Flog a Pro: 50 Shades of Grey by E L James

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Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and literary agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. A customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type) has 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?

Storytelling Checklist

Evaluate this opening page for how well it executes the following 6 vital storytelling elements. While it’s not a requirement that all of them must be on the first page, I think writers have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing, a given for every page.

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

Let’s Flog 50 Shades of Grey by E L James

Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of 50 Shades of Grey, a global bestseller.

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.

Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never hear of, for the student newspaper. So I have volunteered. I have final exams to cram for and one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no—today I have to drive 165 miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious—much more precious than mine—but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me. Damn her extracurricular activities.

Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.

 

Would you turn this pro’s first page?
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

My vote: Nope

Somehow, a story opening with conflict/tension centering around a bad hair day just wasn’t compelling for me, and I don’t think it really satisfies the first two—and most vital—components on my story checklist: story questions and tension. I found the character to be unlikeably self-centered. The voice is clear and writing is okay—except for the amateurish approach to describing the character. A mirror? Really?

I understand that readers haven’t judged this series by its first page—according to Wikipedia, “It is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sexual practices involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism.” Oh, I see.

I read the chapter and found it to be, for my taste, overwritten. Nor did it give any real hint of what the blurb promises. Here’s the blurb:

When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana’s quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too—but on his own terms.

Shocked yet thrilled by Grey’s singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success—his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving family—Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey’s secrets and explores her own dark desires.

50 shades gray coverEditorial thoughts:

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable. A mirror? Really? To me, this approach to describing the character is amateurish. The thing is, the first page foreshadows the nature of the writing that follows. I am already feeling as if I’m not going to be happy with this level of quality. For example, due to the nature of antecedents for pronouns, she is attempting to bring her mantra under control with a hair brush. And telling us that she’s reciting the mantra several times after we’ve seen her repeat it was, well, telling us something we’d already been shown.

Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never hear of, for the student newspaper. So I have volunteered. I have final exams to cram for and one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no—today I have to drive 165 miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious—much more precious than mine—but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me. Damn her extracurricular activities. Aw, poor her. For me, a cup of self-pity didn’t turn out to be a good hook.

Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.

Let’s see, what story questions have been raised? Perhaps what will the traffic be like on I5 driving to Seattle? How will the interview that isn’t important to her life go? Do we see any possible jeopardy or even discomfort for this person? What’s at stake in her life? Having to work a little harder?

Okay, maybe I got a little snarky there, but I felt that this was self-indulgent writing that hinted not at all at a story in the offing. I figure it was the sexual content and, perhaps, the story promised in the blurb that propelled this book to success. For me, it certainly wasn’t the first page—nor even the first chapter. I don’t think my gender that is the problem, either—I have enjoyed romance novels a great deal.

I’m not alone. Just for fun, I looked at the reviews on Amazon.com, and here are quotes from the first two:

”Then there’s the writing. If you take out the parts where the female character is blushing or chewing her lips, the book will be down to about 50 pages.”

“This has to be the most appallingly atrocious writing I’ve ever seen in a major release.”

On the other hand, a review from The Columbus Dispatch said:

“Despite the clunky prose, James does cause one to turn the page.”

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? As we saw with Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, storytelling can trump second-rate writing.

And, as they say, sex sells—in this case, over 65,000,000 copies worldwide.

What are your thoughts?

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 Wednesdays and Fridays for floggings 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

    Haven’t read it, wouldn’t turn the page. Set aside the writing (seriously, looking in a mirror?) and I have a visceral reaction (because this book seems to be all about immediate visceral reactions) against the immature and self-indulgent main character.

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  2. Bailish says

    I would have given it a little more leniency. I saw the first paragraph as an amateurish way of giving a description of the FMC. I also tend to read 3 pages before I decide whether I’ll continue.

    But I agree with this — no sign of an interesting conflict. How far into the book before we meet the MMC?

