Earlier this year I entered the first 50 pages of a romantic suspense in a contest. I didn't win or place, but I was given a critique by others who write and read mysteries. I got that critique back over the weekend and thought I'd share it with you. Before I received the following critique, I tweaked, changed the title, did a little revision and submitted the first chapter and a synopsis to Love Inspired Suspense. You can read their rejection at the end of this post.
Hopefully, you can learn something from the judges comments as well as the rejection. Mainly, how interesting it is that several people can read the same thing and come away with vastly different opinions.
For those of you who have never entered your manuscripts in contests, this is pretty much what you receive. Sometimes less. Read it and weep, or get your first chapter ready for a contest. One way or another, they can lead you to publication.
Please note that, even among publishing professionals, preferences in style and content are subjective. These notes are only suggestions and reflect the opinions of the judges. We hope you’ll find them helpful.
Title: Death Makes it Right
Author: Jessica Ferguson
Because the judges were divided, a third judge was asked to look at the manuscript.
The first two judges were divided on the opening.
The first said: “This feels so rushed that I feel like it's a synopsis of a longer novel. The first section, we're introduced to P.K., she threatens Sheridan, yells at a reporter, beats the crap out of his son, and finds out Sheridan's been murdered. This is five or six chapter's worth, but it feels jammed into too tight a section. Give me more detail, setting, everything.”
The second said: Immediately hooked with sensory and character details. Action begins immediately.
The third said: This is an interesting setup, lots going on. It does seem a little rushed but is, overall, effective. It’s not clear why both P.K. and Randolph are here, especially in light of the receptionist’s immediate assumption that she’s a trucker. I think we need a little more information so we can understand why they are both in the same place at the same time. It seems intentional, but what does this have to do with her being a trucker? Watch POV. For example, when PK pulls her hair back in the opening scene, there are a few sentences about her flawless complexion and haunted appearance. We’ve been in PK’s head until now, and this takes the reader out of the story, since she can’t see herself (and even if she could, it’s unlikely she would think of herself that way).
Judge 1: There's no time to get to know P.K., so I have no idea whether I should believe that she's innocent or guilty. The reader needs to get to know your protagonist, have ideas about how she would react.
Judge 2: Excellent job of presenting the characters: " "His dark, penetrating eyes never failed to disconcert her. He had the air of a big, important man. He was quick, perceptive, and he was waiting for her to acknowledge him." "His tick eyebrows were clipped and when he brushed a large hand across his face, she noticed his manicured nails." "Her hair was a frizzed bob, giving her a wind-blown look, and her faded red blouse was belted loosely at the waist of her khaki pants. She wore too much make-up, too much jewelry and reeked of self-confidence."
Judge 3: Rudd and PK both seem like interesting characters. I was more drawn to Rudd than to PK. He seems well-intentioned and honorable, as well as likable. She has a bit of a chip on her shoulder. Maybe understandable since her dad was just murdered, so I’d give her the benefit of the doubt for a while longer. The reporter doesn’t seem very well fleshed out. The story would be stronger if she were depicted in more depth and complexity.
Judge 1: Where is this set? Why is it there? I get a sense of the hotel, but not the region, and as truck drivers, geography would be paramount for these characters.
Judge 2: The sights and smells of New Orleans come to life. "P.K. Everett wrinkled her nose as the fishy smell assaulted her nostrils." Great sentence. "The convoluted mixture of colognes and aftershaves mingled with the smell of crawfish." The picture painted of his ransacked apartment was vivid.
Judge 3: There hasn’t been much opportunity to experience the setting, other than the hotel. A few more strategically place, specific sensory details would help create a stronger sense of place. Also (not a criticism, just an observation), I associate New Orleans with good food, whereas a “fishy” smell connotes anything but. Was that intentional?
Judge 1: There was no difference between the way P.K. spoke and the way Lori spoke. Characters can best show their individuality through their dialogue, so take advantage of that and show their distinct personality.
