First Pages Critique: Reduce Repetition to Better Seed the Mystery

Image: the view of cars on a UK motorway as seen through a rainy windscreen at dawn.
Photo by Valeriia Miller

Ask the Editor is a column for your questions about the editing process and editors themselves. It also features first-page critiques. Want to be considered? Submit your question or submit your pages.

This month’s Ask the Editor is sponsored by Book Pipeline. The 2023 Book Pipeline Unpublished contest awards $20,000 for unpublished manuscripts across 8 categories of fiction and nonfiction. Over the past year, multiple authors have signed with top lit agents and gotten published. Register by May 25.

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A summary of the work being critiqued

Title: Return to the Auberge
Genre: mystery/thriller/crime

We’re all a surrogate for someone. Emyla’s twin sister died at age six and now Emyla avoids mirrors. When she reluctantly revisits the French auberge where she worked twenty-two years earlier, she is forced to face not only her tragic memories of the Fleury family who once owned it, but her guilt surrounding her sister’s death. Layers of the past gradually invade the present, until Emyla is forced to decide once and for all to either bury her guilt, or tackle it head on.

First page of Return to the Auberge

“I’m not going.”

That was Dr Emyla Brace’s response, yesterday, to her brother’s final attempt to force on her an all-expenses-paid week in the South of France.

And she’d meant it.

So why in hell was she sitting in her Clio outside Alastair’s fancy North Oxford apartment at the soaking crack of dawn, poised to risk her life speeding to Heathrow because her brother couldn’t drag himself out of bed?

Cockroaches. That was why. Or her father’s ultimatum? Maybe a bit of both.

The end of the British summer hammered on the windscreen, mimicking Emyla’s percussive fingers on the steering wheel. She glanced at the dashboard clock: 06:10.

Six on the dot. Right. Why wasn’t Al ever on time?

Pulling her coat tighter, she peered through the rain and dark at the porticoed entrance. At the empty space where he should have been standing ten minutes ago. She grabbed her mobile from its holder and tapped the screen. On the voicemail prompt, she hissed, “Wake up, lazy sod!”

Continue reading the first pages.

Dear Debbie,

Thank you for submitting your work. Your story about dealing with the death of a twin is very intriguing, and it reminds me of two recently published novels that take on this same topic: Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (2020) and Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (2017). My recollection of Hamnet, however, is that it focuses on the parents’ grief and how it influences Shakespeare to write “Hamlet.” Home Fire, from what I have heard, is more about burial rites than about loss, much like the play it reimagines, Sophocles’ “Antigone.”

In any case, both these books are considered literary fiction rather than mystery/thriller/crime, as you’ve categorized Return to the Auberge. In some ways, your novel is reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train in that the characters, like Emyla and Alastair, travel from London to the South of France. But as in all of Christie’s books, the emphasis is on who committed the crime, while your novel looks to be more of a character-driven mystery. And what a unique and accomplished main character it features in Dr. Emyla Brace!

Your premise—that Emyla must decide to either bury her guilt regarding her twin sister’s death or tackle it head on—is also impressive. However, I didn’t quite see a mention of her sister, direct or indirect, in these opening pages. It’s possible that Emyla’s and Alistair’s sister will be referenced in upcoming pages, whether during their flight to France or once they arrive there, but I would recommend somehow alluding to her from the get-go. Possibly Emyla recalls a memory about her sister as she is waiting for Alastair. Maybe the trees lining Alistair’s street—or a park Emyla sees in the distance—remind Emyla of where she and her sister used to play when they were little. Or perhaps when Emyla notices the porticoed entrance to Alastair’s building, a deep-seated memory about the last place Emyla saw her sister alive suddenly surfaces? To avoid making the reference to her twin too heavy-handed, Emyla might quickly brush away thoughts of her, suggesting that they are too painful to deal with.

The mystery elements might also be emphasized. The rain certainly gives the story an eerie tone, but currently it comes up several times, not only by means of the (wonderfully vivid) phrases “soaking crack of dawn” and “drizzly charcoal dawn,” but also via the hammering and drizzling on Emyla’s windshield, the puddles Alistair steps through, his waterproof jacket, and three direct mentions of the word “rain.”