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  3. says

    My vote: No. The clichéd mirror scene, for one. The I-don’t-care-about-her-hair. Lack of questions raised. But for me, the biggest turn-off is voice. The character’s attitude implies that this will not be story worth telling. Her melodrama foreshadows a lack of true dramatic conflict as well.

    Based on Wikipedia and other things I’ve heard, though, this character would enjoy a flogging, so it’s all good.

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  4. says

    Instead of “interviewing” Mr. Grey, she could “deliver a pizza” or “clean his pool.” And instead of “eyes too big for my face” she could have other things that are too big for her. But then 65,000,000 (presumably) women would have recognized it as porn and NOT read it. And guys don’t read porn anymore, they watch it.

    This writer’s reputation precedes her … apparently she got booted off a “Twilighty” blog for being too graphic, so there was a built-in following. Writing, schmiting. To read it for its writing or the story is like most guys saying “I buy Playboy for the articles.”

    Based purely on the writing, I would have to say, “No, I would not continue on.”

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  5. Dana says

    My problem with this section was it seemed implausible from the start. I don’t think a college student would drive 165 miles to do an interview. If you read the book, the silly interview lasted like 10 minutes, and in reality, more than likely since his time was so precious, would have been a phone or skype interview. From that moment forward the book was full of ‘yeah right’ moments. I can get past mediocre writing if the characters are ones I can root for, but these people were stupid.

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  6. says

    I attended a writers’ retreat and an editor took a first page to read. I got positive comments, but not a face to face meeting. Interesting how much those first paragraphs can make or break a book. I wonder how To Kill a Mockingbird would fair.

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  7. says

    Ditto all of the above comments: the mirror and the hair. Ugh. It did not take long to figure out that I absolutely did not want to get to know this character better – her bad attitude does not make for a good hint at the sort of story that lies ahead.

    And the mirror… it’s amazing how many novels open with this sort of description! I had to cut it out of my own novel – I didn’t even realize I’d done it until someone pointed it out!

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  8. Sevgne says

    I haven’t read it but I don’t think the problem is opening with a hair issue. This is actually a problem millions of women lament over, every day. Therefore, she makes the character relatable to a great number of teen girls and women of all ages.

    The real issue with starting with the hair is that she doesn’t need the sentence: “Damn my hair—it just won’t behave.” If she began: “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal”; immediately, she would increase tension. The reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen but whatever it is, it’s going to be an “ordeal.” An ordeal is a big thing. Remember in days of old when when the “ordeal” meant plunging someone’s hand into boiling water and forcing it to remain there for five minutes–to determine guilt or innocence (related to witchcraft, I believe)? So there is potential in this beginning (in the hands of a writer who can play to these kinds of nuances with word meanings, present and past).

    With very minor editing, an opening that asks questions could be achieved. (For men commenting on this thread, bad hair days are very real to many women, including me. My mantra is: I have a bad hair days 360 days of the year. Remember how recently it is that women have even been allowed to cut their hair if they wanted to remain “respectable” in the eyes of men and society, and you’ll understand what a real issue good hair actually is, in the arsenal of beauty–and femininity as both genders perceive it–for women.)

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  9. says

    Yeah… No way, Jose!! I actually wanted to see what all the fuss was about so I read the first page on Amazon’s sneak-peak and thought the same thing. Lame.

    These were the story questions I got: She’s mad at her friend for getting the *flu*!? Does she know how horrible that is? Also, if it was *such* an inconvenience for the main character (she’s missing work!), why didn’t her roommate get someone else to do the interview… you know, someone actually involved with the student newspaper? What does this dude even have to do with the school that he’s giving an interview to the school newspaper? Why the heck does she care so much about her hair?! She’s a reporter, not trying to get a job! And this girl needs a serious wake-up reality call because she is one of the most selfish people I’ve ever read. Ugh!

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  10. says

    As you say above, the first chapter doesn’t give a hint to what the blurb promises. (After reading the blurb, it doesn’t even sound as if it was written by the same person.) Would this be a good example of a novel that needs a prologue, especially since the narrator has not an inkling about what she’s stepping into?

