynne Connolly
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 09:01:52

    skip the journal. It removes any tension you might gain from it. It’s good to state things upfront, but you could do that in a sentence.
    In your chapter, I agree with the others, but I don’t look for perfection in my heroine. If someone during the story jolts her out of her self-absorption, then I’m good with a selfish heroine. But there needs to be a hint of it.
    Hank seems okay, but we don’t really get a good look at him.
    You use too many fancy words, like you’re coming off a historical book. I have different styles for my historicals and my contemporaries, not because I think I need it, but because people don’t think and talk the same way. They used bigger words and more elaborately constructed sentences in the past. But they don’t now. You’ve got “beheld,” “palpable,” “observed,” in one paragraph, all of which you could replace with simpler words. Unless there’s a reason for her using five dollar words when one dollar ones would work better?
    She watches her brother happy with his new bride and all she can think about is herself? Doesn’t she love her brother? Isn’t she happy with him?
    The main thing for me was the constant stream of “telling” instead of “showing.” Take a phrase like, “The newlyweds’ palpable love and adoration smacked her in the chest.” What were they doing? Kissing, holding each other, just smiling? More detail would make it better. And instead of the constant “woe is me,” how about a single instant that hits her? She’s happy, enjoying the day, stealing a few minutes by a warm fire on a cold day and then her brother does something, touches his new wife’s stomach, smiles in a certain way, and it all comes back to her? That would make her less selfish and get the reader both curious and sympathetic. Make something happen.
    And yes, why on earth should being infertile mean no marriage?

  6. Carolyne
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 10:20:48

    I would say that for some people–not everyone, but some–a diagnosis of infertility might as well be the same as being told they’re dying, so I don’t begrudge the heroine feeling that way. Especially if we’re meeting her at the moment when she just can’t deny it anymore or pretend there’s a fix. I also don’t begrudge her deriving zero enjoyment from her brother’s joy. But she does come across as more drama queen than someone who can’t figure the way out of her misery.

    If she stood at the wedding resenting everything and being mad at herself for resenting it, if she had that self awareness, from the start–which doesn’t mean giving up the feelings she’s having, just that she knows how awful it is that she can’t even feel happiness for someone else–then her depressed feelings would make her sympathetic, and I might root for her. But it’s a difficult balancing act to keep a reader engaged with something so many people don’t want to spend time with (gloomy, unhappy heroines, as opposed to brooding, gloomy heroes), so I think there would need to be a hint from the start that she wants to break out of this, but doesn’t know how and keeps slipping back. Instead of her telling us in her journal that she’s adapting, let us see her mentally fold it all into a square and tuck it away so she can be “on” while talking to Hank. Maybe she deflects talk about love into talk about her job (“look how great my famous career is!” even though we know she’s not happy). I want to be able to cheer her on, see that she’s fighting even when she doesn’t know she is. I’d want to see someone who, if I could just reach into the page and pull her along a little, will find some sort of happiness (with Hank). Just that little tiny bit of fight in her.

    Her feeling that love is pointless–why bother marrying, marrying has to mean children in HER perfect view of the world, etc.–is also believable to me as a reader, if I’m not already annoyed with her. Maybe there’s a spark in her, in that she can see how Hank might be a perfectly wonderful person to be with, but she can’t have the future she saw for herself and she can’t keep that spark lit. I think a gloomy, brooding heroine is a tough main character in contemporary or any setting, so I think it would have to be balanced by us seeing her hold onto other things in her life–this fabulous fame-bringing career of hers, maybe.

    The language of the beginning keeps me from feeling sympathetic with her–she doesn’t sound like someone in despair, she sounds like someone eloquently crafting an elaborate description for somebody else to read. And I never can get past “she’s so beautiful, no one knows she could also have pain” heroines. Not, at least, when the narrative flat out tells me how special she is. I recommend ditching the journal.

    Now, Hank. It feels like he’s not really there. I think there needs to be more to place him, physically and right bang from the start, in the same space as her, not just in her general impression of his buttoned-up attitude. He must be standing very close to her for his puffing breath to stir her hair. What else would she sense from someone standing that close? Warm body, rasping fabric of perfectly tailored suit, smell of whiskey on his breath? Every line of his jacket perfectly in place when other people are all askew from dancing and hugging and back-slapping? Is the electricity between them that she expects to feel not there, as if there’s a new wall between them? Give me more, or I’m going to imagine him as Hank Hill from King of the Hill–with green and gold-flecked eyes :)

  7. Author
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 10:32:11

    Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I’ve been struggling with the way to open this story for a while, and obviously need to revisit it again. Can’t have an unlikable/unsympathetic MC. I do want her to be a bit self-absorbed at the beginning (which will shift as she grows throughout the story), but apparently I’ve gone overboard! I appreciate some of the specific suggestions on how to make a prickly character more compelling at the outset.

    I’d based some of her thoughts/feelings about her infertility on a friend who, at 26 and single, did get handed infertility news unexpectedly and, for the following year, experienced a wide-range of emotions from grief, to self-pity, to feeling unfeminine and thinking many men would reject her (because biology matters to some), and she didn’t tell her family right away because her sister-in-law was pregnant and she didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Once she did start dating again, she fretted a lot over “when” to tell the new beau. Unlike my friends who’ve experience infertility as a couple, this younger single friend’s journey was very different. I thought it would be interesting/challenging to explore those emotions in the context of a new romance. Although it is not resonating with some, they are authentic feelings and fears (at least, according to my friend).

