Flog a Pro: Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks

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On my blog I critique (“flog”) the opening pages of novels submitted by wannabe novelists. So far I’ve flogged 650+ submissions. Now I’m adding a twist: flogging the first pages of published novels—the pros. This episode is exclusive to Writer Unboxed.

The challenge: does the first page compel me to turn the page?

Storytelling Checklist

When you critique this opening page, consider these 6 vital storytelling elements. While it’s not a requirement that all of them must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Evaluate the opening narrative in terms of how well it executes the elements. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a given for every page.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

What’s the big deal about the first page? Editors and literary agents see so many submissions that they often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. To quote Chuck Adams, Executive Editor, Algonquin Books:

“You can usually tell after a paragraph—a page, certainly—whether or not you’re going to get hooked.”

Literary agent Dan Conaway, Writers House, says:

“I know most of what I need to know about a writer’s chops in about a line and a half.”

And editor/publisher Sol Stein reports that browsers in bookstores make decisions within a page or so.

What’s a first page? In a customarily formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page, there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

Let’s Flog Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks

I typed up the opening of Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks to see what the first manuscript page would consist of. Safe Haven is the number 1 combined print and e-book fiction book on the New York Times February 10 bestseller list. Here’s what the first page of the manuscript would consist of:

As Katie wound her way among the tables, a breeze from the Atlantic rippled through her hair. Carrying three plates in her left hand and another in her right, she wore jeans and a T-shirt that read Ivan’s: try Our Fish Just for the Halibut. She brought the plates to four men wearing polo shirts; the one closest to her caught her eye and smiled. Though he tried to act as though he was just a friendly guy, she knew he was watching her as she walked away. Melody had mentioned the men had come from Wilmington and were scouting locations for a movie.

After retrieving a pitcher of sweet tea, she refilled their glasses before returning to the waitress station. She stole a glance at the view. It was late April, the temperature hovering just around perfect, and blue skies stretched to the horizon. Beyond her, the Intracoastal was calm despite the breeze and seemed to mirror the color of the sky. A dozen seagulls perched on the railing, waiting to dart beneath the tables if someone dropped a scrap of food.

Ivan Smith, the owner, hated them. He called them rats-with-wings, and he’d already patrolled the railing twice wielding a wooden plunger, trying to scare them off. Melody had leaned toward Katie and confessed that she was more worried about where the plunger had been than she was about the seagulls. Katie said nothing.

She started another pot of sweet tea, wiping down the station. A moment later, she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. She turned to see Ivan’s daughter, Eileen. A pretty, ponytailed (snip)


My vote: nope

While this includes a good voice, is clear, sets the scene, and introduces the character, for me there wasn’t a wisp of tension in this page, and there were no very important story questions raise, certainly nothing with a hint of stakes or trouble for Katie. The only question I see is whether or not she will become involved with the movie company—but that’s abandoned right way. Some editorial notes:

As Katie wound her way among the tables, a breeze from the Atlantic rippled through her hair. Carrying three plates in her left hand and another in her right, she wore jeans and a T-shirt that read Ivan’s: try Our Fish Just for the Halibut. She brought the plates to four men wearing polo shirts; the one closest to her caught her eye and smiled. Though he tried to act as though he was just a friendly guy, she knew had a feeling he was watching watched her as she walked away. Melody had mentioned the men had come from Wilmington and were scouting locations for a movie. I think the “one closest to her” is a touch of overwriting—it really isn’t germane as to how close he was unless it motivates something, and it doesn’t. And she can’t really “know” that he watched her as she walked away—he’s behind her. This is a small POV glitch.

After retrieving a pitcher of sweet tea, she refilled their glasses before returning to the waitress station. She stole a glance at the view. It was late April, the temperature hovering just around perfect, and blue skies stretched to the horizon. Beyond her, the Intracoastal was calm despite the breeze and seemed to mirror mirrored the color of the sky. A dozen seagulls perched on the railing, waiting to dart beneath the tables if someone dropped a scrap of food. For me, the “stealing a glance” was a clunky way of describing the scenery and not needed. And calm water doesn’t “seem” to mirror the sky, it does. That’s the way it works. I also think that this leisurely bit of description could come later, or it should be experiential to help characterize Katie.