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    • says

      I would disagree that the first page doesn’t deliver on the premise, if not the promise, of the blurb. It’s setting up an accidental meeting between the reluctant heroine and a billionaire. What more should it be doing?

      I think sometimes it’s so easy to slag books like this one that we lose sight of what people want from them. For what it’s worth, I made it through reading about the first actual meeting before giving up on the book as “not for me”. I generally don’t have much patience for romance novels (or rom-com movies etc) unless the characters act smarter than your average bear, so that’s pretty much par for the course for me.

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    • says

      Sorry Eva – did not mean to single you out in my reply. Just wanted to reply to the post in general, and must have hit the wrong button. That’s what I get for replying on an iphone!

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  11. Ronda Roaring says

    Thanks, Ray, for doing this. I actually listened to this as an audio book. I have to say that, despite all its problems, I did want to “turn the page” because I’m rather ignorant about this type of lifestyle and about this type of writing. But that’s as far as my curiosity goes. I didn’t like the constant repetition of “Oh, my” (trite) and felt the character was stupid, perhaps even unrealistic. Finally, I think psychologists will probably tell you that people with these types of tastes, I’m talking about the male character, cannot be “cured” as I suspect the author attempts to do in the sequels. (It’s a bit like attempting to “cure” a pedophile.) I wasn’t enticed by the first volume to continue with the rest.

    On the other hand, I’m thrilled for the author that she is now a multi-millionaire and has opened modern writing to this genre as an over-the-counter read. It can be scarey to take on a project like this, and I compliment her on her bravery. I think she has helped us take a big step forward in what we’re willing to write about (and read about), and I look forward to well-written books on a variety of topics that were hitherto taboo.

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  12. says

    I agree with comments above. This type of story and writing style just don’t appeal to me. For me, the female character has qualities that make the palm of my hand itch. I want to slap her and say, “Get over yourself, already.” In my opinion, she would be far more sympathetic if she weren’t so self involved.

    As to the first page problems, Sevgne put a finger on the craft issues and presented a very workable solution that would help meet first page criteria. As I imagine how the page would read with the suggested changes, I already feel more like turning the page.

    Rhonda also made a great point. It’s hard to argue with success. James was willing to push boundaries and it paid off handsomely. Obviously, a segment of the female population was hungry for this type of story. I guess it all comes back to the point that we must write what works for us as authors and hope that we find an audience.

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  13. Jackie Mull says

    Sixty-five million copies indicate readers found the woman in the mirror relatable. The character was present on the page. You even assigned an adjective to describe her. But Ms. Steele wasn’t self indulgent. She was young, inexperienced and incredibly insecure. What other type of woman would get tangled in Grey’s ways? I doubt we’d find the same story plausible if Ms. Steele were instead a biblical archeologist on a dig in Egypt.

    I find nothing wrong with the mirror scene. Maybe it’s not the most creative choice, but it’s a choice showing the reader how Ms. Steele views herself.

    With mainstream readers, story is king. Period. The average reader, who isn’t a writer, just wants a book to enjoy. And Fifty Shades of Grey met that demand. Let’s face it. We can hate it, but in the end — folks dolled out their hard earned cash for E.L. James’ book.

    And she wins.

    Good for her.

    P.S. I never finished the book.

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  14. Paul Petruccelli says

    Hmm….. The problem with this little flog is that it starts out to make one point, then proves how erroneous the point is.

    “Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and literary agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page.” But obviously, not with this book. Apparently, some editor or agent made it through enough of the book to get to the juicy sex parts. And so did 65MM other people.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not shilling for the author. Haven’t read it and have no interest in doing so. But this book stands for the proposition that you can have a boring and poorly-written first page and still get published/make tubs of money.

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  15. Carmel says

    After reading the blurb, I do love the title. The first page didn’t give me any reason to read on though.

