Week 4 Mini-Critique

TITLE: Marked By Love
AUTHOR: Malia P.
CATEGORY: Erotic Romance

Kat frowned. She could hear her secretary, Judy, talking to someone in the outer office. There was something familiar about that deep, sure voice. She looked up from her computer screen and turned, catching his voice full-on, “I’m an old friend of Kat’s — I’m sure she’ll want to chat for just a moment.” Yeah, sure – she’ll want to talk to him, all right. 🙂 Okay, I already know the hero’s a scamp, and I want to know more.

“No,” Kat said to herself as she realized who that voice belonged to, “I really don’t.” She couldn’t believe that Sam was here, at State, trying to talk his way into her office. The last time they’d spoken anything to one another besides polite public pleasantries had been a lifetime ago, 2 two—spell out numbers ten and under weeks after she’d come home to find Sam in bed with her step-sister Sherri. That day had been the worst day of her life.

She’d been interviewing for professorial jobs in 3-day back-to-back trips for 3 solid weeks and, on her last interview, had changed her early morning flight out of NYC into a red-eye so she could get home and talk to Sam about the possibilities that were rapidly becoming realities. On the long drive home from the airport, she had been bubbling with excitement — 2 offers in hand, one most certainly coming from her Northern Indiana State — her dream job. Things were definitely about to change — she could feel it in the air — and she was anxious to see how Sam’s interviews had gone. Since it was almost impossible for them to get academic jobs at the same University, they’d deliberately only applied to schools near one another and to the handful of places that had jobs in both of their fields — History and Anthropology — in order to increase their chances of a partner hire. She knew Sam would tease her a little when she started building all the pro/con lists that she needed to make a decision but, hey, this was going to be one of the most important decision of their lives

When she pulled into the gravel driveway next to the trailer they’d rented for the entire 6 years of graduate school, there was a strange car in the drive. That should have been her first clue. The second clue was that the door was unlocked. But she paid neither thing much mind, too busy thinking, deciding not to haul her bags inside until morning so she could slide into bed next to Sam before he was fully awake. That was why she didn’t bother to turn on any of the lights that she knew were off because he hadn’t expected her home — a dark house should have been clue number three. When she got to the bedroom, she’d been puzzled by that as well. The lumps on the bed looked odd — too many for just Sam — so she’d switched on the light and stared, disbelieving, at the scene in front of her.  All the while Sam, startled, shading his eyes with his hand, “what the hell?” And Sherri, sitting up, the sheet sliding off her very naked breasts, quickly becoming conscious enough to snap, “Well, you’re home early.” Kat had turned and run out of the house, her heart thudding so loudly it felt like her head was vibrating. Sam followed on her heels, “Kat, Kat, stop, nothing happened; stop, let me explain.” She’d slammed the door of her car, spun out of the drive, and made it all the way back to a cheap hotel room, before she began to sob. For the first time in her life, it didn’t take her long to make a decision. There were no pro/con lists, no talking out scenarios with her best friend. She’d just left her best friend and she wasn’t going back. In the excruciating hours, then days, then months and years that followed, she’d stuck with her decision. She and Sam had never had more than the terse, unpleasant conversation it took to arrange how to pick up her things when he wasn’t home. She’d refused to listen to the lies that she knew his “explaining” would consist of. Years of watching her father cheat on her mother had taught her that none of the explanations meant that nothing had actually happened. Maybe that what happened had meant nothing, but Kat wasn’t going to let a man walk all over her that way. Not like her mom had. She never wanted to see that sadness in her own face. This single paragraph is more than 400 words – a full page or more in a book – which makes it look very daunting to a reader.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t like Sam and Kat could avoid each other’s presence. She’d taken her dream job and Sam had taken a job at the National American Indian Museum, in part, she believed, to move further away from her. For the past decade, they’d worked in the same academic field, traveled in many of the same general social circles, but none of their friends ever invited them to be together at a social event. When there were museum receptions, charitable events and scholarly conventions where they were forced into proximity, he always had a skinny blonde or a busty redhead on his arm and she always made sure there was a pack of graduate students surrounding her. It had been easy to be polite, pleasant even, in those well-lit public venues where they never had to get next to each other without other bodies as a buffer. Nice line.