    Kate, this is intended as a second book, and in the first Cat’s a supporting character who is in an emotionally abusive relationship that turns physical (another reason she is wary of men/love). I didn’t want to load that in the first page too (fear of info dumping). I wonder how many years of practice it will take before I can artfully weave back story into the beginning of a book? 3 years..5…10??

    Will spend the next few days revisiting the opening pages to address all of your comments (show v. tell, woe-is-me sense, etc.) so I can try to get this right. I laughed out loud at the King of the Hill comment…good one (and totally NOT how I want him to be).

    Many thanks. Amazing what fresh eyes can see. Looks like the journal entry has to go…

    PS Happily my friend did find a man who proved her fears unjustified (he did not care about biology) and they now have 4 beautiful girls ;-)

  8. theo
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 10:50:21

    Not having been infertile, the overabundance of what I’m reading as complete melodramatics turned me right off. Again, I can’t relate, so please understand the direction I’m coming at your story. If the infertility is woven into the story and your Hn comes across as sympathetic while it’s being told rather than self-centered and narcissistic (Love was a word often associated with Cat thanks to her modest fame and uncommon beauty, although that term was always tossed around superficially) then I might be interested in reading about her. Right now, she is so wrapped up in her little world, I’m surprised she even made it to the wedding. So for me, starting with the diary entry means getting set back on the shelf.

    I agree too that we don’t know nearly enough about Hank as we need to other than the fact that he has green-gold eyes and they shared a kiss. Unless he figures as the H in this story, I don’t care about him either.

    You don’t need to give all the information up front. Most readers will hang in there for several pages to see where things are going, but they need some reason to do so. There isn’t any here.

  9. Nemo
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 11:39:15

    I totally buy a very violent reaction to being told you’re infertile. I just don’t buy how you’ve written it here. It’s over the top dramatic instead of deeply painful and I feel it almost mocks infertile women for being upset. After all, “they’re not dying.” If you want to show her as self absorbed this is not the place to do it. Every man and woman has the right to react to grief exactly as they want. Take out the drama, add some real emotion, and it might work with more polish.

  10. Vanessa
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 12:20:17

    I agree with some of the others here that the heroine’s reaction seems a little over the top to me. I myself went through infertility problems a few years ago, but I didn’t go into a catatonic state as a result. I understand that people react to things differently, but there are other options to consider other than natural born children if you want to be a mother. Your heroine comes across (to me, at least) as a little dim, to be honest, swearing off love and marriage because of this. It’s not like she has a terminal disease.

  11. Vanessa
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 12:28:44

    Adding to the above: Just to be clear, I’m not saying that your heroine doesn’t have a right to be upset. I know how it feels to be so uncertain about a relationship because of something like this. It’s just that the total melodrama in the diary entry is a little cringe-inducing and quite a turn-off. If your heroine was made of sterner stuff, I’d totally be interested in reading this book.

  12. Infertile McGhee
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 14:10:03

    I’m a published romance author, but I don’t talk publicly about my infertility, so I’m gonna be anon here.

    To everyone saying the MC is a drama queen for curling up in a depression ball re: infertility, I think you must not have experienced it or known anyone who has. And I hope it’s that way — I really do. I’m not trying to be snippy or snotty, just to explain. Nobody gets it if they haven’t been there. Read this — “Research shows that depression among women with infertility is similar to those with cancer or heart disease.” Infertility causes a massive grief that takes a long, long time to cope with, and one that never really goes away.

    Author, you have a tough road to hoe with an infertile heroine, as many, many people react to infertility with unkindness, misunderstanding, and blame. It’s a medical condition, not a moral failing, but many don’t see it that way. That being said, I completely applaud you for going for it. I don’t think putting in this prologue-type of opening is ideal, however, as the readers here have pointed out. Sure, reveal her infertility near the beginning — it’s a large part of who she is and why she’s afraid of dating — but maybe save the terrible, first memories for later down the road. Maybe she tells the hero about it. Maybe she doesn’t and just relives it. She will likely relive that moment in the doctor’s office, or that phone call, every freaking day for a long time to come. Hell, every hour. Every time she sees a pregnant woman. Every time she sees a baby. At the year anniversary. Three months in, she is still reeling — it’s a tough time. You can feel like you’re dying, or at least that a major part of you has died. Nobody expects to be infertile, and the blow is unimaginable. And yes, some women learn of it in the doctor’s office without every having tried to conceive. And yes, remembering all the fucking money you spent on birth control is bitter and darkly funny.

    I do encourage you to make your heroine accessible and likeable. Not that every heroine needs to be that way, but the negative and mean way so many people react to infertility is already a huge anchor around her neck — you wouldn’t believe some of the cruel things I’ve read and that have been said to my face. (Or maybe you would, but I sincerely hope not :)) Just something to consider.

    I wish you great good luck — this is a heroine I would like to read about. And to anyone out there suffering what I’ve been through…you are not alone. It can be so unbelievably lonely, but you’re not alone.

  13. Author
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 14:52:03

    Again, thanks to everyone for all of your comments (and to Vanessa and Ms. McGhee for sharing personal info).

    I’ve known I’ve been having difficulty with the opening, which is exactly why I opened myself up to these critiques. It’s not easy, but it is helpful.

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