Judge 2: The scene where Rudd barged in on P.J. and Lori was a good example of this authors command of dialogue.
Judge 3: The dialogue was generally good. Could have been a bit crisper in places.
Judge 1: I like the idea, but it was so rushed that I didn't have time to appreciate any particular aspect. I'm guessing you have some passing familiarity if not expertise with the trucking industry, so I would encourage you to incorporate more of that into the plot. As it is, it's fairly standard fare, and nothing about it really grabs my attention.
Judge 2: Started fast and continued to move. The scene where Rudd and PK embrace at the reporter's apartment seemed contrived. Also, it was hard to imagine the protagonist allowing the reporter to follow her into her hotel room. Other than that the plot flowed well and worked.
Judge 3: An interesting premise. I’m interested to learn who killed PK’s dad and Randolph, interested in what will happen between Rudd and PK. (I can guess, but I’m still interested.)
Judge 1: Again, too rushed. There's no time for me to become apprehensive about something before you bull onto the next section. Slow it down, let me wonder about things for a bit.
Judge 2: Building suspense and creating tension is one of this writer's strengths.
Judge 3: Tension/suspense were handled well. In a few places, it might be heightened by slowing down a bit.
Judge 1: Give us more background early on about P.K. and why she's so angry. Her conflicts with others are coming across as petty and childish, primarily because we don't have any backing.
Judge 2: Plenty of conflict.
Judge 3: Plenty of conflict, which arises naturally from the situation. Telling us a little more about the situation would engage the reader more; we understand that she’s mad about her father’s murder, but it would help to know why she thinks Randolph is behind it. There’s plenty of information that can be legitimately withheld from the reader, but we need some of this background in order to understand what’s happening.
Judge 1: The rushed quality is absolutely burying the good aspects of this book.
Judge 2: For the most part the pace flows well. It bogs down a little after they leave the reporters house on their way to his apartment.
Judge 3: Generally good. A little rushed in the beginning, a little slow with reporter. I’m sure she’ll play an important role, but right now, it’s not clear what that is.
Judge 1: There's definitely a passion in your writing about the topic. I believe you genuinely are enthusiastic about the characters, and that shines through. You have a streamlined writing style very similar to Elmore Leonard, and it's excellent. Work on pacing and plot, and your style will carry you far.
Judge 2: The voice was sharp and crisp. "His breath fanned her face." "His eyelids were tortured by unshed tears." "The oppressive humidity was like a blanket covering his face." Sometimes things were overstated: "He acted dazed." The reader can see that.
Judge 3: The voice is good, fresh but not intrusive.
Grammar & Mechanics: THIS IS HUMILIATING! I KNOW HOW TO SPELL!
Judge 1: Generally fine. It should be “All right,” not “alright.” Also, watch your verb-noun agreement.
Judge 2: Some words are misused, but probably editing oversights: grown for groan; on for own Directional words (up, down, over, etc.), unneeded prepositions and words like "that" are overused. Also used adverbs when not needed: nervously looked, A few missed punctuation marks (periods, commas) but overall, ok.
Judge 3: Generally good. Needs another pass for typos and tightening.
Judge 1: Rewrite this, and take your time with each section. You have a strong voice and good writing style, but that's being washed away with your rush to get to the next scene.
Judge 2: Could be a contender.
Judge 3: No additional notes.
And here is a rejection I got on the same manuscript, revised BEFORE I got the above critique, and retitled:
Thank you for participating in the Love Inspired Suspense Fast Track and submitting BETRAYED, but I don’t feel like this project is right for LIS. While I think the idea of setting this story in the trucking world is interesting, your heroine came off as unlikeable. Our readers want a heroine they can relate too, and P.K. is much too combative. I’m sorry I don’t have better news for you. I recommend reading some of our books to get a better feel for the Love Inspired tone. We appreciate your submission and wish you the best of luck in your writing.
All the best,
Love Inspired Suspense