The vibrations of Sam’s voice getting closer to her door pulled her out of her trip down memory lane and back into her office. She definitely didn’t want to talk to him now, not with the stakes of the outreach visit already pushing against her skull — now just was not a good time to stage their first private conversation in 10 years. With that she pushed eagerly out of her chair and headed for the door — to lock it — just as it opened and framed Sam in the sunlight streaming through the windows of the outer office. She faltered. Stared. He looked good.


Malia, your writing style is clear and strong, and this scene starts off well, with the promise that we’ll immediately meet not only the heroine but the hero. Knowing right up front that these two have a history leads us to expect a sizzling start to the interaction. Add that wonderful comment from the hero – “I’m sure she’ll want to chat” –and we’re intrigued; we dying to know what he’s really come to talk to her about. But it’s also a terrific thumbnail sketch of a self-assured man. This is a guy we’re already disposed to like, and we want to see more of him.

But then, after just a bit more than a paragraph of Kat in the present-day story – showing her in her real life right now – you go into the history. We find out not only why she doesn’t want to talk to him, but a good chunk of Kat’s past. Her education, her job search, her specialty, where they lived, how long it took to get through grad school, her stepsister’s name, the problems in her parents’ marriage…. Two full pages of summarizing the backstory.

Less than a fifth of this 1,000-word section of the story concerns what’s happening NOW; the rest of the first three pages of the manuscript is what happened years ago.

It’s tempting to include all this information right up front, because it feels as if the reader will need to know it all in order to understand Kat. (We’re also inclined to put the backstory first because it’s what we usually know best, from figuring it all out before starting to write.)

But telling it right at the beginning is usually not the best idea. That’s particularly true in this case because of the nature of the event you tell us about. Catching the hero in bed with the heroine’s step-sister/best friend/stepmother is not only a cliched situation, but it instantly diminishes any attraction the reader was feeling for the hero. He looks like a jerk – and since we just met him, we don’t have anything to balance that assessment against, so we’re forced to conclude that he is a jerk.

Mind you, I’m quite prepared to hear the power was out and Sam and Sherri were only snuggled up together to stay warm – or something just as completely innocent – and it was really just a massive misunderstanding. But in that case the heroine is going to look bad when the truth comes out. Worse, because I already suspect that she jumped to conclusions when she ran out on him and wouldn’t listen to his explanations, Kat doesn’t look much more attractive to me than a hero who sleeps with the stepsister.

Get the current story well-established first. Show us Kat and Sam. Let us see why he’s violated the pattern of years, why he’s gone past pleasantries and practically broken into her office in order to talk to her. Show us what’s so important NOW. Involve us in the problem that brings them back together. Then, once we’re fascinated by the characters and events of the present day, our tongues will be hanging out to discover why two people who strike such sparks off each other aren’t still together. 

And after we’ve gotten to know both characters now, we’ll also be much more willing to cut them some slack if they indeed did act like idiots in their long-ago past.


2 responses

4 02 2009
Rachelle Chase

Malia — Leigh pretty much covered everything I had to say. The only two points I’d like to add are:

(1) Kat’s tendency to run. She ran away from Sam with no questions asked (or answered), when she found him in bed with Sherri. And now, ten years later, she’s running again, by trying to lock the door so she won’t have to deal with him. While I might be able to forgive her for running the first time, now I expect more maturity and growth from her. So, her locking the door rather than facing him head on, is not making me think highly of her.

(2) I don’t see Kat’s reaction. When she recognizes Sam’s voice, she tells us that she doesn’t want to see him. But, that’s the only indication I get. Does her heart beat faster? Does she suddenly feel warm? What’s she feeling? And, ditto at the end. At her first sight of him in ten years, She faltered. Stared. He looked good. Given all their history, she’s going to have a major reaction to seeing him again. Let us share that reaction with her.

It looks like you have a lot of the story thought out. Now, just let us see the characters act it out.

4 02 2009

Congrats on winning the mini-critique! I like the setup and agree with the comments so far.

I think you can skip from the end of paragraph two to paragraph five and six without the reader losing much in the beginning. Part of fun about a past history for me is finding out the gory details bit by bit as they finally have it out with one another. 🙂

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