In place of some of these lines, you might focus on the moment Emyla notices blood on her finger, which further adds to the eeriness of the story. The line, “Some blood wipes off easily…It doesn’t stick to you, seeping through your skin, merging with your own until you no longer know where it ends and yours begins” is thought-provoking since Emyla seems to be referring to something dark that has nothing to do with the prick on her finger. In place of “’Em! Huh? Airport. Right…’” which might be too casual a dialogue exchange to follow Emyla’s comment, could Alistair try to guess what Emyla means? Or could Emyla mutter “never mind” because she realizes she’s said too much?

On a more practical note, you might better explain how and when Emyla injures herself. If it’s when she puts her phone back in its holder, is this because the plastic holder is broken? The passage in which Emyla tells Alistair that her father is disowning her also creates excellent suspense, as does “the familiar tightening of her chest muscles,” so these lines might warrant elaboration as well. Maybe Emyla experienced this same feeling when her sister died? And her father also threatened to disown her back then, or so she assumed?

In addition, it would be ideal if you could allude to the book’s title in the opening pages. If Emyla worked at the auberge at age 18 and her sister died when they were six, then it’s unlikely that her sister died there. But according to your pitch, it sounds like there’s a link between her sister’s death and the Fleury family that once owned the auberge. Is there a way to shed some light on what it is without giving away too many details? If not, is it possible to hint at how Emyla’s twin died? If, for example, she drowned, then maybe Emyla dreads all bodies of water, including puddles, and feels anxious when Alistair pulls his suitcase through them. (That said, if she avoids mirrors, as per your pitch, then shouldn’t she look away—rather than describe her hair length and color—the second she catches a glimpse of her reflection in the window? Alistair can always be her “mirror” and tell her how she looks once he gets in the car.)

Alternatively, if her sister died of an illness, could Emyla briefly reflect on the fact that she went into medicine to find a cure for the disease that took her sister’s life? (That said, is Emyla a surgeon or a GP—better known as a PCP, or primary care physician, here in the US? Both specialties are mentioned.)

The question you might be asking is how you will be able to pack all this information into the opening pages without overloading them with backstory, and the answer is that it will be tricky, but it can be done! You might start by toning down repetitive details, not just the rain but also Emyla’s resentment of Alistair’s tardiness. It’s one thing that she tells him he’s late, but maybe she doesn’t also need to leave him a voicemail saying, “Wake up, lazy sod!”

And unless Mrs. Pratchett turns out to have witnessed Emyla’s sister’s death or has something to do with the Fleury family, maybe her frustration with the early morning noise can be skipped as well? Some of the pop culture references might also be reconsidered, such as Emyla’s Bon Jovi posters and her mention of Erik Erikson and Eric Morecambe. Although I’m a fan of Bon Jovi as well, I’m not convinced that Emyla’s musical tastes as a teen matter at this point in the story. And not all readers—this one included—will have heard of Erikson and Morecambe.

This is not to suggest that all cultural references must be universal, but other aspects of the story might take priority, namely Emyla’s guilt about her sister. She expresses her guilt about the trip—that it’s “her fault” because “if she hadn’t turned forty, [Alistair] wouldn’t be generously forcing lavish holidays on his big sister.” But as a grown woman, wouldn’t Emyla know that she can’t control her age or the gifts she’s given? What if, instead, Emyla worries that she will be blamed if she and Alistair miss their flight, just as she (believes she) is blamed for everything?

To reiterate, your premise about the loss of a twin is fantastic. So too is your setting in that there’s an evergreen interest in novels set in France. And while the opening to your story is a pleasure to read, it would be even more compelling if it set the stage for the mystery regarding how Emyla’s twin died and why she feels guilty. Now it’s a question of making sure this comes through at the very beginning of your book.

Thank you again for submitting your first pages for review. I hope these comments are helpful!

Sangeeta Mehta

This month’s Ask the Editor is sponsored by Book Pipeline. The 2023 Book Pipeline Unpublished contest awards $20,000 for unpublished manuscripts across 8 categories of fiction and nonfiction. Over the past year, multiple authors have signed with top lit agents and gotten published. Register by May 25th.

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