Ivan Smith, the owner, hated them. He called them rats-with-wings, and he’d already patrolled the railing twice, wielding a wooden plunger, trying to scare them off. Melody had leaned toward Katie and confessed that she was more worried about where the plunger had been than she was about the seagulls. Katie said nothing. What does this have to do with the story? Where’s the story?

She started another pot of sweet tea, wiping down the station. A moment later, she felt someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned to see Ivan’s daughter, Eileen. A pretty, ponytailed (snip)

Photobucket Here’s the blurb that describes this book. Take a look—I don’t see any of the story it describes in the opening page. BTW, I skimmed the rest of the chapter and found mostly backstory and exposition, plus talk. It was nicely written, but nothing really happened.

When a mysterious young woman named Katie appears in the small North Carolina town of Southport, her sudden arrival raises questions about her past. Beautiful yet self-effacing, Katie seems determined to avoid forming personal ties until a series of events draws her into two reluctant relationships: one with Alex, a widowed store owner with a kind heart and two young children; and another with her plainspoken single neighbor, Jo. Despite her reservations, Katie slowly begins to let down her guard, putting down roots in the close-knit community and becoming increasingly attached to Alex and his family.

But even as Katie begins to fall in love, she struggles with the dark secret that still haunts and terrifies her . . . a past that set her on a fearful, shattering journey across the country, to the sheltered oasis of Southport. With Jo’s empathic and stubborn support, Katie eventually realizes that she must choose between a life of transient safety and one of riskier rewards . . . and that in the darkest hour, love is the only true safe haven.

Now that sounds like a story I’d be interested in. Like many of the submissions I see for my blog, I think this story could have started much later.

What do you think ?

Nominations wanted: Suggest novels for the Flog the Pro feature in Comments. If it’s used, it could be fun to see what the WU audience thinks.

If you’d like to help beginning novelists with your constructive criticism, join me on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at my site, Flogging the Quill.

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About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve been a long time follower of Flogging the Quill and love your critique of amateur writing. I think it is a great idea to edit already published writers here on Unboxed. This edit of Spark’s first page is very interesting – but then, I always agree with your corrections!

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  2. says

    I like the premise of the book (okay, I admit it, I was a big Nicholas Sparks fan starting with The Notebook)… BUT I thought you went pretty easy on him. My main reason I wouldn’t have turned the page was the heavy presence of the author… as you said, the clunkiness and lack of story. I’m going back right now to check out my WIP and take notes; thank you!
    Julia Munroe Martin´s last blog post ..My Name is Ann, and I’m a Foodie

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  3. says

    Interesting and revealing. It would seem there are no hard and fast rules for established authors. By all accounts this opening breaks them all… no story, no conflict, no goal, not much of anything. But, it is a best seller and motion picture. Discouraging in a way. Not having read this book I can’t say, but I wonder how it compares with the work of some undiscovered author who wrote a better story with an even stronger opening. It seems the glut of submissions by new authors is forced through too fine a filter while established authors get a direct channel to print. But, I know, that’s the business. Interesting post… so thanks.

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  4. says

    Well done, Ray!

    I appreciated it when you critiqued my first chapter — thank you for the thumbs up — and this new twist on critiques is helpful. Writing can be intimidating, and seeing that well-known writers can use an edit or two makes me more confident about my own work.

    Happy writing, everybody!

    TK
    Tracey Kathryn´s last blog post ..Cubanos in Wisconsin by Silvio Canto Jr.

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  5. Jackie says

    “Closest to her” gives a better visual. Could it be cut? Sure. But I think it works. And a woman does “know” when a man is watching her. It’s built into our female wiring. “Had a feeling” makes the character weaker. At least to me. And the tension is there; its between the girl and guy. I respectfully disagree with your critique. This was just not the book for you. But for the average book buyer…

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    • says

      You’re right on the “not the book for me.” It’s all subjective, of course. But why not a little more tension on the first page? It could be done, surely.

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  6. says

    While Sparks’ opener left me uninspired, Ray, as soon as I read your opening line to this post I had to read on! Good hook, and great idea. Glad to learn of your blog.

    Interesting that you chose Sparks, as no one would accuse him of being a prose stylist or even a craftsman. By his own admission The Notebook was red-inked to the point he thought he’d never finish the revisions. Then when it became a bestseller—bam! His editors kicked him to the curb. The prose in Message in a Bottle was downright embarrassing.