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  16. says

    I find it interesting that cliche (which I try to avoid) bothers us writers much more than it bothers a lot of readers. Sometimes I’ve been called on a cliche that I had no idea was cliche, but I revise anyway. Mirrors, same thing. But obviously the readers of this book didn’t care it was a mirror in the opening scene, and that the writer used it for the character to describe what she looks like. Just this week, an agent complained about “portals.” Okay, you don’t like portals, I get it. But do readers, especially of fantasy, still like portals. I wrote a novel with a character in the woods and built the tension, as I was told was important. Then an agent on a panel excoriated a manuscript in an open critique because the character was in a forest. No matter what gets said her, E.L. James will happily continue to collect money from writing that we might not like, but we have to acknowledge that we often care about, and even obsess about, things that readers don’t care at all about.

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  17. says

    Personally I never jumped on the 50 Shades of Grey bandwagon. Reading the first 17 lines does not make me regret this decision at all. Many of my friends and family told me that it was badly written, even after I told them I wasn’t interested in the subject matter. Several of them even compared the writing style to that of Stephenie Meyer.

    Reading your post certainly has me reconsidering the opening for the book I am working on. I have to admit that getting started is always the hardest part for me. I usually need to go back and rewrite the beginning a few times before I am satisfied with it. I know that I will not stick with a book if does not catch my attention right off.

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  18. says

    I made my way through all 3 books – the first is the best of the lot. I read a lot of erotica, and I wasn’t a fan of FSOG, but I do applaud the author for her success.

    On the first page, I just hate Ana. The hair thing I can understand. A last moment interview and her hair is a wreck but she doesn’t have time to fix it. Immediate sympathy there.

    It’s the total lack of empathy she shows toward her roommate that turns me off. The poor woman has the flu, and all Ana can do is complain about how put upon she is for having to “help” her friend. If it had been written where Ana was eagerly helping her roommate, in spite of crippling shyness, or a terrible fear of driving long distances, she would have kept my sympathy.

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  19. says

    Didn’t/wouldn’t read it BUT…

    The target demographic for this book is not college girls – they’re in the middle of it, and aren’t that introspective/don’t have time for this kind of reading.

    The demographic is young women +-30, possibly married, possibly with a small child or two, who look back with huge nostalgia on their college days of ‘freedom’ but are far enough away from those days to have forgotten most of the really bad pain parts.

    And they have money. And they wonder what happened to their lives and the promise they showed.

    They bought it in droves. (Plus others, but those were what I call ‘accidentals’: readers who get pulled in by the hype and are new enough to get caught.)

    If she didn’t target those young women, she should have. My guess is that she knew what she was doing – and her target demographic would not consist of writers tired of cliches. My hat is off to her for finding – and filling – a niche.

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  20. says

    There you go, there’s hope for everyone. You don’t need to write well, you just need readers. Lots and lots of readers.

    No, I wouldn’t read past the first couple of lines, let alone the first page.

    However, EL James published 50 Shades as fan fiction, and got a mile of readers. So, she had a massive focus group, and her writing worked for them. Much better than offering her work to sniffy acquisitions editors or agents.:-)

    I can see that it does appeal to some women: instant identification. Who hasn’t had a bad hair day?

    She’s spawned an entirely new genre too — “Young Adult” fiction, for the ingenue in all women…

    You can’t argue with 65 million books sold. It works.

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  21. says

    I have not read it, but I want to make a general comment. I think storytelling DOES trump both very bad, and very good, and certainly mediocre, as in this case, writing. A great story is the most important thing – and that depends on conflict, structure, character and so many things. Good competent writing that’s evocative is important too. But this book was not a success because of good storytelling, either. It was the ‘erotic’ elements, the fanfiction following, and the hype, clearly. Many people who bought the book out of curiosity did not finish it and have nothing good to say about it. It astonishes me that so many people flock to erotic fiction this way, purely for the cheap thrills. Don’t they see how much MORE pleasure they can get out of reading a really great story?

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  22. mcd says

    At least her work has spawned a huge parody industry full of fun books by talented authors. I haven’t read the original (tried the first chapter online and just couldn’t get into it), but my “Fifty Shades of Chicken” cookbook makes me laugh and laugh, and gives me a pretty good idea of what I’m *not* missing.