    It’s a real shame that established authors seem to lose their editorial support, because Sparks knows the elements of great storytelling. He just needs the same team the rest of us do to bring the story to fruition. It’s a testament to America’s somewhat shameful genuflection to the bottom line: if it’s making money, it’s “working.” Thank you for your brave stance to the contrary.

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  7. says

    Love the precision of your analysis. An illuminating exercise when done on a published book, and a best seller at that. Should make us all more rigorous in writing our opening chapter, or indeed, page.
    Nic Penrake´s last blog post ..Hello world!

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  8. says

    Well, I’m one of the TWO who would turn the page. I have never read a Nicolas Sparks book, but I liked the setting and the characters. And I hate seagulls.

    Readers of Sparks books are fans of his and don’t need to be hooked on page one. They’re looking for the story that will unfold. They know what they are going to get. Is it fair that popular authors get more leeway? I think it is. It’s always up to the reader if he or she wants to turn the page, or not.

    As a soon-to-be published author, I tend to give traditionally published books a 30-50 page chance unless I just can’t. When I am drawn to a self-published book, I’ll admit I won’t read past page one if I’m not hooked because I don’t trust it will get better (unless I know for a fact it has been edited professionally).

    I’ve been reading slush for agents since 2009, and editing/critiquing for aspiring authors since about 2008. Even when something is crap (to me), in those cases I read 10 pages just to see if I find a voice or a well-turned phrase. If I do, I continue.

    This is a great learning tool–thank you for sharing the idea and your insights!!!
    Amy Sue Nathan´s last blog post ..Author Amy Franklin-Willis Talks About Finding Her Voice And Embracing Book Clubs

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    • says

      You’re a more generous reader than many agents and editors claim to be. And, yes, his fans will read on–but he’s not being asked to clear the same hurdle a cold submission from a new writer has to clear, in my view. Remember Ms. Snark? What she wanted to see was STORY, and I don’t see that here.

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  9. says

    Well-known authors know they are going to get a little more leeway in their beginnings: people will start to read knowing who they are, and get further into a book, especially if they’ve always loved that author, than they would otherwise.

    Some authors seem to abuse this privilege.

    I agree with you: without the jacket copy, this seems overwritten. I don’t care if an author packs a lot of information into a few sentences, but I would only have continued reading (if I had to make a decision at the end of the first page) had I also read the book description. As it was, I thought it was going to be a story about how hard it is to be a waitress.
    ABE´s last blog post ..Added PRIDE’S CHILDREN – Scene 1.1.2

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  10. says

    I agree he lacked any tension and nothing from the eventual story is upfront, BUT I’m not sure any of his stories really do that. He certainly could – and maybe should – but he seems to set up place and character first and then slowly rolls out the conflict and love story. I admit I’ve only watched a few of his movies and not read the books, but this seems to be his style. I do love your idea. I guess I “flog” for the contests I judge. Never thought about doing that publicly, though. I’ll let you own that one. :) I’m a fan.
    Malena Lott´s last blog post ..Is JOY on your True Do list?

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    • says

      You’re right on. It’s his “style.” Not much happens in any of Sparks’ novels. From working in a library I know it takes all kinds of writing to sate all kinds of readers. Sparks was an easy mark.

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  11. says

    I guess this is the way the writing world works these days–and maybe has always worked. I’d love to read your critique of a book recognized as Great Literature to see if the first page standard has evolved or is timeless. I’m thinking here about Middlemarch. Certainly Eliot opens with plenty of tongue in cheek as she contrasts Dorothea and Celia, but would an agent throw this manuscript back into the slush pile, muttering, “Enough already?” If so, he’d miss a doozy of a novel.
    Christina Kaylor´s last blog post ..Mick Kinney: A Song in His Heart and a Pencil in His Hand, Part 2

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    • says

      My focus is on contemporary fiction that may be new to readers. I think it’s difficult to assess classics for their “today” appeal–even if new to a classic, you open the book knowing of its reputation and that impacts what you’re willing to read in order to see if it’s for you. I remember reading “Chesapeake” by James Mitchner. It took me four tries to finally get deeply enough into the book to finish it. I don’t think most readers are as stubborn.

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  12. says

    Well said. I am not fond of Nicholas Sparks because his plots and descriptions and characters are trite.

    Try flogging Jane Austen. I’ll bet she doesn’t have any of the elements of good storytelling on the first page. We have to keep reading and sometimes, we have to keep a cheat sheet to sort out the characters. But she sure has grabbed the attention of a lot of people. Why, I wonder.

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  13. says

    I love that you’re doing your flogging stuff here, Ray. I don’t always agree with your assessment — true of every critiquing group I’ve participated in — but I do enjoy the exercise.

    I haven’t read Mr. Sparks and I wouldn’t turn the page, but I do see story questions here, and I think they pertain to the synopsis.

    “Though he tried to act as though he was just a friendly guy, she knew he was watching her as she walked away.”

    Between this and line about her saying nothing (Why wouldn’t she? It’s not a high stakes conversation); that she “sneaked” a look at the view, I’m taking away: a woman with experience of being threatened by men, so that she’s hypervigilant even in a safe environment. (Why it’s important that the guy is close.) She feels the briefest of pleasures might be censured (by self or by others.) In other words, knowing the genre, with the assumption these details are part of the whole, I have a pretty good idea about the antagonist and the character arc from this page.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Worried You’ll Have a Disappointing Book Launch? Meet LynDee Walker, Antidote (Includes Book Giveaway)

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    • says

      Jan is identifying a bit of micro-tension, word choices that portray a woman with a backstory. Those elements are there — but they weren’t strong enough to register for Ray, who struck them as throat-clearing. Good illustration that we need to make those choices more obvious. Maybe the man smiles and Katie turns away quickly. The waitress touches her and she jumps. She sees the seagulls and wonders about flying away and how little it takes to make the birds–and some people–stay. (But the toilet plunger line has to go!)

      I’d keep reading to see what Sparks does, because I’m always curious what makes a popular book popular. But if I saw the first page without the jacket copy or his name on the cover, no, I wouldn’t be drawn in, either.

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  14. Shirley says

    I make no claims to be a writer, but I am a big Nicholas Sparks fan. I finished reading Safe Haven a couple of weeks ago, and the big thing that struck me throughout the reading was all the ‘filler’ in the book–things that really had nothing to do with the story. It struck me as a means to up the word count. Some of the book simply wore me out with repetition when less would have sufficed. This article confirms my analysis of the book. Still, I wound up enjoying it and look forward to seeing the movie soon.

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  15. says

    I definitely need to observe your blog. It sounds informative.

    I wouldn’t turn the page (it’s a matter of preference), because it doesn’t sound like my type of story, but I like the way the first part was written. It feels like there is tension there as well as intrigue. My interest fell off the cliff when saw the ever so popular LOVE TRIANGLE. I’m done.

    If I weren’t a newbie, I’d love to help, but alias my craft is to far lacking…….. for the moment.

    Thanks Mr. Ray-Ray
    Brian B. King´s last blog post ..Peek-a-sneak at this everyone!

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  16. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Interesting. And I agree with your assessment of the first page. I wouldn’t read it, because what it advertises as offering in the first pages is not my cup of tea in a story. But, it might be someone else’s cup of tea. I am beginning to wonder how much of all this is subjective.

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  17. says

    This first page from Sparks, for me, is a snoozefest. If the first page is to be a seduction of sorts – this doesn’t do it for me. But maybe it’s not my kind of book, either.

    This exercise got me to look at my first page with a new pair of glasses (or newly-cleaned old glasses). Thanks. Looking forward to more.

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  18. says

    Well, thanks to Ray, now I can at least say I’ve read the first page of a Nicholas Spark’s novel. :-)

    I’d probably continue reading because the line in the first paragraph: “Though he tried to act as though he was just a friendly guy, she knew he was watching her as she walked away,” gave me the carrot I needed to keep going past the first paragraph.

    How about flogging the most hated/loved thriller of all time, The DaVinci Code?

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  19. Kathleen says

    If I had to be hooked on the first page, I would never have made it through any John Steinbeck novel. It’s a shame that we don’t have the time to be slowly drawn in any more.

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    • says

      So true, Kathleen. But these are different times, and I think readers read differently now. And my first page critique focuses on crafting a page compelling enough to get an agent to turn the page in the ever more competitive publishing world.