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  23. says

    I downloaded a free sample and never made it past the first page, mostly because after the first few paragraphs I knew I wouldn’t be able to trust the author to sustain a story, even though it “sold millions”.

    Fanfic is a fantastic proving ground for budding authors and I applaud the fact that the author got her start there. In the old world, FSOG would never have made it out of the slush pile. The fact that it became a ww phenomenon says . . . something. I’m not sure what, though. People like porn when it’s packaged with a classy cover? IDEK

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  24. says

    It didn’t grab me, so “no,” I wouldn’t continue. It’s not quite as bad as I imagined, but it’s not very captivating either. My question is: Why do publishers promote mediocre writing while letting great writers with great stories slip through the cracks?

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  25. Tom Witkowski says

    Creativity doesn’t fit into a nice tidy box, with a handy checklist label affixed to the outside, full of “thou shalt” phrases. It’s born out of desire to see the world differently than others. We’re in the business of originally. Breaking rules. Questioning the status quo. Taking something that’s accepted and turning it on its head. Let’s all remember that before we tell an author who sold 65 million book copies what we would have done differently.

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    • says

      Agreed, Tom. There’s an implication in your comment, however, that I advocate rules, boxes, and some kind of conformity. Far from it. My mantra in fiction is that there are no rules. If something works to engage a reader and tell a story, that’s fine with me. This is simply a judgement of the interest level the first page of a manuscript creates. For writers who are trying to break in, that first page is often what opens the door or slams it shut. As you can see from comments, that’s subjective, as always, but there seems to be a consensus. Just wanted to make that clear.

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    • says

      It’s because all of your comments included links to offsite drug outlets, c’mon. *kidding* Honestly, haven’t seen any other comments from you on this post. Just did a check and didn’t find you in spam either, so I don’t know what happened. WordPress hiccup?

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  26. says

    I listened to the audiobook, would never have gotten through reading more than a few pages other wise. And yes I managed to get through the whole thing. The main reason I listened to it is because so many were commenting on it. Saying how bad it was. How horribly written and the at it is a fanfic of Twilight, which I’ve read. Hated the last book.
    The writing isn’t great. The characters are somewhat stereotypical, stupid niave girl meets handsome rich guy and they have sex. Doesn’t matter that he’s off the beaten (snicker) path. But for what it is, MOMMY PORN, it has sold a lot of copies.
    I listened also because a friend of mine really liked it. A lot. And then the nieghbor lady read it and was all hot over it. So I was curious. Not my kind of read. The hair thing didn’t bother me as much as the repeated “long fingers” I wanted to hurl after about the third mention.
    I did not listen to book 2 or 3, though I was told by several that those had more plot.
    For what its worth, I think there was at least two places that almost word for word came from Twilight.
    But, sex sells and this has sex with a handsome man who is “in control” leaving the helpless female to be dominated.

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  27. Karen K. Edwards says

    I read all three in the series. The first, to see for myself what all the hoopla was about. The second and third because of the story. I wanted to know how it ended. Sex scenes were titilating and/or tedious. Writing was. . .

    The author got better. Still, just a page or two into that first book, I was rolling MY eyes, and I don’t do that. :-) I felt I was reading an amateur writer’s stuff, and I remember thinking, Seriously? And half-way through that first book I almost quit because of all that eye-rolling, lash-looking, lip-biting stuff.

    But that’s beside the point. Question is, Page One, would I turn the page? I had ten reasons not to.

    But I did.

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  28. says

    I can see how this first page might work for her target audience– self-indulgent, female “new adults” or new adult wannabees (meaning women closer to middle age who are perhaps rather bored with their suburban soccer mom personas and seek escape in the latest sexual fad/fantasy (BDSM, I presume–based on what I’ve heard about this literary phenomenon, not in the best sense of the word phenomenon, either.

    I won’t read this, especially after my wife echoed the “amateurish writing” complaint of so many and giving up on the book less than halfway through it.

    But I don’t think this first page is any better than any first pages I’ve seen on this blog, and worse than more than a few I’ve read here.

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