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  20. Beth Sheets says

    Well, if I’d read the synopsis first, I might turn beyond the first page, digging for the meat of the story. You’re right in that none of it appears in the first page. I actually got the feeling she’d been in that job, or at least that location, for a while, so reading she was a new arrival was a surprise. Katie certainly doesn’t come off as all that mysterious in the beginning.

    I’m with Kathleen, though, on being drawn in slowly. Though I can’t come up with a title on the spot, I can definitely recall conversations where I’ve told others the first chapter of a book was slow, but picked up later. I usually find myself glad I stuck with it. I do understand, though, how a publisher simply doesn’t have time to invest when they’re looking at so many pieces of work.

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  21. says

    First pages that draw me in have to start with something I care to know more about, whether it is character, plot, or some tidbit of wisdom the author will expand upon later.

    This Sparks’ page had none of these. To be fair, though, I’m just not a big fan of his.
    Karen Wojcik Berner´s last blog post ..The Love Seat Diaries

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  22. says

    After I’d read “She turned to see Ivan’s daughter,” I was done. I did wonder about the man who watched her. Movie connections? Ray, all of your comments strengthened the story. I did vote no but Sparks books will fly out of N. C. into a movie no matter what …
    Thank you for this Flog post. I will go back to my first page and cry.
    Nanette Purcigliotti´s last blog post ..HOW THE MYTH OF CYBER CITY WAS BORN

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  23. says

    I’m a big N. Sparks fan. A romantic fool, stories like this make me feel good. I would turn the page simply because HE wrote the book. I’m a newbie and write what I feel.

    Ray, I would love to have you critique my first page, but I’m not so sure I could take it! My book was self published back in November. I paid a small fortune to AP for a publishing package, then paid more for professional editing.

    After reading through all the comments on this, I’m shaking my head at how much I don’t know.

    I’m a big Danielle Steele fan, too. Don’t anybody shoot!

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  24. says

    One point of all this is that established authors can get away with lazy first lines/paragraphs/pages/chapters, where unpublished authors cannot. It may seem unfair, but publishers know that, with established authors, reputation will sell a book–and I will admit I have favorite authors whom I will read no matter how their books start.

    But the BEST writers work just as hard to grab you with the first sentence/page on their 20th book as they did on their first.
    Marion Harmon´s last blog post ..Share the Love!

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  25. says

    Ray, I would like to see you flog The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling, a novel that has had extremely mixed responses from both readers and critics.

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  26. says

    You’re right. I don’t see anything “mysterious” about Katie at all on the first page. The words are written before the blurbs, and newbie novelists don’t write their own book blurbs, but Sparks isn’t a newbie…

    This book did so well because Sparks’ committed readership knows that they need to sit down in their seat and to wait for the scenery to arrive. On the first page, the pretty waitress, the guy who caught her eye, the water, the town, the seagulls, even the breeze from the Atlantic catching her hair–all of these hint very strongly at romance, and that’s what his readership is reading him for. In that case, he’s already hooked them on the first page.

    And he knows it.
    Steven E. Belanger´s last blog post ..Silver Linings Playbook

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  27. Ronda Roaring says

    Well, Ray, you certainly have gotten people’s attention with this flogging. What I’ve found from reading all these responses is that there are a lot of different ways people judge whether or not they want to read a book.

    I’ve read several Sparks novels and enjoyed them. But I wasn’t interested in this one for two reasons: 1) I thought the beginning seemed rushed–too many details in too short a space, and 2) I wasn’t interested in reading about a waitress.

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  28. says

    1st page impression: A young woman who has lived her whole life in this podunk town, working an uninspiring waitress job longs for more (seagull imagery). Can she escape the drudgery of her life via the movie scout at table 6?
    And then I read the back cover and threw all that out the window. So clearly the plot I imagined from the rather slow first page was totally wrong. Big disconnect.
    Debra Dunbar´s last blog post ..Guest Blogging at Liv Rancourt’s

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  29. Diane Jobe says

    I must admit right up front: I am no fan of Nicholas Sparks. That being said, this page solidifies my position. There is nothing unique or driving about this writing. It could have been written by a dozen other mediocre romance novelists. I am not compelled to learn more about the characters. The jacket description does not match the first page, Katie shows no mystery at all. I normally give a book 25 pages, minimum, but this would be my exception.

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